Many of the current controversies over transgender rights and identities derive from false beliefs, explains the author and academic Susan Stryker. Here she selects five excellent contemporary trans titles with depth, complexity and heart, to help us reframe what has all too often become a toxic debate
The way that I think about the word, and I say this both as a transgender person and as somebody who studies this for my work, is to say that ‘transgender’ involves a movement across the socially imposed boundaries of your assigned sex at birth.
We now live in a society that, when we’re born—or even before we’re born—subjects our bodies to the ‘medical gaze.’ Of course, noticing genital difference at birth is something common to human cultures, but it varies from culture to culture and over time what that observed difference means. In our culture, that ‘seeing’ is linked to medical authority, with the ultrasound technician or gynaecologist or obstetrician or nurse saying at birth: ‘it’s a boy’ or ‘it’s a girl.’ That initial pronouncement launches a whole cascade of events having to do with our cultural beliefs about the relationship between our physical bodies and how our bodies become socially categorised, what social categories are available to be assigned to or identify with, about what is within the purview of science and what is not. We all get assigned to a social category—a gender—based on the appearance of our body, backed up by medical science, underpinned by cultural beliefs about gender and about what our bodies mean. That’s something that we all experience.
To be ‘transgender’ is to feel the need to move across the boundaries placed on the un-chosen starting place from which we are thrown into the world. Nobody gets to pick their body. It’s something that we don’t have agency over. Where the agency comes in is in the ability to change what your body means, to yourself and to others.
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I think what transgender people often do is to say: ‘I know that this is the body that I have, and this is what my society says it means, but the way that I am a person to myself doesn’t line up with that. And I can move. I can change things so that I communicate my sense of self to others differently.’ Whether it’s saying: ‘I got assigned to be an A, but I feel like I’m a B,’ or whether it’s saying: ‘my identity is doesn’t fit any available category and I feel like something else,’ or whether it’s just ‘I’m resisting the meanings of the category I was assigned to and want to contest the gender binary or redefine the impositions that limit me through gender attribution.’
Anyway, I would say I have a very catholic attitude toward what transgender means—in the sense of it being very broad. I don’t like all the in-fighting about whether somebody is ‘really trans,’ or ‘trans enough,’ or whether ‘trans’ is different than ‘gender queer’ or ‘non-binary’ or ‘gender-nonconforming.’ I’m a lumper not a splitter in that regard.
Yes, that book focuses mostly on the post-World War II period in the US, but gestures towards a longer history going back into the nineteenth century, and acknowledges that some people in all cultures and all times seem to have done gender differently than most other people in the same time and place.
If we think of gender as the system a society has for organising and categorising the bodies of its members, gender is universal, like language—the system for organising and expressing our thoughts. There is not one language, but many languages. Not one gender system, but many. If we think of all cultures as having a way of organising, categorising, and ranking bodies by sorting them into social categories, then there always seems to be some individuals who do it differently than most, whatever the cultural dominant is.
“Most people are cisgender, which could be thought of as a ‘right-handed’ gender”
I think of it the way I think of being right-handed or left-handed. Most people are right-handed and the world is organised spatially to reflect that. If you’re right-handed, you probably don’t even notice the bias. But there are left-handed people. Although there are many theories about why this is the case, ultimately nobody knows why. It’s just one of the standard variations of being a person. Left-handed people constantly bump up against the right-handed default, but find a way to negotiate some mostly minor inconveniences, and get on with their lives. Gender can be like that too. Most people are cisgender, which could be thought of as a ‘right-handed’ gender aligned with the culturally dominant bias, and some people are transgender, which could be thought of as the left-handed genders. Wouldn’t it be great if being trans was as unremarkable as being left-handed?
Just before we move onto your five book choices, I wondered if you might give a quick overview of how thinking about transgender individuals has changed. I know, for example, that it was considered a psychiatric condition for a time, but that has changed.
The medicalisation and psychiatrisation of transgender issues and of transgender ways of being in the world really gained force in the nineteenth century. There are older histories of people who are transgender by my definition of transgender—that is, people who resist or move across the socially imposed boundary of their assigned sex. I think you can find those sorts of people wherever you look for them.
The historical question is then: when did people who were doing that become the targets of the medical, psychiatric, forensic, judicial and criminal socio-scientific-political complexes? That really all clicks into place around the middle of the nineteenth century.
As an historian, I resist the idea that transgender history begins with the history of medicalisation. However much some trans people might desire and seek medical intervention that allows their body to better support their identity—that allows others to see them as they see themselves—the medical system doesn’t define us as trans people. It’s like saying obstetrics doesn’t define the experience of birth.
