Dan Irving is a trans activist and teacher. In 2005, he completed his PhD thesis in Political Science at York University on Trans Activism and Alliances with Labour, Feminist and Gay and Lesbian Organizations. In his work, Irving combines a fierce dedication to trans struggles with a commitment to a Marxist class analysis. He has been an active member of CUPE 3903 at York University, a contract faculty member in the Sexual Diversity Studies program at the University of Toronto, as well as an event organizer and community-based researcher within trans communities. Dan Irving currently lives, writes and struggles in Toronto. Gary Kinsman interviewed him in the spring of 2007.
What are some of the major issues confronting trans activists today?
I approach “issues” as having two meanings. On the one hand “issues” denote barriers or obstacles that trans activists have to confront. On the other hand, “issues” point toward the areas in which these activists are engaged. One of the most significant obstacles facing trans activists continues to be the systemic erasure of trans people, especially those who occupy the lower echelons of trans communities. For those in academia, this problem has been highlighted by transsexual scholar Viviane Namaste. Her book Invisible Lives discusses the ways that trans people are made invisible by bureaucracy – the census, only M/F boxes on government forms – as well as by social service agencies and within public spaces.
One of the most significant tasks facing trans activists is to demonstrate the existence of trans people. This has to occur before we can politicize issues facing various sectors of those communities. Let me provide an example from recent work in which I’ve been engaging. Up until very recently, I was an investigator and research co-ordinator for a community based research project studying the experiences of female-to-male trans people (FTM) regarding homelessness, under-housing and violence. The purpose of this project was to engage in dialogue with – and propose concrete recommendations to – shelters, the housing sectors, and social service providers in order to increase accessibility and integration of FTMs into their structures, systems, and service mandates.
Speaking with shelter staff and management, it became clear that many were unclear about the meaning of FTM and were completely unaware of the numbers of FTMs that required their services. Of course, issues of visibility are even more important when you consider the challenges of living as “trans” outside of major urban centers where there are fewer services and supports for trans people.
Closely related to the problem of systemic erasure, the politics of representation often poses a significant barrier to trans people. Awareness of trans people’s existence is mediated through mainstream media – newspaper articles, television and movies. Not surprisingly, the majority of media accounts of trans people are highly sensationalized. They frequently pathologize and criminalize non-normative embodiments of sex, gender identities, and expressions. For instance, if you conduct a newspaper search, you’ll find a high number of articles concerning transsexual prostitutes. These articles don’t function to politicize prostitution and trans women. They’re not making arguments for the decriminalization of prostitution as a way to address the targeting of primarily male-to-female (MTF) prostitutes of color. They’re not raising awareness of how prostitutes are targeted by police and middle class professionals seeking to gentrify their neighbourhoods. Instead, the ‘exotic’ world of the transsexual prostitute is offered up to titillate readers and to reinforce the perspective that trans identities and sex work are ‘deviant’ and a threat to the ‘nation.’
My current research explores the formation of transsexual identities in the neo-liberal context of the global North. Here, we can see another facet of media representation. Mainstream newspapers like The Toronto Star and television news programs like CTV news have recently run stories featuring ‘successful’ trans people. In these stories, the markers of success have been employment, contribution to society, etc. For example, some articles have featured stories about transsexuals who transitioned on the job. Their ‘success’ was measured by the status of their occupation. In one case, the story featured a MTF manager of the senior engineering department at one of Canada’s leading engineering firms who continues to enjoy success following her transition.
Likewise, both the media that serves the GLBT communities and trans media have adopted a similar focus. Economic status, productivity, engagement in politics, ability to pass as non-trans men and women are all taken to be markers of success. Just as with the gay and lesbian movement’s turn from liberation toward “equal rights,” the focus on respectability has greatly influenced the way that trans people are popularly represented. These representations constitute a significant barrier for trans activists trying to call attention to the ways that class, ‘race,’ colonization, ability, incarceration, involvement in illegal segments of the economy, and citizenship status mediate trans people’s experiences.
So what issues are trans activists and our allies currently politicizing? Again, we can’t assume a universal category of “activist” since there are divisions amongst activists. For middle class white trans activists, there is a tendency to focus on sex and/or gender in a rather limited way. Little regard is given to the ways that class, race, or sexuality mediate experiences of sex/gender variance. For instance, there have recently been efforts to remove “Gender Identity Disorder” (GID) from the Diagnosic and Statistical Manual-IV. (DSM-IV) There can be no doubt that the pathologization of trans people – and particularly transsexual people – is evidence of the heteronormative sex/gender binary regime. Medical, psychiatric, and psychological ‘experts’ label transsexual people as ‘abnormal,’ ‘mentally ill,’ and ‘deviant.’ This is problematic. But middle class activists who advocate for the removal of the diagnosis don’t take into consideration the classist and ablest tenor of their arguments. They don’t see how they act as fetters to solidarity with anti-poverty and anti-capitalist initiatives.
