Transsexuality as an Emotional Situation, Aesthetics and a State of Mind
A question of difference.
This text is part of a series on psychoanalytic approaches to trans issues that began as a discussion of Patricia Gherovici’s Transgender Psychoanalysis but also aims at tackling the issue within current Transgender Studies more in general.
The problem of sexual difference is, for obvious reasons, of paramount importance in the field of Trans Studies. Historically, the psychoanalytic clinic has leaned on the symbolic oppositions between phallic/castrated, masculine/feminine, and absence/presence in understanding sexual difference. Patricia Gherovici’s recent book “Transgender Psychoanalysis” speaks to the new generation of people interested in psychoanalysis, activism and the clinic. And it reminds us that there was a time in psychoanalysis, particularly the Berlin Psychoanalytic Institute (1920-36), that psychoanalysis, literature, art, politics were brought together, and the desire for them was spoken about with the desire for social change the opening of freedom. Along with others in the Field (Harris, 2005, Gozlan, 2008, 2011, 2015, Fiorini, 2017) Gherovici argues that psychoanalysis must move away from literal interpretations of sexual difference, towards an examination of trans embodiment as an affirmation of ‘livability.’
In the year of publication of ‘Transgender Psychoanalysis,’ a number of positive studies came out trying to understand the clinical political, cultural, emotional and psychological situation of trans individuals (studies around the everyday lives of trans people), research on transitioning in youth (e.g., Gozlan, 2008, 2015, 2018; Erhensaft, 2015). This is similar to the blossoming of gay and lesbian affirmative research in psychology in the 1970’s and 1980’s. It is not so much that one is following the other, but we can say that there is a sequential response when the culture demands the reduction, and recognition, of suffering, in ways that go beyond the normative confines. In these moments new understandings of affects are now possible, as situations that open general problems, not just for trans people, but for everyone, in the clinic and in the classroom, etc. emerge. Along with recognition of suffering, the idea of joy is no longer tied to the normative notion of what should make people happy or unhappy. Sexuality is now linked to medical knowledge but it is also linked to demands for freedom.
In my work, I have conceptualized Transsexuality as an emotional situation — a state of mind that is oriented by the conflation of phantasies of what I want, what I have, what I don’t have, what I can’t have, and what someone else has but not me (Green, 2002). Our history is a mythology, is a narrative made op of our phantasies and interpretations, that is required in order to move to the next step. I therefore treat transsexuality as an enigma that has a bearing on all of us and has to do with the nature of sexuality and the nature of identification. As an emotional situation, transsexuality gives rise to a multitude of representations and new modes of alterations: modes of self-fashioning, alterations to the body and alterations to relationships with self and others. Those who have not gone through those alterations, imagine them to be closer to death. Yet this situation gives rise to new modes of relations; it creates new possibilities as different awareness occurs that was not thinkable without those alterations. There is a big gap between the clinical and the cultural, however, and the psychoanalytic clinic lags behind. The clinical is at times too rigid in handling new possibilities for knowledge and as a consequence it forecloses the wider world and cannot think outside of its highly focused, highly controlled frame.
The term transsexuality allows for a complexity that takes us beyond identitarian terms to a kind of estrangement: transsexuality comes in our phantasies, in our dreams and we are not far away from our unconscious in this terminology. If sexuality gives us the possibility of gender, our gender will be marked by the libidinal qualities of our identifications; the ways in which we identify with conglomerate of multiple, partial, and conflictual aspects. And yet, we do not experience gender as binary (man/woman) until we don’t want it. As an emotional situation, or a state of mind, rather than an identity, transsexuality signifies the very nature of sexuality and sexual difference as a tension that is elaborated through desire, one that can never be completely settled and upon which any transformation is predicated. Thinking about the transsexual body as a place of emotional meaning, and hence as a psychic position, opens the question of how gender elicits an aesthetic conflict – conflict between sensual apprehension and imagination, between essence and appearance, and between intelligibity and enigma If gender functions as a veil for the constitutive instability of the subject split by her unconscious, it can be argued that every gender disposition carries a kernel of helplessness, anxiety and guilt, and therefore it is susceptible to dissociation, splitting, and idealization.
In this brief paper I present three scenes: a scene of pedagogy, a scene of writing and a scene of reading, involving the difficulty addressing the question of transsexuality in the clinic and beyond. These difficulties all hinge upon the problem of sexual difference. They articulate obstacles to thinking about transsexuality from the perspective of psychoanalysis. Why is anybody interested in gender? That is an interesting question for the analyst, whether you are trans or not, because it brings into consideration issues of identification, which are central to psychoanalytic understandings of subjectivity and subject formation. We were all at one time transgendered, in a sense that the infant can be one or the other or both genders. Yet, how difficult it can be to think of gender beyond the binary phantasies of a stabilized body: boy, girl. But binaries are unstable and as soon as we refer to gender in identitarian terms, we are subject to a concreteness. My interest in gender is both personal and clinical and the examples engage both realms.
