Teaching Transgender Studies in Turbulent Times

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In Australia, Britain and the USA, transgender rights are at the centre of political battlegrounds over the right of citizens to bodily autonomy, recognition, and access to medical care. In all three countries, debates over trans rights have been positioned in relationship to the right to discriminate on the grounds of religion, and the need to ‘protect’ cisgender women from the prospect of sharing women-only spaces with transgender women. Social acceptance and support for mental and physical health for transgender children has been a key issue. Indeed, the trans-national circulation of a moral panic around transgender children has led to a number of legal cases that threaten all access to affirmative care for trans children.[1] Although in Australia and Britain transphobic activism has posited trans lives in opposition to cisgender gay and lesbian lives, in the USA and in much of the rest of the world (for example, in Hungary, Indonesia, Russia, Turkey, and Poland) transphobia is part of a wider right-wing assault on LGBTQ+ lives.

Teaching transgender studies during a period in which trans lives, trans rights and trans futures have been thrust to centre stage feels urgent, necessary, and exciting, if also somewhat daunting. When I began teaching transgender history and theory in 2012, as part of my teaching in History and in Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies in the USA, my students were a small and self-selecting group, many of whom were themselves trans and/or queer. We had a sense of ourselves as a community on the margins of both society and the academy; the discussions we engaged in felt like ours alone, the classroom was a refuge. In contrast, in 2021, when I taught a course in which ‘transgender history’ was explicitly stated in the title, my students were 98% cisgender. Some of them were very aware of trans issues and had taken the course to better understand and discuss trans lives and histories. A few of my students had taken courses (mainly in Philosophy) that covered trans-related topics and so had a good conceptual understanding and some familiarity with trans studies. For at least half of the class, studying anything to do with trans people was completely new.

Transgender studies as a field has expanded rapidly since the foundation of the US-based academic journal TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly in 2014. As Susan Stryker has explained, transgender studies was borne of a frustration with the tendency of cisgender scholars to read gender diversity in the past and present as a form of queer sexuality, rather than as evidence of the existence of trans lives.[2] In 2012, the number of texts I could use that explicitly used ‘trans’, ‘transgender’ or ‘transsexual’ in ways that were not pathologizing was relatively limited, largely confined to those collected in the Transgender Studies Reader (2006). Today, there is an ever-expanding body of literature that brings trans perspectives to bear on other disciplines and debates. My own discipline of History is no different with some fantastic recent contributions to trans history by Howard Chiang, Jules Gill-Peterson, Kit Heyam, Jen Manion and C Riley Snorton.

Whilst the proliferation of resources with which to teach trans studies and trans history is incredibly exciting, the heightened awareness of trans lives creates an alternative set of challenges. In the early 2010s, my students’ exposure to trans-related subjects was confined to the small field of trans studies, and potentially also an engagement with trans activism and art. In 2021 my students’ experience of trans issues was more likely to be from mainstream media. That is not necessarily a bad thing. I can assume that my students today will have encountered some positive representations of trans people, whether in the form of Laverne Cox’s starring role in Orange is the New Black (2013-19), or Pose (2018-2021), or, in a slightly less overt way, Gentleman Jack (2019-present). Neither are positive depictions of gender diversity confined to US and UK media channels, in India, advertising campaigns for Vicks, Dove, Google, and recently Bhima Jewellery, have featured sympathetic depictions of hijras and trans men. My students are therefore less likely than those ten years ago to have encountered only negative and transphobic representations in film and TV (such as the widely critiqued transphobia in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective (1995)). However, they are more likely to encounter subtler and more ‘respectable’ forms of transphobia everywhere in the mainstream media as part of the ‘debate’ over trans rights. In Britain, one of the ways in which transphobic commentators have influenced policy and legislation is to insist on the inviolability of ‘sex’ as a fixed and unchanging binary. In this rendering, ‘male’ or ‘female’ become the only salient category of difference. The assertion of the absolute ‘truth’ of ‘sex’ as a universal and ‘natural’ category denies the changing forms of identity and selfhood, the unstable meaning of ‘sex’ as a category, and the complexities of bodies in societies across time and space. As Alyosxa Tudor argues, to unpick this assertion requires a decolonial lens, one that deconstructs the Western foundations of knowledge formation and its claim to universal truth.[3]

