Transgender ontological mediations through electeds, non-profit organizations, and pornography
This is a paper I wrote for my Intersectionality class. Because it is a class paper there may be a bit of a “dropped in the middle of a conversation” feel to it while reading it. Still, I decided to publish it because it feels timely given the anti-trans, racist, eugenicist sports and other sexed spaces legislation that came about in the 2021 legislative sessions across the United States. I’d love to hear your thoughts and I hope that you enjoy!
In Ezra Horbury and Christine “Xine” Yao’s conference report “Empire and Eugenics: Trans Studies in the United Kingdom,” (2020) they write about the way that trans academics are sidelined, their voices silenced, “in these narratives that seek to define them as predatory figures,” (2020, 447). While Horbury and Yao attend to the issue of transgender people and transgender academics exclusions from public-facing conversations that exclude them, Joshua Aiken, Jessica Marion Modi, and Olivia R. Polk attend to the grammar of black trans* poethics and ontology, writing in their essay “Issued by Way of ‘The Issue of Blackness’” (2020) that it is the “beginning of the world as we will have been knowing it,” (2020, 436). Finally, Matt Richardson writes in his article “Ajita Wilson: Blaxploitation, Sexploitation, and the Making of Black Womanhood,” (2020) about the construction of black womanhood as “a life-affirming category,” (2020, 205). Together these three articles offer up a glimpse at the current state of the melding of trans studies and intersectionality. This paper hopes to synthesize these articles in thinking about transness and intersectionality presently and moving in the “beginning of the world as we will have been knowing it,” (2020, 436).
Horbury and Yao emphasize that we, “must continue to strive to further trans rights as inextricable from the project of feminist antiracist social justice,” (2020, 452). This inextricability is missing from mainstream white transgender rights movements. Even as “antiracist” became a buzzword in the summer of 2020, there is little evidence that the mainstream white transgender rights movement took the work of feminist antiracist social justice to heart. During the summer of 2020, the white transgender rights movement was celebrating a victory in the form of the Supreme Court case Bostock v. Clayton County. Now, this is not to suggest that BIPOC transgender folks or formalized rights movements were not also celebrating this victory. Instead, the goal here is to consider the trajectory of white transgender civil rights in the United States.
While the issue of transgender people playing on sports teams of their gender (as opposed to their legal sex) did not spontaneously arise on June 16, 2020, the issue has gained prominence as many state legislatures and general assemblies across the United States have taken up various and varying legislation to block transgender kids from playing on sports teams with peers of their same gender, as opposed to their legal sex. Much of this legislation is interested in the genitals and genetics of transgender youth. It is hard to miss the connection to eugenics here.
Unsurprisingly, if one goes to McBride’s Twitter account, the first tweet that deals with the 2021 anti-trans legislation is a video from the Human Rights Campaign. The thumbnail for that video is two young white folks, focusing on a 14-year-old white girl named Rebekah. As might be expected, there is a very normalizing and assimilative narrative to this video, with Rebekah’s mom saying at one point, “My kid is just a kid. She wants to go to school, have fun with her friends, and play sports just like anybody else,” (Human Rights Campaign 2021). Other tweets from McBride’s account include her saying that the trans community will “pass” on the “opportunity” of another white trans woman, Caitlyn Jenner running for governor of California (Sen. Sarah McBride 2021). We must question what this sort of intracommunity spatting means for BIPOC transgender folks, what it means in terms of employing feminist antiracist social justice.
What the video from the HRC does not do, or even attempt to do is to point out the eugenics logics behind the thirty bills introduced across the United States. The video does not attempt to say that no one under any circumstances should have their genitals inspected as a prerequisite to participating in sports. The video does not attempt to say that no one should be reduced to their genetic sex (their chromosomes, their hormones, etc.). The video certainly does not attempt to participate in a conversation that furthers the understanding that humans are not a sexually dimorphic species. None of these fits within the goals of the Human Rights Campaign, an organization with a history of racism and transphobia (Concerned Transgender Community Leaders 2019). Transgender exclusionary radical feminism (TERF) as it is still often thought of, as well as transphobia broadly, are still rampant. And we must question the efficacy of the efforts expended reactionarily responding to transphobia in the form of legislation across the U.S.
