Do we really need sex classification in our education system, our public restrooms, or our government IDs? How can we alleviate some of the harm that trans and gender-nonconforming people who don’t fit into a binary face? How might gender studies scholars best work with community members on these issues?
Episode 68 of the Imagine Otherwise podcast is the final episode in a three-part miniseries that was recorded live in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania at a recent gathering of interdisciplinary cultural studies scholars. The three authors featured in this miniseries—Sami Schalk, Aimi Hamraie, and Heath Fogg Davis—have recently published cultural studies books that have made big splashes beyond the academy in the areas of speculative fiction, fan cultures, urban planning and design, law, and public policy. These authors’ books show how the intersections of disability, race, gender, and sexuality have shaped everything from sci-fi/fantasy novels to police violence, curb cut activism, urban architecture, and the design of public restrooms.
In this episode, host Cathy Hannabach and trans studies scholar Julian Gill-Peterson talk with professor and consultant Heath Fogg Davis about his book Beyond Trans: Does Gender Matter?
Guest: Heath Fogg Davis
Heath Fogg Davis is a scholar-activist whose work in classrooms, boardrooms, community centers, and media seeks to alleviate discrimination and inequality.
Heath is an associate professor of political science and a faculty affiliate in the Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies Program at Temple University, where he teaches courses on anti-discrimination law, democratic political theory, and the politics of race, gender, and sexuality.
Heath also consults with businesses, schools and organizations, and was an appointed member of the Mayor’s Commission on LGBT Affairs in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. His commentary on transgender and gender nonconforming political and legal issues as appeared in CNN.com, Aeon Magazine, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Feminist Wire, and on MSNBC, NPR, the New Books Network, the Imagine Otherwise podcast as well as Sex Outloud.
He is the author of the book Beyond Trans: Does Gender Matter?, published in 2017 by NYU Press. In this book, Heath questions our social and political need for sex classification policies in everything from identity documentation and education to public spaces and sports. He offers practical strategies to help organizations of all kinds and sizes design and implement policies that are both trans-inclusive and better for all of us.
Respondent: Julian Gill-Peterson
Julian Gill-Peterson is an assistant professor of English and Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies at the University of Pittsburgh.
They research and teach in transgender studies, queer studies, critical race theory, childhood studies, and the medical humanities.
Their book, Histories of the Transgender Child, which will be published by the University of Minnesota Press this October, shatters the widespread myth that transgender children have only existed for the past few years, uncovering their widespread medicalization across the twentieth century.
Julian is currently at work on a new book project entitled Gender Underground: A History of Trans DIY, which reframes the trans twentieth century not through institutional medicine, but through the myriad do-it-yourself practices of trans people that forged parallel medical and social worlds of transition.
We chatted about
- Heath’s book Beyond Trans: Does Gender Matter? (04:08)
- The differences between sex-based and sex-identity discrimination (09:54)
- How organizations can do a “gender audit” (13:04)
- The failure of binary sex classification (20:23)
- Gender self-determination (23:39)
- Universal Design and gender’s administration (27:00)
Heath on the origins of the book Beyond Trans
This book, like a lot of second books, started out as something totally different…I started out wanting to write about public transportation…What interested me the most was a case in Philadelphia involving Black transgender woman named Charlene Arcila, who brought a legal complaint against the public transportation authority. Philly had a strange policy from 1981 all the way up to 2013 requiring gender markers on monthly passes. So you had to have an M for male or an F for female on your monthly pass. That story wasn’t just about Charlene, it was also about all transgender women, trans men, genderqueer people, and anybody who was gender nonconforming in appearance in any kind of way for whatever reason.
Heath on unpacking sex-based and sex-identity discrimination
I draw a distinction between sex-based disadvantage and sex-identity discrimination. Sex-based disadvantage is the familiar kind of sex discrimination and sexism where you have women as a class disadvantaged in relationship to men as a class or vice versa….Sex identity discrimination is about belonging. It’s about not being believed when you say, “this is where I belong in the sex binary.”