“However much some trans people might desire and seek medical intervention, the medical system doesn’t define us as trans people”
That said, if trans people do opt for medical intervention, the ethics of trans health care are no different than the politics of seeking other kinds of reproductive health care. Pregnancy, for example, is not an illness. It’s not a sickness that needs to be cured. It’s a condition that can take place in a medical setting or not. If it is medicalised, the pregnant person wants healthcare to be provided in a way that actually supports their life goals and choices, their agency, including whether to terminate a pregnancy rather than to continue one. If a pregnant person wants an abortion, that person wants a safe, respectfully provided, competently executed procedure carried out by somebody who doesn’t morally judge them for the choice that they’re making and doesn’t try to limit their access to the procedure and so on. The same would go for deciding on voluntary sterilisation procedures if one really wanted to permanently opt out of the reproductive population.
It’s the same thing with trans health. It’s about getting the right kind of healthcare if you want it or need it rather than asking if it should be medicalised or not. Some people want a medical intervention.
As we shift to start talking about my book choices, allow me to say that some of the readings that I’m currently fascinated with are those that don’t engage with the medical framework at all, or that give voice to trans people who are looking back, as it were, at the medical authority that tries to fix us in its gaze.
Yes, let’s discuss the first recommendation you wanted to make: Jordy Rosenberg’s Confessions of the Fox, a modern novel set in eighteenth-century London. What’s so great about it?
Rosenberg is a professor of English literature who teaches queer and trans cultural theory at University of Massachusetts at Amherst. This is his first novel, a retelling of the story of Jack Sheppard. I don’t know if you know this history, but in real life, Jack Sheppard was a famous criminal, jail breaker, pickpocket and thief who was a folk hero in early eighteenth-century London. He’s the historical figure that Mack the Knife of Brecht’s Threepenny Opera is based on. Rosenberg re-imagines Jack Sheppard as a transgender man, somebody who was assigned female at birth but identifies in a more masculine way and lives socially as a man.
It’s an extraordinarily well written book—the language really transports you to the London streets of three centuries ago. Rosenberg understands the early 18th century as a scholar, but writing about that period in novelistic form allows him to offer a humorous and ironic gloss that wouldn’t fly in a conventional scholarly monograph. This is history and social commentary by other means—knowledgeable, cheeky, fun, politically charged. It’s also really sexy, not a dry historical story at all. It’s a rip-roaring, swash-buckling adventure yarn with a gender outlaw protagonist. It captures the eroticism of being outside the law. Kind of like Sarah Waters’ Victorian stories—Transing the Velvet, maybe—but with a trans hero and a radical critique of political economy at the moment when global capitalism is being consolidated through the British Empire.
“Trans identities and practices are one of the crisis points in contemporary society”
As an academic historian, one of the things I most like about Rosenberg’s book is that it offers a very light hearted yet serious take on the work of doing scholarship. It reminded me of Nabokov’s Pale Fire or Amitav Gosh’s Ibis trilogy, where there’s a primary text but then there are footnotes and appendices and bibliographies and asides that are actually as much what the book is about as anything else. The frame tale—in which a trans academic at a floundering second-rate university who is going through a painful breakup related to his gender transition finds a previously unknown Jack Sheppard manuscript that’s being tossed out by the university library after being gutted by austerity cuts—the frame tale is what makes Confessions of the Fox truly genius. I find the pseudo-scholarly apparatus of the book hilarious, in a heart-breaking kind of way.
But the most deeply compelling dimension of the book for me is that, although it’s historical fiction, it is utterly engaged with the present moment. Trans identities and practices are one of the crisis points in contemporary society. Confessions of the Fox helps us see not only that trans has a long history, but that, then as now, these histories are connected to broader histories of colonialism and capitalism, of racism, police states, surveillance mechanisms, public health crises, urban revolt. Confessions of the Fox makes contemporary trans issues feel like part of a very ‘Long Now.’ Trans issues are not new. Not new at all.
Given what you’ve said about its enormous reach as a novel, do you think it’s a book that only an academic could have written?
It certainly helped that an academic wrote it, but there are plenty of people outside the academy who are really smart, and well informed about the things that they study, who I think could have done something similar. I would, however, say that only somebody who had an embodied experience of being trans would be attuned to the story-telling possibilities that Rosenberg found in retelling the Sheppard story the way he did. When I read it, I feel ‘this is what it’s like to see the world from a trans perspective.’
Your second book, Sybil Lamb’s I’ve Got a Time Bomb is another work of fiction and takes quite an experimental form. Where did you come across this book?
