Saturday, April 2, 2011

In the Case that One Uses Silence to Create Authenticity

By. Kathryn Villaverde

Silence is something we deal with everyday to compensate for those aspects of ourselves that make our identity incoherent or unacceptable.  We are all forced to make use of silence so that we may create a viable social identity and, in some cases, this becomes necessity not choice. 

This week in class we talked about the importance of silence in creating a viable social identity and creating intelligibility or unintelligibility for specific reasons, usually reason’s made important for people because of social norms.  We analyzed the necessity of creating unintelligibility through silence for survival or intelligibility despite silence to protest oppressive social conventions.  In both cases, the identity being silence is the one that is most natural or authentic for the subjects involved whether that is certain linguistic aspects of one’s most comfortable national identity or the language expected of some individuals to justify their place in society.

However, not addressed was the use of silence by an individual to suppress an aspect of their identity that, although would be understood as natural or authentic socially, does not feel that way to them.  Transsexuals actively use silence as a language practices to create a viable social identity without intending to please or change society but, simply because the identity imposed upon them biologically and socially is not comfortable for them psychologically. The term transsexual is used to classify people who "identify as, or desire to live and be accepted as, a member of the sex opposite to that assigned at birth." ( Wikipedia's Translation of the American Psychological Association).  In case there is any confusion about the distinction between someone who identifies as homosexual and takes up speaking more effeminate or masculine to fill that role and the importance of complete voice change for transsexuals, this video should clarify that  

 Transsexual individuals rely on drawing from stereotyped categories of gender to create a viable social gender identity for themselves that is a closer fit to their psychological identity than the body they were born with.  A large aspect of creating this social identity is taking up the appropriate voice and silencing the other, the “other” being that individual’s biologically or socially influenced voice based on their physical gender.   The way gender is portrayed in a person’s voice is essential in maintaining a viable social identity in America. In fact, in almost any culture there are standards for what a certain gendered voice should sound like because it reinforces our need for linguistic stereotypes and categories. Our stereotypes of gendered voice and the importance of those categories becomes very apparent if we imagine what it would be like for someone to look completely like a man or woman (not a drag queen but very aesthetically standard for one gender or another) but spoke in a voice that we associate with the opposite gender identity.  To clarify exactly the kind of affect this discrepancy between voice and image could have on us, check out this video of woman changing voice halfway through a song... if it doesn't challenge some automatic stereotypes of gender and voice I would be surprised! 

For individuals experiencing a transsexual psychological experience, silencing their “natural” or biological identity is done so that they feel like themselves.  This can be placed in contrast to the Guatamalans and Slavadorians in Magaly Lavandenz’s article Como Hablar en Silencio: Issues of Language, Culture, and Identity of Central Americans in Los Angeles.  In the article she identifies two groups of immigrants in Los Angeles, Guatamalans and Salvadorians, who, because of poor conditions in their homeland and their fuzzy status in America, are forced to silence their original national identities and take up aspects of Mexican identity so they may be safer. For them “self-monitoring and censorship are primarily an attempt to avoid being marked for possible deportation to Guatemala by Mexican officials” (101). Lavandez explains how the feeling of language loss and therefore loss of self along will feelings of double consciousness drive psychological discomfort in this community. Despite language loss being anything but a concern, transsexuals also feel the pressure of double consciousness.  It is inevitable that they spend everyday experiencing double consciousness of male and female identities, even after surgery and hormones that help create a more cohesive psychologically and physically identity. So, although they may be experiencing similar feelings in some sense, this is just an example of how the use of silence can change drastically from one person to another.

Unlike the Guatemalans and Salvadorians, the emotionality of silencing oneself for the transsexuals is being able to execute it well very literally.  For those observed and interviewed in the Lavadenz article, the further away they were from their original language or the more they had to silence that fundamental aspect of their identity, the more emotionally painful it became for them, at least in theory.  Obviously, in the case of the young boys who claimed they preferred their original language but still unintentionally began to adapt aspects of Mexican Spanish as natural for them, this would not be as emotional because it is subconscious.   In contrast, for transsexuals, their "original" language, the one their body most easily developed and they were raised to use, is more emotionally painful for them and the harder it is for them to silence it, the more emotionally painful it can be.  As we talked about in class, this is silence in a new context.  It is interesting that in this new context the meaning of linguistic silence to create a socially viable identity can be totally flipped on it's head; the emotionality of it must be completely reinterpreted.

In another vein, silenced as used by the gay Domincan men in Carlos Ulises Decena article Tacit Subjects has a completely different purpose even though the subjects were still within the GLBT community.  In this article Decena analyzes the role of silence for these men in relation to their sexuality. The reasons for silencing their sexual identity range from necessity so that their family does not chastise them to trying to recreate the meaning of “normal” by ignoring societies expectation for homosexuals to have a vocalized “coming out” experience.  That later in particular is interesting in relation to the role of silence in the life of a transsexual because, while these men use silence to try to normalize or “unmark” their sexual orientation, transsexuals often use silence to move from one already unmarked social identity as a certain gender to an unmarked identity as the opposite gender.  This is, of course, not always the case for transsexuals, many of whom create an identity for themselves that openly, whether through language or appearance, shows their identity as a transsexual. However, the usual goal is to “pass” as a standardized version of their psychological gender (ie. a man who psychologically feels like a woman would not just want to become a manly looking woman but a woman with a feminine figure, facial features, clothing and voice).  We can see the importance of language practices for “passing” in this video where a man who has transitioned to being a woman asks views to rate his/her ability to “pass” as a woman. 
We can see the importance of voice and silencing one’s biological voice in creating a socially viable identity in the first comment which says “I couldn’t tell you were a tranny till you [talked]”.  Obviously, their ability to effectively silence the language aspect of their original gender identity is very important to creating a socially viable and unmarked identity.

In class we talked about the question "what are you?" and I propose that the process of transition for a transsexual person, would ideally skip this question so that the individual experiencing the change never creates an identity that warrants that suspicion.  For most, ideally they would become the most stereotypical form of their psychological gender through their transition.  We can also assume that because of social pressure and expectations of family, they took on as much of a socially viable identity as a their biological gender before their transition. In this video a transsexual talks about a lack of recognition of their “natural” male voice because they felt uncomfortable with it and hardly used it before their transition because they felt so uncomfortable speaking in a mans voice their whole life. 
Of course, this is compromised in situations where people do prefer androgyny but often, this is with the goal of standing out as a transsexual and making their marked identity a talking point. (cut to 1:20)

Although we are becoming more aware of transgender or transsexual folks in society and for these people, inhabitation a linguistically androgynous identity may be more acceptable, I believe it is still an identity that is hard for us to wrap our heads around particularly when it comes to voice.  Unlike the characters in the Lavandez article this game of silencing is not for survival nor is recreate what is "normal" as in the Decena article. It is to fulfill personal needs and desires by moving from one unmarked gender position to another with as little signs as possible that could cause for marking.

As a final note to this post, I would like to mention that I realize how silence is also often used as a term to describe the painful reaction of individuals in the LGBT community to a hateful and judgmental world around them.  Events like "" are created to recognize the huge number of people forced to adopt silence so they are not prosecuted for their sexual orientation or gender identity.  I certainly could have written about how this is similar to the Guatamalans and Salvadorians from the Lavadenz reading but I wanted to take a different angle on silence in the LGBT community.  However, I did feel it important to mention that I understand that, although silencing a linguistic identity can be the answer for many LGBT identifying individuals, silence that feels forced can also be the problem.  If anything this drastic change in meaning of linguistic silence in one community is fascinating and just complicates the situation more. 

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