Special section: trans media

Troubling transgender media —
fact, fiction, and compromise

by Alexandra Juhasz

“Beginnings are delicate times when the foundation stones of the edifice you’re building are still visible; maybe if we take a look around now, we can save ourselves some trouble later.”—Sandy Stone

So starts Sandy Stone’s entry “Guerilla,” one of 86 short entries revolving around a keyword commissioned for the inaugural issue of TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly.[1] [open notes in new window] Of course, Stone’s words commence this effort as well, and the editors of TSQ, Susan Stryker and Paisley Currah, explain these keywords’ use at yet another threshold: “While far from providing a complete picture of the field, these keywords begin to elucidate a conceptual vocabulary for transgender studies.”[2] Across my introduction, I will quote extensively from these keyword entries,[3] putting to good use a vocabulary first penned by trans-theorists and activists who now sit on the legitimizing pages of TLQ under the “umbrella” of the still forming field of transgender studies:

“In the two past decades, the umbrella diagram has spread nationally (United States) and internationally to become a widely utilized educational tool. Given that its original purpose was for political advocacy, the image suggests sheltering trans-identified and gender-nonconforming individuals from the hard rain of discrimination. By gathering nonnormative sex and gender terms underneath its canopy, the umbrella visually casts an aggregative categorical imaginary that includes all sex/ual and gender-nonconforming identities and expressions. In so doing, the umbrella implies that all formations of sex and gender are not only possible but also taxonomically containable.”[4]

From the GENDER book: http://www.thegenderbook.com/.

Of note in all of these initiations is the value of delicacy, self-awareness, transition and reflexivity at the formation of a new scholarly discipline. “Keep in mind that no one working in transgender studies has a degree in transgender studies,” Stone cautions.[5] Exactly. As a cis-gender,[6] queer, feminist media scholar and activist with a long history of commitments to AIDS, anti-racist, and techno-feminist pursuits, I take all these overtures and precautions to heart. That is to say, I listen to and learn from trans-scholars—commencing with Stone, Stryker, Currah, and Singer—about the critical importance of reflecting upon ones own position within a field and the world, the real pleasures and dangers of institutional disavowal or sanction, and the methodological, personal and political stakes for ones work under this umbrella and within this new field.

I was around (with many of the founders of trans studies, too) for the formation of at least two other academic fields—queer studies and AIDS media studies. We have learned from these earlier experiences that with institutional authorization (like a journal published by Duke University Press, or a set of articles published in Jump Cut) comes both opportunity and calcification, support and standardization. If we “look around” here at this beginning, as Stone suggests, we see that I introduce four essays, penned by graduate students, a junior scholar, and activist mediamaker in dialogue with me; only two of us are trans. This introduction offers a frame of entry but also one of approval, recognition, professional authority and disciplinary distance and difference (which is why the graduate students and journal invited me to write it in the first place: that’s how disciplines work, from senior to junior, from inside to the peripheries). “The trajectory for discipline building is well understood,” continues Stone.

“In Phase One, individuals, geographically scattered and usually unaware of each other, generate the rough ideas of what will become the discipline.”[7]

 For committed scholars and their allies, first there will be meetings at bars, and parties, and demos, and hospital beds: informal, political, social, practical, and outside or alongside one’s professional scholarly life. For example, in 1986, newly arrived in NYC to attend graduate school in Cinema Studies, I attended one of the first demonstrations of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) as an interested activist who also happened to be going to school. This quickly led me to the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC) where I volunteered to make video. I showed my AIDS activist tapes within community and movement settings, but then also eventually at graduate school, and then at scholarly conferences because the ideas of my discipline proved to be live in this work as well, and I began to become aware of others, inside and outside academia, thinking about both AIDS and camcorder video.

“In Phase Two, others become aware of this work and may become aware of each other. … In Phase Three, a few people with the necessary energy and drive come together, geographically or, as is more usual, virtually, and organize the first publications, meetings, and, later, conferences.”[8]

AIDS media scholarship and then queer scholarship followed these well-trod paths, which also then led to monographs (including my own, AIDS TV [Duke 1995] that came from my doctoral dissertation), which in turn methodically refer to this growing body of work and spawn reading lists and other requirements, job opportunities to teach and refine this trajectory, and journals (or sections) devoted to the unique questions, methods, histories and personas of a consolidating discipline. A good many of the first voices in Trans Studies cut their teeth, as did I, in feminist, AIDS and/or queer studies and continue to contribute to these and other disciplines.[9] But Trans Media Studies grows from, is related to, and differs from these disciplinary trajectories:

“Susan Stryker once quipped that transgender studies is queer theory’s ‘evil twin’ who ‘willfully disrupts the privileged family narratives that favor sexual identity labels . . . over gender categories’ (2004: 212). The notion of trans cinema bears a similar sibling relation to that of queer cinema. Films that feature gender variance have always had a significant place in queer cinema, but considerations of trans issues have tended to be subsumed under the focus on sexuality.”[10]

And here’s where and why some of the required delicacy, self-awareness, and reflexivity must stay at play. While I am a feminist, queer scholar, I am neither trans nor central to the formation of this field. Rather, I read, watch and learn from the development of transsexual studies (while also contributing to its growth here) as a media studies scholar fully committed to “Human Rights” (see below) that are visible, live, and contested for transpeople in America and internationally at this moment (for instance, the various “bathroom bills” in the United States and the robust discussion of this issue on the Internet and in our political landscape, or the U.S. military’s recent recognition of trans soldiers; but also the constant and less visible threats to trans people in the form of harassment, violence, and stigma).

