Last week I attended a SexGen seminar ‘Trans Studies: Reflections and Advances’ organised by Dr Sally Hines at the University of Leeds. It was an amazing afternoon with six speakers who are prominent in the field. I fangirled. A lot.
I took the train to Leeds in the morning, giving myself a couple of hours to walk to campus and inevitably get lost. I don’t really know what I was expecting, but the reality of Leeds was not it. It’s big. Not necessarily directionally, but height-wise. The buildings are tall and closely packed. There’s lots of impressive architecture, statues and sculptures. It was lovely, but imposing. I definitely want to go back and properly explore.
I made it to campus in about twenty minutes. That was the easy bit. The campus itself is insane. It’s possibly bigger than the town I grew up in. I followed the concept of ‘when in doubt, keep walking straight’. After twenty minutes of muttering to myself, storming about, staring at maps and the information that had been emailed to us, I eventually came across the right building. It was fancy.
Usually in gender studies type conferences, we get shunted to the back of a slightly dingy tower block or squeezed into a large-ish seminar room. For this seminar, we were in the Great Woodhouse Room. There was plush carpeting and a cabinet of trophies. The tea and coffee were fair trade. I’d stepped up in the world for a brief moment. Having arrived early, I engaged in awkward small talk with the other people who had managed to find the right room in the right building in the insane campus. I met some really lovely people who study properly interesting things.
The afternoon was opened by Dr Hines and our first speaker was Prof. Surya Monro. Her paper was called ‘Beyond gender Binaries: Issues of liminality, categories, and equalities’. She noted that her concept of ‘beyond the binary’ was rooted in the works of Sandy Stone and Kate Bornstein. She spoke about the expansion of gender categories, the elasticity of gender binaries, and concepts of gender pluralism and a gender spectrum in community groups. Her work is on citizen frameworks and she’s currently working on a book called Transgender Citizenship, which sounds interesting. In the questions there was a discussion of the potential differences between gender pluralism and a gender spectrum. It was noted that pluralism allows a way to link essentialist and anti-essentialist identities within a community group, whereas a spectrum may be problematic in that it is inherently fluid and some people embody fixed identities. Another comment was that, as language shifts, people continue to negotiate their own identities – an identity once negotiated is by no means fixed. This led to a discussion of differentiated models of citizenship and position theory, both of which I need to look into.
The next speaker was Dr Katharine Johnson, who I saw at the Trans Studies Now conference in Brighton last year. Her paper, ‘Trans matters: Exploring the now and then of trans studies’ look at how the field has evolved in the last twenty-odd years. She noted that trans theory emerged from two camps, clinical and socio-cultural. She referenced Susan Stryker’s work on trans subjectivity and Sedgewick’s critique of the clinical and socio-cultural – we can ask new questions and find new places to begin. She asked: how arechildren able to understand themselves as gender uncertain and how can we support young people in ethical ways? In the questions it was aked how Judith Butler became the main voice regarding concepts of gender performativity, rather than Kessler and McKenner, or Zimmerman, who were working at the same time. It was noted how we, as gender theorists and trans theorists are always trying to define ourselves in relation to Butler – something I had to struggle with in the opening to my thesis and again in this new chapter.
Unfortunately Sally Hines was unable to present her paper on the day, but luckily Dr Francis Ray White was able to jump in with their fab paper ‘Teaching Gender, being Non-Binary’. They reflected upon their experience of teaching gender and being non-binary, discussing how and when it is possible to be non-binary. Francis changed their name and pronouns, ‘coming out’ as non-binary, however, for two years, little changed; students still used female pronouns. They had to repeatedly come out, it didn’t seem to stick – there was a persistent non-recognition of non-binary identity. They noted that in coming out as non-binary trans there was no physical reveal to mark the change – there was no ‘after’ to demarcate anything. They tried to shed as many markers of femaleness as possible, but this never seemed to be read as ‘not female’. As such, their gender presentation was read less as ‘not-female’ and more as lesbian feminist, as ‘the typical female academic who teaches gender studies’ – that cliche produces a specific way of being viewed as female. Gender studies is almost always taught by women, which further places Francis as female in the students’ minds. Assumptions and cliches have worked against their legibility as non-binary, and undermines the autheticity of their trans identity. As such they have worked towards teaching students about non-binary pronoun use and finding ways to identify self as non-binary, even in non-gender studies classes – they acknowledged that this was largely possible due to their job safety as a department head. During questions, Jay Prosser discussed how the autobiographical narrative has changed – there is no ‘becoming’, there is just a coming out – it shows how ther personal narrative has changed – as in Juliette Jaques’ book (who was also in attendance). It was also discussed how the term non-binary is problematic in that it is still in relation to the binary, the term ‘genderqueer’ was highlighted as it used to be the more popular term.
