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 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

  • Anguksuar/Richard LaFortune. “A Postcolonial Perspective on Western [Mis]Conceptions of the Cosmos and the Restoration of Indigenous Taxonomies.” Two-Sprit People: Native American Gender Identity, Sexuality, and Spirituality, edited by Sue-Ellen Jacobs, Wesley Thomas, and Sabine Lang, University of Illinois Press, 1997, pp. 217-222.
  • Ahmed, Sara. The Cultural Politics of Emotion. Edinburgh University Press, 2004.
  • Banks, William. “Beyond Modality: Rethinking Transmedia Composition through a Queer/Trans Digital Rhetoric.” The Routledge Handbook of Digital Writing and Rhetoric, edited by Jonathon Alexander and Jacqueline Rhodes, Routledge, 2018, pp. 341-351.
  • Chávez, Karma. “Spatializing Gender Performativity: Ecstasy and Possibilities for Livable Life in the Tragic Case of Victoria Arellano.” Women’s Studies in Communication, vol. 33, no. 1, 2010, pp. 1-15.
  • 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.
  • Murib, Zein. “Unsettling the GLBT and Queer Coalitions in US Politics Through the Lens of Queer Indigenous Critique.” New Political Science, vol. 40, no. 1, 2018, pp. 165-176.
  • Patterson, GPat. “Queering and Transing Quantitative Research.” Re/Orienting Writing Studies: Queer Methods, Queer Projects, edited by Will Banks, Caroline Dadas, and Matt Cox, Utah State University Press, 2019, pp. 54-74.
  • Powell, Malea. “Blood and Scholarship: One Mixed-Blood’s Story.” Race, Rhetoric, and Composition, edited by Keith Gilyard, Boynton/Cook, 1999, pp. 1-16.
  • Rawson, K. J. and Aaron Devor. Transgender Studies Quarterly, special issue of Archives and Archiving, vol. 2, no. 4, 2015.
  • Rawson, K.J. and Cristan Williams. “Transgender*: The Rhetorical Landscape of a Term.” Present Tense, vol. 2, no. 3, 2014, pp. 1-9.
  • Roscoe, Will. Changing Ones: Third and Fourth Genders in Native North America. Palgrave Macmillan, 2000.
  • Smith, Andrea. “Heteropatriarchy and the Three Pillars of White Supremacy: Rethinking Women of Color Organizing.” The Color of Violence: Incite Women of Color against Violence, edited by INCITE Women of Color Against Violence, South End Press, 2006.
  • Sloop, John. “Lucy Lobdell’s Queer Circumstances.” Queering Public Address: Sexualities in American Historical Discourse, edited by Charles E. Morris, University of South Carolina Press, 2007, pp. 149-173.
  • Spencer, Leland. “Introduction: Centering Transgender Studies and Gender Identity in Communication Scholarship.” Transgender Communication Studies: Histories, Trends, and Trajectories, edited by Leland Spencer and Jamie Capuzza, Lexington Books, 2015, pp. ix-xxii.
  • Spieldenner, Andrew. “Object lessons: Using trans porn in class to explore gender fluidity.” Communication Teacher, vol. 33, no. 3, 2019, pp. 215-220.
  • Tallie, T.J. “Two Spirit Literature: Decolonizing Race and Gender Binaries.” Transgender Studies Quarterly, vol. 1, no. 3, 2014, pp. 455-460.
  • Thomas, Wesley and Sue-Ellen Jacobs. “‘…And We are Still Here:’ From Berdache to Two-Spirit People.” American Indian Culture and Research Journal, vol. 23, no. 2, 1999, pp. 91-107.
  • Vizenor, Gerald. Manifest Manners: Narratives on Postindian Survivance. University of Nebraska Press, 1999.
  • West, Isaac. Transforming Citizenships: Transgender Articulations of the Law. New York University Press, 2013.
  • Williams, Walter. The Spirit and the Flesh: Sexual Diversity in American Indian Culture. Beacon, 1992.
  • Young, Stephanie and Amie McKibban. “Creating Safe Places: A Collaborative Autoethnography on LGBT Social Activism.” Sexuality and Culture, vol. 18, 2014, pp. 361-384.

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.

GET THE FRAC IN! Or, The Fractal Many-festo: A (Trans)(Crip)t1


You already know what we are talking about. We are talking about the experience of finding it impossible to fit in. No matter how you shape yourself, you are always further confined by infinitely regressive borders. These colonial scripts for how and with whom we belong are ever-receding horizons. They always require more of you. Every iteration of your identity—no matter how large or small—becomes a battleground.

