Living and Dying as a Gay Trans Man: Lou Sullivan’s Rhetorical Legacy

Over the course of three years, from 1988–1990, activist Louis (“Lou”) G. Sullivan engaged in a four-part series of videotaped interviews with psychiatrist Dr. Ira B. Pauly. Titled Female to Gay Male Transsexualism, the tapes of the interviews were used for many years after they were created, including by Pauly at academic conferences and by Jamison Green in college classes (Smith, Personal Interview).1 The full recordings of these interview are now held by the GLBT Historical Society and have been recently made available on the Internet Archive and linked to on the Digital Transgender Archive. In addition to the full videos available on the Internet Archive, Reverend Megan Rohrer has made twelve short excerpts from these videos available on YouTube (see Appendix A). The twelve video clips are brief, thematic excerpts taken from the hours of original conversations and they provide a helpful starting point for those interested in beginning to explore Sullivan’s rhetoric. In this short essay primarily focused on one of those clips—“Lou Sullivan: Battling the Gender Specialists 1989” (see Fig. 1), which is an excerpt taken from Pauly’s third interview with Sullivan in 1989–my aim is to offer a preliminary introduction to the rhetorical approach that Sullivan used to advocate on behalf of trans people.2 Throughout his conversations with Pauly, Sullivan exercised impressive rhetorical savvy as he worked to educate doctors about trans issues, and in particular, as he argued for the viability of being a gay trans man.

When Sullivan and Pauly came together for these one-on-one conversations, they seemed to be at once meeting as like-minded allies of trans people and facing off in their respective roles as patient versus doctor. From the late-1950s through his retirement in 2010, Pauly had a long and prolific career focused on researching and treating transsexual clients, serving as the president of what is now the World Professional Association for Transgender Health from 1985-1987 and often working alongside Dr. Harry Benjamin (Devor; Zagria). Though Sullivan’s life was cut short in 1991 at the age of 39, he was a highly influential white, gay, trans activist who is particularly known for his creation of peer support networks for trans men and his passionate advocacy for gay and lesbian trans people. Biographer Brice Smith explains that by the end of his life, Sullivan was “credited for the role he played in fostering the trans movement” (231). Sullivan’s legacy has only continued to gain recognition in the decades since. Pauly and Sullivan were thus well-positioned to conduct these conversations, with the one-on-one format casting Sullivan as a spokesperson for trans people while Pauly represented the field of psychiatry and, more broadly, medical professionals who worked with trans patients.

These conversations occurred during a kairotic historical moment when tensions concerning medical treatment for trans people mounted as increasing numbers of trans people sought transition-related medical care and medical professionals rapidly tried to determine standards of care for treatment. Tensions arose as medical professionals determined who was eligible for treatment and what criteria must first be met, often resulting in gatekeeping practices and outright refusals of care. Sullivan himself faced this problem time and again when he sought medical support for his transition from female to male beginning in 1976 and continuing through the 1980s. Sullivan repeatedly experienced discrimination when gender clinics would not take him on as a client and doctors refused to operate on him solely because of his sexuality, because they could not comprehend or support a trans person who was also gay (“Female to Gay Male Transsexualism: I”).

In speaking with Pauly, Sullivan uses his personal testimony as a rhetorical strategy, frequently drawing upon his own experiences to explain what it is like for a trans person struggling to navigate the medical establishment. As he explains in the 1989 interview, “I had a lot of problems with the gender professionals saying there was no such thing as a female-to-gay-male and you can’t live like this and we’ve never heard of that” (“Lou Sullivan: Battling,” 00:04-00:14; Figure 1). Here, Sullivan adeptly sums up three common arguments made by “gender professionals” to prevent his transition:

  1. gay female-to-male people do not exist (“there was no such thing”);
  2. only heterosexual people are worthy of treatment (“you can’t live like this”); and
  3. expertise on this issue was owned by the professionals (“we’ve never heard of that”). Sullivan’s very existence, coupled with his willingness to publicly and articulately testify about being a “female-to-gay-male,” offered a compelling counter-point to all three of these arguments.

Fig. 1. Youtube Video. “Lou Sullivan: Battling the Gender Specialists 1989.”

Sullivan’s use of personal testimony is all the more striking in moments when he discusses the impact his embodied experiences have had on his activism. He recounts, “when I got diagnosed [with AIDS] and I thought I’ve got ten months to live…and they’re going to hear about this before I kick off. And I don’t want, you know, other people coming into their clinics in two years saying they feel that way [gay] and getting the same line that I did that they never heard of this [a gay trans person] and this isn’t an authentic thing” (“Lou Sullivan: Battling,” 00:15-00:30).3 Sharing an AIDS diagnosis—an uncommon public disclosure in 1989—allows Sullivan to underscore the urgency of his message. What better claim to exigency than a person with ten months to live spending his remaining time advocating for this issue? Sullivan circles back to his AIDS diagnosis again and again throughout his conversations with Pauly and as he does so, Sullivan forfeits his own privacy in the face of tremendous public stigma for those with an AIDS diagnosis. Despite the personal costs, Sullivan prioritizes his rhetorical aims with precision and focus—his goal is to educate gender professionals in order to enable future gay trans people to receive medical care.

In order to combat the discrimination that gay trans people faced, Sullivan needed to make a logical argument that distinguished gender identity and sexuality, which was not a widely held understanding at the time. As he explains, “I guess even in the gender professionals that this is still kind of a new angle that sexual identity…and sexual preference of a partner are two separate issues. That my gender identity, who I think I am, has nothing to do with what I am looking for in a sexual partner. And I think that these two things have been equated. That, well, it’s normal to be heterosexual and if we’re going to make somebody better, that means that we have to make them heterosexual” (“Lou Sullivan: Battling,” 00:46-01:22). With straightforward language and a casual style, Sullivan continues to use his own experience in the first person to advance his argument. He then shifts to using “we” to speak with his audience in order to make explicit the implicit assumption that heterosexual is “normal” and “better.” For gender professionals who would object to being seen as homophobic, this argument would likely be quite persuasive.

Pauly acknowledges the impact of Sullivan’s approach, shifting to first person to speak on behalf of Sullivan; “I think coming forward as you have and saying, ‘hey, you know, maybe my lifestyle and my sexual preference is different than most of these other folks, but I believe I’m as deserving a candidate to live my life the way I wish to, as these other people, and I’m willing to come forward and be counted.’ And I think that’s, I know that’s going to be helpful” (“Lou Sullivan: Battling,” 05:01-05:24). Using the first person to speak from Sullivan’s position, Pauly models the very same empathy and acceptance by a medical professional that is the intended outcome for these conversations. He recognizes the power of Sullivan’s willingness to “come forward and be counted,” of using personal testimony as an argument against the narrow parameters of “normal,” of who was allowed to receive medical treatment.

While Sullivan’s personal testimony is the central focus of these conversations, he still subtly creates space for others in his community. The following exchange offers an illustrative example:

Pauly: In the short period of time since I’ve met you, I’ve heard now of several other cases of female-to-male transsexuals who, in their male role, want a relationship with a man and a gay relationship. So it’s interesting, as you define a new syndrome, certainly at the point where it becomes reported or published, then everybody starts looking and these folks seem to come out of the woodwork.

Sullivan: Right, right. I know just from my contact with other female-to-gay-males that they’ve been afraid to say anything, and especially to any of the doctors that have been helping them because they know that they are up for prejudices and that this is not part of the textbook definition and they don’t want to throw their chances off of getting treatment. (“Lou Sullivan: Battling,” 03:29–04:16)

Pauly’s use of “syndrome” and reference to “reported or published” information lends an obviously clinical tone to his comments. But rather than arguing against Pauly directly and with equally clinical language, Sullivan first agrees (“right, right”) that there are gay trans people. Then, he invokes a larger community that he refers to as “female-to-gay-males,” which is an important revision of “female-to-male” (also shortened to “FTM”), the then-common phrase that Pauly uses repeatedly. Sullivan’s addition of “gay” in FTM inserts a sexual identity where there wasn’t one before. He leaves unspoken that a corollary phrase—“female-to-straight-males”—may seem strange (as naming a dominant position can often be), but it is precisely the unstated precondition for care required by most medical professionals working with trans patients at the time. Sullivan’s use of the new identity term “female-to-gay-male” is one part of his larger effort to explain that there is a broader community of gay trans men whom Pauly, and other gender professionals by extension, are admittedly unaware of. While Pauly may have the sense that gay trans men were “com[ing] out of the woodwork,” Sullivan gently rebuts that by explaining that others have been forced into silence because of the power that doctors wield to withhold treatment.

Given this power imbalance, it makes sense that Sullivan’s target audience in these conversations is the “gender profession,” as he refers to it throughout the interviews. As an advocate for trans people, Pauly helpfully becomes a surrogate for the “gender profession” writ large, modeling for other professionals how to treat trans people as experts by respecting their lived experiences. By casting Sullivan as a subject with knowledge to share (rather than an object of study), Pauly models how gender professionals can learn from trans people as part of their academic and clinical research. Within this framework, Pauly lends a great deal of credibility to Sullivan’s testimony and arguments.

Yet while Pauly is generally sympathetic toward Sullivan and supportive of his aims, there are moments of rupture where he states overtly that he is “a bit defensive about the gender profession” (“Lou Sullivan: Battling”, 04:16–04:19). As Pauly explains, “we have stuck our necks out a bit in even allowing the classic case to be operated on and giving it our good housekeeping seal of approval” (“Lou Sullivan: Battling”, 04:23–04:36). Notably, Pauly speaks for the gender profession with a collective “we,” yet trans people have no subjecthood in this framing as he refers to the “classic case” rather than people. After noting that, “there have been some instances in which the people that have been screened did change their mind after surgery and some of us have been involved in legal suits,” Pauly does begin to refer to patients as people and he switches gears to compliment Sullivan and support his arguments (“Lou Sullivan: Battling,” 04:39–04:49). While many trans people and contemporary viewers of these videos might object to Pauly’s characterization of gender professionals as both courageous trendsetters and sympathetic victims of litigious patients, it’s interesting to consider how effective this approach would have been to the gender professionals in their audience at the time. Indeed, I would argue that Pauly’s position as a representative of gender professionals allowed him to air beliefs that many of his colleagues may have shared, which ultimately may have furthered Sullivan’s advocacy for gay trans men.

In addition to potentially objecting to the content of Pauly’s arguments, contemporary viewers might also struggle to understand how a highly mediated and staged conversation with a trans person could qualify as cutting-edge advocacy work. This distinction in historical context becomes quite apparent within the context of YouTube, an online platform where easy access to vlogging has empowered a generation of trans people to author their own narratives and forge community in ways that were unfathomable in the late 1980s (Raun). While contemporary trans vloggers may take for granted that they are experts on trans experiences and they are able to share those experiences with few barriers, Smith explains that it required a notable amount of resources to videotape the Sullivan/Pauly conversations and it was “unheard of” for a medical professional to position a trans person as an expert at the time (Smith, Personal Interview). Without any other options for spreading his message, Sullivan needed to collaborate with someone like Pauly in order to pursue his rhetorical goals.4

As the two sat together, Sullivan and Pauly not only appear to be allied in their rhetorical aims, but they were also visually aligned as well. In all of the interviews, the two white men sit facing one another, leaning back in their chairs and seemingly very comfortable together. Sullivan wears a shirt and tie in every interview—sometimes also donning a jacket or sweater as well—conveying sartorial ethos that would make him relatable with an audience of medical practitioners who were also, we might safely assume, predominantly white and male. Pauly, while also dressed professionally in button down shirts and sometimes a jacket or sweater, opts not to wear ties. The comparative effect is subtle, but may lend extra credibility to Sullivan, who is clearly comfortable and confident in this situation as he converses with one doctor while trying to change the practices of countless others. Their shared traits—whiteness and maleness, for starters—certainly contributed to their ease with one another and, for contemporary viewers, also offers a helpful reminder that other trans activists seeking a stage for their trans advocacy work would have faced significant barriers the further they were from positions of (relative) power and privilege.

A comparison of Sullivan’s visual presentation across the three-year sequence of videos provides a striking testament to the impacts of disease on his body (Fig. 2). The juxtaposition of video stills taken from across the years shows Sullivan adopting glasses by the second clip, and then becoming increasingly gaunt by the third. His posture, confidence, and professionalism remain consistent throughout the years, but his voice gets softer and his energy is seemingly weakened. It is as if his body is vanishing as the strength of his message is amplified.

This figure shows three images stacked vertically, all of Lou Sullivan. They appear to be still images taken from interviews Sullivan gave from 1988, 1989, and 1990. Sullivan is smiling in each image, but he looks less healthy in each one. In the 1990 image, he his visibly thinner, wearing glasses, and looks paler.

Fig. 2. Still images. Sullivan from 1988, 1989, and 1990, top to bottom.

Sullivan’s experience of AIDS was a complicated, if mournful, terminal illness. As he recounts,

“I feel like, in a way, this AIDS diagnosis, because AIDS is still seen at this point as a gay man’s disease, that it kind of proves that I did do it, and that I was successful. And I kind of took a perverse pleasure in contacting the gender clinics that rejected me and said that, you know, they’ve told me so many years that it was impossible for me to live as a gay man but it looks like I’m going to die like one.” (“Female to Gay Male Transsexualism: II”, 26:45–27:12)

Combining his rhetorical strategies of personal narrative and embodiment, Sullivan argues here in the strongest terms for the authenticity of being a gay trans man. While gender clinics may have disavowed his identity, he regains the power of self-identification through his association with a broader community of gay people. Sullivan’s terminal diagnosis provides not only exigency for his activism, but an incredible emotional appeal that underscores the importance of this cause.

Sullivan’s powerful testimony throughout these interviews is not lost on Pauly and he vows to Sullivan, “rest assured that the story will be told and the tape will be shown to the gender profession, as you refer to it” (“Female to Gay Male Transsexualism: I”, 59:36–59:47). As it turns out, Pauly’s reassurances were accurate and Sullivan’s story continues to be told, perhaps more frequently than either of them could have ever imagined and to a far broader audience than the gender profession. As Susan Stryker discusses in her introduction to a recently published collection of Sullivan’s diaries, Sullivan’s story has indeed found “its way to audiences hungry to hear it,” not only through that book, but through Smith’s biography, a dance company production, several films, and increasing publications (viii).

As a rhetor, Sullivan left a legacy of impactful activism that can be rightfully studied under the emergent framework of Transgender Rhetorics. He spent much of his life advocating as a trans person on behalf of trans people, ultimately leaving a notable imprint on both trans community formation and access to medical care. Even in these interviews that are merely brief excerpts from a lifetime of activist work, we gain a meaningful glimpse into the rhetorical savvy that Sullivan exercised, particularly through strategic deployments of personal narrative, logical argumentation, and embodiment. Ultimately, Sullivan offers us profound lessons, in life and rhetoric, about the incredible power of devoting one’s life to helping make trans lives more livable.


  1. The historical materials referenced throughout this essay use language that has become dated (such as “female-to-male”) or is now considered offensive (such as “transsexualism” and “transvestite”). For the purposes of this essay, I will preserve all historical uses of terminology for accuracy, though I will use “trans” to broadly refer to people who do not conform to the gender they were assigned at birth and I will refer to Sullivan as a gay trans man.
  2. The titles of these video clips were given by Rohrer, not Pauly. Rohrer digitized the videos as part of a project for called Man-i-fest: FTM Mentorship in San Francisco from 1976-2009, available at
  3. Our current understanding of HIV/AIDS makes an important distinction between HIV and AIDS diagnoses. However, for historical accuracy, I follow Sullivan’s lead in referring to his AIDS diagnosis.
  4. I am grateful to Brice Smith for pointing out the tremendous differences in historical context that YouTube inadvertently flattens.

Appendix: List of Sullivan/Pauly Interviews Currently Available Online

(Provided in Video)
Date Length Link Notes
Female to Gay Male Transsexualism: I— Gender & Sexual Orientation 1988 1h1m56s Full-length interview
Female to Gay Male Transsexualism: II— Living with AIDS [1988] 1988 28m58s Full-length interview
Female to Gay Male Transsexualism: III [1989] 1989 40m57s Full-length interview
Female to Gay Male Trans-sexualism Part IV (One Year Later) [1990] 1990 34m22s Full-length interview
“Lou Sullivan on AIDS 1988” 1988 2m52s Excerpt from
part II
“Lou Sullivan on AIDS 1990” 1990 7m18s Excerpt from
part IV
“Lou Sullivan: Honesty, AIDS, and Transition 1988-1990” 1988–1990 5m09s Excerpts from
all four parts
“Lou Sullivan: AIDS and Sex 1988-1990” 1988–1990 8m29s Excerpts from
all four parts
“Lou Sullivan on AIDS 1989” 1989 6m51s Excerpt from
part II
“Lou Sullivan: ‘Genitalplasty’ 1988” 1988 3m52s Excerpt from
part I
“Lou Sullivan: Battling the Gender Specialists 1989” 1989 6m13s Excerpt from
part III
“Lou Sullivan: Top Surgery 1988” 1988 4m51s Excerpt from
part II
“Lou Sullivan: DSM 1989” 1989–1990 1m36s Excerpts from
parts III and IV
“Lou Sullivan: Rejected by Gender Clinics 1988” 1988 5m58s Excerpt from
part I
“Lou Sullivan: Changing Standards 1989-1990” 1988–1990 4m23s Excerpts from
all four parts
“Lou Sullivan: No Regrets 1988” 1988 1m31s Excerpt from
part 1

Works Cited

“There is No Question About This and There Never Has Been for Eight Years”: The Public Reception of Christine Jorgensen

On December 1st, 1952, the story of Christine Jorgensen—the first American to become widely known for undergoing medical transition—hit multiple news outlets, reporting that she had a series of surgeries in Denmark, had chosen the name Christine, and would soon be returning home to the US. While Jorgensen was not the only transgender figure to receive media coverage during this time period, the attention she received was unprecedented and remained unique, even as other trans people received mainstream news coverage in the following months (Skidmore). She published an autobiography in 1968 (Jorgensen), which was followed by a fictionalized biographic film about her life in 1970 (Kent et al.), both of which also received a lot of media attention. She remained famous until her death in 1989.

Jorgensen has already received considerable attention in trans studies (e.g. Ames; Meyerowitz; Rawson and Williams; Skidmore; Snorton), but because of her unprecedented mainstream popularity, she still provides an opportunity to examine how transgender subjects were attempting to construct narratives of themselves in the middle of the twentieth century and how those narratives were received by the larger public. I find the historical news articles about Jorgensen especially useful for such a consideration, as her mainstream popularity pushes back against contemporary narratives that transgender people are a new “fad.” Because of the sheer amount of media attention Christine Jorgensen received throughout her life, she remains an important figure for considering how ideas about transgender people have circulated.

Despite the media’s fascination with Jorgensen, she was not the first trans person to receive media coverage in the US. In fact, Joanne Meyerowitz explains that the 1930s and ‘40s saw a surprising number of stories about “sex changes;” however, “Such stories often appeared on the margins of the mainstream press, in sensational magazines, tabloid newspapers, or publications like Sexology that presented the science of sex to a popular audience” (“Sex Change and the Popular Press,” 164). Jorgensen’s extensive coverage in the mainstream press is important, then, because while some scholars have argued that the medical discourse of sexology helped to give a name to a preexisting identity and allowed trans people to identify new medical possibilities for constructing their own lives and bodies (Meyerowitz; Prosser), Emily Skidmore notes that “it was through the mass circulation press—not medical literature—that most Americans learned about transsexuality” (272). Therefore, because she received an unprecedented amount of publicity, particularly in the US, Jorgensen became the first exposure to such possibilities for a wider American audience. In fact, her autobiography refers to the sheer amount of mail she received from people, and states that “[b]ecause of her celebrity, letters addressed simply to ‘Christine Jorgensen. United States of America’ reached their destination” (Meyerowitz, “Sex Change and the Popular Press,” 175).

Meyerowitz argues that “While occasional reports portrayed [Jorgensen] as an oddity or a joke, in general the press continued to treat her as a woman and a star” (“Sex Change and the Popular Press,” 174). Skidmore reaches a similar conclusion, suggesting that “Jorgensen was able to present herself as a respectable woman and continued to be represented positively in newspapers around the country” (278), a privilege Skidmore argues was denied the trans women of color she studies (see also Snorton). The news articles I consider in this essay, however, suggest the public reception of Jorgensen is not as simple as either of these scholars contend. While the news often does present Jorgensen’s own accounting of her life and her experiences, the commentary from the reporters often undermines or casts doubt on those experiences.

To demonstrate the ways in which Jorgensen attempts to construct a narrative of her gendered experiences and the news media’s responses to those attempts, I will examine three news articles about Jorgensen from the Digital Transgender Archive. I chose these three articles after reading every news clipping in the archive’s Jorgensen collection. After setting aside any that did not mention her transition (these were rare), I analyzed the remaining articles for recurring themes around the discussion of her gender identity. In this analysis, I noticed that reporters were relying on similar rhetorical moves to question the authenticity of Jorgensen’s womanhood throughout her life. The three articles I have chosen for this essay provide what I see as some of the clearest examples of the cissexist rhetoric used in the coverage on Jorgensen. By putting these particular news articles in conversation with some of the existing scholarship on Jorgensen, I hope to provide insight into how her attempts at self-narrative were constrained by the popular circulation of her story.

“A New Girl, Blonde, Attractive, and 26:” Jorgensen’s Transition as Rebirth

The December 1, 1952 article “Ex-GI Becomes Blonde Beauty: Operations Transform Bronx Youth,” which appeared on the front page of the New York Daily News, is often cited as being the first article to announce Jorgensen’s transition. The article included “before” and “after” pictures of Jorgensen and the letter she wrote to her parents the previous June. Meyerowitz suggests that it was not initially clear that this story would become the breaking news it did, but that many other journalists “jumped” at the story and “created Jorgensen’s instant celebrity and then reported on its progress, announcing, for example, the offers she received from ‘night clubs for appearances’ and the ‘bids for a lecture tour, jobs as a fashion model and photographic and magazine articles’” (How Sex Changed, 63). Despite Meyerowitz’s focus on this particular article, however, the New York Daily News was not the only publication to report on Jorgensen’s transition as early as December 1st. On this same day, the Boston American ran a briefer article, titled “N.Y. Couple Joyous Son Now Daughter.” While less conspicuous (it was not on the front page), and thus probably playing a smaller role in Jorgensen’s quick rise to fame, I am interested in this article because I have not seen it discussed before, despite its release on the same day as the oft-cited New York Daily News article.

Moreover, I find this Boston American article a more interesting response to Jorgensen’s transition because of its framing as a birth announcement, as the article opens by stating “A New York carpenter and his wife said today they were delighted at the news they had become parents of a new girl, blonde, attractive, 26.” By framing Jorgensen’s transition as a birth in this way, the article suggests a “break” between her former and current selves. That is, rather than focusing on her transition from “’ex-GI,’ the quintessential postwar masculine representation, to ‘blonde beauty,’ the hallmark of 1950s white feminine glamour” (How Sex Changed, 62) as Meyerowitz suggests the Daily News headline does, the opening of this Boston American article instead focuses on the joy her parents felt at learning they had a daughter. Throughout this article, Jorgensen is framed as a man whose body was “reborn” through surgical intervention, such as when the second paragraph of the article announces the “new daughter—Christine.”

However, despite framing her as being “reborn” as a woman, the article also frequently casts doubt on her womanhood. It begins with a picture of Jorgensen, post-transition, with the caption, “Ex-GI George Jorgensen As Pretty Woman: Six Operations Change Him To Beautiful Female” (Boston American). While still referencing her “ex-GI” past in the photo caption, and thus invoking her “masculine” past, by only including a post-transition photo, this article visually centers Jorgensen’s femininity in ways the New York Daily News’ before and after photos do not. Nevertheless, because the caption references “George Jorgensen as pretty woman” (emphasis mine) rather than by her correct name, the article suggests she is simply a man playing a role as a woman. The article also immediately follows the statement that the parents welcomed a new daughter with the phrase, “who until recently had been George Jr., a former soldier” (Boston American), again emphasizing her former name and masculine ex-GI role immediately after acknowledging her womanhood.

While the article does switch to the use of “Christine” after this, it rarely uses pronouns, and when it does it uses “he” or “him.” Moreover, most of the article quotes from Jorgensen’s parents and Jorgensen is simply referred to as their “son,” despite a few references to her as their daughter in the first two paragraphs. Perhaps the most egregious example of this is when the article states that “The Jorgensens said their son had all of his past Army records officially changed to Christine” (Boston American), thus refusing to continue to acknowledge her as their daughter, even while noting aspects of her legal transition. While Meyerowitz suggests that many early articles on Jorgensen “searched her past for clues to her condition” (How Sex Changed, 63) by referencing how effeminate she was as a child, this article seems to do the opposite, as her father is quoted as saying, “as a young man, his son was ‘all masculine’” (Boston American). Julia Serano notes the way depictions of trans women often frame their femininity as “fake” or constructed, thereby underscoring a perceived essential difference between people assigned male at birth and those assigned female at birth (41-42). This emphasis on Jorgensen’s supposed masculinity, then, works similarly, especially among the frequent references to her as a “son,” as it suggests a “natural” masculinity that has been cast aside for a newfound femininity, thus casting doubt on Jorgensen’s status as a woman.

Despite the framing around her parents’ opinions about her transition throughout most of the article, the reporter does turn to Jorgensen’s own account of her own identity near the end. In a quote from the coming out letter she sent to her parents, Jorgensen says, “Nature made a mistake which I have had corrected and I am your daughter” (Boston American). Despite the break between her previous life and her new one the reporter keeps trying to draw through references to a surgical “transformation,” Jorgensen’s statement here works to draw a continuity between her pre-transition and post-transition self through her simple statement that she is her parents’ daughter (not that she has become their daughter, as the reporters frequently state) and that she has simply sought treatment for a pre-existing condition.

