Monday, October 1, 2018

A Shelf of One's Own: An Argument for Transgender Literature


"I could not help thinking, as I looked at the works of Shakespeare on the shelf, 
that the bishop was right at least in this; 
it would have been impossible, completely and entirely, for any woman 
to have written the plays of Shakespeare in the age of Shakespeare."

A Room of One's Own
Virginia Woolf
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Introduction

Sitting at my desk, I set down my copy of A Room of One's Own and look over at the shelves of my library and ask myself the question: where is the transgender amidst all this literature? I think about Virginia Woolf's shelf where she saw no plays by women and where she had to search hard for women and the fiction they write, the fiction written about women, or the texts where women, their fiction and fiction about them are all entangled together. And I ask, how can I constitute such a shelf of trans literature? Among what books should I find about trans stories? Among what books should I find trans people telling their stories? What books could make up a shelf of the theories that bind transgender and literature together? I ask this question not just because Woolf asked her question but rather her question gives language for a question, or more than a question, already inside me. 

Like the dysphoria that at once made my own lack of a shelf unlivable and made the striving for a shelf of my own a necessity, I feel such a dysphoria living also in my library. I feel the weight of fatalism, grave silence, and ghosts at the present lack of a shelf unbearable and also a euphoria at the prospect of a shelf of our own coming-to-be. This dysphoric need for trans literature, for a transition in the fields of transgender and literary studies, is as critical and consequential as the dysphoria felt in the chest of many a trans person. I see this need among the living, among individual trans people who are compelled to narrate and re-narrate their families, friends, jobs, doctors who recommend therapists, therapists who might sign their verifying letters, lawyers who might help translate those letters into name and gender marker changes, judges who approve those name and gender marker changes, the department of motor vehicles who make those changes to one's license, the department of social security who make those changes to one's social security card, the federal government who make those changes to one's passport, the therapist again to recommend an endochronologist or surgeon, the endochronologist, the sergeon, the pharmacist, the insurance company to cover all these expenses, and then and then and then more. 

I also see this in all those who never got the chance to tell this story even once or when they did tell their story then had their story untold: the Leelah Alcorns and all those trans people who are buried under the dead-names, names that killed them dead and now mark as dead the trans life that could have been. 

I see this in all the trans lives that still might be if only they knew how to tell their story, if only their family and school and doctor and church could hear and understand their story. And I see how often those transgender futures are denied like so much of our transgender past, how a recent 2018 study found that between 38-44 percent of trans people will attempt suicide in their lives. I see one in three transgender futures dissapear without anyone to tell their story. I see one in two transgender futures dispear without anyone to tell their story.

That is why I call the need for trans literature dysphoric. Because dysphoria is about disatisfaction with the present, about grief for what has been denied in the past, and about hope for the future. I call the need for trans literature dysphoric because I see the shelf of our own that may yet come to be and I see the library of shelves which might have existed but which were never allowed to exist. And so with these shelves of ghosts and shelves of dreams, I return to the question that Virginia Woolf showed me how to ask: where is the transgender literature? How might we have a shelf of our own and how might this shelf grow bigger, book by book, as we slowly try to make the library that is come close to the library that might have been. Perhaps one day we will find balance between the told and untold stories. Perhaps one day the living stories will outnumber the dead. But for now, today, I begin with a question, or something more. As I once did when I began striving for a shelf of my own, I will assess and plan, research and write, listen for and narrate the way trans literature might have a shelf of its own in our libraries and our classrooms.


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Five Hundred a Year
and a Room with a Lock

Virginia Woolf concluded that to make her desired shelf of women come into being, women needed five hundred a year and a room of one's own, with a lock on it. As a writer and mother myself, I can affirm the good sense of this. But as a trans woman who feels the dysphoric need for a shelf of our own, I would add a few more conditions. In the following sections, I will mark what I believe we need to not just ask the question but to establish a shelf called trans literature: (1) first, we will need to identify and liberate ourselves from some of the toxic tropes in which transgender has been defined within cisgender literature, or else we may never resurrect the trans figures and stories buried among other people's books and stories, (2) second, we will need to understand the stories we already tell and have already told for centuries, or else we may never know what trans literature looks like in order to recognize it on a shelf, and (3) third, we will need to examine what it means to read and write while transgender, or else trans lives will continue to be reduced to and by the theories of cisgender literary analysis. All this we need. Also, the stable pay-check and office with a lock which comes with jobs and job security would also be nice. Please and thank you.

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Thursday, September 20, 2018

Trans Literature: Transgender as Literary Theory


"How, then, might the transsexual read?"

The titular question to an essay by
Alexander Eastwood
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Introduction

Thus far we have seen the distortion of reality and systems of abuse built into some of the most prominent tropes of transgender found in cisgender narratives, as well as a few forms of narratives that organized transgender literature which offer critical alternative constructions. Yet the danger in this contrast of thesis and anti-thesis is that a divide should form between cis and trans literature so that transgender becomes ghettoized to its own corner of the book shelf. As transgender often intersects with other forms of marginalized identity (race, disability, class, sexuality, religion, etc.) this separation has benefits as well as dangers, such as isolation and tokenism. One begins to fear that trans literature will become only a niche market and reading trans literature will become an identity marker that alienates or others non-trans demographics. While trans literature has good reasons to privilege trans voices, these voices and the ears with which to hear them should not be locked away in an echo chamber. To fight this impulse to isolate and marginalize, trans literature needs to amplify and incorporate trans voices and perspectives into the wider literary ecology. By promoting trans literature not just as an archive but as a method of literary analysis, trans voices can be brought to bare on the many texts, genres, and questions which are essential to the wider world of literary discourse. By developing trans theories of literature and trans ways of reading, one can trans literature (as a verb or action) that was formerly constructed as exclusively cisgender. One can read Pride and Prejudice in a trans way. One can trans War and Peace. One can see the dysphoria in the film Ted. One can examine the trans-operations at work in Game of Thrones. Thus trans literature becomes not only a discrete and insular noun but to trans literature can signify a critical verb that can transform the way one moves through the world of language arts.