This manifesto is an invitation to get the frac in (GTFI). You are tired of having to mold yourself for others. We know that. You are tired of watching your friends sequestered, imprisoned, evicted, institutionalized, deported. We know that too. And you are tired of trying to write/teach/learn in a place you were never meant to belong. We know this most of all. This manifesto, then, is dedicated to you. We dedicate to you a space, perhaps for now imaginary, where you may enter, complicate, transform, expand, and flourish.


We believe that trans people and disabled people are entitled to survive and to thrive. In a world engineered for trans and disabled death, there is no such thing as neutrality. When 77% of trans kids in the U.S. experience harassment in grades K-12, when 24% of young trans people have been physically attacked in school, when precarity follows trans people into adulthood as they struggle to work, to shelter themselves, and to survive, we insist that inaction participates in the marginalization and endangerment of trans lives. Similarly, disabled people are forced to navigate physical and social architectures designed for their exclusion—built to deny them housing, employment, and care. It is no accident that 39% of trans folks identify as disabled, compared to 15% of the general population (Grant et al. 35; Puar). These are two populations whose experiences are already deeply entwined, whose liberation depends on a clear articulation of the mutuality of their conjoined oppressions. To that end, we are calling for co-conspirators in a mass mobilization to end ableism and cissexism.

Our collaboration was precipitated by openly transphobic developments in the field of disability studies, which are reflective of broader academic, national, and international discursive trends. Even recent attempts for trans inclusivity in rhetorical studies have failed to acknowledge the multidimensionality of trans experience, as well as the ways trans of color, queer of color, and woman of color feminisms and activisms have made space for gender diversity (Pritchard, “When You Know Better, Do Better”). Such narrow disciplinary approaches not only deny the intersectionality of trans experience (that is, that many trans folks are also disabled and identify as sexual, religious, and/or racial minorities) but also preclude the powerful alliances that could be built among disabled communities and others working towards more inclusive and accessible worlds.

We offer this (Trans)(Crip)t to transcribe the imbrications of trans and disabled lives, which are all inevitably embedded in social worlds shared and acted upon by those who do not identify as either. The TransCript offers alternative scripts for identity and belonging that defy assimilation and border-policing. The TransCript exposes the paradoxes of gendering—the always-receding horizon of racialized masculinity and femininity of which we are only ever (poor) approximations. As a text, this is an invitation—an attempt to carve out discursive space through which we can continue to contest, contort, play with, and refuse the strictures of race, gender, and related bodily norms.

Throughout this manifesto, we utilize “fractal” as a theory-in-motion to illustrate both the distinctiveness and interconnectedness of trans, disabled, LGBQ experiences as well as the logics that inform racism, misogyny, and settler colonialism. Fractals inform textual structures and the development of literary genres (Dimock; Finan). But what if fractals also structure social worlds, historical and rhetorical forces, and struggles for power? What if fractals structure the choreography of heads that turn and stare as we enter grocery stores (Garland-Thompson), structure like verse “the quality of light by which we scrutinize our lives” (Lorde p. 36)? Like fractals, social dynamics are recursive, chaotic, expansive, and interconnected. Like fractals, social encounters are also characterized by repetition, iteration, and associations with larger infrastructures. Fractals bloom, classifying space with increasing clarity. Likewise, social logics organize our lives through intersecting vectors of identity both huge and microscopic. Our entanglements with social structures are corporeal and psychic, ideological and material, abstract and concrete; they infiltrate our voices and vibrate our bones. We cannot escape the architectures that constrain and facilitate our survival. Linked as we are to expansive social geometries, we are all implicated.

Fractals are defined by marking out space, with demarcations growing progressively complex with each iteration. Across space and scale, fractals are connected by patterns, by parallel principles of mathematical order. They are geometric feedback loops that transverse sites, articulating differently sized increments across (and beyond) a canvas. A fractal organizes according to a pattern that continually delineates by lineating. It is a process of territorialization without termination, of identity in unending crisis. As the fractals delineate, they reiterate—a dialectic of the increasingly small and the unendingly large, of “finite parameters and infinite unfolding,” of microscopic detail and of “what keeps spinning out, in endless spirals” (Dimock 88-89).