“The hitherto dominant and globalized Western medical-psychiatric perspective, which defines gender-variant/trans people as a deviation of an apparently natural binary gender order and thus pathologizes and stigmatizes them is being challenged by a new set of discourses (and engagements) (Balzer 2010). This new perspective is centered on the social and legal situation of gender-variant/trans people, which is marked by severe human rights violations. On a global scale, these violations encompass, among others: severe forms of hate violence, including hate killings, rape, and torture; criminalization and prosecution of so-called cross-dressing, so-called cross-gender behavior, and gender reassignment surgery; and prosecution that especially targets trans/gender-variant people without legal basis or based on legislation and legal measures designed for other purposes, such as antiprostitution, antihomosexuality, loitering, or nuisance laws.”[11]

Furthermore, I am personally and intellectually curious about and stimulated by the theories, methods, and activist strategies, as well as objects of inquiry and “capacities” (see below) that this field sets into play:

“Transgender epistemologies and theoretical models fundamentally remap the study of human cultures. Their recognition of the mutable and multiple conditions of the apparatus we know as gender has wide-ranging consequences. That is, once gender is understood to be temporal, successive, or transformable, all accounts of human lives look different and more complex.”[12]

We see a good deal of this disciplinary difference and complexity here. The four scholarly/activist projects that follow in this section (three of which aligned first at the 2016 meetings of the Society for Cinema and Media Studies), exemplify where transgender studies is today: a “fragile” moment “heady and bursting with possibilities.”[13] In fact, there has been a quick, powerful consolidation of scholars, visibility and verbosity moving from Stone’s Phases One through Three and resulting in our current phase, one marked by an increasing professionalization, mounting possibilities for new thinking and practice (see my conversation with activist media maker Sam Feder, for example), as well as for the worrisome effects of commodification, calcification or jargon. Stryker and Currah note that a consolidating transgender studies:

“considers the work that the term transgender does: tracing the genealogy of ‘transgender’ as a category; documenting and debating the consequences of its rapid deployment in a wide range of contexts; and interrogating the ways in which it can function (sometimes simultaneously) as a pathway of resistance or liberation, as a mechanism for surveillance and control, or as a neutrally descriptive technical term in an analytics of emergent cultural phenomena.”[14]

Participants twitter about reality TV show I Am Cait.

The following constellation of essays, conversations, and scholarly-art work demonstrates the expansiveness of this moment for Trans Studies in every aspect: our people, our objects and methods of study, the stakes of our work. The authors who follow are trans, cis-gender, queer, female and male; we look at transmedia, quality tv, low-brow reality television, activist media, and trans representations historically in dominant and alternative media; we engage in theory/identity-based game-making, speculative textual analysis, conversation about the role and uses of trans media activism, and the study of expanding genres, audiences and texts for new media. We share a project that seeks to better understand where and how trans is lived, seen, and deployed in contemporary and past media. We believe our words contribute to resistance through knowledge, communal research and shared authoring as we open out Trans Studies to include our thinking about creative labor, communal social media activism, the trans tipping point, and trans of color poetics.

Online "extras" for TV show Transparent.

Across the four projects we observe and try to understand and/or produce ourselves a quickly increasing trans visibility (the tipping point that Feder and I discuss extensively) and consider how this might function both as liberation or control. To do so, the four contributions engage in disciplinary expansion: does the visible trans subject change the nature of texts, seeing, activism, knowing? In our conversation, Feder and I discuss their research for a documentary on the history of trans visibility in dominant and alternative media. We consider the lingering and disenabling tropes that have defined this terrain, most notably the “traumatic rupture” that cements most representational efforts. We also mull the costs and benefits of increasing trans visibility and trouble the role of media images, visibility, and making in connection with trans activism.

Kate Bornstein and Sam Feder discuss Kate Bornstein is a Queer & Pleasant Danger (Sam Feder, 2014)

In “Seeing Double: Visibility, Alternative Temporality, and Transfeminine History in Transparent,” Nicole Erin Morse works to perceive and name the visible and invisible creative labor practices of transfeminine producers in contemporary media while thinking more comprehensively about the political or structural role of evidentiary visibility. For her contribution, micha cárdenas gives us “Dilating Destiny,” an experimental documentary game that invites players to navigate through cárdenas’ experiences recovering from gender confirmation surgery in the midst of ongoing violence against black people known to her and us through her “communicator,” something akin to a computer with Internet connectivity. Morse writes that the project draws “out questions of trans of color praxis, experience, and visibility. cárdenas situates ‘Dilating Destiny’ through her theoretical concept of the ‘transreal,’ raising questions about the politics of documentary form and the perils of the binary of fiction/non-fiction.”

Dan Udy, too, raises questions about the use and abuse of the “real,” as well as the contemporary possibilities for (trans) politics of visibility enabled by social media. In his “Keeping it Real: Genre & Politics on I Am Cait,” he attends to a “complex power dynamic amongst I Am Cait’s network of participants and producers,” and by so doing thinks out new strategies for communal media activism from within and beyond mainstream systems of television and digital representation. In the variety of approaches and media objects under consideration in our shared effort, we see in action Stone’s prediction for the possibilities for establishing fields: new subjects and methods of scholarly inquiry allow us to understand older methods, genres, and even systems of knowing as sometimes useful and for other purposes, limited, compromised, and not expansive enough to hold what we know, what we make, what we want, how we see. Stone writes, “we have barely begun, really, to explore how powerful trans—born in the joy and pain of living bodies and fully engaged in the world—can be.”[15] We contribute to that beginning here, opening out into troubling trans media.

micha cárdenas' experimental documentary game, Dilating Destiny