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Dysphoric Ways of Reading

Dysphoria defines or contributes to many ways of being trans. Gender dysphoria is a term borrow from the medical industry, specifically the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5). For this reason, many trans people identify with the diagnosis for professional and personal reasons. It is an institutional marker which provides access to a variety of services. For the same reason, many trans people disidentify with dysphoria because they do not want to be associated publicly with a condition under medical management and with a book that has the term, "mental disorders," in the title. Yet gender dysphoria is an improvement, in many respects, over the now defunct diagnosis, "gender identity disorder" from the DSM-4. One of the key victories was the removal of "disorder" from the title, as the DSM-5 reflects a change in the medical field from considering transgender a disorder to considering it a condition. As part of this shift, gender dysphoria locates the primary distress and suffering of the condition in an external locus rather than an internal locus. The short definition of gender dysphoria reads, "there must be a marked difference between the individual’s expressed / experienced gender and the gender others would assign him or her, and it must continue for at least six months" (DSM-5). A careful read of this diagnosis will not that dysphoria occurs not because someone is born transgender. The cause of suffering is not internal. Rather, dysphoria arises because there is a conflict between their internal identity or mode of expression and the external environment that assigns another gender. The conflict is not between self and self, sane self and insane self. Rather, the conflict is between self and society. Thus, because it is based on social discourses and conflicts, dysphoria can become a way of reading and analyzing texts. How does the text embody or generate dysphoria? If one approaches texts from a dysphoric lens, one begins to see how countless texts and narratives depend on the tensions of the dysphoria it produces. These tensions and dysphoria may even affect people who are not transgender. In this case, the dysphoria is in the environment and not in the person.

Yet dysphoria is more than the sum of self and society. The longer definition of dysphoria from the DSM-5 does acknowledge a list of desires and disgusts that may rage within a transgender mind and body. For this reason, dysphoria does not represent the mere battle between a rigid social roles and a chaotic freedom that wants to go everywhere all at once. Usually, in the ocean of dysphoria there are tides and even whirlpools, where the dysphoric mind is drawn by larger forces (internal and external) towards specific loci of gender. These loci may be broad, such as womanhood. Or highly specific, such as pressed suits and short hair. As in the case of tides and whirlpools, there may be competing desires and disgusts that reflect ambivalence and gender fluidity. Other times, dysphoria is less like the ocean and more like a river, moving full force away from one place and towards another. Many trans men and women, especially those who live lives within traditional binaries, articulate their dysphoria in these terms. For instance, a trans man may have physical disgust at being made to embody or perform elements of femininity and may have an overwhelming need to embody or perform element of masculinity. In this respect, dysphoria is a conflict between self and non-self, one that does not necessarily extend very far into society. Non-self may be understood as those parts of one's body, genitals or hair style, that cause one great distress and disgust. Thus, dysphoria as an internal tension and trajectory of self and non-self often motivate transformation. Transformation is one of the visible functions of this aspect of dysphoria. In the first case, because change and transition mark the movement away from the non-self and toward the self. Or, in cases of oppressive social conditions or tidal backslides, from self to non-self. Additionally, transformation may also be read as trans-formation or the formation of the trans self. This may occur unencumbered as the formation of a self which happens to be trans. Or it may occur out of a rejection of the non-self. The trans formation arises out the failed and dysphoric cis formation. Thus, as a method of reading, readers can identify how texts reflect these competing tensions between self and non-self, between disgust and desire, whether the conflict is like a tide, whirlpool, or river. Because narratives frequently depend on tensions and conflict in order to motivate character change, the dysphoric reader begins to appreciate how closely tied storytelling and dysphoria may be.

Even in ideal conditions of access and acceptance, transitioning often takes time and may be incomplete in the mitigation of dysphoria. Most trans people and care givers are aware that transitioning can less dysphoria but will likely never may it totally go away. In part, this may be because dysphoria in society and the body cannot fully erase the affects and effects of the past. For instance, a trans woman who transitions in young adulthood still has the dysphoria caused by having to undergo a sort of imposed boyhood. When speaking about the past, this boyhood returns in the form of pictures, names, and memories even as they conflict with the current gender identity and presentation. This dysphoria across time may also be felt in the body, a body which may have had the marks of boyhood and adolescence which medical transitioning can mitigate but never fully remove. To use a metaphor from an article I've written on the dysphoria of medieval manuscripts: even after you turn the page, the writing and images from the other side can still bleed through to the present. Our experience of time is more fluid, non-linear and contested than we like the think. Thus, even the most directional river of dysphoria will find ways in which the tidal past causes momentary blocks, diversions, and backwash. Thus, as a method of reading one can analyze dysphoria in the way that time and narrative progression become jumbled by conflicting iterations of the self, whether the internal self of psychology and biology or the external self of identity and expression. Furthermore, one sees how narratives, especially about transgender, reflect and generate dysphoria through the difficulty they have in discussing the same person before and after transition. How do we talk about the non-self which was presented as the self for so long? Do we use deadnames and defunct pronouns or do we correct the past by naming the person more accurately? Often, texts don't have one way of answering these conflicts. The past affects the present and the present will affect our pasts. Recognizing and analyzing how this happens and how it is reflected in the text is another key element of reading dysphorically.