Heath on taking gender studies beyond academia
I work with organizations of all kinds: investment banks in New York, recreational sports leagues, nonprofits—helping them do a gender audit, which is to look at all the places in their administrative policies where they refer to gender or sex and apply a rational relationship test to them. This asks if the reference to sex or gender is necessary. If it isn’t, then get rid of the policy and get to the legitimate goal some other way.
Julian on why binary sex classification is a losing game
Each of the case studies in Beyond Trans shows us how people who do not conform to the very arbitrary, wildly inconsistent, and incredibly superficial norms of sex classifying regimes become both the recipients of harm but also unfortunately become responsible for the system’s instability, fragility, and inability to accommodate the reality of human gendered experience. Hence, accommodating policies and binary institutions for trans people often regenerate that administrative power and potential for violence, rather than reduce it. What’s more, by failing to question why so many everyday administrative agents and state entities wield the power to administer gender through sex classification, many trans people are made bureaucratically impossible.
Julian on gender self-determination
To hold institutions and the state accountable for the administrative power exercised through gender would, I think, itself be an incredibly powerful shift toward gender self-determination. And it would break from the practice of making trans people the exceptional problem of gender when it’s really our binary institutions that constitute us as a problem and force us to find solutions.
Julian on how Universal Design can reshape gender’s administration
Davis is just dead-on right to point out that the real goal behind bathroom bills is the removal of trans people from public space and public life, despite any discourse that might circulate around them. And so trans-inclusive restrooms policies that respond to those agitators often miss the mark when they stay within the binary parameters of sex segregation and separate-but-equal discourses. The legitimate goals of privacy, safety, and cleanliness, which aren’t met by sex segregation, would actually be really much better addressed by Universal Design principles. Within this alternative is a really interesting possibility for a greater institutional capacity for everyone using a restroom since under the Universal Design model, there would be less of a pretense to surveil and punish nonnormative gender appearance.
More from Heath Fogg Davis
- Heath’s website
- Heath on Twitter
- Heath’s book Beyond Trans: Does Gender Matter?
- Heath’s workbook Building Gender-Inclusive Organizations
Projects and people discussed
- Julian Gill-Peterson
- Charlene Arcila
- RAGE: Riders Against Gender Exclusion
- Philadelphia’s LGBTQ Protections Action Guide
- Universal Design
- Identity documents information from the National Center for Transgender Equality
- Saskatchewan allowing people to remove gender markers on birth certificates
- Washington DC and Oregon allowing third-gender marker on driver’s licenses
- Imagine Otherwise episode 44 with Heath Fogg Davis
- Imagine Otherwise episode 67 with Aimi Hamraie
- Imagine Otherwise episode with Sami Schalk
- Transgender Studies Quarterly (TSQ)
- Treva Ellison
- Kai M. Green
- Matt Richardson
- C. Riley Snorton
- Treva Ellison, Kai M. Green, Matt Richardson, and C. Riley Snorton’s introduction to TSQ: We Got Issues: Toward a Black Trans*/Studies (paywall)
- South Atlantic Quarterly
- Aren Aizura
- Aren Aizura’s “Unrecognizable: On Trans Recognition in 2017” (South Atlantic Quarterly)
- Eric Stanley
- Eric Stanley’s “Anti-Trans Optics: Recognition, Opacity, and the Image of Force” (South Atlantic Quarterly)
- Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick on minoritizing versus universalizing
- Cisgender (term)
- The “transgender tipping point”
- Rational basis test
- Lisa Brusch
About Imagine Otherwise
Imagine Otherwise is a podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism, and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in-depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice, and explore the nitty-gritty work of imagining and creating more just worlds. Check out full podcast episodes and show notes at ideasonfire.net/imagine-otherwise-podcast. Imagine Otherwise is produced by Ideas on Fire, an academic editing and consulting agency helping progressive, interdisciplinary scholars write and publish awesome texts, enliven public conversations, and create more just worlds.