Sybil Lamb first came to my attention when we used one of her drawings for the cover illustration of an academic journal that I edit – TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly. It was a special issue on revisionist psychoanalytic theory, recuperating psychoanalysis for more trans-affirming ends, guest-edited by a Canadian psychoanalytic scholar, Sheila Cavanagh, who knew Sybil from Toronto, and who commissioned her to do the cover art. I thought it was a really fabulous illustration—Freud on the couch being analysed by a trans woman—and wanted to know more about this Sybil Lamb person, so I started digging around for more of her work. I was captivated.
As I was saying earlier, what I’m most interested in right now are trans stories that help us reframe the way trans issues are being dealt with in the present. We’ve got our own problems over here in the US right now but when I look at what’s happening in the UK, one of the things that I see from afar is the moral panic around trans issues right now, and the so-called TERF wars.
Right. This is the battle between trans activists and feminists—branded ‘trans-exclusionary radical feminists,’ or TERFs—centring upon whether trans rights impinge on women’s rights. It’s bitterly fought.
I wouldn’t frame it that way at all, because it suggests that trans activists are not feminist, and feminists are not trans. That’s a false dichotomy. Rather, the conflict is between two different versions of feminist critique—one of which includes and is in conversation with trans perspectives, and one of which imagines trans people to be antifeminist and therefore excludes them, hence the acronym TERF. At the risk of self-promotion, there was another special issue of TSQ on trans-feminisms that features work that addresses the many kinds of relationships that exist between transgender and feminist issues. And my own book Transgender History, for example, was commissioned by the feminist publisher Seal Books, for a series on contemporary topics in feminist discourse.
That being said, for many of those feminists who are hostile to trans people, we present them with a seemingly intractable problem. It’s something on the order of the Israel-Palestine problem in terms of its intractability. Let me be clear that I don’t think we trans people are actually a problem, intrinsically. And let me be clear that I’m a partisan in this conflict. It’s that some people have a problem with us that is actually a problem in themselves, for which they cause problems for us. It’s not inaccurate to call their position transphobic; it is literally an irrational fear, that the mere existence or presence of trans people is somehow a threat to them.
Personally, I believe this irrational fear is both a defensive reaction to, and an aggressive projection of, their own trauma over the non-consensuality of gendering and the very real subordination of women in a binary gender system. Trans women present a challenge to their particular way of psychically resolving the contradiction of both hating what being a woman can subject one to, while nevertheless feeling oneself to be a woman. I think they feel that for us to be women otherwise somehow threatens them with the spectre of their own psychical dissolution, and they hate and fear us for that. When all we want is the same ability to exist as anybody else.
“We don’t share a consensus reality. So how does one intervene in that kind of conflict?”
This is not something we are going to rationally resolve. It’s like arguing with Holocaust deniers, or people who think climate change is a hoax, or who think anything you disagree with is ‘fake news.’ We don’t share a consensus reality. So how does one intervene in that kind of conflict? Ideally, one finds a way to recast the ground on which the struggle transpires. The ultimate goal is no conflict, people living together harmoniously in spite of differences. Short of that, it’s to minimise the effects of the hostility directed towards us, and to change cultural attitudes about trans issues. Before moving on, I do also want to point out that however vitriolic the anti-trans rhetoric is that comes from the TERF camp, and however true it is that words can cause harm and influence social policy in ways that cause further harm, it’s actually sexist, misogynistic, homophobic and transphobic physical violence from cisgender men, and the structural transphobia of the dominant society, that is most directly deadly for trans people, trans women in particular.
But to return to Sybil Lamb and I’ve Got a Time Bomb—part of what I like about the book is that it doesn’t waste any breath on the ‘what are we to do with trans people?’ framework. Lamb just takes up her space—no more but no less than any other person is entitled to, with no apologies and no attempt to persuade or win people over in some argument over whether trans people are worthwhile human beings who can be proper citizens. She writes about very non-normative sorts of trans lives—not just trans people who want to be good girls and boys, and disappear into the woodwork and not rock the boat. Who just want to get their hormones and their surgeries and have their names changed and get their gender markers all lined up on their state-issued IDs and get married and live their lives. That is not the sort trans life Lamb is writing about.
Like Jordy Rosenberg, Sybil Lamb writes fiction that uses a conceit about time to engage with society as it actually exists. I think I’ve Got a Time Bomb makes an interesting companion piece to Confessions of the Fox, because whereas Rosenberg links the present and the past in a way that creates a trans-temporal connection between them, Lamb gives us a dystopian almost-science-fiction novel. It’s not the space western with rocket ships and bug-eyed aliens sort of science fiction, but rather a very, very slight extrapolation from the present, where time is out of joint, sometimes slightly in the future and sometimes clearly rooted in actual historical circumstances, such as post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans.
