Queer’s Final Frontier?


Barnard, Ian


I think one of the biggest intellectual challenges has to do with fully acknowledging that some of the fundamental categories that we use to understand “human being”—like man and woman—are not ontologically given, but rather are themselves historically and cultural [sic] variable and contingent.
Susan Stryker

As Western homoerotic desire becomes increasingly sanitized, acceptable, benign, commodified, co-opted, and contained under the aegises of consumerism, liberal pluralism, and gay marriage, it seems to me that the resilience of transgender panics across a panoply of social and political divides demonstrates the continuing centrality of the transgender/cisgender divide in contemporary culture (to reformulate the famous opening line of Sedgwick's Epistemology of the Closet)—this may be where “queer’s” bottom/foundational line now lies.

Transgender bodies, identities, theories, and epistemologies pose potentially radical challenges to the reigning sex-gender order in their unsettling of essentialist and biologist assumptions about sex-gender and their fixity, in their dismantling of the myth of two sex-genders, and, ultimately, in their exposé of a society inextricably invested in and functioning by means of apparatuses that classify, order, process, and evaluate people (and other animals) according to this (discredited) binary sex-gender logic. Transgender panics can be seen as an acknowledgment of the radical nature of these challenges, as desperate (unconscious?) lashings out, as last ditch attempts to rescue the prevailing sex-gender order—not that it is yet in any danger of being dethroned, given the unremitting hegemony of binary gender division in current Western society, from California's sex segregated Vipassana meditation retreats to demographic surveys to marriage licenses (even in places where "same-sex" marriage is legal), children lining up by gender outside their elementary school classroom doors and attending gendered and gender-segregated physical education classes, professional sports (as Erica Rand notes, gender segregation is "the foundational criterion of fairness in competitive, and often even recreational, athletics" (439)), restrooms, pronouns, languages with gendered grammar, the endless policing of gender, and continuing denial and  punishment of those who don't and/or cannot conform to this order, to name just a few quotidian sites of ongoing (cis)gender division. Transgender panics are understandable reactions to challenges to what may well be the last taboo in Western liberal culture's attempted rectification of centuries of violent normalization of and discrimination against diverse Others.

In addition to the predictable suspects—“radical” feminists, hate crimes, right-wing politicians and their constituents, sensationalistic films and television promotions, derogatory comments about and representations of transgender people on conservative (and other) media outlets, the (unsuccessful) campaign to undo the 2013 California law guaranteeing transgender students certain rights in public schools, television talk shows, institutional/communal/individual gay and lesbian transphobia, etc.—reactionary panic also takes the forms of tactical as well as habitual, unconscious, and unaware projects aimed at or resulting in the rehabilitation and stabilization of binary sex-gender systems, even by liberal intellectuals, social critics, and well-meaning activists who might present and imagine themselves as committed to contesting transphobia. Signs of these latter manifestations of transgender panic include the relentless parade of efforts to accommodate all transgender subjects within the existing ideologies of a binary male-female ideological apparatus—"inclusive" restrooms and restroom signs that still imagine sex/gender in terms of male and female (e.g., the state of the art "all-gender" restrooms at Illinois State University that will be identified by a new sign that "will include a symbol of a half of a man and half of a woman"), references to "transgender men and women" as if the two categories "men" and "women" cover the range of transgender possibilities, assumptions that all transsexuals are women become men or men become women, balking at some transgender subjects' preference for being identified by "ungrammatical" pronouns like "they" instead of "he" or "she," use of supposedly "gender neutral" (possessive) pronouns like "s/he" or "hir" that nevertheless invoke the old him/her binary, or even imagining gender as a continuity between male and female (those old men and women are still the opposite pinnacles against and in which everyone else is measured, defined, and contained), etc. A contemporary introductory Women’s Studies textbook, for instance, admirably takes account of the discrediting of the sex-gender distinction in noting that “the relationship between biology and culture is more complicated than the assertion that sex is a biological fact and gender is the social interpretation of that fact.” But the text’s explanation of how “there is greater gender diversity in nature than once thought” notes, “Many species are not just male or female, but can be both female and male at the same time, or be one or the other at different times” (Shaw and Lee 117). So the abandonment of sex versus gender nevertheless relapses into the male-female binary, with any deviation from the old sex categories only imaginable as hybrid or alternating male and female. Male and female remain the reference points, in fact, the only identifications, whether individually or in concert.

My point is not to deny that some transgender people are gendered male or female or identify with male/female gendering, or to criticize this gendering, or to deny the lure of male/female gendering for some people in our/themselves and/or others, or even to imply that male/female gendering is always conservative. Rather, I lament the overwhelming force of discourse from so many social, media, political, intellectual, and activist quarters that assumes that male or female gender identifications (or even some combination of the two) are an inevitability, are all we have. The good news is that challenges to this dichotomy from transgender scholars and activists  (e.g., Bornstein, My New Gender Workbook 17; Bornstein, The Opposite Sex; Feinberg ix; Vincent) have resulted in even some academic institutions (e.g., Mills College; see also Drake in this issue), scholarly organizations (e.g., The American Sociological Association), and social media (e.g., Facebook) taking heed and offering wider ranges of gender identifications for their members.

