As we noted in the introduction to the inaugural issue of TSQ, and as the editors of this special issue, “Decolonizing the Transgender Imaginary,” so forcefully reiterate, it seems especially important to mark the geopolitical home of this journal in anglophone scholarly networks in North America. That location and its relation to the accelerating (if still tenuous) institutionalization of transgender studies in the US academy foreground for the journal's project the inescapable framework of coloniality. The United States originated, after all, through processes of white settler colonialism, and since the nineteenth century it has undertaken ongoing neocolonial adventures of its own. The material conditions produced through this history necessarily inform all cultural production within their scope.
Making explicit a colonial/colonizing context that is routinely invisibilized in the United States feels doubly necessary given our journal's avowed hope of “changing gender” not just in the United States but elsewhere, in ways that allow for more expansive opportunities for life for anyone ill-served by existing gendering systems. We do so because we understand gender not just as a binary system of masculine/feminine codes or representations but also as a biopolitical apparatus that operates on all bodies to produce unequally distributed life chances; gender privileges not just men over women but also the legibly or functionally gendered over those who become inhuman waste through their incoherent, messy, resistant, or ambiguous relationship to biopolitical utility. How can one not resist such circumstances—and not just in relation to one's own situation but in solidarity with those whom one understands to be caught up in similar difficulties? But how can such an audacious undertaking avoid—or even undermine—the “colonial imaginary” that arguably subtends every gesture toward the global south and east that emanates from the global west and north? How, in particular, can the term transgender—grounded as it is in conceptual underpinnings that assume a sex/gender distinction as well as an analytic segregation of sexual orientation and gender identity/expression that are simply foreign to most places and times—possibly be imagined as a suitable framework for pursuing a proliferative, generative, and liberatory politics of embodied difference? These are questions that demand answers.
In titling this issue “Decolonizing the Transgender Imaginary,” we pay obvious homage to Emma Pérez's (1999) influential formulation of a “decolonial imaginary” and, in doing so, implicitly ask what a “transgender imaginary” might be, how it is related to processes of colonization, and how—in theory as well as practice—it might be decolonized.
The “imaginary,” a concept derived originally from psychoanalytic theory, is articulated most famously in Jacques Lacan's essay “The Mirror Stage” and describes a realm of psychical experience concerned with images, identification, and embodiment. In that essay, Lacan describes an infant, held tightly “by some support, human or artificial,” who, upon perceiving itself in a mirror, “overcomes, in flutter of jubilant activity, the obstructions of his support” (Lacan 1977: 1). The psychical identification with a mirror image that maps the lived body's sensory and perceptual awareness of itself into a coherent picture that, in Lacan's account, is the foundational act of subjectivity is thus also, in his telling, a fantasy of mastery. It involves the aggressive subordination of other people and things to the secondary role of mere “support” that the emergent subject must “overcome” in a quest for autonomy. The mirror consolidates a “total form of the body … pregnant with the correspondences that unite the I … with the phantoms that dominate him, or with the automaton in which … the world of his own making tends to find completion” (2–3). The imaginary, in other words, is a scene of struggle and can itself be construed as a psychical colonization of an experienced world by a rapacious subject that, in Lacan's rendition, is unmarked as Eurocentric, bourgeois, masculinist, and white.
In Pérez's appropriation of the Lacanian imaginary for the purpose of “writing Chicanas into history,” coloniality is ambient and omnipresent; it is that which fills the space between the embodied subject and the objectified image of the subject's body. Coloniality is identified with the material conditions that rupture and fragment the self, that shatter the representational mirror, and that must be overcome in order for Lacan's infantile Western subject to constitute itself as a mastered (and mastering) whole. Introducing the Other of coloniality simultaneously marks Lacan's putatively universal subject with its racial (and historical and cultural) specificities while opening a pathway through which the agencies of subjugated embodied subjects can become transformative of their worlds (Pérez 1999: 5). In opening that pathway, the imaginary comes to name the gap between acts of colonizing and a potential for postcoloniality; it becomes a virtual space for dreaming in the dark of how world, self, and other could be differently co-configured—or, in other words, decolonized.