Take, for example, the Koch snowflake (Fig. 1). In its first iteration, the Koch snowflake appears as an equilateral triangle. In its second iteration, three smaller versions of the triangle emerge from the center of each of the sides, converting the perimeter to a six-pointed star. In the third iteration, two more triangles bloom from each of the new triangles. In each subsequent iteration, the perimeter of the snowflake becomes increasingly multifaceted, but never complete. Any visual manifestation of the Koch snowflake is a simplification, a snapshot of an identity always-in-process. Fractals thus extend their mathematical principles across size and space, marking and patterning territory in asymptotic aspiration.

This figure has four images of triangles in different stages of becoming a fractal.

Fig. 1. A Koch snowflake shows how a triangle becomes a fractal. (image from Wikimedia Commons)

We find it generative to think about power, identity, and relation as fractally formed. If we understand ourselves as operating within a fractal, we have the opportunity to see one another as

  1. connected;
  2. distinct;
  3. participating in related and repeating distributions of power, which is to say, self-similarity.

We can come to see our lives as “relational and constellated” because our praxes for living “are built, shaped, and dismantled based on the encounters [we] have with one another within and across particular systems” (Powell et al.). The recent rise of “gender critical” feminism (or Trans-Exclusionary Reactionary Feminism) exemplifies a failure to see or acknowledge the reiterative connections among social oppressions—the fact that Indigenous peoples, Asian and Latin American immigrants, and Black Americans have all been dehumanized for their failures to obey white gender ideals; that trans women are punished for violating the strictures of femininity used to contain cis women; that disabled folks are subjected to the infantalization and deprivation of agency used to humiliate trans people and people of color. With the expansion of Western political, economic, and social powers, these scripts for racialized gender can be found across continents, classifying various groups of “Others” while denying the intimacies of our continental histories (Lowe).

This many-festo is dedicated to the question: What would it mean to regard coalition as fractal—as the ongoing re-examination and renegotiation of communal boundaries? We can’t help but notice, for example, that the same kinds of microaggressions reiterate across contexts and communities, and that these microaggressions also escalate into familiar macroaggressions. Moreover, we notice that carving out spaces for ourselves also requires repetition—recurrent battles over, explanations of, and justifications for our existences.  Koch snowflakes that we are, we crip, trans, and queer spaces through community collaboration—after all, queerness is an intimate, relational process.

Although some fractals are sanctioned by colonial powers, our repeated carvings-out of spaces are often pathologized, regarded as echolalia or tics (Yergeau Authoring Autism) or willfulness (Ahmed). When they fail to be sanctioned by the powerful, rhetorical fractals appear to be perversely tautological, inappropriate fixations (perseverations?) of individuals who won’t stop talking about gender and disability. Likewise, tics are often conceived as pathological for their failure to terminate (Bliss). A tic is embodied tautology, embodied echo: it magnifies and lessens, recursively maneuvering across the body, often chaining and bonding with yet more tics, forming clusters and bands and coalitions of complex “sensory utterances” (to channel scholars such as Nolan & McBride). We can imagine fractals, conversely, to behold such failures to terminate as a kind of thriving, as a potential to go, move, link, constellate, constitute, ford, chain, rip, rev, be.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the Latin root of “stimulus” refers to a goad or a stylus. For us, stims—known by doctor-types as self-stimulatory behaviors—refers to this persistent worldmaking. We stimulate ourselves—that is, we mark out our being with a stylus; we goad ourselves (and each other) into existence; we draw ourselves in the dirt with a stick. In this way, our identities and our bodies are implicated in our agenda-making—we are the TransCript as much as we make the TransCript. A TransCript thus refers to the reiterative making of trans, crip space by an active allegiance to, and obsession with, an agenda. Just as a fractal expands and deepens in accordance with mathematical principles (e.g. the Mandelbrot Set, Fig. 2), so our collaboration expands and deepens according to the principles of disability and gender justice. Just as colonial systems imbue toxic gender performances into everything from pens to zygotes to prisons, so our invitation to GTFI, to obsess with us about our agenda, extends endlessly. The TransCript is a pathological perseveration—an embodied, automatic, neuroqueer performance of being every bit as persistent as a tic or a stim.

Image of a Manelbrot Set, which looks like cells or bacteria you would see under a microscope. It is bright, neon green with a pinkish outline and purple outer glow.

Fig. 2. A Mandelbrot Set shows how fractals swell and intensify.

