Tricks of the Transgendered Trade (On the liminal figure in the cultural imagination)
Could it be that the often-vicious popular invective directed against transgendered persons and others who identify with alternate sexual orientations and gendered persona emanates from a deeper source in our still shared culture? I am going to suggest that the liminal figure has traditionally been regarded with some suspicion, even fear. Such a persona can never truly be a person, this suspicion cautions. Liminality was meant to be performed as a social role alone, and not as a selfhood. Consider the shaman, the eunuch, the court jester. Consider the representation of liminality in symbolic form, the daemon, the angel, even the joker in a deck of cards. A figure with uncertain registry, such a role-player could not be identified through gender or sexuality, though it was possessed of both. In service of society as a whole, in representing the expression of all that culture could not perform in mundane task, the liminal figure was itself unable to express anything mundane. Its ‘trans’ character is at once transient, transitive, and in translation. And what is lost in this language of the threshold, or ‘limen’, is not so much our moral compass, but rather the sense that our own identities can be vouchsafed with any ultimate certainty.
This is a deeper source of why the contemporary liminal figure is seen as such a threat. It almost seems as if the liminal figure must shed its very humanity in order to take on the shadow of society’s self-lit lumen. From lumen to limen then, is the ongoing and repetitive passage the shamanesque character must make. But they, as a performer, and it, as a social role performed, makes that passage on our behalf. In doing so, there had always been a space, perhaps begrudging but also admired, for the liminalist. The shaman was at once a seer, medicine person, sorcerer, and spiritual leader in times of crisis. The mistake the men’s movement made with this figure was in masculinizing it. Correspondingly, the error the women’s movement made was in associating the sorceress cum midwife with the feminine.
But by definition the liminal figure cannot be co-opted by either dominant gender. In social contract societies, the shaman was truly the only specialized role player. In such small-scale affairs, one might well expect at least one member to be outside the normative performances associated with male and female, though neither of these were especially dominant early on, when the only division of labor was based not on sex, but rather upon age. In horticultural societies, we see the beginnings of a stricter separation of men and women, but only in periods of specific passage, such as the communal menstrual hut that no male would dare invade. ‘Secret societies’ of all kinds appear only in ‘chiefdom’ organizations, and are most often gender exclusive. But the shaman could, and did, make passage amongst any and all. Its role was that of the card-playing joker, and indeed, their personality might well be said to be that of a ‘card’, to use an archaism. ‘Oscar’s Wild’, we might smirk, thinking ourselves to be clever.
This aside, it is clear that the liminal figure’s central role was to facilitate the rites of passage. On the Northwest Coast, the shaman guided the spirit of the dying to the puma, who would then carry it to the world of spirits, or, by contrast, if it was not one’s time to pass on, scare it back down the shadowy tunnel where the shaman could then tend to its cure. Birth, puberty/adulthood, marriage, death. These four forms appear to have been universal for our ancestors, and even today they mark us, remarking upon our personal nomenclature that we are no longer inexistent, no longer a child, no longer singular, and finally, no longer amongst the living once again. The more fundamental lesson presented by such major life changes is that each of us must participate, even if only for a time, in the liminality of human finitude.
This is then the yet deeper reason for our suspicion of the transitive person today. We feel that such transitions occur only within short periods, perhaps at most a few years, such as adolescence and engagement, sickening and dying. These periods mark themselves out from the rest of our existence, which is stable, mundane, and more certain of its identity. It cannot possibly come as a surprise then, that it is overwhelmingly youth, who are already fully imbricated in the liminal space of adolescence, for which society has not yet found an enduring place – mainly because the identity and role is itself transient – who are turning to transgenderedness as a possible way of representing this liminality. No longer a child, not yet fully an adult, why not no longer a girl, not fully a boy, or vice-versa? Even so, no society has ever existed where entire blocs of a demographic group have remained liminal in their identities or in their social role performances. In traditional cultures, a week at most for the rite of passage from child to adult, wherein one’s sexuality is discovered and perhaps performed, but only in view of reproduction, both in the physiological and social sense. In a global society where warfare is intermittent and where out-and-out conquest is mitigated by the possession of nuclear weapons, there is no need for large scale populations. In spite of labor shortages and economic stressors associated with population pyramids turning on their heads, the very fact that our contemporary world generally does not consider masses of persons to be expendable in direct conflict allows for the wider exploration of alternate genders and sexualities. In a word, biopower is on the wane, and where it is not, such as in Russia, it is a precise factor in the calculation that suggests, even if tacitly, that weapons of mass destruction, while handy to possess, cannot ever truly be used.
The question then remains: do we accept the liminal figure as a kind of categorical third wheel in our mundane social relations, given that ’breeding’ is no longer of the utmost, neither in its sense of cultural pedigree nor in the sponsorship of additional births, or do we ourselves take on a performance which is not, and was never our own? That is, do we don the trickster’s garb and level our collective sorcery against the very source of cultural chiaroscuro? Do we state flatly that trans people are to be prescribed for the theater and the secret society alone? Or do we more gently shrug our shoulders and tell ourselves that what really matters is how one performs one’s job, one’s Samaritanism, one’s person and not one’s persona? But if we do practice an authentic acceptance, would this also entail a sense, not so much novel but perhaps suppressed, that we too, as vehicles of living change and transition, must come to terms with the human condition of not being any one thing for overlong? For in doing this, we are placed upon an existential limen far more profound than any gendered identity, a threshold which pronounces a leveling upon all of us and thence takes all across its mysterious barrier.
G.V. Loewen is the author of over 55 books in ethics, education, health, aesthetics and social theory, as well as fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.