By Zoë Crabtree
The words with which we describe our bodies are tools for self-construction. Words narrate our memories, dreams, and goals; they enable us to construct our realities; they liberate our nightmares and circumscribe our fantasies. Words are powerful discursive tools. They act and make change in the world. Harvard lecturer J.L. Austin recognizes this in his lectures collectively titled How to Do Things with Words. He argues that words are performative: their very utterance acts upon the world, given, of course, the appropriate circumstances (Austin, 1975: 6). He uses the example of wedding vows to demonstrate that the very act of saying “I do” during a wedding brings the marriage into being (Austin, 1975: 8). In other words, not only do words shape how we think and feel about the world, they also shape the world itself. How, then, might someone try to change the world with words? What might it mean to employ words to contradict the constructed realities they have helped to create?
Recognizing language’s potential as what Teresa de Lauretis terms “technologies of gender,” transgender porn star and self-described “Man with a Pussy” Buck Angel has taken up these questions in his activist work. Angel’s central project has been to reclaim the words “vagina” and “pussy” for transgender men’s use:
To use the word ‘vagina’ in my life now makes me feel like Superman. I see that other trans men are starting to feel the same way. We no longer have to feel like that word makes us weaker, but that we can own and use it to feel and express our personal power. I believe that making my films has helped open doors for people (no matter their gender) who have always felt some sort of shame about their bodies, or disassociation from them. That’s my kind of feminism: taking control of our bodies, naming them on our terms, and being unafraid of using our power, especially sexually. Taking back the word ‘vagina,’ using it as a symbol of power, and showing it on film has changed my life. In turn, by being so open and public about that, I have changed the world. (Angel, 2013: 286)
By “taking back” these words, he aims to dismantle the “sex/gender system,” a term anthropologist Gayle Rubin coined in “The Traffic in Women: Notes on the ‘Political Economy’ of Sex” to describe “the set of arrangements by which a society transforms biological sexuality into products of human activity, and in which these transformed sexual needs are satisfied” (Rubin, 2011: 34). In other words, the sex/gender system considers bodies to be bound by biological determinism, which holds that gender is determined by biological sex characteristics. The sex/gender system, by maintaining that “men” inherently cannot have “pussies,” ultimately invisibilizes transgender men. In this paper, I analyze the efficacy of Angel’s project to dismantle the sex/gender system as manifested in his sexually explicit documentary Sexing the Transman.
Language, Gender, Genitals
Since being named AVN’s Transsexual Performer of the Year in 2007, Angel has shifted his focus towards activist work around gender and sexuality (Mr. Angel), a shift that includes the production of this documentary. Unlike Angel’s porn films, Sexing the Transman is a documentary comprised primarily of interviews, though it does include sections in which the interview participants are engaging in sexual and masturbatory activity. Because this documentary is situated within the context of this activist work and because it focuses more on the interview subjects’ identities and experiences than it does on sexually arousing viewers, I interrogate this text as an ethnographic documentary rather than as a pornographic film.
Because Angel produced, directed, and edited Sexing the Transman, it is appropriate to credit him as the primary auteur of its message – which reads as “the truth” due to its presence in a documentary. However, as queer media scholar Julie Levin Russo reminds audiences in her essay “‘The Real Thing’: Reframing Queer Pornography for Virtual Spaces” (2007), films couched in ideologies of the real are just as constructed as those framed as narrative fiction. Rather than viewing Sexing the Transman as an objective peek into the lives and sexualities of all trans men (or even as a complete picture of the specific trans men in the documentary), it is important to understand the documentary as a part of Angel’s activist project, meaning it is motivated to privilege certain stories over others in order to further Angel’s agenda.
Here it might be useful to consider Angel’s project in two steps: first, he reclaims “vagina” and “pussy” for trans men’s use, with the aim, second, to dismantle the binary sex/gender system. To analyze the efficacy of Angel’s activist project as it is manifested in Sexing the Transman, in other words to consider whether taking the first step (by reclaiming the words) in fact succeeds in completing the second step (dismantling the binary sex/gender system), I turn to queer anthropology scholar Elijah Edelman. In his article “The cum shot: Trans men and visual economies of ejaculation,” he argues that, when trans men employ ideologies of cisgender male bodies in porn videos, they both “reproduce and destabilize hegemonic notions of maleness” (Edelman, 2015: 150). By defining their maleness in terms of normative cisgender male images of ejaculation, he argues, trans men reify cisgender male bodies’ exclusive hold on masculine identification. Because they are doing so in non-cisgender male bodies, however they also destabilize the notion that only people with cisgender male bodies can be male.
