Transgender à la française


As an American academic who works in both French studies and in gender studies and who has spent significant time working in France, I often hear academics on one side of the Atlantic tell me how those on the other side are studying questions of identity improperly. Americans express skepticism at the French model of universalism, by which one is a citizen first and a “particular” form of identity (e.g. woman, homosexual, Jew) second. “Is universalism not just a way to efface their identity as X?” French academics, on the other hand, often talk to me about the American obsession with identity. “How can you have a gender studies program, or an ethnic studies program over there? Is that not a way to categorize and isolate forms of identity instead of including them in the collective?” This Franco-American intellectual disconnection tends to revolve around questions related to race, ethnicity, religion, sex, or sexuality.

In this long-standing transatlantic discussion, there is a new question that I wish to ask: How does the category transgender factor in? How is—and has—the category been in dialogue with French universalism? Does the political concept of universalism protect or harm transgender citizens? On the one hand, by “hiding” the category of transgender in favor of citizenship, universalism may help maintain privacy, prevent discrimination, and protect rights. On the other hand, universalism may eclipse elements of subjectivity that require particular attention not necessary for cisgender (non-trans) citizens, and the concept may assume that all citizens are cisgender, without allowing for the possibility of sex or gender change. The French juridical principle of “intégrité,” or respect for the human body, traditionally made it illegal to “castrate” male bodies to align sex with gender. In a nation which provides medical care for all citizens (unlike in the US), the stakes of defining citizenship are high for trans subjects. Because France has such control over medicine and the ways in which “healthy” bodies are produced and reproduced, this national context offers an especially important case study in how transgender and nation-state relate.

It is not simply that universalism and transgender are in dialogue with each other. My book in progress Transgender France: Universalism and Sexual Subjectivity argues that the category of “transgenre”—including categories such as “transsexualisme” and “transsexualité”—cannot be untangled from universalist thought. Transgender cannot be understood without considering the political category. In French cultural production, there is a long history of trans representation in which the nation-state or a French collectivity makes an appearance and controls—or attempts to control—trans subjects.

I take up this connection beginning in the mid-1950s when the category of “transsexualisme” is first articulated and becomes legible as a cultural category. Medicine and law, of course, play an important role in this history, and both of these discourses are in constant dialogue with universalism. To take an early example, the high-profile attorney Raymond Lindon expresses potential concerns, including dangers to “public order” [ordre public], in the earliest juridical publication on law and “transsexualism” in 1956. “Will this new category somehow upend French political stability and what it means to be a sexed citizen?”, he wonders.

But the most important role in my project is played by cultural representation—including art, film, documentary, television, theatre, tabloid journalism, music, and literature. It is really in these kinds of cultural artefacts that universalism and transgender particularism get played out in sophisticated ways that were visible to a broad public and that constructed their perception of the phenomena. Likely the first French film about a transsexual character, René Gaveau’s Adam is…Eve [Adam est…Eve] can be seen at the cinema starting in July 1954. The light film, unlike Lindon’s article, is optimistic about the future for the transwoman character named Charlotte (formerly Charles). Universalism looks quite positive as the film ends happily (she meets a transman, plans to get married and symbolic representations of the nation-state treat her just like they would any other citizen). Not all representations focus on incorporation, of course: some show that transgender cannot exist at all in the nation, or how transphobia keeps French citizens out of the collective. One of the very first French plays about transsexuality, Colette Stern’s The Transsexual (1975; 1985), ends with the murder of the transwoman character named Christina and calls attention to extreme transphobia. 

If universalism has defined the representation of trans subjects after World War II, the converse is true too. Trans representation has mediated but also critiqued French universalism more broadly, revealing an otherwise unstated assumption of universalism, namely its biopolitical foundation in the idea of an inviolable and stably gendered body. France might believe in universalism, but in what looks to be paradoxical the citizen has to have a single sex that cannot change over time. The Civil Code requires that a newborn’s sex be declared and be registered right after birth on the acte de naissance (article 57), but it does not define sex, or how or whether it can be changed over time. Consequently, much cultural representation suggests that transgender is a form of subjectivity that has not been included or imagined in the nation-state, but also that it has been part of the fabric of universalism since at least the 1950s. Important to this paradox is the idea of surveillance of bodies. Cultural production frequently refers to official papers or documents, or to ways in which the nation-state surveils or verifies the sex of its citizens. An important 1903 judgment by the Court of Cassation established the idea (or “principe”) that sex was based on external appearance of genitalia, establishing juridical principles that would foundationally influence French law until the 80s. But at the same time, the legal decision reflected the idea that the collective had to examine citizens’ genitalia (whether in actuality or in theory) to categorize them.

The universal and the particular are not opposites. Political thinkers such as Judith Butler, Ernesto Laclau, Étienne Balibar, and Joan Scott do not consider particularism as in simple opposition with universalism, but theorize ways in which universalism is predicated on the particular, and vice versa. There is no single universalism, rather—according to Balibar in an essay titled “Ambiguous Universality”—universality is a “constructed reality”. It is not the case that all citizens in a given nation-state have preexisting common characteristics, for universality “is produced in as much as particular identities are relativized, and become mediations for the realization of a superior and more abstract goal”. Though it may not have seemed to be the case, transgender has been part of the production of French universalism. Representation of trans citizens are not simply about the category of transgender (or transsexuality), but in a sense contribute to creating an idea of a nation-state that incorporates all citizens. Or transgender might be a category that is willfully ignored from the nation-state in order to perform indifference to particularism itself. As Joan Scott puts it: “universality does not rest on the exclusion of the particular but on (socially or politically) agreed-upon indifference to certain particularities.” In this project, then, what I might call transgender universalism offers a way to consider both transgender and universalism anew.

This lengthy dialogue between transgender and universalism offers a middle road between the French and the American academics who disagree on how to think about universalism and particularism since both principles are operative in this cultural context. We need to keep both approaches in mind as we think about gender in sophisticated terms.


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