Stimming is a world, but it is also a world that is constantly subject to extinction. Structural violences like ableism and transphobia are not only about epithets and intentional oppression; these are systems that manifest on the bodymind via routinized forms of (self) governance. We are taught to hide our differences and to regard marginalized identities as aberrations in everyday life. Disability, race, and gender matter everywhere, but only some configurations of these identities can remain unseen as the invisible norm (Browne and Misra; Kafer). Tanya Titchkosky speaks of these conditionals in terms of “justifiable exclusion” (77). How does this negation, this absence, come to be implicitly framed as a justifiable and reasonable absence? Noting the paucity of disabled people in her workplace, Titchkosky states that “the building is not missing disabled people and yet it is” (78). We are here and yet we are not. You are here and yet you are not. That there are few openly trans, nonbinary, and/or Two-Spirit scholars in our field speaks to the enduring effect of such erasure—a fractal reiteration of Titchkosky’s justifiable exclusion. In concert with trans, Two-Spirit, and nonbinary rhetoricians, we insist on the need to embrace more imaginative forms of knowledge-building (Rawson; LeMaster and Johnson; LeMaster et al.; Patterson; Hsu; Driskill, “Doubleweaving”). There are many more of us who have been drawn out of the fractal plane, who have been bounded and binded, rationalized (as) out of existence. “We” supposedly only need five accessible, gender-neutral restrooms for a campus of 30,000. This, dear readers, is safety and progress and high-five-worthy because we are here, and yet we are not here as long as our knowledges and contributions across fields and worlds are ignored.

Fractal Solidarity

Fractals are the geometries of collaboration. To “fractal” is to tack in-and-out of particular issues while maintaining political coalitions across multitudes. Fractals imbue entire fields with organizing principles, transforming conglomerations of space into systems of meaning (e.g. Sierpinski’s carpet, Fig. 3). To read social space as a fractal, one might trace, for example, how white ownership of capital is protected by state, social, and religious orchestrations of heteronormativity, racism, xenophobia, ableism, and transphobia. Fractal solidarity thus collaborates across distance and size, engaging every point in shared processes of resignification and renewal.

Image is a white square with a large black square in the middle and smaller black squares surrounding it. In between the squares are black dots.

Fig. 3. Sierpinski’s carpet replicates smaller versions of a shape into infinity. (image from Public Domain Vectors)

In tacking between the micro and macro, we practice what Stryker, Currah, and Moore describe as “transing.” Rather than focusing on “trans” as a horizontal migration along the spectrum of gender, Stryker et al. define transing as vertical movement between the experiences of individual bodyminds and the structures of “nations, states, and capital-formations” through which those individuals are made to live. Within our fractal coalitions, we tack in and out of our cultural contexts, commingling with the granular and the capacious. We find resonant conceptions of mutual socialities in cultural rhetorics, decolonial theory, crip communities and crip activism, and other communities maintained by people whose praxes are informed by theories in and of the flesh (Powell et al.; Escobar; Moraga and Anzaldúa; Calafell; Hamraie and Fritsch). Across disciplines and perspectives, we create constellative knowledge(s) with our relations.

At any given time, we are always contributors to various disciplinary field(s), members of various communities, subject to federal and state regulations, and other conditions of belonging. For that reason, when we advocate for trans communities or disability justice, we cannot align our interests with one group to the exclusion of others. Nor must we translate our advocacy into self-interest before we act. Our connections suggest that “their” problems are “our” problems—without erasing difference (e.g. distance, magnitude) and without demanding individual benefits from community justice. Each identity we claim is a locus of our power, but such power also comes with constraints, considerations, and responsibilities. We must be cognizant of the ways that our manifestations, our deeds and discourse, may silence or alienate others. Moreover, we cannot participate as scholars and teachers in disciplines that would deny facets of our identity.

Those of us who are multiply marginalized know how often we are pressed to acquire different forms of expertise in order to justify our own existence. We must constantly educate others regarding “what it means to live as” trans and/or nonbinary people, as people of color, as disabled persons, and only a small fraction of that labor is ever paid (if we are paid at all). You and we do not take our access to institutional resources for granted; we are all familiar with what it’s like when we are barred from some of those resources. Part of our work, therefore, consists of self-creating access—whether in the form of collectively compelling our institutions to accommodate our bodyminds, or struggling to invent new minutes and hours to finish our tasks (perhaps forgoing sleep or other important sustainability services), or independently developing the knowledge or skill to forage for our own resources, all while having our experiences dismissed and denigrated. Because we are so intimately familiar with the isolation and exhaustion of this labor, we take seriously Shawn Wilson’s call to research, teaching, and activism with the tenets of respect, reciprocity, and relationality at the fore, heeding these principles so as to “act with fidelity in relationship to what has been heard, observed, and learnt” (59). We are all worthy of basic human dignity, but we demand more. We want safety. We want freedom. We want joy. Collectively, then, we commit to community safety, dignity, and liberation.

