Toward Trans Rhetorical Agency: A Critical Analysis of Trans Topics in Rhetoric and Composition and Communication Scholarship
Author(s): GPat Patterson & Leland G. Spencer
GPat Patterson (they/them) is an Assistant Professor of English and LGBT Studies Coordinator at Kent State University Tuscarawas. G’s research interests include curriculum development, rhetorics of social justice, queer rhetorics, and transgender studies. Their scholarship has been featured in Constellations, Journal of LGBT Youth, Queer Media Studies in Popular Culture, Women & Language, Journal of Multimodal Rhetorics. Their work also appears in three other edited collections focusing on contemporary rhetorics. Finally, alongside their esteemed compatriot, K.J. Rawson, GPat is a co-editor of Peitho’s special issue on trans rhetorics. They are inexpressibly grateful to all of the people who’ve labored on this issue, and they’re delighted that you, dear reader, have honored this collection with your time and attention. Feel free to email GPat at email@example.com.
Leland G. Spencer (he/him) is an Associate Professor in the Department of Interdisciplinary and Communication Studies and affiliate faculty in the Department of Media, Journalism, and Film and the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program at Miami University. He is coauthor of Campuses of Consent (University of Massachusetts Press, 2019), author of Women Bishops and Rhetorics of Shalom (Lexington, 2017), and coeditor of Transgender Communication Studies (Lexington, 2015). Leland has published more than twenty peer-reviewed scholarly journal articles in outlets such as Critical Studies in Media Communication, Communication Studies, Women & Language, and others. Direct correspondence to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Abstract: This article offers a critical literature review of the emerging discipline of trans rhetorics. To acknowledge common points of interest, as well as interdisciplinary collaborations that cut across both fields, the authors examine published scholarship on trans rhetorics emerging out of rhetoric & composition and communication. The literature review is organized around the following four topics: trans representations in popular culture, trans activism, trans rhetorical pedagogies, and trans rhetorical methodologies. While the authors address the emerging trends and gaps in trans rhetorical studies, the authors also turn readers’ attention to the socio-political consequences of academic research, arguing that researchers should prioritize projects that emphasize trans people’s rhetorical agency.Tags: communication, composition, gender expansive, literature review, nonbinary, research ethics, rhetoric, transgender
For those of us writing and teaching in the discipline, rhetorical studies can sometimes feel like a stubborn area of inquiry. Change occurs at a glacial pace. As a case in point, though the interdisciplinary field of transgender studies came into formation over thirty years ago, it took twenty-odd years for trans perspectives and trans theorizing to breach the recalcitrant archives of rhetorical studies. Indeed, the fraternal twin disciplines of rhetoric & composition and communication have only begun to see the rise of something that might be called transgender rhetorics within the last five years.
We define trans as a disidentificatory relation to the dyadic, cissexist, and faulty assumptions of sexual dimorphism, which include: the insistence that there are only two “true” sexes, male and female (Malatino, “Situating” 79); the assertion that doctors have the authority to gender infants based upon a cursory glance at infants’ genitalia (Fausto Sterling 59); the position that gender and sex are both immutable and mutually inclusive and the insinuation that medical and governmental institutions1 have the ultimate authority over each person’s sex/gender (Salamon 171-194, Assuming).
Throughout our2 essay, we use the shortened version trans as an intentional move to hold space for a range of gender expansive people—who may identify as trans, transgender, and/or transsexual, and who move through the world as men, women, nonbinary people, agender people, and other non/gendered positionalities (Rawson and Williams 3-4). To varying degrees and with uneven resources, those who fall under the trans umbrella shed the sex/gender combination designated (or assigned) to them at birth and go on to live their lives as a sex/gender (or, in some cases, in the absence of sex/gender or in the in the abundance of sexes/genders) that aligns with who they know themselves to be (Reif Hill and May 12-13). Though the term has in recent years “gone global,” we also note that trans is a Western concept. Other cosmologies of gender not only currently exist but also predate a Western European cosmology of gender—which itself was invented as a tool of colonial domination (Aizura et al. 309, DeVun and Tortorici 519-520; Driskill 46-48, Asegi; Lugones 743-751).
As two scholars of trans rhetorics—a multiethnic, white, queer, trans, neurodivergent, nonbinary professor of rhetoric & composition and a white, cisgender, gay professor of communication—we find ourselves cheering for the “arrival” of trans rhetorics while also tempering our enthusiasm with caution. While we celebrate our fellow colleagues who have labored to bring trans theories and perspectives into conversation with rhetorical studies, we are also hyper-aware that the institutionalization of trans studies has taken place within a context where the radical potential of trans critique has increasingly become absorbed and appropriated as a commodity.
Indeed, in a previous collaborative essay, in which we reflect on our shared experiences as faculty advisors for LGBTQ+ student organizations, we join scholars like Nicolazzo (4) and LeMaster (155-158, “UnBecoming”), who worry about the way trans people become props in the corporate university’s diversity and inclusion initiatives (Spencer and Patterson 300-301, “Abridging”). Commenting on an adjacent vein of institutional violence, Keegan (5-10) and Benavente and Gill-Peterson (25) reflect on the meteoric rise of trans studies as a discipline, which women’s & gender studies and LGBT studies programs seem eager to absorb while continuing to marginalize the contributions and exploit the labor of trans studies scholars, especially multiply-marginalized and Black, indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) transgender people.
This kind of marginalization extends to how trans topics and trans people are treated in published scholarship. Trans studies scholarship, in fact, finds its origins with commentary from scholars like Stryker (8-9) and Hale (n.p.), who question the ways cisgender scholars (frequently operating in queer and feminist studies) deployed the trans person as the object lesson of gender trouble—all the while denying trans people the agency to speak for themselves. Even as scholars of trans experience have reclaimed the authority to theorize for themselves, scholars like Ivy (168-171), Patterson (146-151, “Entertaining”), and Nicolazzo (4-5) lament that otherwise promising scholarship risks being crowded out by reductive hot-takes, which continue to be published with an unfortunate enthusiasm. As Malatino observes, the inclusion industrial complex doesn’t so much care how trans people are talked about, nor does it particularly care about the expertise (and lived experience) of the people writing and teaching about trans topics; it only matters that trans people are talked about (407-408, “Pedagogies”). Far from its warm and fuzzy overtures, inclusion is often a violent process for those who are on the receiving end of inclusion.
We wish it were possible to share a triumphant and exceptionalist but! when it comes to the sub-discipline of trans rhetorics…but we can’t. While it is true that we delight in the prospect of trans theory’s arrival in rhetoric & composition and communication, we share (alongside our colleagues in the interdisciplinary field of trans studies) similar feelings of exhaustion, and even anger, that the march toward trans inclusion in rhetorical studies has emerged in such a way that we face the real risk of crowding out the voices, theorizing, and activism of actual trans people. Indeed, part of our motivation for writing this critical literature review is to attend to both the promises and perils of how the journals/presses in our two fields have, thus far, communicated a vision of trans rhetorics. However frustrated we may feel, like our trans studies colleagues Benavente and Gill-Peterson, we return to the promise of trans studies—as a discipline uniquely rooted in activism, in anger as a vehicle for critique, in embodied knowledge as theory and, above all else, in centering and amplifying actual trans people (27).
