Monday, May 22, 2017

Wear Your Advocacy: Transliterature Opens an Online Store!

“Sche gan to brewyn

The Book of Margery Kempe
(Good for much but not business advice)

Transliterature Online is proud to announce the opening of an online store. Currently, the selection is limited to an assortment of button designs but more styles and items will soon be coming. All proceeds from the sales will go to funding important charities, starting with the Transgender Travel Fund run by the Society for Medieval Feminist Scholarship that just this year brought two trans scholars to the Medieval Congress at Kalamazoo, Michigan, an important conference for those interested in engaging in studies of the Middle Ages.

This year, the goal was to print a few buttons as prototypes to test to see if there was any demand for such a venture. Based on initial interest, a pilot order was placed for packs of 10 buttons in each of the four original designs. The hope was to sell enough to match the cost of the buttons (which would be covered by Transliterature as a donation) and have a few extra to give away at a later event. How surprised was I when the buttons sold out within 24 hours! The total funds generated by the pilot program was $150. At a certain point, the prototypes began to be sold as well as the buttons off my coat, and still a wait list began to develop.

For future conferences, I will continue to try out new designs as well as some of the old, so everyone who wants to donate and get a button can. Likely, there will start to be designs exclusive to specific events, available only at the conference. In any case, even if this is a temporary experiment, Transliterature is proud to be able to facilitate funding toward some great causes and working with you to build advocacy for important issues. Thank you for your investment and interest!


"A Trans Middle Ages Matters" Button 
(mini and 2.5 inch single or 10 pack)

"They called me the LOATHLY LADY before I was nasty" Button (mini and 2.5 inch single or 10 pack)

"Queer Gower: Confess Love, Voice Pride, Reflect Your Truth" Button (mini and 2.5 inch single or 10 pack)

"Mad for Margery" Button (mini and 2.5 inch single or 10 pack)

"#Transform" Button (mini and 2.5 inch single or 10 pack)


Monday, May 8, 2017

Transgender Can Save the Middle Ages: A Letter to the International Congress on Medieval Studies

“You ask me what I want this year
And I try to make this kind and clear
Just a chance that maybe we'll find better days

The Goo Goo Dolls

Dear friends in the Medieval Congress,

I don't know most of you personally, although I would like to begin. Most of you don't know me, although that is less important. What is more important is that we all could stand to know more about all the great people in the trans community. Let me tell you a bit about them:

A magical moment happened in my house about a week ago. It was bedtime and I was reading to our 10-year-old and our 7-year-old. I usually begin with a bit of educational literature before moving on to the fiction. Well, this night I had just put down "This Book is Gay," a primer on the spectrum of gender and sexual diversity, when our youngest raised their hand. I was expecting a question (they ask great questions) but to my surprise they had an admission. They wanted to confess that years ago, when they first remember learning about LGBT identities from me, they had assumed (not yet realizing that having two moms wasn't a norm) that it was a distinctly medieval thing. Can you imagine? I am guessing that like me you learned about LGBT culture AFTER or separately from learning about the Middle Ages. But for this child, the gender queer kid of a trans lesbian family, the Middle Ages started as a queer place before it was anything else. I'm not asking for laughs, I'm just telling you about family.

That was a good night but there are harder nights. I try to read or adapt medieval stories to read to my kids. Some nights are easier. Our kids LOVE the Tale of Chanticleer. Talking animals? Big fans. Kissing butts and farts out the window? They eat that up! But then I turn to the next Tale and I see the rape of young women. I turn it again and I see women being treated as property. I turn it again and I see a father cut off his girl's head as she begs for him to reconsider. Those are harder nights. Then I still go in there to read to them. I'm not asking for pity, I'm telling you about an institution of sexism.

Then there are the days that I get approached by people on the street, at conferences, or via e-mail. I hear from established medievalists about how they are transgender but haven't been able to come out because they fear the ridicule of fellow medievalists. At conferences and online we hear the jokes. You may not know we are listening. You may not know we are trans. But we hear you. Then I find some way to respond to them. I'm not asking for explanations, I'm telling you about your colleagues.

Then there are times I hear this, "How are YOU a medievalist?" I've gotten this from prominent scholars in Trans Studies (if you are familiar with the field, you know their names) as they looked me up and down, then proceeded into a diatribe about the marginalization of female scholars, Catholicism, and male supremacy. There are many who share their view and there are real instances, even traditions, that contribute to this concern. Many in transgender studies find it hard to move into medieval studies because of some valid fears. Even if this is hardly representative of the whole of transgender or medieval studies, they voice issues that deserve to be answered. Then I (and others) find some way to defend the field. I'm not asking for thanks, I'm telling you how our profession is perceived.

