Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific
Issue 31, December 2012

Zowie Davy

Recognizing Transsexuals:
Personal, Political and Medicolegal Embodiment

Surrey and VT: Ashgate, 2011.
ISBN: 978 1 4094 0565 8 (hbk), 195 pp.

reviewed by Jay Daniel Thompson

    Recognizing Transsexuals is a recent entry into the burgeoning and interdisciplinary field of transgender studies. Zowie Davy aims to move away from 'theorizing trans bodies through a gender identity framework' (p. 5). Her text interrogates the diverse ways in which these bodies are 'recognised' by trans and non-transpeople.
  1. Crucial to Davy's analysis is what she refers to as 'bodily aesthetics'. Davy uses this term to describe 'the appearance of the body that is subjected to judgments, whether that is personal and/or public' (p. 5). By focusing on 'bodily aesthetics', Davy seeks to 'understand the lived experiences of transpeople who have 'passing', 'non-passing', 'beautiful', 'ugly', 'normative', 'non-normative' bodies' (p. 6). Her analysis makes use of phenomenology. As Davy puts it: 'Phenomenology suggests that meanings are produced by an active relationship between the human and their world' (p. 6; emphasis in original).
  2. Throughout the book, Davy investigates the different ways that transmen and transwomen recognise and experience their bodies. She discusses representations of the trans body in feminist theory and medical discourses. Davy moves on to interrogate the ways in which trans bodies are framed in a number of Transgender Community Organisations (T-COs) in the UK. Davy also looks at how notions of 'authenticity' are understood by transpeople.
  3. The highlight of Recognizing Transsexuals is the scope of the author's research. Davy draws on the work of queer theorists such as Judith Butler, as well as studies of trans politics and subjectivity by Sally Hines and Stephen Whittle. The author also cites a range of medical and sexological writings about transsexualism. Davy skilfully intersperses these theoretical insights with excerpts of interviews from twenty-four UK-based transpeople. These transpeople come from 'a range of ages, genders, stages of transition' (p. 6).
  4. Davy displays a generally sophisticated analytical eye. This is most evident in her critique of what she terms the 'docile/agentic dichotomy' (p. 8). Davy detects this dichotomy in (amongst other examples) the anti-transgender discourse of some radical feminists. According to the terms of this discourse, transpeople are victims and endorsees of outdated gender roles. They undergo painful surgery to change their bodies in order to conform to/promote these roles. Davy suggests that this representation of transpeople is simplistic, and instead endorses Nikki Sullivan's argument that 'we are all works in progress' (p. 51). In specific reference to surgery, Davy contends:

      Rather than understanding Transsexuals as the docile recipients of surgery, uncritically consuming these services, it may be better to recognize that the agency integral to consumption also acts as an indicator that the person can do as they please with their body. That is, of course, dependent on technological limitations and those of capital too (p. 56).

  5. Here, Davy avoids demonising transpeople as servants/slaves of heteropatriarchy or (conversely) positioning them outside the broader field of social relations. The author emphasises that trans people can and do exercise agency.
  6. Yet, while Davy's analysis is generally sophisticated, her book has its shortcomings. I was struck by the scant reference to either race or geographical location. Davy briefly mentions the '"Westernized" hybrid fa'afafine' in contemporary Samoa (p. 2). This could have segued into an overview of the impact of globalisation upon international sexual cultures—but it does not. Davy makes an equally brief reference to the Portugese reality television contestant Nadia Almada. Davy acknowledges that Almada was subject to slurs such as 'gender-bending Portugeezer,' but fails to comment on the obvious xenophobia of these slurs (p. 162). The author never mentions the racial makeup of her interviewees, or how racial prejudices may have impacted on their 'bodily aesthetics'. On a not-unrelated note: I wondered how Davy's findings might have differed had her interviewees been based outside Britain.
  7. In recent years, the relationship between race, place and trans embodiment has been explored by a number of scholars. I refer here to Katrina Roen's study of Samoan fa'afafine and New Zealand transsexuals.[1] I refer also Aren Z. Aizura's fascinating analysis of race and gender in the context of 'gender reassignment surgical tourism' in Thailand.[2] Davy's analysis could have been enriched by an engagement with works such as these.
  8. Finally, some parts of Recognizing Transsexuals could have benefitted from sharper editing. The name 'Stephen Whittle' is mentioned in its entirety four times in two consecutive pages (pp. 156–57). Witness the following description of political differences and achievements amongst British T-COs.

      "Sameness" (assimilationist politics), "difference" (different but equal politics) and "transformative" (queer politics) in their respective activism and cultural work cannot simply be conceptualized as "sameness", "difference" or "transformative" politics. The types of … political activism concerning trans bodies that each T-CO fights for, poses a challenge to the system in some way by offering a critique of the dominant understanding of trans bodies in the specific areas that the organizations work (p. 165).

  9. Davy might be suggesting that regardless of their political stripes, T-COs have helped subvert heterosexist understandings of trans bodies. The author might also be suggesting that simply applying labels such as 'assimilationist politics' to certain T-COs is not always intellectually or politically helpful. Both are salient points, but both could have been made with greater clarity. Indeed, as I read the above passage, 'sameness', 'difference' and 'transformative' seem to be the names of particular pro-trans movements. Well, yes, these all can be detected in different pro-trans movements—but then, manifestations of all three can be found in just about every other social movement.
  10. Recognizing Transsexuals will hopefully enrich existing understandings of trans embodiment and self-image. Davy's blending of qualitative and theoretical research is particularly nuanced. I am less convinced of the text's overall usefulness for those researching in the broad field of sex and gender in the Asia-Pacific.


    [1] Katrina Roen, 'Transgender theory and embodiment: the risk of racial marginalization,' in The Transgender Studies Reader, ed. Susan Stryker and Stephen Whittle, New York: Routledge, 2006, pp. 656–65.

    [2] Aren Z. Aizura, 'Where health and beauty meet: femininity and racialisation in Thai cosmetic surgery clinics,' Asian Studies Review, vol. 33 (September 2009): 303–17.


Published with the support of Gender and Cultural Studies, School of Culture, History and Language, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.
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