As rhetoricians, trained to understand the power of words to shape life chances and trained to value the rhetorical agency of marginalized communities speaking for themselves, it is our hope that the best parts of our rhetorical tradition might join forces with the promise of trans studies to amplify, celebrate, support, and learn from trans scholars—especially multiply-marginalized (multimarg) trans scholars. It in this spirit that we engage in a critical review of the published literature in transgender rhetorics.
Critical Literature Reviews as a Genre
Critical literature reviews offer readers a retrospective of where a field has been—highlighting its patterns and trends and illuminating its silences—while also forecasting opportunities for future work. In offering a critical literature review of trans rhetorics, we borrow from an already existing genre of critical literature reviews in feminist and LGBTQ rhetorics/communication; such valuable reviews have been authored by Alexander and Banks (“Sexualities, Technologies”), Alexander and Gibson (“Queer Composition(s)”), Alexander and Rhodes (““Queer: An Impossible Subject”), Alexander and Wallace (“The Queer Turn”), Cox and Faris (“An Annotated Bibliography”), and Dow and Condit (“The State of the Art”). We are grateful for our colleagues’ labor because they’ve provided us a set of coordinates that have made our own mapping of transgender rhetorics possible.
We have chosen to zero in on transgender rhetorics for two reasons. First, the T (trans) in these LGBTQ communication/rhetoric literature reviews is often silent, in the sense that these reviews almost exclusively feature scholarship about cisgender LGBQ people (Spencer “Introduction” xiii). Second, some of the critical lit reviews mentioned above operate under the assumption that trans epistemologies are implicitly covered under their “queer” review of rhetoric and composition and communication. Such literature reviews have the (unintended) consequence of erasing the distinctly trans rhetorical contributions of their colleagues. Mindful of these tendencies, our literature review highlights specific contributions of trans rhetorics, which have too often been marginalized within a cis-centric framework.
In what follows, we examine emerging trans rhetoric scholarship in the following four areas:
On the whole, our responses to this body of work are complicated. While we celebrate the trailblazing achievements of trans rhetorics scholars who have rightly drawn important distinctions between queer and trans rhetorical theories and methods, we would feel remiss if we didn’t mention that, among the published literature, we also identified narratives that circulate inaccurate, stereotypical, and appropriative ideas about trans people, trans experience, and trans rhetorics. We will discuss these victories and missteps in each of the sections that follow.
Analysis of Scholarship on Trans Representation in Popular Culture
Media criticism, broadly understood, seeks to make an argument about potential ways to understand texts such as films, television series, and news coverage (Dow). Academic critics have an interest in the politics of representation, the implications of those politics, and why it matters. As such, academic critical arguments about representation (and the politics of representation) come to more hesitant and nuanced conclusions, especially as contrasted with cheerfully optimistic headlines like Time’s declaration that 2014 constituted a “transgender tipping point” (Steinmetz). The media industry, of course, relies on maintaining hegemony. For example, uncritical celebrations of shows like Orange is the New Black (for including a trans main character portrayed by a trans actor) or Glee (for representing all manner of difference, from race, to gender identity, to sexual orientation) can overlook the serious liabilities of those representations. And, indeed, critical trans theorists repeatedly caution against conflating corporatized mediated “visibility” with an increase in life chances for marginalized trans people. Reflecting a critical awareness of the political economy of the media, E. Tristan Booth calls visibility “a risky prospect, particularly with respect to groups that are easily exploited for commercial purposes” (“Queering” 191; see also, Fischer Terrorizing 1). Scholarship that demonstrates the precarity of visibility in popular culture tends to focus on
- trans icons (famous trans people),
- ordinary trans people (depicted in reality television), or
- fictional trans characters.
Representations of Trans Icons
Research on trans icons often focuses on how the news media cover stories related to gender identity, including thirteen books and articles in our review. John Sloop’s work on Brandon Teena showed how media accounts of Teena’s case policed gender and gender identity carefully, referring to Teena as deceptive and over-relying on biological markers of identity (55). More recent analyses of trans folks in the news have examined the cases of Gwen Araujo (Barker-Plummer 710), Chelsea Manning (Cloud 80; Fischer Terrorizing 29), and queer and trans activists (Spencer and Barnett 141) and arrived at similar conclusions to Sloop’s: over and over again, news stories reify harmful and limiting binaries of sex, gender, sexuality, and gender identity and posit an essentialist connection between sex and gender, dismissing people’s actual identities (not to mention decades of feminist, queer, and trans scholarship).Gayle Salamon’s “Passing Period” analyzes the court transcripts from the Brandon McInnery murder trial, in which witnesses for the defense frame Letishia/Larry King’s gender-nonconformity as a form of sexual harassment toward McInerney—which ultimately “forces” him to murder King (195-200). Salamon argues that this line of defense misconstrues the actual sources of cishetero outrage: (1) that cishetero people are afraid to examine their desire to look at TGNC people and (2) that TGNC people have the audacity to move through the world “without a sufficient sense of shame” (200).
Visual representations, too, can work to undercut trans identities in news outlets. Jamie Landau (“Reproducing” 178) found that audience reactions to images of Thomas Beatie (popularly called “the pregnant man”) preferred photographs where Beatie appeared with his wife in what looked like a more conventional heterosexual family; in an image where Beatie appeared alone, audiences often denied Beatty’s pregnancy, instead asking if he had a beer belly or illness. Richard Mocarski and colleagues (249) made a similar argument about Chaz Bono’s appearance on Dancing with the Stars: while some trans activists celebrated Bono’s inclusion on the show, production choices such as song selection and costume functioned to police Bono’s identity.
A related problem emerges when we consider sourcing in news reports. Jamie Capuzza’s work (“Improvements” 82; “Who Defines” 115) asks whom news organizations authorize to speak for or on behalf of trans people. Capuzza calls for journalists to seek out the perspectives of trans people directly in articles about gender identity. While groups like GLAAD exist to monitor the media and advocate for better reporting and representation, even GLAAD’s resources present challenges. Mary Alice Adams contends that the GLAAD media guide for transgender reporting draws on stereotypes and logics of trans criminality and victimhood by focusing especially on how to report about crimes that involve trans people. Therefore, in the GLAAD media guide, transgender people “occupy a precarious position, always already implicated as aggressors or objects of violence—not only in the parlance of mainstream media stereotypes, but also in the framing of the very guidelines that purport to offer advice to those media” (183). Sometimes media seem to pick up some of the slack. Capuzza (“What’s in a Name” 102) found that one of the major news stories in the days following Chelsea Manning’s coming out centered on meta-reporting—news organizations’ monitoring of each other’s language choices—including how to name Manning and what pronouns to use.
