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Trans Studies and Why It Matters

By April 26, 2022 essay

Recently, anti-feminist, white nationalist, (trans)misogynist, anti-immigrant, and homophobic movements have used “genderism” to evoke a range of disruptive identities and to attack legal and social human rights [watch the video recording]. On April 14, 2022, the George Washington University Humanities Center hosted an event entitled “Trans Studies and Why It Matters: A Conversation with Alexa Alice Joubin“; the event was chaired by Lynn Westwater. The conversation explored how transgender studies can combat intersectional forms of oppression and what the history of transgender studies can teach us about our current social crisis.

Here is an excerpt from the conversation. For the video recording, please scroll down.

This is not a full transcript but a highlight of the event. Please note the following content warning: gender-based violence and discrimination, film clips and verbal discussion of rape and misgendering acts.


Lynn Westwater: Gender has emerged as the latest wedge issue. Vladimir Putin used scaremongering about gender and sexual orientation to support his authoritarian agenda. In the midst of Russian invasion of Ukraine, Putin took time to complain about “cancel culture” in the West, claiming that Western elites had “canceled” J.K. Rowling because she “did not please fans of so-called gender freedoms.” Putin is referring to Rowling’s attacks of transgender rights. Why has gender become the latest battle ground for culture wars?

Alexa Alice Joubin: At first blush, it may seem odd that Putin should care about Rowling, the author of Harry Potter, when, in 2003, a group of Russian lawyers sued Warner Bros over similarities between Putin and the CGI character Dobby the elf.

Upon closer examination, Putin’s and Rowling’s obsession about gender purity is not odd at all. Right-wing politicians follow the same playbook. The pandemic of Covid-19 has fueled intersectional forms of hatred and fear that have coalesced around gender.

The presence of trans individuals creates a category crisis by challenging putative binary distinctiveness of gender. Further, it poses what is known in social identity theory as distinctiveness threat. When a group sees the boundaries defining their identity as indispensable, they feel threatened when these putatively definitional boundaries are blurred.

Gender identity is merely the latest scapegoat. There is a long history of associating trans bodies with illness, and inversion of trans individuals’ personal truths.

We should see gender as a set of evolving interpersonal relationships and social practices rather than immutable identities. Interpersonal relationships and gendered practices evolve in the presence of other people as well.

Trans theory puts into focus, and thereby expands, our collective understanding of human variations.


     Westwater: It seems that, historically, various notions of purity, ranging from race to gender, have been used by haters to attack human rights.

     Joubin: Yes, for example, there is a racialized dimension of anti-trans attitudes, and anti-trans discrimination was linked in the earlier period to anti-Semitism.

Take the German sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld, for example. He is a pioneer in trans studies. He coined the word “transvestite,” which is no longer in use today, by combining the Latin words for crossing and clothing: trans and vestis. In 1910, he published a book entitled Transvestites, which regards gender nonconformity as an independent phenomenon from same-sex desires. He observed individuals who experienced a “feeling of peace, security and exaltation, happiness and well-being . . . when in the clothing of the other sex” (125). He found that “transvestites” could be asexual, bisexual, or have any given sexual orientation.

Hirschfeld’s conception of the transvestite overlaps in part with the modern-day practice of drag and gender non-conforming sartorial choices. Hirschfeld’s contribution lies in his distinction between transvestism and the misconception of homosexuality.

In his times, homosexuality, a pathologized concept, was a conflation of sexuality and gender expressions in which homosexual individuals were thought to be gender inverted.

As a pioneer in gender and sexuality studies, Hirschfeld unfortunately was persecuted by Nazis for his Jewish and gay identities. His Institut für Sexualwissenschaft was shut down in 1933, with its books burned.

It is important to note that there is a racialized dismissal of transness. At the core of anti-Semitism and anti-trans discourses are the ideas of racial and gender “purity,” which leads to harmful biopolitics.


     Westwater: Can you give us some examples of cis-centric assumptions from your field of study?

     Joubin: Yes. Shakespeare’s plays often feature cross-gender roles, and professional performances in Shakespeare’s times featured only male actors. Boy actors performed female roles on stage.

