Donna Haraway’s “A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, and Social-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century” weaves a political mythos which blurs the lines between natural and technological realms, science fiction and social reality. By the end of the twentieth century, she writes, “we are all chimeras, theorized and fabricated hybrids of machine and organism; in short, we are cyborgs” (150). As a transgender person, I find myself enthralled by the hybridity of the imagination and the material she proposes in which bodies are constructed and deconstructed in an ambiguous assemblage of nature and craftsmanship. Haraway's imagining of the feminist cyborg utopia provides a useful framework to explore transgender embodiment as a process of becoming and suggests a hybrid futurity in which gendered embodiment continues to evolve with our ever-advancing technology.
That a theoretical framework built on the tropes of science fiction should so aptly encapsulate my lived experience of gender seems only fitting. Growing up, I immersed myself in every science fiction and fantasy novel in our public library, from Asimov to Lewis; the significance of my childhood fascination with constructed bodies outside normative forms—centaurs and satyrs, griffins and gorgons—is not lost on me. At ten years old, I read Madeleine L’Engles’ Many Waters; in a novel chock-full of monstrous hybridity, one all-too-human scene profoundly influenced my self-awareness. The young protagonist Dennys, covered in putrilage, strips off his clothes and throws himself into the desert sand to scrape away the filth. He realizes that in his vigor, he has also scraped away his skin; raw and bleeding, he continues to cleanse himself in a gruesome baptism (55). I reread the scene compulsively, carving the words into my consciousness. Newly pubescent and utterly distressed by my body’s development, I, too, yearned to scour myself of my unclean skin and begin anew. Although I lacked the vocabulary to name it, this was my first discernable experience of gender dysphoria.
Although I can trace the progression of my dysphoria, I remain wary of assigning significance to an imagined history of my identity. Likewise, Haraway’s cyborg rejects “an origin story in the ‘Western’, humanist sense” (151); this western myth involves an original unity with nature. Haraway’s refusal of biological absolutism resonates with my lived experience: while essentialism debates rage within the transgender community, I personally feel very little connection to the popular “trapped in the wrong body” narrative. While I have experienced discomfort in being perceived as female from a young age, I am acutely aware that, had I been raised male, I would have faced the suppression of the stereotypically feminine traits that in many ways define me—empathy, introspection, artistry—to fit the insensitive masculine ideal.
Furthermore, while many trans people may disagree with this depiction, I must admit that I find a great deal of empowerment in the notion of my gender, as well as my body, as my own construction. Gayle Salamon suggests an understanding of trans identity as something “akin to an act, but also as something that is not reducible to a question of choice” (101); this contradiction resonates with me. The word act, in particular, strikes me: it characterizes gender as both active and performative. Judith Butler builds on Simone de Beauvoir’s work to incorporate transgender embodiment: “If one is not born a woman, but rather becomes one, then becoming is the vehicle for gender itself” (65). My experience aligns with this idea of becoming, of gender as a developing practice. The manifestation of my gender remains in an ever-evolving state of flux. I identify as a man, yet the surrounding boundaries continually shift in thrilling and terrifying ways. Haraway writes, “No objects, spaces, or bodies are sacred in themselves” (163); I experience my gender not as a consecrated essence but as a malleable force haunting the liminal spaces between binary borders. She rejects the idea of resolving conflicting parts into a unified whole: “There is no drive in cyborgs to produce total theory, but there is an intimate experience of boundaries, their construction and deconstruction” (181). This destabilization of identity while knowing myself as a trans man seems counterintuitive, yet Haraway celebrates the tension between “permanently partial identities and contradictory standpoints” (154). My embodiment of transgender experience dwells in calming this sense of unease through the “pleasure in the confusion of boundaries” (150). In the six months since I began hormone therapy, I have experienced a new freedom in my gender expression.
Before testosterone, knowing that I did not pass as male triggered my dysphoria and sparked bouts of depression; in noticeable overcompensation, I replicated a performance of stereotypical masculinity despite its obvious inauthenticity. As soon as I noticed the first subtle alterations from testosterone, I found myself reverting to my instinctive, slightly femme style. This shift reflects no regret over transition or desire to be seen as woman; on the contrary, hormones granted me a sense of self-sovereignty. I claim agency in expressing my gender in a queer, sincere fashion rather than subscribing to strict societal norms. I have always, willingly or not, inhabited the borderlands of gender; now, rather than the fearful performance of femininity I enacted as a teenager or the butch affectation I attempted in college, I can revel in the transience of my liminality.
Nevertheless, the question of gender essentialism remains a point of contention within the trans community at large. Riki Lane critiques the divisive discourse of authentic versus mutable identities, a binary which frames the “conservative transsexual,” one who understands gender as rooted in biological essentialism, in opposition to the “subversive transgender,” one who believes in gender’s social construction. Lane suggests a hybrid understanding of genetic and social influences: “biological predispositions of some kind interact with triggers in infancy, puberty, and adulthood in the context of culturally specific available identity possibilities for cross-gender expression” (146). Ultimately, the existence of trans people outweighs the importance of their origin, and he fiercely advocates for an alliance that allows for a multiplicity of theories on gender development (136). This cooperative stance aligns with Haraway’s vision, as she warns against exclusion based on naming identity that afflicts many current political movements: “The recent history for much of the US left and US feminism has been a response to this kind of crisis by endless splitting and searches for a new essential unity” (155). Instead, the cyborg unites with others through coalition based on affinity and common welfare rather than strict identity politics. In this cyborg unification, the textbook transsexual and the genderqueer demiboy can coexist in harmonious mutual validation; as the capitalist patriarchy values neither, any struggle for legitimization at the expense of other trans people is futile. Sandy Stone writes specifically of the dangers of condensing the individual lived experience in favor of a universal shared history:
Transsexuals do not possess the same history as genetic “naturals,” and do not share common oppression prior to gender reassignment. I am not suggesting a shared discourse. I am suggesting that in the transsexual’s erased history we can find a story disruptive to the accepted discourses of gender, which originates from within the gender minority itself and which can make common cause with other oppositional discourses. (230)
Rejecting an inaccurate collective narrative relieves trans people of the pressure to fit neatly into the regulated gender binary; accepting an array of experiences without policing identity allows room for nonconforming expressions. Stone proposes viewing trans people “not as a class or problematic ‘third gender,’ but rather as a genre —a set of embodied texts whose potential for productive disruption of structured sexualities and spectra of desire has yet to be explored” (231). The genre construct succeeds in linking an experientially diverse population in a strong alliance. Susan Stryker emphasizes the importance of maintaining individualism within cooperation: “I want to lay claim to the dark power of my monstrous identity without using it as a weapon against others or being wounded by it myself” (246). There is a great deal of power in owning one’s whole identity, a power which risks dilution in narrative consolidation.