Cathy Hannabach [00:03] [upbeat music in background]: Welcome to Imagine Otherwise, the podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism, and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in-depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice and explore the nitty-gritty work of imagining otherwise. I’m your host, Cathy Hannabach. [music fades out]
Cathy Hannabach [00:22]: Hi everyone. Glad to have you here. This is episode 68 and is the final episode in a three-part miniseries that was recorded live in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania at a recent gathering of interdisciplinary cultural studies scholars. Now, this miniseries marks the first time I’ve ever done a live show for these three episodes and it was a lot of fun to take the podcast on the road. These three authors, Sammy Schalk, who’s featured in episode 66, Aimi Hamraie, who’s featured in episode 67, and Heath Fogg Davis, who’s featured in the episode that you’re currently listening to, have recently published cultural studies books that have made a big splash has beyond the academy in areas of speculative fiction fan cultures, urban planning and design law and public policy. These authors’ books show how the intersections of disability, race, gender, and sexuality has shaped everything from scifi fantasy novels to police violence, curb cut activism, urban architecture, and the design of public restrooms.
[01:21] So up today is Heath Fogg Davis, who’s a returning guest to the podcast. You might remember him from episode 44. Heath is an associate professor of political science and a faculty affiliate in the Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies Program at Temple University. Heath consults with businesses, schools and organizations, and is an appointed member of the Mayor’s Commission on LGBT Affairs in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. His commentary on transgender and gender nonconforming political and legal issues as appeared in CNN.com, Aeon Magazine, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Feminist Wire, and on MSNBC, NPR, the New Books Network, the Imagine Otherwise as well as Sex Outloud.
The book that he wrote that we’re here to talk about today is called Beyond Trans: Does Gender Matter? which was published in 2017 by NYU press. In this book, Heath questions our social and political need for sex classification policies in everything from identity documentation and education to public spaces and sports. He offers practical strategies to help organizations of all kinds and sizes design and implement policies that are both trans-inclusive and better for all of us.
[02:26] So the way that this episode is going to work is that first you’ll hear from Heath about some of the background of writing that book and then you’ll hear from Julian Gill-Peterson, a trans studies scholar who’s going to offer a response to the text as well as some broader provocations about where trans activism and trans studies are going these days as well as their role in contemporary law, culture, and knowledge production. And finally, that’s followed by discussion with the audience at this event about how we can use Heath’s book to make change in areas as diverse as privacy law, social science research, government surveillance practices, and social justice movements. So here’s Heath Fogg Davis.
Heath Fogg Davis [03:14]: Thank you, thank you very much for being here. And I want to say thank you to Cathy for inviting me and also for all the wonderful work that she’s done helping me with the index of the book, which she wrote, and also with developmental editing along the way, It’s been a real pleasure to work with Cathy and also check out her podcast if you haven’t already because it’s amazing. It’s a great way, especially for somebody like me who is in a political science department—I’m a humanist within a social science department and so it’s great to sort of see my people out there in the world of gender studies doing all sorts of beautiful things. Also thank you to Julian for graciously agreeing to provide some comments. I’m really looking forward to what they have to say.
[04:02] So this book, like a lot of second books, started out as something totally different and it took a long time to write because of that. It went through some different changes along the way. I started out wanting to write about public transportation and I’m still an interested in that. But the thing that interests me the most in that research was this case in Philadelphia involving a Black transgender woman named Charlene Arcila who brought a legal complaint against the public transportation authority in Philadelphia. Philly had this strange policy from 1981 all the way up to 2013 where they require that you have a gender marker on your monthly pass. So you had to have an M for male or an F for female on your monthly pass.
[04:56] What’s really interesting about that story is that it wasn’t just about Charlene, it was also about all transgender women, trans men, genderqueer people, anybody who was gender nonconforming in appearance in any kind of way for whatever reason. We have in the city of Philadelphia antidiscrimination protections for gender identity. So Charlene had tried to use a monthly pass. It was marked with an F for female—that’s how she identified—and was turned away by a bus driver. What’s really important about this too is that it’s sort of terroristic in the sense that she never knew when this was going to happen. So you know, some days were “good days,” where a bus driver wouldn’t hassle her and give her a hard time. And sometimes they would make a comment and sometimes they would literally not let her get on the bus. So she went and got an M-marked pass and tried to use that and encountered being turned away again. They [bus drivers] said you’re clearly not a real man, you’re not a real woman.
