Because Trans People Are Speaking: Notes on Our Field’s First Special Issue on Transgender Rhetorics

Because Trans People Are Speaking: Notes on Our Field’s First Special Issue on Transgender Rhetorics

Peitho Volume 22 Issue 4 Summer 2020

Author(s): GPat Patterson

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While there have been a good many special issues around trans topics in other fields—and while the flagship journal, Transgender Studies Quarterly is nearly ten years old now—for K.J. and I, two1 trans scholars in rhetoric and composition, this special issue (the first of its kind in our field) feels like a long time coming. To observe that this special issue, which exclusively focuses on trans topics, is “new” doesn’t quite get at the importance of this moment. This is, quite simply, for many of the contributors included here, the issue we needed as graduate students—and, if we’re being honest—perhaps, even now, as faculty.

There have, of course, been several notable special issues and edited collections in rhetoric and composition on LGBT topics. We value these collections for the conversations they have opened up in our field. And yet, as Patterson and Spencer observe in this issue, there’s something deflating when it comes to searching for transness in such collections only to find that the “T” is more often than not silent. You begin to wonder if there’s anyone out there like you—or if you’ll only ever be the only gender-expansive scholar (or educator)  in your orbit. You wonder if our field’s journals will ever acknowledge the trans-specific research, writing, teaching, and professional experiences you encounter. You wonder how much of the professional advice espoused in such academic literature actually applies to you.

This isn’t, of course, to say that trans people are monolithic, nor is it to say that some of us haven’t benefited from LGBQ scholarship written by our cisgender colleagues (no doubt, we have)—but there is something important, something necessary, about centering trans-specific inquiries, concerns, and experiences. Though this inaugural special issue on trans rhetorics is just the beginning of the conversations that need to happen in our field, we nevertheless hope our readers experience even a fraction of the life-affirming joy we feel in bringing scholarly voices together around this topic. For our fellow trans and gender-expansive students and colleagues, we hope this issue provides a moment of feeling seen and valued within our field—which, as Hsu, Maier, Cedillo, and Yergeau rightly point out in this issue, regularly fails to consider “the multidimensionality of trans experience,” even as it attempts at trans inclusion

Setting our enthusiasm aside for the moment, I devote the rest of our introduction to anticipating and answering the following questions that our readers are likely to ask:

  • how are we defining trans?
  • are the authors here exclusively trans?
  • what does trans have to do with rhetoric?
  • and why does this special issue belong in Peitho?

Trans, we posit, is a somewhat imperfect umbrella term to describe those who disidentify with the sex and/or gender designated to them at birth. As Rawson and Williams have elsewhere opined, the definition of trans, along with the people who do claim the term is—and perhaps always will be—an enduring process (6). To be crystal clear, however, we understand trans as an umbrella that welcomes those of many (and even multiple, and in some cases, no) genders. We honor our trans sisters and brothers, and all of our gender-expansive and gender-agnostic siblings. Our nonbinary, agender, bigender, pangender, genderqueer, and genderfluid kin are not only “valid” (as the many internet memes insist), their insights and rhetorical contributions are also valued and welcomed here. As LeMaster illustrates through their intervention in this issue, nonbinary scholars offer important lenses for interrogating “racist cisheterosexism.” Moreover, as Bey illustrates in their essay on the connections between blackness and nonbinariness, one may find possibility, invitation even, extended to “the marginalized and the outcast.”

It also feels important to add that trans is not a universally welcome term to describe all gender-expansive people. Indeed, as Presley echoes in this issue, we must be vigilant in rooting out a troubling colonial impulse to label people without their consent—or to erase other gender cosmologies under the rubric of transness. Nor should culturally-specific terminology, traditions, histories, and identities be appropriated (or used as a prop) “to dismantle gender oppression and the gender binary system” (Towle & Morgan, 471). All gender-expansive people ought (as we will expand upon later) to be granted the rhetorical agency to speak for themselves.

And here we pivot to the second question: Are all of the people featured in this special issue trans? In brief, no. This collection includes the work of cisgender authors, gender-questioning authors, trans authors—and, of course collaborations between them. That being said, our primary aim in editing this collection was (and is) to feature trans voices—particularly multiply-marginalized trans voices. We trust our readers not to interpret this aim as some shot across the bough at cisgender scholars, who also write on trans topics. We value our cisgender colleagues. At the same time, we echo Barsczewski’s insistence (in this issue) that while cis researchers can (and sometimes should) write about trans topics, they may want to “deeply consider whether they need to speak on trans experiences and to ask themselves why.” This point isn’t inconsequential. As it stands, the majority of published scholarship on trans experience has been published by cisgender academics (Galupo, 1).