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Trans-Operative Ways of Reading

Transgender narratives often mark the boundary lines between identities, affinity groups, and associations. Operations (i.e. surgeries) emblematically mark the movement from one affinity group to another. Besides psychiatric diagnosis, "gender identity disorder" and now "gender dypshoria," transgender has long been represented and defined by such operations. Indeed, transgender is often presented as an embodiment of the power of operations. Following transition narratives of full change, with a definite before and after dived by the event of the surgery, trans people's narratives and identities become defined as pre-op (pre-operation) and post-op (post-operation). Yet dysphoria and other forms of trans narrative has since pushed against the full change story structure. Often the post-op self is present and active before transition and the pre-op self (or unself) is present and active after transition. This creates the dysphoria of narrative discussed in the last section. It might then be more accurate to say that most trans people are trans-op (or trans-operative) in some or many respects. Trans-operative means operating somewhat in multiple affinity grounds, multiple selves, and multiple timelines at once. Indeed, suspicion that operations will not provide a clear-cut pre-/post-op divide and a fully change lead many people to distrust trans people as potential traitors, spies, or trojan horses in their identified affinity group. The logic goes, "you turned your back on one gender, proving you are a turn-coat, so how can we trust you not to betray us?" Whether or not this is true, the narrative of suspicion in dominant in transphobic and trans-excluding discourses. This has led in part to the proliferation of "trap" tropes. And this mistrust is echoed by other groups, not just the one with which the trans person identifies. The identity which the trans person formerly occupied, by assignment or choice, can feel a degree of betrayal when the trans person transitions. One may see a bit of the spurred lover or spurred team-mate in lesbian feminist communities where one they formerly called their own, as a butch lesbian, comes out as a heterosexual trans man. The feeling is somewhat grief and somewhat a sense of betrayal that their friend would flip the script not only of gender (butch woman to trans man) but also sexuality (lesbian to straight man). In many respects, the person is still the same person and still loves the same person but they are not marked as a traitor by both the community they leave and the community they join. A trans-operative way of reading thus charts the systems of kinship alliances and associations which are crossing and conflicting in narrative.

Yet trans-operative ways of reading are not only about mapping power but about manipulating power. Because trans people are often mistrusted to some degree by their allies and kin, past and present, the change in circumstance can never be considered full, complete, and secure. We see this in a vast number of trans texts where potential and former allies turn their back on the trans person or when catastrophe hits in the form of sudden violence or backslides in progress. A lover turns abusive. A friend cuts off contact. An ally says they cannot help any more. An institution changes its policy or fails to fulfill their promises once real conflict emerges. A government overturns legislative wins. In these precarious circumstances, the trans person who has been considered a turn-coat or double-operative for so long may begin to examine other possible alliances. This does not necessarily mean a change in gender identity but may mean playing with the fluidity and trans-operative capacities that made them appear so dangerous. The trans-operative woman files for marriage to her wife as a man in order to circumvent a government that does not allow for same-sex marriage. A trans man uses a women's restroom or changing room in order to avoid the potential or active transphobic violence found in the men's room. A non-binary trans person presents as binary during travel so as to avoid some of the regularly harassment. Even beyond gender presentation, the trans-operative becomes aware and active across the many affinity groups in which they have experience. A trans woman utilizes knowledge of male culture and privilege as a may of combatting toxic masculinity. Trans men utilize their experiences growing up alongside girls to motivate and inform a dismantling of the patriarchy from within it. Thus, the trans-operative way of reading looks for the ways in which different lines of power, association, and alliance intersect within the life of a trans person. It allows for the considering how embody and utilize the pressure points of systems of sexism, homomphobia, transphobia, classism, ableism or more in order to enact power, especially in situations where they are put in a position of vulnerability or solitude. The trans-operative approach always asks to what extent does a trans person have their foot in the door and to what extent they must or may keep one foot in another room; as well as asks what other rooms might or does the trans-operative pivot when necessary?

The question can also turn back on the reader, asking them to consider to what extent they identify with the trans figure and to what extent they dis-identify with them? How does the text diminish, maintain, or further the contingency of ones affinity for the trans person? What factors outside the text (experience, prejudice, cultural assumptions) or inside the text (tropes, narratives, language) contribute to this relational distancing?



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Genres of Embodiment

Whereas dysphoria and trans-operation centers the conflicts or tensions often present in trans literature, genres of embodiment accretes around the creative impulse of transgender. Drawn from the theories of Sandy Stone, Jacques Derrida, and Judith Butler, genres of embodiment is a way of approaching gender as a co-creative enterprise with a diverse ecology of lives. Using genre over gender plays upon the etymological root that genre shares between French and English, meaning gender but also a set of texts, especially those of creative literary or artistic works. This highlights the ways that gender is creative while also existing within patterns, tropes, narratives, and other discursive limitations. I distinguish genre-analysis from performance analysis to put a greater emphasis on construction over enactment. Perhaps this is the writer and technical theater nerd of me (I don't necessarily think like an actor or performer) but genres of art give a greater emphasis on the physical construction that goes along with the performative deployment of tools and space. As a genre, sculpture forces us to consider the materials and tools needed to construct the art as much as it makes us consider the social and cultural discourses that inform the art. As such, genres of embodiment double down on the way that art constructs the body (not just identity) and the body informs, limits, and frames the construction of artistic enterprises such as gender. A trans woman performs womanhood but has different materials to start with than cisgender women just like different sculptors with different types or shapes of stone with construct different forms of womanhood. Likewise, access to tools affects genres of embodiment. A trans man who has access to hormones but not surgery will embody manhood differently than an intersex or another trans man who has access to surgery (perhaps against his will in the case of the intersex man) but not to hormones. Likewise, a wood carver who has only a chain-saw will make a different sculpture than the wood carver who has only a chisel and hammer.