Other trans icon scholarship focuses less on media coverage and more on trans icons themselves. The danger with such an approach, of course, lies in the potential for scholars to reproduce the harms they ought to critique. Serkan Gorkemli uses visual rhetoric to examine visual representations of LGBTQ gay Turkish icons. Gorkemli judges a transwoman pop artist’s appearance on her album cover as inadequate because of her gender identity:
However, the Turkish audience knows that Ersoy is a male-to-female transsexual who is not a biological woman, but rather is performing such womanhood, which might undercut the sex appeal of the picture for some and thus possibly the commercial appeal of the album for a mass audience. (Gorkemli)
Gorkemli asserts that Erosy is actually a man pretending to be a woman, one of the oldest, most tired, transphobic stereotypes; moreover, Gorkemli imposes this interpretation on Erosy’s gender expression and gender identity, where the writer’s job ought to be interrogating such gender disciplining. If, for instance, Gorkemli had evidence that Turkish viewers rejected Erosy’s gender identity or gender expression, Gorkemli ought to have presented that evidence and critiqued the transphobia inherent in such interpretations. Instead, Gorkemli pronounces himself judge and jury of Erosy’s gender identity and from that vantage point offers a pronouncement about the efficacy of her gender expression.
Gorkemli is not alone in irresponsibly writing about trans icons. In a passing reference to Caitlyn Jenner, philosopher Rebecca Tuvel (now infamously) deadnamed Jenner and then problematically attempted to analogize Rachel Dolezal’s claim of “transracialism” with arguments about transgender identity. We also note that both of us have reviewed for journals and have recommended rejection or substantial revision in cases where authors sensationalize trans icons, exemplify an inappropriate level of focus on a trans icon’s body, genitals, or surgical status, or traffic in transphobic stereotypes rather than identifying and critiquing them. We hope other reviewers will do likewise, but even better: we wish people would stop writing this way in the first place.
Given the recent visibility of Laverne Cox and Caitlin Jenner, the newsworthiness of students’ suing their schools over discrimination or restroom access, and the spate of transphobic bathroom bills passed or discussed in various U.S. states over the last couple of years, we have every reason to believe trans icons will continue to garner popular and academic interest. We see nothing innately wrong with scholars’ interest in trans icons, but we urge all scholars writing about trans icons especially to avoid superficial, stereotyped engagement and instead write about trans icons respectfully and in a way that reflects careful and thoughtful engagement with trans studies scholarship. We also urge scholars not to celebrate the visibility of monied white trans folks as representative of some new wave of trans acceptance while violence against trans people of color, poor trans folks, and other multiply minoritized trans folks proliferates (Fischer, Terrorizing 85).
Representations of Everyday Trans People
Fourteen books and articles in our review considered representations of everyday trans people. Sensational representations have dominated genres such as daytime talk shows for decades, but even more recent portrayals traffic in stereotypes and transmisogyny, as Paul Lester (148) notes in his comprehensive analysis of visual rhetoric and gender identity (see also, Capuzza and Spencer 215). Television’s reliance on visuals troubles the genre of scientific documentaries, too, as Booth (“Provisional” 123) points out. Medical shows that feature episodes about gender affirming surgeries falter in their name and pronoun use, often using the correct names and pronouns only when a subject’s body most seems to match social expectations for the person’s gender. Media such as the reality series I am Jazz and the documentary Raising Ryland invite considerations of the implications of cultural definitions of childhood for understanding and translating trans identity to normative audiences (Owen 95).
In contradistinction to the hegemony of media content produced by huge industries for profit, for everyday trans people and media, social media seem to offer the most hope. Joshua Trey Barnett (“Covert” 161), for instance, argues that Joshua Riverdale’s blog about his transition process functions pedagogically in that it teaches viewers about the transitioning body’s evolution over time (a substantial improvement from the sensationalized emergence narratives of daytime talk shows, for instance). As such, Barnett argues, Riverdale’s blog addresses and constitutes a counterpublic online (see also, Cavalcante, “I Did it All Online” 109; Eckstein 24). Similarly, Dame (23) sees Tumblr as a space of trans folks to find community online, while Nuru (281) shows how ItGetsBetter.org offers space for queer and trans people to share coming out stories (see also, Goltz 131; Kellinger and Levine 85). The Internet, of course, is no panacea. Disciplinary regimes manifest in various ways, from anonymous comments to official and structural injustices such as Facebook’s “Real Names” policy, which, by requiring members to post using only their given, legal names, systematically disenfranchised trans people (MacAulay and Moldes 6). Moreover, Horak (572) shows how transition vlogs and other trans YouTube presence presumes a kind of universal Whiteness. While Mia Fischer (Terrorizing 117) celebrates the online activism of advocates for the release of CeCe McDonald, she also demonstrates the continued importance of showing up for physical protests in the project of trans worldmaking. Linking trans icons and everyday trans people’s representations in media, the spectre of visibility seems always to excite scholars on the one hand and, with more force, invite caution on the other. While visibility helps to resolve the problem of symbolic annihilation, the type and force of representation always matters, too.
Representations of Fictional Trans Characters
Analyses of fictional characters have reached similar conclusions about visibility, including in eight chapters and articles we reviewed. Driskill connects dominant-culture erotic stereotypes of Black Americans and American Indianas all the way back to their colonial roots in chattel slavery and settler-genocide (“Stolen,” 57). As a response to this legacy of racism, sexual, and gendered trauma, Driskill forwards the practice of writing healing erotica that rejects the toxic colonial logic that “non-dichotomous genders are a sin” and that views sexuality as “illicit, shocking, shameful, and removed from any positive spiritual context (“Stolen,” 54).
Gust Yep, Sage Russo, and Jace Allen (“Pushing”) posit transing as an analytical tool that “examines how gender is contingently assembled and reassembled with other structures and attributes of bodily being such as race and nation” in order to “unpac[k] underlying relations of power within specific cultural, geopolitical, and historical contexts” (70). Yep and colleagues (“Uniquely”) apply this analytical tool in their close reading of the television series Glee, analyzing episodes that feature the character Unique, a fat Black woman. Yep et al. argue that the series regularly polices Unique’s gender and racial identity, such that her identities are “regulated to maintain White heteropatriarchical hegemony” (69). Yep, Russo, and Lescure’s (“Pushing Boundaries”) analysis of Ma Vie en Rose finds creativity possibility in the character Ludo; while a transphobic society disciplines Ludo’s gender expression, Ludo nonetheless rejects hegemonic boyhood masculinity, providing “space for endless possibilities of gender performances” (56).
Other media texts seem to offer progressive representations of trans identities, but academic critics’ enthusiasm for such ostensibly forward-thinking films and TV shows have limits. Cavalcante (“Centering” 85), for instance, argues that film reviews and other paratexts for TransAmerica militate against the film’s more affirming message. Similarly, Patterson and Spencer (“What’s So Funny” 78) found that children’s animated films permit expressions of gender nonconformity, but only for characters who occupy normative White bodies and end up in heterosexual romantic pairings by the time the credits roll. Other analyses have focused not on films about gender identity, but ways of reading films that nevertheless reveal truths about trans lives. For example, Spencer (“Performing” 112) offers a transgender critical lens as a way of reading films not ostensibly about gender identity in his rhetorical criticism of The Little Mermaid. Lucy Miller (“Becoming” 140) turns her attention to films that employ cross dressing as a plot device, reasoning that cisgender audiences with no other frame of reference for trans people may use films like Tootsie or Mrs. Doubtfire to fill in the gaps. These films rely on what Miller (“Becoming” 133) calls farce because the characters’ “trans” identities persist only long enough to solve the problem that required cross dressing in the first place; the characters always return to a cisnormative (and usually heteronormative) life by the end of the film, with the trans identity primarily serving to inspire laughter on the part of the audience.