The fractal reminds us that all oppressions are connected. Transphobia emerges from a colonial capitalist cis-tem of gender dimorphism and is upheld by neoliberal economic models that extract value from rigid gender norms (Driskill et al.; Driskill, Asegi Stories, “Doubleweaving,”; Boellstorff et al.; Besnier and Alexeyeff; Green and Bey; Snorton; Chen). The same colonialism that sought to eliminate Indigenous genders beyond the cis binary through cultural and physical genocide still endangers trans and gender nonconforming individuals, especially those who are disabled, people of color, poor, and/or forced by Western expansion to im/migrate across borders. Decolonial work inside and outside the classroom must honor the presence and struggles of trans and gender nonconforming relations, or else such work enforces ongoing colonialism and imperialism.

We need to divest ourselves of some very violent tendencies towards “diversity normativity.” When we neglect to account for experiences and needs different than our own, we must depend on retrofitting (Dolmage; Yergeau et al.; Wood), which equates presence with monetary value and highlights a failure to think about already Othered others. Retrofits are “passive aggressive” and “often aggressively delay access” while also suggesting that the work of inclusion is done (Dolmage 77). Likewise, we must find new ways to plan for an array of bodies and experiences, new forms of intentional and unanticipated coalition-building, a new Universal Design for survival, a new commitment to getting the frac in.

How Do We Get the Frac In?

Our many-festo is an invitation to “get the frac in,” to join a chorus of scholars and activists articulating the fractal anthem of the TransCript. We invite you into our constellation of energies to invent new affective and material worlds for trans and disabled people. Fractals are at once solid and mobile. Creating active solidarity through trans, crip worldmaking, we commit ourselves to:

  • Valuing each other’s lives and experiences on their own terms, rather than in terms of their usefulness to us. We will align with one another not on the basis of our similarities but on the basis of our active decisions to establish community together.
  • Troubling the ideas of neutrality and passivity. We recognize that “neutral” and “passive” positions are reiterations of fractal boundaries, creating the illusion of independence from the larger whole. In particular, we recognize that being cisgender is not a “default” and is every bit as much of a “choice” as being transgender—that the binary is a fiction imposed by Eurowestern colonial taxonomies.
  • Earning trust. Especially for those working with historically marginalized groups to which they do not belong, getting the frac in requires humility. Allyship is not an identity; it is praxis. Allyship means learning from those who live the life, not debating your theoretical knowledge. Allies must do the work of creating (and relinquishing!) trans, crip spaces. Performative allyship and virtue signaling merely affirm the privilege of those who have the least to lose.
  • Becoming better accomplices in one another’s struggles by researching the uneven social architectures we inhabit and pursuing more wholly inclusive and liberatory worlds.
  • Taking responsibility for the wellbeing of the communities we write about/to. Practicing what Alexis Pauline Gumbs and Eric Darnell Pritchard model as “community-accountable” and “ancestor-led” scholarship and teaching (Pritchard, Fashioning Lives; “On Black Queer Literacies and Activism; Gumbs).
  • Understanding that citational politics matter, that the effects of our research matter, and that this is not a sport or a competition but a practice of mutual care.
  • Dismantling the academic cis-stems that exclude trangender people. Trans knowledge exceeds esoteric niches. Academic spaces cannot be liberatory until we collectively struggle against transantagonism, trans-exclusion, trans-erasure, and trans-sequestering in all their manifestations.
  • Building infrastructures of education founded on principles of mutual welfare, rather than on myths of meritocracy.
  • Leveraging privileges and resources in solidarity with marginalized communities.
  • Learning when to create space, when to occupy space, when to dissolve space, and when to withdraw from space in order to elevate those most affected by the issues at hand.
  • Risking failure, imperfection, and embarrassment in pursuit of community care. The ongoing process of accomplicehood is messy and sometimes painful; we accept that. Even with the best intentions, we may hurt one another, and we will have to find ways to take responsibility for that hurt. We also accept that an untarnished reputation can itself be a form of privilege and that the fear of social sanction does not excuse a failure to do the work of accomplicehood.

How Do We Exercise Community Care?

