Sunday, August 19, 2012

Sociolinguistics Symposium 19 in Berlin - my abstract

Ja es būtu smuks, es gribētu būt meitene! (‘If I were pretty, I would want to be a girl!’) Debating transsexualism in the Latvian parliament
Joanna Chojnicka
Adam Mickiewicz University, Poznan, Poland

“Gender is not something we are born with, and not something we have, but something we do, something we perform” (Eckert & McConnell-Ginet 2003: 10). It is not something we do or perform alone, either – it emerges through our interaction with others, from attributions by others (Sunderland & Litosseliti 2002).
These claims seem to be especially relevant for transsexuals whose performed gender does not comply with their biological sex. Transsexuals have to “consciously work at achieving and securing [their] gender identity status” (Weatherall & Gallois 2003: 488). And while the performativity concept (Butler 1990) has been very enlightening in gender studies, for transsexuals it may seem a double-edged sword, suggesting that the gender they do is temporary, theatrical or less “real”, which may account for legal problems (e.g. obtaining identity documents).
These legal issues were taken up in a parliamentary debate in the Latvian Saeima on November 12th, 2009. A draft law was submitted that proposed issuing identity cards confirming a person’s declared gender in case of officially diagnosed transsexualism (without the requirement of SRS). After a debate of 26 minutes, 27 seconds, the project was dismissed with 38 votes in favour, 30 against and 14 abstained.
The discourse of parliamentary debates participates in contextualizing, and is contextualized by, the legislative process, political action and social life in general. That is why it represents interactional and intertextual use of language as political action in social context (van Dijk 1997). The present study is thus embedded in a kind of combined framework of qualitative methods associated with (critical) political discourse analysis and sociolinguistics.
The debate in question is a rich source of material for a two-fold analysis. As a gendered discourse, it shows, for example, that female deputies tended to express their initial reluctance to speak on the subject while male deputies were unusually animated, interrupting speakers who held the floor, using irony and jocularity. As a discourse about gender, through the study of speakers’ persuasive strategies (e.g. metaphors, exaggeration, sarcasm), it reveals prejudices (transsexualism as a threat to family values), lack of knowledge (transsexualism as an illness) and conservative thinking (gender distinction as a binary opposition). Both approaches expose transsexualism as a face-threatening taboo.
With this critical account of conceptualizing transsexualism by Latvian deputies as political and social actors, the presentation shall emphasize the transsexual perspective in the framework of gender studies. Using a language rarely dealt with by the discipline shall contribute to its enhancement. 

Butler, J. 1990. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York
Eckert, P., S. McConnell-Ginet. 2003. Language and Gender. Cambridge
Sunderland, J., L. Litosseliti. 2002. “Gender identity and discourse analysis: Theoretical and empirical considerations”. In Sunderland, J., L.Litosseliti (eds.) Gender Identity and Discouse Analysis. Amsterdam. 3-39
Van Dijk, T.A. 1997. “What is political discourse analysis?” In Blommaert, J., C. Bulcaen (eds.) Political linguistics. Amsterdam. 11-52
Weatherall, A., C. Gallois. 2003. “Gender and identity: Representation and social action”. In Holmes, J., M. Meyerhoff (eds.) The Handbook of Language and Gender. Oxford. 487-508

More information on the conference may be found here