[05:55] This presents a clear civil rights issue. So, Charlene issued a legal complaint. [That’s] the short version of this story, which really captivated my attention because I was a bus rider in the city of Philadelphia and also am trans myself. I had a very different experience from Charlene. Being a more gender-conforming transgender guy, I didn’t get questioned in the way that Charlene did. I also didn’t have to rely on public transportation. So there were some real class and gender privilege differences in our stories.
So in the legal complaint, SEPTA, the transportation authority, dragged its heels, or its wheels, if we want to make a bad pun, for a long time. And grassroots activism sprouted up around this. I was part of an organization called RAGE, which is a great acronym. It stands for Riders Against Gender Exclusion. I really believe that it was this organization, along with Charlene’s legal complaint, which got a lot of local media attention. RAGE presented SEPTA with a rider’s bill of rights and staged many very creative, in-your-face demonstrations throughout the city, in the subways, and in front of City Hall.
[07:17] They [RAGE] interrupted meetings to really get this point across because of the harms of this this issue really cascaded throughout the LGBTQ community and beyond very quickly. The business justification that SEPTA always gave [for the policy] was that it prevented fraud. But that just patently doesn’t make any sense and it was a very heterosexist kind of official explanation that the company gave, which was that husbands and wives who shared the same household would just buy one pass in and swap it back and forth. If you talk to anybody from Philly who lived there during this time, you learn that people swap passes all the time. All you had to do was to swap it with somebody who sort of resembled somebody who could have an F pass if you had an F pass. A lot of times, bus drivers never even checked.
[08:09] That’s another part of the story: who gets singled out for inspection? It was people like Charlene. So ultimately, in 2013 SEPTA dropped the gender markers but it never admitted fault in terms of Charlene’s case. So that’s how that story wrapped up. But for me, it was the beginning of a really interesting story about why we have sex markers on things like our driver’s licenses or passports or birth certificates. Why do we have sex-segregated bathrooms in the public sphere? Why do we have a single-sex colleges in this day and age? What are the justifications for that? And also, why are sports segregated according to sex? Those are the four case studies that comprise the book and they kind of go from easiest to hardest in my mind because I think the ID case is the easiest to make because sex markers do not help anybody identify us personally, as far as our personal identity.
[09:10] We’re seeing in my home country of Canada (in the province of Saskatchewan) to actually remove, completely remove, the gender marker from your birth certificate. And we have some movement in this country [the United States] at least in terms of adding a third marker on driver’s licenses in places like [Washington] DC and Washington [State] and Oregon and California I’ll talk a little bit about the problematics of that, but I think that that’s the best kind of solution. So that’s the arc of the book, just very kind of briefly.
[10:00] I draw this distinction between sex-based disadvantage and sex-identity discrimination. Sex-based disadvantage is the familiar kind of sex discrimination and sexism where you have women as a class disadvantaged in relationship to men as a class or vice versa. This has been the familiar kind of [discrimination] and feminist legal jurisprudence has focused on that. Sex identity discrimination is something a little bit different. It always involves the traditional kinds of sexism. I talked a little bit earlier about how Charlene and I were differently positioned and that does have to do with traditional forms of sexism, but sex identity discrimination is also about belonging. It’s about not being believed when you say, “this is where I belong in the sex binary.” And that’s exactly what happened to Charlene when she went to use her bus pass. She clearly purchased an F mark pass. She was challenged about that and ultimately overwritten. So that to me is what we’re really talking about when we talk about transgender discrimination or gender-identity discrimination. I like the term sex-identity discrimination because I think it’s a little bit more accurate.
[11:01] The dominant trans civil rights strategy has been one of assimilation and accommodation. That’s the strategy that let me go and change the gender markers on my driver’s license at the DMV from F to M. It’s what allows me to ostensibly use a men’s room instead of a women’s room. But that is a limited kind of strategy. I get why that happened and I think that there’s maybe a larger arc that we will get to, but the problem [with that strategy] is that not everybody can or wants to assimilate into the sex binary for various reasons. The accommodation strategy is where you have a third option, like the X on a driver’s license as an option in addition to M and F. It’s also the third, single-stall, single-user bathroom that has become the norm of progressive administrative policies.