Many transsexuals need this diagnosis for protection from police harassment, to receive access to shelters, to receive sexual reassignment surgery (SRS) – at least in places where it is publicly funded, as was the case until just recently in Ontario. As many critical disability scholars/activists have pointed out, while transsexuality itself is not a mental illness, we can’t espouse this argument in a way that denigrates those who do have mental illness. Class divisions amongst trans activists can also be seen in protests over the lack of public funding for SRS. Again, this issue is important. However, it tends to privilege one ‘trans’ identity over others and defines transsexuality rather narrowly. On top of that, the focus on surgery ignores the immediate needs of the most marginalized within trans communities for whom surgery – even if likely to be chosen as a route to transition – is not an option.
Nevertheless, there are vital issues impacting the most marginalized members of trans communities that are getting politicized. They include efforts to decriminalize sex work since trans people, especially MTF trans people are highly represented in sex work. Others are active in prisoner justice work to highlight issues specific to those from trans communities who are incarcerated – access to hormones, razors for shaving, safety. Since many sex/gender variant people arrive in Canada fleeing persecution in their countries of origin, some activists have highlighted immigration issues. And then there are issues of homelessness and under-housing, access to shelters, healthcare for trans people and especially those from low income or street active demographics, as well as HIV/AIDS education.
How have trans people worked within the union, feminist, and queer movements? What obstacles have they confronted? How have they been able to make progress in these movements?
I appreciate that this question acknowledges that trans people have worked “within” unions, feminist and queer movements. We need to dispel the myth that trans people just recently started knocking at the door of these organizations requesting to be let in. In the Canadian context, visibility and the beginnings of trans awareness within the union context occurred in the late 1990s at the Solidarity and Pride Conference. Solidarity and Pride is the gay, lesbian, bisexual – and now trans – caucus of the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC). A couple of trans activists addressed conference delegates from the floor and called attention to issues we face. This event sparked a dialogue amongst union activists concerning the oppression trans people face in the workplace and beyond.
I must also point out the tireless efforts of trans activists within unions, like the immense amount of work Trish Salah devoted to raising awareness and politicizing issues that were pertinent to the lives of trans people. As a PhD candidate at York University, Trish engaged in debates within Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) local 3903, and served on the Pink Triangle Committee of CUPE National. Here, she focused on the need to create workplace environments that were non-discriminatory. This meant addressing discriminatory hiring practices, employees getting fired because of their sex/gender identity and expression, and harassment of trans people on the job. It also meant winning trans specific language – like “gender identity and expression” – within collective agreements and winning funding for SRS and paid leaves. In the struggle to win human rights for trans people, the power of the labour movement has been critically important.
But the obstacles trans people have confronted within the labour movement have been significant. Unions in North America are overwhelmingly heteronormative, masculinist, and queer- phobic spaces. They have often reinforced whiteness and ableism, as well as a narrow understanding of what counts as “labour” and who comprises the “working class.” One of the most significant challenges for trans workers who are members of unions relates to invisibility within the workplace as well as within union spaces. That sexism, racism, and homophobia permeate and structure all levels of union organizations has been well documented. Transphobia can be added to this list. To “come out” as trans often means risking one’s employment. But can the labour movement be relied upon to defend trans workers within and beyond the workplace? My research within the CLC uncovered many efforts to address invisibility and fight from within for changes that would ensure protections for trans employees.
However, there have been tensions about who should articulate these demands within union structures. While the Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL) and the CLC have human rights groups, these groups were reluctant to be the first to ally with trans workers and to articulate our concerns. Heteronormativity seemed to make it inconceivable that trans identities and subjugation would be a matter for human rights groups. Since trans people continue to be conceptualized within the framework of (homo)sexuality, sex/gender identity is often conflated with sexual orientation. Consequently, trans people were subsumed under the category “queer” within these labour structures.
It followed that issues relating to trans people should be unloaded onto the Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual caucuses. As is often the case with GLB organizations, the GLB caucuses had serious reservations about incorporating trans issues within their mandates. Many activists did not understand the meaning of “transgendered” or “transsexual,” and – like their brothers and sisters fighting for human rights – members of the GLB caucus “queered” trans people. Their reluctance to ally with trans workers and activists was rooted heavily in notions of respectability. Gay, lesbian and bisexual union activists realized that their recent gains might be jeopardized if they aligned themselves with trans people. Here, we see the spectre of the dangerous queer.
