- Thinking Black [Trans] Gender
To put it mildly, the 2010s have been a disorienting decade of and for trans-gender in the United States. Anyone will tell you so. The usual story goes like this: whereas, once, trans people and our concerns were nearly invisible, now the country has found itself on the other side of a "transgender tipping point," as announced by a 2014 Time cover story,1 which has led to an influx of trans representation in popular media; preoccupation with trans students' bathroom habits; recurrent squabbles in the philosophical blogosphere; better account keeping on the US transgender dead; on and on. In short, the last five years or so have been marked by a profound increase in trans visibility.
Importantly, this is not the first time national conversation has fixated on people and practices we might call trans; as Treva Ellison implores us to remember, "Public interest in and discourse around gender and sexuality [is] iterative and connected to conflicts or crises in economic, social, and political capital."2 Still, given our mass-mediated world, this particular iteration of trans visibility has brought about an unprecedented number of television programs, feature-length films, chattered-about legal proceedings, and magazine covers [End Page 903] featuring, if not always exactly trans people, trans as a set of ideas about sex/gender/autonomy with which the country must, again, reckon. However, as should be clear from my lists of what visibility has wrought, this proliferation of discourse has not been all for the better. While our public reckoning has, in some places, sped along positive changes in the lives of some trans people, the 2010s have also been marked by an erosion of the conditions of livability for many others, a state of affairs that has only sharpened since the 2016 election. Trap Door: Trans Cultural Production and the Politics of Visibility—a timely and visually stunning anthology edited by Tourmaline, Eric A. Stanley, and Johanna Burton—addresses itself to precisely this paradox. Assembling an array of scholars, artists, and activists, Trap Door offers a varied set of essays and conversations on the promise, limit, and potentiality of visual culture for trans living and politics.
Because the anthology as a whole and its individual components strive to "allow the paradox of trans representation in the current moment to find form in conversations that don't attempt to smooth the contradictions" (xxiii), the book resolves little and, instead, opens up avenues for thought. There are many excellent pieces in Trap Door, including Morgan M. Page's reflection on her work as a public historian and the "eerie parallels" between past and present moments of trans visibility (142); Abram J. Lewis's dossier of documents from 1970s trans activism, which employed tactics both familiar (building community support services, critiquing the carceral state) and extraterrestrial (turning to the paranormal and otherworldly as resources for "expand[ing] human potential otherwise limited by social constraint) (64–65); and Sara Ahmed's essay—reprinted from the "Trans/Feminisms" issue of Transgender Studies Quarterly—on the rhetoric of anti-trans feminisms that have resurged in the shadow of the tipping point. However, there is one avenue to which the anthology, as a collective voice, returns again and again, one that seems to be a source of particularly productive "trouble" (183): the terrain where blackness and transness meet.
In the usual story, the paradox of trans visibility is narrated as a generalized structuring condition of contemporary trans life—and, I think, it is. However, it...