To emphasize these points, her letter then turns to a medical explanation of her “condition” which “has now been cleared” because of her surgery, as she explains how hormones work to her parents, states she had a hormonal imbalance “along with millions of other people,” and that gender confirmation surgery has corrected this imbalance. Meyerowitz notes that Jorgensen frequently frames her trans identity as a result of a hormonal balance (How Sex Changed), but importantly, Jorgensen does not present herself as what Jay Prosser calls “medicine’s passive effect” (7), a depiction he claims is common in trans narratives that “emphasize the transsexual’s construction by the medical establishment” (7). Rather, by emphasizing that she has corrected this mistake in her letter, Jorgensen draws on that medical discourse in order present her gender identity as natural, and something that she has authored herself, albeit with the help of medical technology.

The tension around her gender identity remains, however, because the reporter often editorializes in a way that undermines Jorgensen’s agency to craft her own narrative, as shown above by the continued references to her with masculine pronouns. Moreover, the reporter suggests that, despite Jorgensen’s own insistence, she was transformed by the surgeries. For example, before her explanation, the article states she was “transformed through a series of six surgical operations” (Boston American), emphasizing her medical construction, as Prosser would argue, by suggesting she was a passive recipient of a surgical procedure. While turning to Jorgensen’s own account of her identity near the end of the article in some ways validates her own experiences and explanations, the reporter again draws attention to the surgeon by concluding this account by noting that her “long letter” refers to her surgeon as “a great man and a brilliant scientist” (Boston American). Thus, the reporter again undermines Jorgensen’s own account by ending the article with another reference to the surgeon’s achievements. The reference to her surgeon as a “great man” is especially interesting, as it represents another trend in this article of deferring to men and masculinity, much like the reporter was more interested in Jorgensen’s father’s account of her childhood rather than Jorgensen’s own. Moreover, the fact that her account of her transition follows her father’s assertion that she was “all masculine” and the repeated references to her as “their son” destabilizes her own narrative as the reporter grapples with normative understandings about sex and gender and the ways Jorgensen’s attempts to author her own self-narrative outside of these cultural scripts unsettles those understandings.

“There is Nothing to Refuse:” Questions about Legal Gender and Gender Identity

About seven years after the news about her transition broke, Jorgensen attempted to get married. Despite the passage of these seven years, the media continued to report on Jorgensen in similar ways as when she first hit the news, as reports remained preoccupied with her transition and identifying the “truth” of her gender identity. I find the articles about her attempted marriage especially interesting because of the prominent role marriage plays in cisheteronormativity. Were the public media to wholly view Jorgensen as a woman, her marriage to a man would be of no more interest than that of any other minor celebrity. However, it is clear that the media’s interest in her attempted marriage clearly derived from larger questions about the “truth” of her womanhood, for in the Omaha World-Herald’s article “License Next for Christine,” Jorgensen is referred to as a “boy turned girl” in both the subtitle and the first sentence of the article. The Boston Record American, while slightly more respectful, also begins the article “Christine’s Fiancé Acts to Unsnarl Bridal Plans” by describing her as “Christine Jorgensen, who was ex-GI George Jorgensen, Jr., until a sex change operation in Denmark in 1952.” I have chosen these two articles about her marriage to analyze, then, because the anxiety about gender and sexuality that reoccurs throughout reporting on Jorgensen becomes much more explicit through these questions of marriage and what that means for a woman like Jorgensen.

While both articles note that the delay in Jorgensen’s ability to obtain a marriage license is due to her fiancé’s lack of proper documentation of his divorce, and not actually about Jorgensen’s gender identity, they also raise questions about Jorgensen’s legal status as a woman and how that may affect the marriage. The Omaha World-Herald, for instance, states that once her fiancé receives the proper documentation, “City Clerk Herman Katz said a blood test certificate in which a physician certifies Miss Jorgensen is a woman should be sufficient.” Similarly, the Boston Record American, after providing a detailed description of her feminine outfit, states that “One reporter wanted to know if she was apprehensive that she might be refused a marriage license because of the sex change surgery.” Therefore, despite Meyerowitz’s claim that Jorgensen’s authenticity as a woman relied on her appearance “in parts because her sexual organs were neither visible nor mentionable” (How Sex Changed, 63), this article questions the validity of her womanhood despite the fact that she was “dressed in a beige wool coat and a beige knitted dress, [and] was every inch the beaming bride-to-be” (Associated Press). Jorgensen’s response to this question of whether or not the marriage license will be denied because of her transition, quoted in the article, was that “There is nothing to refuse…There is no question about this and there never has been for eight years.” After noting that this timeline of “eight years” refers back to the date of her surgery, the reporter then notes that “She said the U.S. State Dept. had altered her passport shortly after her sex was altered to read ‘female instead of male,’” underscoring Jorgensen’s legal status as a woman.

While Jorgensen’s brief response is direct and suggests there is no question about her status as a woman, it’s interesting that she ties the date that her identity has been settled to her surgery. By doing so, Jorgensen uses that surgery to stabilize her identity as a woman by suggesting the medical interventions are what made her a woman, despite her suggestions earlier that she had always been a woman and simply used surgery to correct a biological mistake. Of course, the fact that both articles are raising questions about how the fact that she was “a boy turned girl” will affect her marriage suggests that, to the media, her status as a woman was not as settled as Jorgensen has claimed. The details this article includes about her passport have a similarly ambiguous effect. While, again, the reference to her passport serves to validate Jorgensen’s legal status as a woman, the fact that the article states her passport reads “female instead of male” suggests it’s not that simple, as it’s tying her current recognized gender identity to that which she was assigned at birth—that is, she’s not just “female” but “female instead of male.”

While I do not take this statement that her passport read “female instead of male” to mean the State Department did, at the time, literally write “female instead of male,” the fact the reporter refers to what her passport says in this way highlights the ambiguity around her status as a woman after she has asserted it is settled—that is, there is at least an implicit suggestion one would expect it to read “male.” Moreover, referring to the gender listed on her passport in this way is a rhetorical act that Serano refers to as “third-gendering” (174-176). Serano describes third-gendering as a statement in which binary trans people are relegated to a separate category rather than the categories of “man” or “woman” that they belong, by using terms such as “male-to-female” for trans women, rather than just women. As Serano explains, this act of third-gendering denies the trans person’s identified gender, even when it’s not meant to be derogatory, as it necessarily makes a distinction between them and their cis counterparts. Thus, like the early article announcing her transition, Jorgensen’s attempts to author her own gendered experiences are consistently undermined by this reporter through such third-gendering and questions about her ability to get married, despite her apparent legal status as female.

Unfortunately, questions about legal gender are never as simple as Jorgensen presents them when she says there is nothing to refuse, a fact that many trans people understand too clearly due to the different requirements around changing gender markers on different identity documents.  As Meyerowitz explains, Jorgensen was eventually denied the marriage license. Despite the fact that she presented her passport, which listed her as female, and a letter from her surgeon stating “she must be considered female” (qtd. in Meyerowitz, How Sex Changed, 51), the marriage license was denied because her birth certificate listed her as male. The news media, of course, took interest in this ambiguity around her legal gender status, and Meyerowitz reports that a front-page headline in the New York Mirror read that she “was denied a marriage license yesterday on the ground of inadequate proof of being a female” (qtd. in Meyerowitz, How Sex Changed, 51). This reporting on the lack of “proof” of her gender identity highlights that questions about the authenticity of Jorgensen’s womanhood remained several years after the initial reporting on her transition.


The news articles I have considered in this brief essay demonstrate the ways that, despite both Meyerowitz’s and Skidmore’s critiques that Jorgensen was often portrayed positively because of her ability to reinscribe notions of white heteronormative womanhood, her accounts of her identity and her experiences were still often reframed by doubting or dismissive reporters. It is for this reason that I still find the circulation of news articles about her as a valuable source for considering how transgender people are about to find a language for our own experiences. Prosser notes the tendency to read trans narratives as either literalizing essentialist notions of gender and sexuality or deliteralizing those same notions. He suggests this creates an easy binary in which some trans narratives (those that are antiessentialist) are “good” and those that are essentialist are “bad” (15). Attempting to move past this binary, he suggests we attend instead to how trans narratives “rupture the identity between the binaries, opening up a transitional space between them” by considering how these texts “engage with the feelings of embodiment” (16). Following Prosser, then, I think it is necessary to consider how Jorgensen attempted to express her own feelings of gendered embodiment, despite a doubting and dismissive public while drawing on the language available to her (even if at times essentialist or normative). As the articles about Jorgensen discussed above show, this requires a variety of sometimes contradictory strategies—sometimes, for example, resisting the dominant medical narratives, yet, at other times, using them when helpful to legitimatize her own experiences.

Despite Jorgensen’s insistence that “there was nothing to refuse,” my reading of the available news articles about her suggest the questions about the legitimacy of her womanhood persisted throughout her life, despite the varying strategies she used to explain her experiences to a cisgender public. I remain hopeful, however, that the media will eventually be able to move past this constant doubting and dismissiveness of trans people’s experiences. Avery Everhart argues that the “theme of unreliable narration is one that has haunted both the clinical archives of transsexuality and the genres of trans life writing,” an outgrowth from the ways “clinicians may have been trained to, at least historically, be suspicious of the transgender life as narrated by the person living it” (Everhart). Casey Plett, while also acknowledging that “media gatekeepers insisted for decades on a very specific trans story,” one which often “attempts to explain trans existence to an unforgiving world” (Plett), notes in her review of the current state of trans memoirs that there is evidence of a move past such limited possibilities for narratives of trans experiences. To Plett’s surprise, she found there is much more variety in the types of stories that are told in current trans memoirs when compared to what was available a decade ago. This leads her to conclude that it’s hard to discuss patterns among them because “there are so many of us now with more platforms than what we were once allowed” (Plett). While there are certainly those who still doubt trans people’s own accounts of our experiences, there has undoubtedly been an increase in opportunities and platforms for trans people to share our stories on our own terms. This increase has allowed us to maintain at least some control over our narratives, rather than having to rely on news reporters and publishers who are doubtful of our experiences to frame the ways in which they are told.

Works Cited

  • Ames, Jonathan. Sexual Metamorphosis: An Anthology of Transsexual Memoirs. Vintage, 2005.
  • Boston American.  “N.Y. Couple Joyous Son Now Daughter.” Clipping. 1952. Digital Transgender Archive,  Accessed August 15, 2019.
  • Everhart, Avery. “A New Anti-Heroine of Transgender Literature Emerges, Or, Why Everyone Should Read Kai Cheng Thom’s ‘Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars: A Dangerous Trans Girl’s Confabulous Memoir.’” Michigan Quarterly Review, Jan. 27, 2020. Accessed March 15, 2020.
  • Jorgensen, Christine. Christine Jorgensen: Personal Autobiography. Bantam Books, 1968.
  • Kent, Robert E, et al., directors. The Christine Jorgensen Story. Metro Goldwyn Mayer, 2011.
  • Meyerowitz, Joanne. How Sex Changed: A History of Transsexuality in the United States. Harvard University Press, 2002.
  • Meyerowitz, Joanne. “Sex Change and the Popular Press: Historical Notes on Transsexuality in the United States, 1930-1955.” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, vol. 4, no. 2, 1998, pp. 159-187
  • Plett, Casey. “The Evolution of the Trans Memoir.” Xtra Magazine, Nov. 21, 2019. Accessed March 15, 2020.
  • Prosser, Jay. Second Skins: The Body Narratives of Transsexuality. Columbia University Press, 1998.
  • Rawson, K.J. and Williams, Cristan. “Transgender*: The Rhetorical Landscape of a Term.” Present Tense: A Journal of Rhetoric in Society, vol. 3, no. 2, 2014.
  • Serano, Julia. Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity. Seal Press, 2007.
  • Skidmore, Emily. “Constructing the ‘Good Transsexual’: Christine Jorgensen, Whiteness, and Heteronormativity in the Mid-Twentieth-Century Press.” Feminist Studies, vol. 37, no. 2, 2011, pp. 270-300.
  • Snorton, C. Riley. Black on Both Sides: A Racial History of Trans Identity. University of Minnesota Press, 2018.
  • The Associated Press. “Christine’s Fiancé Acts to Unsnarl Bridal Plans.” Clipping. 1959. Digital Transgender Archive, Accessed August 15, 2019.
  • —. “License Next for Christine.” Clipping. 1959. Digital Transgender Archive, Accessed August 15, 2019.

Revisiting Transvestite Sexualities through Anita Bryant in the late 1970s

“This period of assault by Anita Bryant raises the question of whether or not it is time for greater cooperation between the Male Women’s Liberation and the Gay Liberation movements. As Anita Bryant wins, we both lose. Cooperation does not mean we have to become gay, nor does it mean they have to become ‘transvestites’. It does mean we should unashamedly explore all areas of joint cooperation in pursuit of mutually beneficial objectives.”

(Linda Ann Stephens 3)

In June of 1977, residents in Florida’s Dade County, spurred on by Anita Bryant, voted to repeal the county’s anti-discrimination legislation, which had previously protected gay and lesbian people. Soon after the Dade County vote, the Journal of Male Feminism (hereafter Male Feminism1), the publication of the North American transvestite organization The International Alliance for Male Feminism (hereafter the Alliance), ran a range of reprinted news reports about Anita Bryant, Dade County, and gay liberation. Linda Ann Stephens, the editor of Male Feminism at the time, framed the reprinted stories in her article, “Anita Bryant’s Assault: A time for greater cooperation between the male women’s liberation and the gay liberation movement?” which is excerpted above.

Stephens’s discussion of cooperation between transvestite2 and gay communities served as both a call to action for and a framing of tensions between each group. As Stephens indicates, gay liberationists frequently disavowed transvestites “in a misdirected effort to avoid or overcome the false popular stereotype of gay men as effete, effeminate sissies” and transvestites distanced themselves from gay and lesbian people because “most of us are not gay” (3). While Stephens suggests that there was mutual animosity between gay and trans3 organizations and individuals in the late 1970s, she focuses on the normative investments, concerns about being aligned with stereotypes of effeminacy, that led many gay people to distance themselves from transvestites. Although Stephens notes that transvestites also distanced themselves from gay liberationists, she leaves this as a question of identification. That is, she argues, since most transvestites are straight, they saw little need to be involved in gay liberation. This essay revisits the question of “greater cooperation” between gay and trans movements posed in Stephens’s title with particular attention to the internal sexual norms of transvestite organizations and trans rhetors’ internal and public responses to these norms through Anita Bryant in the late 1970s.

Out of materials in the Digital Transgender Archive, issues of Male Feminism and Drag4 published between 1977 and 1980, I take up the call for this special issue to consider how trans rhetors challenged internal norms of (hetero)sexuality towards a goal of publicly supporting activism around non-normative sexualities in conjunction with non-normative genders. First, this essay addresses rhetorical constructions of the sexually normative transvestite, the “dull hetero TV [(transvestite)],” in issues of Male Feminism concurrent with Anita Bryant’s rise. Then, this essay turns to articles from both Male Feminism and Drag wherein trans rhetors sought to revisit and reframe the terms of normative sexuality within and beyond their communities in response to the exigence of Anita Bryant’s campaign. In this case, trans rhetors’ metonymic invocations of Anita Bryant functioned as an inventional resource allowing them to appropriate the terms of Bryant’s homophobic campaign towards redefining intra-communal norms of respectable trans sexuality and the terms of trans solidarity with gay liberationist movements.

The “plain, ordinary, basic, dull hetero TV”

This section takes up internal discussions in Male Feminism about expectations of sexual normativity to lay the terrain for internal and public challenges to these norms. As Robert Hill shows, through his reading of trans identities in the magazine Transvestia between 1960 and 1980, questions of trans sexuality did not begin with Anita Bryant. For example, Virginia Prince, founder of Transvestia and founder of the heterosexual transvestite sorority the Society for the Second Self (Tri Sigma or Tri Sig5), argued since the 1950s that “true transvestites are 4 exclusively heterosexual” (17). In Hill’s work with Transvestia, he uses “the terms ‘crossdresser’ and ‘transvestite’ interchangeably to refer to genetic males who identify as heterosexual and who enjoy periodically dressing in clothing that their society views as socially and culturally belonging to women” (378). In partial contrast, here I address transvestites who did not identify as heterosexual or who advocated on behalf of non-straight trans people.

In early 1977, the publisher of Male Feminism, the journal known until this point as Hose & Heels, would change its name from the National Alliance for Heterosexual Male Feminism to the International Alliance for Male Feminism. Male Feminism’s organizational and journal name changes were discussed by the journal’s editors on two terms. First, the editors note the turn to “international” to acknowledge a growing Canadian membership, and second, they discuss the removal of “heterosexual” from their name for a variety of reasons. Beyond shortening the length of the group’s name, they state that another factor,

was to reduce what some have felt was an overemphasis on the heterosexual dimension of the Alliance. Although from the formation and foundation of our Alliance, we have always made clear that we had no sexual orientation restriction on membership, some have perceived an overemphasis on the heterosexual component. As with the general population, the major component of our membership is likely to continue to be heterosexually oriented. The Board believed, however, that we had been giving somewhat undue emphasis to this dimension. (3)

As an organization that grew out of and separated from Prince’s Tri Sigma, the Alliance further distinguishes itself from Tri Sigma by explicitly approaching the category of transvestite as inclusive of any sexual orientation.

Although the Alliance’s name change was intended to welcome a wider range of transvestites, in particular those who were not straight or were from outside the United States, in the same statement, they temper an embrace of all sexualities, “the Board was unanimous in believing the International Alliance for Male Feminism should continue to take all reasonable measures to avoid developing even the appearance of a ‘swinger’ or ‘drag queen’ type of image. Persons into that, or into other unrelated areas such as S&M and B&D, should look to other groups to satisfy those interests” (3). In this statement, the editors distinguish certain sexual practices as “unrelated” to their work as a transvestite organization. Thus, while the Alliance sought to open its membership in terms of homosexuality, they maintained that respectable sexual practices—vanilla and coupled sex in this instance—remained a necessity for all in the organization.

Two years later, in a 1979 issue of Male Feminism, both the journal’s editor and a reader, Connie, speak to the terms of sexual normativity within the Alliance as part of a discussion about a possible merger with Prince’s sorority. Connie, a reader from New York wrote, “We should not open our doors to those who wish to practice the ‘oral’ or anal’ bit, the enema thing, extreme bondage or other far from the ordinary sexual processes” (23). As articulated by Connie, “ordinary sexual processes” are re-figured through a trans politic.

In response to Connie, Male Feminism’s editor, Glenda Renee Jones, provides a hierarchy of fetishes that affirms the terms of Connie’s letter, “Most all of the members of both organizations have some sort of ‘hang-up’, quite inoffensive such as undies, high heels, which are parts of the plain, ordinary, basic, dull hetero TV” (24). These comments make apparent the normative attachments that undergird this debate, the “dull hetero TV” offers a center from which deviations can be measured. Jones concludes her comments by noting, “There are a few bi’s in both Tri Sig and the Alliance…I would say the two groups are virtually identical in policy and membership composition.” Apparent here, in contrast to the editorial board’s 1977 statement and the anonymous submission I consider in the next section, Jones asserts that the Alliance remained quite straight, much like the members of Tri Sigma. In sum, Connie and Jones delineate the terms of a normative trans sexuality, indicating that, at best, only “plain, ordinary, basic, dull” homosexual or bisexual transvestites would be welcome in the Alliance.

Responding to the “dull hetero TV”

As the previous section shows how trans rhetors began to make space for homosexual transvestites in their organization by recentering normative—vanilla and coupled—sexual practices as necessary for homosexual and heterosexual members alike, I turn now to how trans rhetors sought to challenge the public and internal terms of normative transvestite sexuality through metonymic invocations of Anita Bryant. In a 1977 issue of Drag, an unidentified author points to Anita Bryant as the “unifying factor” that allowed for record crowds at New York City’s 1977 pride march (“Gay” 18). The author adds that 1977 marked the first time the pride planning committee invited a transvestite, Cocoa, to speak at New York City’s Pride. Susan Stryker describes the birth of Drag and its publisher, the Queens Liberation Front which was founded by “drag queen Lee Brewster and heterosexual transvestite Bunny Eisenhower,” as a response to “how quickly the gay liberation movement started to push aside some of the very people who had the greatest stake in militant resistance at Stonewall” (87).

As the Drag author notes regarding Cocoa’s invitation, “one person moved that she be stricken because only 25% of TVs are Gay, and therefore not deserving of representation” (22). The author argues that these efforts to deny connections between sexuality and trans identity were also apparent intra-communally, the “insidiousness of this blacklisting is actually encouraged by some TVs. Those who deny the gay aspects of some transvestites play right into the hands of those gay militants who detest the concept of Drag” (22). Here, the author links anti-trans gay people to anti-gay trans people who argue that their gender is respectable while decrying transgressive sexualities. Beyond acknowledging that many transvestites are gay, the author also argues that some transvestites not only stayed away from gay liberation because they were not gay, but also because they maintained investments in upholding normative sexual practices in their communities.

The author then invokes Anita Bryant to account for the issue with these positions, “One wonders that if the Gotterdamerung does occur, and all Gays fall victims to Anita Bryant, will a distinction be made to exclude those TVs who don’t suck cock? We think not” (“Gay” 22). The author’s rhetorical question calls for understanding that Bryant’s campaign sought a totalizing response to those considered sexually or gender deviant. The author links Bryant’s positions to homophobia and anti-trans sentiments as articulated within each community.

Similarly, in the same 1979 issue of Male Feminism I previously discussed, one bisexual member of both Tri Sigma and the Alliance, who advocated against the Alliance’s merger with Tri Sigma, addresses the limits of normative sexualities in the organization by articulating normativity with social myths and stereotypes. The author asked to have her name withheld, presumably out of concern about possible repercussions as a result of her views. She wrote,

The Alliance is receptive to this [bisexual] orientation—as it is to all orientations across the gender spectrum. Unfortunately, when I am in the company of my Tri Sig sisters, it’s strictly “Mums a word”…I believe [my Tri Sig sisters] are slighting themselves with their homophobia (Anita Bryant couldn’t be happier)…The issue is freedom from sex role stereotypes…Homosexuals, bisexuals—and, realistically—the entire issue of humanistic sexuality—rely on openness. If the doors are open, society’s myths soon perish. (22)

This narrative positions the Alliance as a more open organization than Prince’s Tri Sigma, and suggests the Alliance should center a fight against all of “society’s myths,” including both gendered and sexual norms. The author’s mention of Bryant’s happiness, in contrast to the silences the author experiences regarding her bisexuality, aligns the leadership of Tri Sigma and the Alliance with Anita Bryant as all seek to restrict sexual freedom. Under the rubric of “freedom from sex role stereotypes” produced through denying “society’s myths” the author identifies a common political struggle for transvestites and gay people, against Anita Bryant, regardless of sexual practices.

While the previous two examples invoke Anita Bryant as an external threat and as a stand-in for homophobic and transphobic beliefs, Bebe Scarpie, editor of Drag, invokes Bryant to address the problem with normative sexual attachments as held by trans people themselves. In her 1980 article, Scarpie challenges the homophobia of trans readers by arguing that guilt is the primary motivation for their anti-gay views. Scarpie writes, “an overt hatred of gayness…would primarily set up a clear demarcation between crossdressers—those whose drag is a prelude to normal sex—and those who crossdress for homosexual reasons, that is, a prelude to ‘abnormal’ sex” (33). Scarpie argues that homophobia, and efforts by transvestites to distance themselves from gay people, relies on an untenable distinction between normal and abnormal sex, allowing heterosexual transvestites to assuage their felt gender deviance through their “normal” sex. Indeed, Scarpie dismisses even the possibility of a normative sexual practice for transvestites

anti-gayness offers proof to the normalcy of the heterosexual TV in terms of our culture. It classifies you in the same corner as Mom, Apple Pie and the American flag—all the same syndrome. Your church will pray for you. The politicians will endorse you. Maybe even Anita Bryant will come to your town to lead an anti-gay rally with you…He cannot deny his crossdressing, yet he must somehow atone for this faggot-type thing. Everything is freakish about transvestites; from masturbating with satin around the penis, to being submissive to a dominant woman. (34)

Scarpie’s invocation of Anita Bryant, as a symbol alongside apple pie and the flag, marks Bryant a source of legitimation and normativity for transvestites seeking to alleviate their own “freakishness.” In Scarpie’s view, the “dull hetero TV” becomes an impossibility, a fantasy of self-hating trans people, like being supported by Bryant, that is only produced in the minds of trans people who fail to come to terms with their own desires. Further, Scarpie calls for an embrace of transvestites as “freakish,” a recognition that a conservative straight world would find little to celebrate in trans people, regardless of their “normal” sex.

Across this essay I show how the rise of Anita Bryant in the late 1970s provided trans rhetors with an opportunity to contest the norms of sexual respectability within and outside of their communities. In the context of discussions around normative expectations of transvestite sexuality, trans rhetors invoked Bryant as a stand-in for a threat to not only gay and lesbian people but also to all trans people. For the trans rhetors considered here, joining gay liberationists and advocating for pro-gay stances within trans organizations was necessary for the survival of all trans people. They challenged trans community members to face the terms of their own normative sexual attachments and recognize that Bryant, and a larger straight world, would view trans people with the same scrutiny as “militant homosexuals.” Linda Ann Stephens concludes her article, which opened this essay, by calling for transvestites to “take a stand” alongside gay liberationists against the homophobia and transphobia of Anita Bryant’s campaign (3). Her conclusion sums up the calls of the trans rhetors I have addressed here, “Societal attitudes do change! The direction of that change is determined, in part, by your actions or lack thereof. What is your responsibility and how well are you carrying it out?” (Stephens 3).