In our fight for recognition within the labour movement, union structures themselves have often been obstacles. While GLB caucuses – like the Solidarity and Pride Committees of the OFL and the CLC – aligned themselves with trans people and issues, the arguments needed to occur on a wider level. Union structures – their bureaucracy, processes, administration, and leadership structures – have often acted as a barrier preventing public debates concerning trans identities and oppression.
For example, in 2001 the Solidarity and Pride Committee drafted a series of motions for their annual convention that specifically addressed the concerns of trans workers within the union movement. And while these motions were all passed, they were passed by the national executive in camera and not debated on the floor of convention. The agenda was filled primarily by executive elections. Representatives from locals nationwide never had the opportunity to hear, discuss, debate or vote on these resolutions. This has a tremendous impact on trans education and awareness within the labour movement. Furthermore, it raises issues concerning the implementation of trans positive policies at local levels. These motions passed on paper – but how were they brought to the attention of representatives expected to report back to their local? What systems of accountability are in place to ensure that these motions are understood and implemented?
In terms of feminist movements, my research on trans feminist activism in Toronto, for example, uncovered trans people who worked within both the shelter movement and the rape crisis movement for a couple of decades. Currently, there is a focus on inclusion of trans people within “women’s spaces” and accessibility to essential services and resources like violence against women and homeless women’s shelters. In Toronto, trans activists have been diligently working to achieve the inclusion of trans people into women’s services.
As scholarly literature points out, one of the challenges to this process has been the way in which the category “women” is defined. Many feminists working in social services have a biologically deterministic understanding of “sex.” In other words, “women” are those who were assigned a “female sex” at birth and experience oppression intricately connected to being female-bodied in a misogynist society. This, of course, excludes trans women who are not chromosomally “female.” The “you are not a real women” dismissal of trans women seeking access to anti-violence shelters continues to exist as a barrier that trans activists seek to overcome by arguing that sex is a matter of self-identification.
Tensions between feminist organizers and trans activists came to a head in the Kimberley Nixon case against Vancouver Rape Relief (VRR). VRR refused to train Ms. Nixon as a volunteer crisis phone-line counsellor because she was a transsexual woman. They argued that they had the right to determine who is and who is not allowed within their space – and transsexual “women” are not women because they lack the experience of women’s oppression. The Supreme Court recently ruled in favour of VRR’s right to patrol the perimeters of their space.
In terms of GLBT organizations, my doctoral research focused on EGALE, the largest gay and lesbian lobby group in Canada. Similar to GLBT caucuses in the labour movement, EGALE was hesitant to take on trans issues – especially in the context of the fight for same-sex marriage. Respectability played a major role in the struggle of white, middle class, and monogamous gays and lesbians to marry. Trans people and our issues are not easily incorporated into the assimilationist equal rights strategy adopted by many GLB organizations. EGALE only publicly supports cases that receive a lot of media attention and are likely to be successful. The trans cases they have supported have been important but remarkable for their whiteness, professionalism, and respectability.
Trans activists working within gay and lesbian organizations confront narrow conceptions of identity. These conceptions influence the scope of political initiatives. For many GLBT organizations, focus is restricted to same-sex activities and sexualities. Since trans activists have pushed for a decoupling of sex/gender identity, expressions, and sexualities, GLBT organizations often presume that sex/gender is not among their immediate concerns. Moreover, definitions of same-sex identities are often biologically determined.
Nowhere has this been made more evident than in gay men’s communities where there is often a rigid policing of identity and space. Female to male trans people are rarely recognized as “gay men” despite their decision to identify as such. This issue has been highlighted by FTM attempts to access sexualized spaces like bathhouses and the need for relevant sex education, especially relating to HIV/AIDS. Like non-trans gay men and other men who sleep with men, trans men who have sex with men need to have sex-positive sex education materials that address them and their bodies as male.
How is the oppression of trans people connected to and shaped by capitalist social relations? How do class divisions play themselves out amongst trans people?
The experience of sex/gender variance is mediated by one’s class location. Trans people come from all classes – including the professional middle class, the working class, the working poor, and criminalized labour. One of the ways that class divisions get played out is through the issues that get addressed. Often, it has been the issues that affect middle class, white, and heterosexual trans professionals that get politicized.
The politics of passing are laden with class divisions. Those who can afford immensely expensive medical procedures and non-medical means of gender modification – clothing, binders, cosmetics – are more likely to be read as either men or women if that is their goal. The economic privileges that are likely to accompany professional class locations are linked directly to accessibility and safety. It’s much easier for a trans person who passes as either a man or a woman to move through public spaces free of harassment and violence. It’s also easier for them to access essential services. Nevertheless, the risk of being “discovered” as sex and/or gender- variant continues to cut across class divisions.