Then there are times when I'm grabbing coffee with early career scholars, young women, who just aren't sure how or if there could be a place for them in the profession. The job market is brutal for those of us who are lucky enough to find work. And most are not that lucky. And we hear about male supremacist websites, about institutions intentionally favoring male candidates. And we hear men joking about how "feminism" or "transgender" is taking over everything, how funny it all is, how no one can take a joke. Then we find some way to support each other to keep sending applications. I'm not asking for you to surrender your sense of humor (although I would recommend the better brands), I'm tell you about how many women are getting Ph.Ds in medieval studies and how few of them are getting hired.

Then there is me packing my bags for Kalamazoo, like I do every year, like I plan to for many years to come. And one of the things I am packing, which is there every year, is anxiety and frustration. I recall the mocking of women, feminism, transgender persons, and the small gestures being made to give us back a bit of our dignity. I recall how last year there were two panels on transgender and intersex in the Middle Ages, how this year there are none. I get ready to go through the TSA and their policy of groping each trans person's genitals EVERY TIME because we don't match the 3D models programmed inside their body scanners. I recall how hard it is for me to get to the conference each year and imagine how hard it is for others. I will find out, as I do every year, who decided it wasn't worth the fight and stayed home. Then I'll find some way to encourage them to consider trying again next year. I'm not asking for the Medieval Congress to radically change, I'm telling you about what stands in the way of it growing.

This letter is not an attack. I'm just telling you about my community. I'm telling you about a side of your community that may not be the parts you get to see. I'm not asking for you to make everything better all at once. I'm asking that you try to make it a little better today than it was yesterday. Even if you stumble today, it will soon be yesterday and then you can try again. This letter is my way of saying that I'll be there along side you in the Medieval Congress because like you I love what we try to do here. I love it so much that I want us to do it better. I want it to be better for those who don't come or can't come. I want it to be better for those who might come or will come in the future. I want it to be better for those who are being ridiculed. I want it to be better for those who don't get it yet because you deserve to know how much better things can be. I want it to be better because I know so many amazing women and trans people who will revolutionize and revitalize any profession in which they are able to be a part. I want it to be better because I know that the Middle Ages are worth studying for everyone. I want it to be better because I know that women can save the Middle Ages. I want it to be better because I know that transgender can save the Middle Ages.

So don't do it for me. Do it for them. If you can't do it for them, do it for yourself because you deserve to be a part of a Medieval Studies that does a better job at making the world better.


A friend



Sunday, March 26, 2017

Genres of Embodiment: On Judith Butler's Gender Trouble

"She likes her boys to be girls"

Judith Butler

The problem of passing is the target against which Stone’s essay intends to strike back against because of its work of erasing transgender history, stories, and lives. In order to combat the gravitational force passing exerts to bring the creative composition back into the binary framework Stone turns to the body. For Derrida, the body is an event (or iteration) that remains opens to new encounters and creative possibilities. For Butler, the body is an object of desire that arises out of the admixture of the culturally intelligible ground and the figure it embodies. The turn to Butler in “the Posttranssexual Manifesto” functions as a logical expansion of the creativity of genre (i.e. if there are more than two genres, how do these genres manifest in gender communities?) but also to bring discourse of gender back to consider how trans embodiment is desirable in and of itself.

“As one lesbian femme explained,” writes Butler, “she likes her boys to be girls, meaning that ‘being a girl’ contextualizes and resignifies ‘masculinity’ in a butch identity. As a result, that masculinity, if that it can be called, is always brought into relief against a culturally intelligible ‘female body.’”[1] Butler stresses in the follow-up to Gender Trouble, for all the discourse of gender and genre it’s Bodies That Matter.[2] “Matter” or “mattering” for Butler is also a verb. We might also use the word embody. Bodies matter by embodying certain genres, even those supposed to belong to other bodies. So specific is butch womanhood, femme lesbians may specifically desire it over butch manhood or any other form of gender. The genre of embodiment matters insofar as it is valued and insofar as it participates in masculinity without belonging to it. For those who only recognize male and female as “culturally intelligible” a woman may be a woman, but for those in the know, butch and femme are distinct genres of embodiment.

As trans genres of embodying enter discourse they deconstruct assumptions of forms, methods, and orientations while also offer distinct objects that may be pursued for their own sake. A founder of discourse in trans studies, Stone cites Butler’s work on butches and femmes as useful and comparable genres to emergent trans identities, “Butler introduces the concept of cultural intelligibility, and suggests that the contextualized and resignified ‘masculinity’ of the butch, seen against a culturally intelligible ‘female’ body, invokes a dissonance that both generates a sexual tension and constitutes the object of desire.”[3] In other words, transgender does more than just disturb others’ sense of gender and sexuality; transgender embodies something, does something, and builds something that matters in its own right. A critical trans approach is not just trying to deconstruct gender and genre as an exercise in language but in order to make room for new genres of embodiment to become culturally intelligible and be recognized as mattering.