The video that the HRC made of Rebekah is one of attempting to make her understandable to an audience. Some might argue that such a video is meant to reach outside of HRC’s Twitter followers and to convince folks who might otherwise be in support of the transphobic legislation. Regardless, here we can apply an important question from Aiken, Modi, and Polk, “How might black trans* / queer genders remind us that the objective of our lives may not always be to be understood?” (2020, 429).
What if an organization made a video of a 14-year-old transgender youth where instead of the youth affirming the ways in which they are understandable they said, “It is not my job to be understandable. And it should not be a prerequisite to playing sports that I be made understandable.” What does it mean to reject to be a part of such a project altogether? What does it mean to not even be asked to be part of such a project altogether? Aiken et. al. write about the concept of fugitive life, writing that it follows Susan Stryker’s essay on trans monstrosity and that it, “may well be ‘located at the margin of subjectivity and the limit of signification’,” (2020, 430). What does it mean for the limits of signification that Rebekah says that she’s “so much more than trans?” (Human Rights Campaign 2021). What does it mean in this context to be so much more than trans? Trans as a prefix can mean across, beyond, or through (Merriam-Webster n.d.). What does it mean to be so much more than across? What does it mean to be so much more than beyond? What does it mean to be so much more than through? And how does Rebekah reconcile her so-much-more-thanness with her not-less-thanness? She says that her being trans does not make her less of a girl or less of a human either (Human Rights Campaign 2021). The video closes on Rebekah saying in a voice over, “I’m just me,” (Human Rights Campaign 2021). What does it mean to have to claim that you are more than, not less than, and just? How can anyone watch, let alone produce a video like this and not wrestle with the realities of a fugitive life, a life at the margins of subjectivity and the limits of signification?
Aiken et. al. write that before ontological being that we must, “find a way to find our way toward what must be done, at the expense and disposal of nobody and nothing,” (2020, 432). Arguably, McBride and the Human Rights Campaign are not doing this, even still. Their ways toward what must be done does not ensure that it is not at the expense and disposal of nobody and nothing. How do McBride and the HRC participate in efforts to “incorporate and domesticate difference” (2020, 438)? How does the video of Rebekah contribute to the incorporation and domestication of difference?
With this we can move briefly to Richardson’s article and Ajita Wilson. Early in his article Richardson notes that, “Black womanhood generally does not come from being Black and assigned female at birth,” (2020, 193). There is much to be understood and learned from Black women’s creation of their gender. Further, Richardson suggests that Wilson’s performances, “challenge Black feminist to acknowledge the realm of the (hyper)sexual as a place of self-making for Black women, trans or not,” (2020, 196). One might wonder about the utility of the realm of the hypersexual as a place of self-making for transgender folks broadly. Richardson clarifies that by self-making he means that “the work allowed Wilson to be empowered as well as exploited and degraded,” (2020, 196). What does it mean to be simultaneously, or alternatively, empowered, exploited, and degraded? What contributions can sexual exploitation and degradation offer to the creation of Black womanhood as a life-affirming category? Richardson elaborates, “Finding dignity and pleasure in difficult or painful situations is part of the self-making process,” (2020, 196). I appreciate that Richardson wrote this thinking about Wilson and thinking about Wilson’s work in pornography.
Thinking through these three articles leaves me with a few questions to wrestle with: 1) What does it mean for transgender ontology when this ontology is mediated through means such as the HRC video; 2) What new onotologies can be understood when Black trans women are centered; and 3) What ontologies can be lived when fugitive lives such as Wilson’s are centered?
Concerned Transgender Community Leaders. 2019. “An Open Letter to HRC From Trans Community Leaders.” Retrieved April 18, 2021 (https://www.out.com/activism/2019/10/01/open-letter-hrc-trans-community-leaders).
Human Rights Campaign. 2021. “Since the Start of 2021, Legislators in More than 30 States Have Introduced Bills That Would Ban Transgender Kids from Playing Sports. Few of Them Have Bothered to Get to Know the Kids Who Would Be Impacted. Meet Rebekah. #LetKidsPlay Https://T.Co/8zgLzsOUQF.” @HRC. Retrieved April 18, 2021 (https://twitter.com/HRC/status/1381970435428941832).
Merriam-Webster. n.d. “Definition of TRANS.” Retrieved April 18, 2021 (https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/trans).
Sen. Sarah McBride. 2021. “Thank You, but the Trans Community Will Pass on This Opportunity.” @SarahEMcBride. Retrieved April 18, 2021 (https://twitter.com/SarahEMcBride/status/1379969572221112330).
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