  1. The term “feminism” in the journal’s title refers to femininity rather than the feminist political movement.
  2. The rhetors considered here use the terms transvestite, crossdresser, and male woman, at times interchangeably, to generally refer to assigned-male individuals who cross-dress some or most of the time for a variety of reasons including, for some, sexual pleasure. While these terms are often considered offensive today, I maintain the original terms used by each rhetor I consider.
  3. While this use of trans is anachronistic in relation to the late 1970s, the term’s contemporary, if contested, usage as an “umbrella” for a range of non-normative gender identities allows for a consideration of the authors in Male Feminism and Drag without making wider assumptions about their particular unstated identities.
  4. These two publications represent the bulk of original indexed references to Anita Bryant available in the Digital Transgender Archive (DTA) from 1977 through 1980. While Bryant is also mentioned in DTA-held publications such as Gender Review and Les Girls, she is referred to tangentially as part of news reporting or in republished news stories.
  5. Although Virginia Prince’s Society for the Second Self is most frequently remembered as Tri-Ess, the documents I address here exclusively refer to her organization as Tri Sigma or Tri Sig.

Works Cited

  • Anonymous. “Letter to the Editor.” Journal of Male Feminism, no. 4, 1979, p. 22. Digital Transgender Archive, Accessed 12 Sept. 2019.
  • Connie. “Letter to the Editor.” Journal of Male Feminism, no. 4, 1979, pp. 23-24. Digital Transgender Archive, Accessed 12 Sept. 2019.
  • Gay Pride March ’77.” Drag, vol. 7, no. 25, 1977, pp. 18-22. Digital Transgender Archive, Accessed 12 Sept. 2019.
  • Hill, Robert. “Before Transgender: Transvestia’s Spectrum of Gender Variance, 1960-1980.” The Transgender Studies Reader 2, edited by Susan Stryker and Aren Z. Aizura, 1st ed., Routledge, 2013, pp. 364-79.
  • International Alliance Board. “Alliance Modifies Name, Broadens Base, Makes Other Changes.” Journal of Male Feminism, vol. 77, no. 1, 1977, p. 3. Digital Transgender Archive, Accessed 12 Sept. 2019.
  • Jones, Glenda Rene. “Editor’s Note.” Journal of Male Feminism, no. 4, 1979, p. 24. Digital Transgender Archive, Accessed 12 Sept. 2019. Prince, C. V. “Homosexuality, Transvestism and Transsexuality: Reflections on Their Etiology and Differentiation.” International Journal of Transgenderism, vol. 8, no. 4, 2005, pp. 17-20.
  • Scarpie, Bebe. “HOMOPHOBIA: Fear of Homosexuality.” Drag, vol. 8, no. 27, 1980, pp. 33–34. Digital Transgender Archive, Accessed 12 Sept. 2019.
  • Stephens, Linda Ann. “Anita Bryant’s Assault: A time for greater cooperation between the male women’s liberation and the gay liberation movement?Journal of Male Feminism, vol. 77, no. 3, 1977, p. 3. Digital Transgender Archive, Accessed 12 Sept. 2019.
  • Stryker, Susan. Transgender History. Seal Press, 2008.

Navigating Disclosure in a Critical Trans Pedagogy

In “Unscripting Curriculum,” education scholar Harper Keenan asks, “what does it mean to build a critical trans pedagogy from a queer and trans life?” (539). In “The Promise of Trans Critique”, Gabby Benavente and Julian Gill-Peterson identify “[Susan] Stryker’s commitment to knowledge production directly out of the material, embodied livelihood of trans people…the recognition and affirmation of self-knowledge and feeling as theory,” (27). As a trans faculty member, following Benavente & Gill-Peterson’s discussion of Stryker, I understand my embodied experience to be the theoretical framework from which I’ve developed my own Critical Trans Pedagogy. For me, as a white, queer, male-presenting, non-tenure track faculty member working often in First Year Composition, these embodied experiences come not just from the classroom of the present, but from my entire educational trajectory. This trajectory highlights the in/visibility of my “trans-ness” in relation to my peers, professors, students, and colleagues, and it’s this in/visibility, and the subsequent navigation of disclosure, that has been a key framework as I build my own Critical Trans Pedagogy.

Much has been written about teaching about trans related topics from literature talking about how trans identity is leveraged to teach about the trans experience (Courant 2011), to how both cis- and transgender individuals teach about gender in a trans-inclusive way (LeMaster and Johnson 2019; Catalano, McCarthy, Shlasko 2007; Beauchamp and D’Harlingue 2012; Daniels 2011). However, neither my teaching nor my scholarship focuses on gender or gendered experiences, and I’ve found it hard to identify where and how to position myself and my experiences. A smaller but growing body of work does speak to these questions that address how an instructor’s embodied trans and/or gender non-conforming experiences shape their pedagogical choices more broadly (Sathiyaseelan 2014; Keenan “Khaki Drag” 2017). My Critical Trans Pedagogy, then, is borne out of my embodied experiences as a trans student, trans grad student, and trans faculty working in the general composition classroom. This Critical Trans Pedagogy enables us to: resist gendered assumptions in our classrooms; recognize the in/visibility of our students gender identities and expressions; understand the vulnerability of disclosure, or “coming out”; and even begin to consider how in/visibility of identities and experiences other than gender will be present in our classroom spaces.

Theorizing Experience

Sinduja Sathiyaseelan writes how “coming out is not necessarily ‘coming out as’ but can be ‘coming out as not’—in this case, as not heterosexual” (58). For Sathiyaseelan it’s not just about queerness or straightness, but about gender as well, writing about how “my femme gender expression and my identity as a queer, genderqueer bisexual are rendered invisible by my students’ understandings of gender and the body” (60). Coming out then functions as a type of disclosure in part because our students, our colleagues, and sometimes ourselves, hold assumptions about what bodies mean and/or what they should look like and/or how they should function or behave. Disclosure is vulnerable because we are working against assumptions that society carries about what is “normal” or what is expected of us. It presupposes that there is something “hidden” to disclose or otherwise “reveal.” It assumes that there is something “unknowable” about a person without that disclosure. Like Sathiyaseelan, I’ve had to navigate the in/visibility of my gender to my students, but also as a student.

My own understanding of my gender has evolved over the years, but it always comes back to “NOT a girl.” As I navigated social, legal, and medical transitions over time—not in a way to go from one binary to the other, but to get about as from “girl” as I felt comfortable—I’ve found that these processes have impacted me at different stages of my education, and my different roles in education.

Initially, disclosure was liberating. I attended an all-girls high school, and consequently, my college search prioritized those with trans-inclusive reputations. Socially, I felt not just seen, but able to share myself, from the very beginning. While much conversation has happened over the decade plus since I began college about using pronouns in introductions, my first night in the dorms included us sharing our pronouns when we introduced ourselves, which was the first time that I was able to introduce myself as myself, and actually have my peers take up my chosen name and pronouns.

However, the “unknowable” that disclosure seeks to make “known” can also be a point of danger, a necessity, and a price to pay. These experiences that I’ve had, as both an undergraduate and graduate student, and as a faculty member, of having to navigate when and how to disclose my name, pronouns, and identifications as a trans individual, have informed both how I structure the classroom environment and the choices I make about myself as a teacher. As an undergraduate I had to ask myself, “how important is it that this faculty member know?” I had bad experiences of rosters with legal names being passed around to sign in on, and positive experiences with professors giving us space to introduce ourselves privately to them with notecards. The biggest anxiety that first year though was not knowing how the first day of class would go. I was going to have to out myself in one way or the other to each professor, but the question always was: How? When? Over email? In person? Wait and see how the first day goes?

As I went through my transition, the impetus for disclosure would change. Where first I needed to affirm a name and pronoun there were not “obvious,” it would change to “clarifying” a gender that began to be read inconsistently. This also became one of the most nerve wracking stages of the process where strangers would ask me if I was a boy or a girl; where I would start to get ma’amed if I let my hair get just a little too shaggy; and I would almost hold my breath to use the men’s restroom because I was sometimes just not sure how I was read.

Sathiyaseelan’s discussions of coming out—coming out in the specific context of the composition classroom—is a vulnerable one, and one that is considered in the context of the student’s education; it is also an act that resists being normalized or essentialized at the expense of being a “neutral” body in the classroom, because bodies are never neutral. This is something I had struggled with figuring out as a graduate student because by the time I started graduate school, it was the first time I could present myself as myself, and not have to explain myself. In the classroom, I would talk about myself as I (thought I) understood my students to see me as—as a short, white, male-presenting individual. For me, focusing on the “presenting” aspect of my gender held space open about what my gender actually was, and even if it was a subtle choice of language, it allowed me to focus on what would be visible to my students without having to disclose what was “invisible.” This is where I think about the idea that G Patterson (2016) cautions against, a pedagogical neutrality that “unquestioningly centralizes the needs of students from privileged social groups while putting queer and trans students and teachers at risk,” (134). As a queer and trans teacher, I then ask how do I navigate my own safety and comfort while also being present and visible to and for my queer and trans students? Sandretto’s (2018) framing of a “queer intent” in literacy education asks us to question “who counts as normal.” For me, this is where I’ve tried to translate my embodied experience into pedagogical practice while navigating my own disclosure (where I also don’t hesitate to disclose my queerness in the same way I hesitate around my trans-ness). Regardless of if or how I disclose my trans-ness, my embodied experiences with my gender and all that we’ve been through together, pushes me to further open up spaces for challenging the assumptions we carry into our classrooms—assumptions about our students and about ourselves.

In my more recent shift in roles from graduate student to faculty, and from one institution to another, has brought with it some changes. For the first time that I can recall, I had students “she” me in my teaching evaluations (in more than one class). I also had students awkwardly and hesitantly “she” me during class presentations in one class section. These more consistent misgenderings also coincided with me starting to grow my hair out for the first time since high school (spoiler: it didn’t last long, but not for gender reasons). But this encounter made me start to re-evaluate once again my relationship to my gender, and my (assumed) gender’s relationship to my students, and consequently, to my teaching. These experiences have had me reassess how I exist in the classroom and in relation to my students and my pedagogy. My own Critical Trans Pedagogy has always meant recognizing that there can be a multitude of in/visible genders in my classroom, even if I wasn’t disclosing my own. And even though I do not teach “gender studies” courses, or even a “gender studies” lens into First Year Composition, gender—in all its complexity—still emerges in our texts and conversations. It appears in how we manage introductions at the beginning of the semester; it appears in misgendering – of myself, of authors we read; it appears in students designing research projects and survey questions; it appears in texts as we talk about authorship, context, and audience. Even when I don’t put myself out there to my students as a trans individual, I am making sure that the knowledge we are working together to produce pushes back against norms and assumptions society tells us about gender—and one of those assumptions is that we can know someone’s gender just by looking at them, or seeing their name on a screen. And, if that is a false assumption, what other false assumptions might we be making about people and their stories just by what we think we “know” about their bodies?

Experience into Practice

Assumptions about bodies rest on the premise that we can know something about that body—that bodies are obvious in what they are. Any trans person can tell you that’s false. So if we can’t assume something about a person based on the body put in front of us, how can we be sure to “know” the things we need to know about that person, so that we may interact with them in the ways that they need, and create the kind of pedagogical environment that will support their learning? For me, this comes back to practices of disclosure, and the recognition that disclosure and in/visibility go hand in hand. As I reflect on my experience around not just if, but when, to disclosure, pedagogically I have recognized that it’s not just disclosure, but the timing of that disclosure that emerges as significant.

Many students, scholars, and activists have designed trainings and offered suggestions for “best practices” of how to make the classroom a trans-inclusive space. In a 2011 article, Dean Spade covers many of the best practices including: don’t read aloud or share the roster with students; make space for students to share preferred name and pronouns; don’t dead-name or misgender your students; don’t ask invasive questions about medical procedures (57-58). Many of us rely on the first day of class to gather information about our students, including details like preferred name and pronouns to use. At the same time, this information may change, so we also need to be able to keep the dialogue open.

What follows is a simple gesture, but one that I have found effective in both my teaching, but also in my past as a student. At the beginning of each semester, part way through class on the first day I ask students to answer a set of questions – sometimes I’ll distribute it on paper, sometimes I’ll post the questions on the board and students have the option to turn in paper or send me an email. The questions I ask include:

  • Name (as it appears with the university):
  • Name I should use to address you in class:
  • Pronouns I should use to refer to you class:
  • (Please indicate if I should use different names and/or pronouns in different spaces. I also recognize that these might change over time, and I invite you to let me know of any changes you would like to make.)

By giving students the space to introduce themselves to me, rather than outing them on the spot through roll call, I’ve already created a space that acknowledges the existence of (potential) trans bodies in the classroom, even if I myself haven’t come out to them as Trans. It also comes from a space that acknowledges that transition is a process, and that people’s understandings of themselves and their genders evolves over time.

In addition to making space for the student to introduce themselves to me, I also make a point orally to let them know if there is anything else they would like me to know as it might interface with their work in the course during the semester. This is part of my Critical Trans Pedagogy, that has led me to a space to recognize how in/visibility of experience might be present in other ways (such as through access needs), but also through an understanding that needs and experiences change over time. If I don’t need a student to have legally changed their name in order to call them by that name, I can begin to ask, what other sets of experiences or needs can I recognize without requiring (legal) documentation? But also, how can I work to decenter norms around other embodied experiences beyond gender? My Critical Trans Pedagogy does not assume that I can equate being trans with any other marginalized identity, but it does provide me an entry point for asking questions—asking “well, why is it this way? Does it have to be?”—and for working toward decentering that which is “assumed.” If I can recognize the in/visibility of my own embodied experiences, how can I hold, and make space, for the in/visibility of others’?

Works Cited

  • Beauchamp, Toby, and Benjamin D’Harlingue. “Beyond Additions and Exceptions: The Category of Transgender and New Pedagogical Approaches for Women’s Studies.” Feminist Formations, vol. 24, no. 2, 2012, pp. 25-51.
  • Benavente, Gabby, and Julian Gill-Peterson. “The Promise of Trans Critique: Susan Stryker’s Queer Theory.” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, vol 25, no. 1, 2019, pp. 23-28.
  • Catalano, Chase, McCarthy, Linda, and Shlasko, Davey. “Transgender oppression curriculum design.” Teaching for diversity and social justice, 2nd ed., edited by Maurianne Adams, Lee Anne Bell, and Pat Griffin, Routledge, 2007, pp. 219-245.
  • Courvant, Diana. “Strip!” The Radical Teacher, no. 92, 2011, pp. 26-34.
  • Daniels, Leyden. “Erasing the Marker.” The Radical Teacher, no. 92, 2011, pp. 55-56.
  • Keenan, Harper Benjamin. “Khaki Drag: Race, Gender, and the Performance of Professionalism in Teacher Education.” Confronting Racism in Teacher Education: Counternarratives of Critical Practice, edited by Bree Picower and Rita Kohli. Routledge, 2017, pp. 97-102.
  • —. “Unscripting Curriculum: Toward a Critical Trans Pedagogy.” Harvard Educational Review, vol. 87, no. 4, 2017, pp. 538-594.
  • LeMaster, Benny, and Amber L. Johnson. “Unlearning gender—Toward a critical communication trans pedagogy.” Communication Teacher, vol. 33, no. 3, 2019, pp. 189-198.
  • Patterson, G. “The Unbearable Weight of Pedagogical Neutrality: Religion and LGBTQ Issues in the English Studies Classroom.” Sexual Rhetorics: Methods, Identities, Publics, edited by Jonathan Alexander and Jacqueline Rhodes, Routledge, 2016, pp. 134-146.
  • Sandretto, Susan. “A case for critical literacy with queer intent.” Journal of LGBT Youth, vol. 15, no. 3, 2018, pp. 197-211.
  • Sathiyaseelan, Sinduja. “Negotiating the Bi-nary: Strategic Ambiguity and the Non-Nameable Identity in the Classroom.” Writing on the Edge, vol. 25, no. 1, 2014, pp. 56-61.
  • Spade, Dean. “Some Very Basic Tips for Making Higher Education More Accessible to Trans Students and Rethinking How We Talk About Gendered Bodies.” The Radical Teacher, no. 92 2011, pp. 57-62.

Out in the Classroom: A Transgender Pedagogical Narrative

I first stepped into a classroom as an openly transgender instructor in the spring of 2015. I was teaching a section of Freshman Composition, it was my second year as a Masters student, and trying to navigate how to address my change in gender with students and colleagues alike was harrowing. I was teaching at a state college in northern Alabama, and the student population of my Composition I course was almost entirely white male cisgender engineering students. Despite the open acceptance I received from my colleagues, I was unsure how my students would respond, and staying in the closet was out of the question if I wanted to avoid the emotional distress and dysphoria-inducing situation of being misgendered. How, then, did I tell a room full of largely conservative students from the rural deep south that despite my appearance at the time,1 I was a man, used he/him pronouns, and wanted to be referred to by a masculine name? How could I engage with them authentically and trust there would be respect, acknowledgement, and acceptance of my gender identity? Could I teach effectively in an environment where I would open myself up to a multitude of dangers? Would it be safer to stay in the closet? Could I survive if I stayed in the closet? How would I address this again in six months when I had to come out all over again to a new group of students? Now in my seventh year teaching writing, these questions still follow me as I navigate interacting with my students, especially as my gender identity continues to shift and move from simply “male” to “non-binary” and “masculine.” Acknowledging this shift opens a whole other host of gender identity disclosures and complexities and further requires me to look beyond the binary notion of being “in” or “out” of the closet in the classroom, instead coming out again and again to new students and new groups of people.

The fact that these questions evade definitive conclusion and must be asked repeatedly speaks to the very nature of my gender and my experiences engaging with my gender in the context of my pedagogy. As I have taught in different classrooms at different institutions, with different student populations, I have had to adjust and shift how I address my gender and doing so has led to me constantly interrogating, considering, and confronting my identity, to the point that even writing this piece has led me down new and complex paths in both the classroom and my personal transgender journey. In this fashion, I draw upon work done by scholars engaged in critical examinations of the interplay of transgender identities and pedagogy (Patterson 2016; Keenan 2017) and see value in sharing my journey as a transgender instructor from the start of my teaching career to my current engagement with both my gender and my pedagogy. I also see the value in going a step further into this process by interrogating how my positionality as a white and male-perceived instructor impacts how my transness and pedagogy remain in conversation with each other as I meet new student populations and come out at the beginning of each semester. I am therefore sharing this pedagogical coming out narrative with two major goals in mind: the first is to provide an example of the complex interplay between identity and pedagogy in the classroom from one transgender instructor’s perspective. The second is to extend this example beyond my own experience and extrapolate concepts that could be useful to other instructors (transgender and otherwise) as they interrogate and unpack how their own positionalities, disclosures, and identities intersect with their pedagogies.

Identity Disclosure: Coming Out as Trans in the Classroom

My disclosure of my gender identity always occurs on the first day of the semester, and is integrated into my overall introductions to the course. I craft a slideshow that includes course policies, syllabus information, and personal items to give my students the opportunity to get to know who will be teaching them for the next sixteen weeks. My introductory slide has traditionally included my name, my number of years into graduate study, my gender identity and pronouns, and my research interests (for a recent iteration, see Fig. 1 below). This has shifted minimally in the time I have taught, and is always something I address in a matter-of-fact tone with my students in a single sentence: “I’m a transgender man, please use he/him pronouns, and I answer to Mister Lee, or just Lee.”

Image is of a presentation slide titled "Who Am I?" The slide background is dark blue and the text is in white and light grey. The slide lists Hibbard's name, program, gender identity, areas of study, and other roles on campus.

Fig. 1. Introductory slide. This is the information I typically share with students on the first day of class as part of overall introductions to the course.

The first time I put this method into practice, the Spring of 2015, I received no pushback, comments, or negativity from students in my section, including those that had worked with me the previous year when I was still female-identifying and using she/her pronouns. This became my method of choice for the next year and a half while I worked as an adjunct at the same institution, disclosing my gender identity to my students on the first day and leaving it at that. This method changed minimally as I entered my PhD program, though the circumstances were different: my students and my colleagues knew me only as Lee, and though I still did not fully pass,2 I faced fewer instances of being called by the wrong name. My template and my method therefore had minimal need for changes and I proceeded with teaching as before.

My interrogation of my need for disclosure arose once more within the last year, as my regimen of hormone replacement therapy allowed me to regularly pass as male. This brought with it a new host of questions and complications, as I realized that my goal, not that any transgender person necessarily needs a transition goal, was not necessarily to go “stealth,” or to present outwardly as my actual gender rather than the one I was assigned at birth (Johnson 2017). Doing so not only felt like it erased my lived experience as a transgender individual, but placed me in a binary gender category that failed to fit the way my gender truly felt. My identity, more complex and not fully aligned with ‘male’ and not at all “female,” occupied a different space in both my mind and in the material world to the point that I felt that no longer disclosing my transness reflected a lack of authenticity to myself and the core of my personal pedagogy—that the material, technological, and discursive aspects of identity impact the way that people live and derive meaning in the world (Hekman 106).

While the method I have chosen to disclose —using the slide on the first day of class—has remained largely the same over the years, the subject of that disclosure has shifted. On the surface, the need to disclose my trans identity has lessened with my ability to pass as male, but the shift in my gender identity along with my desire for authenticity has kept the contents of my introductory slide the same over the years, and though the pronouns have shifted to include “they” as well as “he,” my method of disclosure remains the same, and reflects my teaching philosophy.

Disclosure in the Material World: Positionality and Context

My ability to be out as transgender in the classroom is heavily influenced by my own unique circumstances and positionality in the world and at my current institution. While sharing my own coming out experiences as a transgender instructor has value, so too does a thorough interrogation of the factors that allow me to be out in my classrooms. Every transgender person has a unique experience and relationship with gender, identity, and coming out, and these experiences are all the more unique to different classroom experiences. As noted by Keenan, queer and trans experiences defy static definition, and are deeply tied to personal experience and transgender pedagogues cannot speak to any transgender experience but their own (539-540).

My positionality at a largely white, midwestern institution impacts my ability to be openly queer and transgender, as does my own whiteness and access to medical and social resources as a university employee. My mentors and colleagues respect my gender identity and my pronouns, and I am not the only transgender graduate student in the program, or indeed in my cohort. The language and knowledge to work with transgender instructors is therefore an integrated part of the departmental climate in which I currently exist, something that is far from a universal transgender experience. I also have access to trans-inclusive healthcare, with my graduate staff insurance covering my hormone treatments, making it possible for me to medically transition.

In the classroom itself, I have received little pushback from students or instructors concerning my gender identity, with all but one or two incidents being accidental misgenderings or outdated understandings of how to address transgender individuals. Examples of outdated or incorrect modes of address include using “preferred pronouns,” which centers that the pronouns are optional and not required in order to respect the person, or “male-identifying,” which implies the person’s maleness is artificial and inauthentic and serves to perpetuate cissexism, or the notion that trans people’s genders are inferior to or less authentic than cisgender people’s genders (Serano 12). This environment, which has been largely free of any harassment or trouble due to my gender, gives me a position of privilege and a place in which it is relatively safe to express and develop my gender identity. This is not something universally experienced by transgender instructors.

Discussions of being LGBTQ+ and out in the classroom shift depending on the institution and political climate of that institution, where less-welcoming environments lead to instructors who come out being viewed as bringing their own political views into the classroom in a disruptive or unnecessary manner (L. Allen 85). This notion, which Patterson notes is often tied to the insistence of neutrality as pedagogical best practice (134), continues to frame LGBTQ+ identities and their existence as unnecessarily political and therefore not suited to a classroom. The consequences of this neutrality, however, can consolidate vectors of oppression in the classroom through appealing to this idea of the student-as-everyman (Patterson 145) and serves only to further separate the classroom from the material consequences of reality. As a student of rhetoric and composition, I seek to reflect upon the assertion Patterson makes that writing pedagogies should be rooted in social justice and that while multiply minoritized teachers can adopt neutrality for the sake of survival, this “does not give the rest of us an alibi” (145). My positionality as a disabled, queer-identifying, transgender instructor remains in interplay with other aspects of my identity, such as my whiteness, my ability to attend graduate school, and my ability to pass as male: things that give me the ability to move through the world via different vectors than my multiply-marginalized colleagues. The labor of spreading awareness and knowledge related to social justice issues such as gender and sexuality is therefore something that I am well suited to address from the position I inhabit, where I can be visibly out and disclose myself authentically in a way that has the potential to help those with fewer options and vectors of access.

Transgender Teachers, Transgender Students: The Risks of Disclosure

Navigating my positionality within my institution requires my consideration of not only my own safety, but the safety of the students under my instruction. While my identity and association with a marginalized group has the potential to place me in harm’s way when in a classroom, the identities of my students are just as important and worthy of consideration when examining how my identity and pedagogy interact in the classroom. Transgender students face risks and anxieties surrounding disclosure just as instructors do, and accommodating their ability to choose how and when to disclose their identities to me and to their classmates has led me to adopt specific pedagogical approaches towards gender identity that extend beyond my own coming out.

In my classrooms, pronoun and identity sharing are always opt-in practices I encourage partially by being open about my own identity while providing private avenues for students to choose to disclose to me if they feel comfortable. These private avenues vary but are also integrated into first day/first week icebreaker activities, where I make use of a Google Form survey or a simple notecard system to give students a private way to share information about themselves with me. The questions associated with this form include asking about a student’s name if it differs from what appears on my roster, pronouns, and other course-related questions about comfort with technology, past experience with writing courses, and food allergies (see Fig. 2 for the most recent version of the Google Form used in my classrooms). I try to be cognizant of my student’s comfort in disclosing their identities, mainly due to how much my own identity has shifted and changed over the years as both a student and an instructor.

Image is a screenshot of a Google Form survey. The first question asks students to provide their name, and the second question asks students what pronouns they use. Pronoun options are provided as checkboxes with the option to type in a response under "Other."

Fig. 2. Screenshot of Google survey. I use a Google Form as a space where  students can disclose information about their identities to me privately.

