The ‘Transableism’ Phenomenon:
Paraphilia, Fantasy & Phantasmagoria in the Construction of the Transgendered Body
Pauline Park, Ph.D.
paper presented at the
2 May 2008
Introduction: BIID & ‘Transableism’
If ‘soma’ refers to the body and ‘techne’ includes the various technologies by which we can transform human anatomy and biology, one of the most unusual if not disturbing phenomena to develop within the transgender community has been that of ‘transableism.’ There is a growing literature both in print and on the Internet focused on the phenomenon of the ‘transabled,’ and the narratives of those who identify as such contribute to a discourse of ‘transableism’ that is the topic of this paper.
What I will seek to do here is to sketch out the linaments of the phenomenon as those who identify as ‘transabled’ themselves present it and then attempt an analysis of the phenomenon that examines the question of the body and the extent to which the discourse of ‘transableism’ embodies, as it were, an accurate
understanding of the disabled body in particular. I will draw in particular on an analogy with racial identity that I believe may be productive for attempting to assess the phenomenon of ‘transableism.’
According to the website biid-info.org (biid-info.org/Transabled), the term ‘transabled’ was coined by Sean O’Connor in 2004, who “wanted to have a term that was more generic, more easily accepted than ‘wannabe,’ and representative of the condition.”
On the website transabled.org, O’Connor defines ‘transabled’ simply
as “someone who ‘wants’ to be disabled.” According to the creator
of transabled.org, the focus of the website is “strongly on my thoughts about being transabled, wheelchairs, wannabe, disability, body identity integrity disorder (BIID) and related topics.”
As transabled.org notes, the concept of transableism is inextricably linked to that of BIID, which in turn is defined on the biid-info.org website as:
“…a condition characterised by an overwhelming need to align one’s physical body with one’s body image. The body image includes an impairment (some say disability), most often an amputation of one or more limbs, or paralysis, deafness, blindness, or other conditions. In other words, people suffering from BIID don’t feel complete unless they become amputees, paraplegic, deaf, blind, or have other
According to the biid-info.org website, O’Connor is also the co-founder of biid-info.org, along with Claire Conreaux. On the profile page for O’Connor, he describes himself as someone “who needs to be paraplegic himself” and “has been actively advocating for the inclusion of other impairments than amputation within the condition known as BIID since the mid 1990s.”
The website biid-info.org makes a distinction (presumably articulated by O’Connor himself) between an ‘impairment’ and a ‘disability’:
“Many people who have BIID say they want to be disabled. Many other say they don’t want to be disabled,’ they ‘just’ want to be amputees. We argue that the two are not necessarily contradictory. Anecdotal evidence shows that a majority of transabled individuals do want an impairment, but do not wish to have a ‘disability.’ that is, they want to be amputees, paraplegic, etc. but they do not want the perceived loss of independence, nor the disabling experience.”
On the page on which this distinction is made, the writer (presumably O’Connor himself) puts ‘disabling experience’ in italics for emphasis. It would seem to me that the distinction is a crucial one, and I shall return to it later.
The phenomenon of transableism has received increasing attention from the media, as in a recent article in the San Francisco Chronicle entitled, “Gender Identity and Phantom Genitalia” (13 April 2008) by Sandra Blakeslee (www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2008/04/12/IN55103FLF.DTL).
“Some transgender men claim to possess phantom penises,” Blakeslee writes. “From the time they were little girls, they say they had vivid sensations of a penis between their legs,” she continues. In the article, Blakeslee goes onto describe the research of V. S Ramachandran, a neuyrologist and psychologist at the University of California, San Diego, whom she calls “a leading authority on phantom limb sensations.” As Blakeslee writes, Ramachandran suggests that
“an intact body image– the maps of the body laid down in the brain before and after birth — can develop without actual limbs. So-called mirror neurons that map the actions and intentions of others into one’s own brain may help bring the phantoms to life, Ramachandran says. But phantoms might also exist from the beginning of life. For transgender men and women, he says, the body image laid down prenatally could similarly differ from the external body anatomy.”