[11:59] The problem with that is that it can be stigmatizing to have to go and use a different bathroom. Also, I don’t know what your all’s experience with this is, but at Temple [University] now we have one of those kinds of bathrooms in a building that has 10 floors. It’s problematic for many reasons, including that it becomes the popular bathroom because everybody wants a lot of privacy in a room and all of that. So it’s often occupied. So that’s an issue and it also is making people travel to another floor. When I transitioned at Temple when I was 38, the accommodation was for me to go and use a bathroom that was on the 10th floor and my office is on the 4th floor. That’s the kind of inconvenience to think about just on a day-to-day level. It was also in a [university] program that I was not affiliated with, so it was strange for me to be coming through several times a day. Like, you know, why am I up here? That’s problematic.
[12:59] So I’m just going to wrap up here by talking a little bit about the consulting work that I do. I work with organizations of all kinds: investment banks in New York, recreational sports leagues, nonprofits—basically helping them do a gender audit, which is to look at all the places in their administrative policies where they refer to gender or sex and to apply this rational relationship test. This basically asks if the reference to sex or gender is necessary. If it isn’t, then get rid of the policy and get to the legitimate goal some other way. For SEPTA, one strategy would be to use a photo ID. That a better way of identifying personal identity
[13:53] We’re also seeing a move to biometrics, which is controversial for a lot of reasons (and I talk a little bit about that in the book). People have been understandably concerned about that turn and I think there is a lot to be concerned about. But there are other ways of getting to that goal.
I have a workbook that is forthcoming and available on my website heathfoggdavis.com, which is based on the consulting work that I’ve done with companies and organizations and schools. Discrimination is not a fun topic, but we can approach this in a proactive, positive way with organizations. I find that people react a lot better to that than the litigious approach of “I’m going to sue you.” Nobody responds well to that.
[14:43] The workbook is called Building Gender-Inclusive Organizations: The Workbook. In it, I have things like a glossary of terminology and various worksheets that companies or individuals can use to work through how they can redesign specific policies to get to their goals in different ways. What I find in a lot of my work is that we can actually come up with better solutions that benefit everybody. This is kind of a Universal Design approach to policies. It’s about getting companies to think and organizations to think about their formal and informal policies. So an example of a formal policy would be using sex and gender in paperwork, in bureaucratic forms. It’s almost kind of like a knee-jerk response. We see this all the time after our names on dental intake forms, job applications, and also surveys. So be very careful about how you [ask for that] there.
[15:42] There are also informal practices like do you make assumptions about pronouns? Maybe consider] doing some kind of a check-in at the beginning of a meeting. There are also gendered honorifics in customer service. Think about the use of “sir” and “ma’am,” which in my opinion just sets up the server in that example to make a mistake and to feel embarrassed. Eventually they are going to get that wrong in some situation. So why even go there in the first place? I think that that’s an example of an informal practice that we could really change.
Lastly, in the workbook I, I have suggestions for HR [human resources] departments; for marketing and sales; for how space and architecture is configured; for how a given organization makes money, manages the money, and spends the money; for the products themselves, the goods and services. And then I have some examples of scripts that people can use to approach and convince their colleagues to implement more inclusive practices.
I’m [advocating] this more positive kind of proactive approach where you’re getting people to think about these issues before people make a mistake and feel embarrassed or they end up on the receiving end of a lawsuit.
Cathy Hannabach [17:07]: So that was Heath discussing his book Beyond Trans. Next up is Julian Gill-Peterson, who’s an assistant professor of English and gender, sexuality, and women’s studies at the University of Pittsburgh. They research and teach in transgender studies, queer studies, critical race theory, childhood studies, and the medical humanities. Their book, Histories of the Transgender Child, which will be published by the University of Minnesota Press this October, shatters the widespread myth that transgender children have only existed for the past few years, instead uncovering their widespread medicalization across the entire 20th century.
