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What -- and Who -- Is Trans*?

Jack Halberstam provides a deep examination into how and why we name who and what we are.

Trans: A Quick and Quirky Account of Gender Variability
Jack Halberstam

University of California Press

Jan 2018


Those of us why may never have had to question who we are, what we are, and why we are too often get exasperated listening to narratives from the other side. If we had the random "luck" of being born in a time, place, and condition that never questioned our identity, we don't see the need to understand the counterpoint. We live as the "ruling" class, the white male suburbanites, if you will, privileged enough to have the flexibility to drift in and out of other classes dictated by race, economics, and gender fluidity yet still missing a modicum of sincerity that will allow full understanding of that other picture. We may befriend the "other", study the "other", and make conclusions based on carefully calibrated scientific examination, but any narrative we conclude will be missing the essential ingredient: we aren't them.

Jack Halberstam's Trans* A Quick and Quirky Account of Gender Variability is an interesting text written by someone on the "inside". It's not meant to completely break down the walls between the other (including this reader), but rather to at least attempt a modern history of gender fluidity, variations, and identity. The adjectives in the subtitle are a bit deceptive. This book, the third release in the "American Studies Now: Critical Histories of the Present" series at University of California Press is brief enough to parse through and analyze, with chapters that analyze the structure of a Trans* body, the importance of titles and names (including affixing the asterisk to the "trans"), and the sometimes emotional clashes the movement has had with radical feminism.

As for quirkiness, this suggests humor and that element is kept to a minimum. The term "guide" would have been more applicable. Halberstam knows the history and carefully walks the reader through its various stages, but the strongest element in this book is its willingness and ability to suggest different ways to identify, alternate means of interpretation, and separate paths for many levels of the population in question to reach the same destination of equality.

The only real difficulty in this book is not its subject matter so much as its style. Halberstam goes deep into the weeds of Gender Studies, Queer and Critical Theory, and (as the series title suggests) American Studies. This requires drawing in other theorists, different studies, and either elevating them to higher levels or shutting them down. Readers must be willing to indulge this style (typical not just of Halberstam but most all theorists working within the radar of these ideas.) It can result in a reading experience both ponderous and exhilarating. Halberstam does not digress or wander into unlit areas, so readers unwilling to enter this journey and do their own work examining the outside sources might find themselves skimming through to the end, looking in vain for gold at the end of the rainbow.

What is Trans*? Let's start with the purpose of the asterisk. Very early in Chapter One "What's In a Name?" Halberstam explains the punctuation:

"…[It] modifies the meaning of transitivity by refusing to situate [it] in relation to… a final form… [It] holds off the certainty of diagnosis… it makes trans* people the authors of their own categorization."

There's an admirable sense of logic to this argument, and the chapter details what Halberstam refers to as "…the godlike function of naming…" It was about colonial exploration, where plant and human life needed to be categorized. "We would do well to heed this lyrical warning against looking to stabilize fluctuations in meaning," Halberstam writes after citing a quote from another observer. There are some among us who are agendered, and that seems to be a logical conclusion to make. If some of us are male, some female, some "other", how about all the shades in between? Halberstam cites use of the diminutive word "tranny" in the TV show RuPaul's Drag Race, and how the purpose if its use by the host might be more in relation to "…Black histories of gender variance." Again, we see that naming and identity is a complicated process.

Like many such books, Trans* spends an inordinate amount of time telling the reader what it plans to do. Halberstam follows through on the proclamation, but it gets tedious. The first such instance is a little basic. Halberstam claims this new visibility has advantages and disadvantages. It's certainly interesting to note that the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V) waited until May 2013 to remove transgender from its list of bodily disorders and replace it with the term "gender dysphoria". The importance of names and the value judgement put into them (like the very term "disorder") has had devastating consequences for any targeted population.

