After reworking the scope, direction, and authority of my topic, time inevitably passed (as it always does) and it was finally time to present my paper at the Perspectives on Gender and Technology conference in Austin, TX.

I had been worried that my level of discourse wouldn’t be up to par, as gender studies isn’t my area of expertise. But I have studied gender all of my life, as Mary Jo has pointed out to me numerous times. Even upon arriving in my hotel room on Thursday afternoon, I still felt my paper was too nebulous. Instead of walking around on a beautiful afternoon, I sat down and worked, finally finding a way to focus my thoughts in such a way that the presentation would be more aligned with my own field while opening the door to work in gender and technology.

Maybe it was just fear, but I rationalized it as being about focus.

Instead of foregrounding my observations–about Second Life, FFS simulations in Photoshop, and transsexual discussion boards–on the topic of building a new identity, I decided to focus on the way emerging transsexuals use these technologies as (self) persuasive tools to help them decide what to do when the GID is so overwhelming that doing nothing is no longer sustainable.

I struck upon this strategy in the evening, late in the evening, and spent much of the night tweaking my Powerpoint presentations and creating new graphics to illustrate argumentative concepts to the audience. I got some sleep, I suppose.

This day and the day of my presentation was also the period where all the furious emails from my sister and uncle were flying around, so I think it’s safe to describe that overnight stay in the Omni Hotel as emotional.

I drove to campus and stopped at the guard booth over by the Dobie Mall on the south side of campus. I asked the guard if there was parking near the computer science building, and then her face lit up and she nodded wildly, apparently on the phone with someone at that very moment to figure out that very question. She waved in broad gestures to someone standing 100 feet away, a woman who looked like she might be going to the same conference. She had received bad information and believed the conference was up in Parlin Hall, home of the English Department. Knowing that was false, I told her to follow me down the hill to Waller Creek, where we turned left, weaved our way around the construction, and finally found the much-nearer parking garage. We walked and talked our way up to the conference, leaning on each other (metaphorically) just in case we had made a mistake. But no, there was the computer science building with the high tech auditorium, right where I expected it.

The people at the conference were terrific, the keynote speakers knowledgeable, and my fellow speakers intriguing and professional. My paper went just fine, even if time seemed to fly by. The audience was interested and asked good questions. Before coming to Austin, I had been concerned that the official respondent for our panel, Sandy Stone, noted communication and transsexual theorist, would find all sorts of holes in my argument, methodology, and general worth as a human being. However, once I had my focus on argumentation and technology, and once she had lightheartedly told the audience that she supposed she had to moderate the session by virtue of being the “designated transsexual” on the University of Texas campus, it was clear that my fears were ungrounded. Being the first paper she introduced, I picked up the theme and came out to a room of perhaps 30 academics, saying “Well, then I’m happy to tell you that I’m on the verge of holding the same position, the designated transsexual, at Texas Tech,” and went straight into my paper from that point.

The second paper was delivered by a graduate student in the Philosophy Department of the University of South Florida, and it covered issues of intersexed people and strongly resisted a rigid sex and gender binary. The third paper was a fascinating discussion of post-war Japanese reproductive religion and state. And the fourth paper was an anthropological look at identity and gender. All four of us would have benefited from a longer session because it was clear that we could talk with each other for hours and the audience had many questions and observations. Maybe that’s the best way to leave things.

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.