Transgender studies plays a vital part in the process of decolonizing knowledge. Teaching trans histories enables students to explore the ways that European imperial expansion violently repressed alternative ways of expressing what we now call ‘gender’. From the Spanish attempt to exterminate the joyas in California from the sixteenth century – a murderous process that Deborah Miranda names ‘gendercide’ – to the criminalization of the hijra in late nineteenth-century India by the British, European colonialism saw gender diversity everywhere, and everywhere sought to suppress it.[4] The targets of their violence were almost always people who practiced forms of femininity, including dressing and taking on the roles traditionally ascribed to women, so that what we might call ‘transphobia’ is more accurately described as ‘transmisogyny’ – the specific hate targeted at (or at people perceived to be) trans women.[5] Understanding why they harboured such hatred for gender diversity requires students to interrogate the interrelationship between racism, homophobia, misogyny, and the erasure and pathologization of intersex people. When white settler colonists and imperial administrators encountered people who did not fit their understanding of ‘male’ and ‘female’, they tended to label them using the familiar categories of ‘eunuchs’, ‘hermaphrodites’ and/or ‘sodomites’. All three terms were pejorative, stigmatised and, in the case of sodomy, criminalized in European law and deemed offensive to a Christian god. The presence and acceptance of gender and sexual diversity amongst indigenous societies confirmed European imperialists’ sense of the superiority of their own religious and social mores: white, Christian supremacy was articulated through the discourse of gender and sexual ‘deviancy’.

There are, however, some serious but productive methodological challenges in teaching this history as part of any trans studies course. Firstly, subsuming all Native American two-spirit people (itself an umbrella term), as well as hijras, kothis and other non-Western embodiments under the rubric of ‘trans’ erases the distinctiveness of histories, identities, spiritualities and communities that have survived and changed across centuries prior to, during, and after European colonization.[6] It is all too easy from a Western vantage point to see gender diversity as something that happened ‘over there’ and thereby to reinstate a colonial mentality of saviourism and/or tokenism.[7] Conscious of my own positionality as a white, Jewish trans person in Britain, I have consistently reiterated to my students that whilst the history of European gendercide is part of trans history, the people upon whom that gendercide was enacted cannot, or at least not straight-forwardly, be labelled ‘transgender’. This complicating of the very words we use to describe people in both the past and present enables a productive questioning of the relationship between language, recognition, and power. Alongside an understanding that language is partial, comes the recognition that the survival of historical records – the primary sources upon which historians rely – is also a product of imperial power. The paucity of records from the perspective of indigenous peoples is itself part of the history of colonial violence; primary sources, and their absence, have a history.

Actively and explicitly struggling with both the limitations of the English language in which we operate and of the primary source material from which to write history, is vital to the process of decolonization. Neither is this discussion only relevant to non-Western forms of gender diversity. What any discussion of nominally ‘trans’ lives in the past makes clear is that there is nothing obvious or self-evident about ‘sex’. This was made abundantly clear in our discussions of the 18th-century French ambassador and double agent, the Chevalier/Chevalière d’Éon, who lived half his life as a man and half her life as a woman.  Partly guided by a somewhat limited and outdated historiography, some of my students struggled with not knowing the ‘truth’ of d’Éon sex. Indeed, one student suggest that we could exhume d’Éon’s body to extract the DNA that would reveal their chromosomes and settle the 200 year-old question once and for all.  But what would that achieve, other students asked, given that ‘chromosome’ was no more a part of the mental universe of late eighteenth-century societies than was ‘transgender’!