I’ve Got a Time Bomb has nothing to do with respectability. The story is set in marginalized, uprooted, nomad, punk, trans, kink, drug, squatter subterranean countercultures. Lamb is someone who has moved through these scenes in real life, and like the protagonist of her novel, she is somebody who has experienced a violent hate crime. She was bashed in the head with a metal rod, left for dead, had emergency surgery to repair a skull fracture and had some traumatic brain injury that really affected the way that she communicates and expresses herself both verbally and visually, as a writer and an artist.
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I think it’s remarkable the way that she, as a writer, constructs her sentences and puts her scenes together, to convey the sense of a somewhat off-kilter main character that’s loosely based on her own persona, embodying the violence that can be directed at trans people, particularly trans people who are not aiming towards a certain kind of respectability or enjoying a certain class privilege or a certain gender normative manner of presenting themselves. The language of the book is deliberately, self-consciously cracked. I find it to be a very powerful way of aesthetically registering real life violence. At the same time, the zaniness and loopiness of the prose and the narrative also express an irrepressible will to live, and a joie de vivre. To me, it’s just a very, very powerful narrative based on what it’s like to live trans now, on the edge.
When I first started looking for more of Sybil Lamb’s work, and found I’ve Got a Time Bomb, I was heartened to see that it was published by Topside Press, which is a small independent publisher in the US that specialises in publishing trans-women writers, providing a venue for new or emerging voices that are not necessarily going to get a mainstream publisher right, at least not right now. Jordy Rosenberg’s book, on the other hand…let me see who published it…
Right. It’s one of the first novels by a trans author to be published by one of the big mainstream commercial publishing houses. Sybil Lamb’s book is, I think, at the other end of the spectrum. It’s published by a down low, small scale press – but one whose mission has been to highlight and uplift the voices of trans writers, particularly trans-women writers. While some of their titles are better than others, I appreciate the fact that all of them are in print. Topside has had some really amazing breakout titles. There was one a few years ago by Imogen Binnie, Nevada, that I thought was just great.
Lamb’s I’ve Got a Time Bomb, in my opinion, is the strongest title Topside has published yet. It’s like Kerouac’s On the Road in that it is bohemian, for lack of a better word—maybe anti-bourgeois—and flits from city to city and from one local subcultural scene to the next: New Orleans, New York, Salt Lake City, wherever. One of the tropes or stereotypes of trans writing is the travel narrative—gender transition as travelogue. There was the movie a few years back, Transamerica, that narrates its protagonist’s gender transition in a coast-to-coast drive across the United States. I’ve Got a Time Bomb plays on those tropes of transgender as travel, but totally deconstructs it. It’s not a progress narrative that gets you from point A to point B. It wanders, deliberately.
Anyway, the thing that I love most about the book—which admittedly can be difficult to follow in places, I think deliberately so—is the writerly voice. If trans people are often thought of as a crazy people, people who have a psychopathology, people who have some delusion, people who aren’t quite right in the head, if that accusation is the worst thing, the thing we must defend ourselves against at all cost—this book asks, ‘Yeah, so what if that’s true?’ Or, ‘Maybe I’m not right in the head, but that has nothing to do with me being trans,’ or even, ‘because I’m trans in a transphobic world, I’ve taken some blows, but I’m making my way, and my life is a life worth living.’ The authorial voice challenges us to move past rationality—which, as I was saying a minute ago, is what I think we need to do to get past the vitriol of the TERF wars and the moral panic over trans people in the public sphere. What if we all stopped trying to be so damned respectable, and figured out new ways to live together with all of our vulnerabilities fully on display, in the post-apocalyptic landscapes of a damaged planet? That’s what I see in I’ve Got a Time Bomb, and don’t see how anyone could read it and not come away with a very different, very powerful understanding of contemporary trans experience.
Your point about respectability reminded me a little bit of a recent anthology that was very successful in the UK called The Good Immigrant. The title originates in the idea that if you’re from an immigrant family, you come under pressure to be a ‘good’ immigrant, not a ‘bad’ one—that is, having a job, working hard, assimilating. Do you think that, similarly, members of the trans community are under more social pressure to go mainstream, to be ‘good’?