In addition to the admonitions we offer above about writing that focuses on trans icons, we hope rhetorical critics of the media will continue to attend to increasingly diverse trans representations in film, television, news coverage, and online media platforms and applications. Shows like Shameless, The Fosters, Good Trouble, Sense8, and Faking It seem to be breaking new ground in representing diverse gender identities, and we encourage more critical attention on both mainstream and alternative media that feature especially nonbinary characters, agender characters, and subjects whose gender identities lie outside of Westernized, colonial language structures. We also encourage rhetorical scholars of trans studies to consider trans-produced media, such as Internet cartoons or video channels that do not rely on the financial backing of large corporations. Analyses are at their best when they go beyond the uncritical celebration of visibility and engage carefully with the complex implications of various representations and their politics. Additionally, we call for analyses that consider gender identity on its own terms, not as a metaphor for something else or in a way where the critical gaze somehow reproduces objectifying tropes from the media analyzed.
Analysis of Scholarship on Trans Activism
Scholarship in rhetorical studies lends itself to the analysis of social activism and activists, particularly their strategies of argument and embodied resistance, whether radical (calling for major structural change), liberal (advocating for inclusion in the status quo), or assimilationist (fitting into current social structures unobtrusively) in approach. Our review included twenty-six articles, chapters, and books about activism. A number of studies of trans activism have critiqued interventions that ignore structural and institutional inequalities (Cram “Angie” 411; Driskill “Decolonial” 57; Johnson “Cisgender” 135; Pritchard “This is Not” 278). Authors like Driskill and Pritchard examine the phenomenon of horizontal oppression within trans communities and how that influences trans activism. For example, Driskill recounts an instance where their submitted proposal to host a workshop at a trans skill-share festival was rejected by organizers on the basis that Driskill’s proposal didn’t seem “hands-on” enough and that Driskill’s target audience wasn’t viable because they didn’t anticipate many indigenous people to attend the event (“Decolonial,” 60-61). In rebuttal, Driskill responds to organizers that “there are few skills more important to First Nations people and other people of color than to find ways to survive the continuing destruction of our peoples and the continuing occupations of our homelands” (“Decolonial,” 63). In a similar vein, Pritchard’s case study of a Black trans activist examines the complicated rhetorical moves she had to make to address white trans people’s resistance to discussing racial disparities within the trans community. Pritchard interprets his participant’s decision, when speaking with white trans community members about race, to first begin with a discussion of classism as “a rhetorical strategy that is keenly aware of the ways the legacies of racial injustice operate in the United States, but particularly in an interracial coalition for transgender rights” (287).
Studies of trans activism also often critique statist violence, such as policing and federal detention practices that disproportionately harm Latinx and Black trans folks (Chávez 1; Johnson 228). E Cram’s (“Angie” 411) analysis of the murder trial of Angie Zapata reveals not only how the legal system relies on cissexist and essentialist assumptions about bodies but also how activists can resist the normalization of state violence by using visual imagery to counter messages of disgust and trans panic.
Other articles consider activists’ responses to the transphobic violence in contexts like the military (Barnett and Hill 584; Morris and Nakayama vii), airport security screening (Magnet and Rodgers 101; Spalding 460), restroom access (Adair 464; Booth and Spencer 209; Fischer “Piss(ed)” 397; Spencer “Bathroom” 542; West “PISSAR” 156), death row (Campbell and Holding 199), religion (Spencer “Coming” 187; Spencer “Nashville” 1), sports (Fischer and McClearen 1), student organizations (Meyer 499), and navigating trans microaggressions in everyday interactions (L. Miller, “Disciplining” 133). For instance, analyses of activism in response to the spate of transphobic bathroom bills in various state legislatures in the late aughts have revealed a number of activist strategies for trans worldmaking. Fischer (“Piss(ed)” 397) considers the performance art of Cassils as a biopolitical response to legislation of bathroom access, given that Cassils uses their own urine and collected and preserved urine of others in the installation. Spencer (“Bathroom” 543) too invokes the concept of biopolitics in his analysis of activists’ creation and circulation of memes that oppose or purport to oppose transphobic legislation.
Research into activism about gender violence has recently worked to center trans lives more in discussions about violence prevention and response. In their book-length analysis of the politics and practices of consent on university campuses, Kulbaga and Spencer show how advocates for sexual assault prevention education frequently create programs that rely on and reproduce gender binaries, often excluding trans students entirely (51). Related, Hsu brings into high relief the failures of the #MeToo movement, whose reliance on “the perfect victim” marginalizes (or silences) the accounts of state-sanction gender-based violence as experienced by people of color, queer people, trans people, poor people, disabled people, and incarcerated people (271).
Other research on trans activism has focused on community building among genderqueer people (Barnett and Johnson 677), the role of new technologies in facilitating trans worldmaking (Sunden), and the importance of histories and traditions of social protest (Hundley and Rodriguez 35). On the whole, rhetorical studies of trans activism have focused on trans activists and strategies more than on trans-antagonistic modes of argument. These studies, then, point us more often to styles of resistance and worldmaking than to the direct critique of transphobic or essentialist arguments.
Studies of activism under the auspices of rhetorical criticism overwhelmingly focus on activists in U.S. contexts, and this holds true for studies of activism related to gender identities as well. Scholars in area studies, history, cultural studies, and transgender studies more broadly have begun to explore the rich range of gender expressions and identities around the world, including the activist impulses that engage in creative worldmaking work to carve out space that life might flourish more fully. Rhetorical studies scholars in rhetoric & composition and communication have much to add to these conversations and must break out of the narrow lanes that keep our focus primarily on Western contexts. Of course, we should do so in a way that centers local voices and experiences rather than imposing Western vocabularies and epistemologies in a neocolonial fashion.
Moreover, scholarship on trans activism is at its best when it looks beyond the loudest voices and most visible faces of trans activism. Trans people who face multiple forms of marginalization have crafted space for more livable existences in myriad ways that may remain invisible to scholars of public discourse if our gaze always lingers on the most mainstream sources and toward the center of power operations. How can scholarship about trans activism listen more closely to those voices and attend more carefully to the quiet interpersonal and community-based rhetorical worldmaking that enriches and enables meaningful trans life?
Analysis of Scholarship on Trans Issues in Educational Spaces
As a disciplinary lens, trans rhetorical pedagogy offers educators valuable insights: it addresses gender identity as a classroom (and sometimes campus) topic, it centers the experiences of trans (and other gender expansive) students and educators, and it illuminates our stubborn fixation on cisnormativity in our thinking and writing. Below, we will consider thirty-three trans pedagogical contributions across the following four areas:
- gender identity as a classroom topic,
- trans topics in student writing/composing,
- trans educators’ experiences in the classroom, and
- cisnormativity in educational settings.
