The Body: Punishment vs. Control

Imagine a world in which, in order to get an accurate driver’s license, you were required to have surgery. The entire concept is so invasive and unnecessary as to seem ridiculous. And yet, this is the world that many transgender U.S. citizens live in.

In his book, Discipline and Punish, Michel Foucault posits that

a few decades saw the disappearance of the tortured, dismembered* amputated body, symbolically branded on face or shoulder, exposed alive or dead to public view. The body as the major target of penal repression disappeared. (Foucault pg 8).

While it is true that, in many nations, public spectacles of torture and execution have become a thing of the past, the idea that the body is no longer a “major target of penal repression” could hardly be further from the truth. Many of the trials and tribulations faced by transgender and other gender non-conforming people today are evidence of this fact.

I would offer this, instead: Penal repression of the body has experiences a fundamental shift in many nations; rather than punish the bodies of transgressors through physical, bodily harm, the state represses ability to exert any real measure of control over their bodies, or the meanings thereof.

In other words, the repressive state apparatus (Althusser) systematically attempts to prevent citizens from exerting any control over their own body in a way which subverts the principles of the ideological state apparatus.

One example of this phenomenon is the case of Alexandra Glover.

All Alexandra wanted when she initially went into the OMV office was to ger her driver’s license picture re-taken, so that the picture on her license would match her appearance in everyday life. Is not the primary purpose of legal identification that it can be used to prove that a given person is whom they claim to be? If it is, then one’s I.D. photo should naturally represent how they look every day, regardless of gender marker.

It would seem that the state disagrees. The OMV office claimed that photographing Glover in her everyday makeup would violate a “rule barring people from “misrepresenting” their gender in identification pictures.” That particular rule is transribed below:

“At no time will an applicant be photographed when it is obvious he/she is misrepresenting his/her gender and/or purposely alternating his/her appearance in an effort which would ‘misguide/misrepresent’ his/her identity.”

To anyone who comprehends the obvious fact that Glover is a woman, and presents as a woman every day of her life, this rule clearly does not justify the state’s refusal to photograph her. She was in fact attempting to comply with the general principle of this rule when she chose to update her photo.

What this implies, then, is that according to the state, it is simply not possible the the ‘M’ on Glover’s driver’s license does not, in fact, hold any inherent meaning with regard to her gender presentation.

This is not a problem that only trans-identified people face — Chase Culpepper, a teenager in South Carolina — was forbidden from taking his driver’s license photo while wearing makeup. Chase does not identify as a woman — he sees himself as male, but typically wears makeup, and often clothes that would be considered “female.” Once again, instead of enforcing the spirit of the rule — to ensure that people’s legal I.D. matches their appearance — the state has used to rule to declare that citizens own gender expression is irrelevant, they must conform to the state’s arbitrary standards of what men and women look like.

Alexandra Glover did not want to change her gender marker for female when she initially went into the OMV. According to the OMV, however, she cannot present female in her driver’s license picture unless the gender marker on that license also reads “F”.

In order to legally change her gender marker in the state of Louisiana, Glover would need to have genital surgery. A surgery which many trans people do not, in fact, want. A surgery, even for those who do want it, is often unattainable due to legal and financial hurdles.

In essence, this web of legislation creates a society in which every attempt not to conform to rigid gender standards must be fought tooth and nail. In which the state will refuse to recognize a person’s right to control their own body and define their own identity as long as it possibly can. In which the only way to get out of one rigid gender-box is to prove to the state that one fits neatly and perfectly into another.