I think that’s a complicated question, but yes. On the one hand, there is a politics of respectability that can lead one to say, ‘I am not that dirty crazy sick bad illegitimate creature that you imagine me to be. Look at how I embody values that you yourself hold.’ I liked I’ve Got a Time Bomb precisely because it chucked that entire framework aside. But on the other hand, I think any time you are a member of an oppressed or marginalised minority community there’s immense social pressure to be a ‘good one’ because you are aware of the reality of the violences and exclusions that keep you down. Being the ‘good one’ can be a way to take care of yourself—a way to not draw negative consequences towards yourself, even if you understand that the responsibility for the violence is in the system, not in yourself. Being a ‘good one’ can be a form of imperceptibility, a form of fugitivity, a way of surviving in a context that is actually hostile to you, that you can’t really get outside of.
Maybe this discussion brings us to the third book which deals with the intersection of blackness and transness, Black on Both Sides. Perhaps you could tell me a little bit about this book.
Two things have been happening at once in the US—greater attention to trans issues and heightened levels of anti-black violence. Since the Black Lives Matters Movement erupted a few years ago, there’s been a huge upsurge of attention in the US to anti-black violence, particularly anti-black police violence. Which of course had been happening while some not-insignificant fraction of the population was freaking out over the fact that a black man is president of the United States, their heads exploding over that. This was happening at the same moment when trans people were gaining greater civil rights in the late Obama years. Trans people were being presented as the new ‘model minority,’ about to gain a seat at the table of social inclusion. I totally welcomed that. Anything that makes trans lives more liveable, I’m fine with. But it was very much linked to ideas about respectability and acceptability, which has its downside, because that translates into greater livability for only some trans lives. And as a consequence of all this, trans-women of colour, particularly black trans-women, are really caught in the crosshairs. Heightened trans visibility and heightened anti-black violence produced a sharp upsurge in murders of black trans-women. It’s doubled in recent years.
Riley Snorton’s book, Black on Both Sides: A Racial History of Transgender Identity is the first book-length work to think in a deeper way about the relationship between blackness and trans-ness. He is quite interested in thinking about the relationship between fugitivity—the way that black people have survived in a society predicated on their enslavement by running away, both physically and geographically, as well as in more internal, psychical, and affective ways—and the kind of movement, both physical and emotional, that is characterised as ‘trans.’ How is what I’ve called the movement away from an unchosen starting place across the social barriers that work to keep you in the gender linked to your assigned sex at birth, like—that is, similar but non-identical to—the survival strategy of fugitivity? How does one become free within oneself, and to the extent possible, free in the world?
Thinking about blackness and transness together, one can begin to see that assigning some bodies to a subordinated socio-economic position based on certain physical characteristics that we call ‘race’ in certain respects resembles the process of assigning some bodies to a subordinated socio-economic position based on certain physical characteristics that we call ‘sex.’ Sex and race are not the same thing, but seeing how they are both used to sort and classify and rank allows us to grasp a more fundamental operation of power, one rooted in our cultural beliefs about what the body, and bodily difference, means. So how might we begin to connect the dots between race-ing and sex-ing, and between trans-ing and fugitivity as strategies for becoming free?
“Sex and race are not the same thing, but seeing how they are both used to sort and classify and rank allows us to grasp a more fundamental operation of power”
Snorton gives us a very compelling theoretical framing of the questions of trans-ness and blackness, that is once again absolutely rooted in the present but turns towards history like Rosenberg or in some ways turning towards the future like Sybil Lamb, to begin to imagine a different kind of futurity: how can we link what we know of the past to an envisioning of a more just social order? All three of these books address at some level the question of the relationship between the present, the past, and the future. How do we harness knowledge of the past to a present action in a way that shatters and transforms it to produce a different kind of future for people who needs something different in the present? That’s the deep question for me.
The default-setting for transness in popular consciousness is white, and Snorton’s book is very good at calling our attention to trans stories from the past that have been marginalised or ignored due to race, which makes what counts as trans bigger, and different—whether that’s pointing out the many slave narratives in which people escape by presenting in a cross-gender manner as a mode of disguise, or in looking at the role enslaved black women played in the history of gynaecological surgeries that later become options for trans people looking to change the shape of their genitals. One of the most horrific stories in medical history is of J Marion Sims, the so-called ‘father of gynaecology,’ experimenting in the 1830s and 40s, in the slaveholding part of the US, on the bodies of enslaved women from nearby plantations, to develop new surgical techniques. He did so without anaesthesia because he believed black people didn’t feel pain the same way white people do. The surgeries Sims developed were designed to repair fistulas—openings between the vagina, rectum, or urinary tract—produced during traumatic births—but they are also foundational for surgeries that now get used for the so-called normalisation and correction of intersex genitals, and the surgical creation of a neovagina for male to female transgender people.
