by Cybele Marcia Carter
In her previous excerpt from Gender’s Hourglass, “The Institute”, Cybele Marcia Carter explored a fantasy that nearly all queer individuals share—the desire to go back in time to relive one’s adolescence armed with the knowledge of and security with our sexual and gender identity from the present. For Carter, this meant traveling back to a formative moment in time in 1972 when she was institutionalized for being transgendered. Carter writes in her introduction to the first installment:
What I was (and still am) may have been diagnosed as a disease in 1972, but is accepted as (mostly) routine today – a transgendered female. Neither my doctor, who recommended institutionalization, nor my parents or sisters at that time, understood what gender dysphoria (feeling born and trapped in the body of the wrong gender) or Gender Identity Disorder (GID) were. They could not know that, while born as a boy, I had always lived with the certainty that I was female and should have been born and raised as a girl.
What fascinates me about Carter’s story is its testament to how gender and sexuality are discursively constructed. Most queer coming of age novels of the 20th century include some variation of a scene in which the character sees the word “homosexual”, “gay”, “lesbian”, or any term of queer identity in a novel, a dictionary, or encyclopedia and suddenly becomes transformed by access to textual authority. Just as an infant in Lacan’s mirror stage is born into the symbolic through the misrecognition of the self as a whole that must be maintained, I believe that this event of textual discovery for a queer youth is its own moment of misrecognition, an instance of being born into an identity category expected to wholly define the self that one must constantly strive to fit and resemble.
“Gay” is both a description of one’s self and an aspirational model to pursue for the self that subjects the individual to all of the expectations and limitations of that identity category. We are given language to inform the self, but it has an inherent, impersonal lack that can never satisfy the desire for psychic wholeness. A child born into the symbolic feels an inherent lack in themselves, and when a queer child first learns of a word for his/her gender or sexual feelings, they are deceived with a second moment of misrecognition that could make them believe that the feeling of lack was caused because they did not know they are this thing called “gay” and that by now knowing they are “gay” they have a wholly explanatory term for their self. Thus, part of maturing into a queer sexual or gender identity means realizing the inadequacy of all categories of identity, and developing strategies for signifying the self that use common terms and discourse to others in order to make one’s self legible without being reduced to a one-dimensional figure.
Carter’s story understands the importance of a queer youth to have access to language, knowledge, and discourse on gender and sexual identity. Yet, instead of having some enlightened clinician from the 70s to inform her teenage self, she supplies it herself from 2012. Her teenage self is not just given the message of “you are transgendered and that is okay”; she is granted all of the experience of growing into her gender identity over the course of the next 40 years. There is something in “queer experience” and living queerly between the lines of male and female–the lasting affect of navigating gender that informs gender identity in ways that the signifier/signified system of language excludes.
The Gran mal conference would be, I felt, the make-or-break point of my efforts here at the Institute to form a new life; a new past, present, and future for myself. If my explanations were convincing enough regarding my being born transsexual, and needing to live as a female being as important as breathing itself, then I would have the medical community here behind me. And that was important in persuading my parents to let me remain Cybele and to begin taking female hormones.
But if I couldn’t persuade Kilroy’s colleagues to back me, I wondered if he would in turn back off from supporting me. Nobody likes to swim against the tide or to go it alone, as I myself knew quite well. Still, I knew I could count on Miss Williams’s support in any case; and perhaps she would convince the others on their own terms.
Miss Williams led me down the hall to the south side of the ward and used her elevator key to take us down to Level 1. This was where a long hallway took us down into the actual hospital, with its own maze of corridors; until we found the conference room. I was lost myself; but Emily had been there before, it seemed.
Now as for the room: perhaps you’ve seen, in old or classic movies such as Young Frankenstein, something called an “operating theater”. This is a large room like an auditorium, or a small amphitheater: with banks of seats rising tier by tier so that all the attendees can get a good view of a platform, or stage, upon which a physician would perform an operation. Or, in this case, introduce a rather unique patient. As we entered through a set of double doors, I almost backed out. Every one of the 50 or so seats in the theater were filled with white-coated physicians, psychologists and graduate students. All eyes turned to me as I came in, blushing and flushed with my natural shyness. Dr. Kilroy was standing beside a raised podium to my left, upon which a microphone was planted.
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