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


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!



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.



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.



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.



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!




  1. We all have goals we hope to achieve one day. However, most of the people fall short of achieving those goals and wonder why they were unable to achieve the goals. As per a recent study 95% of the people do not achieve their goals. The article reveals the basics around why some people with a high aptitude are unable to achieve their goals while others with a much lower aptitude are high achievers in their life. AM.CO.ZA