This section includes eighty-six short original essays commissioned for the inaugural issue of TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly. Written by emerging academics, community-based writers, and senior scholars, each essay in this special issue, “Postposttranssexual: Key Concepts for a Twenty-First-Century Transgender Studies,” revolves around a particular keyword or concept. Some contributions focus on a concept central to transgender studies; others describe a term of art from another discipline or interdisciplinary area and show how it might relate to transgender studies. While far from providing a complete picture of the field, these keywords begin to elucidate a conceptual vocabulary for transgender studies. Some of the submissions offer a deep and resilient resistance to the entire project of mapping the field terminologically; some reveal yet-unrealized critical potentials for the field; some take existing terms from canonical thinkers and develop the significance for transgender studies; some offer overviews of well-known methodologies and demonstrate their applicability within transgender studies; some suggest how transgender issues play out in various fields; and some map the productive tensions between trans studies and other interdisciplines.
“Identity” is two-faced. It is used to represent both intrapsychic states and relational processes: It can be claimed to be both socially constructed and transhistorically essential, a being and a doing, ascribed and attained, made in language and exceeding language, simultaneously intensely private and biographical, a locus for political struggle, and the focus state power. It is formed along multiple historically formed social vectors we call gender, class, race, sexuality, and so on, but it is also, simply, about one's own experience here and now. Judith Butler (1990), Michel Foucault ( 1990), and others have argued forcefully that identity is a product of modern power, arising as a reaction to the demand that the subject identify hirself in the context of modern systems of biopolitical governance, and as such is a site of knowledge production — about the other and about the self. But, as Butler argues, subjective experience rendered as identity elides the biopolitical and contextual conditions of its production, which is precisely what enables its subjective experience as essential and transhistorical, a key modality for the work of biopower.
However, identity has another dual character that underpins the contrasts outlined above: it is both a vernacular and an analytic concept. A descendent of Enlightenment and Romantic concepts, central to modern biopower, and a focus of scholarly attempts at de-essentialization, identity circulates also — inevitably, Butler shows — as the modern Western folk theory of essential self. In a direct assault on the use of identity as a trope in social scientific analyses, Rogers Brubaker and Frederick Cooper (2000) argue that identity always (by force of its vernacular currency) implicitly smuggles stable subject positions into critical social scientific analyses — especially along the axes of race, gender, and sexuality — even as scholars argue against such essentialisms. That is, as Brian Massumi (2002) points out, the indexical connotations of identity as fixed and stable follow social theorists into their deconstructive texts.
So what then might we, as analysts, learn from those who do not have a socially speakable identity in the vernacular sense — that is, those whose subjective experiences are not (yet) hailed by forms of biopower that require a response from the subject? This counterintuitive question emerged during online research with cisgendered men about their sexual attraction to preoperative or nonoperative transgender women (I refer to them as men who have sex with transgender women, or MSTW). Joanne Meyerowitz (2002) shows how, in the heyday of mid-twentieth-century transsexual medicine, doctors had to be convinced of a transsexual woman's postsurgical heterosexual identity as the central sign of “true” transsexual identity. It is surprising, then, how little attention has been paid to transgender people's cisgendered sexual partners and their identities; a comprehensive review of this literature would be possible in a regular journal-length article. Almost universally, however, the extant literature focuses almost entirely on the identity dilemmas of cisgendered partners in existing relationships with people who come out as transgender, especially the partners of MTF (male-to-female) transgender-identified people (some exceptions are Devor 1997; Mauk 2008).
In short, there is very little discussion of cisgendered women or men who actively eroticize transgender embodiment (i.e., what would usually be referred to as their “sexual identity”). If the latter have any kind of name, it is “admirer” or “tranny chaser,” terms that are broadly used about these men but almost universally rejected by MSTW study participants. Instead, in focus groups and interviews, MSTW actively sought normative terms that did not invoke “identity” per se to describe themselves: “The term I truly prefer is gentleman,” wrote one, another suggesting “normal.” When pushed to talk explicitly about sexual identity, MSTW almost unanimously called themselves “heterosexual” or “bisexual,” though a very specifically configured bisexuality. One participant wrote: “Bisexuality doesn't suit me,” because it implies attraction to men and women. “I'm not attracted to men at all, only women and transwomen.” Almost all the men we interviewed denied homosexual identity, arguing that the object of their desire was femininity, irrespective of their partner's embodiment.
However, the dilemma for the men is that their desire for feminine-identifying sexual partners who have penises is culturally conceivable only in terms of closeted homosexuality; indeed, even the transwomen we interviewed frequently made this claim. MSTW participants, recognizing this, expressed dissatisfaction with “labeling” and the possibility of homosexual identification: “Why is it that when a man likes a transwoman that he has to be labeled something?” one complained. The answer is, of course, that sexuality is, as Foucault ( 1990) has argued, perhaps the most elemental form of identity in the modern West. But the men's claims that sex with transwomen was an element of their heterosexuality or just something that they did (two common claims) are not conceivable in the vernacular terms of identity, and it is identity that is seen as the outcome of sexual desire and practice.
I would argue, then, that MSTW do not have an identity in that the power of genital determination makes their desires conceivable (and hailable) only as “homosexuality,” a possibility they reject. Of course, they are still assimilable into the narrative power of sexual identity through that hailing, but the configuration of bodies, body parts, and language introduces an interruption into the hailing process. Indeed, I would suggest that the dearth of complex discussion of MSTW desire in the scholarly literature derives precisely from the fact that they cannot be accounted for in these vernacular/biopolitical terms, and so their erotic projects must be either ignored, dismissed, or explained away, even by critical scholars who seek to undermine identity as an agent of biopower. That is, MSTW are not “outside” power; rather, the demand of power for easy recognition through the hetero/homo–male/female binary complex is interrupted by the unexpectedness of these embodied and subjective arrangements.
Brubaker and Cooper claim that it is not clear why human social practices and meanings around self and other should at all be conceptualized as producing identity as their end goal (2000: 6). As I have argued, the reason is that identity is key to biopower's naturalized vernacular, a vernacular that MSTW desire interrupts, even if just for a moment. One task for transgender studies, then, I argue, is to exploit this interruption and dispense with identity as an analytic trope, for even when we show it to be contingent and multiple (or combat it by calling on affect or history or culture), its vernacular meanings are powerful indexical remainders that draw on the systems of power we seek to open up. Identity fails when there is complexity: but surely it is the case that all humans have lifeworlds too complex to be accounted for by the restrictive ontologies of identity and its implication in biopolitical systems of power. Jettisoning “identity” may, indeed, be necessary in order to open up the full consequences of its role in shaping modern selves, a task for which transgender studies is well suited.
The research on which this essay is based draws on the NICHD-sponsored project, Gender Identity and HIV Risk II, Walter Bockting, principal investigator. I thank Walter Bockting, Jamie Feldman, and Bean Robinson for allowing me to participate in this project.