Books

'Beyond Trans' Exposes the Absurd Sex and Gender Bureaucracy

Reading Beyond Trans is like having one's window shades thrown open after arising from a long night of sleep: the sunlight burns the eyes, but it awakens them.


Beyond Trans: Does Gender Matter?

Publisher: NYU Press
Price: $25
Author: Heath Fogg Davis
Length: 208 pages
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2017-06
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Beyond Trans is as much a call to remediate the harm done to trans, intersex, and gender non-conforming individuals as it is a plea for good reasoning.
Gender theory is hard. Recently, Peter Boghossian, a philosophy professor, and James Lindsay, a mathematician and author, attempted to prove otherwise through the use of a transparent hoax in the guise of a clever academic exposé. Boghossian and Lindsay's stance can best be summarized by an aphorism of Thorstein Veblen's: "Any endeavor using a preponderance of jargon is largely make-believe."

To prove their point, the two men published an absurdly-titled article called "The Conceptual Penis as a Social Construct" -- which sounds like Saturday Night Live parodying Judith Butler -- in the journal Cogent Social Sciences. The logic of Boghossian and Lindsay's argument, such as it is, operates on the assumption that if one hokey article gets published by a single journal, surely a whole academic field must be illegitimate. After all, who can forget that classic rule of logic and statistics: "Sometimes the best sample size is one."

As has been widely reported since Boghossian and Lindsay's aspiring hoodwink, the methodology of the trick proves utterly nothing about gender studies, not just because one journal does not represent a whole field -- particularly one with a name as dubious as Cogent Social Sciences. Unsurprisingly, the sketchily-titled journal is itself sketchy: it operates on the "pay-to-publish" model, which perniciously exploits the need of academics to publish articles for hiring, promotion, and tenure.

Because these journals request payment for publication, it's widely known that the barriers to entry are so low that anyone with a budget-grade parody of Butler's Gender Trouble (1990) can get an article published. Gender theory, like the subject of personal identity more broadly, is a vexing enterprise that has troubled philosophers, theorists, and writers for centuries -- and we're still untangling knots, both in our theories and in our social life.

Heath Fogg Davis, a professor of political science at Temple University, knows the intellectual rigor that good gender theory requires. In his newest academic volume, Beyond Trans: Does Gender Matter?, Davis pulls off the not insignificant feat of writing clearly and straightforwardly about an issue that involves a great deal of complex theory, jargon, and name-dropping. While most academic disciplines have all of those features, gender theory uniquely poses a challenge for those who study and write about it.

Davis' study, however, is not primarily theoretical. The provocation of Beyond Trans' subtitle -- Does Gender Matter? -- applies in Davis' argument to practical questions of public policy, not the ontological status of gender itself. With Beyond Trans, Davis asks not if sex and gender truly exist at all, but rather how should we make these things exist in the public sphere? Davis compellingly argues that the ways in which American society has enshrined sex and gender in a range of spheres -- including sex markers on government identification cards, and sex segregation in public bathrooms and competitive sports -- are not only needless but antithetical to the supposed goals that would necessitate such a gender bureaucracy.

Beyond Trans opens with a maddening anecdote involving a transgender woman, Charlene Arcila, being denied access to Philadelphia public transportation because the bus driver did not personally believe that she was a woman. The Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority's (SEPTA) monthly passes once featured "sex stickers" for male and female, the "veracity" of which were enforced on an ad hoc basis by mostly unaccountable bus drivers. Because Arcila didn't pass whatever arbitrary test the bus driver had for what constitutes a woman, she was denied a seat. Later, she attempted to use a male sex sticker, only to be denied entry as well.

Davis acknowledges that both drivers should have trusted Arcila's choice of sex sticker, but he presses the reader to a question that becomes increasingly more obvious over the course of Beyond Trans' numerous case studies: why is institutionalized record-keeping of sex like this even necessary? Why should Arcila, or anyone else, need a sex sticker to begin with?

Davis utilizes four case studies to argue that in the majority of cases, sex and gender identification markers and segregation are both unnecessary and cause numerous problematic externalities. The four case studies, each of which receives its own chapter, are government-issued ID cards, bathroom segregation, single-sex colleges, and sex-divided competitive sports. In each case, Davis illustrates how the stated goals of such sex and gender identification in each case are both not met by such identification, and the implementation of sex and gender markers causes substantial third-party harms.

