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.

Constructions of whiteness are geopolitical, hierarchically placed, and structured around class and status. To insert the study of whiteness into trans studies means to develop a critical lens of seemingly disparate elements, like beauty, access, visibility, and acceptance within, for instance, the history of transgender people seeking services and gaining access to them (in the mid-twentieth century) and leadership and activism (at the present time). Furthermore, to think of it on a global scale demands a recognition that gendered attributes of maleness or femaleness are intercepted by whiteness. In many instances, constructions of gender are about being white, being perceived to be white, or sometimes they are deeply ingrained in perceptions of beauty as white. We can see this in cosmetic interventions for trans women, for instance.

Whiteness is evident in transgender communities, transgender studies, and transgender history not only in terms of color (particularly notions of whiteness as lightness or paleness) but also, and more importantly, in terms of how “color” sustains hierarchies of leadership, authority, and credibility. In other words, while it is tempting to see whiteness as skin color, whiteness is a structuring and structured form of power that, through its operations, crystallizes inequality while enforcing its own invisibility. In US society, an economy of value around light-skinned trans people is often noticeable in contemporary scholarship or activism. Scholars like Avery Tompkins, who bring whiteness studies and trans studies together, note that it is through the silences in which whiteness operates that trans* communities, representations, and thus visibility retain a white homogeneous perception—both among members of such communities and to observers (Tompkins 2011: 155–56.).

Since the study of whiteness coincided very much with the development of transgender studies, the two are intertwined in this given cultural moment (Stryker 1998; Roediger 1999). Both intend to show previously unmarked social locations—albeit with different weights of power. Whiteness turned the eye back into racial formation systems by shifting from multicultural, abstract discussions of race into discussions about white dominance and its reproduction. Meanwhile, the emergence of transgender studies sometimes noted the normative (white, heterosexual, and cisgender male privilege) position of those defining transsexuality and gender reassignment procedures (thus limiting those who would have access to sociomedical services). But most importantly, trans studies also revealed the unmarked position of the gender normative: the group once called nontranssexual people is referred to now as cisgender people. Both studies based on transgender issues and whiteness studies help to indicate the need for thinking of race and gender/sexuality as axes of power. White privilege and cisgender privilege have received a lot of attention as social locations that run the risk of providing universalizing statements about their constituents—in whatever social movement they are located. Trans discussions in both academic and activist spaces voice an intent of diversity and inclusion or demands for the end of oppression based on racism and discrimination, while they simultaneously use language in everyday interaction (in tactics of recruitment, socialization, and scholarly writing) that construes such spaces as predominantly white (see Bérubé 2001). For instance, in contemporary trans* spaces, the perception of having the choice about being genderless, gender fluid, or genderqueer, is often tied to white privilege, especially when some members of communities of color may understand their trans experience as nonidentity, as expressions of gayness, or as in a space between gay and trans (Valentine 2007). I do not seek to establish an essentialist, oppositional view of trans* that splits people of color and whites but do so in order to illustrate the systemic forms of naming and sustaining trans* as something defined hierarchically, even if without a conscious intent.

Beauty is also a key, intertwined element of whiteness in transgender representations. Perceptions of being a legitimate transgender person were dutifully noted in the twentieth century (Meyerowitz 2002). In the 1950s and until the 1970s, it became evident that certain ethno-racial groups were not intelligible as trans, as for instance the perception that “Puerto Ricans” (a very heterogeneous group ethno-racially and in terms of socioeconomic status) did not look to be trans but “fags” (Billings and Urban 1982; Vidal-Ortiz 2008). Black constructions of beauty often fell outside the perception of beauty in transitioning as well, as African American transgender individuals enounced their desire for transition before Christine Jorgensen but did not achieve such recognition. For instance, today, being a Latina or Asian undocumented immigrant who is trans embodies a completely different experience from that of being a white trans person in academia or heading a NGO. While tokenistic efforts to mention trans people of color are often part of the production of whiteness in transgender studies (Vidal-Ortiz 2009), the leadership of most contemporary movements involving trans rights, studies, and activism is predominantly white. This is also evidenced at an international level, where forms of access to transitioning (surgical procedures in particular) and forms of visibility for trans* people operate with whiteness as an ideal (Aizura 2009, 2011).

A lens on whiteness forces contemporary transgender politics to confront transgender normativity (and citizenship), in which whiteness is imbricated in complex ways. Critically encountering whiteness in trans movements and studies has direct-action and social-movement implications in that it forces the discourse of community and membership to levels that surpass liberal multicultural attempts for inclusion and diversity.

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