Scene I: Pedagogy
About three years ago I taught a psychoanalytic seminar titled “there is no such thing as a transsexual.” The title of the seminar generated a myriad of anxieties in potential attendees and within the institute. The title, which was deliberately chosen to echo Winnicott’s famous statement “there is no such thing as a baby”, and Lacan’s “there is no such thing as The woman” led to consternation, calls for boycotts of the program, threats of disruption and an array of curious assumptions, including the idea that the course would likely call for the use of conversion therapy on transsexuals. The accompanying elaboration to the title explained that, just as Winnicott suggests, identity does not stand on its own, since it is constituted in relation to an apparatus (social, medical, familial structures), and, just as Lacan suggests, identity is tied to a phallic phantasy. This explanation, however, did not relieve the anxiety nor the insistence on interpreting reading the title as a negation of and a threat to the very existence of the transsexual subject. The various responses to the course title seem to me to enact an anxiety inherent to gender: We become paranoid in reaction to difficult knowledge or in facing the unavoidable uncertainty that comes from suspending our unthought known (Bollas, 1987), which we may experience as an attack. We try to stabilize our experience and kill our curiosity in the process, resorting to diagnosis, dismissal of what is Other, which in turn, confines identity within a linguistic claustrum of ideality. Indeed, we can never know what causes us to feel the way we do about ourselves. This is the good news. The bad news is that we cannot tolerate the inexplicable and in response to our anxiety over the unknown we create discourses that function to secure our hold over limited knowledge and disappoint us.
Scene II: Writing
The second scene of anxiety involves the experience of being approached by Routledge to compile a “handbook” on the “hot topic” of transsexuality. The handbook was to include 40 chapters, which would be international in scope. Soon after accepting the very challenging project in 2016, however, I realized that not only were there very few contributions to the subject outside of North America, but also that the very term which framed the collection’s call for contributors — transsexuality — generated complex and conflicted responses, some of which appeared to enact the very anxieties that I hoped the book would address. The problem is that while the social sees transsexuality as a “hot topic”, it is in fact a complicated situation and its framing leans upon commerce: There is a way of thinking about psychology that makes a handbook very quick and easy to use. It provides a convenient and concrete examples of what something is and makes it easy for the clinician to look something up. The big obstacle we face is: “what do we think knowing something is about?” And what happens with handbooks is that their parameters often serve a field that is already set.
Scene III: Reading
The third and final scene of anxiety I present involves what I would term an incitement to authenticity and a problem of recognition. I begin by sharing a true occurrence and end by elaborating its potential significance. This occurred in one psychoanalytic institute in Toronto, where a transman psychoanalyst was persistently addressed as female in all written communications, even after approaching the institute to discuss the issue and receiving an apology letter. The same transman was deemed by a member of another psychoanalytic institute to be an inappropriate choice as a speaker for a panel on gender because in their eyes he was “a closeted trans.” In the first case, the transperson was reminded that they cannot constitute their own gender, while, in the other, he was accused of not being out enough.
I would like to suggest that the scenes I just discussed are exemplary cases of what I would call the phantasy of transsexuality and the related anxieties that it generates, anxieties that, in my view, are constitutive of any understanding of transsexuality as a universal emotional situation. They present us with a split: A view point of those who are transsexual and the view point of those who are not. There is a splitting going on both sides, trans and cis, and pedagogy as psychoanalysis is caught in that crack. There is a kind of defensiveness to both points of view, but also a blindness to what is defended. All scenarios animate a desire for a stable object that is known, one which can be either be discarded or helped, attacked or rescued. Again, there is a splitting. The trans figure, for both trans and non trans points of view, is treated as known Object. We like to know our difference. But that might be because we can’t stand that we are the same. We are all split subjects. Unlike curiosity, that is closer to Wilfred Bion’s ‘K,’ the trans figure is treated as already known and what is denied is an emotional relation to the object that can potentially be known. We assume a hysterical relationship to knowledge that us moves away from the vantage of an emotional relation that can be made with an Other.
To engage in an emotional relationship with an Other who I don’t know requires of me to be interested in the question of what my obstacles are to knowing this Other: my anxieties, my projections, in short, my unconscious. It is a scene of pedagogy because it engages the question how to communicate the ethical dilemmas of transsexuality beyond its concrete procedures? Exploring the three scenes through the problem of obstacles to knowing, the first scene could be looked at through a Bionian pre-conception; a state of expectancy made from our anxieties and phantasies. The pre-conception is that the course titled “there is no such thing as a transsexual” is a hostile space that attacks transsexuality. It is experienced as if the mere title crashes everything that I expect and so it makes me bad and redundant. There is a projection of a turning of tables in response. A tit for tat. It is the course that is bad and should be destroyed.