Beyond Trans brilliantly distills a great deal of research on Davis' part, in addition to drawing numerous first-hand accounts from real-life trans and non-gender conforming individuals. Davis himself is a trans man, and some of the book's most powerful anecdotes come from his own experience. In addition to exposing the numerous problematic assumptions behind government-facilitated divisions between sex and gender, Davis ends each chapter with a specific policy prescription based on his argumentation. Beyond Trans concludes with an example of a "gender audit" that Davis himself performed for a company, which serves as a model for any institution looking for how to make its structure more equitable to people of all sexes and gender identities. Reading Beyond Trans is like having one's window shades thrown open after arising from a long night of sleep: the sunlight burns the eyes, but it awakens them.

Although published by a major academic press, Beyond Trans features accessible, clear prose and direct argumentation -- digressions are nearly nonexistent. Anyone with an interest in trans rights and the public application of gender theory would benefit from Davis' book. The consistent structure of the four chapters allows Davis to maintain argumentative momentum and coherence even as he moves between issues with different implications.

Let chapter two, on sex segregation in bathrooms, serve as synecdoche for Beyond Trans. In that chapter, Davis reaches the conclusion that bathrooms ought to be designed not with sex segregation, but rather the principle of "universal design", a design concept which gained traction in the '70s as a way to structure public buildings to best accommodate people with disabilities. One innovation of this approach is the "curb cut", the slight ramps that allow people with wheelchairs to easily access the sidewalk. However, as Davis points out, such design benefits numerous third parties as well: "Among those who benefit from this modification of our shared cityscape are people pushing baby strollers, people using crutches and canes, people pulling wheeled luggage, delivery people using wheeled trolleys, and people like me with short legs" (82).

How could this line of thought apply to designing bathrooms? Simple: abolish sex-segregated bathrooms, and instead design bathrooms with stalls that are partitioned from floor to ceiling and feature a common area for washing hands. In addition to solving the problem of sex and gender policing, Davis' suggestion -- which he notes has already been implemented in some restaurants in major cities and on university campuses like Reed College -- helps all individuals. For example, Davis notes that "Approximately 40 percent of cisgender men cannot use urinals due to anxiety, or what we might colloquially refer to as being 'pee shy'" (67).

Certainly, no one likes the thought of being watched while in the restroom, whether it is for sex and gender policing or otherwise. In argumentative moments like this, the simple genius of Davis' approach is most clear: underneath all the hateful rhetoric aimed at trans individuals (who, despite there being no statistical evidence to suggest this is the case, are likened to "bathroom predators"), there are dozens of simple logical failings. It's no wonder that from irrational premises there has arisen a culture of misunderstanding and outright hate directed at individuals who reject the gender binary. Beyond Trans is as much a call to remediate the harm done to trans, intersex, and gender non-conforming individuals as it is a plea for good reasoning.

While gender theory will continue to pose hard questions, Beyond Trans reveals that much of what's "hard" about sex and gender is self-imposed by a society bent on policing both of them, even when it causes needless harm and achieves nothing. Davis aims not to bury the existence of sex and gender, but instead to upend America's fixation on foregrounding sex and gender in interactions where both are irrelevant.

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In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Features

The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Nonetheless, there are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. There are singers tackling deep, universal matters of the heart and mind. Artists continuing to mess around with a genre that can sometimes seem fixed, but never really is. Musicians and singers have been experimenting within the genre forever, and continue to. As Charlie Worsham sings, "let's try something new / for old time's sake." - Dave Heaton

10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton



9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton



8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore's career-best performances (see the spare album-closing "Guitar Man"), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. -- Steve Leftridge



7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge



6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Scholar Judith May Fathallah's work blurs lines between author and ethnographer, fan experiences and genre TV storytelling.

In Fanfiction and the Author: How Fanfic Changes Popular Culture Texts, author Judith May Fathallah investigates the progressive intersections between popular culture and fan studies, expanding scholarly discourse concerning how contemporary blurred lines between texts and audiences result in evolving mediated practices.

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Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

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