In Chapter Two, "Making Trans* Bodies", Halberstam writes that the term (complete with asterisk) "…more accurately reflects the provisional nature of sex re-assignment." Halberstam convincingly argues that the very facts of the trans* body, as represented in films and TV over the past 100 years, "…have been cast as unreal, inauthentic, and aberrant." The material cited in this chapter effectively reflects Halberstam's notion that trans* bodies have always been inhabited in unpredictable ways. Halberstam notes from the start that his perspective will be US-centric, but the discussions of "sexual citizenship" in Muslim countries and the political implications are powerful and relevant.

What does it mean to become Trans*? The eponymous title of Chapter 3 argues that "…children as young as four years old may express various forms of gender variance." This leads to a deep discussion of the role children (and childhood) plays in our understanding of being trans*. Very clearly, through a discussion of the 1997 Alain Berliner film Ma Vie En Rose, Halberstam spells out the argument. The most interesting notion here is that "Gender is attributed as much as it is declared." Later, when he claims that "…parents 'train' children to be 'normal'," the reader does understand that something deeper is happening. The chapter ends very powerfully:

"The arrival of trans* children disrupts not only the meaning of the gender body but our understandings of time, development, and order itself."

Chapter Four, "Trans* Generations", discusses some powerful examples of art that have commented on the Trans* experience as distilled through generations. Sara Davidmann's Ken. To Be Destroyed is particularly strong. It's all about a life not lived, about secrets written on paper not to be read until after the author's death and then subsequently destroyed. Halberstam writes: "The goal here then is not to shoehorn eccentric bodies into already existing systems…" We all may end up in cages of our own design at some point in our lives, but they won't always be the best cage, the proper container.

"Trans* Representations", Chapter Five, may be the most successful in that it features long examinations of such landmark films as Kim Peirce's 1999 film Boys Don't Cry, Neil Jordan's 1992 release The Crying Game, and Jill Soloway's landmark Amazon TV program Transparent (2015- ).The current sexual allegations against Transparent actor Jeffrey Tambor that resulted in his subsequent firing are not addressed here nor should they color Halberstam's clear-headed assessments of these representations. Of Boys Don't Cry, we learn that 15 years later its true story of murdered transsexual Brandon Teena (played by non-transexual Hillary Swank) was perceived as transphobic. The Crying Game featured a lead character transsexual whose body was seen as unstable and contradictory. Halberstam leaves most of the plaudits for Transparent, formerly starring non-transexual Jeffrey Tambor as a man in his 60s transitioning into a female body :

"Transparent continuously flirts with the archive of negative representations of trans* life and identities…[it] beautifully shows how the bourgeois family expands to embrace its own…"

The fact that such films as Dallas Buyer's Club, and Transamerica (along with the examples cited above) featured non-transsexual actors portraying the struggles of trans* people certainly does mean that there remains a lot of work to do before full and accurate representation is achieved.

Halberstam reserves the strongest examination of trans* life for Chapter Six, "Trans* Feminism", which details the struggles between the population and the annual Michigan Womyn's Music Festival (MWMF), which denied participation from anybody but "womyn born womyn". It can get confusing and strange, but the ideas are clear here. Such texts as Janice Raymond's 1979 book The Transsexual Empire were "…deeply transphobic… full of paranoid accusations about transsexual women invading and populating 'womyn's space.'" As the chapter finishes, we can't help but agree that "…we need to situate sexual and gender minorities carefully…" In short, we need to tread lightly and learn that respect is always a two-way street.

Trans* ends with some reflections that perhaps earn it the "quirky" label, but it proves more endearing than funny. Halberstam argues in favor of using the language of the Lego world when discussing life and identity. "Lego architectures are in a constant state of emergence and collapse." When the "minifigures" were introduced in the mid-'70s, they offered more possibilities to dip into the "…uncharted territory of creation…" We could always embrace the certainty and dependability of the houses and landscapes, and the buildings could switch pieces at will, but the biggest thrill has always come from the human variations. How do we fit into a world when, as Halberstam suggests, "…the body is always under creation.

Jack Halberstam's Trans* might frustrate the reader unfamiliar with the structure of a critical studies text, but it feels comfortable and warm to end in a Lego world. Like Legos we are constantly in flux, changing, transitioning from one level to another, and we would be nowhere without the possibilities that come from considering how to use all the pieces we can find.


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