Employing monstrosity as a framework to explicate trans experience serves to shift focus beyond society’s discomfort with the cyborg to the fear and revulsion invoked by monsters. Haraway identifies monsters as having “defined the limits of community in Western imaginations” (180). A monster is unnatural and dangerous; indeed, the monster is unholy, a blasphemous perversion of nature. Stryker explores this characterization: like the cyborg, the monster is constructed, “an assemblage of incongruous anatomical parts,” achieving “similitude of a natural body only through an unnatural process” (247). Transgender individuals, like monsters, are “perceived as less than fully human due to the means of my embodiment” (245). Stryker promotes the reclamation of the words used against us—creature, monster, unnatural—because a creature is “nothing other than a created being, a made thing” (246). She frames the medical institution as Frankenstein, building bodies as an act of hubris to prove their mastery of nature. In her view, the trans person exists in a profoundly contradictory space: “Transsexual embodiment, like the embodiment of the monster, places its subject in an unassimilable, antagonistic, queer relationship to a Nature in which it must nevertheless exist” (248). Biology is fundamentally diverse, as demonstrated by Fausto-Sterling’s work on naturally occurring sex differences in Sexing the Body; claims against trans people as “unnatural” simply perpetuate a narrow, inaccurate understanding of science filtered through the lens of societal bias. Furthermore, Stryker defies the cisgender world at large to examine the disjointed nature of identity:
You are as constructed as me; the same anarchic Womb has birthed us both. I call upon you to investigate your nature as I have been compelled to confront mine. I challenge you to risk abjection and flourish as well as have I. Heed my words, and you may well discover the seams and sutures in yourself. (247)
The realities of life in 21st century America refute naturalist arguments. Our food is genetically modified. Modern medicine keeps us alive decades longer than our grandparents’ generation. Laser technology has eliminated our dependence on glasses and contact lenses. We elect surgeries to restructure our internal organs to prevent weight gain. Organic holism is a myth; privileging the “natural” body proves incongruous with our lifestyle.
I find it disheartening how Stryker’s twenty-two-year-old words resonate with such depressing relevance in our current political climate. The bathroom wars have sparked a national debate over the validity of transgender experience; the characterization of unnatural monstrosity echoes from the mouths of Republican leaders and high school administrators, on national news and trending on social media. The reductive tendency to frame the issue of using the facilities corresponding with one’s gender as a crisis of “men in women’s bathrooms” plays into longstanding anxieties surrounding gender diversity by casting trans people as “dangerous in way that violates women in particular” (Salamon 107). This rhetorical strategy, framing women as victims in need of protection, has been utilized to subjugate outsider groups throughout American history as a means of disrupting potential alliances between white women and other oppressed peoples against hegemonic patriarchal power. This tactic becomes “transmogrified into fantasies of trans predation, where transpeople are compared to rapists or claimed to embody a threat, sometimes particular and sometimes vague and unspecified, to nontrans women” (107). The public outcry villainizes even the “conservative transsexuals,” the trans individuals trying to pass into the normative constructs of gender, erasing the nonbinary and gender-nonconforming populace entirely when they collectively face the most danger in sex-segregated spaces. While the constant dehumanization through public discourse on the bathroom legislation takes its toll on my resilience, I take comfort in Stryker’s rejection of the system that marginalizes us: "Though we forego the privilege of naturalness, we are not deterred, for we ally ourselves instead with the chaos and blackness from which Nature itself spills forth” (254). Paradoxically, our defiance of normativity forges a profound bond with the natural world we stand accused of perverting.
Butler, Judith. Undoing Gender. Routledge, 2004.
Fausto-Sterling, Anne. Sexing the Body: Gender Politics & the Construction of Sexuality. Basic Books, 2000.
Haraway, Donna. “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century.” 1980. Simians, Cyborgs, and Women. Taylor and Francis, 2013, pp. 149-181.
Lane, Riki. “Trans as Bodily Becoming: Rethinking the Biological as Diversity, Not Dichotomy.” Hypatia, vol. 24, no. 3, 2009, pp. 136-157.
L’Engle, Madeleine. Many Waters. 1986. Macmillan, 2010.
Salamon, Gayle. Assuming a Body: Transgender and Rhetorics of Materiality. Columbia University Press, 2010.
Stone, Sandy. “The Empire Strikes Back: A Posttranssexual Manifesto.” 1991. The Transgender Studies Reader, edited by Stephen Whittle and Susan Stryker, Taylor and Francis, 2013, pp. 221-235.
Stryker, Susan. “My Words to Victor Frankenstein above the Village of Chamounix: Performing Transgender Rage.” 1994. The Transgender Studies Reader, edited by Stephen Whittle and Susan Stryker, Taylor and Francis, 2013, pp. 244-256.