Volume 6, Number 3, 2002
Media Roles in Female-to-Male Transsexual and Transgender Identity Formation
This article presents results of interviews held via email with 19 female-to male transsexual and transgender people regarding the role of mass media in their identification processes. A preliminary review of the television reception studies of Morley (1980), Liebes and Katz (1991), and D’Acci (1994) examines previous findings on the relationship of audiences’ social identities to their interpretation of media texts, including the place of these interpretations in the identification process. Results of the current study indicate that 1) media facilitated transsexual and transgender respondents’ identification processes in various and significant ways, 2) the gendered self-perceptions upon which respondents based their identifications were socially informed but did not originate in social arenas, and 3) media functioned like an ‘actualizing agent’ during the development of respondents’ transsexual and transgender identities.
Keywords: coming out, gender identity in mass media, psychological aspects of sex change, transgender identity, transsexual identity
The ability of media to aid in the production of social identities has been alluded to as its "most powerful and important effect" (Grossberg et al., 1998: 206). In recent years, transsexual subjects have become more prevalent and positively presented in television, film, radio, books, magazines and especially the Internet (Cromwell, 1999; Feinberg, 1999). Media texts that validate a gender identity that contradicts the body’s sex and offer viable gender constructions that incorporate a body/gender split would very likely be welcomed into the mindsets of audience members in whom these texts resound. When the resonance is strong, media could play a powerful role in the processes of transsexual and transgender identity formation.
Between October 2000 and August 2001, I looked for information on the media’s facilitation of transsexual and transgender identities by interviewing 19 female-to-male transsexuals via email. In these interviews, I asked study participants questions about their use of the media and its role in their ‘coming-out’ processes, seeking to understand the dynamics of the interplay between media and self-awareness that I thought may have played a part in the development of respondents’ identifications.
Respondents’ detailed answers to my questions indicated that media played a significant and often pivotal role in the development of a wide range of trans identities.1 They testified that many different kinds of media, gender representations in media, media content and genres, and personal contact made through media helped them come out to themselves as trans. Three ways of engaging with media were reported and four basic types of identity events were attributed to media contact. Study participants additionally appeared to suggest that they possessed an innate sense of being transsexual or transgender and that media stimulated varying degrees of consciousness of their trans attributes.
I use the terms ‘female-to-male transsexuals’, ‘FtMs’, ‘transmen’, and ‘female-bodied transpeople’ interchangeably when referring to respondents as a group in this report.2 However, I treat them as separate and distinct identity labels when adopted by individual respondents. Regardless of terminology, study participants were female-bodied individuals who desired to and/or acted to masculinize their bodies – wholly or in part – through hormones and/or surgery.
I use the term ‘identity’ to mean a social category that is assigned to the self, by the self. ‘Coming out’ refers to the realization of one’s identity or the communication of that identity to others. ‘Identity development’ is a change in the way the self is understood, whether or not there is a change in a social category. Therefore, the process of gender identity development may involve coming to a new understanding of a previously assigned gender category, reinforcing or challenging a category, switching or adding categories or any type of gender label stability or instability. However, it always entails the evolution of gendered self-concept. An identity event is a media-inspired short-term or long-term development of a gender identity.
Previous research on social identity and media reception
No comprehensive research has been done thus far on the roles that media play in transsexual identity formation. However, three reception studies offer evidence of a relationship between viewers’ social identities and their interpretations of television texts. Two aspects of this relationship are relevant to transsexual identity development through avenues of mass communication: the tendency of audiences to translate media content in accordance with their previously formed viewpoints and the use of textual material for self-reflection.
Morley’s (1980; 1992) research indicates some of the ways in which cultural and subcultural frameworks and social position may be related to individual readings of television programs. He showed episodes of Nationwide, a British TV news magazine, to trade union officials, managers from banking institutions and groups of students drawn from different levels of the educational system. Discussions about the episodes were facilitated, recorded, and examined to determine whether different sections of the audience shared, modified or rejected ways in which topics had been encoded by broadcasters. Morley found distinct differences according to social, educational, occupational, and political position of their respondents regarding whether they accepted, negotiated, rejected or refused to read Nationwide’s discourse.
