Freudian Psychology

Pink Freud

What does psychoanalysis have to say to someone queer or trans?

Posted Jul 12, 2014

Painting by Lucian Freud

In the late 19th century, the term queer was used pejoratively to describe a person of homosexual orientation. It denoted socially inappropriate behavior and sexual deviance. Beginning in the 1980s, the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) community reclaimed the term as a positive self-identifier.

Queer people reject gender binarism, the classification of sex and gender into two distinct and opposite poles: masculine and feminine. This gender system sets up a boundary that splits people into male and female gender roles and discourages people from mixing them. Many societies have used this convention to divide and organize a people and as a means of bringing order, though some argue that such a binary actually divides and creates conflict.

As a Jewish man of his historical period, Freud was “queer,” too, in that he existed between conventional categories of sexuality. Living at the height of Anti-Semitism in Europe, Freud was a feminized male due to the association of Jewish men with circumcision, a symbolic substitute for castration. (Sander Gilman, Freud, Race, and Gender, Princeton U P, 1993). He also questioned societal assumptions about what constitutes “normal” sexuality? Even whether there was a thing as “normative?” Recall his patient who became aroused by the shine on a woman’s nose (Fetishism,” Freud, 1927).

Perhaps Freud’s declaration “anatomy is destiny” was defensive. It sprang from anxiety as his own manhood was brought into question, in attempt to overcome the effeminacy attached to the figure of the male Jew. It also defended against a collective unease about the growing visibility of women in Austrian and European public life (Ann Pellegrini, Performance Anxieties: Staging Psychoanalysis, Staging Race, Routledge, 1996).

Pellegrini argues Freud’s theory of sexual difference was one of the ways he sought to distance himself from his own racial association with femininity: by shifting onto women's bodies the perception of lack or what Lee Edelman calls the "bogey of castration." The female body thus provided the unacknowledged foundation for masculine identity; the use of women to this purpose was intensified in effort to temper the opposition between the Jewish and Aryan male.

Although a creature of historical context, Freud interrogated the space between sex (genital anatomy) and gender, the subjective and social meaning of these specific physical attributes. Trans (transgender) people also explore the meaning of the sexual aspects of their bodies and experiment with transitions from one side of the gender binary to the other. They combine or exceed these two categories of masculine and feminine in novel ways.

Trans identified people often experience a mismatch between their physical attributes (sex) and its psychological meaning (gender). This mode of being may or may not include medical intervention (e.g., hormone treatment, surgery), changing a birth name, or cross-dressing. More important is the feeling is that one’s sexuality is constrained by conventional descriptors such as straight, gay, lesbian, or bisexual and the experience confounds traditional ways of thinking about erotism. These classifications are incomplete. Both the terms queer and trans express a broader, intentionally ambiguous sexual orientation. Only 8 percent of Americans say they personally know someone who is transgender. 

Freud himself wrote on the changeability of libido and argued the psychic energy that fuels sexual desire/drive is malleable, taking on myriad shapes and forms. Before there was the word “genderfluid” he wrote of the plasticity of libido.

Psychoanalyst Marilyn Charles argues that sexuality makes itself felt to the body in idiosyncratic ways, that desire is not determined biological fact, but an aliveness created through multiple variables, the primary one being an individual’s thoughts about their own body and the places she claims for it in her society.

Psychoanalytic feminists give us new ways of thinking about how we endow meaning to any body, female or otherwise. The more awareness we gain into our rendering of meaning the less defined we are by an external presence. We authorize our wants by knowing more fully who defines them, by giving them words or, as Charles says, by bringing into consciousness what in our sexual experience exceeds words. In this way, we enhance our agency and ability to choose how we act in and upon the world around us.


* This is a version of a paper for "Clio's Psyche: Understanding the 'Why' of Culture, Current Events, History, and Society," September 2014, in response to the symposium piece "Are Women the Dark Continent?" by Marilyn Charles.

Follow me: