Transgender Studies: The Making of a Field

What David Valentine does in the fourth chapter of his book entitled Imagining Transgender is describe the complexities of trying to create a stable field known as “transgender studies.” Three primary themes are discussed in the chapter. The first being about what types of literature and material should be incorporated into a field labeled “transgender studies.” This means trying to figure out, according to Valentine, the “transness” of a particular text. The second theme in the chapter is about the complicatedness of the term transgender and how it both stabilizes and complicates the field. And the third and final theme in the chapter centers on the debate over where male-bodied and female-bodied people fit in the literature in terms of, “geographies of physical space, historical location, and contemporary politics.” This third theme is broken down further to how gender and sexuality are understood differently in LGBT/queer studies and feminism.

I would argue that the third theme, the way sexuality and gender are understood in relation to one another, is the most present theme throughout the chapter. Valentine discusses scholars such as Magnus Hirschfeld and Havelock Ellis, who were early twentieth century sexologists, and Cromwell, who is an anthropologist and a transsexual man. All of these scholars have one thing in common; they all believe that gender and sexuality are distinct characteristics. After “supporting” this claim in the first half of the chapter, Valentine goes onto complicate the matter by giving examples of anthropological work that has been done with non-Western populations. One of the works mentioned was that of Kulick, who worked with a group of people in Salvador, Brazil, known as “travesti.”

What complicates the notion that gender and sexuality are separate entities is that those people who identify as travesti take on what most Western scholars would call “transgender” identities, specifically MTF processes. The catch comes in that travesti, while they assume what could be labeled feminine roles, actually have no desire to be women. Kulick argues that for the travestis, “gender is not linked simply to genitalia or a notion of internal identity but rather to the act of penetration in sexual encounters. Kulick goes on to state that travesti do not assume a “transgender” or “gay” identity, but that they share a category with women. This category covers all people who are penetrated during sexual encounters. In this case, their gender identities are very closely connected to their sexual identities, thus blurring the line between sex and gender.

This theme in the chapter is closed out by Valentine stating that while it may sometimes be useful to understand sex and gender as separate characteristic, that it diminishes and distorts how “sex” and “gender” are understood in non-Western society. By using the terms “sex” and “gender” one complicates and makes nearly impossible the process by which we understand gender/sex variant people from other cultures.

I chose to focus on the third theme not only because of its presence throughout the entirety of this particular chapter, but because of its relevance to “transgender” studies as a whole and as it relates to “trans bodies across the globe”. One must understand that when trying to debate over whether sex and gender are separate entities, that you need to understand the history behind these two claims, as well as what society you are discussing them in. For the purposes of studying gender/sex variant people around the globe, it would be wise to keep an open mind about whether or not “sex” and “gender” as categories suffice in determining whether something is better suited for the “trans” category or the “homosexual” category. I would argue, and I believe that Valentine would agree, that when studying populations outside the West one needs to take extra precautions in understanding the culture from which the people come, as well as the West’s political influence on that particular place. One must also be careful to preserve the accounts from the people themselves and how they identify rather than trying to force categories typically found in the West upon them.

Another aspect of the third theme discussed in the book, which I will explore briefly, is the battle between feminism and transgender studies. Some feminist scholars view the identity and category of transgender as a very progressive way to fight the binary between what constitutes male and female. However, there is another wave of feminism, particularly lesbian-feminism that views the transgender movement as a “retrograde” movement by which the categories of man and woman are only being reinforced as stable categories and roles that should be adhered to.

I believe Valentine would argue that one should be careful before stating which of the above arguments is most relevant. I am confident in saying that many people in the transgender studies field would argue that at times, transgender people do both fight the binary and act as a means by which to stabilize gender categories, but I think that you would need to ask them. That is a point that needs to be made. When it comes to the transgender studies evolution as a field, one must not ignore those people who identify as trans, or any other category of gender/sex variance, when it comes to deciding just what it actually means to be “transgender.”

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