March 9, 2009

Conference Explores New Field of Trans Studies

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On Friday afternoon, there was standing room only in the Goldwin Smith English Lounge as Prof. Masha Raskolnikov, English and feminist, gender, & sexuality studies introduced TransRhetorics, a conference exploring interdisciplinary approaches within the field of Transgender Studies and the rhetorics that represent transgender lives.
“… Trans studies remains a relatively new field, even if many of us can make the argument that transgender people have an ancient history in many if not all of the world’s cultures. The relative newness of transgender studies as an academic field means that we, here, are still figuring out what the field is going to look like and where it’s going to go,” said Raskolnikov, who is also the director of lesbian, gay, bisexual & transgender studies program.
The conference that took place Friday through yesterday included two keynote speakers and seven thematically organized panels with topics ranging from the medical treatment of intersex bodies to the Employment Non-discrimination Act to Nietzsche and transphobia. Approximately 20 panelists from a wide array of disciplines and backgrounds came from across and beyond the country to present papers, including invited speakers Paisley Currah, Leah DeVun, Shannon Minter law ’93, Vic Muñoz, Matt Richardson, Gayle Salamon and Prof. Susan Stryker, gender studies at Indiana University.
Stryker, an Emmy-award winning director of “Screaming Queens: The Riot at Compton’s Cafeteria,” gave the first keynote in Lewis Auditorium on Friday night. Stryker, whose talk was titled “We Who Are Sexy”: The Transsexual Whiteness of Christine Jorgensen in the (Post)Colonial Philippines,” showed clips of the Filipino film We Who Are Sexy, a 1960s movie about seven gender deviant effeminate brothers, and discussed a cameo made by Christine Jorgensen, a 1950s international transsexual celebrity, in the film.

[img_assist|nid=35928|title=’Katastrophic’|desc=Rocco Kayiatos, also known as “Katastrophe,” takes the stage in Lewis Auditorium on Saturday night as part of the “F to eMbody” show.|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]
Stryker expounded on how Jorgensen’s Eurocentric transsexuality interacted with the local, Filipino transsexuality, and the implications of Eurocentric domination in a postcolonial context.
Minter, the lead counsel for the same-sex marriage case in the California Supreme Court and legal director for the National Center for Lesbian Rights, presented the paper “Category Mistakes: Why Gender Theory Should Not Guide Transgender Advocacy” in the second keynote on Saturday evening.
Minter began by citing the Pope’s Christmas message in which Pope Benedict stated that man was created by God to transmit an innate message, preserving normative gender, and that marriage should only be between a man and a woman. The Pope also asserted that transgender theory brought transgender people into existence, a worrisome statement because of its potential to single out transgender people, Minter explained.
“Up until really recently, transgender people have been below the radar. Just in the last year, the antigay movement has discovered transgender issues in a big way… There has been for a long time now a lot of antigay rhetoric that’s just everywhere and it has so deeply affected how people think about lesbian, gay and bisexual people,” Minter said.
Minter also argued that gender theory is problematic in guiding transgender legal advocacy because it obligates transgender identity to challenge the gender binary in the courtroom, a setting where a transgender person has to identify as either male or female.
“[There’s] a peculiar assumption that trans people and advocates have the responsibility to challenge gender hegemony… [And an] assumption that trans people are targeted because they destabilize the binary,” Minter said.
The impetus to organize TransRhetorics came about last fall, when Raskolnikov wanted to change Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Studies to Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Studies. At meetings about the name change, students and faculty expressed the need for programming to match the addition of the “T.”
“If we had transgender reflected in the name of our program, it had to be reflected in the program,” said Prof. Nick Salvato, english and theater, film and dance. who attended the meetings.
Salvato explained that he is trying to highlight transgender issues in the courses he’s teaching especially given the hiring hold, which stops LGBT Studies from hiring any new faculty to teach trans studies courses.
“If we really want to see this content in courses, we’re really going to have to pony up and do it,” Salvato said.
In response to the need for programming, Raskolnikov taught “Transgender and Transsexuality,” a cross-listed English and Feminist, Gender and Sexuality Studies course, and convened TransRhetorics with the aid of Hope Mandeville and Seth Pardo grad.
Raskolnikov and Pardo sought to make the conference as interdisciplinary as possible.
“I think for the future of trans studies it’s incredibly important that we combine real science — real good science, empirically based work — with the great minds and the great thinkers of the humanities,” Pardo said.
“I’m very proud of the FGSS and LGBT department. It’s an incredibly important and historical event that’s taking place this weekend,” Pardo added.
Raskolnikov also hoped to include a diverse group of panelists.
“One of my worries is that I really wanted the conference to be inclusive of trans people of color… I think trans people of color studies are really important, really crucial, I think that’s one of the ways the field is going,” Raskolnikov said.
Raskolnikov’s concerns were a topic that resonated at the conference, particularly in a roundtable discussion between conference attendees, panelists and invited speakers after the final panel.
“It’s not enough to just talk about trans people of color. I think trans people of color need to have our own spaces to do our own work,” Richardson said.
Stryker stressed that whiteness is often unmarked and the importance of examining the whiteness of the term “transgender,” and also noted that trans women need to have the same privileges as trans men.
“Nobody escapes certain privileges. Nobody escapes marginalities… How do you use your position to redirect; you have to try and engage to figure out how you can move the right way,” Stryker said.
“There has to be work like decolonizing transgender,” Stryker added.
Richardson further expounded on the topic, “You don’t have to sit in a room in a trans conference and have it be predominantly white.”
Raskolnikov left the closing remarks to Muñoz, who discussed the globalization of theory.
“Is the English language accessible… [or] colonizing other people through privileged language. I see our work as globalized,” Muñoz said.
Raskolnikov hoped that after the conference, attendees without prior knowledge of trans studies will “ask more question about how this minority lives, whether it is a minority, what is transformative about it.”