While much ink has been spilt over the theatrical gender of the boy actors and Shakespeare’s female characters, the boy actors have been regarded as “transvestite actors” (Orgel 106) who engage in the cisgender practices of “cross-dressing” or drag. Peter Stallybrass pits “the staged body of a boy actor” against “the imagined body of a woman [through] the material presence of clothes” in early modern “production of contrary fixations” (79).

More recent scholarship has focused on the stage enactment of femininity and female characters’ masculine guises within the context of (queer) desire, such as sodomy (Goldberg 19; 143) and lesbian undertones in relations between trans-feminine and cisgender female characters (Traub 2015).

There are now new questions to be asked of these dramatic situations and theatre practices. How might the narratives change if we consider them as transgender performances rather than cis-centric “cross-dressing” stories requiring suspension of disbelief?

What if the final scene of As You Like It is a “charade” by Rosaland’s male alter ego Ganymede? Can we abandon our literal-mindedness about dramatic fiction and consider every character’s practice in fluid terms? It is time that we recognize transgender performances “as resisting precisely the binaries usually understood to structure modern gender” rather than simply “enacting binary male/female or homo/hetero desires” (Sanchez 88).

Instead of asking: “why did the English stage take boys for women?” we should interrogate the cis-centric formulation of that question itself.

What if the body of the female character and the actor’s somatic presence exist on a continuum rather than in contrary fixations? The enactment of gender practices is not predicated upon “substitutions” (as in substituting the boy actor for Desdemona) or entail diagnostic recognition (as in being reminded of the “real” body beneath the illusion of Desdemona). Many plays lend themselves to transgender interpretations. Twelfth Night, a “happy wrack,” is energized by Cesario’s presence, with only cursory references to Viola. Even though Cesario alludes to Viola’s “maiden weeds” (to be fetched by Antonio) in the final scene of “grand reveal,” he never changes into them and Orsino continues to call him “boy” and by the name Cesario. Orsino uses fluid language to cast Cesario as both “a man” and his “fancy queen … when in other habits” in a future that is never solidified before the play closes.

Transgender theory can advance feminist and performance scholarship by posing new questions and offering new methodologies for Shakespeare studies.


     Westwater: You mentioned earlier that narrativizing trans life is the key to countering oppression. Can you elaborate?

     Joubin: The performing arts are an important tool for tackling cis-sexism, given their power of embodied representation. Both cis and trans practices can be performative in this context, which puts dominant and minoritized social groups on equal footing.

     There is some risk, of course, to bring the concept of performativity to trans-ness. Detractors often accuse trans people of “performing” to “pass” as someone else to deceive the society and to gain access to the “wrong” restroom. In fact, if trans individuals are performing roles at all, it is either a cis-gender conforming role enforced by the society or some form of trans narrative deemed acceptable by medical gatekeepers. Trans individuals have to perform in this sense and in these contexts in order to survive or to obtain medical care (Seelman and Poteat).

     On one hand, the notion of performative gender expressions has been misappropriated by anti-trans groups to invalidate trans life, and, as a result, rejected by some trans activists as harmful to trans self-realization. On the other hand, as articles in this issue show, transgender performances can serve socially reparative purposes through characterization and representation. Reparative performances—in which characters see their conditions improve—offer optimism and model best practices.

     Trans people and characters are often accused of fabricating an identity to deceive those around them for sinister purposes, such as the murderer in Dressed to Kill (1980). If they deviate from binary expectations, they are disavowed as a pretender, such as the titular Albert Nobbs (2011) and Suzanne in Nos années folles (2017). If they present as heterosexual men or women, they risk forced disclosure, as is the case of Brandon Teena in Boys Don’t Cry (1999) and Dorothy Michaels in Tootsie (1982).

     Focusing on trans women, performer and activist Julia Serano, who coins the term transmisogyny, observes that the media often present trans women as either cunning sexual predators or laughable fakes (2007: 36). Serano theorizes that this pattern of representation in fact harms cis women as well as trans women, because it results from the tendency to regard femininity as artificial (44 and 340). It is a form of “traditional sexism” in which masculinity is deemed superior by default. It is also a symptom of what Serano calls “oppositional sexism,” the belief that masculinity and femininity are mutually exclusive categories (13). Accusations of fake identities are a tactic of social control. As Toby Beauchamp’s study reveals, gender nonconformity only comes to be associated with “fraud” through “demands for disclosure” and through “claims that certain bodies or identities do not match as they ought to” (9).


Here is a video recording of the event:




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