Gender Identity as a Classroom Topic
Sixteen articles in our lit review consider gender identity as a classroom topic; these articles can be distinguished from one another by the degree and manner in which they explore transness in the classroom. Capuzza and colleagues (“Transing” 107) offer a range of strategies for centering trans lives in communication courses ranging from introductory-level courses to upper-division seminars in gender communication. Communicating a hands-off approach, two authors discuss their attempts to include transness as one of many perspectives that relate to a course theme. In his course on autobiographical writing, for example, Consiglio includes Les Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues, drawing students’ attention less to trans content and more to how zie crafted hir autobiography (72). Spieldenner takes a similar approach in his themed course exploring gendered and sexual norms in pornography. Among the pornography Spieldenner includes in his class, he incorporates a unit on trans porn, asking his students to analyze the production’s setting, casting choices, gendered gaze, and target audiences (218). Not only do both of these pieces make a space for trans perspectives but they also communicate a willingness to include material cisgender students may find challenging (Consiglio 72, Spieldenner 219).
Taking a more direct approach, five authors incorporate trans topics with the express intention of educating students about trans identities and, in other cases, helping students interrogate cisnormativity. Gold, for example, argues that including shows like I Am Cait and Transparent in her writing course not only helps students apply gender theories to everyday contexts but also helps students better understand trans people in their lives (157-158). In her gender and communication course, McGrath describes a three-day unit on trans topics—beginning with a lecture on trans terminology and ending with analyses of Princess Boy and Ma Vie En Rose—which she credits with “promot[ing] civility in the classroom” and helping students understand “the fluidity of gender identity” (100-101). Similarly, Abbott examines her decision to incorporate trans guest speakers and novels/films about trans people that appeal to her conservative student body while also encouraging them to consider how transphobia impacts their lives (155-165). Turning cisgender students’ gaze from trans people to themselves, Borgstrom encourages his students to interrogate the efficacy of “visibility” politics by including a novel in which cishetero characters violently objectify the hyper-visible body of their deceased gender-ambiguous friend (321-322). Moving away from primary texts, Johnson describes a class activity designed to help students interrogate the way slurs and stereotypes function to foreclose more nuanced understandings of gender identity and gender expression (230–232). Taken together, these authors contribute to pedagogical literature by articulating both trans awareness and cis students’ self-reflexivity as desirable learning outcomes.
Shifting focus from challenging students, five authors challenge educators to consider the implications of choices they make when choosing to include or not include trans topics in the classroom. Norton, for example, argues that some educators’ attempts at gender-based inquiries are insufficient because they remain rooted in cisnormativity (87). Educators have answered Norton’s challenge in several ways. Maples argues that educators can incorporate a trans-affirming lens regardless of course content—a point she demonstrates for readers by modeling a trans analysis of a classroom debate on school uniforms (210-212). In a similar vein, Ressler illustrates the ways in which an educator might apply queer and trans analyses to canonical cishetero texts like Romeo and Juliet (52). From a faculty development perspective, Parker and Bach offer a set of guidelines to help educators engage with trans texts (100). Finally, Leger and McLeod press educators beyond inclusion to consider whether the materials they’re using in the classroom meet trans-affirming criteria (5-7).
Shifting away from course content, in a final cluster of articles, three authors ask educators to be mindful of other ways they can show up for trans students in the classroom and in the writing center. For example, Moore calls for university writing centers to incorporate visual cues to suggest trans students are welcome—from including trans ally signage to making space for students to include their pronouns on intake forms (n.p.). Returning to the classroom, Orem and Simpkins discuss the ways in which including trigger warnings might be of particular value to trans students (n.p.). Finally, Boyd and Bereiter model the importance of educators listening and responding to trans students when they critique reductive (or inaccurate) representations/discussions of trans issues in the classroom (13). On the whole, these contributions raise important questions about the impact of educators’ choices—particularly as they affect trans students, whose educational needs are frequently forgotten in the rush for trans inclusion.
Trans Topics in Student Composing
Nine authors reference trans topics within the context of writing pedagogy. On the whole, the majority of these pieces illustrate how the writing/composing process can increase students’ introspection around gender. As in the previous section, more than half of these articles center the educational experiences of transgender students. Three of these articles engage with transness as a metaphor. For example, in their respective articles on teaching underserved student populations, here English language learners and incarcerated students, Gentil and Butler imagine their students’ relationship to acquiring new literacies as akin to the process of transitioning (Gentil 123, Butler 33). While Gentil and Butler don’t actually introduce their students to trans topics in the classroom, Alexander includes trans writers and theorists in his/their writing course designed to interrogate gender norms circulating among contemporary masculinity (46). Specifically, Alexander describes a creative writing prompt—which he/they claims rendered his/their students “virtually transsexed”—in which he required his students to write as the “opposite” gender (50, 60). To be clear, employing transness as a metaphor exposes authors like Alexander, Gentil, and Butler to critique (perhaps rightly so). At the same time, these authors end up illustrating—in the absence of performing this work—the need for scholarship that centers trans students’ needs, explores trans students’ unique literacy practices, and amplifies trans students’ rhetorical contributions.
Moving away from literacy metaphors and toward the value of trans-worldmaking, four authors illustrate how the writing/composing process can open students up to a deeper engagement with gender. Sometimes, the connection between trans topics and writing/composing results from student-driven inquires. Describing student research groups as a site of invitational rhetoric, Yam illustrates how a cisgender student’s perspective evolves after reading his trans peer’s essay on trans bathroom bans (n.p.). Related, in a student-teacher co-authored piece, Kitchens (teacher) analyzes his student’s self-reflexive autoethnographic research on drag king culture, observing the ways in which Larkins’s writing resulted in a deeper understanding of herself and, somehow, of trans identity (n.p.).
Moving from student-centered to teacher-led composing, authors like Lewis and LeMaster employ writing prompts to deepen students’ understanding with trans topics. Lewis, for example, argues that students’ engagement with trans topics was enriched through a semester-long writing assignment, in which students were required to use a blogging platform to curate/analyze cultural artifacts (interviews, articles, videos, etc.) related to assigned readings (202, “Star”). Taking a more direct approach to student composing, LeMaster conducts a multi-tiered and multi-modal course writing activity in which students were tasked with creating (through paints, collage, and graffiti) an introspective reflection on their gendered positionalities/universes (223-225). Taken together, these four pieces demonstrate the reciprocal relationship between trans inquiry and the writing process—illustrating, also, that such relationships can emerge even when transness isn’t the central focus of a course.
Of the articles discussing the connections between transness and writing/composing, only two articles explicitly engage with trans student writers. Drake, for example, writes about a student who experiences a coming-to-consciousness moment after reading an assigned speculative fiction novel, in which the characters use the neopronouns per/person. Drake goes on to say that the student not only came out as genderqueer in the class but went on to adopt ze/hir pronouns in a piece of writing ze submitted to an essay contest (n.p.). Related, Houle and McKee analyze a trans student’s multimodal essay; in the essay, the student (Kimball) employs voice recordings, graphic images, MP3 files, and hyperlinks to challenge a reductive, monolithic narrative about his transition (n.p.). Though less frequent, pieces like these have an outsized impact on pedagogical scholarship in the sense that they highlight the needs (and, indeed, presence) of trans students’ rhetorical agency—particularly the ways in which they employ writing/ composing to challenge cissexist logics.
