Over the past few decades gender studies gained a privileged place in the production of critical knowledge, which contributed to deconstruct gender categories as mere cultural elaborations derived from biological sex. Sex role theories have, for their naturalization of gender binaries, been criticized by a number of approaches (Bourdieu 1998, Connell 1987, Butler 2004, among others) that had the common purpose of unveiling the flaws of biological and social categoricalism.
These critical perspectives, developed under the umbrellas of constructivist structuralism, the cultural turn, feminisms and LGBT scholarship, tried to deal with emerging realities and demands for recognition no longer in conformity with the historical dichotomization of male and female bodies as linearly opposed or with the differentiation of hetero and non-heterosexual practices and orientations. Advances in structuralism towards a constructivist and relational conception of gender offered a more complex perspective of notions such as patriarchy or masculine domination. Connell’s concept of a gender order constituted by a number of regimes, from labour market relations to love and sexuality, is the most well known example. Gender was defined as a social construction dependent upon multidimensional power relations operating in different institutional settings. Gender power is seen as material, dependent on institutions and practices, and configured through the embodiment of structural and symbolic constraints. Gender is not a mere cultural elaboration of biological differences, but the construction of sex differences within a relational structure set upon large-scale power hierarchies.
Another major development emerged from the critique of the reductionist coupling of sex and gender that rests upon the biology/culture dualism. This ungendering of categories is related to poststructuralist feminism and queer theory. In Butler’s influential work, the material (nature, body, sex) is seen as interrelated with the discursive (culture, embodiment, gender). Sex itself is social, because of the ways cultural values and practices interrelate with biology and construct a classification of bodies as male or female. For Butler, gender norms always fail to some extent in producing conformity and gender subjects are permanently being done and undone by the ritual repetition of performative acts. Any fixed identities are rejected. Gender must then be deconstructed, firstly because it occurs most commonly in a dualistic categorization that is concealed by the apparent truth of sexual difference, thus excluding those who are neither man nor woman, and secondly because men and women are not homogeneous categories, nor are they connected by linear strings of power. Butler draws upon Foucault’s theorization of power, where regulatory discourses produce knowledge, and most importantly, bodies, subjects. Foucault (1979) describes sexuality and the body as a transfer point for the relations of power. In this case, medicine, whose truths were erected upon the defeat of religious regulatory discourses, is more an instrument of surveillance than a source of truth about sexuality. Both contributions allowed for a wider visibility of liminal gender categories, that is, those applicable to individuals who do not conform to a binary gender order.
Yet, the concept of gender role emerged in the 1950s as to legitimize sex change. Gender ambivalence or contradiction was an ailment to be corrected by medicine in a process of gender normalization. In the developments that followed, identity became the central problem when dealing with these multiple atypical conditions. However, the focus on identity led to new categorizations, which can be problematic (Plummer 1996).
We expect then that through the thorough reconstitution of life narratives light will be shed on these complex forms of categorization, considering that only through a perspective centred on practices and discourses can we advance our understanding of liminal gender categories and the social exclusion they generate. Studying trans-people involves tackling dominance and marginalization and focusing on dimensions of discrimination that take place in different social arenas arenas (family, labour, sociality and social networks, etc), and intersect with a variety of factors (generation, ethnicity, class, sexual orientation, labour, migration, etc).