The handbook scene led me to think about a manic reparation (a fast and simple solution that attempts to mask an underlying problem): If we give you a handbook then you are not going to make any mistakes because you will know this object very well. In a way, it is a scene of over-writing. The parameters of the project became such as it was difficult to recognize or articulate different kinds of experiences and representations. For example, fights over nomenclature took place (Many activists have claimed that the term “transsexual” cannot be rescued from its earliest history. The opposition to the term is grounded in the argument that what transitions is not sex — a biological marker — but gender identity, assumed to be linked to psychological traits and social roles.) But often the idea of who can write about transsexuality became a question – Authors demanded to know if I was trans before submitting their work – what would be the adequate object? All the fights that were involved, were eminent in the structure of the collection.
The third scene, of the trans analyst, is a replay of the first two. From the vantage of the institute’s persistence, the transition is experienced as inconceivable. The situation is an institute that is engaged in splitting: the institute both wants and doesn’t want the trans. It conceives of a good transsexual who comes out and a bad one that does not. But even coming out is not sufficient because there is a refusal to recognize that the other can change. The paradox is that everyone transitions with the transsexual: social, familial, educational and medical apparatus etc. Yet the institute’s refusal to transform comes in the form of reading: the problem of what to read, how to read, and the question of why one should read.
The three situation I described are scenes of ideality: of wanting to stabilize knowledge, and hence, eradicate difference. And, while sexuality is not an absolute prison house of knowledge, as Foucault argued, sexuality is subject to the control of others and subject to identity. There is a grandiosity on both sides of the split: A wish to make the other intelligible, stable and fixed and known on the one hand, and a fantasy that a trans position transcends the cisgender biases by providing the “real story.” The question of who speaks for whom is an old stand point that enacts a split inherent in gender.
There is both a disavowal of something called transsexuality and its treatment as known. It exists and it doesn’t exist. The way most members responded to the transsexual figure when they continued to misgender him is from an essentialist phantasy that nothing about gender can change. The reason something can’t change is because there is something essential that cannot be altered. Something I know; a kind of a clinging to a screen memory. Both concern the problem of recognition and authenticity. Authenticity, a sliding signifier that is both a coveted fantasy and a charge against the transsexual subject viewed as a facsimile. But that measure, as Lacan reminds us, will always fail. The demand for the transperson to come out stands in ironic opposition to the recent rise of the bathroom police who already know who the transperson is. The bathroom police tells the trans “you don’t belong here” while the other scene is a demand to come out, “you belong here. We know you are hiding and we know who you are”.
These scenes also animate an inherent failure in relationality. All relations are structured by failure, not only because we can never know the other’s desire, but also because there can never be an equal relation, as relations are grounded in difference. The notion that there are only two sexes, apparently confirmed by the raw immediacy of anatomy, is always in conflict with our psychic experience of sexual difference. There is something about our narrative of gender that not only refuses its infantile history; that is our childhood phantasies of sexuality, but that will use infantile theory as a sadistic weapon against mental pain and thinking. From the place of difference, however, an ethical stance has to be assumed to allow for a relation. Lacan talks about it as owning one’s desire. The question of desire brings me to the psychoanalytic clinic. And while the scenes I described are not about therapy, they point to a therapeutic pedagogy: how are we to understand these scenes? Another way of asking this question is: from where does the psychoanalyst think?
I suggest that if difference is grounds for relationality then the entrance point to scenes of failure must be oriented by impasse. The analyst’s resistance to acknowledge their own phantasy will not see where this phantasy fails. If the transsexual body, like writing, is a self-created fiction that allows a subject to live, the analyst too must listen otherwise to the narrative of pain, exclusion, the injury of being hated, and the agony of being barred. Beyond the question of brute facts, there has to be an interest in how the analyst is receiving the communication. It is ironic that the three scenes, pedagogy, writing and reading, all presuppose, in a normative way, no obstacles. And yet, I am proposing these scenes as obstacles. These forms of the obstacles are so taken for granted that we think of them as the form of cure: knowledge, authority and recognition, and in some way, they are — through the dispersal and migration of love — affirmations and interest. But they are also the places where things fall apart. We know this of psychoanalysis where the obstacles to its process become the objects of inquiry.
As sectors of psychoanalysis are now starting to think about the new kind of experiences that they are going to meet at the clinic, they must also think about their phantasies of sexuality, subtle transphobia, homophobia and racism. The clinic also struggles because these new experiences often come with social activism. Can we think about these conflicts that are at stake in certain kinds of presentations in ways that are not overplayed with our own moral horror? I would like to end with some questions: As we write about one’s experience and the other’s experience, what do we hope for? Where are we, when we think about these things, from where do we think?
Oren Gozlan, Psy.D., ABPP, is a clinical psychologist and a psychoanalyst in private practice in Toronto. His book Transsexuality and the Art of Transitioning: A Lacanian Approach won the American Academy & Board of Psychoanalysis’ annual book prize for books published in 2015. He is also the winner of the Symonds Prize (2016). He has recently published an edited collection titled: “Critical Debates in the Transsexual Studies Field: In Transition” (Routledge).
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