Being transgender in my experience is not a binary state of being/not being, but rather a continuum that requires consideration of different material circumstances of disclosure. Scholarship into the language and culture surrounding transgender identities reflects this, with Rawson and Williams noting the complex language development surrounding the term and the shifting definitions, use by influential figures, and activism related to the term’s use (p. 6). There is no one monolithic transgender experience, and this impacts both myself and any transgender students who enter my classroom. Some transgender students may not yet be comfortable disclosing to a group of strangers, others may not be certain of their gender identity, and still more may feel pressure to remain in the closet to avoid harassment or danger that I do not face as an instructor. I work hard to avoid “one size fits all” approaches, such as mandatory public pronoun sharing during introductory activities, which can unnecessarily out students before they are ready, or place them in the position of being forced into the closet (Haimson and Airton 2019). Thus far the private disclosure approach has given students in my classes a comfortable space to share their identity with me before deciding if they feel comfortable coming out to their peers. I have been fortunate enough to not receive pushback from students in the class regarding the correct use of pronouns for a transgender classmate, but as I have experienced misgendering as an instructor, I would feel comfortable implementing the same strategy for dealing with the situation, which involves correcting the student in question and reminding them to be respectful of other people’s identities. Thus far, this has sufficed in halting any incidents, but I would feel comfortable reaching out to my supervisor or other senior faculty to defuse the situation if it escalated.

My first experience with a transgender student who wanted to be out in my classroom was in the Fall of 2019, in a section of Multimedia Writing, an upper level course housed in the Professional Writing course track. Jane3 was a computer science student who signed up for the course at the recommendation of her roommate, who had not taken a class with me himself but knew of me through other avenues. Jane’s first day survey contained no indication of her identity beyond she/her pronouns, and my roster reflected her real name, and other than mentioning to me that I knew her roommate, she didn’t share anything about herself privately with me. Instead, she was among the first to participate in the Unit 1 presentations, which involved a curatorial review and rhetorical analysis of social media habits. Jane presented the class with her Instagram, which chronicled her transition journey, including her posts before she came out as transgender, her coming out post, and her various celebrations of pride thereafter. I have no doubt in my mind that she could have chosen any other social media account or experience to share, but her willingness to disclose her trans identity in an environment in which I as the instructor had previously come out was not lost on me. Disclosure of transness, on the part of students or instructors, should never be mandatory in a classroom environment, and based heavily on the needs and comfort of the individual, but I am, particularly after this experience, aware of how my own disclosure can help create a safe space for transgender students, and how my positionality gives me the opportunity and institutional safety to create that space for those students. Not every student who takes a class with me will feel comfortable sharing their identity with me, and they shouldn’t feel that they need to in order to succeed. My willingness to share is something I try to put forth as part of an open environment, so other students, whether they’re like Jane or the students who choose not to share their identity with the class, know that they are in a safe and respectful environment. I cannot minimize all of the risks for these students, but I can at the very least make it clear that if they choose to disclose their identities, they will have me on their side as a strong advocate for their choice. This advocacy need not be tied directly to the experience of transness, and rather stands as a potential best practice for instructors looking to create a safe and positive space for their trans students. Non-trans instructors can achieve this in as simple a manner as respecting a trans student’s pronouns and identity and speaking up against any pushback or negativity from other students. Support of transgender students involves cultivating a classroom of respect that can be enacted by non-trans instructors as readily as trans instructors.

Narratives of Disclosure: Some Current Conclusions

I will never think that identity disclosure should be mandatory in the classroom. Instructors and students both have reasons to keep their identities to themselves, most significantly safety and comfort, and my goal in sharing my tactics and methods is not to suggest that disclosure is the best pedagogical practice for anyone. I engage in disclosure first and foremost because of my positionality: I am able to, I have the opportunity, and I have the safety to do so. This may change over time: I am very aware that my time as a PhD student is drawing to a close and things are likely to be different wherever my journey takes me in the future. At this point in time, I am able to use my own disclosure as a tool to create a classroom that is more inclusive and safe for my students, as well as create avenues for education and learning about new experiences. In my own experience, engaging in an openness with my students has led to an environment of mutual creativity and sharing of ideas that operates from a foundation of respect, and while not every classroom falls into these somewhat idealistic circumstances, the potential for those environments to exist and my ability to cultivate them as an instructor serves as an example of what disclosure can do in a pedagogical context.

Teaching should never be static, and how we engage with our students, classrooms, and material, is inextricably tied to our identities, circumstances, and disclosures. My creation of this coming out narrative has given me the opportunity to further interrogate the circumstances in which I—a transgender instructor—operate at an institutional and a personal level. Engaging with and writing about identity in this case has given me yet another opportunity to see a shift in how I view my gender, which I spent many years trying to center firmly in a masculine context in order to escape the strongly visible feminine presence I had been born with. My return, again and again, to the need to come out in each classroom I enter, each institution I attend and operate within, leads me to retread avenues of self-discovery, to continuously decenter and destabilize my view of who I am, to re-contextualize myself as a person and an instructor with every new experience. My transgender identity, which currently falls somewhere beyond the binary, will likely continue to shift and grow and evolve as I repeatedly return to the questions that face me at the beginning of every semester. My findings, particularly after the writing of this narrative, indicate the value of this practice, and reflect my views of pedagogy. It is my hope that sharing this narrative of how my transgender identity interplays with my pedagogy offers some insight into the opportunities and affordances instructors can find if they similarly interrogate their identities and see where their pedagogy and their material ways of being and seeming in the world intersect.


  1. While there is no one way to look “like a man”, my features at that point in my transition journey still read as traditionally feminine in most public contexts, leading to people most commonly perceiving me and (mis)gendering me as a woman.
  2. Passing in this context meaning I would be perceived as the gender I more closely align with (male) rather than the one I was assigned at birth (female) (Ginsberg 1996). The notion of passing is one problematized by its implication that a trans person who ‘passes’ is “getting away with something” by being perceived as their gender and serves to often center cisgender experiences of transness (Serano 176-179).
  3. Name changed for the sake of privacy.

Works Cited

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  • Neilsen, Elly-Jean, and Kevin G. Alderson. “Lesbian and Queer Women Professors Disclosing in the Classroom: An Act of Authenticity.” The Counseling Psychologist, Non-Traditional Teaching Special Issue, Vol. 42 No 8, 2014, pp. 1084-1107.
  • Patterson, G. “The Unbearable Weight of Pedagogical Neutrality: Religion and LGBTQ Issues in the English Studies Classroom.” Sexual Rhetorics, eds. Johnathan Alexander and Jacqueline Rhodes, Routledge, 2016, pp. 134-146.
  • Rawson, K.J and Cristan Williams. “Transgender*: The Rhetorical Landscape of a Term.” Present Tense, Vol. 3, Issue 2, 2014.
  • Serano, Julia. Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity. Seal Press, Berkeley, CA, 2007, 2016. Print.
  • Wolfe, Susan J. “Using the L-word: Coming Out in the Classroom.” Feminism & Psychology, Vol. 19, No. 2, 2009, pp. 181-185.
  • Wood, Laurie. “NOT A HETERO.” Cultural Studies, Vol. 19, No. 4, 2005, pp. 430-438.

Shutting Up: Cis Accountability in Trans Writing Studies Research

The context behind this essay is one of productive failure, I hope. In response to the CFP for this issue of Peitho, I submitted an article that pulled from an ongoing research project on how LGBTQ students write about their identities in academic writing assignments. After two rounds of revision, and in response to some trans friends’ and colleague’s suggestions, I pulled it from consideration as I realized my ideas were undercooked, at best, and potentially harmful to trans people, at worst. I assumed the article would be dead and buried, never to see the light of day, and was mourning my losses when the editors graciously offered me a chance to write about this process. I took their invitation for two major reasons. First, the field of Writing Studies could benefit from increased depictions of failed research and writing. Research is complicated, full of starts and stops, and disciplinary imperatives to make everything seem tidy and not “messy” miss an opportunity to allow others to learn from our mistakes (Rickley). As Driscoll et al. suggest, we need to “resist the narrative that good research is always successful research—rather, good research informs future studies” (Driscoll et al). My second reason builds off the first: to the extent that my messy research might inform future studies, I hope it will be by encouraging other cis researchers to hold themselves accountable, to know when to reconsider their own ideas, and to know when to shut up.

Accountability as a Cis Researcher

Trans students’ experiences in higher education have been examined in some depth (see Nicolazzo, Catalano, Jourian, Bilodeau, and Dugan, Kusel, and Simounet, among others), but to date there has been little work focused on how trans students navigate writing classrooms.1 While this gap should be filled, cis researchers should think deeply about whether we should be the ones to fill it. As M. Paz Galupo points out, there is already an overrepresentation of cis researchers writing about trans experiences, and cis people’s life experiences influence the directions their research takes. She states:

When conducting transgender-related research my experience as a cisgender woman shapes (a) the way I formulate research questions, (b) my evaluation and selection of measures, (c) the way I might phrase questions in an interview or survey, (d) the way potential participants regard my intentions as a researcher and their decision to participate or not, (e) the degree to which participants may share certain experiences or the language they use to communicate their experiences (Bender-Baird, 2008), (f) the way I interpret and frame my results, and (g) the way my research is regarded by others in the field based on my cis identity (as objective and relatively unbiased perhaps, or even as out of touch and insensitive). (1)

Some of these are problems that could be overcome with careful effort, and indeed Galupo’s solutions include deeply reading in trans studies and inviting input from trans collaborators and community members as part of the research process (2). The problem goes even deeper than that, however, as G Patterson’s writing on the problems of allyship in trans-related research points out.

Patterson says, “cisgender researchers stake their authority to speak on trans topics by deploying their identity as a trans ally,” which is a subject position enabled through the particular ways the “institutionalization of transgender studies has perhaps enabled allies to gain access to and personally (and unevenly) profit from trans spaces, people, and perspectives” (146-147). Patterson instead suggests cis researchers leave behind the concept of allyship to become “co-conspirators” (147) by “leveraging one’s privilege to call attention to (not only their own but also) readers’ complicity in intersectional forms of cissexist violence” (147) and “refusing to engage in any trans-related research that doesn’t materially benefit trans people” (148). They also describe co-conspirators as those who “actively seek opportunities to educate themselves and make themselves uncomfortable with what they think they know” (149), and “practice self-reflexivity to ensure they’re not engaging in scholarship that centers themselves while crowding out the voices of their trans colleagues and community members” (149). Beyond taking Patterson’s suggestions to be co-conspirators, I would also emphasize that cis researchers should: create research projects responsive to actual needs of trans people, rather than our assumptions; reconsider our ideas when trans people tell us to do so; and shut up, back off, and hold ourselves accountable without expecting credit.

Queer Methods Trans Methods

Queer theory’s uptake within Writing Studies has often focused on resisting the epistemologies and ideologies undergirding academic norms (Waite; Alexander and Rhodes; Banks). Building off this work, I was interested in how often students are encouraged to explore seemingly inappropriate topics like sex, sexuality, and desire in the academy. In my own experience as a gay student and scholar, I have often felt as though I couldn’t talk about my life in academic texts, or if I did I felt a need to filter my experiences through some theoretical perspective, like the time I presented a paper analyzing a Grindr hookup at a conference and the first audience question asked why I didn’t spend more time talking about Kenneth Burke instead. At the same time, I know some instructors do encourage their students to speak from personal experience in writing. I wanted to know: when do LGBTQ students feel empowered to discuss their identities and personal experiences in academic texts? When do they feel discouraged from doing so? And what do they write when given the opportunity?

Although I recruited many cis gay, lesbian, and bisexual students, the majority of interested participants I recruited described their gender in terms that fit under the larger “trans” umbrella, such as “trans,” “transgender, “assigned-female-at-birth genderqueer,” “non-binary,” “non-binary trans,” “transmasculine gender non-conforming,” and “unsure of my gender identity.” The responses they gave me in the initial interview suggested a flaw with my research questions. While the majority of the cis participants expressed a longing to write about their sexual identities, all of the trans participants expressed a greater deal of ambivalence or reluctance to explicitly write about either their sexualities or genders for class. Blair, for example, said he wouldn’t come out as transgender unless he knew for sure his instructor and classmates had “trans 101 basic knowledge.” Cass said they felt “fatigued” and “pressured” from constantly being the only person in class who critiques transphobia, and wanted professors to start doing that work instead. Oakley said they would be interested in writing about being nonbinary for their classes, but have felt too unsafe to do so, mentioning in depth how they were forced to peer review with a cis male student who routinely made transphobic comments. Another participant, Julian, talked about how he tries to gauge his classmates’ responses and body language when trans issues come up before deciding whether a class is safe for him to come out. My entire project, I realized, hinged on an assumption that students wanted to write about being LGBTQ in academic settings, but that academic norms or unhelpful instructors prevented them. What these participants suggested instead is that, even when given the opportunity by their instructors, trans students have good reason to be skeptical.

Had I been acting as a co-conspirator, I might have changed my focus to reflect my participants’ actual concerns: concerns about personal safety, and less about empowerment. I might have refocused my work to materially benefit trans people by reorienting my research toward helping teachers create safer classrooms. Instead, I chose focal participants who I thought might help me answer my original research questions. Aidan, a gay trans man and English major who describes himself as a “white, middle class atheist who was raised Catholic” interested me because he said during the interview that his trans identity comes out in subtle or implicit ways in his writing. He sent me 10 writing samples from different disciplines and I spent weeks reading, rereading, coding, and recoding his corpus. During our subsequent interviews, we discussed in depth the few times where he wrote about trans issues, such as a literature review he wrote about whether gender dysphoria should still be listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). He described his process of writing this piece by saying:

The class was abnormal psychology, so we were basically just studying different conditions that would be in the DSM. And I felt very comfortable with the teacher…but as for my other classmates, I wasn’t really as comfortable with them. I do remember when we were going over gender dysphoria as a condition, we did have a guest speaker come in who was a trans man. So we did talk at length about transgender people. I don’t really remember specifics exactly, but I just remember not really feeling comfortable enough to come out. Not like anyone was saying anything outright derogatory, just I guess insulting stuff in a way that people don’t really realize it just because they didn’t understand things—that kind of situation. So I didn’t want to then say to that class full of people, “Hey, I’m trans too.”

While Aidan did not feel enabled come out explicitly in that classroom, it does not feel entirely appropriate to say he felt silenced from writing about his experiences either. He did write about gender dysphoria and the DSM, and in our interview he said “It was kind of presented as something objective and abstract from myself, but it was actually a really, really personal essay.” Where I had presumed a clear dichotomy between students being silenced and students being enabled, Aidan’s experience resisted this assumption; this resistance was echoed, in some way, by nearly all of the trans participants in my study.

With the gift of hindsight, I can see at least two mistakes I made in the research design: first, I assumed I could build a singular study that would make sense for all participants, uniting lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, and queer students under the acronym “LGBTQ.” Through my choice of questions and underlying assumptions, I was focused more on my interests and desires (for students to challenge academic norms through reference to personal experience) when trans participants were telling me their needs were different (the need to be safe in a potentially hostile classroom context). Second, I did not spend much time researching the best methods for working with trans participants. I did read extensively on queer research methods, but as Banks, Cox, and Dadas make abundantly clear in their collection Re/Orienting Writing Studies: Queer Methods, Queer Projects, queer methods are not necessarily or even preferably about working with LGBTQ participants. Rather, queer methods are about using queer theory as an epistemological orientation to counter a “fundamentally conservative strain in our field that has failed to recognize queer theories as important to our collective (and very broad) work with language and composition” (10). Nevertheless, I thought I would be able to be respectful and ethical when writing about LGBTQ students since I have been an active member of queer activist, academic, and social communities for the entirety of my adult life. It is more obvious to me now that, rather than queer methods of research, my project needed trans methods. At the very least, qualitative research oriented towards the larger LGBTQ community needs to be much more precise than I was in theorizing the connection that runs among the different identities in the acronym.

Allyship and Interpretation

Despite what seems now to be obvious flaws in my research design, I continued with the project and tried my best to position myself as an ally to Aidan, Blair, Julian, Oakley, Afs, Taylor, Bailey, Cass, and all of the other trans participants who agreed to be part of the study. I tried to build relationships with them, with reasonable expectations for their participation throughout, keeping in mind their positionality and vulnerability as students (see Kirsch). While case studies would not allow me to build a comprehensive theory of how LGBTQ students engage with academic writing, I could offer up close and inductive examinations of particular students to show the rhetorical choices they made in specific contexts. If nothing else, I felt reasonably sure I would be portraying my participants ethically.

The due date for this special issue was perfectly timed for my career: the summer before I went on the job market. I rushed to get the article on Aidan done, gave it a fancy title, submitted it, and put an “under review” line on my CV. Initially titled “Academic Normativities and the Possibility of Agency: Lessons from a Trans Student,” the piece used close readings of Aidan’s writing samples and interview transcripts to interrogate how Writing Studies has configured the relationship between rhetorical agency and academic discourse norms. The peer reviewers’ reports kindly suggested I eschew my larger argument about normativity, and instead focus on the real disciplinary contribution I could provide: an extensive study of one trans student’s experiences, with a focus on what trans students can teach us about the teaching of writing and about higher education more generally.

With an invitation to revise, and the reviewer’s suggestions in mind, I extensively changed the article, retitled it “Rhetorical Masking: A Case Study of a Trans Student’s Engagement with Academic Discourse,” and resubmitted. This version focused on how Aidan juggled his own personal goals as a writer with the separate but related pressures of academic genre and discourse norms, on the one hand, and transphobic or trans-ignorant classmates and instructors, on the other. Out of Aidan’s data, I developed a few rhetorical concepts I thought were pretty nifty to describe how he was able to achieve his own goals as a writer without exposing himself to potential harm. The central concept, which I called “rhetorical masking,” described ways Aidan used a seemingly distant voice to cover—or mask—his political commitments through invoking what he saw as generic and neutral features of academic discourse.

After a few weeks, I received the editors’ suggestions. The article, they claimed, was almost ready but still needed a few tweaks before publishing. The two major suggestions they asked me to reconsider were how I was describing my own accountability as a cis researcher, and whether my descriptions of Aidan’s rhetorical choices were positioning him negatively, as a duplicitous or somehow deceptive writer. This second point stumped me a bit. The editors were not asking me to change my concepts entirely, but to think about how I was packaging them and what connotations they suggested. In my desire to be an ally to Aidan, I focused on reading him agentively, instead of thinking more broadly and critically examining how my argument might circulate or be taken up. What might the larger implications for the trans community be? I sat with the editors’ suggestions for a few days, stuck and uncertain of what to do. On the one hand, I could change my description of Aidan’s rhetorical choices, to put them into more obviously positive terms, but the underlying idea would be the same, and so doing this would just be putting a sheen over a potentially problematic concept. Or, I could recreate the concept altogether and try to make something that couldn’t be interpreted negatively. It wouldn’t be the same article, but at least I’d have something, some publication to show for this process.

I am lucky to have a network of trans friends and colleagues—some of whom are scholars, but most of whom are not. I talked with a few of them about Aidan and whether I should try to argue back with the editors, find a new publication venue, or just give up entirely. They encouraged me to go back to my data, to see if I could come up with a new and better argument. They asked me to consider whether the world really needs a cis scholar writing about how a trans student masks himself. In other words: they supported the editors’ comments and were telling me to change my path. And when I went back to my data I realized, all of my interpretations were drenched throughout with assumptions born out of my own ignorance. The only way to hold myself accountable, then, was to shut up and move on.


When I refer to “shutting up” as a way of being accountable, I mean an intentional silence after realizing one’s own mistakes. Intentional silence is neither an act of allyship nor is it co-conspiratorial, although it has shades of both. It should instead be an expectation all cis researchers anticipate as a potential outcome of the research process. Obviously, it’s better to not make mistakes like I did in the first place by engaging deeply with trans scholarship, by only doing projects that materially benefit trans people, and by collaborating with trans scholars and participants. But as mistakes do and will happen, cis researchers need to be prepared to shut up. I am not saying that cis researchers should not write about trans issues. In some circumstances, we should. In some circumstances, our silence is harmful. But, I would encourage all cis researchers to deeply consider whether they need to speak on trans experiences and to ask themselves why. How is our speaking helping trans people?  And how are we holding ourselves accountable if we have the potential to cause harm—intentional or not?

At the same time, I do not want to position intentional silence as some sort of noble sacrifice. It’s not, and cis researchers should not see it as such. In my case, I risked very little by pulling my article from consideration when I did. I pulled the article a few weeks after signing a contract for a tenure-track position, at a time when I no longer needed a CV line to apply for jobs. Had the timing been a little different, would I have been so willing to shut up and move on?

I hope so, but cis researchers with a lot to lose by shutting up need to be prepared to do so. Even if our silence does pose a risk, the risk for the trans community of us getting it wrong is higher.


  1. Kimberly Drake’s “Genderqueering Language at a ‘Women’s’ College” is an exception.

Works Cited

  • Alexander, Jonathan and Jacqueline Rhodes. “Queer: An Impossible Subject for Composition.” JAC, vol. 23, no. 1/2, 2011, pp. 177-206.
  • Banks, William P. “Written through the Body: Disruptions and ‘Personal’ Writing.” College English, vol. 66, no. 1, 2003, pp. 21-40.
  • Banks, William P., Matthew B. Cox, and Caroline Dadas. “Re/Orienting Writing Studies: Thoughts on In(queer)y.” Reorienting Writing Studies: Queer Methods, Queer Projects, edited by William P. Banks, Matthew B. Cox, and Caroline Dadas, Utah State UP, 2019, pp. 3-21.
  • Bilodeau, Brent. “Beyond the Gender Binary: A Case Study of Two Transgender Students at a Midwestern Research University.” Journal of Gay and Lesbian Issues in Education, vol. 3, Nov. 2004, pp. 29-44.
  • Catalano, D. Chase J. “’Trans Enough?’: The Pressures Trans Men Negotiate in Higher Education.” TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly, vol. 2, no. 3, Aug. 2015, pp. 411-430.
  • Drake, Kimberly. “Genderqueering Language at a ‘Women’s’ College.” The Writing Instructor, 2015.
  • Driscoll, Dana Lynn, Gwen Gorzelsky, Jennifer Wells, Carol Hayes, Ed Jones, and Steve Salchak. “Down the Rabbit Hole: Challenges and Methodological Recommendations in Researching Writing-Related Student Dispositions.” Composition Forum, vol. 30, 2017.
  • Dugan, John P., Michelle L. Kusel, and Dawn M. Simounet. “Transgender College Students: An Exploratory Study of Perceptions, Engagement, and Educational Outcomes.” Journal of College Student Development, vol. 53, no. 5, Sept./Oct. 2012, pp. 719-736.
  • Galupo, M. Paz. “Researching While Cisgender: Identity Considerations for Transgender Research.” International Journal of Transgenderism, 2017, pp. 1-2.
  • Jourian, T.J. “Trans*forming College Masculinities: Carving Out Trans*Masculine Pathways through the Threshold of Dominance.” International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, vol. 30, 2017, pp. 245-265.
  • Kirsch, Gesa. Ethical Dilemmas in Feminist Research: The Politics of Location, Interpretation, and Publication. SUNY P, 1999.
  • Nicolazzo, Z. Trans* in College: Transgender Students’ Strategies for Navigating Campus Life and the Institutional Politics of Inclusion. Stylus, 2017.
  • Patterson, G. “Entertaining a Healthy Cispicion of the Ally Industrial Complex in Transgender Studies.” Women & Language, vol. 41, no. 1, 2018, pp. 146-151.
  • Rickly, Rebecca. “Messy Contexts: Research as a Rhetorical Situation.” Digital Writing Research: Technologies, Methodologies, and Ethical Issues, edited by Heidi A. Mckee and Dànielle Nicole DeVoss, pp. 377-397. Hampton, 2007.
  • Waite, Stacey. Teaching Queer: Radical Possibilities for Writing and Knowing. U of Pittsburgh P, 2017.

Toward Trans Rhetorical Agency: A Critical Analysis of Trans Topics in Rhetoric and Composition and Communication Scholarship

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:

  1. popular culture,
  2. trans activism,
  3. trans rhetorical pedagogies, and
  4. trans rhetorical methodologies.

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 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.[1] 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.

Quantitative Research

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:

  1. 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).
  2. 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).
  3. 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.


  1. 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.
  2. The authors thank Chris Samson and Brett Ball for their research assistance with this article.

Works Cited

Happiness, Biopolitics, and Transmedicine’s Necessary Contradiction: Rhetorics of Normalcy and the Narratives of Gender Transition

Nothing, not even surgery, will grant me the mute simplicity of having always been a woman. I will live with this, or I won’t. That’s fine. The negative passions—grief, self-loathing, shame, regret—are as much a human right as universal health care, or food. There are no good outcomes in transition. There are only people, begging to be taken seriously.

—Andrea Long Chu, “My New Vagina Won’t Make Me Happy”

Experiential accounts of gender transition don’t often make it into the mainstream, and when they do, they tend to be framed as moments of celebratory visibility, emphasizing liberalism’s progress and the possibilities of technomedicine.1 While these sorts of accounts may offer certain opportunities for trans rhetors to engage with and contest misinformed or ill-intentioned perspectives, they also close off opportunities for more combative accounts.2 However, even when a combative and politically-charged account of gender transition does make it into a mainstream publication, trans advocates may not be entirely pleased. Such was the case when, in late 2018, trans writer and literary studies scholar Andrea Long Chu published an opinion essay in the New York Times detailing her experience of depression and anxiety that has accompanied her gender transition. Although it ultimately forwarded a trans-positive argument—that transmedicine has no ethical ground for denying or delaying transition-related care to anyone, even when the outcome is uncertain—many trans people responded to the essay with anger. In the context of transmedicine’s history of gatekeeping, as well as the current climate of renewed attacks on the legitimacy of trans life, these respondents expressed serious concern over the way that Chu frames the experience of transition. This framing, its context, and the concerned response to it will be the focal points of this article. I argue that the controversy over Chu’s essay indexes the broader problem of transmedicine’s biopolitical effects. That is, communicating in public about the experiences of being transgender is a fraught rhetorical endeavor because transmedicine, as it has emerged in the eurocolonial3 world, adopts the authority to define and describe the phenomena that make up trans life. Consequently, the act of articulating one’s own relation to the norms of transmedicine risks damaging the possibility for others to adopt those norms as viable goals—especially if that relation is an unhappy one.