Where do the divisions of genders and new fields stop? Butler calls such questions an ontological crisis that occurs in society at large as well as in academy when the terms “transgenderism and transsexuality” are introduced, distinctions of gender she considers an acute enough division as “lesbian and gay” or “butch and femme.” The former draws stronger associations to psychiatric diagnosis and the latter with surgical operations. Both embody gender in different ways different from one another but also distinctly trans. How is it useful to say they are both trans genres of embodiment? Take the example of a Goth girl and boy in high school may be able to share more music, clothing, and make-up than the Goth girl and her cheerleader classmate. Choice of association is key but a teacher observing her students might be able to deduce the same by what Stone and Butler call “culturally intelligible” embodiments.


So why is it necessary to make trans genres of embodiment culturally legible? So different members can share clothing tips! So a person and community can be useful to another. Transgender is an umbrella where people and fields can work together but also an archive and a critical methodology with insights to share. “What about the notion, suggested by Kate Bornstein,” asks Butler, “that a transsexual… must be approached through active verbs that attest to the constant transformation which ‘is’ the new identity or, indeed, the ‘in-betweenness’ that puts the being of gendered identity into question?”[4] As Prosser tactically jokes, “transitioning is what transsexuals do.” Trans persons can offer advice and technologies to other trans persons going through transitions, even if their transitions are different. In the details, all transitions are necessarily different. Even across time, transsexuality studies have insights to offer the study of medieval eunuchs.

Trans genres of embodiment may offer a way of making sense of bodies that are not currently culturally intelligible. A critical trans method of reading gender looks for “the same in the other,” features that connects and articulates trans modes of embodiment where others only seem confusion or contradiction. This is one reason Butler address transgender in her examination of Gender Trouble, “a certain crisis in ontology… has become more acute as we consider various new forms of gendering that have emerged in light of transgenderism and transsexuality.”[5] A difficulty arises insofar as the same in the other may exist between trans persons, medieval and modern, but not necessarily between cisgender persons and either era of transgender. In short, in order for medieval figures to be culturally intelligible as trans, medieval scholars may need to become familiar with various new forms of transgender described in contemporary trans studies and literatures.

Entrance into transgender studies demands a certain familiarity and competence with disturbances. Whereas the compulsion to pass orders transgender histories to erase moments that break from the norm and reorient back to cis binaries of male and female, critical trans studies to affirm new networks of what bodies and what body parts matter, what Butler calls, “the sexed body as ‘ground’” as well as the technologies with which those bodies compose themselves into culturally intelligible genres, “the butch or femme identity as ‘figure’ [that] can shift, invert, and create erotic havoc of various sorts.”[6] Trans-ing embodiment means looking at the dysphoria and diagnosis of transgender, the scars and scalpels of transsexuality, the clothing changes of transvestism, as well as the chromosomes and “secondary” characteristics of intersex to discover and claim the narratives, tropes, and tools as primary in producing particular genres of embodiment.

Trans studies is more than a definition of a diagnosis or a queer disturbance in the gender binary, as transgender has functioned for decades as a big tent. A key part of Stone’s manifesto is that there is no one easy definition of transgender. This is the reason Stone offers genres a model of thinking about trans genders as well as why she points to Butler’s work on butch and femmes when she writes on “the proliferation of specifically gay discourses of sexual difference, as in the case of ‘butch’ and ‘femme’ as historical identities of sexual style,” also citing, “queens, butches, femmes, girls, even the parodic reappropriation of dyke, queer, and fag.”[7] The work of transgender demands more than a single monolithic definition. Once one gets into the study of transgender one discovers a vast network of interconnecting histories and embodiments. Far from deconstructing gender into oblivion, genres of embodiment demand a broad field of complexity.


The work of genres of embodiment is to allow the silenced body to speak of all the arts, the histories, materials, relationships and transitions that go into composing it. Opening the stitches and scar tissue of eunuchs and transsexuals to let them speak, navigating the conflicts of dysphoria in order to give voice to silenced calls for reform, all of this this can be painful and difficult. “I could not ask a transsexual for anything more inconceivable than to forgo passing, to be consciously ‘read,’ to read oneself aloud—and by this troubling and productive reading, to begin to write oneself into the discourses by which one has been written ”[8] Culturally intelligible trans bodies and genres, histories and literatures emerge out of plausible histories, often breaking the systems which have allowed for us to personally and collectively belong for so long.