Julian is currently at work on a new book project titled Gender Underground: A History of Trans DIY, which reframes the trans 20th century not through institutional medicine, but through the myriad do-it-yourself practices of trans people that forged parallel medical and social worlds of transition. Here’s Julian.
Julian Gill Peterson [17:51]: Yeah. I also just wanted to thank Cathy so much for putting together the session and for thinking of me as a participant. And thank you Heath so much for being with us today to talk about this book and also for writing the book, which my remarks will kind of dig into a little bit further.
This is an exciting, albeit precarious time for the field of transgender studies as we negotiate the different effects of institutionalization within the university and our relationship to a volatile, frequently anti-trans political environment predicated on or entangled with unprecedented visibility. But one happy cause for celebration in the field is its long-standing interdisciplinarity, which increasingly well reflected in scholarly monographs. Davis’s book Beyond Trans: Does Gender Matter? is itself an interdisciplinary text, drawing from a range of legal, policy-oriented, theoretical, but also everyday archives of gender discrimination.
[19:02] I also mean to highlight the particular pleasure of getting to engage with this text as a scholar in trans studies habituated to working from a very different disciplinary orientation. And so I sort of want to lean into that and suggest that this is a really important book for folks realizing how trans studies can serve as an anchor and platform for thinking expansively and with a kind of urgent originality about the sort of multidimensionality of anti-trans and gendered violence today. So I’d like to sort of take my opportunity as a respondent to explore a couple of ways that I think Beyond Trans really sharpens and opens some broader discussions in the field that are simultaneously, or often for me, very theoretically dense but also urgently material in their call for institutional legal and political action.
Davis, I think quite rightly, swims against the mainstreaming current of the trans assimilationist and trans-inclusive center in the contemporary moment, asking us to consider not just that trans, nonbinary, intersex, and other gender-variant people are harmed by regimes of sex classification but that the administration of gender itself incurs an inevitability of harm that is outrageous in part for its exceptionalism.
[20:20] The use of antidiscrimination laws to protect and defend trans communities has largely operated on a reactive basis after instances of harm have taken place. Most of the remedies we’ve heard about in the news, online, or in our communities really reiterate that exceptional quality of trans people’s existence, without questioning as much the binary, cis systems of gender’s administration that create trans vulnerability in the first place. I think this is a highly concrete instance of what the highest of theory would tell us about how binaries work: the unmarked category gets to pass itself off as unremarkable despite any grievances brought by the devalued other category.
Each of the case studies in Beyond Trans shows us how people who do not conform to the very arbitrary, wildly inconsistent, and incredibly superficial norms of sex classifying regimes become both the recipients of harm but also unfortunately become responsible for the system’s instability, fragility, and inability to accommodate the reality of human gendered experience.
[21:30] Hence, accommodating policies and binary institutions for trans people often regenerate that administrative power and potential for violence, rather than reduce it. What’s more, by failing to question why so many everyday administrative agents and state entities wield the power to administer gender through sex classification, many trans people are made bureaucratically impossible. As the powerful opening scene of Beyond Trans relates, the use of the sex markers, an F on a SEPTA transit pass in Philadelphia, left many people at the mercy of drivers who produced completely contradictory scenarios in which it became impossible to follow the rules, even if one wanted to. I think it’s one thing to point out that a binary system of sex classification is bound to fail in execution because humans aren’t really that binary, but it actually adds a really important new layer of significance to point out that the most efficacious, comprehensive, and inclusive response to sex classification generally is its dismantling.
[22:30] The basic fact, as Davis puts it, is that “sex classification policies cause sex identity discrimination.” Excavating the utility of antidiscrimination law for bold, proactive ends, what this book is able to do is subject a range of major institutions to a really interesting version of this rational relationship test. So we are asked to subject sex classification systems to several really fundamental questions. Is a given policy necessary to carry out its stated goals? Does the policy cause harm to anyone? And can a non-sex-classificatory version of the policy meet the same goals? Part of the brilliance of this set of questions is that it really challenges the normativity of bureaucratic gender. We just never get to ask those questions of institutions.