This project is itself a practice of community care, through which we created opportunities for textual and spoken dialogue, for listening across difference, and for sharing our experiences and desires with a broader audience. Following the work of Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, we hope that this manifesto is also an invitation, through which members of our fields might explore more opportunities to venture into unconventional academic genres, to make visible the substantive labor of cultivating more inclusive disciplinary spaces, and to foster open exchange of ideas, fears, and aspirations.

We say “community care” and not “self care” because we find ourselves webbed in systems of power, of affect, of material conditions, and of social conditions that extend far past the “sovereign” power of individual volition. Each iteration of a fractal is defined in relation to the iteration that precedes it. Like fractals, we contextualize ourselves within formative structures. “Self-care,” then, presumes a kind of universal access to individual care made possible by universal access to structural care. If you believe that “self-care” is really possible, that is because you have neglected to credit the innumerable persons and systems that care for you.

Thinking about community care, then, allows us to consider what forms of care are available in the context of unequal social structures. Approaching community care fractally enables us to consider how to build communities of power. The co-creation of this article is one example of what it means to build community care. In writing this paper, each of us authors have acted as nodes of support for one another. Within this network of social validation, we’ve built a social space that offers refuge from the unrelenting ableist and transphobic formations of academia. Like fractals, we conjoin to reiterate spaces of belonging—spaces defined by the affective, material, and social structures of our collaborative design. Though we hope others will stretch, transport, and transform our ideas, we offer the following initial principles for community care:

Community care requires perseverance, a “pathological” commitment to building spaces of social justice. We must make ourselves an unrelenting force (“fus ro DAH!”) of reiteration, of the rearticulation of our community home. Community care means working towards an environment where everyone can feel valued and affirmed. Regardless of any Supreme Court rulings, our personhood is not up for debate.

Community care recognizes the material and affective conditions that structure academia. The ability to afford rent is as much a part of an academic career as emotional wellbeing, as a sense of fulfillment, and as the ability to effect positive community changes. Our mentoring practices, our departmental procedures, and our citational practices should all be sensitive to how they impact others inside and outside academic institutions.

Community care acknowledges that surviving as a person may require community assistance. These needs do not indicate lack or deficit but signify many of the structural evils that silence and exclude marginalized communities and individuals. The one-size-fits-all model of accommodations reinforces normate violence, especially across diverse identities. Viewing diversity as an abstract concept rather than rooted in bodily and material realities can lead to retrofitting “at best” and complete erasure at worst.

Community care means calling folks in or out as needed and making strategic choices that reduce occasions for (re-)traumatizing students and colleagues. Community care means learning to avoid publishing in, assigning, or recommending journals that do not acknowledge historically marginalized perspectives or that publish writing that invalidates our experiences. This includes work in disability studies that refuses to acknowledge the inextricability of ableism from transphobia and other forms of social oppression. Such work is both harmful on an interpersonal level and plainly irresponsible scholarly practice.


We are calling for a collaboration of misfits. We are the snowflake pegs to their Mandelbrot-shaped holes. Drawing upon the work of Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, Aimi Hamraie describes fitting and misfitting as “material-discursive, relational, and interdependent categories.” As Hamraie and Kelly Fritsch show us, misfits are more than mere byproducts of oppressive forces: misfits “are engaged agents of remaking.” In this way, the TransCript summons a commitment to the program of disorderly survival—surviving as oneself by carving out spaces for oneself-in-community.

In writing this manifesto, we ask whether you would collaborate with us, whether you would tic with us, whether you would help us to invent and sustain and share trans, crip space. Whether you would like to articulate the TransCript together. Whether you would like to join the Gay Agenda.™ Not because you’re trans. Not because you’re disabled. But because you share with trans disabled communities a project of worldbuilding. Because you take pleasure in your tics, in your (gender)queerness, in your desire. We invite you to obsess with us. Echo with us. Perseverate with us. Drift in our Koch snowstorms and cover your floors with Sierpinski’s carpet. Connect to and manifest with us.

As scholars and teachers, we all have difficult choices to make. We have careers, families, students, and colleagues that depend on our presence within these field(s). We are all bounded by colonial scripts. Carving new spaces, (trans)gressing and (trans)cribing these boundaries is materially and emotionally demanding. For all these reasons, we know that some colleagues will gtfo. They will follow the scripts we have been handed, inhabit the stories we already know.

But, maybe you want something different. In which case—welcome! GTFI.


  1. We thank Jo’s 2018 FemRhet students and especially Alex Rogers for providing the term “Many-Festo.”

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