Liebes and Katz (1991) presented evidence of a similar link between the sociocultural experiences of viewers and their interpretations of a television text in a report of audience reaction to the prime-time soap opera Dallas. The researchers showed episodes of Dallas in the homes of people from six different cultures in the US, Israel and Japan. Following the viewings, they triggered conversations about the program among the gathered family and friends. Upon analysis of these conversations, Liebes and Katz concluded that viewers’ cultural and social values led them to negotiate with the program in different ways: decodings, involvements, enjoyments, uses and effects all varied in accordance with group membership. Liebes and Katz drew no conclusions regarding the effects of Dallas on viewers’ identities per se, nor is it known if respondents watched the show and applied its content to themselves outside of the research context. However, it appears that study participants used characters and textual situations during group discussions to assess their own values and desires. To the extent that their understandings of themselves grew or changed as a result of this process, Dallas can be considered to have played a part in their identity development.
In a case study of the prime-time television series, Cagney and Lacey, D’Acci (1994) extracted discourses about femininity from audience letters, articles in mainstream and feminist press, publicity releases, production-team meetings, comments from network spokespeople and other responses to the program. Using a model proposed by Kuhn (1987), she analyzed her data in a manner that treated "representations, contexts, audiences and spectators … as a series of interconnected social discourses, certain discourses possessing greater constitutive authority at specific moments than others" (Kuhn, 1987: 347). D’Acci was especially concerned with television’s influence on "the manner in which we view ourselves and the ways we enact the traditions of culture in our own bodies" (D’Acci, 1994: 8).
According to D’Acci’s analysis, women viewers of Cagney and Lacey found a range of "positions of identification" in the text of the program and "responded to, took pleasure in, and negotiated textual subject positions as well as textual meanings based on the myriad facets of their everyday lives, histories, contexts, and previously constituted subjectivities" (D’Acci, 1994: 174). She concluded that Cagney and Lacey engaged its audience in a wider social process of defining and redefining the meanings of ‘woman’, ‘women’ and ‘femininity’, and played a significant part in many female spectators’ efforts to "reconceive themselves as women" (D’Acci, 1994: 206).
The application of these findings to the question of the role media plays in the development of transsexual and transgender identities is limited. Morley (1980; 1992) explored the link between identity and media interpretation, but he did not deal with questions of self-reflection or -definition. Although Liebes and Katz’s (1991) results indicated that media characters and textual situations were used for self-assessment, the social categories into which participants were grouped remained unchanged and undisputed. Similarly, media helped D’Acci’s viewers to redefine who they were as women; the issue of gender identity reassignment remained unaddressed. D’Acci (1994) was the only researcher who examined television’s role in audience identification processes.
All three of these studies considered only the social constitution of media users, disregarding any physiological components of social delineations. Morley regarded his audience as a "set of cultural groupings" (1980: 163), Liebes and Katz sought to demonstrate that "the nature of involvement varies with the cultural background one brings to the viewing" (1991: 21), and the model that D’Acci employed frames media users as "social discourses" (Kuhn, 1987: 347). Morley additionally considered the subject of audience identity to be covered by the literature he referred to as the "social psychology of television" (1992: 208).
This is not a comprehensive assessment of media reception studies that have explored the relationship of media to social identity, but it illustrates some important ways in which media reception research has taken identity into account. I use these perspectives as a starting point for the exploration of media’s role in transsexual and transgender identification processes and I am particularly interested in using the biological aspect of transsexuality to expand the idea of social identity.
The physicality of social identity
In theories about the etiology of transsexuality that include biological considerations, nature/critical period/nurture models prevail, with emphasis generally placed on the nature/critical period aspects of these models. These theories are supported, in part, by research that investigates the origins of differences in gendered and sexual behaviors of the sexes. A growing number of studies also explore genetic make-up, brain structure, hormone balance and androgen baths of the brain at critical periods of fetal development as possible bases of transsexuality (Devor, 1997).3
The consideration of the physicality of transsexual and transgender ‘states’ has strong implications for the nature of other identifications that are distinguished in whole or in part through bodily difference. Many ‘social’ identities, such as those based on age, sex, race, ethnicity and ability, have distinct physiological components. People with different kinds of bodies in different states of functionality experience the world differently, often to a significant degree. Since physical difference can be an important part of how people make sense of themselves and their world, it may be more of a factor in social identification processes than has previously been considered.
