Transgender Studies

Judith Butler’s scholarship and particularly her notion of performativity—which she theorizes throughout Gender Trouble (1990) and in subsequent work—has been foundational for the field of queer theory, but it also has had significant impact to the field of transgender studies. In Susan Stryker’s introduction to The Transgender Studies Reader (2006), she notes that the idea has had a tepid reception within transgender studies, where some read Butler as “suggesting that gender is a ‘mere’ performance, on the model of drag, and therefore somehow not ‘real.’” But Stryker herself finds it useful “because it offers a non‐ or postreferential epistemological framework that can be useful for promoting transgender social justice agendas” (Stryker 2006: 10).

Part of the critique lies in the fact that Butler does not explicitly discuss transgender experience in Gender Trouble (1990), noting in her preface to the second edition: “If I were to rewrite this book under present circumstances, I would include a discussion of transgender and intersexuality” (Butler 1999: xxvii). This admission illustrates the emergence of transgender studies as a distinct, recognizable field. She does devote space to the subject in later books, most significantly in Undoing Gender (2004). Yet, as Stryker gestures to in her introduction, how Butler develops her idea of performativity through references to drag performance in both Gender Trouble (1990) and Bodies That Matter (1993) elicits strong critiques from scholars in the developing field of transgender studies.

In Second Skins: The Body Narratives of Transsexuality (1998), Jay Prosser focuses on Butler’s notion of performativity in order to explore queer theory’s blind spot when it comes to trans embodiment: “As Butler exemplifies, queer theory has written of transitions as discursive but it has not explored the bodiliness of gendered crossings” (Prosser 1998: 6). In short, Prosser suggests that Butler and queer theory alongside her find the idea of transition theoretically useful, but only in valorizing “the subject who crosses the lines of gender, not those of sex” (Prosser 1998: 6). What Prosser subtly calls the “elision of embodiment,” Viviane K. Namaste names “the erasure of transsexual and transgendered people” in the subtitle to her book, Invisible Lives (2000). For Namaste, Butler and other scholars miss the “context” of drag performances and how through theorizing trans experience through drag, which can be “framed as pure spectacle” in gay male establishments, we miss not only the “variety of reasons why people might choose to cross‐dress in a club” but also the fact that trans identities exist off the stage (Namaste 2000: 10–11).

trans-3-23-18-1In their books, both Prosser and Namaste seek to make a fuller range of trans experience visible. Prosser theorizes transsexual embodiment, which he then applies to autobiographical accounts, some of which had not previously been read as transgender narratives. Namaste focuses on the everyday lives of trans people and shows how they are made invisible not only by theoretical discourses, but also by societal institutions. The empirical study of trans lives pushes against theoretical discourse, and it is an important strand of scholarship, particularly in the work of Dean Spade, whose Normal Life: Administrative Violence, Critical Trans Politics, & the Limits of Law (2011; second edition 2015), surfaced out of his pro‐bono legal work for transgender people through the Sylvia Rivera Law Project (SRLP), which Spade founded.

Like Stryker herself, however, some scholars attempt to recuperate performativity within transgender studies. Perhaps most notably, one of Butler’s students, Gayle Salamon, published Assuming a Body: Transgender and Rhetorics of Materiality (2010) squarely within the field of transgender studies. Salamon responds to Jay Prosser’s critique of performativity, launched in Second Skins (1998), arguing that Butler and Prosser diverge in that Prosser “emphasizes the primacy of bodily materiality” in his theorization (Salamon 2010: 37). Salamon sees Prosser’s critique as a different method, “representative of several attempts in trans studies to combat the historic neglect of transsexuality, particularly within feminist and queer theory” (Salamon 2010: 37). In a later chapter where Salamon argues that Butler’s idea of performativity has been misread as “merely playful theatricality” (Salamon 2010: 81), she attempts to bridge this methodological difference separating Butler and Prosser, to tackle “the distinction between gender as it is conceptualized and gender as it is lived” (Salamon 2010: 71). Ultimately, she posits, “how we embody gender is how we theorize gender and to suggest otherwise is to misunderstand both theorization and embodiment” (2010: 71–2). This provocative claim not only attempts to suture the rift between Butler and Prosser, but also suggests that their different foci, methods, and blind spots arise out of their own individual subject positions. All of this corrective scholarship responding to Butler illustrates the emergence of transgender studies as a distinct, recognizable field, in which Prosser and Namaste are foundational while Salamon is part of a second generation of thinkers.

Stryker too, as co‐editor of The Transgender Studies Reader (2006) has played an active role in shaping this emerging field through this and other scholarly productions, including her co‐editing the “Trans‐” issue of WSQ (2008) with Paisley Currah and Lisa Jean Moore; coediting The Transgender Studies Reader 2 (2013) with Aren Z. Aizura; launching the journal TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly (2014–present) with Paisley Currah; and organizing, together with her colleagues at the University of Arizona, one of the first conferences in the field, Trans*Studies (2016). In the introduction to The Transgender Studies Reader 2, Stryker and Aizura explain the relationship between the two readers, with the second “intended to complement, rather than compete with, volume one.” The first volume serves “as an account of field formation,” containing essays from a wide historical range “that laid important foundations for transgender studies.” By contrast, the second volume sketches out “new directions in the field” by including almost exclusively “new work that has appeared in print since 2005” (Stryker and Aizura 2013: 3–4). In their table of contents, Stryker and Aizura map out ten sections for their fifty essays, as compared to seven sections for the same number of essays in the first volume. In the first volume, one of the sections, “Feminist Investments,” not only contains Butler’s work, but also includes an excerpt from The Transsexual Empire by Janice Raymond (1979), which is widely considered transphobic. In lieu of such writings that transgender scholars and people are responding against, the second volume includes a section entitled, “Transfeminisms,” a term that denotes a new orientation to feminism that can welcome rather than exclude the trans experience. One of the contributors to this section, Julia Serano, is known for her work, Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity (2007), where she combines transphobia and misogyny into her own term, transmisogyny, which describes how the discrimination that some transwomen face derives from societally held views that denigrate femininity.