Trans Educators’ Classroom Experiences
Only three authors give voice to the experiences of trans faculty in (and outside) the composition and communication classroom. Each of these authors, to varying degrees, examine the ways in which trans faculty members’ bodies function as texts in various institutional spaces, and we celebrate that this special issue adds particularly to the body of work we review here. Patterson’s qualitative study examines the relationship between cissexist violence and conservative institutional expectations of writing pedagogy. In their essay, Patterson recounts the story of a queer- and trans-of-color nonbinary grad student whose gender-non-conforming presentation not only elicited verbal taunts from a senior faculty member (outside the classroom) but also the threat of legal action from a white cishetero student (inside the classroom), who interpreted the grad student’s intersectional curriculum and multiply-marginalized body as an infringement of his right to a politically neutral classroom (136–137). In an adjacent vein, but speaking from a first-person perspective, Sathiyaseelan explains how ze capitalizes on hir students’ misreading of hir positionality and hir gender identity to shut down a cisgender student’s transphobic classroom tirade––an intervention which resulted in a trans student gaining the confidence to come out as trans in hir classroom (59). Finally, Lewis writes about how implicitly outing herself/theirself to her/their students as a “black queer femme on the intersex spectrum” not only had the effect of shifting marginalized perspectives to the center in the classroom but also inspired her/their students of color and her/their nonbinary students—neither of whom had ever taken a course with a Black professor or a professor who uses they/them pronouns (201).
Taken together, these articles not only center voices (nonbinary, gender expansive, trans of color) that are frequently marginalized in the trans scholarly archive but they also illuminate the experiences (both violent and life-affirming) that accompany multiply-marginalized faculty as they move through institutional spaces. Such perspectives, we argue, should be amplified—given the relative lack of nonbinary and racial diversity (to say nothing of equity) in both rhetoric & composition and communication studies.
Cisnormativity in Educational Settings
Eight authors contribute to trans rhetorics scholarship by calling attention to educational institutions’ stubborn fixation on cisnormativity. Two of these authors direct readers’ attention away from higher education and toward public secondary education. SJ Miller, for instance, examines the ways institutional spaces (hallways, locker rooms, etc) and school events (plays, dances, teams) institute cishetero-normativity (40). As a corrective, Miller forwards a “queer literacy framework (QLF),” arguing that QLF’s ten principles can and should be applied across disciplines and educational spaces (41-43). Extending this conversation, Pritchard argues that secondary schools’ zero-tolerance anti-bullying policies, ostensibly adopted to create “classroom safety,” are too often weaponized against queer and gender nonconforming students of color (326).
Switching from secondary to post-secondary educational contexts, three articles draw from autoethnographic accounts to illustrate institutional cissexism. For example, Czuy Levine illustrates how graduate faculty members enacted “benevolent transphobia” by inappropriately fixating on his trans-masculinity and framing his trans identity as a liability (52-54). Speaking about their experiences both as graduate students and faculty, Patterson and Hsu engage in embodied, dialogic, enbie storytelling to interrogate the racist, cissexist, ableist, fat- and femme-phobic assumptions that undergird higher ed’s visions of “professionalism” and “trans-inclusivity” (n.p.). Drawing data from his study of early career academics, Robinson employs poetic transcription to give an account of the macro- and microaggressions experienced by his biracial nonbinary participant (113-115). Moving from interpersonal to institutional critique, Spencer and Patterson draw from their experiences advising an on-campus LGBTQ student org to illustrate the ways in which corporate diversity initiatives render multiply-marginalized trans students and faculty vulnerable to various forms of institutional violence (309-311).
Applying similar critiques to the college classroom, Malatino calls attention to how trans-inclusion initiatives often manifest in ways that tokenize trans students and exploit trans faculty (399). In particular, Malatino illustrates how higher ed’s insistence that trans people be “included” often coincides with a profound indifference as to whether the people tasked with “including” trans people have the necessary “trans-specific [training in] theory, politics, or pedagogy” to teach these topics (407). Finally, while LeMaster similarly critiques higher ed for saddling marginalized trans faculty with under-compensative service, their work veers from the previous pieces by also focusing on the possibility for coalition and consciousness-raising taking place outside the classroom in trans student-collectives (128-129).
In many ways, the articles we’ve reviewed above make numerous contributions to our understanding of trans rhetorics—a point we’ve taken care to address in the body of our review of trans topics in educational spaces (above). We would be remiss, however, if we failed to mention some drawbacks that also cut across this body of literature. To begin, pedagogical literature in trans rhetorics struggles with intersectional representation—in such a way that transness risked becoming associated with whiteness (Abbott 162, Furrow 151, Gold 158-159, McGrath 98-99, Parker & Bruce 97). Relatedly, some trans pedagogical articles, even newer ones, continue to reinforce the gender binary by consistently sidelining the existence of nonbinary trans people and gender expansive trans people who exist outside Western gender cosmologies (Alexander 50, Boyd & Bereiter 15, Johnson 230).
Beyond these struggles with racial and gender diversity, trans rhetorics pedagogy also sometimes struggles to represent transness accurately. For instance, such inaccuracies frequently manifest in the ways authors conflate transness with gender roles, gender expression, intersex experience, and drag performance (Alexander 66, Ballif 60, Borgstrom 321-322, Larkin and Kitchens np, Moore np, Qualley 125-126). Still, other times, this inaccuracy manifests through erasure—particularly in instances where trans students become invisibilized by the implicit assumption that an engagement with queer theory or a critique of heteronormativity are sufficient lenses with which to view trans experience/ontologies (Alexander 50, Borgstrom 316-319, Swanson & Peters 296, Ressler 52). Perhaps most unfortunate, sometimes this inaccuracy manifests in pedagogical literature that sensationalizes/objectifies trans bodies and reifies trans-exclusionary ideas (Alexander 60, Ballif 61-63, Bliech 52, Butler 33, Gold 158-159, Gentil 123, Parker and Brice 99-100. Spieldenner 219, Qualley 123-125).
Our final observation, however, hinges less upon a question of accuracy and more on a question of vantage point. Overwhelmingly, trans rhetoric pedagogy tends to prioritize the comfort and intellectual growth of cisgender students and faculty (Abbott 152, Alexander 53-56, Consiglio 72-73, Johnson 232, Peters & Swanson 305, Spieldenner 219, Yam np, Qualley 125-126). While it’s certainly true that all students—cis and trans—benefit from deeper, trans-affirming gendered literacy and pedagogical practices, it remains imperative that educators attend to the hard questions of whether or not their “trans inclusivity” may, in fact, result in isolating, marginalizing, ostracizing, or outing their trans students.
Moving forward, we call for pedagogical theorizing that takes trans rhetorical agency as its starting point. We call for favoring primary texts that feature trans authors, actors, theorists, and performers—over and above material that plays at trans inclusivity while centering cisgender voices. Similarly we call for an intersectional pedagogical praxis, which incorporates a bottom-up approach to teaching that centers BIPOC and gender expansive perspectives. We call for a deeper attention to developing curricula which explicitly attend to the needs of the transgender students in our classrooms. Finally, we call for continued attention to the institutional and classroom experiences of trans and gender expansive faculty, particularly BIPOC and gender expansive faculty, whose voices are under-represented in our respective fields. In short, while we believe that trans pedagogies and trans worldbuilding can benefit students and educators regardless of their gender identities, we also believe that no transformation is possible if it doesn’t begin by centering multiply-marginalized trans and gender-expansive voices.