Beyond helping us consider the role of materiality in the co-creative relationship between body and identity, genres of embodiment also draw us towards the way that the literary informs the construction of one's life. A trans woman (like Caitlyn Jenner) who uses the full-change transition narrative will define herself and construct her life differently than a trans woman who uses the no-change narrative of transition. Following this example, after transition Jenner completely redid her wardrobe and house, claiming that they were the things of Bruce and Bruce is gone. She says that Caitlyn is only a few years old and she needs her own things. This contrasts with a trans woman who sees her whole life as one story and identity, who might not be so quick to let go of her old things because even though she was called by a deadname when she bought or received them, they are still a part of her story. Likewise, because the full-change narrative of transition focuses so much on surgery and operations as a central event, those trans people who consume mostly literature of that genre are more likely to pursue surgery as part of their transition. Whereas the trans person who develops in a context in which the no-change, born-this-way narrative of transition is dominant is less inclined to undergo surgery. Just as the absence or present of certain technologies (such as surgery) will affect what forms of trans life are composed within a certain context, so too the absence or presence of narratives that typify the tool and logic of the tool will affect what forms of trans life emerge. One can even say that the technology (surgery, hormones, diagnoses, clothing) and the narratives are parts of the same social operations. The technology promotes and allows for the narrative and the narrative promotes and normalizes the technology. One can thus trace the evolution of these operations over time, as technological changes affect literature and literary changes affect technologies and their use. Thus, genres of embodiment form what Andrew Solomon (in Far From the Tree) calls "horizontal identities," which are identities shared within a certain context. In an area where hormone replace therapy (HRT) is present, accepted and narrated, one are more able to create an identity of peers who likewise undergo HRT as part of their trans genre of embodiment. Horizontal Identities are like the books that sit next to you on a shelf. Yet across time, as the technologies and narratives grow and adapt, they form generation genealogies, or "vertical identities," which are genres of embodiment formed and shared from parent to child. While Solomon's work is more concerned with literal parents and children, genealogies of trans genres can be traced, for instance, from the sex change operations (castration) that formed eunuchs and which over centuries developed as a technology and narrative of gender change to later inform gender affirming surgeries for transsexual identities. A transsexual woman may not consider themselves peers (sharing a horizontal identity) with an eunuch who lived in different contexts and communities, but one can see how culturally they share a vertical identity that cuts across historical shifts in society, literature, and medicine.



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Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Trans Literature: Transgender as a Literary Archive


"When you hear the same stories over and over again, from people from all over the world, you start realizing that transgender is not an anomaly. 
It’s a part of the spectrum of people’s realities."

Susan Kuklin
Beyond Magenta
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Introduction

As a recognized archive, transgender literature remains largely on the horizon. There are no "trans lit" sections of most major book stores. Yet in recent years, feminist and LGBTQI book stores are beginning to have shelves or at least special displays that host a variety of books on transgender: history, medicine, self-help, family stories, memoirs, and fiction. As a field of academic study, trans literature is even further behind. This is ironic, given the number of transgender studies scholars who have degrees in English or at least have used trans films in their work. Yet even as transgender studies begins to break away from being a mere sub-set of queer or gender studies, trans literature remains largely subordinate to other fields of trans research: psychoanalysis, sociology, history, and media studies. Of them all, media and film studies has come perhaps the closet to describing transgender film as an archive worthy of study in its own right. As more trans films begin to win awards or at least get nominate, film may continue to lead the way in public awareness of the wider literary archive.

Yet once one begins to ask the question, the number of trans literary texts and narratives that begin to appear are massive. On the surface are those books and films that have begun to get some distinction. When one expands beyond those books marketed as "transgender" by publishers, marketing firms, or stores, one sees how trans literary archives have long existed. One finds trans narratives categorized in genres and archives defined more broadly as women or queer literature, as well as disability, post-colonial, and African-American literature. Looking further for trans narratives, genres, and literary forms, suddenly one arrives at medical, legal, religious, and historical texts that tell trans stories as pieces -- even center pieces -- of other agendas. At this point, one needs to begin to learn other methods of research, other professional and linguistic languages, in order to locate these trans narratives. But once learns how to find them in places not readily marked by the category "transgender literature here," the flood-gates burst open. Suddenly one begins to see trans literature all over the place, from media and books, to medical and government documents, to blogs and suicide notes, to historical manuscripts and saint's lives.

With such a massive and widely distributed archive, it is difficult to give a mere reading list. Such lists are available and reflect mostly recent English language publications currently sold in local book stores or films available on Amazon or iTunes. What I wish to provide in place of giving a "Top 10" or potential candidates for a new literary canon, is a method of categorizing and patterning trans literature as types of narrative. Through such an approach, my goal is to help you dig into the broad, interdisciplinary, and buried archive of trans literature so you will be able to grow the canon rather than merely reiterating the same handful of books and films on sale in specialty markets. So let's dig in and see where and when these narratives lead us!


