Beyond Binaries: How Transgender History Advances Discourse on Identity

This blog post is one of a three-part series on issues of gender and race identity. In this post, Allison Miller discusses transgender as analytic category.

Were it not for coincidence, historians might not be talking about the extent to which identity is mutable these midsummer weeks. But the near simultaneity of Caitlyn Jenner’s gender transition and the exposure of Rachel Dolezal as a white woman have provoked intense reflection about the validity of studying gender and race as social constructions. On his Facebook page and as a contributor to this blog series, Howard University’s Daryl Michael Scott has taken a position against transracialism and the social construction of race, doing so without also embracing biological determinism. Arguments about gender have been complicated, too, because some of Jenner’s statements about her identity have turned on essentialist notions of the definition of woman, as have critical responses to her interview in Vanity Fair.

The political scientist Adolph Reed put the matter most bluntly, arguing that celebrating Jenner while condemning Dolezal is intellectually inconsistent. If we cannot reconcile the social construction of gender and the essentialism of race, identity politics is bankrupt. How can one form of identity be mutable and individualized, the other innate and inescapable?

But this is not the only way to view these categories, nor do scholars, activists, or scholar/activists universally embrace the social construction/essentialism binary.

Transgender history offers a way forward. Listening to the voices of transgender people today, it is clear that many embrace a sense of an inborn identity, perhaps due to biological causes, while others see their gender as shaped by family, institutions, and other factors, but these factors do not make their identity less deeply held. Still others refuse to hold an opinion on what creates gender. Susan Stryker of the University of Arizona (and another contributor to our series) put the matter succinctly in Transgender History (Seal, 2008): transgender “is the movement across a socially imposed boundary away from an unchosen starting place—rather than any particular destination or mode of transition[.]” Identity is only part of the issue.

In an email conversation, Connecticut College’s Jen Manion (who prefers the gender pronoun they) elaborated on the ways historians can apply these concepts, especially since students may want to discuss Jenner’s transition in the fall. “Students are eager to learn more about the transgender community and want to develop a deeper historical understanding of gender and sexuality,” they said. “All of the media attention given to transwomen lately, including Caitlyn Jenner, Laverne Cox, and Janet Mock, [present] wonderful openings for us to illustrate connections between the present and the past.”

So how does history come in? Wouldn’t transgender history only extend to the creation of identity sometime in the early 20th century, when medical intervention into bodies became possible through endocrinology and genital surgery?

In fact, no. The so-called medical model, in which physicians and psychiatrists have defined, diagnosed, and “treated” transgender people, thus shaping the possibilities and limits for their identity, also limits historical inquiry. Along Foucauldian lines, it strongly encourages historians to trace identity to a time when medical professionals “invented” the various classifications that now inform aspects of transgender identity. This occurred beginning in the latter half of the 19th century in Europe, when doctors first began to study people who expressed wishes to change gender as well as those with erotic desires for people of the same gender. Today most people think of “transgender” and “gay, lesbian, and bisexual” as different things, but early sexologists created such categories as “invert,” which combined the two. The best-known self-identified invert is probably Radclyffe Hall (shown below with Una Trowbridge), whose 1928 novel The Well of Loneliness is still taught. Classifying Hall today is difficult, however, as some scholars claim her as lesbian, others transgender.

But as Stryker’s words suggest, historians do not have to confine themselves to looking for people who identified as transgender, which would indeed impose a temporal limit. Rather, it’s the crossing itself that can provoke us. Transgender can be both a modern identity and an analytic category applicable to the past when individuals’ actions or feelings cross over the gender of the body they were assigned at birth. We don’t have to look for people with modern transgender identities, or even identities we deem to be their equivalents, after all. Transgender history makes such concepts as “gender roles” seem static, and it allows us the freedom to imagine the possibilities of gender in different time periods.

Manion illustrates the difference in their new research: “I’m looking at the 1850s, to the wide range of circumstances and motivations in which people who were categorized as female (or possibly intersex) at birth sought to pass and live as men, or as more like men, including runaway slaves, dress reformers, women’s rights activists, female husbands, and laborers. Though it would be anachronistic and inaccurate to label any of these individuals ‘transgender,’ it is illustrative to see these various experiences as examples of crossing over the boundaries of gender.”

Just as Joan Scott argued that gender was “a useful category of historical analysis” in 1986, historians today can use transgender to challenge their perception of the importance of identity in the past. Because of its location in contemporary political discourse and the transgender community itself, it includes essentialism. But in embracing the idea of the contingency of the past, transgender history offers a new way to think about identity—beyond binaries.

Featured image: Radclyffe Hall, uploaded by Wooyi on Wikipedia.

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