Beyond the Special Guest: Teaching “Trans” Now

Radical Teacher, Teaching "Trans" Now

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Introduction: Beyond the Special Guest—Teaching “Trans” Now
By Shana Agid and Erica Rand

The theme of this issue of Radical Teacher, “Beyond the Special Guest: Teaching ‘Trans’ Now,” originated in a conversation between Erica and Toby Beauchamp in a hotel lounge during the 2009 American Studies Association annual conference. As our conversation turned from queer and trans issues in sports studies to the pedagogical challenges we have encountered teaching trans material in women and gender studies, Toby shared with Erica the work he and his colleague at UC Davis, Benjamin D’Harlingue, were doing to develop arguments and models for shifting from “an additive model in which trans bodies and identities are assigned their own separate unit” in introductory courses to one that integrated “discussions of trans bodies” throughout. As they write in the essay they have since co-authored on the topic, called “Beyond Additions and Exceptions: The Category of Transgender and New Pedagogical Approaches for Women’s Studies,” they sought to “resist casting transgender and gender-nonconforming bodies as exceptional tools for teaching primarily to non-trans students, and to avoid a personal experience framework that positions individual bodies as special objects of inquiry without attending to the production of such experiences and narratives.” Toby described a great teaching tool that they used in the service of those goals, an episode of a talk show in which a guest who identified as neither male nor female refused to remain in the position of interrogated spectacle but shot received questions back to the host and audience, thus shaking up the very structures and beliefs that render gender nonconforming people objects of surveillance, study, and, often consequently, control, rather than agents of meaning production and self-determination.1 In teaching contexts, these structures and beliefs, even as adapted by well-meaning, feminist allies in the struggle against gender oppression, often include an in-class version of the talk show’s very special guest scenario, where a visiting guest speaker, or a panel of guests, talk about their own experiences living a gender nonconforming life, often with the same expectation that, like talk show guests, they will answer any personal questions asked of them about their history, body, gender, and sexuality—and maybe about nothing else.

When the Cultural Studies Association (CSA) invited Radical Teacher to offer a panel at its 2010 annual conference, Erica, on the board of the journal, was inspired by this discussion and ran the idea past Toby of using it as a basis for the panel, which came to be called “Not Another Very Special Guest: Teaching Trans Matters in Women and Gender Studies.” He and Ben agreed to present their work in progress described above and Erica presented her work on teaching the canonical novel Stone Butch Blues against her students’ impulses to make Leslie Feinberg’s main character a fictional special guest. Erica also solicited Emily Thuma, who presented on “Interstices, Outlaw Cultures, and Contested Spaces: Cartographies of Women’s and Gender History,” and Shana, another member of the RT board. He could not participate in the CSA session but agreed to co-edit this issue.

What does it mean to teach about trans matters without exoticizing or marginalizing trans people, bodies, identities, and issues? As we worked on this special issue, some of our own certainties around the topic were upset. For example, when Erica showed Shana a draft of comments to a contributor using the term “cisgender,” she was surprised to learn that Shana did not like the term. Why, Erica asked. Doesn’t “cisgender”—used to indicate people whose gender identities line up with their gender assignments—help us avoid marking only the marginalized and oppressed people as a topic or problem? Isn’t using “cis” akin to calling white people “white people”—Sex and the City concerns four white friends, instead of just ” four friends”—or calling the World Cup the Men’s World Cup instead of having a World Cup and Women’s World Cup soccer championships? Shana, however, associated the use of “cis” with the privileging of biology. Given the ordinary assignment of gender based on physical norms—it’s a boy, it’s a girl—opposing “trans” to “cis,” Shana thought, unduly roots the distinction between them in conformity to bodily norms, as “cis” means, more or less, “same as,” which, put that way, does not exactly seem to challenge conventions of gender assignment. It may also, Shana suggested, privilege one particular trans narrative about being trans: that of being born in the wrong body, while cis people are born in the right body, as if trans (or cis) people all occupy a neatly dividable gender binary of male or female. Besides, Shana confessed, he was annoyed by the notion that all people are similarly marked. “I wonder,” he wrote to Erica, “if part of my issue with it is that it feels (sit down for this) a little like my queer reactionary self actually values being marked and is irritated that everything has to become marked, when the fact is I feel marked for a reason.” Shana’s comment reflected both personal, perhaps knee-jerk, ideas about identity but also political commitments to resisting normalization.