But the problem, according to Simon LeVay, is that “Emotions are left out,” and Blakeslee goes onto quote LeVay (author of “The Sexual Brain”) as saying that Ramachandran is making a false comparison here.
This account of transableism raises a number of questions, not the least of which is this: to what extent is the discourse of transableism dependent on a conception of transgender as a form of disability? It might be useful at this point to reference the debate over gender identity disorder (GID) introduced into the fourth edition of the Diagnostic & Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV), published by the American Psychiatric Association (APA) in 1974.
And there have been for many decades individuals who identify with the diagnosis of gender identity disorder (GID). To that extent, the concept of transgender identity as a form of disability is not a new one.
While some view the GID diagnosis pragmatically, seeking it only as a ‘gateway’ diagnosis to access to hormone replacement therapy (HRT) and sex reassignment surgery (SRS), others have internalized the pathologization of transgender identities and behaviors as a form of mental illness to be treated.
I addressed the issue of GID in my closing keynote speech to the Trans-Health Conference in Philadelphia (7 April 2007) and so I shall briefly summarize the argument that I made on that occasion. In my speech on GID, I argued that GID was a false pathology, and that there was no evidence that non-clinical transgendered people were necessarily any more prone to mental illness than non-clinical non-transgendered people. Instead, I argued, transgender should simply be viewed as naturally occurring variance in gender identity and expression. I concluded by calling for the removal of GID from the DSM and the establishment of new means to secure access to HRT and SRS for those who sought them.
It is my belief that we must reject the disease model of transsexuality and instead embrace a wellness concept in which transsexual and transgendered people should have access to technologies for altering their bodies if they choose to do so, but based on a concept of enhancing individual wellness rather than ‘curing’ a disease that does not exist.
And so to return to the phenomenon of transableism. It seems to me that the concept of being ‘transabled’ is based on a desire on the part of those who so identify to conceptualize their gender identity as a form of disability, but not only a form of disability, but one that they did not choose. The elimination of choice would seem to be crucial here, because the assumption would seem to be that a disabled
person cannot be criticized for having a disability that occurred through no ‘fault’ of one’s own.
The discourse of the ‘transabled’ thus constructs transgender and transsexuality
in particular as simply an affirmation of the ‘real’ body. But of course
the ‘real’ body is an imagined body in the sense that it is not the body
into which the ‘transabled’ person was born. There is certainly a failure here to recognize the reality of the sexed body, however socially constructed sex may be. But there is also a contradiction insofar as the ‘transabled’ individual acts out his/her BIID by consciously choosing to alter his/her body in order in effect to re-sex it.
The paradox here is that those who identify as ‘transabled’ both celebrate choice and deny it. The ‘transabled’ celebrate the choice to render their bodies ‘disabled’ in some sense, in order to deny the choice represented by the affirmation of their gender identity. Here I underline the word ‘affirmation’ in order to avoid misinterpretation. No LGBT person I know thinks that s/he ‘chose’ to be lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgendered. And yet, it is certainly true that
some of us choose to affirm our sexual orientations and gender identities by coming out as openly ‘queer,’ however we configure that queer identity.
The strange incoherence at the heart of the ‘transableism’ phenomenon is that the ‘transabled’ seem to base their identity on a biological essentialism of the crudest type that seems to posit a pre-discursive body while simultaneously celebrating the choice to ‘return’ to that desired body through anatomical and/or biological alteration. The ‘transabled’ render the desired body naturalized through the discourse of biological essentialism, insisting that the desired body
is the real body and relocating it to a prediscursive realm in which sensation — the sensation of a missing penis or a desired vagina or breasts — precedes utterance, conscious choice, and even embodiment through birth.