After a tea break we had a paper from Dr Meg John Barker, ‘Non-Binary Gender So Far…’. they described their work as ‘anti-self-help’ – locating problems in the world, not in the self (which I love). They noted that Western psychology is predicated upon the binary gender system and considered it self-evident. As such, in mainstream psychology binary gender is taken for granted and added to all research questions, whether or not it bears any relevance to the study at hand. They noted that studies have shown that M&F in one culture show more similarites than M&M/F&F from separate cultures – showing that gender isn’t all that important for single location studies. They discussed Sandra Bem’s work on androgyny, noting their shift from the eradication of gender in the 70s to the proliferation of gender in the 90s – which would ahve the effect of undoing the supposed ‘naturalness’ of the categories of ‘man’ and ‘woman’. They also discussed the movement between lexis – genderqueer, non-binary, enby. They noted that both sex and gender are non-binary at all levels (chromosomes, etc), adn that gender is psychosocial.They also discussed the diversity issues of the majority of non-binary images, if you google non-binary, you’ll see a lot of young, white, thin, able-bodies fashion conscious people.
Prof. Stephen Whittle gave a paper called ‘The End of Gender: Invalidating the Trans-identity and the need to be someone’. He describedhimself as primarily an activist and lawyer, non an academic (despite his massive output). When discussing non-binary and the law, he stated “well, it’s fucked”. He noted that many people who identify as non-binary often transition in a binary way due to availablibity and that every trans person, when you look at what they’ve gone through is due to the construction of gender being natural. We don’t know what gender babies are, we just make a guess. As a child, his daughter didn’t want to “do” female gender because it was too restrictive and as such refused to be gendered. He noted how in the 90s the main focus of trans theory was discussing the construction of gender, how to challenge binaries and to get rights rcognised. He stated that we can all do gender in lots of ways in certain spaces, but we cant in other spaces because it’s unsafe – why do we ‘get away with it’ [pass]? – parimarily for safety reasons. He discussed the impact that access to information has on the understanding of personal and global identities, citing how India had no open trans men before the internet – many hijras, but not the other way round – since the internet has proliferated, there are now 20 support groups for trans men in India. He discussed how we don’t yet have a framework for the legal protection of non-binary people – he said that we’ve deconstructed gender, but haven’t reconstructed it for legislation at all – so we’re just ‘fudging it’. He finished by stating that the non-binary movement must be inclusive of those they assume to be stably gendered, because not everyone is, even if they present as though they are.
Dr Jay Prosser was the final discussant, he opened by asking, to what extent is non-binary new and to what extent is it continuous? He noted that there are diverse ways of being non-binary, but also ways to go back to old trans theory and show continuity. He had previously experienced non-binary as an interrogation of trans and asks why is it a term that’s emerging now? What is it about this moment? He highlighted the close proximty between theory and praxis, not just about academia, but within social contexts too – in the 90s there was not the closeness between academia and praxis, so why now?
This series of questions led to a discussion between Prosser, Whittle and the audience. Whittle noted that the increase in non-binary identities may have evolved from policy making in the 1990s that he was involved with that dismissed the term ‘trans children’ and replaced it with ‘gender variant’ – this was because if you start staing ‘trans youth’ you make them think that to be legitimated they must transition; by using ‘gender variant’ it allows them space to work it out. He noted that transition had always been about putting people in boxes – goal driven.
A few other notes from this discussion that aren’t long enough for their own paragraph:
- It was noted that there has been a snowballing of the existance of trans communities, whereas previously it had been hard to get diverse voices, now, online and face-to-face communities are more prevalent.
- Trans theory has proliferated through online spaces.
- There is more than one history that has led to this point.
- The asexual movement was before the non-binary one and created a space, particularly online.
- Gender is just like race – it’s a power structure to control people.
- The internet can also be negatve in that it can be reactionist/regressive – e.g. the bathroom acts in America – those people would not have had a voice if not for the internet.
- There are bot good and bad sides of the internet, therefore we must use it cleverly.
- We think of non-binary as being plural and trans man and trans woman as being fixed and singular – this ignores the various ways that those identities can be expressed.
- Who can access non-binary identities is due to cultural capital.
This was a fascinating and invigorating afternoon. It got me thinking in new ways and revisiting old ideas from new angles. It has also made me worry a bit though. Whilst both of my supervisors are brilliant, neither of them work specifically within trans theory. I’m a bit concerned that if I do something ridiculously stupid, or miss something really obvious, it might not be caught until the viva. On the other hand, having them read my work means that I know that my ideas are accessible to those outside of the field. Still might need to bribe a trans theorist to skim my work at some point if possible though.
This week I really need to crack on with this chapter, finish reading a linguistic-y pronoun-y book and probably start marking my first years’ essays. AGH.