Is Buck Angel similarly reproducing and destabilizing hegemonic notions of maleness when he adopts an ideology of cisgender female bodies? When his understanding of himself as a man remains certain, even though he seeks to redefine the biological qualifications of the category “man,” is he significantly destabilizing hegemonic maleness? Whose voices are privileged in the documentary and what is their investment in Angel’s project? How does Angel reconcile his male identity and his “vagina”? What terminologies do the trans men in the documentary use for their bodies and genitals and what do these terms mean to them? How are the trans men in the documentary participating in Angel’s project? Does this documentary ultimately accomplish Angel’s activist goal to dismantle the binary sex/gender system?
Before considering the documentary itself, it is important to explore the process of reclaiming language. Because words have performative and discursive power, the act of reclaiming words can shift the discourses in which they are implicated. Dr. Carlnita Greene supports this when she notes:
…rhetorically, the issue of transgender as a whole helps us to further disrupt ‘dominant discussions’ about gender and sexuality such that, while we may only have language to describe the world around us, the discussion of gender in terms of binaries is not one that has to be ‘rigid’ or ‘static’ because language holds within it the potential for transformation and fluidity. (Greene, 2006: 120)
In short, gender non-conforming people can manipulate language to change discourses of gender and sexuality. Though it might seem as if we are limited by the scope of language as it is now, because language is constantly growing, shifting, and being repurposed, language always already has the potential for transformation Greene imagines.
There is a long history among oppressed groups of repurposing language by reclaiming derogatory terms from their oppressors. Perhaps “queer” is the slur reclaimed most recently in LGBT communities. Previously used as derogatory term to describe someone who disregarded hegemonic norms for gender and sexuality, “queer” was championed by queer novelist and scholar Cherry Smyth in her pamphlet Lesbians Talk Queer Notions in the early 1990s. Reclaiming “queer,” for her and the other contributors, was a political move against assimilation into straight society. It was about defying easy categorization and “articulat[ing] a radical questioning of social and cultural norms, notions of gender, reproductive sexuality and the family” (Smyth, 1992: 20). Since then, “queer” has been taken up as the established word for discussing non-heteronormative issues and people in activist groups and within academia. Reclaiming the word brought about cultural and institutional change in the world.
Since “vagina” is not so much as slur that Angel is reclaiming as a word that he hopes to repurpose, it is also useful to consider J.C. Hale’s work on leatherdyke boys in which he points to “a phenomenon of ‘retooling’ or ‘re-coding’ [of] bodies within trans community discourse” (Hale, 1997: 230). Because, he asserts, “sexual interactions…are some of the sites at which dominant cultural connections between genitals and gender are the tightest” (1997: 230), trans people often need to “re-tool,” “re-code,” or “re-map” their bodies in order to engage their sexualities. While Hale asserts leatherdyke SM practice as his primary “re-tooling” tactic, I suggest that other forms of disrupting dominant connections between language, gender, and genitals, including Angel’s project to reclaim the word “vagina,” can also aid in this process.
While it is clear that Buck Angel wants to drastically shift discourses around gender and sexuality by reclaiming the words “vagina” and “pussy” with his activism in general and this documentary in particular, the trans men in Sexing the Transman do not so much reclaim these words as put their bodies in conversation with them. Nonetheless, their presence in this documentary signals their participation in furthering Angel’s project to reclaim these words, a project that ultimately silences the voices of dissenting transgender men. I argue that the trans men in this documentary who claim terms across gender borders, though not destabilizing their own male identities, do have the potential to create the “transformation and fluidity” of language across the gender binary that Greene envisions.
Trans Men and Angel’s Project: Disrupting the Sex/Gender System?
The trans men Angel interviews are all presented as if they are on board with his project of reclamation. They must support it enough, at least, to be willing to participate in the making of the documentary. In response to Angel incessant question “Are you comfortable with your vagina?” they do not refuse to answer, shrink back, or withdraw their willingness to be interviewed –as far as the audience knows upon seeing the final edit (Sexing the Transman). Whether or not they use the word “vagina” as one of their own genital descriptors, the participating trans men share that they are either comfortable with that part of their anatomy (“comfort” referring either to its existence as a part of their bodies or to welcoming acts of penetration during sex) or that they want to be more comfortable with it. This is not surprising considering Angel’s public persona as “The Man with a Pussy.” Trans men who do not embrace their anatomy in the same way probably would not be interested in talking to him. However, even the trans men Angel interviews that claim to be entirely comfortable in their skin don’t seem as invested in the words “vagina” or “pussy” as he is. Interview participant MJ is perhaps the most comfortable with Angel’s question about the word “vagina”:
Buck Angel: So you are comfortable with your vagina then, obviously…
MJ: Yeah. I mean I call it a lot of things. Like I can call my clitoris my dick or whatever. Sort of interchangeable. I usually use the word vagina as like more of a shock factor more than anything else. Like casually I won’t be like casually ‘I was looking at my vagina the other day’ but sometimes I’ll be like-
Buck Angel: So what do you call it? Like let’s say you’re having sex. Do you say can I –like ‘eat my vagina’ or ‘eat my pussy’ or nothing, or ‘lick my hole’ or something like that would be more…?