The fundamental belief in the objectivity and universality of Western scientific ‘truth’, its validity above that of an individual’s life and testimony, or a community’s worldview, is a key facet of transphobic discourse. This faith in scientific objectivity is also one of the biggest challenges posed by the decolonial movement, which demands that we rethink the colonial foundations of our systems of knowledge. Trans studies make abundantly clear the limitations of a Western-dominated knowledge framework with its claim to universal truth. This poses exciting pedagogical and disciplinary challenges; challenges that are in many respects insurmountable in the context of the neo-liberal university. Firstly, it raises questions about the authority of the lecturer as the ‘knowing’ subject, as well as the course content to provide the ‘truth’ of, and about, the topic. In my syllabus, I tried to centre trans scholars and to incorporate different genres, including autobiographical and auto-ethnographical work, in order to bring alternative ways of producing knowledge to the fore. Yet students struggled to reconcile these forms with the ‘objective’ ‘academic’ essay style that most of them had been taught as a model throughout their schooling, as well as in most of their other courses.

This problem was compounded by the fact that much of the scholarship on trans lives that is recognisable as ‘History’ has been written by cisgender academics. This scholarship often (although not always) uncritically replicates the idea that their subjects were ‘really’ male or female and that their lived expression of man or womanhood was a ‘masquerade’. What Julia Serano has coined ‘cissexism’ – the belief that trans peoples’ genders are inauthentic, or less authentic than cis people’s own genders – is everywhere in the historiography of gender diversity.[8] For all my attempts to challenge and expose the violence Western hegemonic knowledge formation, the very material I had to work with undermined the decolonial practices and critiques that I was attempting to promote!

In many respects, the challenges that I face in teaching trans history mirror the challenges I face as trans person navigating a society that demands conformity to a binary gender system. To live my life, I must move through a society that labels me as either male or female, whilst simultaneously holding onto the possibility and hope of a world that will one day allow for more. That ‘more’ goes beyond recognition of a third, or even fourth, gender category by the state; it requires an acceptance and embrace of different modes of meaning that continuously stretch our imaginations and desires. I am under no illusion that transgender studies, when taught in the corners of the neo-liberal university, possesses only a very limited capacity to decolonize our minds and bodies.[9] Yet I hope that by carefully unsettling my students’ assumptions about gender in the past and present, I can make a small, albeit imperfect and knowingly circumscribed, contribution to the project of reimagining knowledge as a capacious form of belonging that has room for all bodies and selves.

 

 

[1] ‘Trans Kids are Not New’, www.theguardian.com/us-news/2021/apr/01/trans-children-history-jules-gill-peterson-interview (accessed, 20th April 2022).

[2] S. Stryker, ‘(Desubjugated) Knowledges: An Introduction to Transgender Studies’ in S. Stryker and S. Whittle (eds.), The Transgender Studies Reader (New York, 2006), pp. 1-2.

[3] A. Tudor, ‘Decolonizing Trans/Gender Studies? Teaching Gender, Race, and Sexuality in Times of the Rise of the Global Right’, TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly, 8/2 (2021), pp.238-256.

[4] D. Miranda, ‘Extermination of the Joyas: Gendercide in Spanish California’, GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, 16/1-2 (2010), pp.253-284; J. Hinchy, Governing Gender and Sexuality in Colonial India: the Hijra, 1850-1900 (Cambridge, 2019)

[5] J. Serano, Whipping Girl: A transsexual woman on sexism and the scapegoating of femininity (Berkeley, CA: Seal Press, 2007).

[6] D. Gramling and A. Dutta, Translating Transgender, TSQ Transgender Studies Quarterly, 3 (2016), pp.2-4; P.J. Dipietro, ‘Neither Humans, Nor Animals, Nor Monsters: Decolonizing Transgender Embodiments’, eidos, 34 (2020), pp.254-291.

[7] T. Boellstorff, M. Cabral, M. Cárdenas, T. Cotton, E. Stanley, K. Young, A. Aizura, ‘Decolonizing Transgender: A Roundtable Discussion’, TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly, 1/3, 2014, pp.419-439.

[8] J. Serano, Whipping Girl, ch.8.

[9] O. Gust, ‘The Students; Foregrounding Difference’ in A. Nye and J. Clark (eds), Teaching History for the Contemporary World (New York: Springer, 2021), pp.43-55.

 

 

 

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