But could the new scramble for multiple genders become too trendy, and risk co-opting transgenderism in the same way that gay has been assimilated? In addition, to idealize transgenderism as the latest radical critique of an interlocking systematics of oppressive gender technologies can reify hindsight, reduce the complexities and multiplicities of consciousness and experience, and even ignore the human subjects who activate this theory, politics, and identity in the first place (see, e.g., Halberstam). Most transgender people who undertake gender-related body alteration (borrowing Dean Spade’s term) do not do so in the first place because they primarily wish to make a radical political statement. Some "transgender" subjects do not (always) identify with the term "transgender," and do not wish to be seen as transgressing gender norms (see, e.g., Prosser 279). And, certainly, for many people who identify to a greater or lesser extent with the term "transgender," their/our relationship to the term and their/our means of identification changes depending on context, audience, and time. These retreats modify transgender panics to the extent that they may both demonstrate some of the sources and grounds of these panics and also point to panic's inverse--smug diagnoses of panics and neat retorts that smooth out their wrinkles at the expense of understanding their full complex embodiments.

Works Cited

Asimov, Nanette. "New Policy Clarifies 'Female' for Mills College Admission." SFGate 21 Aug. 2014. sfgate.com. Web. 28 Aug. 2014.

Bornstein, Kate. My New Gender Workbook. New York: Routledge, 2013. Print.

Bornstein, Kate. The Opposite Sex ... Is Neither. San Diego. (I saw this performance in San Diego, probably in the early 1990s, but don't recall the exact date or locale.) Performance.

"Criss Angel BeLIEve: Criss Rips Bodies Apart (On Spike)." 8 Oct. 2013. YouTube Video. 18 Aug. 2014.

Fae, Jana, and Sarah Gibson. "There are Still Far Too Many Hurdles for Transgender Sportsmen and Women to Overcome." The Independent 15 Aug. 2014. independent.co.uk. Web. 18 Aug. 2014.

Feinberg, Leslie. Transgender Warriors: Making History From Joan of Arc to Dennis Rodman. Boston: Beacon, 1996. Print.

Halberstam, Judith. "Transgender Butch: Butch/FTM Border Wars and the Masculine Continuum." GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 4.2 (1998): 287-310. glq.dukejournals.org. Web. 3 August 2014.

International Transgender Day of Remembrance. www.transgenderdor.org. Web. 29 Aug. 2014.

Jordan, Neil, dir. The Crying Game. Miramax, 1993. 112 min. Film.

Maza, Carlos. "Watch a Child Dismantle Fox's Panic Over Gender-Neutral Restrooms." Media Matters for America. 10 July 2014. mediamatters.org. Web. 4 Aug. 2014.

Prosser, Jay. "Judith Butler: Queer Feminism, Transgender, and the Transubstantiation of Sex." The Transgender Studies Reader. Ed. Susan Stryker and Stephen Whittle. New York: Routledge, 2006. 257-80. Print.

Rand, Erica. "Court and Sparkle: Kye Allums, Johnny Weir, and Raced Problems in Gender Authenticity." GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 19.4 (2013): 435-63. Print.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky.  Epistemology of the Closet.  Berkeley: U of California P, 1990.  Print.

Shaw, Susan, and Janet Lee, eds. Women’s Voices, Feminist Visions: Classic and Contemporary Readings. Columbus: McGraw-Hill, 2014. Print.

"Sociology Association Picks Gender Categories." Inside Higher Ed 27 Aug. 2014. insidehighered.com. Web. 28 Aug. 2014.

Spade, Dean. "Mutilating Gender." The Transgender Studies Reader. Ed. Susan Stryker and Stephen Whittle. New York: Routledge, 2006. 315-32. Print.

Stryker, Susan. "Transgender Studies Today: An Interview with Susan Stryker." Interviewed by Petra Dierkes-Thrun. boundary 2 20 Aug. 2014. boundary2.org. Web. 21 Aug. 2014.

Vincent, Addie. "Addie Vincent on MEOW Mix." Interviewed by Ryley Schlachter and Rachel Becker. Chapman Radio 16 March 2014. chapmanradio.com. Online radio broadcast. 20 Aug. 2014.

Wetzstein, Cheryl. "Petition Drive to Put Transgender Law to California Voters Comes up Short." Washington Times 24 Feb. 2014. washingtontimes.com. Web. 23 Aug. 2014.

Williams, Rhiannon. "Facebook's 71 Gender Options Come to UK Users." The Telegraph 27 June 2014. telegraph.co.uk. Web. 28 Aug. 2014.


This text was an invited submission reviewed by TWI editors prior to publication.

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