In other words, the ‘transabled’ transman who has always ‘sensed’
his penis articulates a pre-existing and pre-discursive male body that is his ‘real’ body, even while constructing it from the imaginary of ‘transableist’ discourse. Similarly, the transwoman who identifies as ‘transabled’ constructs from the imaginary of transableist discourse the ‘real’ body that is simply an idealized form of the female body that she desires, but renders it ‘disabled’ by making the choice to ‘amputate’ her penis.
Individuals diagnosed with or said to have BIID desire a wide range of disabilities, but there seems to be a very significant number who focus on amputation; indeed, it is not too much of an exaggeration to say that contributors to both BIID.org and transabled.org seem obsessed with amputation.
But the focus on amputation is a strange one for transgendered people for a variety of reasons. First, ‘amputation’ is a term most often associated with the removal of limbs, and genitalia are not in any meaningful sense limbs. Rather, the penis plays a role in male sexual function as well as urination, and the vagina plays a role in female sexual function, menstruation and childbirth. If the penis does not closely resemble the limbs — except perhaps when erect — the vagina does not resemble the limbs at all; and neither do the breasts, which are sexualized to a fairly high degree in most cultures. The application of the notion of a ‘phantom limb’ is therefore especially problematic when applied to the MTF transsexual, as there is no ‘limb’ to which to appeal as ‘phantom.’
The term ‘amputation’ as used by the self-identified ‘transabled’ is particularly curious for the male-to-female (MTF) transsexual, as many MTF transsexuals adamantly insist that SRS is not ‘amputation’ of the penis but rather reconfiguration of the genitalia through a complex and sophisticated set of surgical procedures. In fact, since the material from the penis is used to construct a clitoris, vagina and labia, ‘amputation’ is a particularly unfortunate word to reintroduce into transgender discourse.
In any case, claims of the experience of a ‘phantom limb’ – whether a ‘phantom’ penis or ‘phantom’ vagina or perhaps ‘phantom’ breasts – would seem to admit of no easy ‘objective’ verification. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine what sort of evidentiary support would constitute proof of such experiences.
More generally, the response of any good social construction theorist to the ‘transableism’ phenomenon would be to suggest that the ‘transabled’ fail to recognize the social construction of sex as well as of gender. Those who find inspiration in the work of Michel Foucault and other post-structuralist theorists point out that ‘male’ and ‘female’ — and even more so, ‘man’ and ‘woman’ — are relatively arbitrary standards of sex that do not capture the full anatomical and biological, let alone psychological and social, diversity of the human species. Unfortunately, the ‘transableist’ discourse articulated on transabled.org and elsewhere simply reifies the sex/gender binary that is the very source of the oppression of transgendered people, including those who identify as ‘transabled’; but that irony is loston those who construct their transgender identities in relation to a desire for disability.
What is crucial here is the absence of any evidence of a disability unrelated to the gender identity of the ‘transabled.’ It can hardly come as a surprise to anyone actually living with a disability that the transabled.org site itself makes reference to ‘wannabes.’ And as with contributors to BIID-info.org, many contributors to transabled.org readily admit to a desired to be disabled; even, in some cases, to actively disable parts of their bodies.
The question that many would ask is, why? Why would an otherwise able-bodied person actively seek to become disabled?
And the desire to have a disability, in the absence of any other disabling condition, forces one back into the murky world of psychology and psychiatry. One is thrown back on the notion of a ‘paraphilia’ — a desire for something deemed pathological or at least thoroughly unhealthy — to explain transableism and the larger phenomenon of BIID.
Ironically, the very invocation of paraphilia renders the transgender identities of the ‘transabled’ mental pathology — in other words, disability. To put it in the vernacular, if they think they’re crazy, then they must really be crazy. But I think to label transableism a paraphilia is to let the transabled off too easily. Certainly, scanning the transabled.org website, it becomes apparent that there are strong elements of fantasy apparent in the narratives of the self-identified
‘transabled,’ It is not simply fantasy in the sense of imagining oneself
with a disability; it is fantastical in utter the lack of consciousness of what living with a real disability is like. There is little if any awareness of what the challenges of daily life are like for people living with (real) disabilities.