The first section of this article establishes the theoretical context for my argument; I explain how I understand transmedicine as both a rhetorical and a biopolitical process, and I indicate how particular acts of clinical judgment embedded in this process serve to authorize or de-authorize particular bodies and experiences. In the second section, I give an overview of Chu’s argument, its context, and the response to it, and I introduce the relation between happiness and normalcy that I use in the following section. The third section conducts an analysis of the dominant narratives of trans life and transmedicine, which form the rhetorical and biopolitical context for the experience that Chu describes in her essay. In that section, I draw on research into the historical development of transmedicine in order to show how Chu’s argument (and the response to it) reveals a disconnection between the norms of transmedicine and the emergent ongoingness of transgender life. The concluding section poses this disconnection as a distinction between “need” and “demand”—that is, I end my argument by noting how Chu’s essay aims to put into question transmedicine’s basic practice of administering treatment based on judgments of needs and risks, rather than recognition of a demand for care. In sum, I argue that Chu’s essay represents neither a capitulation to transmedical norms nor an overly radical rejection of medical beneficence; rather, it represents a disclosure of transmedicine’s necessary contradiction, that is, the simultaneous acceptance of and intervention into the forms of trans life.

Rhetoric, Biopolitics, and Medical Judgment

Rhetoricians of health and medicine have argued that the force of rhetorical figuration in these disciplinary structures extends beyond what is typically understood as “health communication” or “medical texts.”4 That is, as Judy Z. Segal puts it, medicine “is also rhetorical as a system of norms and values” that forges and formulates the knowledge and experiences of patients, physicians, and medical personnel (3). This means that medical rhetorics are especially important as instances of epideictic rhetoric, the mode of rhetoric that makes arguments about what is good or bad in the shared present tense (i.e. norms and values).5 Karen Kopelson, in her 2019 article on the epideictic rhetoric of medical doctors’ writings on death and dying, asserts that the role of epideictic in medical rhetorics demands our attention precisely because of its normative force: “As the rhetoric that (re)consitutes what is praiseworthy and blameworthy in human conduct to (re)shape the basic codes of value and belief by which we live, epideictic rhetoric is inherently normative, and its practitioners invested with special authority and influence” (286). For medical rhetoricians, then, epideictic rhetoric can be seen as a particularly forceful mobilization of the doctor’s traditional authority. To analyze particular medical rhetorics as epideictic is thus to highlight and examine the way that the norms of health and medicine may double as social and ethical norms; tracing the way these norms emerge and take force in the world allows medical rhetoricians to evaluate the historical and political justifications for normalizing (as it were) health and medicine in such ways. In this article, I add to this body of work through a discussion of Chu’s essay and its relation to the historical and conceptual background of transmedicine—that is, the physiological, psychological, and technical knowledges that underwrite the medical facilitation of gender reassignment.6 By excavating some of the processes and problems through which transmedicine as it occurs today emerged (and continues to emerge), I analyze the way that it acts in the world as an array of epideictic rhetorical forces.

To be precise: by “epideictic rhetorical force,” I mean the circulation of values and norms that affect how particular people perceive good and bad within their own experience of the world.7 For my own purposes, then, I argue that rhetoric (and epideictic in particular) contributes to the emergence of people’s lives as such, making some actions and attitudes possible and others impossible. While I acknowledge this is a fairly radical claim to stake on behalf of rhetoric, locating rhetorical force in this way allows us to better understand (among other things) rhetorics of health and medicine. Segal argues, for instance, in her work on patient narratives as an epideictic genre, that the circulation of particular narrative frameworks (with particular plots, characters, themes, etc.) for describing the experience of particular health concerns has bearing on more than just one’s understanding of those experiences after the fact. Rather, she asserts, these narrative forms actively shape the way that those health concerns manifest for the people who encounter them. That is, such epideictic force places pressure on patients to not only “report experience” but also in fact to “interpret experience and even to experience experience in certain sorts of ways” (69). In the same way, the tropes and topoi that form transmedicine’s diagnostic and treatment models do more than just represent the experiences of its patients after the fact. Rather, this process participates in the emergence of that experience itself, such that the medical framing of trans patients is also a biopolitical forming of trans life.

By using the word “biopolitical,” I mean to suggest that trans politics—and debates over transmedicine in particular—addresses structural interventions into the forms of trans life. Transmedicine, as one instance of this, intervenes in trans life through the acts of judgment that make up its diagnostic and treatment models: for example, judgments of who is transgender, who is capable of undergoing what types of treatment, or what experiences indicate what kinds of prognoses or developmental progress. In that regard, not only transmedicine but contemporary medicine per se is fundamentally biopolitical, in the sense outlined by Nikolas Rose. He describes biopower as a form of intervening into “the vital characteristics of human existence”; in other words, biopower acts upon the material details of “human beings, individually and collectively, as living creatures who are born, mature, inhabit a body that can be trained and augmented, and then sicken and die” (The Politics of Life Itself 54).8 (This does not mean that medicine is bad because it is biopolitical; rather it means that medicine is an important venue for conflict over differing biopolitical valuations of life as such.) Biopolitics, then, refers to a variable set of methods and rationalities for understanding the lives of a particular set of people in a particular context, such that it becomes possible to orient those lives toward particular ends.9 By framing my rhetorical analysis as also an analysis of transmedicine’s biopolitical force, I am thus attuning to the ways that transmedicine forms, arranges, and narrates the vital capacities that make up trans life.

Recent discussions of the principle of “informed consent” in transmedicine may inadvertently reveal the extent to which biopolitical intervention serves as its implicit central purpose. In a 2016 overview of this principle as it pertains to transmedicine, Timothy Cavanaugh et al. explain that an informed consent model frames patient-clinician consultations not as diagnostic scenarios but as “discussion of risks and benefits of possible treatment options” in which “clinicians work to assist patients in making decisions.” In this way, the model attempts to depathologize trans identity and to counterbalance transmedicine’s history of paternalism. Thus, the authors assert that “[t]his approach recognizes that patients are the only ones who are best positioned, in the context of their lived experience, to assess and judge beneficence (i.e., the potential improvement in their welfare that might be achieved)” (1149). The intention behind the use of this principle is clearly well-meaning, as it seeks to center the experience and judgment of the trans people who seek care rather than that of clinicians. This can be especially helpful when put into practice by endocrinologists and surgeons, who otherwise typically do not offer care until a would-be patient has visited a psychologist or psychiatrist and has received a letter authorizing the legitimacy of the person’s gender dysphoria and lack of psychiatric contraindications. Replacing psychiatric gatekeeping with an informed consent process can indeed make seeking care easier and more accessible.

However, in their ethnographic work on transmedicine, stef shuster has found that there are often discrepancies between the theory and the practice of this informed consent process. They explain that some of the clinicians participating in their research “followed the informed consent process to a degree, but modified it by including an assessment to determine if a patient had the capacity to understand the information offered or was ready to make the decision to begin trans-specific interventions” (“Performing Informed Consent” 192). This suggests that as clinicians apply this ideal in their practice, it tends to morph into “a conditional concept that is qualified by a provider’s assessment of a patient having the capacity to offer consent” (193). By drawing on implicit norms of who may offer consent to care on their own behalf and who may not, clinicians who interpret the process this way have only replaced one type of gatekeeping with another.10 So, even in the context of informed consent guidelines, clinicians are oriented by the very structure of their medical authority toward making judgments about who should receive treatment and who shouldn’t.

What this dynamic indicates, then, is that transmedicine tends toward adopting the role of evaluating its patients’ capacity for affirming their own gender (or their capacity for evaluating their own capacity for affirming it). That is, the medical authority that transmedicine enacts is not simply a matter of making judgments about who deserves care and who doesn’t; rather, and more fundamentally, transmedicine enacts biopolitical authority by making judgments about the form of trans life. As an array of epideictic forces, the structures of transmedicine circulate particular sets of assumptions about what is good, healthy, and normal, and through this circulation they repeatedly translate those assumptions into the real, material forms of experience that are available to the patients, clinicians, and care workers who participate in those structures.11 And this is what biopolitical intervention consists of: evaluating a form of life, making a judgment about the goodness or badness of that form’s trajectory, and posing a strategy of influence based on that judgment. As a medicalization of trans life, then, transmedicine does not oppose trans life per se; rather, it acts upon trans life in order to bend it toward the norms of cisgender life. These norms—upon which clinicians make their judgments of readiness, beneficence, risk, and capacity for understanding and consent—are intended to promote what transmedicine’s model of beneficence understands as its patients’ happiness. And thus these are the norms that Chu resists in her essay when she disavows the “happy ending” of transmedicine.

The Controversy: “My New Vagina Won’t Make Me Happy”

Chu’s essay was published on the New York Times website on November 24, 2018, with the title “My New Vagina Won’t Make Me Happy.”12 Almost immediately, it sparked an outcry from both the online trans community itself as well as the anti-trans coalition of right-wing culture warriors and trans-exclusionary radical feminists. Trans women objected to Chu’s characterization of hormonal and surgical transition as fundamentally painful processes. Anti-transgender respondents, meanwhile, objected to her assertion that medical gatekeeping was unethical and ought to be reversed in favor of a demand-based paradigm. More supportive responses simply noted the difficulty of adequately representing trans experiences in the mainstream press, even when those experiences are autobiographical. Some trans writers who identified with Chu’s sense of frustration toward the norms of medicalized transition responded with their own accounts of distress and uncertainty in the midst of more joyful coming out narratives. Other trans advocates countered by asserting their own experience of (or research into) transmedicine’s effectiveness in achieving good outcomes.13 Advocates and researchers also questioned her apparent dismissal of data that suggests trans people generally become happier as they get further into their transitions.14 The central premise of Chu’s argument—that “happiness” and “good outcomes” were, in any case, dubious standards on which to base a truly gender-diversity-affirming model of care—tended to be overlooked as respondents objected to the more contrarian aspects of her essay’s ethos and framing.

In particular, trans writers expressed concern that Chu had simply chosen the wrong words and the wrong venue for her argument. The mainstream readership of the New York Times, such writers asserted, is already prone to be skeptical of radical claims to transgender rights. While trans representation in this context is therefore much needed, a “reckless” and “confusing representation of trans experience is nevertheless, they suggested, ultimately harmful. For example, Florence Ashley writes that the essay “can be very easily and very reasonably read as saying that surgeries don’t contribute to trans wellbeing,” a reading that would potentially provide “excuses to defund trans care”; while they agree with Chu’s overall point and recognize the value of her story, they suggest that “just because a story needs to be told doesn’t mean it needs to be told this way, here.” Similarly, Kai Cheng Thom points out that, despite Chu’s excellent critique of the medicalization of trans life, her dismissal of outcomes research leaves a rhetorical vulnerability that anti-trans voices are already taking advantage of. This dismissal of evidence-based perspectives, she writes, “makes her argument grievously incomplete, not to mention especially vulnerable to manipulation by prominent conservatives like Ben Shapiro and Erick Erickson, who have cited the piece as evidence that trans identity is both a mental disorder and a harmful ‘ideology.’” These critiques are well-founded. Chu’s argument is a risky one to make, not only on her own behalf but for the trans community at large. However, her argument (and the response to it) is instructive for scholars of transgender rhetorics because it reveals the significance of happiness (as an expression of—or a criteria for—a state of normalcy) within the rhetorical dynamic between trans life and transmedicine.

Happiness and the Authorized Narratives of Trans Life

Chu situates her argument in opposition to both the straightforwardly anti-transgender narrative alleging that “gender dysphoria is a clinical delusion” and (what she calls) its “liberal counternarrative.” That is, she contests mainstream accounts of trans life that equate transgender identity with “suffering” and equate transmedicine with “a duty to ease that suffering.” She singles out, in particular, a June 2018 article written by Jesse Singal that centers on, as Chu puts it, “the statistically small number of people who have come to regret their medical transitions”—which, she argues, is simply a form of “compassion-mongering,” or “peddling bigotry in the guise of sympathetic concern.” Singal argues that parents and clinicians should be more skeptical of children’s and adolescents’ assertions of trans identity because (he suggests) childhood and adolescence are themselves periods of psychological fluidity and change. The primary evidence he presents for this claim is a set of cases in which adolescents identified themselves as trans, began (or considered beginning) treatment, and later “detransitioned.” Rather than addressing his misrepresentations of actual treatment protocols for transgender youth (which other trans writers were quick to point out at the time15), Chu instead critiques Singal for buying into the most retrograde facet of the standard treatment model: the gatekeeping strategies that prioritize “good outcomes” over access to transition-related care.

This counterargument leads into Chu’s assertion that the primary assumption of mainstream narratives of transmedicine is that “[p]eople transition because they think it will make them feel better.” This assumption, Chu says, is simply incorrect. To illustrate this, she describes her experience of her own ongoing medical transition, which she paints as “a marshland of regret” that has increased her dysphoria and prompted suicidal ideation. Chu’s intentions regarding these assertions and descriptions are clear: she wishes to force her readers to acknowledge that ambivalence and distress are not limited to the “before” of gender transition, and that to pretend those affects (or their absence) can reliably serve as a measure of need for (or success of) treatment will only ultimately serve a gatekeeping function. This is a trans-affirmative argument, and not meant to be self-hating or self-serving, but it was this specific argument that sparked the objections among the trans community. By claiming that “[t]here are no good outcomes in transition,” these responses countered, Chu delegitimized the experiences of the many trans people who did feel satisfied with their medical transitions. This is a reasonable and important critique of Chu’s argument. However, the tenor of the responses often strayed past a straightforward rejection of the implication that transition is a necessarily painful process, to a full-throated defense of the medical community and its standards, and even to questions over Chu’s mental health or the stability of her hormone levels. The suggestion that Chu’s description of her own experience reveals a need for further medical or psychiatric intervention fails to live up to the expressed principle of valuing trans people’s own descriptions of their transitions. Moreover, this extreme response itself buys into the premise that Chu is critiquing: that transition care must be based on a model of medical beneficence, in which the duty of the medical discipline requires an authoritative judgment of the patient’s needs that trumps her own assertions.

It’s too simple to suggest that such objections are merely a false-consciousness-type uptake of mainstream transmedical narratives. As Dean Spade points out, the relation between trans patients and medical practitioners is necessarily structured by such narratives. He argues that this relation is formed in part by “the long-standing practice amongst gender variant people of strategically deploying medically-approved narratives in order to obtain body-alteration goals” (“Mutilating Gender” 316). In this context, the “happiness” of medical transition that Chu disavows is both a product of the medical gatekeeping she decries and a genuine goal for many if not most trans people (one that may be achievable by mimicking, in some way, the normal trajectory of an approach toward that happiness). That doesn’t make trans people dishonest or inauthentic—on the contrary, both cis and trans lives are capacitated by biopolitical structures that orient us toward various “happy endings.” There’s no outside to biopower, only different strategies of directing and making use of it.16Furthermore, trans people have a legitimate need to monitor the rhetorics that frame our existence, and claiming our story as a happy one is one strategy for that.

Underlying this controversy, then, is a conflict over the narratives that capacitate trans life, that make transgender lives recognizable as real and possible lives. This conflict occurs because of the contradictions of normalcy and pathology, concepts which (in the context of biopower) structure both medical practice and social organization, leading to an overdetermined relation between claims about bodily health and judgments about the proper distribution of power and resources.17 As an element of gender, this overdetermination leads to an imbalance of scientific and technocratic interest in bodies that exhibit gender variance. Spade explains: “Containing gender distress within ‘transsexualism’ functions to naturalize and make ‘healthy’ dichotomized, birth-assigned gender performance. It casts a critical eye on the gender performance of those transgressing gender boundaries, and produces a norm that need not be criticized” (“Mutilating Gender” 319). Thus the clinicians who administer transition care adopt norms of expression and experience—not only proper gender performance, but proper orientation toward gendered happiness—as criteria for making judgments about how trans life ought to take form in relation to the normal. It’s no wonder, then, that trans people feel a need to resist rhetorics that associate trans life with pathology, pain, and suffering. But this also means that in order to capacitate and legitimize their bodies and lives, trans people have (understandably, necessarily) relied on that same force of normalcy. This contradiction is itself foundational to transmedicine’s understanding of its own beneficence.

Patient Narratives and Affective Norms

The assumption that Chu points out—“People transition because they think it will make them feel better”—roughly corresponds to the central tenet of the liberal turn in transmedicine.18 When the third edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders was released in 1980, it included a revised entry for the transsexual diagnosis, using the term “gender identity disorder” for the first time and adding criteria regarding “the degree to which one experiences distress from living with one’s natal sex” alongside the more traditional concern over separating out the “true” transsexuals from those who were “merely” sexually-motivated cross-dressers. As Jodie M. Dewey and Melissa M. Gesbeck explain in their article on diagnosis in transmedicine, this change in framing shifted the locus of attention from variations of gendered behavior and expression to “the stress caused by gender variation” (48, emphasis in original). Hence the shift in diagnostic terminology from the residues of a physiological paradigm (“gender incongruence”) to a more psychosocial one (“gender dysphoria”).

Yet despite this emphasis on relieving patients’ distress instead of enforcing behavioral norms, the liberal “gender dysphoria” paradigm of transmedicine nevertheless enforces norms of affect. By defining its diagnosis and its successful treatment less by expression and more by experience, this more current paradigm of transmedicine frames trans identity as a transition of attitudes, from self-denial to self-acceptance. And while this transition narrative certainly matches the life experience of many trans people, centering such a narrative on affective transformation places “normalcy” in a regulatory relation to “happiness,” and vice versa. As Sara Ahmed suggests in her work on figures and figurations of happiness and unhappiness, philosophical and psychological models of “the good” tend to frame happiness as an end that orients the action of those who strive for it (Promise of Happiness 22-26).19 Using phenomenological terminology developed in her earlier work,20 Ahmed describes the relation between the circulation of such models and the formation of social norms that draw distinctions between acceptable and unacceptable affective states. In particular, she argues that shared beliefs about what happiness is and how it occurs exert a normative force on the experience of happiness itself: “If the same objects make us happy—or if we invest in the same objects as if they make us happy—then we would be directed or oriented in the same way” (38). Conversely, being “out of line” with shared objects of affective involvement results in experiences of alienation or even exclusion (41). The notion of “happiness,” Ahmed explains, thus functions as both an orienting point and a criterion for making judgments about the orientations of others, judgments which may well help shape the experiences of orienting in one way or another, such that “the promise of happiness is located as well as distributed” (45). In this way, the narrativization of happy outcomes serves as a powerful species of epideictic rhetoric, circulating forms of experience that tighten the alignment between orienting oneself toward normalcy and participating in shared feelings of pleasure, fulfillment, and contentedness. The achievement of such happiness thus may depend on whether or not one’s life lines up more or less neatly with these forms.

In a medical context, this force of affective norming takes an especially significant role in forming the tropes and expectations of being a patient. As Segal asserts, standardized narratives of patient experience do not only retrospectively frame experience but actively form experience, such that genres of patient narrative create a “generic groove” that orients patients’ experiences and sensations toward particular values and particular ends (69). Like grooves in a footpath, narratives of particular health concerns—gender transition among them—become more deeply embedded the more they are used, which itself encourages further use. Indeed, Ahmed makes the same point with regard to objects and orientations that line up in neat and normative ways: “Lines are both created by being followed and are followed by being created.” She thus suggests that we may understand such lines, such epideictic “grooves,” as “performative” in that “they depend on the repetition of norms and conventions” (Queer Phenomenology 16). In the case of transmedicine, not only has the authorized narrative of patient experience been elevated to the status of a diagnostic model (“gender dysphoria” that must be relieved through medical intervention); the “happy ending” of this narrative has itself become a criterion for judgments of whether and how to enact care. Consequently, the groove of the authorized transmedical narrative of patient experience becomes worn deeper and deeper the more it is used to adjudicate and administer the distribution of care, and in turn the individuals who make up trans life collectively perceive more and more intensely the assumed necessity of transmedical care as a pathway to a happy future.

Normalcy, Narrative, and Transmedicine

By refusing to describe her transition in resolutely happy terms, then, Chu cuts across—and in this way reveals—the grooves that form transmedicine’s authorized patient narrative. In particular, she shows how the norms of cisgender life structure this narrative and the expectations for gender reassignment that it forwards. Her own experience of transition, then, has been colored by sensing her own deviation from those norms. Explaining that her dysphoria has actually increased since beginning her hormonal transition, she indicates that this manifests as a hyperawareness of her difference from other women: “I now feel very strongly about the length of my index fingers—enough that I will sometimes shyly unthread my hand from my girlfriend’s as we walk down the street. When she tells me I’m beautiful, I resent it. I know what beautiful looks like. Don’t patronize me.” In a particularly controversial passage, she writes: “Until the day I die, my body will regard the vagina as a wound; as a result, it will require regular, painful attention to maintain.” Respondents pointed out that this was not accurate—the neovagina does in fact heal, and although there is some discomfort involved in caring for it post-surgically, it’s really not reasonable to refer to it as a permanent wound.21

But taken together these passages suggest that Chu’s frustration with the “liberal counternarrative” of transmedicine is also a frustration with the commonsense notion that transgender bodies ought to match up with, transform into, or otherwise become indistinguishable from cisgender bodies. And to be clear, becoming frustrated with this notion is not the same as depriving it of its force. On the contrary, this is exactly how norms work: a norm exerts its force whether or not you are paying attention to whether or how it is exerting that force. As Chu herself puts it an earlier essay, titled “On Liking Women,” “Transsexual women don’t want bottom surgery because their personal opinion is that a vagina would look or feel better than a penis. Transsexual women want bottom surgery because most women have vaginas” (emphasis in original).22 Rhetorics of normalcy are thus affectively baked into gender transition. As Ahmed might put it, transition promises the happy ending of being (or at least feeling) normal, and in this way, the protocols of gender reassignment rely on the norms of one or the other binary gender. Whether or not a particular trans person identifies with a particular gender norm, then, is immaterial to the force of that norm on that person’s experience of transition—if only because the disidentification with this particular norm puts this person “out of line” (in Ahmed’s terms) with the shared affective investment of gendered belonging (The Promise of Happiness 41). The groove is there, inertly disrupting movements transversal to it.

Just as Segal suggests of patient narratives in general, then, transition narratives imply epideictic rhetorics of how to “experience experience” (69) by engaging with and redeploying norms of (among other things) affect. In the particular biopolitical context of trans life, these experiential norms circulate between and among the spheres of transmedicine and the trans community at large. Such norms do not necessarily emerge from transmedicine directly, but its function as an access point for care means that transmedicine wields disproportionate epideictic rhetorical force, amplifying the reach and effects of such norms. Thus the historical emergence of transmedicine’s diagnostic concepts and treatment protocols exhibits a tendency toward adopting and solidifying whatever norms are most ready to hand, in order to ensure the quickest and easiest demarcation of the normal from the pathological.

Narratives of Passing-As

As indicated above, before its liberal turn transmedicine did not emphasize experience directly, but rather oriented its clinical attention toward more “external” factors such as behavior and appearance. This tended to mean that clinicians, even when they were relatively open to the notion of gender reassignment, operated under a hermeneutic of suspicion (as it were): their reliance on behavior and appearance encouraged clinicians to believe that they could nevertheless distinguish between the “true” and “false” patients. That is, patients were sorted into various pathological categories that posited different diagnoses and prognoses, and only some were actually eligible for a “complete” transition (regardless of what the patients themselves asserted). Thus Dallas Denny suggests, in her retrospective account of the university-housed “gender identity clinics” that opened up in the 1960s and 70s, that the fundamental goals and assumptions of this treatment paradigm were directly opposed to the intentions of the patients. The clinics’ interests, she explains, were research-based and oriented toward “last-ditch” interventions, since their model of gender identity assumed that only the most entrenched and desperate cross-gendered-identifications could hold together through the process of transition. They also prioritized the ability to pass as cisgender, so much so that clinicians “were prone to assume that anyone whose presentation was not strikingly that of the gender of choice were not good candidates,” while “drag queens and street hustlers, who were generally skilled at appearing as women,” were more likely to be accepted for treatment (12).23 In addition, the research goals of the clinics often meant that patients were pressured to give up their privacy and autonomy and even adapt their lives to the specifications of the accepted treatment narrative: “Those who did not restructure their lives according to the demands of the clinician (changing jobs, divorcing spouses) were subject to punishment by expulsion from the program” (17). The use of particular behavioral and experiential norms to restrict access to transition care thus resulted in the conceptual distillation and rhetorical amplification of particular narratives of what constituted a “true” trans identity. The restrictions of the transmedical narrative consequently served as restrictions of who, within the ongoing emergence of trans life in the world at large, could assume the orientation that aligned with the norms of a gendered narrative and its happy ending.

These narratives, then, occupy an ambivalent place in the emergence of trans life—while they offer a restricted account of what it means to be trans (and thus who gets to be “trans”), they also provided tropes and topoi that gave rise to trans autobiographical narratives such as the ones that Jay Prosser analyzes in his landmark study Second Skins. He argues that the circulation of autobiographical narratives of “transsexuality” provided a fundamental venue for the emergence of trans identity out of more disparate feelings of alienation or loss: “Indeed, for the transsexual even to discover the possibility of transsexuality—to transform it from private fantasy to realizable identity plot—takes place ‘in’ narrative. To learn of transsexuality is to uncover transsexuality as a story and to refigure one’s own life within the frame of that story” (124). However, as he goes on to explain, this same reliance on narrative has come to structure diagnosis as well as personal identification. Thus the emphasis within mid-century transmedicine (extending to some degree into the more “liberal” period) on a consistent and recognizable account of “strong, early, and persistent transgendered identification” (101). Further, this clinical use of autobiography means that some patients’ stories must be judged as incorrect, or at least not good enough. As Prosser puts it, “[t]he diagnosis acts as a narrative filter, enabling some transsexuals to live out their story and thwarting others” (107).24 This suggests that the emergence of “transsexual” as a coherent, public identity itself required a certain slippage between the clinical narratives that defined trans life pathologically and the autobiographical narratives that trans people have used to define themselves. The epideictic form of trans autobiography—parasitically promising access to the gendered happiness placed within transmedicine’s diagnostic restrictions—thus forwards its own norms, wearing a groove in the collective experience of trans life. Although such narrative forms provide the necessary rhetorical vectors for “transgender” to circulate as an identity, they also necessarily contribute to the distinctions between those lives that are recognizably “transgender” and those that are not. And in the context of contemporary biopower, those distinctions often form along the lines of other biopolitical vectors, such as race, class, nationality, and mobility.

