This is a conference presentation for a gender and technology conference in April — I submitted it in early December, certain it would never pass muster, but to my surprise, the paper was accepted on Jan 8, which means I have to actually go and give the paper. April is the cruelest month, a very interesting point in my transition, only a few weeks from the end of the semester, and I am thus perhaps tempted to speed things up by a few weeks and present this paper as the first bit of scholarship by my true self, rather than the last bit of scholarship by my old self. The reality of this professional step frightens me.

Facing Change, Changing Face: Creating New Transsexual Narratives with Technology

Common narratives of male-to-female transsexualism have long employed the metaphor of the binary switch, involving a jump from one side of a binary to the other. The Latin prefix “trans” literalizes the image of such a crossing, as do many other terms in the discourse. In this simplistic understanding of transsexualism, medical technology (primarily in the form of genital reassignment surgery, or GRS) is viewed as the central explanation and solution to the problem of gender identity disorder (GID).

However, actual transsexual experiences are much more complex than a story of light switch, and being more complex, these people participate in more complex technologies than just GRS. Since most transsexuals undergo years of individual and group therapy, hormone treatments, electrolysis and laser hair removal, voice training, and various experiments in new socialization (or performing their new gender), the story really needs to be less like a binary switch and a lot more like a slow revealing or an unfolding that takes place in fits and starts, failures and successes. Such incremental change and experimentation still employs technology, but a much broader suite of technologies than GRS because what the transsexual seeks to reveal is not just a new set of genitalia, but a completely (or slightly) different person(a). It should be clear to most people that the primary way we interact with society isn’t through our genitals, but through our presentation, which involves our clothing, our carriage, and our countenance. For this very reason, it is not unusual these days for transsexuals to focus on their social interface and forego genital reconstruction.

In this new focus, the transsexual narrative is no longer about instant change, but about evolution of the social and physical interface, and many techniques and technologies are involved with this narrative. One of the most important parts of this new narrative is the before-and-after series of photographs, usually of the face, but sometimes including the body. The face reveals the sad and despairing and hopelessly male “before” image that slowly morphs into the happy, optimistic female “after” image — and this transition from one sex to the other can be illustrated by 2 images or 20, but the narrative purpose is the same: to tell the story of the slow unveiling of the new persona.

The countenance is so important to this narrative model that a relatively new field of plastic surgery has evolved to address the transsexual’s need to face the world. Facial feminization surgery (FFS) aims to remove masculine features like square jaws, bony brows, or receding hairlines in order to bring a transsexual’s countenance more into line with the norms of women in a given society. What is fascinating and instructive about FFS is not just its innovative appropriations of existing plastic surgery techniques, as well as some new techniques like bone shaving, but also the culture that has grown up around FFS, a culture that is almost entirely enabled and promulgated via technology. In addition to having established a demand for a creative medical technology, the FFS culture employs two additional categories of technology. First, the culture makes extensive use of computer-mediated communication to join potential and existing patients in critical and comparative discussions of doctors, procedures, costs, and outcomes. The narrative is firmly established in before-and-after discussions and expectations. Second, the culture makes use of digital image enhancements done by medically-trained experts in Photoshop, thus providing an artist’s rendering of the transsexual’s possible future but also giving the transsexual’s plastic surgeon with a digital roadmap of procedures. In narrative terms, virtual FFS foreshadows the physical transformation, thus allowing this culture’s participants to show before-and-after pictures where the “after” is the artist’s rendering of “after,” not the actual “after-surgery” image.

This paper will provide data about FFS, virtual FFS, CMC FFS activities, and examples of both the binary and the evolutionary narratives in action. Further, I will argue that modern transsexuals are products of many narrative technologies employed to help develop and reveal new personae, tools and techniques that go well beyond the specialized fields of medicine and into photography, videography, web 2.0 design, role playing games, virtual hair and makeup visualizations, communication technologies, and social networking. This being the case, I conclude that most of us who participate in information-age scholarship and research should be able to participate in a gender-technology intersection in ways that we may not have realized before.