Erica did not have to sit down for it, maybe because she had had her own gripes against certain moves to mark people who bore the privilege of the unmarked. She hated the “lesbian continuum” described in Adrienne Rich’s famous and beloved 1980 essay “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence” (although she considered the notion of compulsory heterosexuality invaluable) because she thought it desexualized “lesbian” by applying it to any kind of closeness among women. In addition, despite being ashamed of thereby violating her own definitions of queer, she was sometimes hostile to people who called themselves queer but enjoyed the privileges of heteronormativity. Besides, she had other concerns about expansive marking where queer and trans genders were concerned. She recounted her skepticism upon coming out rated quite far toward the outlaw side in the “Are You Perfectly Gendered?” quiz in Kate Bornstein’s My Gender Workbook.2 Erica’s credentials included hating capitalism, lacking a flesh penis, and having dated outside the binary, but while those cost her the full privileges of heteronormativity, she still moved in the world comfortably ensconced in a body, if not quite an identity, that matched the sex she had been assigned at birth—even passing as straight, if unintentionally as queer femmes sometimes do, to people unfamiliar with queer gender.

By the time we finished editing the special issue, Erica had stopped using the word “cis” herself, although some writers in this issue, whether themselves trans or “cis” in the broadest intended sense of non-trans, use it here. Whether they do or do not, all of the authors in the issue insist that bodies, sex assignments, and identities never merely line up. As Marilyn Preston and Kate Drabinski emphasize in their essays on teaching trans matters in the areas of Human Development and Women/Gender Studies respectively, even when they match, gender expressions and identities are brought into line with gender assignments through the workings of intimate and large-scale forces involved in policing, reward, and surveillance—always in ways shaped by sexuality, race, ethnicity, class, economic situation, nationality, and relation to the state, whether documented or undocumented. In her article, Diana Courvant uses her experiences as a “special guest,” teacher, and writer to advocate for a trans pedagogy grounded in attention to systemic inequities of power and for vigilance about the way that trans voices and insights presented in educational contexts may have already been negatively transformed by inequities of power; her frequently taught trans narrative “Strip!,” for instance, was reworked through editorial coercion into a triumphant, positive story of coming out into acceptance, a narrative far different than the account she had originally written of temporary respite from anti-trans hostility, violence, and oppression. In shorter essays, Leyden Daniels recounts his own experience as a trans special guest and his strategies for resisting being reduced to a person who matters only as a gender oddity and Dean Spade offers “Some Very Basic Tips for Making Higher Education More Accessible to Trans Students” along with suggestions for “Rethinking How We Talk about Gendered Bodies.” While his essay targets college and post-college teaching, people who teach in K-12 situations, or outside of schools, may find many valuable tips there, too.

Revealed in the alignments, and perhaps most importantly the disjunctions, between these articles and in our own editing process is the point that brought the cluster about in the first place: that a multitude of “trans matters” belong in the classroom, and not only on certain days. Some of these are in conflict, adopting different approaches to understanding gender and “transgender.” Some are not rooted even in trans bodies or experiences, but rather in the ways “transgender,” both as a category and as a range of lived lives, provides a lens through which we can better make visible important relationships of power, difference, access, and control. Still others aim to make relevant for systemic analysis the specificity of violence against trans bodies, whether interpersonal or state violence and, also, the specificity of pleasure in gender as refracted through a broad conception of how gender happens and how we make it happen.

While these divergences in how we all work with gender (in life and in the classroom) are sometimes uncomfortable or seem to indicate simple opposition, our goal here is to engage the messy complexity of it all as a means of working through what sociologist Avery Gordon calls “complex personhood.” As she defines it: “Complex personhood means that all people (albeit in specific forms whose specificity is sometimes everything) remember and forget, are beset by contradiction, and recognize and misrecognize themselves and others” (100). If one of the primary themes of this issue is that the body is a political site, or, at least, a site that both speaks and is made to speak, sometimes against itself, Gordon’s articulation, building on Patricia Williams’ idea in The Alchemy of Race and Rights that “life is complicated,” helps to root this in a broad context. This context recognizes the role of “experience” in shaping ideas as well as the structures that turn experience into meaning, sometime brutalizing it on the way.

