Magazine for Sexuality and Politics

Fetichised Relationships:

Listening to Trans People

Ilana Mountian

Relationships are a fundamental theme for psychoanalysis, having a direct importance for the constitution of subjectivity, as Freud (1921: 2) highlights “in the individual’s mental life someone else is invariably involved, as a model, as an object, as a helper, as an opponent; and so from the very first individual psychology, in this extended but entirely justifiable sense of the words, is at the same time social psychology as well”.

The divide between subject and society, and public and private relations have been challenged in contemporary philosophy, psychoanalysis and social sciences. The division between the public sphere (politics, economics) from the private relations, brings up the question on how the private (family, relationships) remained seen as non-political, acquiring a different value. This private/public divide was challenged by feminist and post-colonial/decolonial studies, in which politics does not refer only to institutional politics, but also to the politics of everyday life. The body, in this sense, is political, a body marked sexually and racially, and other categorisations. This social/political discursive positioning has an impact on subjectivity.

The history of psychiatry and psychology shows a number of changes concerning the medical understanding of gender, sexuality and race, as specific issues concerning minoritized groups were at times conceived as mental disorders, for example, how mental health diagnosis were applied to migrant people and black people, and the association between hysteria and women. Moreover, homosexuality was understood as a mental disorder, and transsexuality is still seen in these terms in some realms. Academics and activists have been advocating on the importance of removing the classification of mental disorders on transsexuality, while maintaining the rights for access to health and juridical recognition.

This brings to the fore the importance of the voice, taking up Spivak’s question of “Can the Subaltern Speak”, that is, how can those subjects, placed in the position of the Other, be heard? This is a central issue for feminist and post/decolonial studies, which points to the possibilities of speaking within the social position of the subaltern, considering relations of exclusion and violence. For psychoanalysis, also highlighting the importance of the social context, there is a particular attention to the speech and the voice, as it develops its practice and theory regarding the talking cure. Psychoanalysis is inaugurated with the case of Anna O., providing another listening to the subject, which was at that time, viewed mostly through a psychiatric and pathologising perspective, and also embedded in religious/moral discourses; in fact, discourses that can still be found in the fields of gender and sexuality.

Psychoanalysis has brought to the fore a number of issues regarding the possibilities of listening to the subject, and crucially of the subject of desire, as truth is conceived on the side of the subject. However, it is essential an analysis of the position of listening, particularly regarding the positionality of those who listen, and the reflexivity concerning the ideals and phantasies. In the same vein, a critical review of the psychoanalytic framework regarding gender, sexuality and race has been pushed forward, claiming for further reflections in theory and practice.

Having this is mind, critical work on LGBTQI+ and cisgender women issues, considering the intersectionality of gender, sexuality, race, class, age and disability, has thrown light on a number of aspects that were continuously obliterated, uncritically pathologising practices, or which did not account for the demands and desires of these groups. Debates on trans people (including here transgender, transexual, travesti, or any other form of self-identification) point out how trans people were excluded, devalued and pathologized in society, as well as in science, which on the one hand points to societal divisions and values, while, on the other hand, points out the possibility of change, of opening up to other discursive spaces. That is, through encounters there is the production of the Other, and also the possibilities of change (Ahmed, 2000). Within these encounters, the question on the possibilities of listening becomes central, as continuous reflexivity is required.

There are numerous specificities concerning trans people, considering the intersections between gender, sexuality, race, class, age and disability. Within these aspects, I highlight here the impact of transphobia on the subject. This is a fundamental aspect that is seen in institutions and everyday relationships. Transphobia operates in social levels, excluding the subject from access to basic everyday relations, having an impact in the (continuous) production of subjectivity. In these relations, the subject is placed in the position of the Other in discourse, difference becomes a mark, caught in what can be thought of as fetichised relationships, that is, the subject is seen as an object of fascination (exoticized) and/or feared. The deconstruction of this discursive construction becomes crucial for the listening and emergence of the subject.