In recent years, several trans scholars have published pieces lamenting the experience of being crowded out by their cisgender colleagues—who, however sincerely they may be committed to trans scholarship, simply cannot lay claim to the same embodied, emotional, and socio-political ties that trans scholars have to their communities (Benavente and Gill-Peterson 25; Chu and Drager 103-104; Malatino 407-408). For this reason, we invite our cisgender colleagues to join us as co-conspirators—crafting a scholarly ethos that not only resists monopolizing trans airwaves but that also actively seeks to signal boost trans voices, whenever their privilege affords them such opportunities (Patterson 149-150).

With this in mind, we pivot to the next question: what does trans have to do with rhetoric?

Perhaps the answer to this question seems obvious—but we think it’s worth stating explicitly. Some might say, for example, that trans becomes relevant to rhetoric at the level of argument. Indeed, there seems to be no shortage of arguments “about transness”: Are trans kids too young to assert their genders? Should trans people be allowed into gender-segregated spaces with “everyone else”? Should trans athletes be able to participate in competitive sports? Are nonbinary people just snowflakes trying to get attention with their made up genders? Isn’t it a bit ridiculous to talk about menstruation and pregnancy in gender neutral ways? What’s the harm, really, of gender reveal parties? Isn’t trans identity a sin? Aren’t trans people asking for trouble by misleading people about “who they really are”? Isn’t it a slur to be called cis—or to be called a TERF?

Such arguments abound. And sometimes, as trans colleagues sharing your hallways and departmental spaces, we find ourselves in the uncomfortable position of being called upon to act as informants. Not long ago, for example, I found myself in the inevitable position of being asked by a cisgender colleague and fellow rhetorician (who sidled into their office without so much as a by-your-leave): “I mean, you can see that there are both sides to this whole trans debate, right?”

So let’s be clear: trans identities are not up for “debate.”

Trans people are not topics to be trotted out into our classrooms for the purpose of practicing “the arts of persuasion” through sloppy pro/con arguments. Trans people are real human beings. As Hibbard and Bartels remind us in their contributions to this issue, trans people are our students, our fellow colleagues. Trans people are our neighbors, our partners, our friends and family members. And, as Jackson, DiCesare, Rawson, and McCormick also remind us in their contributions to this issue, trans people are rhetorical agents—moving through the world as activists, writers, educators, creatives, lawyers, workers, healthcare professionals, politicians, and community organizers. Trans people are crafting arguments that, quite frankly, need listened to, because cis culture’s profound lack of imagination about the ways gender is weaponized and racialized doesn’t just result in terrible arguments—it results in danger, precarity, and soul murder for gender-expansive people.

For us, what trans has to do with rhetoric hinges upon the simple fact that trans people are speaking. Full stop.

Finally, I close this essay by addressing what may (for some) seem like the elephant in the room: what are the connections between transness and feminism? Why does this special issue belong in Peitho?

There are several ways to answer this question. An optimist might answer that feminism is for everyone. For instance, it seems relevant to point out that, in 2016, the Coalition of Women Scholars in Rhetoric & Composition changed the name of their organization to the Coalition of Feminist Scholars in Rhetoric & Composition to highlight this very fact. And, indeed, addressing and redressing kyriarchal violence extends well beyond the experiences of white cishetero women. Trans-inclusive feminism, Stryker and Bettcher argue, can be charted all the way back to Combahee River Collective’s 1977 statement, which rejected biological determinism as the basis for politics (9).

It would be remiss, however, to ignore the fact that trans culture tends to harbor simultaneous feelings of affection and ambivalence toward feminism. Many of us, after all, have cut our teeth on the writings of feminist scholars, cis and trans, whose words lit up the night sky for us. On the other hand, it is also painfully true that some feminist academics still tend to over-rely on a cis-centric gender binary (Keegan, 10) and sometimes publish reductive narratives about trans people (Awkward-Rich, 825-827). And, in turn, some of these feminist publications are then used to justify policies meant to deny trans people access to housing, employment, medical care, legal documents, bathroom access—along with a host of other indignities. Such violences call to mind the now thoroughly memed question: if your feminism isn’t intersectional, then who’s it really for? But it also feels important to ask, if feminism is the robust organizing principle it presents itself to be, then why does this question need to be asked in the first place?

Our job here isn’t to resolve this issue for readers—nor is it to belabor the connections between our contributors’ scholarly insights and what (by some) may be regarded as the traditional concerns of feminist scholarship.

We are here to take up space. We are here because trans people are speaking—and we are indebted to our trans elders (those who are living and those who have walked on), whose radical insistence in taking up space and speaking anyway has made our lives possible.


  1. I’d like to thank my co-editor, K.J. Rawson; my partner, the newly-minted Dr. Mandy Watts; and my friends-and-colleagues, Jen Wingard and Jo Hsu, for generously offering up feedback on this introduction. I’m lucky to have y’all in my world.

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