Gordon proposes that one way in which complex personhood manifests itself is in how we tell the stories of what is “true,” arguing that the stories we tell about ourselves, our “troubles,” our “social worlds,” or “society’s problems” move between what we know and what we are imagining might be possible (100-1). If and when we can, we use our bodies to project and experiment with possibilities, and to challenge the ways in which, perhaps, our bodies are read against the meanings we would prefer or through relationships of power that malign some bodies—along lines of race, nation, gender, sexuality, gender presentation, class signs, etc.—in favor of others.

This is precisely the argument against the unexamined use of the “special guest” framework: what one person experiences or knows to be true may, in fact, be wildly different than what we imagine for ourselves, even when some part of how we name ourselves, or others name us, is shared or similar. In making our bodies speak, especially when that speech is political or is staking a claim to meaning, the more universal our claims are, and the more likely that other people, with some other set of experiences and needs, will find themselves limited, without power, or without the capacity to make themselves seen.

In addition, being legible to ourselves is not sufficient to arrange or rearrange anything but our own personal experiences, even as we tell that story, our story, to others. The real work can happen where imagining for oneself what one wants to say with one’s body meets the possibility to transform or challenge the limits to such self-determination. This is an important distinction, as it connects our personal choices and struggles to see and be seen to the larger picture Gordon is getting at. This is, of course, what feminism and the struggles around it (along with queer theory and politics, post-colonial theory, and cultural studies) have taught us.

It is still true that the personal is political, more or less. Bodies tell stories. They make histories appear and disappear as relationships of power are played out and understood with, through, and on them. They might be our most basic—and most contested—spaces and surfaces for making things mean. This may be one contribution of bringing trans and gender variant/gender non-conforming matters into the classroom as a lens through which to see more about both gender and matters other than gender. And beyond this, it may open routes to engaging a certain explosion of gender, not in the sense of undoing it or doing away with it, but in the sense of increasing our capacity to go into it, and from that place, to challenge the limits of binary gendered power systems and increase its capacities for pleasure and, even, liberation.

When we first envisioned this special issue, we imagined that participants in the Very Special Guest’s early manifestation as a conference panel would turn their talks into essays for this issue. While only Erica was able to do so, partly because Ben and Toby had already routed their material into the essay we cite at the beginning and strongly recommend—we are very pleased to offer the material presented here as we envision possibilities for teaching trans material beyond the curricularly marginalized very special guest. Finally, we asked our dedicated book review editors, Sarah Chinn and Jackie Brady to assist us in including reviews of books that teachers might find especially useful and relevant to the cluster’s theme. We are happy to include those reviews here, which engage two new books, Queer (In)Justice: The Criminalization of LGBT People in the United States by Joey L. Mogul, Andrea J. Ritchie, and Kay Whitlock (Beacon Press, 2011), reviewed by Toby Beauchamp, and Brain Storm: The Flaws in the Science of Sex Differences by Rebecca M. Jordan-Young, reviewed by Alyson K. Spurgas.

From Radical Teacher, number 92, Winter 2011, co-edited with Erica Rand
Cover art by Tina Takemoto (front) and Emmet Ramstad (back)


Works Cited
Beauchamp, Toby and Benjamin D’Harlingue. “The Category of Transgender and New Pedagogical Approaches for Women’s Studies.” Forthcoming in Feminist Formations, 2012.

Bornstein, Kate. My Gender Workbook: How to Become a Real Man, a Real Woman, the Real You, or Something Else Entirely. New York: Routledge, 2010.
Gordon, Avery. “Theory and Practice,” in Keeping Good Time: Reflections on Knowledge, Power, and People. Boulder: Paradigm Publishers, 2004. 99-105.

1. Among other insights, Beauchamp and D’Harlingue offer a wonderful argument for teaching the film Toilet Training: Law and Order in the Bathroom as opposed to frequently taught material like the Hollywood film Boys Don’t Cry, for the former’s demonstration of how race, economic status, sexuality, ability/disability, and state power affect trans people, who share struggles with nontrans people similarly positioned with regard to those matters.

2. Bornstein, My Gender Workbook, 46-62.