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Radical History Review 88 (2004) 166-177



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Teaching Transgender History, Identity, and Politics

Elizabeth Reis


What's transgender?"

"Is there transgender history?"

"You can teach a whole course on that?"

"Transgender issues? Cool!"

These responses reflect the range of reactions I get when I tell people the title of the course I teach at the University of Oregon: "Transgender History, Identity, and Politics." Most of the students seem to know what transgender means; last term the class filled to capacity within days of the onset of registration, and I turned away as many as the forty that enrolled.

Transgender issues are entering the mainstream. In movies like Some Like It Hot (dir. Billy Wilder, 1959), Tootsie (dir. Sydney Pollack, 1982), and The Crying Game (dir. Neil Jordan, 1992), Hollywood has explored gender-crossing themes, the most recent examples being Better Than Chocolate (dir. Anne Wheeler, 1999) and Boys Don't Cry (dir. Kimberly Pierce, 1999). And the publishing industry is following suit. Recent successes include She's Not There: A Life in Two Genders by Jennifer Finney Boylan, Crossing: A Memoir by Deirdre McCloskey, and As Nature Made Him: The Boy Who Was Raised As a Girl by John Colapinto. 1 Transgender is out of the closet, and it should be in the classroom as well.

I define transgender broadly to include a range of gender expression. The chronology of the class encompasses the early American period through the present. The course syllabus embraces diverse topics, such as cross-dressing in colonial [End Page 166] America, Native American cross-social role expression, the medical construction of "hermaphrodites" in the nineteenth century, popular American fiction with a cross-gender role theme, early-twentieth-century sex research and the concomitant labeling of "disorders," and the medicalization of transsexuality (making hormones and surgery accessible in the twentieth century). 2 Though much of our material focuses on contemporary America, students come to realize that transgender issues have a history that can inform current debates.

We begin the first day of class with a discussion of my primary ground rule: I will not tolerate any transphobia in the classroom. Students certainly do not have to agree with everything they hear in the class, but they need to show respect for people who make decisions that others might reject. One would hope that this would make for an obvious point, yet because of an unfortunate homophobic incident in a history of sexuality class I taught years ago, I have become very upfront about my expectations ever since. I use the concept of empathetic objectivity, developed by Dale Cannon, a scholar of world religions, to explain how we approach this potentially explosive topic. 3 Professor Cannon argues that discussion of religious faith proves challenging because many of us hold our own convictions so sacred that we find it difficult to take seriously the beliefs of other traditions. The same principle holds true for notions of gender. People embrace deeply rooted ideas about what is "normal" and "natural," and they tend to regard with suspicion those practices that seem to conflict with these standards. Changing one's sex seems "unnatural" to some, but our class goal is to study questions of gender with empathetic objectivity, to try to place ourselves in the shoes of others for the purpose of understanding their position. Cannon's sensible model sets the tone for the ensuing ten weeks. To be sure, gender issues are emotional, and our conversations often become heated, yet students have been uniformly sensitive, which allows us to investigate controversial topics in an open and inquiring atmosphere.

Transgendered people make explicit what the rest of us take for granted concerning our gender identities and gender presentations. Most of us feel comparatively comfortable with our bodies; we might complain about particular physical attributes and we may be uncomfortable with various social and economic restraints encountered because of our sex, but the majority does not question the fundamental issue of whether we are female or male. Transgendered people do not have this luxury because they feel at odds with their birth assignments. Some might...

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