To make plausible histories, trans-ness is explained away, elided as exceptional, or erased. Defining passing, Stone articulates it as a form of ahistorical belonging, “to be accepted as a ‘natural’ member of that gender. Passing means the denial of mixture. One and the same with passing is effacement of the prior gender role, or the construction of a plausible history.”[9] These plausible histories are not only personal but collective. A plausible history of the middle ages is one where a cis man can uncritically consider a medieval knight as a natural ancestor or himself a natural heir to his manhood. Such a history does not allow for shifts in genres of manhood that occur in intervening centuries and the figures whose lives’ testify to the transition and diversity of genres.

Conversely, a trans person who denies a cultural ancestry with eunuchs and hermaphrodites likewise creates a plausible history where forms and eras do not mix. In order to “belong” to a binary society and field, the specifics of history are smoothed over to be considered “plausible” and the narratives forced into standard forms to be “culturally intelligible.” Of such histories, Stone writes, “[t]ranssexuals who pass seem able to ignore the fact that by creating totalized, monistic identities, forgoing physical and subjective intertextuality, they have foreclosed the possibility of authentic relationships,” and consequently, “transsexuals know that silence can be an extremely high price to pay for acceptance.”[10] The price of a gender that cuts across all time or a temporally exclusive one—existing only within one period—is the denial of relations to other persons or possible ways of life. In the end, both histories of passing are ahistorical as they do not account for change or diversity as a natural result of the evolution of gender over time.

A close reading of bodies across history suggest that cisgender binaries may have never existed and certainly do not exist now. Seen from within genres of embodiment, the problem is not that bodies are truly silent but have been silenced because we do not yet know how to make them culturally intelligible, so we pass over their stories and histories. As Arthur K. Frank observes of the Wounded Storyteller, “[t]he body is not mute, but it is inarticulate; it does not use speech but begets it… Hearing the body in the speech it begets is never an easy task.”[11] We can get lost in all the genres of speech they beget as they are born, wounded, and transition. The challenge of listening is that we cannot know the meaning of bodies in advance. New forms, narratives, and languages may be needed to hear what is said. To trans embodiment may begin as simply as listening to bodies. The task may be hard but once we begin to listen we find that bodies are too full of speech. By listening with trans lives, not only do their forms take shape but the tools and stories, the genres of embodiment that they turn to in order to compose themselves.

[1] Butler 156.

[2] Judith Butler. Bodies That Matter: The Discursive Limits of Sex. New York: Routledge, 1993.

[3] Stone 230.

[4] Butler xi-xii.

[5] Butler xi-xii.

[6] Butler 157.

[7] Butler 41, 156.

[8] Stone 232.

[9] Stone 231.

[10] Stone 232.

[11] Arthur K. Frank. The Wounded Storyteller: Body, Illness, and Ethics. London: The University of Chicago Press, 2013. 27.


More on Genres of Embodiment

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Genres of Embodiment: On Jacques Derrida's Law of Genre

"Why gost thu in white? 
Art thu a mayden?"

Book of Margery Kempe

Taking up Stone’s theory of genre answers both needs to account for the creativity within cultural embodiments and change within cultural genealogies. Such definitions of gender, Stone attests, arise from the insistence on a rule of genre that Derrida critiques in his “Law of Genre.” Stone writes, “A transsexual who passes is obeying the Derridean imperative: ‘Genres are not to be mixed. I will not mix genres.’”[1] The reference to Derrida’s “Law of Genre” is a logical extension both of what Stone does to gender and what she does to genre but thinking them together. Starting with the claim, “I will not mix genres,” drawn from a structuralist understanding of categories that seeks to naturalize divisions in art and society, Derrida falls on the side of post-structuralism that affirms division but asserts that it is not natural, ahistorical, or absolute.[2]

The nature of genre defies the force to deny mixture. Etymologically, gender and genre share roots through French, the language of Derrida’s “Law of Genre,” where the sexual meanings, the literary meanings, and generally categorical meanings do mix. Because both derive from the Latin, “genus,” meaning category in general, when the poststructuralist selects and uses the word, genre, he means to play with the intermeshed iterations of genre. Things that share a genus are supposed to belong together, as specified in the definition of gender that derives from it, “the fact, condition, or property of belonging to such a class.”[3] A genus as a statement of belonging to one category is then defined against every other genus in a statement of not belonging. Yet as literature and art, genre does mix at times. Blues becomes Jazz, combines together with Bluegrass to become Rock and Roll.[4] Each genre is different but also mix and transition into one another from time to time. So too with gender, where bodies are defined and divided but come together, mix, and transform if only to generate more bodies; and sometimes mix to form something new, a body which does not belong to either genre, gender, or genus.