MJ: My ex used to call it the ‘bonus hole.’ That was one of my favorites… (Sexing the Transman)
MJ has a casual attitude towards his anatomy and is fairly cavalier with the word “vagina.” He uses the word, says it out loud, but distances himself from it with humor. Instead, he gravitates toward the language of “bonus hole,” or “bonus” for short. This language choice decenters gendered meanings from this part of his anatomy, suggesting that he both embraces that part of his body and seeks to distance himself from its gendered connotations.
Other trans men in the documentary are shown not to be as comfortable as MJ is with their genitals, but seem to want to be. This yearning for comfort with language speaks to a yearning for comfort with bodies themselves. Ian, for example, explains his discomfort speaking about his body:
If I’m at a dinner party and people are being, politely curious, I would say my ‘lower half’ um if I’m in an intimate circle of friends, um I’m still fairly shy about it, like I say ‘vagina’ I say ‘clit’ I say ‘cock’ ummm but ‘cock’ is probably my most common term, and just because I mean you could probably see my discomfort right now. It’s along the same lines as like, I would like to uh, I like my vagina, but I would like to love it. Umm I would like to be able to use some of these other words and be comfortable with them. I don’t hate them and it’s not like I don’t necessarily identify with them, but –and that I’m just absolutely like ‘absolutely not’ –um I feel like…I mean who really wants to say ‘clitORus’, you know, nobody wants to say ‘clitORus’ so um …–like if you’re uncomfortable with –a little bit uncomfortable with your parts, then you’re probably going to be uncomfortable with the language and that’s kind of like, you know where I feel like I’m at. So I say ‘cock’ most of the time, actually I say, in order of most commonly used, ‘lower half,’ ‘cock,’ ‘vagina’ cause it’s a little on the clinical, and then maybe ‘clit,’ and then maybe ‘pussy.’ (Sexing the Transman)
In other words, Ian connects the discomfort he experiences when speaking about his anatomy not only with his body dysphoria, but also with the sounds of the words themselves. He focuses on the word “clitoris,” which he exaggeratedly pronounces as “clitORus,” to emphasize the unpleasantness he feels connected to the word. Interestingly, he seems more comfortable using the word “vagina,” which he rationalizes because of its use in clinical contexts. Like MJ, however, when listing words he uses for his genitals, Ian includes terms borrowed from ideologies of cisgender male bodies as well as the terms Angel wants to reclaim from ideologies of cisgender female bodies.
The interviews discussed above are the ones in the documentary that most support Angel’s project to dismantle the sex/gender system. Both MJ and Ian are willing to include the word “vagina” in the lexicon of language for their bodies. In addition to their willingness to interact with this vocabulary, each also reaffirms his security in a decidedly male identity. By asserting maleness in concert with the possession of what could be termed a “vagina,” MJ and Ian trouble the sex/gender system that contends such an existence is not possible. At the same time, by upholding the existence of a stable male identity, they also reify a binary understanding of gender. Therefore, it seems to me that a process of simultaneous reification and destabilization of hegemonic maleness similar to what Edelman describes is at work here.
Conceding to Celebrity, Discrediting Dissenting Trans Voices
While the trans men Angel interviews are presented as being in agreement with his agenda to reconcile male identities with the possession of a “vagina” or “pussy,” dissenting trans male voices surface during Angel’s interviews with burlesque dancer Selene Luna and queer comedian Margaret Cho. It is unclear to me exactly why Luna and Cho merit a presence in the documentary; they are the only celebrities included in the project and the only non-trans men present not in the capacity as a current partner during an interview. Perhaps their celebrity is intended to attract more eyes to the documentary. Perhaps audiences are meant to consider their opinions more credible because of their celebrity or less credible because they are not themselves trans men. Nonetheless, their stories are the only entry points for dissenting trans male voices.