Narratives of Passing-Over

Chu notes the difficulty of describing dysphoria to someone who has never experienced it, and she wields some poetic figurations that gesture toward a feeling of discomfort, aloneness, and incompleteness—“hunger without appetite,” for example, or “grieving” while “having nothing to grieve.” One of these figurations evokes the feeling of suspended movement: “It feels like getting on an airplane to fly home, only to realize mid-flight that this is it: You’re going to spend the rest of your life on an airplane.” It’s a striking metaphor because, as many have pointed out, the very term “transgender” implies a reference to travel and mobility—“trans”-as-across, movement across a space or period of time. In mainstream accounts of trans identity, however, this movement is typically framed as finished, not suspended.25 Aren Z. Aizura argues that the function of such travel/mobility tropes is to contain “gender indeterminacy,” that is, to assert the fundamental normalcy of cisgender life by framing gender transition as happening “elsewhere”—thus “[t]he border between genders is figured as liminal and impossible space” (39). Chu’s evocation of living in a suspended “elsewhere,” then, subverts the typical transition-as-arrival narrative, even as she laments the discomfort of this experience.

Figuring gender reassignment as a “movement” or “journey” allows trans individuals to perceive their transition in terms of progressive development, but it also suggests a metaphysical “crossing over” from one side of an essential binary to the other. On the one hand, this trope of “crossing” has been taken up by many transgender writers and speakers as a way of articulating the experience of transition. On the other hand, framing transition as a form of movement through space indicates the close relation between one’s relative ability to pass “between” gender norms and one’s ability to appear as a normative figure along other biopolitical vectors. To illustrate this, Aizura refers to Christine Jorgensen, who has traditionally been considered the central patient figure of transmedicine’s emergence in mid-twentieth-century America. He explains that Jorgensen necessarily also serves in this capacity as a figure of whiteness, economic privilege, and physical mobility26—especially considering the transnational scope of her transition. Unable to find doctors in America willing to facilitate a gender reassignment surgery, she travelled to Denmark and lived there for several years, undergoing surgery at a Copenhagen clinic and returning triumphantly to America as a fully realized transsexual woman. As Aizura puts is, “To place this story at the center of transgender history privileges whiteness and the imperative of social mobility, as well as an imperialist division of the world into a national here and a colonial elsewhere” (32, emphasis in original). An identification with particular figures of mobility and relative normalcy such as Jorgensen, then, has tended to marginalize all but the most privileged members of the trans community. Not only does this obscure the variety and unpredictability of trans life’s ongoing emergence; this orientation toward narratives of normalcy also threatens to redouble that marginalization through a process of affective norming—wearing the grooves of the authorized transition narrative even deeper.

The highly visible, highly mobile norm of the white, eurocolonial, binary-to-binary, able-bodied and neurotypical transgender person thus heightens the vulnerability of trans people who differ from that norm. And although this is not solely reducible to transmedicine’s history of restricting access to care, that history (and its contemporary echoes) is a fundamental part of the sheer force with which normalcy warps the way that trans lives occur. The force of this history ought to provide context for Chu’s rejection of “good outcomes” reasoning: even while she herself has a highly visible, highly mobile body with access to transition care, the norms of the transmedicine’s authorized narratives have diminished the range of possible trajectories of her life’s ongoingness. And for those with less visible, less mobile, less materially supported bodies than Chu’s, the diminishment wrought by these norms has been further refracted through systemic diminishment along other biopolitical vectors. The goal of arguments such as Chu’s, then, is not to demand a better future, a different (happier) ending, but rather to demand a different form of relation to the present’s ongoingness. That is, the gambit here is an epideictic one—to jar or jam the replication of norms that result in a restricted narrative of how trans people experience their own present happiness or unhappiness.

Conclusion: On Demand

Interestingly, Chu’s boldest claim went unremarked upon by all but her most antagonistic interlocutors. That claim, I would argue, is her assertion that the administration of transmedical care ought to require nothing but asking for it: “I believe that surgery’s only prerequisite should be a simple demonstration of want. Beyond this, no amount of pain, anticipated or continuing, justifies its withholding.” The trans advocates who responded negatively to the essay apparently did not see this claim as particularly controversial, perhaps because they were more irked by Chu’s discussion of happiness and treatment outcomes. But in right-wing and anti-transgender outlets, this element of Chu’s essay struck a chord, in that it served as evidence that “transgender ideology” was antisocial, perverse, and/or insane because trans people wanted medical treatment “on demand.” For instance, The Federalist’s Libby Emmons argues that the logic of Chu’s argument would seem to imply that “doctors are merely client fulfillment specialists” who must abdicate the authority of their expertise, such that “[a]nything we can dream, a doctor can be compelled to perform.” The thrust of such an argument, Emmons claims, is the abandonment of all socially reasonable limits to the use of biomedical knowledge and technology; the thrust of Emmons’ argument, I would say, is thus to suggest that people who are trans (especially trans women) would be better off getting their heads examined than demanding surgery. This response is intriguing for a couple reasons. First, in the history of transmedicine, demand actually predates dysphoria as an indicator of trans identity. That is, before the broader shift toward affective criteria such as dysphoria in the 1980s, clinicians typically regarded “patient demand for sex-change surgery” as the fundamental diagnostic criterion (Billings and Urban 270). On the one hand, this simply corresponded to the way in which the patients appeared as patients—there was no test or syndrome that would result in a person being referred to a gender clinic, only those who wrote letters inquiring about (or, indeed, demanding) the possibility of a medicalized “sex change.” On the other hand, as both supporters and critics of transmedicine have pointed out, attuning to patient demand was a good way of countering the possibility of allowing transition care for those who had “perverse wishes for self-destruction” or were merely (in this framework) “an effeminate homosexual or a transvestite.” Given these risks, “the best indicator of transsexualism was the intensity of a patient’s desire for surgery” (271).

Of course, one effect of framing trans identity as a function of “demand” was the formation of a fundamentally skeptical attitude toward the individuals voicing that demand. Since clinicians ultimately lacked a surefire method of knowing who was “really” transgender, the best option was to simply limit the availability of care, so that the people who worked to put themselves in the position of patient could be viewed as already vetted (as it were) by the sheer difficulty and frustration of getting that far. In the contemporary paradigm, this concern for certainty remains, though clinicians no longer make judgments based on the (perceived) intensity of patients’ demands. Instead, because transmedicine now frames itself as a respond to a need, clinicians assess certainty directly, as an affective criterion.27 By emphasizing “need” rather than “demand,” then, the current paradigm of transmedicine attempts to sidestep the question of desire with regard to medical intervention. This question has gained new salience, Rose suggests, in the context of contemporary biomedicine, in which “[t]he old lines between treatment, correction, and enhancement can no longer be sustained” (The Politics of Life Itself 17). Hence the second reason why the specter of “on demand” care is intriguing: as an element of anti-trans rhetorics, it draws on and gives voice to this deeper anxiety over preserving the allegedly natural distinction between necessary and unnecessary care. Indeed, Emmons bears this out in her article, which posits that Chu’s experience of “cosmetic” surgical treatment “gives the distinct impression that the surgery is not medically necessary.” In consequence, she claims, Chu has revealed the flawed reasoning behind support for trans care: “Without a medically beneficial reason, what is the reason for allotting these medical resources away from medically necessary care?” As indicated above, this is exactly the sort of argument that many trans respondents feared Chu’s piece would provoke. Further, as Rose asserts with regard to biomedicine more broadly, even though any argument positing such a “distinction between treatment and enhancement” is ultimately “bound to fail,” these arguments still point to the intractability of conflict over “what we might legitimately desire and what desires might legitimately be denied” (104).

And this conflict leads us back once again to the rhetorical relation between happiness and biopower. After all, if Ahmed is correct that affective norms suggest “happiness is what you get in return for desiring well” (The Promise of Happiness 37), then the normative distinctions between good desires and bad desires, between right choice and wrong choice, are what shape the possibility of a happy ending for trans life. The extent of transmedicine’s emphasis on this sort of individual choice has led scholars from within as well as without trans studies to argue that mainstream narratives of trans life promote an uncritical ethos of individualism. Since the identity “transgender” emerged within the eurocolonial context of capitalism as it shifted from a liberal to a neoliberal form, the logic of individual choice has indeed always been part of the authorized narratives of trans life.28 But such analyses of neoliberal individualism often neglect to account for the particular role of risk in this biopolitical dynamic.29 That is, in the context of biopower, risk is not simply a function of making choices; rather, risk is the condition for all possibilities of choice, freedom, and indeed happiness. To be in the world at all is to engage with the norms that shape bodily involvement and affective engagement; and to engage with these norms is always to risk deviation from them.30 But even further, to deviate is always to risk unhappiness. Whereas narratives of normalcy might “encourage us to avoid the unhappy consequences of deviation by making those consequences explicit,” the (sometimes happy, sometimes unhappy) histories of trans life are, to use Ahmed’s words, “histories of those who are willing to risk the consequences of deviation” (91). In the context of biopower, to live in the world as a trans person is, for better or worse, to risk one’s own happiness.

More consequently for the purposes of rhetorical analysis, to communicate about living in the world as a trans person is, also for better or worse, to risk the happy narratives of trans life as such. Just as Chu’s disavowal of “good outcomes” risks becoming a justification for restricting access to the transmedical care that itself forwards those “good outcomes,” any rhetorical engagement with representations of transgender life risks contributing to distinctions between legitimate forms of trans life and illegitimate forms of trans life, good trans life and bad trans life. This is particularly relevant with regard to transmedicine’s epideictic force: there is always the danger that the content of one’s “happy transition narrative” may become formalized as a treatment norm. Thus one fundamental condition of transgender rhetorics in the contemporary context of biopower is collective risk, a shared participation in a wager over the possibilities of deviant life. So although Chu’s demand for something other than “good outcomes” does indeed risk collective access to “good outcomes”-based care, it also reveals transmedicine’s necessary contradiction, that there is no acceptance of (individual) trans life that is not also in the same instance an intervention into (collective) trans life. Admittedly, this is an unhappy view of the possibilities for transgender rhetorics, and especially transgender rhetorics of medicine. However, more optimistically, Ahmed reminds us that “[t]he unhappiness of the deviant performs a claim for justice” (The Promise of Happiness 96). That is, trans life forwards its own epideictic, bears up charges of praise and blame in the very happiness and unhappiness that trans people experience. In demanding care, in deviating from narrative norms, perhaps even in simply “[e]xisting in the world” (Gossett and Huxtable 39),31 those who participate in trans life themselves embody an array of epideictic rhetorical forces; in this way, trans life itself can pose a challenge to the norms and narratives that systemically dismiss some measure of its forms in the name of preserving transmedicine’s “good outcomes.”


  1. Many thanks to Caroline Jennings, two anonymous reviewers, and the editors of this special issue, GPat Patterson and K.J. Rawson, for their indispensable feedback on earlier drafts of this article.
  2. Che Gossett points out, in this regard, that “[o]ne of the traps of trans visibility is that it is premised on invisibility: to bring a select few into view, others must disappear in to the background, and this is always a political project that reinforces oppression” (183).
  3. By framing the context that I address as “eurocolonial,” I am asserting that my analysis is directed toward the forms of rhetoric that have emerged from the tradition of power and knowledge based in eurocentrism, imperialism, and universalism. In that regard, while I address the history of gender variance in America I do not address the histories of American Indian gender variance, which I understand to be distinct from the set of identities that goes by the name “transgender.” That is, American Indian identities such as (what is called in English) “two-spirit” are capacitated as lived possibilities by a set of political and ontoepistemological formations separate from the formations considered in this article (respectively, the various knowledges and traditions of indigenous nations, and the eurocolonial biopolitical paradigm emerging from Enlightenment and imperialist sciences). This does not mean that these two sets of formations are not related in any way; rather, the violent history of eurocolonial power has fundamentally affected the lives that are capacitated by indigenous knowledges and traditions (see Qwo-Li Driskill, “Stolen from Our Bodies”). However, to fully account for this relation between the two sets of formations and their responses to gender variance would require much more than I can provide in this essay, and would exceed the limitations of my own experiential grounding.
  4. Elsewhere in rhetoric and communication studies, scholars have considered the role of stigma against transgender people in their experiences of health care; see Kami Kosenko et al., “Transgender Patient Perceptions of Stigma in Health Care Contexts”; Kosenko et al., “Patient-Centered Communication: The Experiences of Transgender Adults”; and Jan S. Redfern and Bill Sinclair, “Improving Health Care Encounters and Communication with Transgender Patients.” For analyses of “transgender” as an identity category in legal and public rhetorics, see Isaac West, “What’s the Matter with Kansas and New York City? Definitional Ruptures and the Politics of Sex”; and Doug Cloud, “Toward a Richer Rhetoric of Agency: Shaping the Identity Category Transgender in Public Discourse.”
  5. Segal summarizes the traditional sense of “epideictic” as a distinct type of rhetoric: “Aristotle identifies three occasions for rhetoric: deliberative, forensic, and epideictic. Deliberative rhetoric is speechmaking directed at the future, he says; its business is exhortation and dissuasion, and its exemplary genre is the political speech. Forensic rhetoric is speechmaking trained on the past; its business is accusation and defence (sic), and its exemplary genre is the advocate’s summation in a court of law. Epideictic rhetoric is the rhetoric of the present; its business, Aristotle says, is praise and blame, and its exemplary genre is the funeral oration. Epideictic rhetoric is a culture’s most telling rhetoric, because, in general, we praise people for embodying what we value, and we blame them for embodying what we deplore” (61).
  6. To be clear, I am distinguishing between “gender reassignment” and “gender transition” for the sake of separating the treatment protocols involved in transmedicine (“reassignment”) from the broader process of making one’s gender known to the world (“transition”). (Chu herself uses the term “transition” to refer to both.) I use the term “gender reassignment” here with the same wariness that Aren Z. Aizura expresses along with his use of this term: “In recent years some have begun using gender affirmation or gender confirmation as a way to signal that trans body modification brings the body in line with an individual’s true gender identity. Although these terms’ cultural ascendance reflects an increased acceptance that body modification is necessary to trans mental health, I question whether the language of affirmation/confirmation invests in the idea that everyone has a ‘true’ gender identity that has always been, and that surgery merely reflects that inner, lifelong identity. Hormonal and surgical body modifications should be available without the need to affirm a primary gender identity. Thus I have retained gender reassignment as a term while acknowledging its inadequacy to describe the complexity of the embodied, psychic, and social practices to which it refers” (12-13).
  7. Cf. Catherine Chaput, “Rhetorical Circulation in Late Capitalism: Neoliberalism and the Overdetermination of Affective Energy.”
  8. Rose draws most prominently on the theoretical work of Michel Foucault, who originally introduced his own notion of “biopower” in his History of Sexuality, Volume 1: An Introduction, asserting it as a form of power emerging in Europe’s seventeenth century related to what he had elsewhere called “discipline.” While discipline is oriented toward the physical body and its capacities (“an anatomo-politics of the human body”), biopower is oriented toward “the species body” as a living form (thus “a bio-politics of the population”) (139). In his own development of this concept, Rose points out that the distinction between these two forms of power has tended to “blur” as Foucault and others have traced the ways that “different authorities seek to act upon the one through action upon the other” (The Politics of Life Itself 53). Ultimately, Foucault himself would gravitate toward emphasizing biopower (i.e. management of and intervention into forms of life) over disciplinary power (management of and intervention into particular bodily capacities). For a useful application of both concepts in the context of the regulation of transgender people in particular, see Dean Spade, Normal Life, 50-72.
  9. The role of “particular ends” with regard to biopower and biopolitics becomes clearer when considered in the light of Foucault’s work on the concept “governmentality,” which he began developing at about the same time as his turn toward biopolitics. In his 1978 lectures on this concept, he argues that “government” emerged in Europe’s sixteenth century as a theory of state power that referred to the total exercise of management within the state, from fathers, teachers, tradespeople, up to and including the head of state (93-94). Foucault argues that this form of power is essentially economic, rather than prohibitive. Whereas older forms of power were based in prohibition and punishment, for government “it is not a matter of imposing a law on men, but of the disposition of things, that is to say, of employing tactics rather than laws”; in other words, the action of governing is “arranging things so that this or that end may be achieved through a certain number of means.” And since “the end of government is internal to the things it directs,” whatever is to be governed must thus be described, measured, analyzed, and subsequently managed in order to achieve its “perfection, maximization, or intensification” (99). In his own elaboration of the concept, Rose writes that government, as a form of power, is “a certain way of striving to reach social and political ends by acting in a calculated manner upon the forces, activities and relations of the individuals that constitute a population”; such ends include “security for property and wealth, profitability and efficiency of production, public virtue, tranquillity (sic), and even happiness” (Governing the Soul 4-5). Paired with governmentality, biopolitics thus describes the way that certain concrete ends become instantiated as calculable and achievable outcomes at the level of both the individual subject and the governed population.
  10. It’s instructive to consider who exactly may be denied treatment on the basis of such norms of consent. In a recent participant-observation study of diagnostic criteria at an Australian clinic, Riki Lane notes that clinicians may delay treatment due to medical, social, or psychiatric contraindications such as “extreme obesity,” “homelessness,” or “active psychosis”; further, clinicians may actually deny treatment to patients who are judged to have “alternate diagnoses such as severe autism or medical complications” that would (in this view) hinder the facilitation of transition care. Regarding the former (delay of treatment), the criteria appear to come from an attitude of pragmatism, but it’s noteworthy that each example is also a category that is otherwise stigmatized and pathologized. Regarding the latter (denial of treatment), the implication is more concerning. One participant states: “We’re seeing a lot more younger people…with not only gender variance but broader identity disturbance. That’s one of the tricky parts, one of the diagnostic dilemmas” (220). Given that this quote appears directly above Lane’s explanation of cases in which treatment may be denied, and given that Lane elsewhere includes autism as an example of “broader identity disturbance,” this suggests that, for patients who are both trans and autistic, clinicians are likely to factor into their judgment an implicit evaluation of the “severity” of the person’s autistic traits. While this may involve pragmatic questions of whether particular behaviors will interfere with the administration of treatment, it seems more likely that clinicians perceive autistic traits as risk factors that lessen the potential for good treatment outcomes as such. This is concerning on its face, but it’s even more concerning given two other factors. First, as Melanie Yergeau points out, researchers frequently suggest that autism and gender variance are actually correlated (70); why, then, should autistic behavior be regarded as a risk factor in gender transition? Second, Yergeau also details the entanglement between the history of transmedicine and the history of research into and treatment of autism. As she explains, the same cohort of researchers at UCLA operated the Gender Identity Clinic (GIC), the Feminine Boy Project (FBP), and the Young Autism Project (YAP); while the GIC occasionally referred (adult) transgender patients to receive more affirmative treatment elsewhere, both the FBP and the YAP were expressly intent on eradicating gender variance and autistic behaviors, respectively. The techniques developed in these latter two programs formed the basis for what has become known as Applied Behavior Analysis, or ABA, a process denounced as abusive by autistic self-advocates yet still frequently used to “recover” autistic children at the behest of their parents and/or doctors (101-115). This historical relation is significant, then, because it suggests an overlap in the bases of clinical expertise regarding autistic life and trans life. To frame these two forms of life as contraindications thus contributes to the erasure of their entangled emergences, and it threatens, in particular, the possibilities of life at the intersection of these two experiences.
  11. Segal compares this “in-forming” (62) function of epideictic rhetoric to both Louis Althusser’s notion of interpellation and Maurice Charland’s notion of constitutive rhetoric (64), and she draws on the example of blogs and websites that celebrate such pathologized phenomena as eating disorders or self-harm, which “create the conditions under which one might form the idea of the attractiveness of surgical manipulation or self-mutilation” (63, emphasis in original). Obviously, I don’t intend to draw a comparison between being transgender and having an eating disorder or compulsive self-harming—but Segal’s work is instructive here in that she indicates the way that epideictic wields its force at the level of form, pressing upon those who participate in it to recognize and reproduce the tropic and generic forms that carry its values forward. We might consider this to be another way in which epideictic (in distinction to deliberative or forensic) rhetoric addresses the present (in distinction to the future or the past): this type of rhetoric instances its suasive force at the present moment of our lives’ ongoing emergence, such that the very forms of our experience take shape along with (or in defiance of) the grain of epideictic.
  12. In the print edition of the newspaper, Chu’s piece was titled differently: “Surgery, Hormones, But Not Happiness.”
  13. Many of the replies to her tweet announcing the essay’s publication were from other trans women who simply stated that their experiences with transmedicine did not match the description Chu gave of her own experience. See also Kristen Browde’s and Nathaniel Frank’s letters to the editor published several days after Chu’s essay.
  14. In a reply to a tweet posted the same day as her essay’s publication, Chu responded to a question regarding peer-reviewed research indicating that trans people overwhelmingly experience positive psychological outcomes after gender reassignment. She asserted that she did not view such research as trustworthy because of its disciplinary leanings (“i don’t trust sociologists farther than i can throw them”), and because of trans people’s structural incentives toward redeploying the accepted narratives of transmedicine. Some respondents interpreted this tweet as a suggestion that interview-based studies of transmedicine (or even trans people themselves) were de facto untruthful. However, as indicated below, there is historical research indicating a structural tendency toward the rhetorical dynamic that Chu suggests—though, this appears to be more common in the context of medical and psychiatric interviews, rather than sociological ones. (Chu acknowledges in her tweet that she is conflating these scenarios.)
  15. The same day that Singal’s article appeared online, trans writer Julia Serano posted a Twitter thread responding to these misrepresentations and linking to several of her articles addressing the broader controversy over “detransitioning” in transmedicine. See in particular “Detransition, Desistance, and Disinformation.”
  16. Although biopolitical frameworks share with social construction frameworks an emphasis on the historical contingency of power relations, they differ in that the latter tend to assert strategies of breaking down or otherwise exiting such structures in order to establish a state of freedom, while the former have tended to insist that there is no political subject outside of historically contingent structures. This includes the forms of affect and desire that make up contemporary subjectivities. Rose, in particular, has argued that all theories of “the self” as a psychological or political entity are themselves part of the contemporary structure of biopolitical government. The discipline of psychology, most importantly for his purposes, ought to be understood first and foremost as “an ‘intellectual technology,’ a way of making visible and intelligible certain features of persons, their conducts, and their relations with one another” (Inventing Our Selves 10-11). That is, the “selves” that we attribute with desires, flaws, virtues, and genders are inevitably formed and shaped by the networks of tools, concepts, and experts that take up the task of measuring and explaining the self. However: the point here is not to demand freedom from psychology and its concepts (such as “happiness”). Rather, the point is to take stock of the way that psychology (or other such structures) enables our relations to our “selves,” and then to work toward (as Rose puts it) “turn[ing] programs intended for one end to the service of others” (36). A concept such as “happiness,” then, has real effects in shaping the lives of cis and trans people alike, and the work of trans politics with regard to such a concept is not to debunk the reality of that happiness as an achievable end but rather to reorient the force of that concept toward more equitable ends.
  17. This overdetermined relation results, Elizabeth Stephens notes, from the double meaning of “normal” that formed through the genealogical emergence of this term. Making use of Georges Canguilhem’s work on this subject, she explains that as the term “normal” was first used in the mid-eighteenth century, it “appeared in two highly specialized and apparently distinct discursive locations: geometry, in which it was used as a less common synonym for a perpendicular line; and, second, anatomy, in which it was paired with, and used in opposition to, the ‘pathological’” (142). After this concept was transported into the (then-new) science of statistics in the late-nineteenth century, it came to mean “both statistically most common and socially preferable,” that is, “the average and also an ideal” (143). The concept “normal,” then, effects a fusion between a quantitative mean and a qualitative value, and at the same time it effects a partition between an unacknowledged standard and other, highly visible variants—that is, the “pathological.” Thus, by taking up this oppositional relation between “normal” and “pathological,” disciplinary structures such as medicine posit a need to observe, regulate, and police that relation.
  18. Historians of transmedicine roughly mark the beginning of this turn with the closing of many of the more conservative university-based gender clinics, sparked by the publication of a negatively evaluative report by the psychiatrists Jon Meyer and Donna J. Reter in 1979 (Meyerowitz 267-268), and the formation (also in 1979) of the more liberal Harry Benjamin International Gender Dysphoria Association (Meyerowitz 255).
  19. Recall the function of “ends” in Foucault’s notions of government and biopower—through their measurement, definition, and description, ends such as “happiness” simultaneously orient and justify the force of interventions into individual and collective life. Ahmed, for her part, does not specifically connect her discussion of happiness to Foucault’s work on government and biopower. But I would argue that her analysis may be understood as complementary to that of Foucault and Rose, in that she considers the ways that desires and emotions emerge within a material, political ecology of power that is structured by the forms and genres of the liberal, post-Enlightenment, eurocolonial world.
  20. See Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology. In this text, Ahmed turns the phenomenological concepts of “object” and “orientation” toward the ends of queer feminist and post-colonial analysis of power structures. Her use of these terms, then, is intended to show how the phenomenological body is shaped by its surroundings, such that some actions are possible and others impossible. Building from “[t]he radical claim that phenomenology inherits from Franz Brentano’s psychology,” that “consciousness is intentional: it is directed toward something,” Ahmed claims that an “object” may be understood as “an effect of towardness”—that is, “by being posited as a thing, as being something or another for me” in the terms of one’s own phenomenological world, an object “takes me in some directions rather than others” (27). This aspect of “towardness” and “directedness” leads her to specify that “orientation” (her term for a non-reductive version of mind-body involvement in the world, i.e. consciousness embodied) may be understood as a set of relations to various objects arranged in a particular way, some near, some far, some central, some off to the side, some entirely unreachable. Thus, she explains, “Orientations shape not only how we inhabit space, but how we apprehend this world of shared inhabitance, as well as ‘who’ or ‘what’ we direct our energy and attention toward” (3). I make use of Ahmed’s work in my own argument, then, because it nicely connects the biopolitical emphases of Rose and Foucault with the more traditional rhetorical concept of epideictic as described by Segal. While Rose and Foucault describe the ways that power structures posit particular “ends” as objects of action for subjects as well as particular elements of the subject as objects of intervention for institutions, Segal describes the ways that rhetorical subjects take on forms of experience that are circulated by culturally powerful networks of influence. These two accounts are clearly related, but it’s not immediately clear how best to put them into conversation with one another. I think Ahmed’s phenomenological framework plays this role well, because her attention to the individual body’s involvement in its surroundings opens up a relation between the immediacy of embodied experience and the circulation of particular interests, objects, and forms of directedness. As she explains: “Bodies hence acquire orientations through the repetitions of some actions, over others, as actions that have certain ‘objects’ in view” (58).
  21. In their response to Chu’s essay, Ashley writes: “But neo-vaginas heal. They heal well and they stop hurting. Our bodies don’t ‘regard the vagina as a wound’ nor do neo-vaginas ‘require regular, painful attention to maintain.’” When others responded to Chu on Twitter to point out this problem with her language, Chu explained, “this is an editorial thing unfortunately, i had a lovely metaphor about how your junk gets delicately turned inside out (‘think, slicing a mango’) but it made one of the editors too squeamish [eye-rolling emoji].” Some trans women also pointed out that this framing is a hallmark of transphobic and transmisogynist rhetorics. The argument that trans people (and trans women in particular) are fundamentally “wounded” or “mutilated” is one that goes back decades, at least to the publication of Janice Raymond’s The Transsexual Empire in 1979, and it often functions as a metonymic argument that the real problem with trans people is that they are dangerously psychotic. Take, for instance, this excerpt from a letter to the editor published in the lesbian newspaper Coming Up in 1986, addressing the figure of the lesbian trans woman: “He is not a lesbian, he is a mutant man, a self-made freak, a deformity, an insult. He deserves a slap in the face. After that, he deserves to have his body and his mind made well again” (qtd. in Stryker 110).
  22. To suggest that sometimes transsexual women do get bottom surgery because they believe a vagina would look better than a penis is, counterintuitively, entirely to Chu’s point: at a subjective level, trans people want what they want because they want it, not because it is the expression of a political or metaphysical identity. Norms of appearance, sensation, and utility—with regard to vaginas, penises, or any other fleshly form—help shape those wants, one way or another. Thus it’s both no coincidence that most trans women desire to have their genitals surgically reconstructed to form vaginas and not at all contradictory that some trans women prefer to have genitals that are formed in some other way. Even in purely theoretical terms, a norm only functions as a norm as long as there is some variability for it to assess and regulate.
  23. Denny suggests that this category of patients (“drag queens and street hustlers”) “often were not transsexual” (12). That assertion obviously adopts some dubious assumptions regarding whose claims of trans identity ought to be taken seriously and why—it’s likely that her perspective is both reliant on and conscious of the history of antagonism between and among the various groups of gender-variant people in the mid-twentieth century. These conflicts can be understood as just part of the process of identity distinction, but they must also be recognized as tied up with anxieties and prejudices over class, race, and sexuality. For example, “transvestites” were often white, middle-class, and “heterosexual” (in the sense of identifying primarily as men who love women), whereas “drag queens” (or “street queens”) were often poor and working-class people of color who primarily had sex with men. (For a discussion of these distinctions and the shifting antagonisms between them, see Meyerowitz 168-207.) In the case of the clinics that Denny discusses, it’s important to note that the norms of appearance and expression were often combined with (or refracted through) these norms of race, class, and sexuality. Consider, for example, the assertion of a clinician quoted in a 1982 sociological article: “We’re not taking Puerto Ricans any more; they don’t look like transsexuals. They look like fags” (Billings and Urban 275).
  24. It ought to be no wonder, then, that patients (and prospective patients) frequently altered their biographical narrative, or even fabricated it entirely, to meet the expectations of the clinicians. In some sense, this is only a reasonable extension of the narrative-shaping that the clinical paradigm wrought on the future of the patient. It certainly, as Prosser points out, matches the logic of relying on a diagnostic premise that assigns transsexual identity to a retrospectively spoken narrative: “The diagnosis is premised on the belief that autobiography can and should function mimetically—narrative mirror to transsexual nature. While clinicians evidently fear the deliberate artifice of the transsexual narrator (author as fraudster), they yet appear to remain quite ignorant of the ways in which the autobiography is fundamentally constructed as narrative: a telling, a representation, the life thoroughly contingent on the form” (110).
  25. Prosser emphasizes the literal, material implications of such tropes as “coming home” and “arriving in the right body,” with regard to sex reassignment surgery in particular: “What makes the transsexual willing and able to submit to the knife—the splitting, cutting, removal, and reshaping of organs, tissues, and skin that another might conceive of as mutilation—is the drive to get the body back to what should have been” (83). The sense of “movement” that tends to structure narratives of reassignment, according to Prosser, is less about “crossing over” and more about a return to a longed for ideal: “The body of transsexual becoming is born out of a yearning for a perfect past—that is, not memory but nostalgia: the desire for the purified version of what was, not for the return to home per se (nostos) but to the romanticized ideal of home” (84). Prosser’s argument thus indexes the same norms of bodily being that Chu references in her essay, and both writers productively uncover the nuances of cross-gender-identification as a form of knowingly desiring a physical ideal.
  26. Along the same lines, C. Riley Snorton points out that Jorgensen’s public renown shows how, in contrast to the population of Black Americans suppressed and devalued by racial segregation during the same era, a white transsexual like her was “not beloved but somehow incorporable” (142). In evidence of this, he displays a set of newspaper stories and magazine profiles from the same mid-century period; the Black trans women and “female impersonators” featured in these pieces were explicitly contrasted with Jorgensen in terms of their mobility, economic status, and vulnerability to police harassment (157-166).
  27. Thus, as shuster points out, the inherent inconclusiveness of medical or psychiatric attempts to “verify a transgender identity” tends to be displaced onto the patients themselves, such that clinicians pose on behalf of the patient “an expectation to be ‘100% certain’ of initiating trans-related interventions” (“Uncertain Expertise” 325). As a result, trans people who are nonbinary, neuroqueer, and/or otherwise abnormal (in the terms of transmedicine’s authorized patient narrative) are forced to defend and continually reaffirm their need for care.
  28. For example, Aizura analyzes this as an example of “entrepreneurialism of the self”: if the institutions of neoliberal society “reward calculation” and “penalize behavior that does not competitively seek self-satisfaction,” then people who are trans will perceive their transition as a project of individual self-enhancement (142-143).The concept of “entrepreneurialism of the self” was first introduced by Michel Foucault in his 1979 lectures on biopolitics and governmentality (The Birth of Biopolitics 225-226); Aizura’s use of the term is also influenced by Wendy Brown’s work on neoliberalism and democracy. See also Aizura’s argument that contemporary biopolitical structures orient trans people toward notions of “infinite perfectibility” that form their desires for and understanding of transition care (47).
  29. Foucault locates a particular sense of personal risk at the heart of neoliberalism’s reduction of life to economic rationality. That is, he argues that the form of “economic analysis” that neoliberalism adopts as a basic explanation for human conduct—a dynamic of “substitutable choices…in which scarce means are allocated to competing ends” (The Birth of Biopolitics 222)—needs to be understood as an application of a liberal, empiricist notion of “interests.” With reference to the Enlightenment philosopher David Hume, he explains that this model of the “subject of interests” posits a fundamental distinction between good and bad at the level of the individual person’s experience of choice: “The painful or non-painful nature of the thing is in itself a reason for the choice beyond which you cannot go.” That is, this distinction “is a sort of irreducible that does not refer to any judgment, reasoning, or calculation.” This means, Foucault argues, that for this model of the subject “the principle of my choice really will be my own feeling of painful or not painful”; hence, “interest” really means “an irreducible, non-transferable, atomistic individual choice which is unconditionally referred to the subject himself (sic)” (272). By adopting this definition of interest, neoliberal models of human conduct pose economic choice not as a function of pure rational decision (as some have argued) but rather as an irreducible uncertainty that must be submitted to rational processes. Foucault explains: since, in this model, interest takes the form of a set of choices that address the undisclosed (possibly painful) future, it necessarily includes elements that are “involuntary, indefinite, uncontrollable, and non-totalizable”—and yet, he explains, these elements “found, as it were, the specifically individual calculation that he makes; they give it consistency, effect, insert it in reality, and connect it in the best possible way to the rest of the world” (278). In other words, this fundamental uncertainty is good and necessary because, under the laissez-faire macroeconomic principles of the neoliberal framework, only the free pursuit of interest on behalf of individuals can result in an overall collective good. But for such a collective good to occur, the facts of the result must remain absolutely unknown and unknowable: “Everyone must be uncertain with regard to the collective outcome if this positive collective outcome is really to be expected.” This is because “[t]he collective good must not be an objective” pursued by an interest, individually or collectively, since “it cannot be calculated, at least, not within an economic strategy” (279). What this means, then, is that the role of “risk” in neoliberalism is not simply a feature of economic analysis but in fact the basis of the individual’s relation to the world. To act in the world, to make choices, is—for the neoliberal subject—to risk pain; but more than that, it is to participate individually in the collective risk of pain. That is, this participation—again, in the form of the subject that neoliberalism provides—takes the form of a pursuit of individual safety, care, and economic support, under the presumption that some pain, for someone, is always at risk. The very form of the neoliberal subject is thus participation in risk, in networks of distribution of possible pain.
  30. Ahmed argues in Queer Phenomenology that even as such norms form “lines” that restrict our objects and orientations, “accidental or chance encounters do happen, and they redirect us and open up new worlds.” Importantly, these encounters that deviate us may be happy or unhappy: “Sometimes, such encounters might come as the gift of a lifeline, and sometimes they might not; they can be lived purely as loss. Such sideways moments might generate new possibilities, or they might not” (19).
  31. In dialogue with Che Gossett, trans artist Juliana Huxtable describes her own sense of ambivalence and uncertainty toward the epideictic rhetorics of visibility and performativity that have recently suffused mainstream accounts of trans life. She recounts, in particular, her experience with coming to understand the fractures (generational, racial, and political) in the “community” of trans life: “When I would meet older trans women, I would be like, Oh my god, how do you do it? Oh my god, what about hormones? Oh my god, what about your sex drive? How have you supported yourself? There was a kind of apprehension, almost a distance or a dismissive attitude toward me, when I would ask those questions. And I didn’t understand that. But I think it’s because so many people of an earlier generation had to go through so much. To have someone who, from their perspective, just decides to take estrogen one day and assumes that those experiences have a shared commonality with what they went through was almost insulting to these women. They were like, ‘You have no clue what I’ve had to do just to be able to exist in this way’” (43). Huxtable goes on to explain that she herself, much like the older trans women who regarded her approach with apprehensiveness, has come to regard newer forms of trans life with distance and suspicion. For example, she asserts that she has become more conscious of the racial privilege embodied by current norms of forwarding trans visibility through gender-bending: “The other day I started thinking about what passing culture signifies specifically for Black trans women. Passing is a means to safety, the ability to navigate the world with a bit of rest. It’s so very different from what a lot of white trans people experience. I think sometimes it’s easier for them to operate in a sort of genderqueer/genderpunk way, but as a privilege. You’re allowed to operate in the space of gender variance. But that space for us can really be—and feel—like a prison. I went through that stage of genderqueerness. And now I find little ways to hold onto my refusals. But I think it’s actually really radical to insist on an idea of beauty” (53-54). I would suggest that Huxtable’s sense of her own experience here, the negotiation among varying expectations and ultimate insistence on her own articulation of beauty, indicates the particular way that trans life forwards its own epideictic force. That is, Huxtable orients herself within the not-necessarily-cohesive trans community by settling on some notion of the good (the beautiful) that takes form in relation to the norms of gendered happiness (the beautiful woman). In this way, the ongoing, disharmonious emergence of trans life bears up forms of experience that are beautiful, good, and (indeed) happy.