Analysis of Scholarship on Trans-Related Research Methods
Methodology scholarship offers readers valuable meta-analyses surrounding the practice of data collection, data interpretation, and the write-up of data. Such work, in a nutshell, allows us to think about our thinking. Trans rhetorical methodologies, broadly speaking, not only illuminate the cis-centric undercurrents embedded in common research practices, but they also illustrate how the research process itself can change when the needs and perspectives of gender expansive people move from margin to center. Below, we consider twenty trans methodological contributions in the following three areas:
- historical and archival methods,
- person-based research methods, and
- critical discourse analysis.
Historical & Archival Research Methods
Eight articles in our lit review take up the connections between trans identities and historical/archival research. Some research considers the ways that research practices must shift in order to craft a fuller account of trans and gender expansive histories. For instance, Driskill crafts asegi stories, which identify the presence of Two-Spirit ancestors through the practice of reading settler colonial records against the grain (Asegi, 5-6). Almarri similarly draws attention to the relationships between culture, language, and nation state—cautioning researchers against sloppy translations of Arabic terms denoting gender and sexual minorities (105-107). In an adjacent vein, Pritchard makes the case for including living Black trans elders as historical figures to ameliorate the ways in which Black trans people have been intentionally obliterated from LGBT archives (Fashioning, 104-106). Finally, as a way to challenge the implicit/explicit racism and cissexism that leads to the erasure of multiply-marginalized trans voices, Rawson’s work takes aim at primacy of traditional print archives—whether through expanding the archive to include web-based materials (“Transgender Worldmaking,” n.p.; “Toward a Digital Trans,” n.p.) or through deconstructing the archive altogether (“Archive This,” 239-247).
Other methodological scholarship considers the degree to which archival spaces are accessible to trans people. Taking his trans analysis to brick-and-mortar archives, Rawson suggests that archives can take steps toward trans-inclusivity by providing all-gender bathrooms, respecting guests’ pronouns, incorporating trans perspectives in decor, and avoiding cis-centric criteria when organizing archival material (“Accessing Transgender,” 126-140). Similarly, applying a trans analysis to online archives, Kuzawa considers the methodological importance of allowing would-be contributors the agency to name (or not name) their gender, gender-identity, race, and orientation alongside their submissions to the Digital Literacy Narrative Archive (158). Finally, bearing in mind the important role trans scholars have to play when it comes to amplifying the voices of trans and gender-nonconforming people, Miller argues for “the necessity of creating and maintaining personal and communal trans scholarly archives” (152).
Taken together, these authors contribute to trans rhetorical scholarship by inviting readers to consider archival/historical spaces and records as always-already political; they ask us to be mindful of the ways in which cissexist habits of mind influence: whose voices get flagged as notable rhetors, which voices are excised from the record altogether, and whether or not trans people can access archival spaces in the first place.
Critical Discourse Analysis
Eleven articles in our lit review examine how the scholarship in our field does, and doesn’t, talk about transness. Broadly speaking, this body of research can be categorized into three different clusters. The first cluster of this scholarship calls researchers’ attention to a tendency of trans rhetorics scholarship to center white, settler-colonial perspectives. Bey, for example, (“Trans*-ness”) articulates the gender binary itself as rooted in a white supremacist ordering of the world, and persuades readers to see blackness and trans*ness as “differently inflected names for an anoriginal lawlessness that marks an escape from confinement and a besidedness to ontology” (278). (See also Bey “Other Ways,” 165-167.) Following a similar thread, Driskill articulates Two-Spirit theory as a corrective to queer, queer of color, post-colonial, and trans theory, whose theorizing (unwittingly or not) engages in the erasure of Native peoples. Centering Two-Spirit methodologies, Driskill forwards a vision of a doubleweaving to describe Two-Spirit critique’s simultaneous fights for sovereignty just as much as it fights against racism, hetero/sexism, and transphobia (74).
A second cluster of scholarship employs trans theory as a way to interrogate rhetorical scholarship’s limited framing of feminism. Gayle Salamon’s (“Assuming,” “Ethics”) work, for example, urges cisgender feminists to reconsider the presupposition that there is a natural, “biological” body that exists outside of discourse. Continuing this thread, Eric Pritchard (“Yearning to Be”) engages with the published archive of Black men’s feminist scholarship and highlights the ways in which this body of work presupposes Black men are both straight and cisgender (180). Finally, focusing on solutions to feminist rhetorics’ limited views of gender, Rawson (“Canonization”) recommends three approaches for conducting trans-inclusive feminist research: (1) uncover “gender advocates” rather than an exclusive focus on women rhetors, (2) avoid relying on gender binaries, and (3) emphasize the discursive production of sex and gender instead of assuming these categories as a given (45-51).
Finally, a third cluster of academics engage in critical discourse analysis to shed light on research ethics in trans studies scholarship. Patterson (“Healthy”) offers a taxonomy of research practices in trans research that unwittingly reinforce cissexism. They suggest research practices that scholars who are not themselves trans can implement so that they are acting in solidarity with trans scholars and trans communities (147). Citing both the epistemic value of trans* researcher positionality when studying trans topics and the prevalence of uninformed trans scholarship penned by cis researchers, Ivy calls for a moratorium on trans scholarship written by cis scholars (170). Fischer (“The Cistakes”) recommends actions that white cis scholars can take to leverage their privilege to “amplify trans voices” at the institutional level, in the classroom, and when conducting ethnographic research in trans communities (160). Extending the conversation about researcher positionality, LeMaster (“(Un)Becoming”) offers that TGNC and NTC folks can both fail when it comes to “allying across intersectional lines of flight.” They call for more self-reflexivity for all researchers when considering the ways that positionality informs perceptions of transness (157).
Ultimately, such scholarship contributes to the field of trans rhetorics by encouraging researchers to reflect on how reductive theorizations of gender may limit the impact of their work and (unintentionally or not) reinforce existing regimes of white supremacy, transphobia, and settler-colonialism.
Just one article in our lit review takes up the connections between trans rhetorics and quantitative research methodologies. Patterson’s “Queering and Transing Quantitative Research” argues that queer and trans researchers have no obligation to accept the positivistic assumptions often attached to quantitative research. Debunking the myth of disembodied survey measures, Patterson illustrates how their embodied experience as a multiply-marginalized trans scholar influences the way they design survey measures (59-61), shapes the way they conduct survey sampling (66), and provides them an avenue to resist a positivist analysis of survey data (69-71). Such research calls readers’ attention to how data collection, data interpretation, and everything in between must be reconsidered when working with trans participants.
