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Sex signs: transsexuality, autobiography, and the languages of sexual difference in the United Kingdom and United States of America, 1950-2000

By Daniel J. O'Connor

Abstract

This dissertation explores the relationship between transsexuality, autobiography and ideas of sexual difference in the United Kingdom and the United States of America between the years 1950 and 2000. This dissertation argues that rather than viewing sex and gender in hierarchic fashion, transsexual autobiography allows us to see their relationship as mutually legitimating. Both biological sex and psychological gender acted as historically contingent ‘sex signs’ which worked to show the autobiographer as man or woman, despite having been born in the opposite sex.\ud \ud I argue that far from biology dictating gender, or gender defining sex, both were used equally and strategically by transsexuals in order to fluently speak a language of sexual difference which their ‘audiences’ – be they medical professionals, legal scholars, newspaper journalists, or close friends and family members – could understand. This fluency permitted belief in them as the men or women they knew themselves to be. At some times, and in some company, genital sex signs were the most appropriate way of signifying sexual difference, whist in a different place and with different people, certain gender traits were more useful. Always, though, was the transsexual’s signification of him- or her-self as man or woman delimited by public discourses of sexual difference which impacted upon ‘non-transsexuals’ also. In closely reading transsexual autobiographies we are better able to see the construction, and naturalisation, of sexual difference in the second half of the twentieth century.\ud \ud By looking both at the strategic uses of transsexual autobiographies and the wider public reactions to such life stories (and the individuals who tell them), this dissertation shows how the languages of sexual difference, of ‘man’ and ‘woman’ were in a constant state of flux during the period in question

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OAI identifier: oai:wrap.warwick.ac.uk:2454

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