In this study, I attempted to ascertain some mechanisms by which the media elicited gendered self-awareness in its transsexual and transgender users; to examine these users’ understandings of themselves as trans; and to theorize about the role of media in trans identification processes. I was especially interested in accounting for the influence of media when identity is viewed not just as a social, but also as a biological construct.
I solicited respondents through notices posted on electronic FtM support and information lists and a transman’s web page that publishes notices of ongoing research projects. The lists were chosen on the bases of their FtM focus and the responsiveness of list moderators to my requests to solicit study participants. A respondent to one of my calls informed me of the research notices web page. I was a member of two lists to which I sent the call for subjects and found the others through Internet searches. The call was also sent to unknown listservs by other people who had volunteered to pass it on. The call for subjects was as follows:
Interview questions and procedure
My conversations with transmen revolved around two sets of questions. The first set was designed to initiate discussion on identity, ‘coming out’ and media use. The second focused on the types of information and images that played a part in identity development, the understanding of self that was inspired or validated by them and the relationship of that understanding to the transsexual identity. Both sets of questions were made as brief and as simple as possible in order to leave room for respondents’ elaborations and interpretations of the subject matter. The two question lists were as follows:
During the interview process, efforts were made to follow respondents’ thought processes and facilitate a free flow of conversation that stemmed from the questions and issues raised. While a certain amount of imposition of direction was necessary in order to maintain a focus on media and gender identity, attempts at control of the interview beyond these motivations were kept to a minimum.
Limitations and bias
Most research on transsexuals has been done on genetic males who identify as women. Consequently, most theories are about the meanings and causes of male-to-female transsexualism (Cromwell, 1999; Devor, 1997). In an effort to help correct this imbalance, the subject base of this study was limited to female-to-male transsexuals. Similar results might not have been obtained from a group of male-to-female transsexuals who matched this group of FtMs in every other aspect. However, an advantage to selecting a population whose sexual characteristics, gender socialization experiences, and gender identifications are similar is that specific patterns are more easily distinguished than in a more heterogeneous group.
This study was advertised and conducted over the Internet, and therefore excluded transmen that either had no web access or were less amenable to electronic forms of communication than those that agreed to be interviewed. Since the interviews were conducted via e-mail, all respondents additionally had the ability to communicate well in writing. Economic and social class as well as aptitude and education level of respondents may be linked to these characteristics, and therefore have colored the findings in these ways.
As an FtM transsexual, I bring an insider’s bias to the design, implementation, and interpretation of this research project. The perspective from which I operate is a ‘trans-centered’ one in that I assume that many people do not assimilate body-dependent gender norms well or at all and that there is no ‘natural’ reason that they should assimilate them. I view being trans as a process of struggle rather than a condition of dysfunction, as a spiritual journey and not a destructive path, and as an honorable state of being. I think that the fruits of the serious consideration of transgender identities, when picked, challenge deeply held beliefs about every human’s nature.
Study participants ranged in age from their mid-twenties to mid-forties at the time of the interviews and lived in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom. They reported having engaged with media in three ways during their identification processes: emotional, intellectual, and/or spiritual resonance with texts; information gathering; and interaction with others. These engagements inspired the adoption and/or sustenance of many of the respondents’ transsexual and transgender identities. These identities, as well as the gender representations in media that facilitated them, were diverse.
Identities and gender representations
Respondents described their gender and the gender content of the media that facilitated their identification processes using a wide variety of identity labels. Each participant applied between one and nine labels to himself and listed between one and six identities as having been represented in his media experiences. Most respondents claimed more than one identity label and listed more than one gender representation as being involved in the media facilitation of at least one of these identities. Terms that referred to respondents’ identities and gender representations in the media ranged from ‘queer’ (the broadest or most inclusive gender descriptor) to ‘male’, ‘man’, and slang terms that refer to males or men (the narrowest or most exclusive gender descriptors).