Part of what Snorton shows in writing about the history of gynaecology is that the very techniques that inform the medicalisation of transgender are literally built on the bodies of enslaved black women. Race and trans go together in ways that are not just coincidental. The very constitution of what counts as trans and black have these deeply intimately shared histories.
That’s really interesting.
Snorton also writes about the marginalisation of black trans lives in the moment of Christine Jorgensen’s massive global celebrity in 1952 and 1953, when what was then called ‘transsexuality’ first came to mass media attention. Christine Jorgensen was a US trans woman, who went to Denmark to have surgery, and it became an international media sensation. It was a Caitlyn Jenner-like moment in the early 1950s. Jorgensen was pretty. She was blonde. She looked like a Hollywood movie starlet. Her story is part of how trans got marked as white in the popular imagination. Snorton writes about people he calls Jorgensen’s ‘shadows’: all of these trans people of colour you can see on the periphery of the white trans mass media spectacle. This in turns helps us ask questions about why some trans lives are more visible than others, and about the different consequences of visibility for different kinds of trans people—the very questions that become crucial for understanding the current moment of heightened anti-black transmisogynist violence.
Snorton’s last chapter is a reading of the film Boys Don’t Cry by Kimberly Peirce, for which Hilary Swank won an Academy Award for playing Brandon Teena, a murdered trans-masculine person in the early 1990s in rural Nebraska. In real life, what happened was that these two homophobic, violent, racist guys befriended Brandon, and when they discover he had a female anatomy—had been assigned a girl at birth—they raped him. Then, a few days later, they came back to murder him.
“All of the people at farmhouse were shot in cold blood—but the way that the story is narrativised completely erases the others who were present”
When Brandon was murdered, he wasn’t alone. He was staying in a farmhouse with a white girlfriend and a male African-American friend. Actually, a disabled male African-American friend, Phillip Devine, who was involved in an interracial relationship with somebody in his social circle; all of the people at farmhouse were shot in cold blood. Snorton looks at how, in the public retelling and memorialisation of this horrific crime in which more than one person dies, it becomes reduced to a transgender story that focuses on the white transgender person. The way that the story is narrativised in mass media completely erases the other people who are present there.
The tragic story of violence against a trans person is also a story of deadly violence against a biologically female cisgender woman, and against a disabled black man. It’s racist violence and sexist violence, and homophobic violence, and transphobic violence. Why are some of those stories pushed into the background, and some elevated and centred?
Snorton’s book offers a vital corrective to some of the ways that we think about trans issues now. It critiques the implicit whiteness of the ways that trans is framed both in mass media and popular culture, as well as in academic writing. If Jordy Rosenberg went back to recover the possibility of a trans history in the past in an imaginative way, Snorton looks at that past in a more empirical way. Snorton is particularly good at raising the theoretical, methodological, interpretive issues that encourage us not to see something that’s actually been there all along. That’s a very powerful gift to bestow on a reader.
What do you want to discuss next?
To follow up on Snorton’s Black on Both Sides: A Racial History of Trans Identity, there’s another new book out called Histories of the Transgender Child, by Julian Gill-Peterson. Again, its theme is what I’m currently fascinated with right now, which is how can we think about trans in a way that it doesn’t reproduce the psycho-medical minoritisation and pathologisation of it, and that gives us a way to use what history can teach us to imagine a more livable future.
Gill-Peterson’s Histories of the Transgender Child takes another current hot topic—trans kids—and reframes the conversation. So much of the attention to early transitioning trans youth is about the use of hormone blockers and whether this is violence against girls and women—back to the TERF wars—or whether this is adult people, mostly trans women, driving the cultural conversation in ways that irrevocably impose their own understanding of gender on innocent children whose sense of self is still malleable, and not yet fixed in place. The horror at the core of that discourse is that some innocent child who is not really trans, just a tomboy or sissy, will be made trans, that they will become “trapped in the wrong body.”
There’s also a popular sense that this is the first generation of youth who’ve grown up with the idea that they can pick what adult gender they want to be. What Gill-Peterson’s book shows is that notions of the transgender child have a history that stretches back to at least the early 20th century, and that it’s actually related to notions of emotional and physical plasticity or malleability that are intimately related to questions of race. As such, Gill-Peterson’s book is in a very interesting conversation with Snorton’s book.