Reading the personal narratives of those who identify as ‘transabled,’ it becomes clear that notions of ‘transableism’ do not come from actual lived experience of disability but rather from a personal imaginary. It may be useful here to return to Sean O’Connor’s definition of the ‘transabled’ as those who “want to be amputees, paraplegic, etc. but they do not want the perceived loss of independence, nor the disabling experience.”
But the lived experience of people with impediments is for the most part that of a disabling experience – one might say, a variety of different disabling experiences, varying in degree of disability as well as in kind. And it is in this respect that the ‘transableism’ phenomenon appears to be something akin to fantasy, and doubly so, based as it is in the psychology of BIID and creating as it does a kind of fantastical body to justify forms of bodily modification – including sex reassignment surgery – that require no such justification.
The imaginary of transableism is one that focuses on a strange and negative conception of transgender identity, constructed through a discourse of the transgendered body as in some significant sense deformed. In that regard, phantasmagoria is not too strong a word, I think, to characterize the Lebenswelt of BIID and the ‘transabled.’
The phantasmagoric is characterized by a fevered imagination and a distinct lack of reality, both of which are on full display at transabled.org.
The personal imaginary of the ‘transabled’ individual is rendered social by the emergence of this apparently still relatively small community of like-minded individuals. Indeed, the very concept of a category of such individuals necessarily renders the phenomenon a social one, even if there may be individuals with ideations typical of the ‘transabled’ who may not be aware of the term or of the community of like-minded individuals who constitute this curious social imaginary.
But of course, the element of BIID is only part of the phenomenon of ‘transableism.’ The other component is a strong desire to have the body of the ‘opposite’ sex (i.e., that sex to which one was not assigned at birth; I put ‘opposite’ in quotes in order to recognize the fact that not all bodies are entirely male or female at birth).
And here, it seems to me the appropriation of the discourse of disability by the ‘transabled’ represents an attempt both to explain and to legitimize their identities as well as their choices. To explain, because the strangely twisted application of the ‘phantom limb’ phenomenon would account for why they feel themselves to be male (in the case of transmen) or female (in the case of transwomen). To legitimize, because the identification with the sex and gender other than the one assigned to them at birth is rendered by the operations of these discursive practices simply an acceptance of the ‘true’ sex of the ‘transabled.’
In the absence of such a disability, the appropriation of the identity of ‘disabled person’ must be accounted a misappropriation. Let me explain by way of analogy with race.
Transableism as Misappropriation: The Analogy with Race
When I was at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign working on my Ph.D., the campus was embroiled in a controversy over Chief Illiniwek, the Indian mascot of the university’s sports teams. Like most Native American ethnic groups, the tribe known as the Illini were all but eliminated in the genocide that decimated tribe after tribe as white Europeans and European Americans swept across the continent
in the fulfillment of a self-declared ‘Manifest Destiny.’ And so unlike
some Native American ethnic groups west of the Mississippi, there are few if any contemporary Illini to protest the appropriation of the identity.
But the fact that the Illini no longer exist in any coherent grouping in east central Illinois does not render the appropriation of their identity by the university’s sports teams any less egregious. I am happy to say that after a very long campaign, with fierce resistance coming from mostly white male alumni, Chief Illini was removed as an active mascot for the UIUC sports teams. Many alumni were saddened by the decision, claiming that the re-enactment of Chief Illini’s war dance at football and basketball games in Champaign-Urbana and other cities and towns where the ‘Illini’ played represented a tribute to Native American traditions.
But there are few if any Native Americans I know who feel honored by such re-enactments; to them, the Indian mascot hi-jinks acted out by mostly white students and team members feels like a misappropriation. Imagine for example if Al-Qaeda managed t eliminate the entire population of the United States — fortunately, an exceedingly unlikely prospect — and then chose to adopt Americans as their mascot, with an Al-Qaeda operative playing Uncle Sam at Al-Qaeda basketball games.