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The Transition Narrative

As a formal genre, I argue that the transition narrative fits into the example (or exempla) genre. The example (or exempla) are defined by a doctrine (or dicta) that provides a theoretical concept for proof and facts (or facta) that provide the evidentiary grounding. In the case of most transition narratives, the visualization and narration of the facts of altering one's gender signifiers are supposed to fulfill the doctrine of one's trans identification. This doctrine may be as simple as "I am a woman, not a man," or may be as complex as "I have gender dysphoria." While other genres may utilize the transition narrative, the example is the genre most often used and most closely tied the rhetoric used for many transition stories.

Historically, the discursive context that produced and consumed the most number of transition narratives in the modern era is the medical field. In this case, the facts of case studies are given to prove whatever medical and psychological doctrines the researcher is trying to prove. For authors seeking to explore the histories and literary archives of trans persons undergoing transitions, one will spend a lot -- if not most -- of one's time reading such case studies from books written and consumed within a medical context. In some cases the dicta being proven are affirming of these transitions, offering advice for procedures, and others are critical warnings against transitioning. This tension is more pronounced the further one goes back in the study of medicine. If one pushes back even further, prior to the modern medical interest in transition narratives, a researcher will find them present within religious texts that also take the form of exempla. In this case, religious exempla are interested in using these histories and folk stories to prove doctrines of faith and philosophy. As in the early medical exampla, the dicta that accompany the trans facta are often not affirming of transitions, although there are some surprising examples of sympathy for the facts of the case.

The examples of transition narratives take on three dominant forms. These forms present the facts in different ways which correspond to different doctrines of change. The three dicta of change I highlight here are greatly influenced by Carolyn Walker Bynum's work on Metamorphosis. The three forms of transition narrative are: absolute change, hybrid change, and no change:


  • The Doctrine of Absolute Change
    • Facts are presented within a structure of before and after. There is often a defining event (such as surgery or a name change) which represents the transition. The narrative often diminishes the time given to this period of change because it represents the ambiguity that Absolute Change is trying to diminish.
    • In this form, the narrative will often refer to the person's time before transition using the name and pronouns that accompanied that gender presentation (such as "he") and then after the event the person will be described using the name and pronouns that fit that gender presentation (such as "she").
    • Examples using absolute change include: Caitlyn Jenner's The Secrets of My Life, The Danish Girl (book and movie), and many medical journals, especially the more sympathetic ones.

  • The Doctrine of Hybrid Change
    • Facts of different genders are presented alongside each other, before transition and after. Whereas absolute change tends to collapse transition into the short period of a single key event, hybrid change narratives tend to prolong transition to a much greater degree. One may see multiple transitional events, where the person is living one gender in one context and another gender in another context. The effect of this narration often supports doctrines of gender as a fluid spectrum, where male and female traits are present at the same time just in different degrees.
    • In this form, the narrative will often switch between pronouns and names. Such examples will even favor the name/name or pronoun/pronoun way to describing a person, such as "John/Eleanor" or "He/She."
    • Examples using hybrid change include: most discussions of Eleanor Rykener, Boys Don't Cry (and other discussions of Brandon Teena), and She-Male porn (a genre which depends on presenting trans women as monstrous hybrids, thus the choice and construction of the word "she-male" as "the best of both worlds").

  • The Doctrine of No Change
    • Facts are presented so as to foreground the present of the identified genders from the very start. The gender assigned at birth is presented as secondary and based on appearances and the identified gender is presented as primary and based on essences or predispositions. Also called the "born this way narrative." This is the most popular among current transgender stories because it affirms that transgender is a discreet and insular identity that is unchanging, based in nature rather than choice or nurture. These qualities have proven important and effective in convincing doctors, medical insurers, the courts, and government bodies to provide assistance and protection for trans people.
    • In this form, the pre-transition name and pronouns are de-emphasized. Sometimes, the post-transition name and/or pronoun of the person is used from the start even while it records how other people used the socially assigned deadname and pronouns. Other times, these names and pronouns will be used in describing the person pre-transition but will come with an explanation, "scare quotes," or asterisk* denoting them as based on appearances rather than the person's identified gender.
    • Examples using this form include: If I Was Your Girl, A Fantastic Woman, Trans America, and Leelah Alcorn's suicide note.

Transition narrative exempla are very effective and common in circumstances where transgender is considered novel or contentious. This is because exempla transitions are geared at showing as a way of telling. You get the theories of transgender communicated but in a way that typically does so obliquely through narratives and facts that work on the emotions of the audience. By giving case studies with facta that invoke pity (how terrible!) or identification (they use the same lipstick as me!) the dicta can be consumed without inciting the debates that tend to arise when discussions are based more in abstraction.


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The Memoir

Whereas Transition Exempla may be the most numerous in the archive, the confessional memoir is perhaps the most popular. It occurs with relative frequency since transgender has entered public discourse that a trans person gets told, "you should write a book! Tell your story!" Indeed, this turn towards memoir is often part of the process of marginalized identities entering the mainstream. When there is a recognized lack of fact or fiction (beyond the medical or sociological which can be considered to academic for public audiences) memoirs or biographies tend to be the first to fill the void. Whereas exempla demand that readers take some medicine with their sugar, some dicta with their facta, memoirs seem to offer pure sugar, all facts with no doctrinal agenda. Now, one may still derive theories and believes from reading a memoir but they are not nearly as important, if they come at all. Memoirs thus give the sense of learning truth (or truthiness) without the fetters of ideology.