“Ideas about the ability of a particular body to receive, retain, accept, and absorb sensory impressions from the environment were profoundly racialised”
If you look at the nineteenth-century medical literature—sexological literature, eugenics literature, scientific racist thought—ideas of both race and sex are couched in terms of plasticity and sensation, of impressibility and sensibility. As an aside, a really fascinating book on this topic was published last year, The Biopolitics of Feeling, by Kyla Schuller, which looks at sex, science and sensibility in the 19th century, revolving around notions of bodily plasticity. Schuller traces the history of an idea, one that was dominant from the late 18th- to perhaps the early 20th century, that race determines how sensitive or susceptible a particular body is to environmental influences. That idea was central to debates in evolutionary theory, between Lamarckian ideas of evolution happening through bodily changes in response to environmental stimuli like giraffe necks getting longer because giraffes keep reaching for fruit that’s higher on a tree, and Darwinian ideas of evolution happening through natural selection of randomly occurring changes at the genetic level. The Darwinists won that debate, but Lamarckian ideas survived in a lot of racialist thought.
Ideas about the ability of a particular body to receive, retain, accept, and absorb sensory impressions from the environment were profoundly racialised: blacker bodies were considered less susceptible to environmental influences. White bodies were seen as being “made of a finer clay,” one that could receive a more precise imprint, while blacker bodies were cruder and more primitive, less evolved, more animalistic. These ideas of bodily transformability and plasticity are quite central to transgender discourse as well as racial ones. Transgender revolves around the idea of transformability, and of the body’s capacity to be transformed. To hearken back to Snorton, this is another way that transness gets marked as white—it’s white bodies, unburdened by the fixity of meaning attached to black skin that can’t be shed, that seem most able to transform. Whiteness becomes linked to greater plasticity rather than greater fixity.
I see. Interesting.
Right? Gill-Peterson writes on the idea of childhood plasticity, which is quite central to contemporary notions of psychological development. Children are more impressible than adults, they are at first unformed but then shaped by both the traumatic and pleasurable experiences they have, which leave marks that last a lifetime. By the time one’s an adult, your clay has been cast and fired in the kiln of experience, one’s psyche has this shape rather than that shape, but those little neonatal brains, early childhood brains, they’re still plastic, still in the process of becoming what they will be with greater fixity in the future. So there’s a window, a window for critical intervention in childhood, that will determine a child’s future. If a child seems to be developing in an undesired or non-normative direction, one can still intervene in that child’s life to cast it in a different mould.
This idea of a critical phase in the childhood development of sexual orientation and gender identity goes back more than a century. It is a rationale in support of the ‘medical gaze’ that fixes us all in its sights, that not only assigns us to categories but that then works with an ensemble of other social techniques and apparatuses to try to steer and cultivate us in one direction or another, to reward or punish us for being normative or for failing to do so. The gender-plastic child—that is, all children, which is to say everyone, because those of us who are adults were once children—is the insertion point, the battlefield, the operating theatre, of this intervention. The child who grows up to have a transgender future is the one who has eluded the forms of power that seek to make that very future impossible, that work to instate cisgender as the norm. So once again, we are back to this theme running through the various books, of how a present concern—in this case the moral panic over trans kids—can look different in the light that historical research sheds on the past, while pointing us toward a different vision of futurity.
“The logic that operates here is intimately caught up in racial and pseudo-scientific beliefs about what our bodies mean and what they can do”
Gill-Peterson argues that attention to the ‘transgender child’ actually characterises the whole history of transgender medicine. He writes about how in the early 20th century you start to see childhood genital surgeries, performed mostly on intersex kids, motivated by the idea of their ‘normalisation.’ In the 1950s, the ‘problem’ of intersex gender identity development actually becomes the basis for making the sex/gender distinction that seems so intuitively obvious to many people now. These ideas motivate John Money’s work at John Hopkins University on the psychoneuroendocrinology of identity development. It underlies the protocols for neonatal intersex genital disambiguation surgeries. It informs work in the 1960s by this psychiatrist, Richard Green, who wrote about what he called the ‘Sissy Boy Syndrome.’ Throughout it all runs the assumption that childhood is a plastic time of life, and you need to shape it the right way to avoid a trans outcome. It’s like, a transgender adult is the worst thing imaginable. Anybody who is a trans adult has essentially made it through the killing fields –they are the person who has been the target of intervention, they have somehow not been normalised, and made it to a transgender adulthood.
Gill-Peterson totally flips the script to say trans kids are not some new thing under the sun that we’ve never thought about before. This figure is actually what drives the whole history of medicalisation of trans bodies in the twentieth century, and the logic that operates here is intimately caught up in racial and pseudo-scientific beliefs about what our bodies mean and what they can do. It’s one of my favourite nerdy academic books on trans issues in the past several years. It really makes the cranks turn in my mind.
Fantastic. Let’s move onto your final choice, Trap Door: Trans Cultural Production and the Politics of Visibility.