The law of genus not to mix is eventually broken whenever genre is enacted. For the poststructuralist, genre is not just something that exists but is enacted. There is no genre separate from specific texts that fit into a genre, that enact genre by belonging or not belonging. For Derrida, this “not belonging” which defines one from another genre is another ways that genres belong together. Men are not women and so need women to tell them who they are. Yet even this division, what Derrida calls a “hymen,” by its nature, will produce embodiments of that division whose function it seems is to split the two, to enact the law, and as a result belonging to neither. Without yet naming transgender, Derrida imagines its existence as a logical extension of language and literature:

“The question of the literary genre is not a formal one: it covers the motif of the law in general, of generation in the natural and symbolic senses, of birth in the natural and symbolic senses, of the generation difference, sexual difference between the feminine and masculine genre/gender, of the hymen between the two, of a relationless relation between the two, of an identity and difference between the feminine and masculine.”[5]

Male and female generate one another in nature, Derrida acknowledges, but also in language, with man and woman defining one another as that genre to which I do not belong. Yet gender is not merely a structure but an enactment; gender is gendering. If gender is a process of becoming embodied, then there are intermediary phases, persons not fully gendered and texts not fully belonging to a genre. One might imagine a fetus going through development in the womb, or even after, where an infant undergoes many changes into adulthood. This in-between phase may follow the telos of the law of genre, working to embody male or female distinctly, but so long as the gendering, the work of genre is underway, different forms and mixed forms are embodied. Before we become cisgender men or women, we exist in a trans mode of transition.


Forecasting the later use of genre within transgender studies, Derrida names this process of genre as well as the created genres “transsexual.” Derrida writes, “genres pass into each other. And we will not be barred from thinking that this mixing of genres, viewed in light of the madness of sexual difference, may bear some relation to the mixing of literary genres. ‘I,’ then, can keep alive the chance of being a female or of changing sex. His transsexuality permits him, in a more than metaphorical and transferential way, to engender” (La trans-sexualité me permet, de façon plus que métaphorique et transférentielle, d'engendrer).[6] For Derrida, trans genre goes beyond being a mere offshoot but grows outward from inherent development within the law of genre. Indeed, trans genres of embodiment seem to keep a system of gender functional. Just as culture tropes and figures develop in one genre and then move into the next, the genre changes composition. The shift is more than a mere “transferential” movement where one body moves from on structure of gender and genre to another without change to the body or structure. Likewise, the shift is more than merely performative or “metaphorical” in any way where “this” figure or trope functions “as that” without a change to its overall composition. This is because genre is not mere descriptive of things that are but a system, an ecology of forms, within the wider life of discourse. The bringing together and exchanging of associations is creative and transformative. These genres, especially as they construct and reconstruct gender, are not limited to the proliferation of discourse in any way that is limited to language. In Derridian’s conception of genre as a system of discourse, the narratives we tell are not fundamentally separate from the narratives we live. The one orients and limits the other, and visa versa. If transsexuals did not exist, literature would soon create them out of a genealogy that cites art and society as parents.

Yet the creativity of genre is not merely a matter of wordplay and logic but actively participates in creative arts of embodying and composing gender. It is not enough to say that transgender is an essential part of gender and genre discursively, without acknowledging that trans genres have implications on the countless iterations of gendered embodiments, histories, and identities. Crimmin cites how Derrida stresses, “[the] structure of iteration—and this is another of its decisive traits—implies both identity and difference.”[7] Iteration is easy enough to understand. Beyond being one of many periods in which trans genres of embodiment exist, within genealogical structures medieval trans genres are responsible for how trans lives are created, narrated, and engendered in future generations. Genres of embodiment are creative in the biological sense of creating genealogies of trans cultures, identities, and literatures.


There is a danger in considering genealogies of gender as too biological, however, because it might draw us to consider genres of embodiment as something wholly defined by nature at birth. The creativity of genre is that as an ongoing action, within a personal or collective history, any number of variations and differentiations occur. How then do we account for the transitioning of genres within trans genres? How do we account for the number of people who exist in a specifically trans form of gender before becoming more fixed within a cisgender identity? This may be perceived by a question or problem by frameworks that want to assert transgender as a fixed genus in the way cis male and females profess the law of genre: someone is only trans so long as they remain trans and never mix with cis forms of gendering. By rejecting the resolution to the law of genre is what qualifies trans theories of embodiment as a departure on how genre defines identity.