Calling trans memoirs confessional gets at their rhetorical function and their historical genre. Because memoirs are typically highly formalized, edited, and published for a wider (if still somewhat niche) audience. As such, not every trans person will have the chance, means, or desire to write a memoir. Yet nearly every trans person will be asked or even required to tell their life story. This biography may sometimes be given by others but the first person confession is generally preferred as the most authoritative. This may take public form such as an interview, a vlog/blog, or a speech in front of a community group. This may also take an important institutional form, wherein the trans person must confess the truth of their lives to doctors in order to get treatments, to insurers in order to get coverage, to employers or Human Resources to get accommodations, to government agencies to get new documentation, and lawyers or judges to get protections or compensations. Confessional life stories also are frequently used to persuade friends and family members to cooperate with a transition. Rare is the situation where a trans person transitions name and pronouns without someone demanding to hear the life story of the person.

Historically, before transgender was accepted enough to get book deals, confessions were a prominent and important genre in establishing transgender as a discrete condition of life. Before a psychiatrist is willing to sign on to support an individual trans person and before the wider medical industry got into the business of publishing research on trans people in general, a trans person had to sit in front of a doctor and convince them of the veracity and necessity of their gender. The most common and effective way to get these authorities on their side was by providing the facts of one's life. Before doctrines (dicta) could be drawn up to explain the facts (facta) of trans people, making exampla possible, the facts were confessed wholesale to the best of the trans person's ability. And before the private confession of the therapist's office, there were confessions to priests and judges. For much the same reason, as religious institutions and the courts have dominated much of western culture, trans people historically had to also try to convince these authorities of their veracity as well. Thus we see the long history of transgender found in religious and legal documents. At times, the recorder of the confession imports their own doctrines and ideology, but often enough the confession is so surprising to the authority that they do not fully know how to make an example of it. As such, confessions often break free of over doctrine in order to persuade often suspicious audiences of the internal and external realities of transgender.


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The Journey

If transition examples frequently collapse time into a before/after picture and confessional memoirs often assert an essential truth that took a lifetime to unravel, journey narratives tend to fall somewhere in the middle. In fact, journey narratives are often all about the middle, extending the second act of a three into a narrative in and of itself. As such, even though transition narratives can at times be presented as journeys they are presented in ways generically distinct from examples of transition. In fact, they may be seen as inversions of each other. An example typically focuses the narrative on the trans person as the object of study. Even confessional memoirs are sold as the outside looking into the mind and soul the trans person. Yet trans journey narratives are more interested at looking through the eyes of transgender person outward at the world. The trans person becomes the subject and the world becomes the object. Whereas the before/after picture emphasizes the visual difference in the trans person, the timeline of a journey is more about the scenery and saying look at my life "here" and compare it to my life "there." At times, these places are literally different spaces, such as the move from a rural or suburban hometown to the city. Yet frequently, whether or not there is a journey through space there is a usually journey through time. And the goal of this journey from a narrative stand-point is to get the reader to come along with the trans person, to look along with them, to see how the world looks from a different perspective.

For a fan of pilgrimage narratives and travel narratives, it is unfortunate that the vast majority of such trail literature is not only cisgender but white able-bodied heterosexual and male. Yet tropes and narrative structures of these journey narratives are still at play in transgender journeys but in a different form. As noted, there are often physical journeys that define a trans journey narrative, moves across country, from a parent's home to college, going to a new job, getting a new place after a divorce. These physical moves often correspond to other changes in the trans persons life. Part of the journey may be transition but may also be coming out to the family, finding a safer place to live, getting a more accommodating job, etc. Such physical journeys are often described in great detail because journey narratives generically focus on environment. Details such as social contexts and the availability or absence of support are important features of the social terrain, even though the physical differences between one city and another may not be as drastic as walking from the mountains into the dessert. Yet any journey through space is also a journey through time. A journey narrative in this way may resemble a confessional memoir, insofar as it gives details of a life across time. Yet their purposes and foci are different. A confession functions to give insights about the interior life. A journey narrative on the other hand focuses more on the change of circumstances over time. How did moving in with Dad after your parents divorce affect your gender presentation? How did living in Boystown, Chicago affect your freedom of gender expression? How did taking the rural small town job affect your work life? The focus in these journeys are on the external life, which this genre considers no less important.

Because they often lack the typical markers of travel literature (a hiker with a backpack, a walking stick, mountains in the distance) it can seem tricky to locate trans journey narratives. Often you will find them located among other genres: memoir, transition examples and case studies, and histories. An interesting trend in journey narratives are the higher number written by activists or academics. This may be because the activist and academic are habituated in analyzing their surroundings as much if not more than analyzing themselves. For instance, when Eli Clare tells his life story, he will often pause for an extended consideration on his geo-social context, his historical context, his philosophical context. Thus one learns as much if not more about Clare's world as one does about him. Likewise, a characteristic of Laverne Cox's interview or lecture style is that she will introduce a piece from her own life story but primarily as a way to take a journey through the other stories that surround her social contexts: the experience of people of color, women, working actors, LGBTQIA people etc. Yet even non-activists and non-academics will turn to the journey narrative. If I Was Your Girl tells the story of a trans girl moving back in with her father after her transition and mental health breakdown while she lived with her mom. Thus the novel records being a fish out of water in her new school. Being a fish out of water is one way of describing many trans journeys but also travel narratives in general. This is because journey narratives give perspectives that allow us to see the world we live in through a new light and suddenly the world becomes stranger and more interesting. 