It’s from the Critical Anthologies in Art and Culture series, published by MIT Press in conjunction with the New Museum in New York, which did a very ambitious and interesting show called Trigger a year or so ago, about trans cultural production, non-gender binary cultural production.
One of the New Museum’s curators, Johanna Burton, has been very engaged with the aesthetic and political dimensions of contemporary trans experience. Trigger was one expression of that. This book, Trap Door: Trans Cultural Production and the Politics of Visibility, is another.
I think of Trap Door as a source book for all of the themes that we’ve been talking about in relation to the four other books. It’s pretty. It’s got lots of cool pictures in it as well as smart words. It doesn’t have a coherent narrative, obviously, in that it’s an anthology. There are lots of little chapters, all focused on some dimension of trans visual cultural production, whether that’s graphic arts or protest signs or zines, or the work of painters or sculptors. It’s art-focused but engaged with a broad range of visual materials, vernacular or commercial arts, not just high art, though all of the work is politically engaged. It’s a wonderful resource for documenting how current attempts to reduce trans either to something normal, or something medical or pathological, or something morally suspect and politically pernicious are being worked with by trans culture-makers, and how they are offering different versions of what trans life has been and can be. Most of the featured work is post World War II. Actually post-1970s. A big part of the draw for me is the encyclopaedic extent to which it simply documents how recent trans history exceeds what most people imagine it to be, even trans people.
Thank you. Now, before we finish, I know you wanted to recommend a couple of essays as further reading.
Jacqueline Rose, in the London Review of Books, did an amazing review essay of recent trans writing, both literary and critical. Rose is in my opinion one of the real rockstars of feminist and psychoanalytic theory. I’ve read her for decades and I think she’s just brilliant. Reading that review in the LRB, I was like, wow. Here’s somebody who’s not trans, whose politics I respect, who really, really gets what’s going on. It’s a smart and generous survey of what’s at stake. If your audience is interested in taking a deeper dive into the topics we’ve been discussing, I highly recommend Rose’s review essay in the LRB.
Another fun thing I’ve read recently is from a transwoman in the US, Andrea Long Chu—she’s very much the ‘it’ girl right now, bursting into prominence, somebody with a very fresh perspective, an amazing literary stylist. She’s a couple of decades younger than me, and I appreciate the difference in generational perspective. I’m completely in love with the way that she thinks in her break-through piece, On Liking Women, published in the literary magazine n+1.
Chu writes about Valerie Solanas’s The S.C.U.M. Manifesto, which often gets cast as a radical man-hating and implicitly anti-trans lesbian manifesto, because the acronym in the title refers to the fictitious ‘Society for Cutting Up Men.’ But in ‘On Liking Women,’ in which Chu writes very sweetly about her childhood and adolescent desire to be one of the girls, and really liking what girlhood and womanhood are all about, and wanting to inhabit a lesbian sociality, she essentially says, “Isn’t ‘cutting up men’ from a feminist perspective what we transwomen want, and do? Aren’t we cutting our bodies out of social manhood?”
She offers a well-crafted transfeminist perspective on historical radical feminism, one that burns down some of the boundaries that characterise present-day conflicts between feminist and trans camps imagined to be separate, and shows how trans desire and identification can mesh in unexpected ways with a radical feminist positions, and puts all of that together in a very compelling package, stylistically.
My greatest hope for the future on trans issues is that a lot of the conflicts that have characterised my own historical experience or the way that trans gets positioned now are going to become history at some point. That things will move along in a new way, and current controversies will sound to our grandchildren or their children like medieval monks arguing about how many angels can dance on the head of pin. I’m really excited by the passion, the depth, the complexity, the lucidity, the humour, the love, the irony, the fierceness, even the snarkiness that I see in so much of contemporary trans cultural production. It gives me hope that things are just changing, changing in ways that none of us can control, and in a better direction.
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Susan Stryker is associate professor of gender and women's studies, and director of the Institute for LGBT Studies at the University of Arizona. She is the author of several books on transgender and queer topics, most recently Transgender History (2008). She won a Lambda Literary Award for the anthology The Transgender Studies Reader (2006), and an Emmy for the documentary film Screaming Queens: The Riot at Compton's Cafeteria (2005).
Susan Stryker is associate professor of gender and women's studies, and director of the Institute for LGBT Studies at the University of Arizona. She is the author of several books on transgender and queer topics, most recently Transgender History (2008). She won a Lambda Literary Award for the anthology The Transgender Studies Reader (2006), and an Emmy for the documentary film Screaming Queens: The Riot at Compton's Cafeteria (2005).
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