New book paints nuanced image of transmasculinity

March 16, 2016
matt heinz

From YouTube videos to blogs, news stories to the big screen, transgender issues have gained unprecedented visibility. But the dominant media images are not necessarily representative of transgender people, says matthew heinz, dean of Royal Roads’ Faculty of Social and Applied Sciences.

In his new book, Entering Transmasculinity: The Inevitability of Discourse, heinz examines how transmasculine people self-identify and are represented in images and texts.

The most common media image of a transman is a white, middle-class, educated, able-bodied young man, either baring his chest or presenting in a Gentleman’s Quarterly pose, heinz says. “That uni-dimensional image is misleading. The ways in which transmasculine people see themselves are much more complex and varied than that.”

A representative image of transmasculine people includes agency, activism, consciousness and critique of privilege, he says. “More than that, online transmasculine texts and images I came across in researching this book are also contradictory and speak to the tensions between feeling ‘normal’ and transgressive at the same time.”

heinz, who has studied the intersections of gender, language and identity for more than 20 years, reviewed language and images used in blog posts, YouTube narratives, media portrayals, anecdotal scholarship and counselling literature from the United States, English-speaking Canada and the United Kingdom.

There has been a general increase in transgender visibility in the media, particularly online, he says. “I have spent a lot of time examining online texts and images and how they interface in constructing gender identity. That sparked my interest in taking a deeper look at what’s online in terms of the ways in which transmasculine people see themselves, identify themselves and are reflected in texts and images.”

The life experiences of transgender or gender non-conforming people vary greatly, says heinz. “Some know from the time they are toddlers that they are being raised in a gender that doesn’t match their self. Others, like me, don’t arrive at a transgender or gender non-conforming identification until much later in life. I was fortunate to come to that realization at a time in which it was acceptable, and I had the support of the local community, my employer, my family and all of that. Thirty years ago that would have been a different story.”

Language is key to self-definition, says heinz. “Language is empowering and restricting at the same time. It opens up possibilities but it also creates barriers.”

heinz, who transitioned in 2009 says, “Like other transmasculine-identified people, I can’t help being part of a collective consciousness that at times organizes itself under the label ‘trans’.”

“To self-describe, I have to use words that make sense to me and to others at the time. Those words are always changing and the vocabulary of gender and gender identity is changing quite rapidly. There are hundreds of adjectives that describe various gender identifications, and they vary by culture and language. Some of those will be around twenty years from now, others will not,” he says.

“We have to tap into a reservoir of symbols to live. It makes a tangible difference to say, ‘I’m a man,’ or ‘I’m a transgender man’ or ‘I’m transmasculine’ or ‘I’m gender non-conforming’ or ‘I’m agender’ or ‘I’m human’. Each of these descriptors comes with a set of implications and yet we don’t have the leisure of writing a book and presenting it every time someone asks what pronoun you prefer – if they ask.”

Entering Transmasculinity:The Inevitability of Discourse is published by Intellect Ltd (UK) and distributed by The University of Chicago Press in North America. The book’s release coincides with the International Transgender Day of Visibility on March 31.