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  • shuster, stef. “Performing Informed Consent in Transgender Medicine.” Social Science & Medicine, vol. 226, 2019, pp. 190-197.
  • —. “Uncertain Expertise and the Limitations of Clinical Guidelines in Transgender Healthcare.” Journal of Health and Social Behavior, vol. 57, no. 3, 2016, pp. 319-332.
  • Singal, Jesse. “When Children Say They’re Trans.” The Atlantic, July/August 2018. Accessed 26 June 2019.
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  • Spade, Dean. “Mutilating Gender.” 2000. The Transgender Studies Reader, edited by Susan Stryker and Stephen Whittle, Routledge, 2006, pp. 315-332.
  • —. Normal Life: Administrative Violence, Critical Trans Politics, & the Limits of Law. 2009. Revised and Expanded ed., Duke University Press, 2015.
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  • West, Isaac. “What’s the Matter with Kansas and New York City? Definitional Ruptures and the Politics of Sex.” Argumentation and Advocacy, vol. 47, no. 3, 2011, pp. 163-177.
  • Yergeau, Melanie. Authoring Autism: On Rhetoric and Neurological Queerness. Duke University Press, 2018.

Toward a Trans Sovereignty: Why We Need Indigenous Rhetorics to Decolonize Gender and Sexuality

At the 2019 Conference on College Composition and Communication, Asao Inoue delivered a keynote address in which he urged his white colleagues to “sit in discomfort” as he traced the violent contours of white language supremacy: “How do we language so people stop killing each other…not just in our society and schools, but in our own minds, in our habits of mind, in our dispositions, our bodies, our habitus, in the discursive, bodily, and performative ways we use and judge language?” Inoue’s remarks beckon toward the ethical imperative for rhetoricians to more carefully and critically interrogate the whiteness that undergirds our research, our pedagogy, our livelihoods. As such, this essay seeks to cultivate an analytic imaginary of transgender rhetorics towards a non-white, Indigenous vocabulary by disrupting and dislocating our rhetorical landscape from its traditionally settler context.

The disciplinary (trans)formation of rhetorical studies promotes a more gender-expansive approach to theory and criticism. As Spencer affirms, “As an emerging area of interest in the field of communication, transgender studies now stands not only in relationship to feminist studies and LGBQ studies but also as an area of interest in its own right” (xvi); or what Feinberg explores as an “expand[ed] understanding of how many ways there are to be a human being” (5). Yet, such expansion has increased a sense of ubiquity surrounding transgender as an umbrella term, leading us to ask who exactly is covered beneath its canopy. Rawson and Williams contend that the desire to establish a recognizable, dominant narrative is counterproductive to the continued evolution of transgender as both term and field, proposing with “stubborn insistence” that “transgender is still developing, still demanding further research…in its ever-growing complexity” (emphasis original) (6). Trans scholarship has answered this call with tremendous nuance across a wide spectrum of rhetorical platforms, demonstrating a richly textured investment in diversifying the canon. From autoethnographic performances of self and/as culture (Johnson; LeMaster; Young and McKibban) to archival disruptions towards public remembrance (Rawson and Devor; Sloop), from legal interventions that liberate the body/body politic (Chávez; Morris and Nakayama; West) to pedagogical politics of reformation (Banks; Patterson; Spieldenner), the proliferation of transgender projects are a testament to the generative future of rhetorical studies.

Yet, as Driskell, Finley, Gilley, and Morgensen note, there is room still to interrupt the colonial authority over knowledge production by recognizing the ways in which Indigenous peoples and vocabularies radically resist dominant discourses (“Introduction” 4). While the research nodes listed above offer only a small glimpse into the robust dimensions of trans rhetorics, I echo the commitments of these intellectual pathways and heed the call from Driskell et al. to attend to the colonial facets of trans identities and politics. Narrating the histories of racialization that employ gender and sexuality as tools of categorizing the Indigenous othered body enables rhetorical scholars/critics/activists to interrogate the “presumptive whiteness” that has informed transgender rhetorics as a field of study (Justice, Rifkin, and Schneider 6).

Working towards a decolonial undoing of mainstream trans rhetorics requires a considerable amount of critical self-reflexivity and the outright recognition that colonial violence often reconstitutes itself in unassuming, yet disempowering, forms. I, a cisgender, white settler to Turtle Island (North America), acknowledge that I am an outsider to both the trans and Indigenous communities that I foreground in this essay and am (unintentionally) complicit in the colonial reproductions of knowledge/knowing. In fact, in an earlier draft of this article, GPat and K.J. graciously reminded me that my particular articulation of Indigenous philosophies replicated the very violent non/Western dichotomy I was aiming to critique! This failure to recognize the deep entrenchment of colonialism within my own positionality reinforces the ethical imperative for queer allies to more meaningfully partake in the co-resistance of trans violence. As Mack and Na’puti describe, doing this type of decolonial work “requires embracing plurality at the colonial difference and accepting inaccessibility and incomprehensibility” (355). By accepting these precarious sites of unknowing, this essay aims to (re)center indigeneity by (re)amplifying historically silenced voices amongst Indigenous communities and its GLBTQ2 peoples. In so doing, I recognize the impossibility of completely narrating, let alone fully understanding, the complexities of these perspectives; however, choosing to avoid this “stickiness” (Ahmed) also represents the choice to ignore the uncomfortable colonial reality in which I am implicated. This essay ultimately attempts to disrupt the persistence of settler indoctrination and engage (albeit imperfectly) with Indigenous dimensions of GLBTQ2 literatures by foregrounding the ways in which trans theory-building may contribute to an “enacted witnessing as a mode of learning and resisting with” (emphasis original) (Mack and Na’puti, 355). The uptake of these Indigenous vocabularies is one small way in which I witness and resist with those liminal bodies seeking recognition and affirmation.

Again, as Powell reminds us, the colonizing consciousness is one that actively seeks to “un-see” Native peoples by erasing Indigenous civilization as inconsequential to the project of Empire (4). Even within the most liberal of critical scholarship, indigeneity has become an interchangeable signifier for any “person of color,” thereby relegating distinct Native voices as still un-seen and un-heard (Driskell). Driskill writes:

Not only are Native people and Native resistance movements rarely a subject of analysis, the specific political and historical realities of Native people seem outside queer studies’ purview. This means that– at best–analyses of race, nation, diaspora, history, sexuality, and gender are deeply lacking and that–at worst–these critiques risk colluding with master narratives both inside and outside the academy. (75)

By (re)focusing Indigenous ontologies, we diversify our intellectual and political genealogies to include Native peoples, identities, and survivance1 tactics so that the decolonization of trans rhetorics is central.

Within the lens of this special issue and the emerging tradition of trans-specific enquiry, the rhetorical terminology of Native Two-Spirit may provide a particularly provocative departure from the conventional conceptualization of Euromerican trans taxonomies by instead connecting both gender and sexual identities to cultural, ceremonial, medicinal, and spiritual spaces of co-existence. The term “Two-Spirit” is intentionally complex and ambiguously fluid; yet it is also an assertion of rhetorical sovereignty: an Indigenous moniker that refuses to be absorbed by “any other gender or sexual identity defined on non-Native terms” (Morgensen, Spaces Between Us 82). Anguksuar (Richard LaFortune) explains that “The term two-spirit…indicates the presence of both a feminine and a masculine spirit in one person” (221), or a “contemporary reference to the availability of mixed-gender roles among most American Indian tribes prior to European contact” (Gilley, “Two-Spirit Men’s Sexual Survivance” 127). What is particularly interesting to note here is that the numerical designation of “two” within Two-Spirit seems to beckon towards a Western interpretation of the masculine/feminine binary (which is perhaps further complicated by Anguksuar’s definition); however, Two-Spirit is a distinctly Indigenous concept, representing at once “gay, lesbian, transvestite, transsexual, transgender, drag queens, and butches, as well as winkte, nádleeh, and other appropriate tribal terms” (Thomas and Jacobs 92). Two-Spirit is not intended to reinforce Western gender categories but rather bridge a fluid range of pan-Indian gender cosmologies that defy the rigid boundaries of the English language.

Historically, the term originated in 1990 at the Third International Gathering of American Indian and First Nation Gays and Lesbians in which participants rallied to replace the anthropological term “berdache” (a primitively colonial label for Indigenous transgender, genderqueer, and gender non-conforming peoples) towards a Native-informed alternative (Thomas and Jacobs). Most centrally, the term intentionally deviates from the “sexualized practices and identities” that gay, lesbian, bi, trans, and queer terms often invoke (Driskill 73), ending “non-Native control over Native knowledge and respect[ing] Two-Spirit people’s distinction from sexual minority and queer politics” (Morgensen, “Unsettling Queer Politics” 142). As such, the term “Two-Spirit” incites an affective discomfort in the Euromerican lexicon by dismantling its colonial language towards a multicultural diversity—a  discursive provocation demonstrated by trans-specific scholarship such as Trystan Cotten’s Transgender Migration: The Bodies, Borders, and Politics of Transition, Arnaldo Cruz-Malavé and Martin Manalansan’s Queer Globalizations: Citizenship and the Afterlife of Colonialism, and V. Jo Hsu’s “Disciplinary (Trans)formations: Queering and Trans-ing Asian American Rhetorics,” among many others.

Specific to Two-Spirit analyses, scholars like Brian Joseph Gilley, Beatrice Medicine, Scott Lauria Morgensen, Will Roscoe, and Walter Williams all underscore the geopolitical relationship between settler colonialism and the articulation of sex and gender on occupied land. As Driskill writes, “Native People often have an uneasy relationship with other struggles for social justice because the specificity of our struggles—rooted in sovereignty and a claim to land—is too often ignored” (79-80). This struggle is integral to disrupting colonial approaches to trans rhetorics in which the cyclical mechanics of invasion, displacement, and erasure continue to tear across Native bodies and lands. To offer a representative example, trans-exclusionary radical “feminists” (TERF) often employ “racist dog-whistles that have been used by the Right for centuries to create outsized fear and outrage among their constituents and followers to justify the time and energy spent advocating against the lives and safety of the communities they target” (Greenesmith). Indigenous groups are often at the center of these attacks, as TERF rhetorics are rooted in sex critical, bioessentialist ideologies that outwardly reject the inherent identities and rights of Two-Spirit peoples existing outside of these violent boundaries (CUSU Women’s Campaign).

As such, reading, circulating, citing, and amplifying Two-Spirit analyses is a necessary first step in the pathway toward decolonization. If we are to unsettle and dismantle the ways in which sexism, misogyny, homophobia, and transphobia are employed as distinctly colonial tools of conquest, then our rhetorical repertoires must be attuned to macro- and microcosms of settler violence as well as the liberatory intervention of Two-Spirit literatures. As Finley affirms, doing so provides a discursive platform upon which we can collectively partake in anti-colonial witnessing and resisting:

Heteropatriarchy disciplines and individualizes communally held beliefs by internalizing hierarchal gendered relationships and heteronormative attitudes towards sexuality. Colonialism needs heteropatriarchy to naturalize hierarchies and unequal gender relations. Without heteronormative ideas about sexuality and gender relationships, heteropatriarchy, and therefore colonialism, would fall apart. (33-34)

Within the realm of intersectional trans rhetorics, this insight is of particular import. The hetero-, cis-, and trans-normativity of coloniality must be indigenized and decolonized through non-Euromerican/non-Western modes of critique in order to dismantle the structures of white kyriarchy that affect all peoples.

Sharpening our commitments to feminist, queer, and trans activism means we must “see” and center Native approaches to critical theory. Mainstream Euromerican movements, such as the 2017 Women’s March on Washington and the whitewashing of #MeToo and #TimesUp, are still bound by a rigid adherence to identity categories, particularly with respect to sexuality, gender, and race (Corrigan; Dougherty and Calafell; Mack and McCann). Such exclusionary practices often reaffirm the foundations of the settler colonial state by prioritizing a particular rationale of a “knowable,” articulatable existence. Murib explains that a critical contention in Indigenous scholarship is the departure from these “mainstream non-Native GLBT and Queer politics” since they recirculate discrete categories of settler logics (167). They write:

[E]nduring systems of settler colonialism prioritize a very particular understanding of sex (biologically rooted), gender (socially constructed through interactions with colonial social and political institutions), what constitutes family (one man, one woman, and varying numbers of children bound together through state-recognized marriage), and race (within a Black/white binary that glosses over alternate racial formations). (167)

Perpetuating these terms, even within spaces of protest, continues to articulate a colonial distinction between queerness and transness, thus obscuring the existence of peoples whose relationships and gender identities may take alternate forms. Of course, multimarginal trans organizers are well aware of these dominant colonial tactics and have built resistive coalitions in their wake by expanding upon rhetoric’s index of critical vocabularies.

Invoking Two-Spirit critiques demonstrates the capacity for (continued) disciplinary disruption across the “heteronormative realities in settler societies…as well as queer and trans challenges to those colonially created realities” (Tallie 458). Two-Spirit offers a more expansive exploration of decoloniality as both a theoretical and a political practice—one whose absolute goal is the pursual of self-sovereignty. This argument suggests a radical deviation from traditional Euromerican organizing principles since it is one “that does not seek recognition or incorporation in the US state as liberal subjects, as is the case for mobilizations against legal and informal racial segregation, for example, but instead pushes for self-determination within the context of settler colonial societies” (Murib 168). The centering of Two-Spirit traditions within Indigenous political thought collapses colonial identity categories to instead promote what Morgensen terms a “self-sovereign space” (“Unsettling Queer Politics” 134). These individual spaces of lived expression are not identity categories but rather acts of defiance against the state; an ontological positioning that refuses to be identified, recognized, or incorporated into the dominant political apparatus. While this act of defiance may not always be a desirable practice, especially for those trans individuals who seek bodily affirmation for everyday survival, the sustained recognition of Two-Spirit cosmologies and ontologies is still a disruption against the colonial structures that seek to erase its Indigenous peoples. Morgensen’s turn towards the sovereign space represents a kairotic moment for rhetoricians across writing studies and communication studies to grapple with the discipline’s critical turn and foreground Indigenous bodies, artefacts, theories, and methodologies as an enmeshed fabric of the field.