As a function of genre, identity is not a fixed genus but yet another enactment. One might effectively say there is no such thing as identity separate from the process of identification. Yet without a fixed identity, a trans method of genre would suggest that there is no such thing as absolute belonging –not only for transgender persons but any gendered being— even though one participates in an identity (i.e. enact identification). Crimmins concludes from Derrida, “I would speak of a sort of participation without belonging” [participation sans appartenance ]. The participation-without-belonging of the mark creates the possibility that future instances may fall within the genre.”[8] Although all iterations of a body and text are unique, substantiating a genre in themselves, once a genre is defined they invite others to identify. One may say that there is no continuity within a self (an “I”) without identifying with other iterations of the self.

Transgender history and literature can teach, how transition challenges the self to labor at the work of identifying across time, iteration, and difference in order to tell a story as essential as a life story. Yet even outside trans lives there is no escape from the demand. Any attempt to compose the self or to classify a text or body, concludes Derrida, is to invite others (even other iterations of the self) to join in this classicization through an act of identification, “simultaneously and indiscernibly saying ‘I’ and ‘we’ […] without it being possible to think that the ‘I’ is a species of the genre ‘we.’”[9] The adult “I” and the child “I” identify as one same life but also exist across time and iteration as a “we.” The medieval and modern form of a genre are different “I”’s yet may be generated by the same genre to form a “we.” The historical particularities are not lost but are tied to the same engines that created and connected other historical particularities.


Yet if all genres function with a degree of trans contingency, why not fold trans figures back into conventional forms, reincorporate Jazz into Blues or trans women into women? Why not pass as cis women? Derrida opens up a possibility for the reintegration of hybrids when he suggests that all women experience moments of participating but not belonging in womanhood, the law of genre usually applies but not always for everyone,

not to woman or even…to the female genre/gender, or to the generality of the feminine genre but… ‘usually’ to women… This ‘usually’ avoids treating the feminine as a general and generic force; it makes an opening for the event, the performance, the uncertain contingencies, the encounter[10]

That every woman participates but does not always belong, even if usually the two seem to go together, begs the question whether trans studies is necessary as a separate field or is it only a correct to the law of genre? Can we not simply consider trans women within the history of women and leave the trans-ness of gender and genre as a given?

In the end, Derrida seems undo “the Law of Genre” through a method that can be used to simultaneously affirm “the Law of Genre” in another way. Could transgender just be a way to fill in gaps in the wall between men and women? Perhaps yes but Derrida (and Stone) seem to have more faith in the creativity of genre. If trans women are women in another way, participating in womanhood as well as in forms of gender not belonging to men or women, then why not explore these other forms as objects of art in themselves? If we are creative enough to find ways to fill in the holes in the wall between men and women, are we not creative enough to make other things, such as doors? Derrida calls such a gap an “event,” “performance,” “uncertain contingency,” or “encounter.” If in the composition of genres we embody the wall, the gaps, and the fixes, are we not already more than just women? The problem of passing demands that we consider embodiments.

More on Genres of Embodiment

[1] Stone 232.

[2] Jacques Derrida. “Law of Genre.” Critical Inquiry. 7.1. On Narrative. Avital Ronell trans. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1980.

[3] “Gender, n.”

[4] “Rock n’ Roll.”

[5] Derrida 74.

[6] Derrida 76.

[7] Jonathan Crimmins. “Gender, Genre, and the Near Future in Derrida’s ‘the Law of Genre,’” Diacritics 39.1. (Spring). Baltimore: John Hopkins University, 2009. 45-III.

[8] Crimmins 47.

[9] Derrida. 56-7.

[10] Derrida 75.


Sunday, March 12, 2017

Genres of Embodiment: On Sandy Stone's Manifesto

"I suggest constituting transsexuals 
not as a class or problematic 'third gender,'
but rather as a genre "

Sandy Stone

Transgender studies as an emergent field of study continues to wrestle between different definitions of transgender and trans. What the word means determines in many respects what the word does or can do. A landmark definition arrived with the first publication of the Transgender Studies Reader, wherein Susan Stryker writes of the words ascent within identity politics, “Transgender, in this sense, was a ‘pangender’ umbrella term for an imagined community, encompassing transsexuals, drag queens, butches, hermaphrodites, cross-dressers, masculine women, effeminate men, sissies, tomboys, and anybody else willing to be interpolated by the term, who felt the call to mobilization.”[1] What distinguishes this definition was both its investment in identity, inclusion, and volition. Transgender was not merely a relational term. While “queer” or “gender queer” is often defined in relation to some norm, transgender included a variety of identities that were, in a sense, fully formed constructs within their own rights and norms.[2] The second quality, the inclusiveness of this definition disrupts the settling or isolation of the identity. Transgender as an identity and a field of study was not just the study of one thing but many things. Entrance into this inclusive umbrella identity is determined by willingness. Stryker’s description suggests that while nested identities may or may not be choices, claiming the label transgender is chiefly an act of agency and one aimed at forging collective agency with other identities that also chose to be included. Within contemporary identity politics, this definition of transgender is effective insofar as it includes those who wish and does not presume to include those who do not wish. Yet the features that makes the definition useful for current politics makes it less useful for history and literature.

