Problematising narratives of trans embodiment as a one-way journey home


Architect and theorist Mark Wigley argues that spaces we know and inhabit are constituted by ‘a sustained pathology of disavowal’. He thinks that marginalisation, exclusion and segregation are spatial tools through which specific discourses are generated. For example, spatial boundaries such as corners and walls reclaim an absence by filling that physical and metaphysical void with their presence. These structures however, are not neutral: they come with their own syntax of ideas, images, codes defining that space and, at the same time, produce a new narrative around them.  Without this exclusion, there is no sense of structure nor sense of home. So, for all its apparent warmth, the home conceals participation in an economy of displacement through which it inscribes itself into the very dynamics from which it appears to withdraw. In other words, what is inside is haunted by whatever it is that stays out.  What is alluring in a home is precisely what makes the space of the home so exclusive, dominant and intolerant.

We know from a number of trans accounts and autobiographies that home has a complex significance for trans individuals. Whether it is described as the destination of a lifetime, or a place to run away from and leave behind, the imagery and emotions around home are uneasy. In many of these stories, home is not a safe space. Some feel deprived of a sense of homeliness, others are made homeless as a result of being trans, others have no home to return to, at least not until after gender reassignment which, according to the archetypal trans narrative, is the moment when the sensation of ‘feeling at home’ is finally achieved. Going home, however, is not just about entering or conquering a familiar space. It is also an indication that the home – an institution after all – is ready to welcome the individual, to ‘process’ it, to make him/her its own. Being at home is then the material concretisation of that mutual recognition, at last.

Gender and the Home

If, as theorist Henry Urbach argues, the home is ‘a regime of (almost) compulsory heterosexuality’ (Urbach 2000, 347) which antagonises all those who choose less dominant locations, the ‘journey home’ narrative  (similar to other simplifications such as ‘trapped in the wrong body’) raises questions about the validity of this model. It also challenges the constitution and reinforcement of a privilege that does not necessarily serve trans individuals: why would trans individuals commit themselves to reaching a place – the home – that has excluded them? Returning home would strengthen the gender binary which is the very thing that makes them feel homeless. Second, as this narrative envisions identity as ‘a matter of ownership’ which marks a separation between those who can have, or hope to have, access to that privilege, creating or reinforcing hierarchies.

Through the concept of the archive, Derrida explains that, in order to retain their authority, institutional spaces – like the home, though it may not see itself as an institutional space from the inside, despite the symbolic and relational institutional significance it holds – operate on two levels. First, they make space for individuals by opening their space to them. Once the outside reaches the inside, they exercise their control to interpret and rewrite those narratives into a more cohesive and relevant story. Indeed, Derrida writes, ‘there is no archive without a place of consignation, without a technique of repetition, and without a certain exteriority. No archive without outside’ . In other words, the archive is not only where power is exercised but also where it becomes discursive through the repeated compulsion of memorization, repetition and reproduction.

Our home, the home for which we yearn, is for Derrida the material and conceptual repetition of that compulsive system of domestication. It could not be otherwise, for to desire something and to name it is always. Despite a pledge for inclusivity, the archive willingly – maybe also necessarily – remains an imbalanced tool that tends to strengthen dominant histories and suppress all those emerging traces of difference that may pose a threat to those recognised majoritarian trajectories.

Dr Caterina Nirta is a Lecturer in Criminology at Royal Holloway. Her research has dealt with trans embodiment, forms of corporeal/spatial dissonance and gender recognition. You can catch up with Caterina’s GI talk as January’s Scholar of the Month here.