Admittedly, a specific form of trans journey narratives are beginning to develop utilizing more traditional markers: the trans road story. From To Wong Fu to Trans America, the trans journey on the road becomes a way of showing the different contexts and problems trans people experience as they move from one place in the country to another. These journeys typically involve many of the features of other travel narratives, including the negotiation of transportation, pilgrimage narratives, including a prophesied holy land or loca sancta on the horizon, or epic and romance, including strange battles, dangers, and veering.



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Next up: Transgender as Literary Theory



Thus far, we have consider the tropes of transgender often found in cisgender narratives as well as the common types of narratives written by or at least focused around a transgender person. Yet this still leaves trans literature largely in the position of text or object for academic study. What is important to consider are the ways in which transgender may affect our methods of reading or enacting literary analysis. What is a trans way of reading? How does transgender affect the way narratives and archives are formed? Stay tuned for the third part of this series as we consider transgender as literary theory!

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Sunday, September 16, 2018

Trans Literature: Transgender as a Trope in Cisgender Stories


"I see you shiver with anticipation...
I'll remove the cause but not the symptom"

Dr. Frank N Furter
Rocky Horror Picture Show
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Introduction

Part 1 of this three part talk will consider "Transgender as a Trope" in cisgender stories in order to provide a background for the norm into which trans literature has arisen and also to articulate the particular limitations and failures that make trans narratives and trans methods of reading necessary. Admittedly, there are stories told by cisgender people where the trans person is more fleshed out but these are rare exceptions and will be discussed more in the next section as they represent early participation in trans literature as a literary archive. As will be seen, for most history even trans literature about trans folk was rarely written by trans folk. Thus, the focus of this section is to consider the ways that trans figures typically appear when they do appear in cisgender stories. 

In each case, there is often a pornographic or fetishistic erotica that epitomizes each trope as trans characters are frequently invoked as figures for body genre narratives. Body genre narratives are those that excite the body in some way: horror (fear), comedy (laughter), thriller (anxiety), or porn (arousal). Thus, there is an apparent bent towards the gothic, the fantastical, the comedic, and the pornographic in how trans tropes are constructed and used by cisgender narratives. 

Additionally, each trope has evident connections to hierarchies of power, especially between the sexes. This makes sense, because trans tropes are typically used in the service of cisgender stories. The trans figure and trope is thus primarily or merely a device to move the story forward in some way. Because most narratives depend on conflicts of power in some way, trans tropes are often used as ways of humbling, changing, or empowering cisgender people. Also, there tends to be a sustained power differential between the cis and trans person as a way to explain why the story is not and should not be taken over by a trans figure no matter how charismatic. Indeed, those trans figures who tend to be the most charming and powerful are typically those imagined with malevolent intent, because they are a danger or threat to the integrity of the cisgender narrative.


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It's a man shouts Ace Ventura at the climax of his detective story
as he strips naked the villain, revealing her tucked genitals
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The Trap

A staple of cisgender stories that require a dramatic twist, "The Trap" is the name that cis folk have given to transgender people who pass as their identified gender until the moment that the narrative needs to reveal their trans-ness and reassert their birth gender.

In crime stories, "The Trap" provides both a red-herring and a last minute twist. Early in the narrative, the trans person may be included as a suspect or accomplice but will be discarded because the detective and audience do not clock their trans-ness. Midway through the narrative, they are put into the background. Then, at a dramatic climax, the protagonist and audience discover the trans person's trans-ness, allowing certain pieces of evidence to click into place: semen samples, lip-stick, or a deep voice. Going back to the trans person, the confrontation is usually performed as an unmasking, Scooby-Doo style, where the wig is removed or the dead-name is named. The trans person gets angry, often breaking gender norms in some way that signals to the audience that the trap has been disarmed.

"The Trap" is usually found in detective stories but may be present in other narratives to provide melodrama or comedy. For instance, Ace Ventura famously has a trans "trap" villain who is not only revealed at the end but publicly stripped naked and ridiculed. Even more "classy" comedies like Frasier include an episode that involves the protagonist being arrested for picking up a woman he did not know is a sex worker and did not know is trans. In this case, the "Trap" is sprung midway, complete with her suddenly using a deeper voice and her large manly muscles unveiled once she is brought into the full light, so Frasier can be doubly embarrassed by his friends and family for daring to help a trans woman out of the rain.

To this day, "The Trap" remains a common term of derision for trans-folk. Often they are framed as threats to heterosexual men's heterosexuality, acting like folk-lore which teaches them to maintain the power and integrity of their manhood so they do not get "trapped." "Trap" porn is also a popular sub-genre that positions sex with trans folk as an act only ever performed when the trans person is so passing as to be indistinguishable and also the sexual aggressor taking advantage of the cisgender man, who wouldn't sexually engage with them otherwise. This way, cis het men can have their manly man cake and eat some trans cake too!



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Ursula the Sea Witch was famously based on the performer Divine
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The Mystical Drag Queen

The mystical drag queen is in many ways inspired by the tradition of mystical black men and women. This is not accidental as drag queens have long been associated with gay and trans folk of color. The mystical drag queen is framed as a kind of shaman, a being that exists between the normal world and the queer extraordinary world. 

Within cisgender narratives, mystical drag queens tend to provide advice, threats, or services for the cis protagonists. Typically, when the mystical drag queen is framed as a figure of danger, she will exist somewhere dark and secluded where the cis hero must seek them out or else find themselves by accident. She will often broker some deal with the hero to help them along on their path or back on their feet. This may involve some level of sacrifice, change, or embarrassment. After all, the mystical drag queen is a figure of transitions and liminality. She always takes with one hand as she gives with another. The more benevolent mystical drag queen on the other hand may be found out on the streets, usually harassed and marginalized by the wider community. Because she is a humiliated figure, she is also humbled, asking little from the cis protagonist beyond the bare level of respect and kindness.

