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 umbrella metaphor emerged along with the category transgender in the United States in the 1990s. An early version of the “transgender umbrella” is found in a Human Rights Commission of San Francisco report on the Investigation into the Discrimination against Transgender People (Green 1994), a document drafted to educate city officials adjudicating a “gender identity” civil rights ordinance. Conceived by the San Francisco–based therapist Luanna Rodgers, this model consisted of a hand-drawn umbrella with an open canopy stretched over a now dated set of terms: “crossdresser (‘drag’),” “transvestic fetishist,” “transvestite,” “transgenderist,” “transsexual,” and “man/woman.” As the product of classificatory imaginaries produced by “trans-101” trainers, nonprofits, government-funded social service programs, and international human rights organizations, all transgender umbrellas contain terminology that reflects generational, geographic, political, social, and cultural differences. The contexts of use for this heuristic also vary; they include trans-101 trainings, public health programming and reports, legal policy documents, community conference workshops, children's books, and more.

In the two past decades, the umbrella diagram has spread nationally (United States) and internationally to become a widely utilized educational tool. Given that its original purpose was for political advocacy, the image suggests sheltering trans-identified and gender-nonconforming individuals from the hard rain of discrimination. By gathering nonnormative sex and gender terms underneath its canopy, the umbrella visually casts an aggregative categorical imaginary that includes all sex/ual and gender-nonconforming identities and expressions. In so doing, the umbrella implies that all formations of sex and gender are not only possible but also taxonomically containable. While it draws upon the appearance of a “natural” or ontologically prior grouping, the umbrella is produced through a classificatory imaginary that constitutes the population it purports simply to represent.

The aggregating aspect of the transgender umbrella is predicated upon historically shifting understandings of the category transgender. This history is complicated because the term references both a specific identity and a consolidation of various sex- and gender-nonconforming individuals. With the publication of Leslie Feinberg's influential pamphlet Transgender Liberation: A Movement Whose Time Has Come (1992), the collective architecture for transgender was solidified. Feinberg's manifesto resonated with an early 1990s social imaginary that infused the category transgender with the collective energy of social movement — enabling a range of different bodies to congregate underneath a single umbrella. Without this sense of political collectivity, it would not have been possible to visually render transgender as an umbrella instead of as a continuum of gender-nonconforming identities and behaviors or as a particular mode of being.

The umbrella that sorts and classifies all sexual and gender nonconformity underneath a singular canopy is not without controversy. As anthropologist David Valentine argues, the very “flexibility” of the category transgender constitutes its “capacity to stand in for an unspecified group of people” and to encompass “individual identity and simultaneously [to represent] gendered transgressions of many kinds” (2007: 39). Realignments of identities via this particular transgender imaginary can productively differentiate trans-identified people from those who are nontrans gay or queer. However, these same “flexible” sorting practices sometimes obscure the specific intersections of classed, raced, geographic, and cultural dimensions of personhood. As anthropologist Megan Davidson explains: “Different constructions of the category transgender, who it includes and excludes, are not simply negotiations of a collective identity but … negotiations about the boundaries of a social movement and that movement's efforts toward social change” (2007: 61). Such negotiations around inclusion, exclusion, and erasure occur in and through differing conceptions of the category transgender, even as those differences are often “elided in public consciousness by the category transgender and the notion of a unified umbrella implied within it” (ibid.).

Erasures happen when individuals who are placed under the umbrella do not imagine themselves to belong (e.g., some gay men in drag). Erasures also occur through colonizing impulses that include culturally specific terms like hijra or waria. Such categorical appropriations constitute what Evan B. Towle and Lynn M. Morgan call “the transgender native,” a figure that collapses historical and cross-cultural specificities of sex and gender into a catch-all “third gender” category (2006: 469). This move obscures the differential contexts of historically situated or non-Western subjects; it also ensures that coercive mechanisms of Western sex/gender systems remain unexamined in exchange for a reassuring fantasy that gendered utopias exist elsewhere.

The umbrella is no different from other models sutured to the visibility and erasure problematic that shadows all emergent categorical formations. As such, the transgender umbrella and its aggregative imaginary is useful in that it enables disparate sexual- and gender-nonconforming people to coalesce for individual and political identification, community mobilization, resource accrual, and the harnessing of social power. But given the potential exclusions and erasures produced by an all-encompassing classificatory practice, a caution remains. Umbrellas should arrive with a disclaimer: One size does not fit all. Umbrella politics necessitates a mindfulness of categorical sorting practices itself in that it differentially, and sometimes detrimentally, impacts upon personal and political identity formation in addition to social movement building.

References

References
Davidson, Megan.
2007
. “
Seeking Refuge under the Umbrella: Inclusion, Exclusion, and Organizing within the Category Transgender
.”
Sexuality Research and Social Policy
4
, no.
4
:
60
80
.
Feinberg, Leslie.
1992
.
Transgender Liberation: A Movement Whose Time Has Come
.
New York
:
World View Forum
.
Green, James.
1994
.
Investigation into Discrimination against Transgendered People
.
San Francisco
:
Human Rights Commission of San Francisco
.
Towle, Evan B., and Morgan, Lynne M..
2006
. “
Romancing the Transgender Native
.” In
The Transgender Studies Reader
, ed. Stryker, Susan and Whittle, Stephen,
666
84
.
New York
:
Routledge
.
Valentine, David.
2007
.
Imagining Transgender: An Ethnography of a Category
.
Durham, NC
:
Duke University Press
.