Broadly speaking, the work we’ve reviewed above illuminates how the research process itself can change when gender minorities move from margin to center. As these authors have demonstrated, adopting a trans-informed methodological framework can also result in more rigorous, more accurate, and more ethical scholarship. Comparatively speaking, the field is wide open when it comes to publishing opportunities on trans rhetorical methodologies. For example, further investigation at the intersection of trans rhetoric and person-based research seems like an important gap to address. It also seems important to consider how trans-informed epistemologies and embodied trans experience may shape a whole range of qualitative research methods and sub-genres of those methods.
Moving forward, we echo the call of scholars like Fischer, LeMaster, Ivy, and Patterson, who bring into high relief the ethical considerations one must address when conducting research about trans topics and/or with trans participants. Indeed, we appreciate all of the scholars referenced in this section because of the thoughtfulness and thoroughness they bring to trans-informed research methods. We hope to see more work in this vein, which amplifies the rhetorical agency of trans and gender expansive researchers, participants, and communities—work which includes trans people not as a titillating exposé but as respected co-constructors of knowledge.
Conclusion: Notes Toward a Trans Rhetorical Agency
On the whole, this body of work enacts a collective argument: that trans epistemologies offer a valuable set of lenses for rethinking rhetorical theories, methodologies, and teaching practices. Indeed, much of the best scholarship addressed in our review returns to the following three themes:
- We need to rethink our disciplinary norms when it comes to gender. Still too often, rhetoric & composition and communication rely on ciscentric, binaristic frameworks—which not only erase trans perspectives but also limit our disciplinary understanding of how a colonial vision of gender shapes our lives, our pursuit of knowledge, and (yes) even our articulation of reality (Morgensen 5).
- Trans inclusion and trans visibility aren’t the panaceas we imagine them to be. We must consider: what counts as inclusion, what are the limits of inclusion, and who is the agent doing all of this including? Indeed, as Dean Spade (“Trans Politics”) observes, discourses of inclusion tell their own stories about the cynical resiliency of institutions to co-opt the language of justice in order to preserve an oppressive status quo (359). What’s more, as many of the scholars we review assert, the problem isn’t about a lack of visibility but about the ways in which many multimarg trans people (i.e. those also marginalized in terms of race, class, culture, sexuality, disability, nonbinary identity, and/or undocumented status) become hyper-visible and thus vulnerable to institutional and interpersonal violence. Too often, it seems, we fail to consider how a culture’s embrace of some privileged trans people (made visible thanks to neoliberal logics) often requires the further pathologization and criminalization of marginalized trans people (Haritaworn 2.8).
- Rather than figuring trans people as object lessons of gender trouble (Stryker 12), the most influential research not only centers marginalized trans perspectives but also takes care to grant trans people rhetorical agency by providing trans and gender expansive people the opportunity to speak for themselves.
Thus far in our literature review, we have avoided offering a working definition of transgender rhetorics. In part, we worried that asserting an a priori vision of this area of study, without first deeply engaging in our colleagues’ work, risked presumption. But our hesitance also stemmed from the rhetorical moment we find ourselves in—where some of our colleagues in the interdisciplinary field of trans studies have openly asked whether “trans studies is over” and, if it isn’t over, whether “it should be” (Chu and Drager 103). This question was posed to us once, during the peer review process, when an anonymous reviewer asked: What, if anything, does trans rhetorics have to offer trans studies? We take this as an earnest question, posed to us in a kairotic moment in which a cadre of junior trans scholars—who not only study trans topics but who also inhabit trans lives—have been left wondering whether trans studies has room for the actual speaking voices of marginalized trans people. We understand, and appreciate, the frustration that gives rise to questioning the viability of trans studies and the usefulness of trans rhetorics.
Trans rhetorics’ usefulness, we posit, hinges upon a question of agency. What if, instead of trans studies being “over,” it has only just begun? What if trans rhetorics allows us to attend to the voices of actual trans people speaking? Cognizant of the ethical weight of trans studies scholarship and inspired by the insights we’ve gleaned from our colleagues in rhetoric & composition and communication—we invoke the following, aspirational vision of what trans rhetorics might be: Trans rhetorics might be the study of gender expansive rhetors, who—drawing from their embodied knowledge and their (emotional, spiritual, and political) disidentification with gendered formations of colonial biopower—craft/articulate gender cosmologies that confront kyriarchal violence, amplify the literacies of their gender expansive kin, recover the legacies of their gender expansive elders, mobilize to increase the life chances of gender expansive people, and celebrate the promise of trans joy and trans survivance. To be clear, the project we’ve just described calls forth the promise, not necessarily (and not always) the current practice of trans rhetorics.
In the days ahead, we hope to see work that prioritizes trans people’s rhetorical agency—work that considers not just who’s doing the speaking but what the impact of that speech may be. This point feels especially important to emphasize because, while much of the work examined for this review inspired and challenged us as fellow trans rhetorics scholars, we sometimes found ourselves troubled (often wounded) by published narratives about transness that trafficked in inaccurate, stereotypical, appropriative, and (at other times) downright cissexist tropes. That such publications have found their way into our scholarly archive is less an indictment of trans rhetorics as it is an indictment of our disciplinary praxis in rhetorical studies. The promise of trans rhetorics hinges upon the infrastructure of support it finds (or doesn’t) in the fields of rhetoric & composition and communication. In that spirit, we call on editors/reviewers of scholarly presses/journals to recognize their (in)ability to assess trans scholarship under peer review. We call on graduate programs to emphasize (once more, with feeling) the relationship between positionality and research practices. We call on our colleagues and departments to create infrastructures to support, recruit, and retain gender-expansive scholars—efforts that must go beyond corporatist forms of inclusion and, instead, meaningfully confront their complicity in white supremacist discourses of “professionalism” and “meritocracy,” which provide institutions the cover to simultaneously exploit-and-devalue the intellectual, political, and emotional labor of trans scholars—particularly BIPOC trans scholars. Finally, we call on our cisgender colleagues in trans rhetorics to develop the capacity to sit with their discomfort long enough to ask: How am I telling this story, and is it my story to tell?
To be clear: our indictment of disciplinary praxis isn’t “virtue signaling.” It’s a fundamental recognition that our scholarship does not exist in a vacuum. The stories we tell about trans people influence classroom practice. The stories we tell about trans people shape public policy. The stories we tell about trans people communicate who we welcome into our fields. The stories we tell about trans people go on to influence the stories that other people tell about trans people—creating a feedback loop that affects the life chances of any person (trans or not) who finds themselves in the crosshairs of a white supremacist, colonial cosmology of gender. For these reasons, we invoke the promise of trans rhetoric as not only a vehicle for telling better stories about trans people but also as a vehicle for giving trans people the space to tell nuanced, self-reflexive stories about themselves.
- We also object to the centuries-long program to deny the existence of intersex people (i.e. those born with sex characteristics that fall outside doctors’ tidy m/f axes) (Malatino 81-83, “Situating”) and the subjection of intersex people to (often unnecessary) medical interventions so that their bodies align with the medical industrial complex’s rigid cosmology of gender (which, though thoroughly political and subjective, circulates under the guise of universality and objectivity) (Davis and Murphy 129-135). We do not include intersex within the definition of trans, but we do espouse a politics in opposition to the machinations of intersex oppression under the rubrics of cissexism.
- The authors thank Chris Samson and Brett Ball for their research assistance with this article.
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