Abstract

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.

What is the place of queer in transgender studies? The fields of queer studies and transgender studies are linked through shared histories, methods, and commitments to transforming the situation of gender and sexual outsiders. While queer is associated primarily with nonnormative desires and sexual practices, and transgender is associated primarily with nonnormative gender identifications and embodiments, it is both theoretically and practically difficult to draw a clear line between them. In distinction to both gay and lesbian studies and sexuality studies, queer studies defines itself as a critical field that questions stable categories of identity. Transgender studies also defines itself against identity, offering a challenge to the perceived stability of the two-gender system. Whether and in what context these fields should be seen as distinct is a live question; however, queer and transgender are linked in their activist investments, their dissident methodologies, and their critical interrogation of and resistance to gender and sexual norms.

Challenging discrete categories of identity has been central to the work of both queer and transgender studies from the start. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, queer emerged as an activist slogan that sought to capture the radical energies of struggles for sexual and gender freedom in the face of the AIDS crisis. By reclaiming a homophobic slur as the name for a movement and, soon after, a field of study, queer activists and scholars indicated the significance of violence and stigma in the experience of gender and sexual outsiders. Queer, with its valences of strange, odd, and perplexing, was also meant to indicate a range of nonnormative sexual practices and gender identifications beyond gay and lesbian. Forwarding a model of coalition among the marginalized and the excluded, queer as at its most capacious was imagined as a rallying cry against “the regimes of the normal” (Warner 1993: xxvi), poised to address “the fractal intricacies of language, skin, migration, state” (Sedgwick 1993: 9).

Transgender is also a term that emerged in an activist context in order to challenge the rule of identity. If queer can be understood as refusing the stabilizations of both gender and sexuality implied by the categories gay and lesbian and opening onto a wider spectrum of sexual nonnormativity, transgender emerged as a term to capture a range of gendered embodiments, practices, and community formations that cannot be accounted for by the traditional binary. Although the precise origins of the term are contested, it has taken root over the past couple of decades as an activist, scholarly, and vernacular term that refuses normalizing and clinical views of gender in favor of a more capacious and mobile account. In Transgender History, Susan Stryker (2008: 1) defines the concept of transgender as “the movement across a socially imposed boundary from an unchosen starting place,” capturing the critical force and flexibility of the term. While transgender functions as an umbrella term, able to conjure a spectrum that can include transsexuals, cross-dressers, and butches and femmes, it also signals a resistance to the taxonomic framework implied by the model of the spectrum (even as it “overcomes” it). Such a critical impulse — the refusal of all categories of sexual and gender identity — might be called genderqueer, a term that suggests the intimacy between transgender and queer.

Queer and transgender studies are linked not only in their shared critique of sexual and gender normativity but also in their resistance to disciplinary and methodological norms. The counterdisciplinary thought of Michel Foucault has been crucial for the development of both fields. Foucault's (1978) account of the disciplinary force of the modern regime of sexuality informs the antinormative, anti-identity politics of transgender and queer studies. In addition, Foucault's genealogical approach to history allowed him to consider a range of genders and sexualities — for instance, in the story of the complex nineteenth-century figure Herculine Barbin (Barbin and Foucault 1980) — outside modern categories of identity. Such unsettled and unsettling instances of embodiment, practice, and identification threaten not only discrete categories of sexual and gender identity but the very distinction between gender and sexuality. Finally, Foucault's critique of the will to knowledge masquerading as scientific objectivity is crucial to the methodology of both queer and transgender studies. Since those with nonstandard embodiments and sexual practices have been disproportionately subjected to the clinical gaze, Foucault's (2003) critical history of the human sciences has led to an insistence in both fields on queer and trans people as the subjects rather than the objects of knowledge. Such insistence points to a shared commitment to the politics of knowledge, to the idea that new ways of being in the world depend on new ways of thinking and new critical frameworks.

Despite historical, methodological, and political overlaps, queer and transgender studies have not always traveled in tandem, and it is not clear, as these fields age, to what extent they should. It is clear that the anti-identitarian, antinormalizing, and coalitional aspects of queer have been useful in articulating and furthering transgender scholarship and politics; and indeed this shared commitment to crossing disciplinary and identity boundaries can make it hard to distinguish sharply between queer and transgender studies or to sort out these lines of influence. However, while queer at its most capacious is understood to indicate a wide range of differences and social exclusions, it has often been critiqued for functioning more narrowly in practice. In her important account of the exclusions of queer politics, “Punks, Bulldaggers, and Welfare Queens,” Cathy J. Cohen (2005) indicts queer as a false universal, one that claims to address the situation of all marginal subjects but in fact is focused on the concerns of gays and lesbians. One can see a similar critique of queer among some trans scholars, who have argued that queer studies has not engaged fully with the material conditions of transgender people but has rather used gender nonnormativity as a sign or allegory of queerness.

Such tensions about the status and inclusiveness of queer do not take place in a vacuum but rather in fraught material, professional, and institutional contexts. Queer studies, despite some notable successes, remains an understaffed and underfunded venture. Nonetheless, the field is in a stronger position than transgender studies, which is often taught as an addendum to queer studies or gender studies. How women's and gender studies programs and LGBT studies programs can best support institutional initiatives in the field of transgender studies is a crucial question in the present. Inclusion of transgender material in courses and curricula is a double-edged sword, since it advances knowledge of the field and meets considerable student demand, but it arguably forestalls the most crucial step in the institutionalization of transgender studies: the hiring of scholars primarily situated in transgender studies and of trans-identified scholars to tenure-track positions in the university.

Furthermore, despite significant overlap in the intellectual formations of queer and transgender studies, the conceptual fit between them is not seamless. Queer has proven less useful than transgender studies in accounting for embodiment. Trans studies makes accounting for material experience and making space for new forms and experiences of embodiment central (in this aspect, one sees significant links between transgender and disability studies). Queer is deeply tied to the intellectual formation of poststructuralism, particularly as it developed in literary theory and psychoanalysis. The field of transgender studies also was influenced by this framework — particularly in canonical texts such as Sandy Stone's “The Empire Strikes Back” (1991) — but it has tended to be more methodologically inclusive and diverse. While queer studies continues to resist social science methodologies in favor of a more humanistic version of interdisciplinary or cultural studies, trans studies has stronger ties to legal studies, transnational analysis, the history of medicine, architecture and design, ethnography, and political economy.

It is not clear whether queer is best understood as a substantial term with historical links to communities marked as gender and sexual deviants or as a more abstract theoretical term, one that describes a capacious nonnormativity, political critique, and resistance to identity. A similar ambiguity marks transgender, which can refer to particular modes of embodiment or communities of people but can also be understood as a theoretical term that points to the crossing and denaturalizing of identity categories. The powerful destabilizations that both queer and transgender have effected are crucial, but in the present they may need to be balanced by an awareness of the continuing force of identity. Etymologically, both trans and queer refer to crossing, and in that sense both terms invoke mobility as well as its limits. Given that more and more gender-normative, economically and racially privileged, coupled, and metropolitan gays and lesbians are crossing into the mainstream, these fields may need to turn their attention in the present to crossing in the sense of being crossed or thwarted in one's desires, ambitions, or life chances. Social class, race, region, ability, and gender presentation play a crucial role in determining rights, access to resources, and freedom from violence; and transgender, transsexual, and genderqueer people suffer disproportionately from what Amber Hollibaugh and Cherríe Moraga, writing in 1981, called “queer attack” (403). If queer has political force in the context of struggles for gender and sexual freedom, it is because of its ability to convey the ongoing realities of stigma, violence, and exclusion.

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