As we find so many times throughout the book, in most cases when a form asks us to tick a box for M or F, we aren’t told why this information is being collected, what it will be used for, or how those gathering the information have defined sex or gender (probably because no one would know the answer to any of those questions).
[23:39] To hold institutions and the state accountable for the administrative power exercised through gender would, I think, itself be an incredibly powerful shift toward gender self-determination. And it would break from the practice of making trans people the exceptional problem of gender when it’s really our binary institutions that constitute us as a problem and force us to find solutions.
The second way that I see Davis really enriching and advancing a broader thread in contemporary trans studies is through the promise and strategy of opacity in a moment of hypervisibility. And this isn’t necessarily where that comes up in the book, but I want to just sort of offer it. American narratives of liberal progress are predicated on the equation of visibility with political clout and recognition. The last several years of the so called “trans tipping point” have shown, among other things, the deadly untruth of that supposition: the dramatic rise in the visibility of trans people in public space even as mainstream culture and political discourse has been directly dependent upon the repugnant normalization of extreme violence against Black trans and trans women of color, particularly who often face the brunt of anti-trans discrimination, forcible ejection from the public sphere, and even murder.
[25:00] As the contributors to a recent special issue of Transgender Studies Quarterly entitled “We Got Issues: Towards a Black Trans Studies” explore, the hypervisibility of trans life in recent years is paradoxical though it may seem directly dependent upon the really extreme charge that Black trans life, and especially Black trans feminine life, cannot be permitted to exist. So in a sort of broader conversation that is primarily taking place in Black studies and postcolonial studies, the concept of opacity is being taken up for its utility as a strategy of partial invisibility or maybe illegibility, a kind of refuge from some of the risks of hypervisibility.
In a 2017 forum in South Atlantic Quarterly, which was entitled “Unrecognizable,” Aren Aizura cuts through the empty promises of the trans tipping point narrative and also many liberal reactions to the Trump election, to suggest that in our contemporary moment, “even if recognition is inevitable, we may not always want to be identified. What are the stakes of familiarity when familiarity breeds contempt?”
[26:08] In one of the essays in this forum, Eric Stanley offers opacity as a critical concept for a trans politics without reliance on the visibility of trans people or their identities, particularly in instances where what he calls the optics of gender and race are actually what pull trans people into recognition precisely in order to attack, harm, detain, or punish them. So Stanley suggests that “being a ‘nobody’ against the state, a position some people are already forced to live, stands against the sovereign promise of positive representation, not as absolute objection but as a tactic of interdiction and direct action. Being a ‘nobody’ might force the visual order of things to the point of collapse.”
[27:00] And so I guess I hear a resonant call in Beyond Trans and what excites me about putting this book in dialogue with some of the scholarship on opacity is that the book really shares this concern for the everyday life of anti-trans violence that would be mitigated by deinstitutionalizing sex classification.
I think Davis is just dead-on right to point out that the real goal behind bathroom bills is just the removal of trans people from public space and public life, despite any discourse that might circulate around it. And so trans-inclusive restrooms policies that respond to those agitators often miss the mark when they sort of stay within the binary parameters of sex segregation and separate-but-equal discourses. And of course, as we learn in Beyond Trans, the legitimate goals of privacy, safety, and cleanliness, which aren’t met by sex segregation, would actually be really much better addressed by Universal Design principles. But within this alternative to a policy proposal is, I think, a really interesting possibility for a greater institutional capacity for everyone using a restroom since under the Universal Design model, there would be less of a pretense to surveil and punish nonnormative gender appearance.
[28:05] So rather than put pressure on trans people to pass or go stealth in order to use binary restrooms or to risk of different kinds of exposure by using separate, all-gender restrooms, Davis argues for an entirely different landscape of design in which trans people would no longer have to be seen or not seen to use the restroom. They would just simply have access. I think what’s really remarkable about this argument, to put it in the terms of Eve Sedgwick, is that it simultaneously addresses a minoritizing reading of trans discrimination, where trans people bear the heaviest burden of a segregated binary systems, but also a universalizing level that demonstrates how everyone would really benefit from de-administrating gender. This makes me sort of wonder, in a digital age when corporate collection of the datafied self, state-sponsored spying on the citizenry, and cultural norms of social media have seemingly, maybe eroded predigital concepts of privacy.