Almost all participants who used multiple identity labels in self-reference emphasized one or more descriptors more than the others. If a respondent used one or more labels substantially more frequently than others to refer to himself, or if he expressly stated an identity preference, I refer to the emphasized labels as primary identifications. I consider all other labels to be secondary identifications. Table 1 lists the primary and secondary identifications reported and the number of respondents who used them.
It can be seen from this table that respondents used approximately 33 different labels and combinations of labels. Some of these were common labels from the lesbian, gay and bisexual communities (i.e., ‘butch’, ‘queer’, ‘gay man’), some were less well-known LGBT 6 identifications (i.e., ‘leatherman’, ‘hetqueer’, ‘bigendered’), others were modified LGBT identities (i.e., "butch dyke, but feeling less and less like one", "gay male born in a female body") and a few, to the best of my knowledge, were unique to the person using them (i.e., ‘100% not-female’, ‘FtX’). Most of these kinds of labels were used by one respondent respectively. Exceptions were ‘queer’, used by one respondent at the primary level and two respondents at the secondary level, and ‘butch’, used by two respondents at the secondary level. One primary and two secondary identities referred to the discrepancy between inner identity and outer appearance.
The terms most frequently used by respondents were in common usage in the trans and/or mainstream (‘straight’) communities. These identities were ‘FtM’/‘FtM transsexual’/’FtM TS’ (seven respondents), ‘man’ (five respondents), ‘transman’ (four respondents), and ‘male’ (3 respondents). The most used secondary identifications were ‘transsexual/TS’ (seven respondents), ‘FtM’/’FtM transsexual’/’FtM TS’ (four respondents), ‘male’ (four respondents), ‘transgender(ed)’ (four respondents) and ‘transman’ (four respondents). It should be remembered that these identifications were not necessarily facilitated by media, but were ones that respondents used in reference to themselves at the time of the interviews. However, members of the study group did adopt eleven identity labels (two sexual identity labels, six gender identity labels and three ‘combination’ sexual/gender identity labels) with the help of media: ‘lesbian’, ‘gay’, ‘the third gender’, ‘FtX’, ‘transgender’, ‘transsexual’, ‘FtM’ (including ‘gay FtM’), ‘male’, ‘butch’, ‘stone butch’, and ‘jasper’.
If a particular type of identity representation played a role in a respondent’s realizing a primary identification or if a respondent overtly stressed the importance of its role, I call it a primary representation. I refer to all others as secondary representations. Table 2 lists the primary and secondary representations reported and the number of respondents whose identification processes were facilitated by them.
As Table 2 shows, more respondents named representations of FtMs and transmen as helping their identification processes than any other type of representation. These representations were at the primary level for eleven respondents and at the secondary level for five respondents. Representations of ‘butch’ or masculine women were also quite prominent aids to respondents’ identification processes – seven respondents named various butch identities as primary representations and four named them as secondary representations. Representations of transgender(ed) and trans people were the next most named, at the primary level for four respondents and the secondary level for six respondents. Additionally, four respondents named representations of MtFs at the primary level and four named transsexual representations at the secondary level as having helped their identification processes.
Overall, facilitative representations were quite similar to respondents’ identifications: most were trans, and a large number of those were male-identified trans. The major difference in composition first appears to be in the prevalence of ‘butch’ types of images in respondents’ media experiences, until one considers that quite a few of the respondents had lesbian histories. Their previous involvement with the lesbian community was most likely tied to the availability and acceptability of masculine identifications that it offered to female-bodied individuals, and it makes sense that their media content preferences would include representations of those types of identifications.