For example, Driskill, in advancing Morgensen’s self-sovereign space towards a radical collective, proposes “doubleweaving” across rhetorical theories and practices, providing a particularly effective model for critical theorists to employ in future research. As a metaphor for Cherokee basket-weaving in which one basket is woven inside the other with a common rim, Driskill writes that a rhetorical doubleweave articulates a methodological approach that “draws on and intersects numerous theoretical splints…including Native politics, postmodern scholarship, grassroots activism, queer and trans resistance movements, queer studies, and tribally specific contexts from which these critiques are (and can be) woven” (74). This intervention challenges the centrality of the settler state and blurs the boundaries of dominant Euromerican movements, advancing new forms of coalitional activism and shared mobilization across theoretical and political spheres, or ones that are attuned to grammars of suffering by drawing on a variety of intellectual genealogies and localities outside the Western canon.

Critically integrating Indigenous vocabularies, such as Two-Spirit critiques, into the literatures that inform trans scholarship continues to unsettle and challenge the politics and power relations of settler society. Failure to do so—to disregard the non-Native formations of gender and sexuality monikers—remains a settler act disengaged from the intent of Two-Spirit organizing (Morgensen, “Unsettling Queer Politics” 145). Any decolonial movement within trans, queer, and feminist studies must work to deconstruct the categorical rigidity of gender and sexuality, focusing instead on the ways in which heteropatriarchy intersects with settler colonialism and thus directly affects all of us. The future of rhetorical scholarship, and trans rhetorics in particular, depends upon a doublewoven attunement to indigeneity and a critical effort to disengage with the languages of oppression that have historically defined Euromerican queer and trans existence. Such an undertaking requires monumental self-reflexivity—a sitting and squirming in discomfort—that seeks to witness and resist the literal root of oppression that buries itself deep in stolen land. What does the decolonization of lands, of bodies, of rhetorical imaginaries look like? This special issue is one way in which trans scholarship has recently intervened—an emergent node of interrogation and dissent that more complexly facilitates the interruption of competing colonial frameworks towards a radical, emancipatory future for all.


  1. A term developed by Anishinaabe writer and scholar, Gerald Vizenor. Survivance refers to the survival of Indigenous communities through endurance, persistence, and resistance to colonial systems of oppression. See Vizenor’s Manifest Manners for his insightful theorization of this concept.

Works Cited

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  • Corrigan, Lisa. “The #MeToo Moment: A Rhetorical Zeitgeist. Women’s Studies in Communication, vol. 42, no. 3, 2019, pp. 264-268.
  • Cotton, Trystan, editor. Transgender Migrations: The Bodies, Borders, and Politics of Transition. Routledge, 2012.
  • Cruz-Malavé, Arnaldo and Martin Manalansan, editors. Queer Globalizations: Citizenship and the Afterlife of Colonialism. New York University Press, 2002.
  • CUSU Women’s Campaign. “How to Spot TERF Ideology.” Cambridge University Student
    Union, n.d.
  • Dougherty, Cristy and Bernadette Calafell. “Before and Beyond #MeToo and #TimesUp: Rape as a Colonial and Racist Project.” Women and Language, vol. 42, no. 1, 2019, pp. 213-218.
  • Driskell, Qwo-Li. “Doubleweaving Two-Spirit Critiques: Building Alliances between Native and Queer Studies.” GLQ, vol. 16, nos. 1-2, pp. 69-92.
  • Driskell, Qwo-Li, Chris Finley, Brian Joseph Gilley, and Scott Lauria Morgensen. “Introduction.” Queer Indigenous Studies: Critical Interventions in Theory, Politics, and Literature, edited by Qwo-Li Driskill, Chris Finley, Brian Joseph Gilley, and Scott Lauria Morgensen, University of Arizona Press, 2011, pp. 1-30.
  • —. “The Revolution is for Everyone: Imagining an Emancipatory Future through Queer Indigenous Critical Theories.” Queer Indigenous Studies: Critical Interventions in Theory, Politics, and Literature, edited by Qwo-Li Driskill, Chris Finley, Brian Joseph Gilley, and Scott Lauria Morgensen, University of Arizona Press, 2011, pp. 211-221.
  • Feinberg, Leslie. Trans Liberation: Beyond Pink or Blue. Beacon Press, 1999.
  • Finley, Chris. “Decolonizing the Queer Native Body (and Recovering the Native Bull-Dyke): Bringing ‘Sexy Back’ and Out of the Native Studies’ Closet.” Queer Indigenous Studies: Critical Interventions in Theory, Politics, and Literature, edited by Qwo-Li Driskill, Chris Finley, Brian Joseph Gilley, and Scott Lauria Morgensen, University of Arizona Press, 2011, pp. 31-42.
  • Gilley, Brian Joseph. Becoming Two-Spirit: Gay Identity and Social Acceptance in Indian Country. University of Nebraska Press, 2006.
  • —. “Two-Spirit Men’s Sexual Survivance against the Inequality of Desire.” Queer Indigenous Studies: Critical Interventions in Theory, Politics, and Literature, edited by Qwo-Li Driskill, Chris Finley, Brian Joseph Gilley, and Scott Lauria Morgensen, University of Arizona Press, 2011, pp. 123-131.
  • Greenesmith, Heron. “Racism in Anti-Trans ‘Feminist’ Activism.” Political Research Associates, 20 February 2019.
  • Hsu, V. Jo. “Afterword: Disciplinary (Trans)formations: Queering and Trans-ing Asian American Rhetorics.” Enculturation, 18 December 2018.
  • Inoue, Asao. “How Do We Language So People Stop Killing Each Other, or What Do We Know about White Language Supremacy?” Conference on College Composition and Communication Annual Convention, 14 March 2019, David L. Lawrence Convention Center, Pittsburgh, PA. Keynote Address.
  • Johnson, Amber. “Quare/Kuaer/Queer/(E)ntersectionality: An Invitational Rhetoric of Possibility.” Cross Currents, vol. 68, no. 4, 2018, pp. 500-514.
  • Justice, Daniel Heath, Mark Rifkin, and Bethany Schneider, “Introduction.” GLQ, vol. 16, nos. 1-2, 2010, pp. 5-39.
  • LeMaster, Benny. “Transing Dystopia: Constituting Trans Monstrosity, Performing Trans Rage in Torrey Peters’ Infect Your Friends and Loved Ones.” Popular Culture Studies Journal, vol. 6, no. 2-3, 2018, pp. 96-117.
  • Mack, Ashley and Bryan McCann. “Critiquing State and Gendered Violence in the Age of #MeToo.” Quarterly Journal of Speech, vol. 104, no. 3, 2018, pp. 329-344.
  • Mack, Ashley and Tiara Na’puti. “‘Our Bodies are not Terra Nullius’: Building a Decolonial Feminist Resistance to Gendered Violence.” Women’s Studies in Communication, vol. 42, no. 3, 2019, pp. 347-370.
  • Medicine, Beatrice. Learning to be an Anthropologist and Remaining “Native”: Selected Writings. University of Illinois Press, 2001.
  • Morgensen, Scott Lauria. Spaces Between Us: Queer Settler Colonialism and Indigenous Decolonization. University of Minnesota Press, 2011.
  • —. “Unsettling Queer Politics.” Queer Indigenous Studies: Critical Interventions in Theory, Politics, and Literature, edited by Qwo-Li Driskill, Chris Finley, Brian Joseph Gilley, and Scott Lauria Morgensen, University of Arizona Press, 2011, pp. 132-152.
  • Morris, Charles E. and Thomas Nakayama. QED: A Journal in GLBTQ Worldmaking, special issue of Leaking Chelsea Manning, vol. 1, no. 1, 2014.
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How Ya Mama’n’em?: Blackness, Nonbinariness, and Radical Subjectivity

Enter with me, reader, into the possibility of a profound intimacy between blackness and nonbinariness through the vernacular query How ya mama’n’em?

There is a muted peculiarity to being thrown outside of a recognizability philosophers would tell you is necessary for livability and legibility. The outsidedness to recognizability is indexical of a type of subjectivity not currently known, an identity on some shit the likes of which we ain’t never seen. It is a type, to my mind, among others of course, that can be sensed in the linguistic; a type alluded to by the phrasal iterations and vernacular swings found in propinquity to blackness. There is something there, flittingly, to be caressed and put on secretive display, if only for a brief moment.

What concerns the present essay is the various ways language seeps from black milieus and characterizes a different, open way of coming into being. Certain terms, turns of phrases, and gestural diction allude to a way of mobilizing the they similar to, familiar with, yet in swervingly skirted distinction from the word’s use in gender nonbinary settings (though the two settings are not mutually exclusive). Phrases like that of the title of this essay, “How ya mama’n’em?” permit a more capacious understanding of one’s subjectivity, one that casts a they or them (or, ‘em) onto someone in order to imply their subjective breadth in excess of individuation. It is not that I believe, or have witnessed, black folks at the vanguard of using nonbinary pronouns for themselves and others (though, to be sure, I share community with more black nonbinary folks than nonbinary folks of any other racialized demographic); it is, instead, that the they of nonbinary genders and the they of certain ways of linguistic expression autochthonous within black sociality share something, some kind of other-mother relation where the two uses of they are cousins but not really, which means, of course, that they are family nonetheless.

They as a descriptor of a gendered identity uncontainable by the gender binary is not new per se, though its assumption as an identity by those who find a home in being unhomed by the binary is a more recent phenomenon. They has been in use in English, to conservative grammarians’ chagrin, for centuries. It is not a twentieth- and twenty-first-century linguistic phenomenon, strictly speaking. As an epicene term, they has been in use at least since the fifteenth-century. Later, it made appearances in the work of Shakespeare, Swift, Austen, and other notable literary heavy hitters (Bjorkman). In A Comedy of Errors, Shakespeare writes,

There’s not a man I meet but doth salute me

As if I were their well-acquainted friend

Swift, in Polite Conversation, has written “Every fool can do as they’re bid.” Thus, they as a designator of non-gender-specific personhood has a centuries-long history.

Not until the eighteenth-century, in 1745, did the pronoun as a gender-neutral term come under serious fire. Ann Fisher argued that the universal pronoun, the pronoun for all, the pronoun to end all other pronouns for general use, should be “he.” That is, when referencing someone of unknown gender or speaking of general, perhaps hypothetical persons one should use “he,” a foundationing rationale for which being the ungrammaticality of “they” in similar instances. Fisher writes, “The Masculine Person answers to the general Name, which comprehends both Male and Female; as, any Person who knows what he says” (see Fisher). He’s universalization took hold as a result of Fisher’s argument, no doubt buttressed by a pervading patriarchal environment. But this practice, while becoming pervasive until recently—a mitigation brought on by the feminist movement’s insistence on “he”’s phallogocentrism and vocabularic instantiation of cis male supremacy—was never fully able to eradicate the use of “they” as a gender-neutral term for unknown persons.

Contemporarily, the pronoun has exploded onto the public discursive scene thanks in no small part to the agitation and principled insistence on its use by our beloved enbies (that is, “NBs”: “nonbinaries” or nonbinary people), trans and genderqueer people, and radical feminists (and, to be sure, those who may identify as more than just one of these). They has won out as the nonbinary reference of choice over “it” or “which,” as Samuel Coleridge would have preferred; and is more commonly used than neologisms like ze/hir, as someone like Leslie Feinberg would have liked, at least on some occasions.1 Indeed, they has reached such a zenith that, in 2015, it was named Word of the Year by the American Dialect Society (ADS). Hegemonic societal doxa has long mandated, and in some ways still does, what Miqqi Alicia Gilbert calls “bigenderism,” a pervasive understanding that prohibits variations, exceptions, or deviations from gender protocols (Gilbert). Such prohibitions are predicated on “commonsense” axioms: there are only two genders, genders do not and cannot change, gender identity is identified through genital shape, the gender binary is “natural,” and the like. Nonbinariness and myriad expressions of gender transgression via identification with transness undermine this doxa, one that only permits certain grounds for life and livability. To undermine this, then, results in a staunch counterarticulation posing valid alternative forms of being and becoming a subject that rejects binary, stultifying thinking—a veritable, if you will, “Nah, we don’t do that over here.”

At worst, nonbinariness and affixation of it to insistences on “they” pronouns is seen as faddish, a temporary sojourn in the hipness with which genderqueerness is regarded; at best, it is assumed that nonbinariness is merely relational, only “in relation to the colonizer, to White culture, to Western, mutually exclusive ideals of masculine and feminine,” centering these “as normal, typical, the true measure of gender” (Rajunov and Duane 48–49). Departure from both assumptions is necessary, as the former deprives nonbinary genders of a seriousness that can commingle with or without a persistency, and the latter disallows nonbinary as itself a gendered subjectivity marked not simply by the melding of masculinity and femininity but also as their excess, their uncapturable outside.

This is an essay that attempts to skirt, evanescently and only in small irruptions of diction, the staid genre of the academic form—though it is one I love, one I find as hospitable to certain discursive and intellectual flexions—because the subject at hand demands such. If the subject at hand, a hand the focus of which is the black-hand side, is one that peers in the distance something that might mirage vision, it stands that the present essay must heed what such a miraging demands. And that demand is one that cannot be confined to a certain form ’cause said form has long jettisoned and dissed the demand for fear that the demand would infiltrate—as it no doubt would, infectiously so—and start to clean house. (And no wonder, as there is a striking and socio-epithetic alignment between the literalization of the colloquialism “cleaning house” and its seething racialized, racist history that implicates many of us.)

I wish not to hail this essay, as such, as an essay, inasmuch as the genre of the (academic) essay carries a certain baggage the forthcoming expression of a radical subjectivity begotten by the blackness of the “them,” or the nonbinariness of blackness, sends running. So I want to hail this meditation as an invitation to come sit on the porch and rap with it; or a beckoning to stay awhile and don’t get going so soon; or an offering of home-cooking so you got something in your belly before you go on off to work; or a loving, incisive, other-mother-working query as to How ya mama’n’em?

It is not, and cannot, be my claim that there is something specific to and peculiar of the racialized demographic known as black people that makes it—them; us—more accepting of gender transgression and excess. Though, it is and can be my claim, asymp/totally differently, that blackness, and those given to an understanding of its anoriginary, desedimenting openness and unfixing, is such that it invites the marginalized and outcast. In other words, if blackness has manifested socio-historically by way of an “insurgen[cy] [that] constitutes a profound threat to the already existing order of things,” which is to say an openness to those who are said to threaten the purity of the hegemon, via the mellifluous “Come on, you too, baby” or the “If you ain’t got nowhere to go then you stayin’ right here,” it is blackness that then names the cultivating condition for radical subjectivity (“Do Black Lives Matter?”).

What I am trying to suggest in a language that takes on the tenor of its source is how language spun through the annals of blackness by what we can tentatively call black folks, or black milieus, allows for another possible subject to emerge not simply when the subject is unknown, but when the subject is “known” but not captured. In other words, they ain’t gotta be unknown to be they, and in the possibility of being they yet known, they become possible in another kind of way. This language of the they bears a shifted texture when arising from, as it were, blackness. For the word to emerge from black environs renders it no mere pronoun but, supplementarily, illuminative of “a path toward a way of life between available language and the space of the ‘unthought’ or, at least, unspoken.” It is, as Tiffany Lethabo King writes in a different context, an “extradiscursive and semigrammatical performanc[e]” (King 73).

Having grown up around the “dark, abiding, signing…presence” known as blackness, I’ve noticed a rich tendency at the level of phrasal referentiality (see Morrison). I sense something not quite the oft-quoted nonbinary, or more precisely in this instance gender-neutral, “Someone forgot their wallet.” It is different and more than this. I grew up around blackness and black folks who used the term they as a descriptor of a certain kind of openness to subjectivity. Even when known, the referenced person can be shrouded by, and indeed engendered via, the “they” such that who they can be is unstitched from ontological moorings that have long fixed us into hes and shes. To query something like Oh, how they been? or alternatively, and notably expressive of black vernacular English’s (ana)grammatical copula deletion, How they? after being told about Jimmy having just gotten home allows for the referenced subject a life unbeholden to certain constraints. So while the folks I grew up around were not necessarily saying someone was outside the gender binary, there is something to the pervasive usage of they that speaks to the presence of (gender) nonbinariness as intimate with a notion of blackness, and that functions in a way that effectively transes subjectivity, insisting that there are “other ways to be…” (Snorton 175).

And it has, I think, generatively corrupted me. Being bred in such a cauldron has permitted an ease to approaching others without presumption. As I learn indirectly of a friend’s shift from “he” to “they” pronouns, it is the blackened sociality, I contend, that makes moving alongside, harmoniously, their pronounial shift easier. I have been bred in a space that is conditioned by shifts, by people who come into existence via a categorical shift—that is, I come from a people and environment who shift the categorical desire, loosening categorization which thus enables an irreverence toward categorical holds. The trouble Malcolm X, at the Audubon, noted he was born into via his blackness, and the gender trouble Judith Butler made famous through performativity, find expression in the use of they by my grandmother, cousins, and aunts. That is, blackness-as-trouble and gender nonnormativity-as-(gender) trouble converge in uses of they by my aunt, for instance, giving a singular person a multiply subjectivity in order for that person to exist as more than themselves. Reverberatory in the black and blackened they is a sort of mellifluously daimonic linguistic genius whereby ungrammatical iterations reconfigure subjective possibility. The radical inclusivity characteristic of black sociality, where black sociality denotes an edgeless edginess with the capacity to hold all, has endemic to it a transed modality expressed in its “steady singular love of mutability and continual shape-shifting,” to amplify the viscous poesis of Juliana Huxtable (Huxtable; capitalization in original). Loving the mutable, the shifting shiftiness that slides in a pronoun, engendering someone’s multiplicity, is our constant coalitional dislocation.

Too, the corruption has been indelible on my personhood as well. Though somewhat fine with being addressable by “he” pronouns—though that is not to say fine with the masculinity the pronoun often lashes onto me—I also, equally, find myself conveying an addressability via “they” pronouns. The frequency with which I use and feel validly hailed by they as a gendered (or, un-/non-gendered) pronoun may not qualify me for status as nonbinary in the community, which is to say that folks in the community may not deem me “nonbinary enough,” a uranium-glowing can of gummi worms I won’t open up here. But it has nevertheless been facilitated by the theys of “How ya mama’n’em?” and “Where they do that at?” My flirtation with they as a subjective descriptor of my own gender has come about precisely because of a desire for another way to be, a way to be hinted at in the vocal echoes of calls and conversations and down-the-street-yelling of the folks surrounding me in the urban and sub-urban dwellings of Philadelphia.

Curious it is, I find it, that my go-to examples are interrogatives. Perhaps that gives they its radical subjectivity, where a radical subjectivity, or a kind of existence that includes modes of existence jettisoned by the tenets constituting Existence with a capital-E, is accessed by way of interrogation. To question is to fracture the purportedly impenetrable. Questioning, interrogating, delivers to inquirers that which the declarative obscured and hence disallowed as possibility. The interrogative couched in phrasal dispersals of they unmoors the disallowance and asks for, insists upon, shadowed possibilities.

My point, circuitously gotten to as it may have been, is that the reverberation of How ya mama’n’em?, How they been?, and other interrogative suspensions of (gendered), knowable personhood by black folks has the effect of some kind of opening to existing with and through one another on nonviolent, intra-active grounds. It is a discursive nonbinariness begotten by blackness, I am submitting, that enables this. It seems ultimately that the nonbinariness that engenders the possibility for a radical subjectivity through blackness and its sociality amounts to a profound assertion to “come become beside me,” in the poetic incantation of Andrea Gibson, to suspend the ontological imposition for subjective opening, an indentificatory journeying that comes into itself with another, a being-and-becoming-with ostensible only when we recognize another’s unrecognizability as the vehicle through which they become recognizable in a way not predicated on a violence (Gibson 20). And this plants seeds for collective, coalitional, liberatory life in pronounced opposition to neoliberal grammars of extricatory individuation.

It is fallacious to presume that individualism, or the belief in the benefits of individuation, is the ticket to our liberation. The goal is not to become singular subjects. They insists on coalitional desires to become subjects with others without assuming that we know others; it insists on a refutation of individuation. Allow me a pointed observation by Nat Raha:

quick thought on the gender neutral pronouns ‘they [them / their]’. It’s fairly well acknowledged that deploying these words, that reference a plural, is difficult to begin with. a key thing about collective life is overcoming some of that ingrained individualism sedimented into our minds and conceptions from growing and living within western (neoliberal) capitalist society. there’s a multitude of ways how such individualism manifests in our thinking and language; but how might – say, a pronoun of neutral, or multiple, gender(s) – take a step towards cracking the fiercely guarded barbed-wire around the contemporary individual; more, how can we as trans*/genderqueer persons and trans[*]gressors of policed gender, begin to challenge the individuality of an identity, and create a linguistic space that recognises & represents the contingency of our genders in relation to the communities, spaces, countries, cities, languages, etc., that give rise to them?2

The potential embedded in they and them lexically forsakes individualism, which laps up neoliberal logics, and forsakes the singularization of Jimmy, of Tommy, of Lydia and Riley and gifts them all with “them.” It is that commitment to collective life and coalitional sociality we be talkin’ ‘bout, that contingency we coax toward us because in it there is a refutation of immutable ontologization. We be we through they; we become we as a becoming. Whether via they as a nominative for known persons we wish to give more room to exist, or they as a nominative for ourselves in gendered excess, it becomes clear that blackness and nonbinariness give way to a radical, and radically opening, subjectivity.

What is being suggested here is that proximity to blackness, and blackness’s proximity to, or deployment of and intimacy with, nonbinariness asserts a refutation of the liberalized assumption of individual and individuated capacity for life and subjectivity. It is the nonbinariness of blackness—the force, as it were, generating things like “How ya mama’n’em?”—that reaches for a capacity for life understood as the desire for collective, coalitional communing necessarily dissolvent of binaristic and thus individuated sociality.

Blackness’s circulation with gender trouble and nonnormativity open up an aperture through which to cognitively peep the nonbinary, distilled into they, as “a metaphor for being free, for a grander ideal” (Rajunov and Duane 76; emphasis in original). It is about gender, surely, as gender is one of the chief modes of captivity and imposed, nonconsensual ontologies; it is, additionally, about how we come to freedom as an expansive-ass ante-categorical invitation. They refuses to assert that someone, anyone, was who they were told they had to be before, and remain in the future. They frees one from having to be, allowing them to become, and, too, allowing the person who offered the invitational they as a (non)descriptor to become alongside the referenced they. They, in short, facilitates the coming to become beside me.


  1. See Amanda Hess, “Who’s ‘They’?,” The New York Times, March 29, 2016, sec. Magazine; Bruce Weber, “Leslie Feinberg, Writer and Transgender Activist, Dies at 65,” The New York Times, November 24, 2014, sec. New York. Hess conveys that in 1808 Coleridge “suggested repurposing ‘it’ and ‘which’ ‘in order to avoid particularizing man or woman, or in order to express either sex indifferently.’” Feinberg, on the other hand, has noted: “referring to me as ‘she/her’ is appropriate, particularly in a non-trans setting in which referring to me as ‘he’ would appear to resolve the social contradiction between my birth sex and gender expression and render my transgender expression invisible. I like the gender neutral pronoun ‘ze/hir’ because it makes it impossible to hold on to gender/sex/sexuality assumptions about a person you’re about to meet or you’ve just met. And in an all trans setting, referring to me as ‘he/him’ honors my gender expression in the same way that referring to my sister drag queens as ‘she/her’ does.” I must note, too, that nonbinary gender identity does not imply the exclusion of ze-hir pronouns, as there are still some enbies who use these pronouns.
  2. I’ve taken this from one of her Facebook statuses.

Works Cited

  • Bjorkman, Bronwyn M. “Singular They and the Syntactic Representation of Gender in English.” Glossa: A Journal of General Linguistics, vol. 2, no. 1, Sept. 2017, p. 80.
  • Do Black Lives Matter? A Conversation between Robin Kelley and Fred Moten.” Dr. Lester K. Spence, 2014.
  • Fisher, Ann. A Practical New Grammar: With Exercises of Bad English: Or, an Easy Guide to Speaking and Writing the English Language Properly and Correctly. J. Richardson, L. Hawes and T. Slack, 1763.
  • Gibson, Andrea. Lord of the Butterflies. button poetry, 2018.
  • Gilbert, Miqqi Alicia. “Defeating Bigenderism: Changing Gender Assumptions in the Twenty-First Century.” Hypatia, vol. 24, no. 3, Summer 2009, pp. 93–112.
  • Hess, Amanda. “Who’s ‘They’?The New York Times, 29 Mar. 2016.
  • Huxtable, Juliana. Mucous in My Pineal Gland. Capricious, 2017.
  • King, Tiffany Lethabo. The Black Shoals: Offshore Formations of Black and Native Studies. Duke University Press, 2019.
  • Morrison, Toni. Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. Harvard University Press, 1992.
  • Rajunov, Micah, and A. Scott Duane, editors. Nonbinary: Memoirs of Gender and Identity. Columbia University Press, 2019.
  • Snorton, C. Riley. Black on Both Sides: A Racial History of Trans Identity. University of Minnesota Press, 2017.
  • Weber, Bruce. “Leslie Feinberg, Writer and Transgender Activist, Dies at 65.” The New York Times, 24 Nov. 2014.