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.

The word transgender entered widespread use as an umbrella term for describing a range of gender-variant identities and communities within the United States in the early 1990s.1 At that time, Virginia Prince (1913–2009), a self-identified heterosexual cross-dresser from Los Angeles who later started living socially as a woman full time and who played an indisputably important role in the formation of gender-variant communities, organizations, and identities within the United States in the mid-twentieth century, was often credited with coining the term (Feinberg 1996). Her role in this regard has been overstated, and the history of the word itself is far more complex than has been previously understood.

Prince did describe herself with such terms as transgenderal as early as 1969 and transgenderist as early as 1978, as a means to name the specific behavior of living full time in a chosen social gender role different from that typically associated with birth-assigned sex, without undergoing genital sex-reassignment surgery (see Ekins and King 2006). In 1975, FI News featured an article about the term transgenderist (Mesics 1975), defining it in the manner Prince would later use, and in 1976, Ari Kane, a contemporaneous gender-variant community leader on the East Coast, used the term in a similar fashion (see Mesics 1975). Prince and Kane, however, did not use the word “transgender” in its contemporary all-inclusive sense, nor were they first in coining words involving some compound of trans + gender. More importantly, the earliest documented uses of “transgender” do not distinguish cross-dressing or living full time without surgery from transsexual identities.

In 1965, for example, Dr. John Oliven proposed that the term transsexualism be replaced by the term transgenderism, arguing that the concept of sexuality could not account for the “all consuming belief that [transsexuals] are women who by some incredible error were given the bodies of men” (1965: 514). On April 26, 1970, a TV Guide newspaper insert used the term “transgendered” to describe the transsexual title character of Gore Vidal's sex-change farce Myra Breckinridge (“Sunday Highlights” 1970). In 1974, Drs. Robert Hatcher and Joseph Pearson used “transgender” as a term for operative transsexuals, writing, “The transvestite rarely seeks transgender surgery” (1974: 176). During that same year, Oliven again used “transgender” but this time as a term inclusive of both transvestites and transsexuals (1974). By 1975, transvestite/transsexual groups began using “transgenderism” as a term inclusive of transsexuals and transvestites (Dowell 1975). In 1979, 1982, and 1985, Christine Jorgensen, then perhaps the world's most famous transsexual, publicly rejected the term transsexual in favor of the term transgender (Parker 1979; Associated Press 1982; Canadian Press 1985). In 1984, TV-TS Tapestry magazine featured an article recounting the importance of a “transgender community,” in which “transgender” was used as an umbrella term inclusive of transsexuals and cross-dressers (Peo 1984). By the mid-1980s, “transgender” had been used multiple times — in medical, pop-culture, and trans community sources alike — as an umbrella term inclusive of transsexuals, cross-dressers, and other gender-variant people.2 The dramatic rise in the term's popularity in the early 1990s, therefore, should be seen as the acceleration of a longer trend rather than the creation of a new meaning for an existing term that originally meant something else. The coinage, uptake, and diffusion of “transgender” was an organic, grass-roots process that emerged from many sources, in many conversations happening in many different social locations.

This new understanding of transgender's etymology not only has important implications for tracing the complex recent history of gender and sexuality; it can also intervene in contentious identitarian disputes within and among various contemporary trans communities. One common polemical use of what might be called the “Virginia Prince Fountainhead Narrative” of transgender's origin is that a motley movement of various gender-nonconformists, transsexuals, and queers commandeered a term that referred specifically to heterosexual cross-dressers who chose to cross-dress full time — transgenderists — thereby colonizing the identity label of another group and forcibly assimilating them into political and social formations they wanted nothing to do with.3 Prince herself felt this way; she claimed ownership of the term and objected to the broader use of “transgender” (Prince 1991).

Etymological research clearly documents, however, that since the 1970s, “transgender” has in fact been used with a variety of meanings. One important use has been to group together different kinds of people who might otherwise have virtually no social contact with one another. This grouping together across fine gradations of trans experience and identity can facilitate communication and hence build the experienced reality of a shared community, with overlapping and intersectional social needs and political goals. It is this expansive, rather than narrow, use of the term that encompasses the intellectual and political promise of a transgender studies.

1. See the chart documenting the rising popularity of transgender in Stryker and Aizura 2013 (2).

2. See the extensive citations published in Williams 2012.

3. See, for example, the opinion of Billie Jean Jones (1992), publisher of cross-dresser magazine TV Guise.

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