The labels that respondents used in reference to themselves and media representations sometimes included descriptors that referred to social identities other than gender. Since these identifications played a part in the development of respondents’ gender identities, I count them as relevant data. For example, two respondents did not solidly identify as FtM until they saw representations of gay FtMs. They needed to be exposed to people with whom they identified on the basis of both gender and sexual orientation in order to fully claim their trans identities. Of the nine specific media experiences in which social categories other than gender played a part in respondents’ identification processes, sexual identity was instrumental in six of these, religion was important in two and politics in one.
Also notable are the number of genetic male images listed (two primary and seventeeen secondary representations), three of which involved negative social aspects ("male characters who were antagonists," "… who had to hide", or "… who were outsiders"). Sexually ambiguous images (four secondary representations) also played a part in respondents’ identification processes, as did a specific science fiction character that was also perceived to be a powerful ‘outsider’ male image (‘Klingon’).
Media, content, genres and personal communications
The media (including live performance and public events) that helped study participants come out to themselves or others, along with the number of people whom they helped, were books (15), the Internet (15), television (12), films/videos (7), magazines (4 or 5), newspapers (3 or 4), recorded music (2), art events (1), audio recordings (1), comic books (1), drag performance (1), lectures (1), music concerts (1), musicals (1), plays (1), radio (1) and speeches (1). Forty specific instances of media helping respondents to realize or become stronger in their identities were described in detail. Fifty-two general descriptions of the roles that different types of media played were given. Table 3 lists the media types reported by respondents and the number of specific and general descriptions of identity facilitation that they gave involving these media types.
This table shows that the types of media that were most often named as being involved in respondents’ identification processes were books (24 descriptions), television, (21 descriptions) and the Internet (17 descriptions). The restriction of this study to Internet users cannot be ignored in relation to this finding. People with an affinity for as well as a habit of accessing the Internet would be likely to be affected by its content. Its presentation is largely visual and literary, as are television and books, respectively, which were even more often named as facilitative. As such, these results are a reflection of the subject base as much as the prevalence of these forms of mass communication in US, Canadian and British societies.
A good range of media was found to have facilitated respondents’ identification processes. Seventeen different forms of mass communication were involved, including the three previously mentioned forms, and including live presentations (i.e., lectures, theatrical performances). Each media form other than books, television and Internet was involved in five or less descriptions. The number of descriptions collected was fairly evenly split between those that involved specific instances of identity facilitation (41) and those that were commentaries on the general roles of certain types of media in the identification process (48).
Most media content that was important to respondents’ coming-out processes was nonfictional. Table 4 lists the types of nonfictional media content reported, the media in which it appeared and the number of respondents whose identification processes were facilitated by it.
Eleven broad groupings of nonfiction types could be distinguished: autobiographies and personal journals; biographies and biographical accounts; documentaries; information on and through organizations; mailing lists, newsgroups, online journals; medical, psychological and general information on transsexuality; photographs and other images; scholarly works; talk, entertainment and lifestyle; reference and educational material; and websites (individual, organizational, general). Substantial overlap occurs between these categories as a result of my preservation of the specificity and/or generality of respondents’ comments. However, clear distinctions can be seen when content is matched with the media in which it is housed. The nonfictional content-media combinations that were named by the most respondents were scholarly books (15 respondents); Internet mailing lists, newsgroups and online journals (14 respondents), book autobiographies (8 respondents), television documentaries (8 respondents), individual, organizational and general websites (7 respondents), medical, psychological and general information on transsexuality from the Internet (6 respondents), and talk, entertainment and lifestyle television shows (6 respondents). The remaining facilitative content-media combinations were named by three or less respondents.
Fictional material also helped in the development of respondents’ trans identifications. Table 5 shows the genres of fiction reported, the media in which they appeared and the number of respondents whose processes were facilitated by them.
As can be seen from the table, novels were named by the most respondents (10) as having helped their identification processes. Three people said that television dramas were helpful, two named film comedies and two named film docudramas. All other genre/media combinations were named by one respondent only.
In addition to the media content listed in Tables 4 and 5, three respondents described identity facilitation through personal communications with other transpeople via the Internet.
