- Toward Trans* Epistemology:Imagining the Lives of Transgender People
There is something vertiginous about the swirl of scholarly work on transgender. Over the last decade, an explosion of interest in such topics produced dozens of volumes and literally thousands of articles examining the phenomena from a range of disciplinary perspectives. Many such studies posit a “massive destabilization of long taken-for-granted categorical frameworks” (Brubaker 2016, 1). The positioning of “transgender” seems somewhat paradoxical in these instances; it activates discourses of category crisis and rupture while serving as an increasingly ossified category of meaning in its own right. It is in this area that something we might call a queer method has the most purchase.
If we employ the standard “queer” interpretation that positions subjects and subjectivities as “fluid, unstable and perpetually becoming” (Browne and Nash 2010, 1), it would seem impossible to fashion a concrete methodology or indeed anything resembling a coherent subject. But there is a varied tradition within the social sciences of thinking queerly about transgender people and communities. Both texts reviewed in this essay make the basic move of resisting prior classification schemes and allowing for research subjects to make complex meaning of their identities, communities, and social experiences. A queer perspective on transgender topics makes two primary intellectual moves: first, such studies take a humanistic approach, conferring the “dignity of belief” upon the “felt sense of gender” that research subjects describe (Salamon 2014, 116). Second, such studies deploy what I’ll call a “trans* epistemology.” The truncation symbol, or “*” at the end of “trans*,” symbolizes the openness to a variety of endings, meanings, and interpretations, a multiplicity of as-yet undefined articulations. [End Page 319] The “subject” of research, previously considered a static, knowable, coherent, and self-knowledgeable entity, bound by the imagination of the researcher, is redrawn as an open question about how the forces of culture, discourse, self-understanding, and social group membership interact to produce frameworks of meaning into which subjects position themselves. Such an epistemological orientation allows for multiple, unstable, contingent meanings, while still recognizing that individuals “bring a high degree of intelligible order to their circumstances” (Blommaert and Rampton 2016, 36), even when such circumstances seem dauntingly complex.
David Valentine’s pathbreaking ethnography, Imagining Transgender (2007), is an example of precisely this approach. It opens with a problematic that structures the ensuing three hundred pages. Valentine sits on the Upper East Side of Manhattan in a support group for transgender-identified people living with HIV. Both Valentine and the group facilitator are cisgender, white, homosexual men. None of the five group participants, all either African American or Latina, identify as transgender. They refer to themselves as “girls,” as “fem queens,” and often as “gay” but never transgender (3). In popular valence, the term transgender consolidates a vast array of gender-transgressive identities, from transsexual-identified people to those like the group participants, who have more complex gendered identifications. Yet while the group members rejected transgender identification for themselves, there was disagreement about Valentine’s presence. One participant said he might keep attending because they were “all gay,” while others wanted him to leave because he wasn’t “a girl,” like them (5). While transgender represents an ontological separation of gender from sexual orientation in the popular imagination, for Valentine’s research subjects the division between the two concepts is strikingly complex. It is in this murky water that his story takes shape.
Rather than inviting the reader into the world of “transgender people,” Valentine rides his bike all over New York City to show the reader the various contexts in which academic researchers, social service providers, medical professionals, and gay rights leaders employ the term transgender to shore up groups of incredibly diverse people into a discrete population with which to interact. This is the stuff of discourse analysis, only in this instance it is operationalized, in real time, through the ethnographic method. Through this unorthodox “ethnography of a category,” Valentine is able to...