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  • Introduction:Early Modern Trans Studies
  • Simone Chess (bio), Colby Gordon (bio), and Will Fisher (bio)

Early modern, trans studies, transgender, transgender studies

When it comes to trans politics, one pervasive assumption can be found broadly diffused through such disparate media as pop culture and evangelical sermonizing. This assumption is present in reactionary conservatism as much as left-wing scholarship: that trans people are a recent phenomenon, the product of cutting-edge medical technology and manifesting a psychological complexity that would have been inconceivable before the advent of modernity. The essays collected here take aim at the misguided supposition that transition was unthinkable until the development of hormone therapies and surgical interventions that, in some quarters, define trans experience. Where Susan Stryker's magisterial Transgender History documents "A Hundred-Plus Years of Trans History" (45), carefully tracking the emergence of the category of transgender from its origins in nineteenth-century sexology,1 this volume pushes that timeline back by four hundred-plus years and reveals premodern trans histories that include the queer philology of seventeenth-century words for gender transition ("transfeminate" and "transsexion"); the tranimal world of early modern prodigies, plantlife, and manuscripts; the queer residues of genderfluid boy actors and trans-affirmative productions of Renaissance plays; and the racialized gender of Amazons, the obscure race of eunuchs, and the masculine "whiteness" of the Christian soul. We suggest that the methods, topics, and insights of trans studies have the potential to recalibrate critical work on gender in Renaissance texts. At the same time, the essays in this special issue beautifully indicate that early modern studies has a great deal to offer trans studies in return. We are not merely borrowers, but also lenders. [End Page 1]

This special issue is the first published collection to bring the analytic framework of trans studies to bear on early modern English literature. As we undertake this work, we want to acknowledge that, in some respects, we are a little late to the party. It is surprising that it has taken so long for early modern studies to explicitly engage with the analytic lenses offered by trans studies, a well-established and thriving academic discipline that boasts almost three decades of scholarship.2 Moreover, trans studies already informs a significant amount of research in historical, literary, and cultural studies. The fields adjacent to ours have produced important works of scholarship that have helped to extend the parameters of trans history further back in time. These include a special issue of Medieval Feminst Forum on Visions of Medieval Trans Feminism (2019), edited by M. W. Bychowski and Dorothy Kim; a collection on Trans and Genderqueer Subjects in Medieval Hagiography (2020), edited by Alicia Spencer-Hall and Blake Gutt; a special issue of Early American Studies, Beyond the Binaries in Early America (2014), edited by Rachel Hope Cleves; and an edited volume Trans Historical: Gender Plurality before the Modern (2020), edited by Anna Klosowska, Masha Raskolnikov, and Greta LaFleur. It is particularly surprising that it has taken early modern studies so long to engage with trans studies, given the deep roots of queer studies in our field. Moreover, early modern literature includes a seemingly inexhaustible reservoir of material on gender, which has already fueled many decades' worth of research. Given the situation, it is worth asking where this reluctance comes from. Does it reveal an unfamiliarity with, or even suspicion of, trans thought? Subterranean tensions between feminist, queer, and trans scholarship and politics? An unwillingness to interrogate the unexamined cisness of our field? A fear of saying the wrong thing and being cancelled?3 The pressures to maintain our status as canonical and therefore essential in a moment of shrinking resources? The almost complete absence of trans and nonbinary scholars in tenured or tenure-track positions? Some combination of these things?

If early modern trans studies is arriving somewhat late to the party, we have done our best to make up for lost time with a dramatic, multi-vocal entrance. This special issue has generated writing that is inventive, surprising, and genuinely new, produced by scholars at every rank and stage of their careers. The essays bring diverse methods to bear on a wide range of...


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