The final three sections in the second volume negotiate the here and now of trans experience in the world and consider the future, in such topics as: “Going Somewhere: Transgender Movement(s),” “Biopolitics and the Administration of Trans‐Embodiment(s),” and “Trans‐oriented Practices, Policies, and Social Change.” This idea of the second Transgender Studies Reader as the space for emerging scholarship is echoed in the first issue of TSQ, in which Stryker and Currah write:

Welcome to TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly, which we intend to be the journal of record for the rapidly consolidating interdisciplinary field of transgender studies. Although the field is only now gaining a foothold in the academy, the term transgender has a long history that reflects multiple, sometimes overlapping, sometimes even contested meanings. (Stryker and Currah 2014: 1)

Here the authors acknowledge the struggle over the term transgender itself. They devote the rest of the paragraph to exploring its many meanings in statements and questions that illustrate the dual, paradoxical nature of what transgender signifies: “For some, it marks various forms of gender crossing; for others, it signals ways of occupying genders that confound the gender binary” (Stryker and Currah 2014: 1). At the end of the paragraph, they welcome all these positions into this and future issues. The definitional latitude in play here echoes Stryker’s individual scholarship, specifically Transgender History (2008).

Stryker begins Transgender History (2008) with a glossary of key terms, defining terms that most people are familiar with—sex, gender, gender role, sexuality—alongside less broadly familiar terms—transgender, genderqueer, gender neutral pronouns, cisgender, cissexual (Stryker 2008: 7–23). For all of these terms, however, Stryker seeks “to complicate how we understand them,” creating more capacious senses of what the familiar terms may mean, which makes space for the less familiar terms to fit inside these conceptions (2008: 7). She also advocates for this range within terms like transgender, which she employs “to refer to the widest imaginable range of gender‐variant practices and identities,” embracing the coalitional possibility of this term that allows her to chart out a history (2008: 19). She arrives at transgender after reviewing outmoded terms that have been used to described trans individuals and begins her definition by recognizing that the use of the term has become “widespread only in the last decade” (2008: 19). Within her definition of transgender lies the rationale for how this term becomes synonymous with the field that Stryker herself helps to build. Following this definition, she describes additional contemporary terms for trans identities, like genderqueer, mapping how this idea fits within her own broad conception of transgender, but is entirely separate for other thinkers:

People who use “transgender” to refer only to those kinds of people who want to live in a gender other than the one assigned to them at birth sometimes use “genderqueer” to mean the kinds of people who resist gender norms without “changing sex,” but this is not always the case. (Stryker 2008: 20–1)

In laying out all of these definitions and tracing the backstories and intersections of these terms, Stryker enables the history that she seeks to write by creating transgender as the coalitional umbrella. She and Currah wield the same term in their introduction six years later. However, reflecting the changing times and evolving terms, they add: “we invite you to imagine the T in TSQ as standing in for whatever version of trans‐ best suits you” (Stryker and Currah 2014: 1).

In the history that follows, Stryker glosses roughly a hundred years and hundreds of names. Another approach from the discipline of history that deserves mention here is Joanne Meyerowitz’s How Sex Changed: A History of Transsexuality in the United States (2002). Among the names in both of these texts, Leslie Feinberg and Kate Bornstein merit consideration for their literary and theoretical contributions in addition to their work in helping to shape the field of transgender studies. A transgender activist across the 1980s, Feinberg released the widely popular semi‐autobiographical narrative, Stone Butch Blues (1993), which has been analyzed within much trans scholarship, including in Prosser’s Second Skins (1998). Following that success, Feinberg contributed non‐fictional, theoretical texts—Transgender Warriors: Making History from Joan of Arc to Dennis Rodman (1996) and Transgender Liberation: Beyond Pink or Blue (1998)—that were thinking about how to consolidate the movement and what its revolutionary potential might be. In roughly the same time period, Bornstein released Gender Outlaw: On Men, Women, and the Rest of Us (1994), an autobiographical and experimentally written text, which defined trans experience with a wide purview. Fifteen years after that, in the light of a consolidated field, Bornstein collaborated with S. Bear Bergman, a trans man of a younger generation, on Gender Outlaws: The Next Generation (2010), an anthology featuring short pieces in various formats. Roughly fifty trans thinkers, some of whom also feature in Stryker’s volumes, reflect on their own trans experiences. The existence of this volume is a tribute to the import of Bornstein’s initial book and her continuing work, which has most recently included a revised edition of Gender Outlaw (2016).


Source: A Companion to Literary Theory Blackwell Companions to Literature and Culture Edited by David H. Richter 2018
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