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Gender in Transition, by Jo Taylor-Violet

Understanding our limits as we allow a space for ‘transition’

Following Valerie Krips’ article on children’s literature, I want to add some adjunctive comments. In particular, I want to explore further the important notion of a holding space or genuine ‘transition’ within the ‘trans’ in transgender, something that is missing in children’s literature, and elsewhere. There is a current tendency for the phenomenon of ‘transgender’ (and how we think about it) to be more towards the change from one certain position to an equally certain one, in whichever direction this may ensue. Indeed, as Krips suggests in relation to the books she investigates, it appears to confirm ‘the gender lessons children’s books have always taught: you’re either one or the other’. It has also been an ongoing point of tension and pressure for trans people and for the family, support groups and professionals who surround them. Somehow there is an anxiety about taking more time to really discover what the wish to be trans might be about, not least because of the understandable distress people go through in the process. However, I cannot help but imagine that if our society allowed more reverence and examples of transitions, holding spaces, journeys, ambiguities and the like, then this distress may be less acute.

First, I would like to look at the idea of a holding space in transgender, and to do that I will start by considering the ordinary transitory stages of gender development that naturally evolve in our early lives, before thinking about transitions in a broader sense.

To understand gender development and how we discover our gendered and sexual identity, we require knowledge of both our psycho-social-cognitive development and also how we learn to sort and process the sense of loss that perceiving our gendered bodies entails. This is particularly so because acknowledging our limitations and finding our definition and identity require an understanding both of what we cannot have or be and also of our ultimate separateness from important and early-attachment caregivers. This is true even if we later assume a broader physical and sexual expression than is traditionally accepted in our more binary understanding of gender to date. Today our expression may be in flux and it may be more fluid, but development still requires an appreciation of bodily and psychological limits to be able to support a healthy life.

As we know, our bodies are born sexed and are generally assigned a gender corresponding to that. In rare instances, we are born with ambiguously gendered bodies and—though the majority eventually resolve into one or other sex spontaneously, due to the lessening of some exogenous hormonal pressure, for instance—for some, an active binary gender choice has to be made. Increasingly, there is acceptance of non-binary existence and for some this can be a relief. For the majority, this binary process is more straightforward at the outset and yet the acknowledgement of ordinary bodily limits and limitations has to come into play. This is related to the separateness of the child or person already mentioned, as we face the reality of existing as lone individuals who have to increasingly accept our burgeoning independence and responsibilities, together with our limits. We might psychologically defend against this loss in a variety of ways, and one such way will be apparent in the so-called ‘oedipal phase’, which I will discuss shortly.

To delineate the stages of gender development, I refer particularly to the work of Jessica Benjamin and her description of four initial stages, followed by her notion of post-oedipal functioning, which involves an increasingly sophisticated understanding of our gender and identities from the point of view of ambiguity and multiplicity.

Benjamin is considered to be one of the most important and influential psychoanalysts of the last four decades. She is one of the founders of relational psychoanalysis, a school that is progressively and creatively reworking traditional psychoanalytic thinking. Benjamin was one of the first to introduce feminism and gender studies into this discipline and I believe her combination of academic and clinical understanding leads to a useful classification of gender development.

In the earliest phase of development, Benjamin describes an initial ‘nominal gender-identification formation’ in which the infant/child identifies with both parents and has a sense of a gender, but not as an ‘identity’; rather, it is a kind of fluid baseline against which future gender ambiguity and tension will be weighed.

At around the age of two there is the gaining of a more symbolic representation of matter, which allows the beginnings of gender-role identity and also of identity in the context of separation-individuation (as referred to above). Identificatory love (love of the parent we feel akin to in identity) is important, as well as object love (love of a different other), and this is not as straightforward as gender per se. For example, the father for both sexes can represent aspects of self, as does the mother, with the mother usually perceived alongside self and the father as the exciting outside world. These identifications and the perception of ‘otherness’ are modified and shaped going forward.

This can be seen in the next stage of development: the stage of pre-oedipal over-inclusiveness. Here there is identification with many aspects of the parents, of masculinity and femininity. But for the first time there is increasing negotiation with our limits. There are protests and denials against this new understanding, though initially there is little of the envy seen in the next phase.

During the last initial phase, the oedipal phase at around age four, gender differentiation proper occurs. This is also when there is constancy of gender identity; that is, the child begins to recognise that even if a biological girl (as seen when naked) dresses as a boy, she is still a girl. During this stage another process comes into play, dealt with in the concept of complementarity—a concept that is key to my further discussions. There is a psychological challenge in this phase: the narcissistic loss of the ability to have it all, which can typically ensue in same-sex chauvinism—the repudiation of the opposite gender as a compensation for that loss. This might go, for example: ‘what I have may not be all there is to have, but it is the only thing worth having’. If there have been loving enough relations in the earlier phase when the characteristics of both parents can be taken in, the fear and repudiation of the other will be less severe and better integrated as the child grows. Nonetheless, this stage of complementarity appears to peak around age five or six, before more fluid acceptance and representation of gender can begin to reappear.

Originally it was seen as ideal if we reached a final ‘oedipal resolution’ of difference, but not only is this an unattainable so-called ideal, it is now felt to be more useful if we maintain some hold on an over-inclusive identification alongside a more mature appreciation and love of difference. This takes us towards the post-oedipal position, which, as it suggests, is when we have worked through the stage of complementarity and have moved more towards a state of integration, where, as Benjamin says, we adopt a ‘capacity to live with contradiction’. She also says we gain the ability ‘to divine the multiplicity of positions beneath the appearance of singularity in object choice or identifications, to see gender experience as both tenacious and fragile, as reified substance and dissolving insubstantial’.