Historical figures and literary figures that do not exist within the sphere of contemporary identity politics are often excluded from the definitions of transgender because they cannot willingly vote for inclusion. The reason for this policy is that persons will not be feel that their identity is being represented by some monolithic figure which have not elected and might seemly wholly foreign to them, “that no voice in the dialog should have privilege masking the particularities and specificities of its own speaking position, through which it may claim false universality or authority.”[3] This refusal of transgender as a historical or literary term that scholars might apply is based both on the desire to present agency and ensure inclusivity. Yet by insisting on the power of voiced assent to transgender as an identity, a problematic tension arises because in fact this works against its goals of inclusivity. Modern transgender becomes, against its own best wishes, a universal authority that elides the particular features, circumstances, and genealogies of historical figures (real or imagined) that reflect and contribute to the cultural power of a transgender identity from which it is excluded. In some cases, those who might be recognized as historically trans find that the isolation and silence they experienced in their own time is reiterate and compounded by modern trans scholars.[4] Those who were rejected as men and women in their own time are denied the voice that a trans identity, history, and politics might offer by cultural descendants who likewise found themselves between the stools of male and female. As is the case in women and people of color who were not allowed to vote for their own enfranchisement, the masses are denied the ability to gain agency and voice due to they are required to already have agency and voice enough to vote. Transgender ends up limited and defined by those with the blessings of historical circumstance, agency, and language to show up.


So what is the alternative to universal temporal supremacy of those familiar with modern English identity politics? Could we allow eunuchs or Amazons to join hermaphrodites, transsexuals, and cross-dressers under the umbrella of transgender? These are central questions that motivate a critical historical and literary mode of studying transgender. There are dangers in choosing the benefits of inclusion over exclusion for those who cannot vote in our modern identity politics. Yet Stryker admits that this danger exists within the inclusiveness of transgender at any level, “[t]he conflation of many types of gender variance into the single shorthand term, ‘transgender; particularly when this collapse into a single genre of personhood crosses the boundaries that divide the West from the rest of the world, holds both peril and promise.”[5] The central concern Stryker stresses time and again is one of complexity over simplicity and democracy over tyranny. In this way, if we understand the volition clause as aimed at protecting against universality and affirming multiplicity, than the goal of extending enfranchisement in transgender studies to those without the power to vote, such as medieval Pardoners and saints, would only further affirm that there is no one way, place, or time to be transgender. Dangers remain by simply and ignorantly calling eunuchs “transgender,” insofar as drawing on modern associations might dissuade readers from considering the medieval associations. Yet such short hand of volition based transgender definition likewise might affirm modern associations at the expense of multiple complex histories. In both reductions, eunuchs are erased from the conversation. An effective historical and literary mode of transgender studies thus must double down in inclusiveness as a function of multiplicity. Associations are drawn but not reduced, between modern cross-dressers and transsexuals, or between eunuchs and transsexuals.

The way forward into transgender pasts may already be nascent in the term, “genre,” that Stryker employs and which draws her back to a source that she regards as “an important cornerstone for transgender studies,” that is: Sandy Stone’s “the Empire Strikes Back: A Posttranssexual Manifesto.”[6] In the essay, Stone suggests that in articulating the meaning of transgender that scholars begin to think of gender in terms of genre as a way to move towards a multiplicity inclusive of the past. Stone writes, “I suggest constituting transsexuals not as a class or problematic "third gender", but rather as a genre— a set of embodied texts whose potential for productive disruption of structured sexualities and spectra of desire has yet to be explored. In order to effect this, the genre of visible transsexuals must grow by recruiting members from the class of invisible ones, from those who have disappeared into their ‘plausible histories.’”[7] These “plausible histories” include those who deny or are denied trans identity by choice or circumstance, making them “invisible.” This invisibility may offer the benefit of passing but it denies them the agency being generated within trans discourse. Transgender as an umbrella must be in a sense evangelical, recruiting beyond those already present and speaking to consider those not in the room, those who never made it in the room, those nobody thought to invite. Genres as creative enterprises are necessarily inclusive, generating new forms of art, identity, and association by continually mixing of “embodied texts.” By following a person or a culture from blues to jazz to rock n’ roll, not only does a fuller more accurate history given but affirm they do not arises out of nothing.[8] Cultures grow and change, finding new forms of expression as circumstances, language, and technologies change. Rock and roll is not jazz but would not exist without it, so transsexuals are not all eunuchs but owe a debt of history to the music they made.


