Charting the road out of the shadows

October 31, 2018

In the wake of the latest Trump administration assault on transgender people and their rights, Scott McLemee reviews several recent books, in a column for Inside Higher Ed.

I TRY not to let Donald Trump play too large a role in defining whatever level of topicality this column manages from week to week. The man is in the Oval Office, but he has no automatic claim on the space in our heads. Besides, it would be unfair to serious publishers to have book coverage be driven by the vagaries of a man who doesn’t read anything at all unless absolutely necessary, if even then.

But the latest move to undermine transgender people’s protection under federal civil rights law — coming in the wake of last year’s effort by the Department of Health and Human Services to ban the very word “transgender” from use — makes it appropriate to highlight a few recent books from scholarly presses that hold the line against troglodyte pandering. Here’s a brief look at some of the titles published in 2018.

The year began with Jack Halberstam’s Trans*: A Quick and Quirky Account of Gender Variability (University of California Press, January). But for reasons that will become clear, we might best start this roundup with The Remarkable Rise of Transgender Rights by Jami K. Taylor, Daniel C. Lewis and Donald P. Haider-Markel (University of Michigan Press, October). The authors explore how, starting in the 1980s, the concept of transgender — initially a rather ad hoc category that “brought together different groups that experience gender dysphoria” — went from neologism to a social movement capable of significant impact “in a majoritarian political system where public policy often favors those with important political resources that the transgender community lacks: access, money, and voters.”

Protesters stand up to Trump's transphobic attacks
Protesters stand up to Trump's transphobic attacks (Ted Eytan | flickr)

While concurring that “public discussions of transgender issues have increased exponentially,” Halberstam’s Trans* makes a more or less Foucauldian point: “With this increased visibility has comes not just power, but regulation, both in favor of and against trans people.” That asterisk signals the need to keep “at bay any sense of knowing in advance what the meaning of this or that gender variant form may be, and perhaps most importantly, it makes trans* people the authors of their own categorizations.” (Actually Halberstam’s concern may not contrast with Taylor, Lewis and Haider-Markel’s perspective as much as it sounds: they do acknowledge “transgender” as the name of a coalition, so to speak, more than the label for an identity.)

IN A media-saturated society, politics always involves access to the means of representation — getting it, keeping it, having some input in the flow of messages. Andre Cavalcante’s Struggling for Ordinary: Media and Transgender Belonging in Everyday Life (NYU Press, March) offers “a portrait of how transgender individuals lived with media toward the latter part of the 20th and the beginning of the 21st century...a time of growing but uneven and scattered access to transgender representation and communication networks.” But it was also a period when what Joanna McIntyre calls Transgender Celebrity (Routledge, November) began to emerge, in part through the explosive growth of fame-generating platforms like new media and reality television. For all we know, the first transgender president of the United States is already out there, somewhere, with a YouTube channel.

By most standards, Ben Barres was never a celebrity — just a professor and the chair of the neurology department at Stanford University. He died of pancreatic cancer in December 2017, not long after finishing The Autobiography of a Transgender Scientist (MIT Press, October). The publisher describes the book as covering his life “from his childhood as a precocious math and science whiz to his experiences as a female student at MIT in the 1970s to his female-to-male transition in his forties, to his scientific work and role as teacher and mentor at Stanford.” And with the book in print, his mentoring can continue by other means.

Without underestimating the difficulty facing young transgender people, Ann Travers devotes a substantial part of her book The Trans Generation: How Trans Kids (and Their Parents) Are Creating a Gender Revolution (NYU Press, June) to “the incredible time, energy, love, intelligence and courage that supportive parents of trans kids devote to making it possible for their children — and trans kids in general — to show up as who they really are.” Sooner or later, those trying to deny that transgender identity is now a fact of public life will find themselves up against the strength of family bonds. They will lose.

First published at Inside Higher Ed.

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