Four types of identity events were experienced by respondents as a result of media contact, based on the level of identity development that media appeared to have facilitated. I have designated these categories as pre-awakening, awakening, identification, and maturation. The awakening category can be further divided according to the comprehensiveness of the respondent’s change in self-concept, as well as the time it took for the change to occur. The resulting three subtypes are formative awareness, sudden awakening, and gradual awakening. Subdivisions of the identification category are based on a temporal criterion and designated precursory identification and solidification. The maturation category is not broken down into identity event subtypes, since identities are already established in this category, but patterns can be seen in the ways in which respondents describe the support that media gave to their identities. The resulting subcategories are effects, provisions, and uses. Table 6 shows identity event types and subtypes and the number of respondents that reported them.
The organization of media experiences into these categories and subcategories is intended only as a broad assessment of the identification processes inspired by media in this sample. They are my terms, derived directly from results of this study, and have not been informed by previous research and theory on the formation of transsexual/transgender, gay, lesbian or bisexual identities. Their comparison to conceptualizations of trans and other identification processes studied separately from media experience is a project reserved for the future.
Identity events definitions
The following is a list of definitions of identity event types and subtypes:
Identity events category overlap
Some media experiences related by study participants fit into more than one category and/or subcategory; therefore, in my analysis I apply all appropriate category labels to each experience or set of experiences. For example, one respondent described having heard a speech while attending a 1994 women’s music festival held in mid-western United States. The speech was delivered by Leslie Feinberg, a noted transgender author and historian. While listening to Feinberg, the respondent had what he referred to as ‘an epiphany out of which emerged my identity as a transgender man’. Although his identification as transgender was immediate, this respondent briefly tried to "occupy a space in between male and female" as "the third gender" before he decided that his gender was male. Because he experienced a deeply felt and comprehensive change in the way he understood his gender in a short period of time (had "an epiphany"), temporarily held an identity that pre-staged his present gender identity (‘the third gender’) and also claimed an identity that he retains to this day (‘transgender’), I categorize this media experience as sudden awakening, precursory identification and solidification.
Evidence of gender innateness in respondents’ statements
Many study participants referred to what they called their ‘transness’ or ‘maleness’ using expressions like "who I am" or "true self" – words and phrases that point to a sense of innateness about their transgender constitutions. Some indicated that they experienced their gender identities as generated from physical, mental and/or psychic depths, using such expressions as "boy inside", "emerging male within myself"and saying, "something else deeper in my mind knew I was male". Additionally, statements that pointed to media’s triggering of an inner process or accessing a type of subconsciousness were quite common: "clicked somewhere inside", "seemed to speak to something very deep inside of me", and "helped me to discover parts of myself that were hidden" are good examples of these kinds of statements. The ‘confirmation’, ‘validation’ and ‘affirmation’ of identities and self-perceptions that respondents said media provided also can be taken to mean that what D’Acci calls "previously constituted subjectivities" (D’Acci, 1994: 174) were not considered to be products of socialization.
On the whole, respondents made a distinction between an internal sense of the self and externally generated gender definitions. One person described his lack of identity before seeing the television documentary, What Sex Am I? as knowing that "something was different in me that did not fit any categories I knew". Another was confused for years, constantly "grabbing onto identities that seemed to at all fit", before he read Stone Butch Blues, a novel by Leslie Feinberg. "It was probably one of the first times that I put the word butch to my sense of gender", he said, retaining the separation between standardized terminology and subjectivity. Even the respondent who "molded" himself around the "backbone" of the media said that he was guided by his own feelings as he "created a sense of [him]self" through others’ personal histories that he read online.
Negative effects of media on identification processes
This study was designed solely to collect experiences that positively influenced transmens’ identification processes. Despite this, quite a few respondents commented on the preponderance of negative representations of transsexuals in the media and the detrimental effects that they felt these messages had on transpeople, including themselves. Of these commentaries, six transmen (31.58 % of the sample) offered a total of nine descriptions of how media negatively affected their own coming-out processes. Although reporting or drawing any conclusions from negative effects lies outside the bounds of this project, it is significant that this kind of information was offered by almost one-third of the respondents without any prompting by the interviewer, interview questions or calls for subjects. This result indicates that important lines of inquiry to pursue would be the question of the degree of suppression of trans identification processes by media, as well as the balance of positive to negative effects of media on a transsexual sense of self.
Some results of my interviews with transsexual and transgender media users parallel the research findings reviewed earlier in this article. As in D’Acci’s (1994) study, media seems to have played a significant part in transmen’s efforts to "reconceive themselves" as gendered individuals. Study participants took a range of "positions of identification" as they "responded to, took pleasure in, and negotiated" subject positions and meanings. The understandings that they drew from media texts were based on their "previously constituted subjectivities" as transpeople of various types in various stages of identity development. The correlation of group membership to textual interpretation found by Liebes and Katz (1991) and Morley (1980) was also evident in the transgender and transsexual orientation of the messages that respondents received as a result of contact with media. As in Liebes and Katz’s and D’Acci’s research, respondents used media content referentially, assessing their values and desires by comparing and contrasting themselves and their lives with media characters and situations.
However, the terms in which study participants described their identities and reactions to media content are not fully explained by the social perspectives from which these studies operated. The preliminary adoption and eventual rejection of precursory sexual and/or gender identifications could be taken as evidence of an increasing degree of match between social identity categories, as represented in media, and unchangeable aspects of respondents’ transness. One study participant credits newspaper and television as facilitating his earlier lesbian identification because he "didn’t have any information or examples of trans". Another tried to "occupy a place in between male and female" – a ‘third gender’ identity – after hearing a speech by Feinberg, but eventually decided that his gender was male. He refined the transgender label that he retained from that experience to ‘transgender man’. One respondent’s motivation to create the unique term ‘FtX’ ("a female-to-X where X is something not man or woman") after becoming dissatisfied with the identity choices presented to him in real life and online demonstrates especially strongly that an identity label needs to be an appropriate descriptor of an internal sense of gender.
My interpretation of the personal information and perspectives that respondents shared with me is that the identification process was accomplished through social means but was not socially driven. Identity’s inceptive force seemed to arise from depths that existed separately from outer influence, spawning self-concepts that invalidated or, at the very least, pre-empted years of socialization along normatively gendered lines. The existence of bases of identity that predated media influence can be inferred from the near complete absence of reports that media created, or even shaped, the elements of ‘transpersonality’ that fed study participants’ uniquely gendered self-conceptions. Gender constitutions were not viewed as having changed as a result of media contact – only people’s understandings of those constitutions. These new understandings then guided respondents in living their lives in more appropriate and satisfying ways.
Media as actualizing agent
Overall results of my interviews indicate that the recognition, acceptance and development of the self were media’s effects, and the expression – not the construction – of the self was identity’s purpose. Therefore, media’s role can be understood as having encouraged its users’ ‘qualities of transness’ to manifest and strengthen, to become organized under the purview of identity and to mature through the processes of physical, social, intellectual, emotional and spiritual transition. It was strongly indicated by respondents that these characteristics were felt to be innate, a position that is supported by research and theory on transsexuals and is quite likely to apply to other social identification processes, as well as the general process of enculturation. In this manner, media may be understood as more than a ‘socializing’ mechanism: it can be a powerful culturally positioned actualizer of innate biological potential.
The study of media reception should more seriously consider the biological roots of social experience. A physical context needs to be established for the psychosocial processes that reception models seek to elucidate. Particularly when exploring the place of social identity in the media experience, a reception model should incorporate a physiological aspect of gender, transgender, and other social identities in its attempt to more aptly explain media’s role within a cultural context. Such a reception model would not elaborate on a broad-scale social process, as in D’Acci’s study (1994), or to explain a link between cultural identity and media interpretation that was found by Liebes and Katz (1991) and Morley (1980: 1992). Rather, it would describe what happens in the individual’s body-informed psyche as a result of contact with an ‘actualizing agent’ of culture such as the media.
My sincere gratitude goes to the transmen who participated in this study for their courage, their example and for the trust that they put in me; to Tasha Oren, Dave Pritchard and Mia Consalvo for their comments and direction; and to Kelly, Josh, Jeanine and my parents for their support.
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