It is relevant to highlight McClintock’s (1995) debate on the notion of fetishism that can be viewed at the crossroad between psychoanalysis and social history, as psychoanalysis was placed in the domestic space (feminised) and Marxism (commodity fetishism) became concerned with the public (economic).

For psychoanalysis, the subject is understood as being the subject of desire, capable of contradictions and ambiguities. In this perspective, it becomes crucial to consider the social categories according to specific social contexts and how these interpellate the subject but not, however, as completely determining or reducing the subject. This dynamic is fundamental to be considered in the listening of the subject. While, on the one hand, an awareness of the social constraints and the guarantee of social rights is put forth, on the other hand, it goes against homogenisation and, as such, the subject is not taken for granted, but rather their voice stands in a unique place, the place of desire. The subject is seen as a subject of desire and able to represent themselves (Spivak, 1988).

For this possibility of opening up spaces of listening, the psychoanalytic conceptions of transference and resistance can bring some further insights. Psychoanalytic listening is done through transference, that is, the relationship between the analyst and the analysand. The way that transference operates inside and outside the clinic is key to being analysed, as it is within transference that phantasies, ideas, pre-conceptions are re-enacted. For this, a continuous exercise of reflexivity is presented, to reflect on the power relations, including how the social categories interpellate the body, from both the analyst and the analysand. Taking up the view on structural transphobia and how this experience affects the subject, it is then relevant to question, what then does the listening to trans people consist of? What are the pre-conceptions and positionalities that are at stake and how do their dynamics function?

Resistance was observed by Freud (1912) when patients were about to elucidate some conflicts, repeating the symptom. Resistance takes place in diverse forms, however, it is relevant to highlight that dealing with resistance is not a matter of simply overcoming them, but rather understanding how they operate and the defence mechanisms at play. Lacan (1958) further elaborates on the resistance of the analyst, that is, on the (im)possibilities of listening to the subject, when the analyst is caught in the taken-for-granted views, which we can question as to how this resistance can reify the subject in the place of the Other, through fetichised relationships. Being, therefore, crucial, the analysis of how this resistance of the analyst operates regarding the transference, that is, how is the subject listened to, what are the stumbling blocks for the listening of the subject that are at work in the analysis? These questions are key to be reviewed in the psychoanalytic practice, for opening up possibilities of other listening and discursive constructions.

The work with and analysis of trans people highlight the limits and (im)possibilities of listening, and also of possibilities of trans-formation and of (trans) knowledge. The work on the deconstruction of reified views on the subject seen as the Other, through fetichised relations, allows to question and challenge how binary divisions operate. For this, it is then required to situate knowledge and positionality within encounters through a reflexivity process. These reflections aim for the possibility opening up for other discourses, of emancipatory spaces to be thought of and webs of solidarity to be worked on. Spaces that can allow the voice of the subject to be heard, in which the subject can speak and represent themselves, and ultimately actively participate in knowledge production and practice.


Ahmed, S. (2000). Strange Encounters – Embodied Others in Post-Colonialism. Routledge.

Freud, S. (1921). Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud.

Freud, S. (1912). The dynamics of transference. Standard Edition 12. Hogarth Press

Lacan, J. (1998[1958]) Escritos. Jorge Zahar.

McClintock, A. (1995). Imperial Leather - Race, Gender and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest. Routledge

Spivak, G. C. (1988). ‘Can the subaltern speak?’In Nelson, C. & Grossberg, L. (eds.). Marxism and the interpretation of culture (p.271-313). Macmillan.

Member of the Discourse Unit, researcher at the Psychoanalysis, Society and Politics Research Group of the Institute of Psychology, University of Sao Paulo. Member of the Lacanian Forum of Sao Paulo. Author of the book Cultural Ecstasies: Drugs, Gender and Social Imaginary (Routledge, 2013).

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