I do not mean to suggest that those who self-identify as ‘transabled’ are either terrorists or guilty of great crimes against humanity such genocide. The ‘transabled’ seem to be small in number, even within the transgender community. In fact, I know no one personally who so self-identifies. But the appropriation of the identity and/or status of another is nonetheless a serious matter, even if few participate in it and the consequences of their actions are minimal.
I also do not mean to suggest that all people with disabilities are necessarily going to share my analysis of the phenomenon of ‘transableism.’ In the absence of survey data, we cannot know for sure what people with disabilities would think of the phenomenon of transableism and the larger phenomenon of BIID with which it is inextricably linked.
But I find it difficult to believe that at least some disabled people would not be more than a little bit surprised at the notion that an otherwise able-bodied person would want to be disabled or would actively seek to alter the body so radically through amputation of limbs or other such acts. And I imagine that at least some people with disabilities — those without any prejudice against the transgendered, in any case — would respond to the ‘transabled’ by asking why they would feel either the need or the desire to explain their gender identity by way of a notion of transgender as disability.
And that is in fact my question: why not simply seek the anatomical and/or biologically change one desires? Why articulate what is so clearly a confused and contradictory notion of ‘transability’ in order to justify or explain one’s desired bodily modifications?
There is nothing in the ‘transableism’ literature (such as it is) that I
have found that would justify the conclusion that being transgendered is a disability. Rather, the articulation of transgender identity as a disability, as I suggested earlier, would seem to me to be at least in part an attempt to justify an identity that needs no justification.
It would be tempting to predict that the entire phenomenon will be swept away as more and more transgendered people come to feminist consciousness and recognize transgender identity (in all of its manifestations) as simply a naturally occurring form of gender variance. But the recognition of the full diversity of humankind also compels us to recognize that there will always be some people who for whatever reason — whether psychological, psychiatric, psychosocial or otherwise – misconstrue their own identity and misunderstand or simply disregard the social and political context in which identities are constructed.
Pauline Park is chair of the New York Association for Gender Rights
Advocacy (NYAGRA), the first statewide transgender advocacy organization in New York (www.nyagra.com), which she co-founded in June 1998. She also serves on the board of directors of the Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund (TLDEF).
Park led the campaign for the transgender rights law enacted by the New York City Council (Int. No. 24, enacted as Local Law 3 of 2002). She served on the working group that helped to draft guidelines — adopted by the Commission on Human Rights in December 2004 — for implementation of the new statute. Park negotiated inclusion of gender identity and expression in the Dignity for All Students Act (DASA), a safe schools bill currently pending in the New York state legislature, and the first fully transgender-inclusive legislation introduced in that body. She also serves on the steering committee of the coalition that secured enactment of the Dignity in All Schools Act by the New York City Council in September 2004. Park has written widely on LGBT issues and has cnducted transgender sensitivity training sessions for a wide range of social service providers and community-based organizations. She has a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
‘Transabled’ individuals not only claim to have a disability, but identify
as people with disabilities, largely because of the desire to have a disabled body. The phenomenon of ‘transableism’ is inextricably linked with the notion of ‘body image identity disorder’ (BIID) which — unlike ‘transableism’ itself — is recognized by the psychiatric profession and listed in the DSM-IV. BIID is defined as the desire to create a physical disability through amputation or some other means. But the notion of ‘amputation’ in particular is at odds with attempts by transsexuals to characterize SRS as a sophisticated procedure entirely different from mere amputation. Moreover, the phenomenon of the ‘phantom limb’ is not obviously applicable to someone who has never had a limb, nor to an organ that is not limb-like. While psychiatrists would characterize transableism, like BIID, as a paraphilia, it can best be understood as a form of social imaginary based on a crude biological essentialism that posits the desired body as prediscursive to the desire itself. To that extent, the discourse of transableism is based on a misappropriation of disability status in a fashion curiously reminiscent of the misappropriation of racial identity exemplified by the Indian mascot phenomenon.