In contrast to the open attitude towards their bodies the trans men in the documentary are portrayed as having, the trans men about whom both Luna and Cho speak are portrayed as being ashamed of and in denial about their bodies. They are described as only fucking with strap-ons, preferring not to be touched themselves, and using exclusively phallus-centric language for their bodies and practices. Here Angel asks Luna about her experience with a trans male partner:
Buck Angel: So did you get to experience his vagina? Or was he comfortable with his vagina?
Selene Luna: Um this person that I dated was not comfortable with his vagina. He was actually petrified of his vagina… I never saw it. I never experienced it. Which is probably helped me (sic) you know now that I think back because, again, I never saw it, I never felt it so you couldn’t convince me that I was not with a man. You know there was no presence of vagina. You know, he –uh I guess he kept his underwear on. You know and uh things like that. Was really discreet uh about it. Very like on the sly about it like, uh, you know we’d be doing it with the lights out and under the sheets. Kind of Victorian almost. But it was hot. (Sexing the Transman)
In this exchange, Luna relates that her trans male partner was not only “not comfortable” with his body, but also specifies further that he was “petrified” of his genitals. She praises him for being “discreet” about his anatomy by keeping his underwear and shirt on at all times. Moreover, she insinuates that she would have considered him undesirable if he had expressed his sexuality differently. Though she commends him for being so closed off about his sexuality, which could have read in another context as a validation of doing transness differently than Angel, her transphobic logic and continued insistence that she is heterosexual ultimately discredits her to viewers of the documentary. By introducing Luna’s story as a concession to the main argument of the documentary but characterizing her negatively, Angel undermines the potential for oppositional views.
Margaret Cho’s portions of the documentary serve to make it seem as if Angel fairly represents opposition to his project. Entering the discussion of trans male bodies through her experience with people in the borderlands between and alongside butchdyke and trans male identity (Halberstam), Cho is more versed in lesbian and queer discourse than Luna is. She calls upon the language of these discourses in her interview:
Buck Angel: So with the trans men that you’ve had a relationship with sexually, tell me, were those men comfortable with their vaginas, if they had a vagina, were they comfortable with being penetrated?
Margaret Cho: No, no. The men that I’ve been with have been for the most part stone. That’s where they don’t, they don’t have um any kind of penetration and there is no real um like connection to their female-ness, you know that they are male. (Sexing the Transman)
Here, Cho adapts lesbian discourse to discuss her sexual experiences with trans men. She employs the word “stone,” a term usually reserved to describe butch lesbians who receive their pleasure from pleasing their femme partners rather than from being touched themselves, to describe the trans men with whom she has had sex. Though she does not portray these trans men negatively, her contribution adds to the impression resulting from Luna’s contributions that trans men exist in two groups: those who agree with Angel’s project and participated in the documentary and those who do not agree and are therefore not pictured in the documentary.
While it is entirely valid for trans men to distance themselves from Angel’s project, Sexing the Transman invalidates the experiences of trans men who are not as outspoken about their bodies as Angel. This is emphasized because their only presence in the documentary is through Luna’s transphobic lens and Cho’s experience in butch-dyke/trans communities. By contrasting clips of trans men who are shown to be empowered by their bodies against Luna’s and Cho’s stories of trans men who did not choose to be involved in the project the documentary ultimately conveys the message that those trans men who choose to embody their maleness in the way that Luna and Cho describe are unreasonably ashamed of their bodies. Their lack of visual presence in the documentary supports a reading that Angel is ashamed of their bodies as well. Because they do not ascribe to the same agenda that Angel espouses, they are implicitly accused of upholding the binary sex/gender system rather than working toward breaking it down.
While Angel’s political and commercial commitment to reclaiming the word “vagina” is very clear throughout Sexing the Transman, as evident in his repeated question about whether the trans men he interviews are “comfortable with [their] vagina[s]” and the overwhelming majority of positive responses from the trans men in the documentary, his is certainly not the only or even the predominant attitude trans men hold toward their bodies. Nevertheless, I suggest that the visibility of people embodying seemingly contradictory positions, as the trans men in this documentary do, has the potential to destabilize the logic of the binary sex/gender system.
In Sexing the Transman, however, this destabilization is achieved at the expense of trans men who choose not to participate in Angel’s project. Angel promotes a trans identity that reclaims “vagina” and “pussy” by delegitimizing those trans men who do not wish to reclaim those words or the parts of their bodies to which they could refer. While Sexing the Transman does trouble the sex/gender system, the dismantling of which has the potential to end the oppression of many people including trans men, the documentary also shames and re-oppresses trans men in its attempts to reach this goal. As my readers leave this paper and venture on to other scholarly pursuits, I ask them to consider: How might we, as scholars and activists, work towards dismantling the sex/gender system without furthering the marginalization of transgender people?
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