This post-oedipal understanding is both a challenge to achieve and more usefully thought of as an ongoing process. This process involves a need to move beyond the rigidity of the oedipal stage and its complementarity, whether that rigidity is expressed by assuming one’s gender is ultimately the ‘only one to have’ or by assuming envy of the other’s gender and wanting that for oneself. With the help of symbolisation we can transcend the need to have to be, as Krips puts it: ‘one thing or another’ (that is, we can develop a symbolic appreciation that something can stand for the thing rather than having to be the thing-in-itself), such that, with Benjamin, ‘[d]evelopment…does not mean a unilateral trajectory away from the over-inclusive position, but the ability to return without losing the knowledge of difference’.

Children’s literature that engages with transgender issues could come across two main problems, in my opinion: that of a denial of reality and that of adopting the certainty of an opposite position. To explain these problems, I will largely refer to a children’s book called I Am Jazz, in which there is a real-life depiction of a little boy who felt he was a little girl from as young as age two. It refers to his love of wearing dresses and pink, and being ‘a girl inside’, having what is referred to as ‘a girl brain in a boy body’.

I can see there is considerable merit in teaching children acceptance of difference, and anyone who works with children certainly knows that teaching tolerance and understanding is a key part of that work, not least because of the rigidity with which children can meet the world, often for similar reasons as are seen within the state of complementarity described above. However, a boy wanting to wear dresses and feeling better that way may not necessarily end up wanting to be a girl; it could mean many things—keeping mother close, for example. For me, another children’s book, Jacob’s New Dress, in which a boy similarly has a preference for wearing dresses, explores this issue in a more open and transitional way. In this book there is no fixation on wearing dresses as particularly pertaining to girls or boys. It certainly explores the responses to wearing dresses as a boy; however, the issue is left quite open and unattached to a particular gender. My concern with a book like I Am Jazz is that there is not much working through of the reality of difference and there is a flip into the kind of certainty that I have been discussing.

It is necessary to negotiate reality and, as described, this goes hand in hand with the loss that is particularly prevalent in the oedipal phase. The reaction to that loss can be very rigid. However, denying reality in itself is not useful because then there is no way of representing necessary contradiction, for there is no reality to contradict. Nor do we work through necessary mourning about our limits, where such mourning ultimately orients us and helps us to develop a sense of being both acceptable as we are and safely ordinary. This protects us against feeling scarily limitless and hence potentially destructive—much like the child in Where the Wild Things Are who comes up against his omnipotently ferocious and wild behaviour and meets a firm but ultimately loving boundary.

In adopting a certain position in terms of gender, even when it is the reverse of that expected from one’s natal sex and body, as in I Am Jazz, there is still the idea of gender as a concrete, non-symbolic form. Is a dress just for girls, anyhow? What does it actually mean when a little boy says he is a little girl? Can we remain curious, challenging though it might be? Can we still allow that child to grow his hair and wear dresses without having to pinpoint a particular gender as a fixed endpoint?

Our whole development is indeed a series of transitions: we move from certain positions and sometimes we return to them; that is, our negotiation of stages is not all in a linear fashion, and we often return to earlier ‘thinking’ with a more experienced eye. Increasingly, with society in such a changing situation around gender roles, we are all in fact in transition in relation to it. What does this now mean for our relationships? Do we do away with gender altogether? Perhaps in some ways we need to. But do our genders have to be changed in order to be able to hold the tensions and ambiguity of our gendered selves? Could there be some painful work of self-acceptance that might need to be negotiated for young children like Jazz, and will this work be arrested if we jump on the gender-changing bandwagon too quickly?

Given that approximately 80 per cent of children attending transgender specialist services end up not continuing to wish to change their gender beyond treatment, it seems particularly pertinent that we support and encourage the kind of ‘transition’ that a good therapeutic space can afford. This is not to say that making the change to the opposite gender is necessarily ultimately a poor outcome: sometimes it is the best result in the end, despite understanding and learning what may have led to this experience. But we also know that there are cases where this happens and there are regrets. So there needs to be tolerance of uncertainty in all those involved in the process.

That brings me to societal allowance for genuine transition, where a holding space is provided in which inner workings can take place. Is having information at our fingertips all the time, as we do with the internet and advancing technologies, in some ways emblematic of our allowing very little space in our lives for a gestational stage to take place? It strikes me that there are fewer ways in which we are encouraged to just wait until something becomes clearer—where we do not have to commit to one or another path prematurely. I am aware that finding space for a transition in gender can be very difficult, not only during the stage of childhood when others are firmly in the phase of complementarity—where they are wanting certainty and rules—but also in adulthood.

We were not all intended to conform to gender stereotypes. However, interestingly, in some childhood gender research it is common to identify at least one child in every group who provides a kind of gender-policing function—who strongly advocates for clear gender guidelines and rules. Other children tend to be attracted to these children, presumably for their ability to create certainty in an uncertain world. However, we also need to be led by those who break away from this policing function and show us the other side of this tension. We need more examples of uncertainty. Uncertainty is that curious thing that allows us to truly discover the world from the inside out, not to have to force external concepts upon ourselves too soon, and to more faithfully discover the multiplicity of identities at all our fingertips, while still being able to successfully mourn aspects of the self that are limited.

I know from having worked with people who have chosen to change gender, with a variety of outcomes, that there is complexity. There is never, in my experience, an entirely straightforward or unambiguous representation of gender. I believe it would be false if there were, because I think this is the whole point of the post-oedipal position: the contemplation of complexity and the incorporation of ambiguities and multiple identities. We must look to writers, too, to bring out this complexity. If this notion of uncertainty and transition proper could be brought to children’s literature on the subject of gender, as I think it has been in Jacob’s New Dress, this would surely be a highly valuable contribution.

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