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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