Genealogies of transvestism and genealogies of transsexuality cross and combine at places but also diverge, substantiating multiple genres with multiple histories. A critical part of the inclusivity of non-modern forms of transgender is the further divesting of any one form of transgender as monolithic. There is more than one way to be, to embody, to culturally occupy transgender. Even among modern trans person, different forms seem to take president at different times. At one moment, wearing the clothes of a gender other than the one assigned by society was key. At another moment, sex reassignment surgery (SRS), now “gender affirming surgery” (GAS) or Gender Confirmation Surgery (GCS), operations were the hallmark.[9] Later, a psychiatric diagnosis, such as gender identity disorder or gender dysphoria, seems to hold a privileged place of authority over who and what is “really trans.” Stone writes, “So long as we, whether academics, clinicians, or transsexuals, ontologize both sexuality and transsexuality in this [or any one] way, we have foreclosed the possibility of analyzing desire and motivational complexity in a manner which adequately describes the multiple contradictions of individual lived experience.”[10] As feminists have argued that there is more than one way to be a woman, trans feminists truly say that there is more than one way to be a trans woman. The challenge is one of imagination as well of careful analysis. Being able to imagine other forms of trans embodiment requires letting go of certain preconceptions of what transgender is. Likewise, being able to see trans life in other forms requires a certain careful insistence on seeing the same in the other. An eunuch’s castration and a transsexual’s sex change operation observe different techniques, products, and cultural meanings. Yet both share a lineage of surgery, scar tissue, and a focus on the genitals as significant for gender identity.[11] Indeed, as inroads into the past begin to be built, the modern forms of transgender seem to point down different roads.

Moving from transgender as a monolithic identity to trans genres of embodiment pushes scholarship to consider the multiplicity of creative forms of being and relating in the world that nonetheless have particular themes, technologies, plots, and functions. Stryker argues that transgender does not arise out of a single discipline or mechanism but spans several, “linguistic, social, and physical categories.”[12] As a result, many communities within the larger transgender umbrella can be identified through linguistic networks. In this way, it is true that one way of studying and identifying transgender is by the use of the modern English word “transgender.” Yet other peoples that share social and physical traits with transgender may possess unique words that identify them within non-English speaking communities. This particularity should not automatically disqualify groups or persons from trans identification. Thus while linguistic differences might be noted, there may be reasons to consider transgender as a social and physical category, or even a historical and literary community as well. As a field that combines many disciplines, transgender studies benefits from developing a wide range of methodologies to develop the increasing number and complexity of ways to be trans. “In a world bent on becoming one, transgender studies grappled with the imperative of counting past two, when enumerating significant forms of gendered personhood,” writes Stryker.[13] Transgender studies turns out less a dissection of a single discreet but understudied gender and more a field of discourse where many genders meet. Towards this end, in the next sections, I will examine how a theory of transgender as “genres of embodiment,” gets scholars closer to the complex creative interdisciplinary work that is transgender studies, giving particular focus to disciplines, gender and genre studies, each featuring an intellectual source for Stone’s genre theory, Jacques Derrida and Judith Butler.


[1]Susan Stryker. “Desubjugated Knowledge: An Introduction to Transgender Syudies.” Transgender Studies Reader. Susan Stryker and Stephen Whittle ed. New York: Routledge, 2006. 4.

[2] "genderqueer, adj.". OED Online. March 2017. Oxford University Press. (accessed April 21, 2017).

[3] Stryker, Desubjugated Knowledge, 12.

[4] The silence in the archive on Eleanor Rykenor reflects a politically silenced life. Dinshaw 100.

[5]Stryker, Desubjugated Knowledge, 14.

[6] Ibid. 4.

[7] Stone 231.

[8] Rock n Roll is generally defined as a hybrid and evolution, an amalgam of rhythm and blues, country music, and Chicago electric blues (typically played by Southern musicians).” "rock 'n' roll, n. and adj.". OED Online. March 2017. Oxford University Press. (accessed April 21, 2017).

[9] “Transgender Terminology.” Human Resources. Cornell University. Web. (Accessed 1 April 2017).

[10] Stone 231.

[11] Piotr O. Scholz. Eunuchs and Castrati: A Cultural History. John A Broadwin and Shelley L Frisch trans. (Princeton: Markus Wiener Publishers, 1999). 3, 234.

[12] Stryker 9.

[13] Stryker 8.


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