[29:02] I’ll be curious to hear more, if he has any thoughts about how online sorts of sex-classificatory systems might also benefit from these kinds of gender audits or alternative policies or just how we might even begin to tackle a digital infrastructure and digital institutions.
So the third way that I want to argue for the interdisciplinary importance of Beyond Trans is in its intersectional framework. Davis is very carefully attentive to how the administrative exercise of sex classification so often relies in practice upon racialized inflections of power that make the regulation of gender, say on the SEPTA bus, so often the effect of a much longer standing anti-blackness that governs public accommodation in transit. Or in the case of the chapter about sports, we see how notions of fair play and competition often rely on gendered asymmetries that police the boundaries of femininity based on its presumed inferiority to masculinity as well as centuries old racist iconic fees of nonwhite bodies as sexually atavistic.
[30:06] Likewise, and this really echoes something that I was saying earlier, Davis is able to explore how sex classification disproportionately affects trans people of color and also poor gender nonconforming people, who have less access to means of seeking redress. I think one of the most exciting things about the proactive approach to nondiscrimination that we find in this book is that it promises a much more profound and also a fully intersectional reach because it doesn’t rely on individual lawsuits brought by people with the time, means, and fluency in civil rights law to achieve victories that are circumscribed sort of by default. Beyond Trans lays out a really ambitious vision for the de-administration of sex and gender that includes the ways in which other axes of difference contour the exercise of sex classification. This book gives us a rigorous, bold, and really teachable set of concepts that speak simultaneously to those interested in the legal principles behind gender discrimination and to activists, allies, and trans and gender nonconforming people facing that everyday violence of sex classification and sex discrimination, or sex-identity discrimination.
[31:28] In bypassing the inevitable pitfalls of exceptionalizing transness, in offering a concrete account and these case studies of how to create the positive conditions for opacity, and in thinking intersectionally about a world without so much sex classification, I really find this to be a super timely and really energizing book. I’ll say that these are only three areas that it contributes to trans studies. I think there are many more that I don’t have time to get into, but I would love to talk about and really encourage everyone to read this book if you haven’t already had the chance.
So I’ll end on a more personal note just to illustrate that kinda twinned impact that’s both really intellectually rich but also plugged into the material world. So at the University of Pittsburgh, I work and teach in trans studies, but I’m also part of a trans working group with Dr. [Lisa] Brush recognized by the university administration that’s undertaking the really slow advocacy and labor of working towards a trans-inclusive university. Like I’m sure most of us, I wasn’t trained in graduate school to do that kind of administrative work and I also don’t have any real world experience in it.
[32:24] Well I do now but it’s because I was called, as we so often are, by my own experiences of the harm of gender’s administration as well as those of my fellow trans colleagues and students, to try and take up the task as best as I could. While I really enjoyed reading Beyond Trans for the academic interventions it makes him to my home field (and I’m really excited to teach it!), I have to say that I also experienced this moment of joy and relief when I got to the end of the book and saw the appendix. I was sort of just like, “oh my God, a how-to thing I’ve been looking for!” Beyond Trans really lays out a vision for our broader world where gender self-determination is predicated not on increased scrutiny or assimilation but rather the de-administration of sex and gender that promises a much more comprehensive, profound, and meaningful set of changes. So I’m excited to take what I learned from reading the book back with me to the trans working group so that we can continue the project of creating the kind of university that I hope to one day a call home. And so with that, I’ll conclude with my gratitude for this book and I’m looking forward to chatting about it with everyone. Thanks.
Cathy Hannabach [00:26:30]: [upbeat music in background] Thanks for listening to another episode of Imagine Otherwise. Imagine Otherwise is produced by Ideas on Fire and this episode was created by Christopher Persaud, Rebecca Reynolds, Michelle Velasquez-Potts, and myself, Cathy Hannabach.
You can check out the show notes for this episode on our website at ideasonfire.net where you can also read about our fabulous guest as well as find links to the people and projects we discuss on the show. [music fadeout]