A transgender imaginary, then, risks repeating the colonizing gesture of mistaking a mirrored surface's reflected images of the Same for the otherness of the Other. It can misrecognize different configurations of embodiment, identity, desire, and subjectivity for points on a map whose prime meridian runs through the United States, whose road signs are in English, whose background color is white, whose cardinal directions are man, woman, homosexual, and heterosexual, and upon which transgender is imagined as movement across the borders of this gridded space. It can orient a transgender subject toward travel in foreign lands, in search of ancestors and of kin, oblivious to material distinctions that render one a tourist and another a local, that enable mobility for some while constraining movement for others, that can put the lives of the many in service to the desires of the few.
At the same time, as Pérez points out, the imaginary is also a place where fragmented realities, fragmented bodies, and fragmented selves—whose fragmentations are themselves artifacts of colonizing operations that sunder what otherwise might be conjoined—can become legible and differentially articulated, and where the constitutive violences that have produced them (so often silenced) can be spoken out loud. In this sense, the imaginary can function as an interstitial, oppositional space—a fecund, choric “enspacement” that actively holds, and thereby enables, different possibilities for movements both individual and collective, any of which might manifest manifold decolonizing potentials, any of which might precipitate innovative and necessary actions. In this sense, a transgender imaginary that decolonizes can provide one vector toward a future more consonant with justice—a future in which varieties of bodies that trouble and contest the “total form” of the privileged Western body can each find, not the “completion” and “domination” foreclosed to them through their exclusion from a normative ideal but, rather, new strategies for ethical and political engagement with others and environs.
The works in this special issue offer a number of strategies for decolonizing the transgender imaginary. They speak in indigenous voices to break dominant epistemological frames, critique and deconstruct the colonialist logic within the social-scientific gaze, and confound the distinction between ethnographer and ethnographic subject. Autoethnographic trans-of-color writing opens a space of transformation between dominant discourse and lived experience. Poststructuralist refigurations of race, transgender, body, and technology dismantle the functional terms and categories through which colonialist biopolitics operate; they recast Lacan's “support, human or artificial” as a facilitative, co-presencing biotechno-cultural milieu in which all bodies are characterized by an originary technicity and in which transsexual bodies are as un/natural as any other. The editors have also curated a provocative roundtable discussion among a transnational panel of activists, culture makers, and scholars of gender and sexuality who offer perspectives on decolonizing the transgender imaginary that range from the celebratory to the cynical.
And yet, despite the range of viewpoints expressed, the conversation on decolonization in transgender studies has scarcely begun. How, for example, might the field engage more explicitly with decolonial critical theory, such as that of Walter Mignolo on de/colonial aesthetics (Mignolo 2012; Mignolo and Escobar 2013), or work that explores sites of colonization that do not focus on the Euro-American nexus informing all of the work in this issue, such as Madina Tlostanova's feminist scholarship on resistant cultural production in post-Soviet central Asia (Tlostanova 2010)? How can engaged scholarship combine with inspirational pedagogies to inculcate decolonial perspectives or political activism among students doing transgender studies coursework, with consequences that extend well outside the classroom? How might decolonial strategies emanating from many sites of resistance and struggle throughout the world disseminate themselves through formal as well as informal education, academic as well as community-based research, and scholarship that draws on legitimated knowledges as well as subjugated ones? How could attention to decolonization in this moment of rapid institutionalization for transgender studies as an academic field leave an imprint that shapes institutional culture for a long time to come, or contribute to the redirection of institutional resources toward goals or groups that historically have been excluded from the university?
The issue editors' introduction to the works they have assembled here provides a more expansive contextualization of the pitfalls and promises of imagining the decolonization of “transgender” than we can sketch in these short prefatory observations; we want to highlight, before closing, their citation of decolonial feminist philosopher María Lugones. Lugones, the editors point out, understands resistance to coloniality as “a complex interaction of economic, racializing, and gendering systems in which every person at the colonial encounter can be found” (2012: 77). We share the perspective that every social encounter involves a “colonial encounter,” given that coloniality is a global system in which we are all positioned regardless of whether we suffer or benefit from it, just as every social encounter is gendered, raced, and classed.
In recognition of the totalizing nature of colonialism, addressing the injustice of its racialized and spatialized maldistribution of the means of life is an ethical imperative, wherever and however one happens to have been positioned within the colonial system. As general editors of an academic journal of transgender studies, we are committed to answering that interpellative hailing in a manner peculiarly suited to the work we are undertaking here, however else we might (or might not) work on decolonization in other arenas. We hope that the discussions launched and the critiques advanced in the pages that follow can contribute something to the larger decolonial project raging far beyond this journal's reach and that they can also inform subsequent academic work in transgender studies, whether it is published in TSQ or elsewhere.