The Mystical Drag Queen is found in fantasy and horror, especially in the nefarious role, but may be akin to a gay best friend in more realist narratives, especially when she takes on the humbled benevolent. Among the pseudo-villains, some of the most famous examples include Dr. Frank N. Furter from Rocky Horror Picture Show and Ursula from the Little Mermaid. Both figures occupy dark haunts and draw the heroes into a world of sorted sexual and moral transgressions. They bring them across some threshold of normative limitation, before setting them back on the road transformed. Benevolent mystical drag queens include the cast of To Wong Fu Thanks for Everything Julie Newmar, Wanda from Neil Gaiman's A Game of You, and Sophia from Orange is the New Black. In both these cases, the trans woman or drag queens of color (admitting one white leader in the case of the former film) arrive into the lives of the put upon white woman. They provide advice and kindness, helping them rediscover their womanhood and even their sexuality before disappearing into the background. Above all, it is made clear that this is not the story nor even the world of the mystical drag queen, who must be content to exist on the margins of the story as a threat or helper.

To this day, even as trans folk are beginning to be included in more media they remain side characters who exist in a world that touches upon but is not wholly the same as the other cisgender characters. In some cases, they have replaced the role of the gay best friend as the gay or lesbian characters are upgraded to more complex fleshed out roles or excluded entirely with the trans person taking on the representative weight of all LGBTQ people. After all, the mystical drag queen is fundamentally a signifier of a wider darker more morally complex universe that exists just outside the fairly normative scripts of the main story.

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Google "sissification" or "gender transformation" without Safe Search
and be prepared for a massive archive of erotica
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The Sissy

The Sissy is an old staple character within narrative for the reason that most literature has been produced by men within various forms of patriarchal hierarchies. The sissy represents the failed or corrupted man, the man turned woman. The sissy has been studied by feminists as a symptom of patriarchal definitions of gender that set men opposite and above women, with the sissy being any man who demonstrates a trait shared with women. The sissy has also been studied by queer theory as a symptom of homophobic power structures that demand the performance of hyper-heterosexuality and toxic masculinity and eschew gayness as sissies who embody a disorder or failure in this system. Yet on the face, the Sissy is a definitively trans character, a man who has become a woman, often against his will, making him a victim of women, gay men, trans-ness, or even communism, liberalness, or higher education.


Because the sissy as a target made up of feminine men (i.e. non-hyper masculine men) and gay men has been so extensively studied, I will consider the particular form of sissy trope that tends to involve some sort of overt trans identification, even if this identification comes only after harassment, abuse, seduction, or some sort of literal or metaphorical castration. The most overt example of the sissy appears in pornography or erotica, usually involving a domineering woman or domineering women who decide to punish or curb the man into a sissy. In this case, the sissification embodies the loss of the man's power, represented by his loss of man's power. Often, the domineering woman will eventually leave the sissy for a "real man." At a certain point in this process of depravity, the sissy learns to embrace the new life given and submits to the role of woman, often become the subordinate to some other men as well. Yet the process of sissification need not always be overt as pornography makes it out to be. Some sissies are marked as feminized by subtler signs, such as wearing a frilly cooking apron, crying at romantic comedies, speaking in a higher voice, or some other feminine affectation. These sissies likewise loss their manhood because they lost their man's power to women. They cook because their wives make them. They get called "mom" because their wives are working out of the house. Their wives "wear the pants in the family" and because of hetero patriarchal assumptions, this demotes the man to the role of the woman or sissy.


The non-erotic sissy is often represented in narratives that understand themselves as operating under realism with a progressive bent, usually framed by comedy as a way to defuse tensions or as a way of self-consciously apologizing to conservative audiences. Indeed, the sissy is often represented within more conservative narratives and media as a way of marking liberal men (now called "lib cuck" men) who have lost their proper masculine traditions and thus regressed into the women they increasingly resemble. Yet even when presented by liberal or progressive media, the sissy is still presented for laughs because although there is a desire for diversity or for virtue-signaling, the cisgender story tellers are not comfortable with this diversity or are not confident that their audiences will be comfortable. An example of this comes also from the comedy Frasier which includes a couple scenes where trans characters are referenced (but rarely shown), especially by the eccentric liberal woman of the core cast (Daphne) when she references having dinner with her "transvestite uncle." When asked whether the "uncle" lives as a woman full-time, she says, "oh no, his congregation would never stand for it." This wording and exchange, concluding in a laugh-track, demonstrates how even when a narrative is trying to signal diversity and even compassion for trans people in their networks, they often cannot help but undercutting the virtue move with a joke at the expense of the trans people. The sissy in this way is the acceptable trans person only because the sissy represents that shameful part of the self or of the family, which we want to include but not without reminding everyone of the proper patriarchal pecking order - pun intended.


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The Cast from To Wong Fu
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Next up: Transgender as Text

Okay, so we can see many of the problems that have come from letting cisgender people, especially cisgender men, tell the stories of trans people, especially trans women. One of the evident responses to these mischaracterizations, reductions, and caricatures is to allow trans people to tell their own stories or at least to put the trans person at the center of the narrative. What happens when trans people become the subjects of trans narratives? How does transgender affect narrative? How do different narratives affect how transgender is structured and understood? Stay tuned to find out!

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Chandler's "Dad" from Friends
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