When understood through one’s relationship to production, class location itself is also mediated by sex/gender identity. Trans people, especially those who are unintelligible as either “men” or “women,” have immense difficulty obtaining and maintaining employment. Transgressing the hegemonic sex/gender binary can have a devastating impact on trans people, especially when considered in light of other relations of dominance mediating their identity. While we usually hear of “successful” trans people who – in spite of their transition – were able to maintain their jobs as professionals, many trans people work precarious jobs in the service industry, in high tech industries where they are not visible to corporate clients, or in criminalized sectors of the economy like the sex and drug trades.
While conducting interviews for my doctoral dissertation, one trans activist brought to my attention the lack of attention given to trans people in the “pink collar” job sectors. Work in the service industry – low-paying, part-time, non-unionized and contract jobs – is overshadowed by the media representations of the extremes of the employment spectrum. Here, the focus alternates between the professionals who are celebrated for overcoming “obstacles” – trans is read as personal adversity – and the sex workers who are degraded and disciplined through sensationalism in both mainstream and left-wing commentary. This lacuna inspires my current research. By attending to trans people as workers, I’m exploring how trans subjectivities are produced and incorporated into capitalist productive relations.
Given the shortcomings that have sometimes marked Marxist attempts to deal with gender, how can Marxism be made useful to an analysis of trans oppression?
Since it allows us to critically evaluate social relations of power operating in cohesion with the capitalist mode of production, historical materialism can enrich trans theory immensely. It is within this framework that we can make sense of the constant changes to sex/gender categories as they are organized through the logic of capitalist accumulation. As a social relation based on exploitative and alienating labour relations, how does capital inform the ways in which trans sex/gender become embodied? How do other relations of domination work to ensure that the subjectivities and lives of trans people do not escape exploitative class relations? Explorations of the connections between capitalist relations of production and consumption and the construction of heteronormativity add breath and depth to “trans studies.” Marxists engaged in critical political economy can help us to think through the ways that trans identities and experiences connect with social relations of power.
Marxist analysis can also help us to evaluate the work of movements seeking the emancipation of oppressed groups and to develop revolutionary strategies that can pose direct challenges to both state and capital. This is important because the subjugation of sex and gender-variant individuals is systemic and is linked to processes of capital accumulation. Marxist analysis can help to foster solidarity between class struggles and anti-colonial struggles, between the struggle for Aboriginal self-determination and efforts toward gender self-determination.
However, given the track record of Marxism – not only in relation to gender, but also in relation to anti-racism and critical approaches to sexualities – some caveats must be provided. Marxist analysis is most useful when it defines “the working class” broadly and challenges the symbolic ideal of the straight male factory worker. That ideal is not representative of the working class in Canada. As feminist anti-racist Marxist scholars like Himani Bannerji have pointed out, the Canadian labour market has always been comprised of non-white migrant and immigrant labourers. We know that gender and sexuality play decisive roles in determining one’s position within the legal, paid labour force. Those who are not recognized as normatively gendered or heterosexual have often been relegated to the bottom echelons of the labour market.
Class struggle has to be defined broadly so that it includes more than the point of economic production. How do social, cultural, political, and community spaces factor into class struggle? We need to avoid class reductionism so that other sites of power are given proper consideration. Understanding class requires that we are attentive to the ways that it continues to be influenced by other vectors of domination. Class is trans sexed/gendered.
Some activists and theorists have pointed to tensions between transsexuals and other transgender people. How do you make sense of this?
I believe that tensions between those who identify as transgendered people and those who identify as transsexuals can be explained by how the idea of a “scarcity of liberation” works to prevent solidarity. Resistance efforts to achieve rights and access to basic services often engage directly with the state and other dominant institutions. Within a liberal democratic context, we are led to believe that – as segmented groups representing specific atomized interests – we are in competition with other groups for rights, legal protections, access to healthcare, education, and essential services. This competitive context, especially in the context of the privatization of social services, translates into tensions between trans groups.
This competitive framework is also shaped by manifestations of power like the ongoing pathologization of sex/gender variance. These relations shape not only society but the psyches of many trans people as well. For example, medical doctors and psychiatric professionals don’t approve just anyone for medical transition. First, they must be diagnosed as a “primary transsexual” – as one who always identified as the “opposite sex” from an early age, seeks full transition at a young age, and identifies as heterosexual. This diagnostic schema becomes a hierarchy within trans communities whereby those who did not – or could not – seek medical transition are viewed as not really “trans.” Many transsexuals view cross-dressers, genderqueers, and others as flighty. We can see then how these labels function as techniques of governance to regulate sex/gender identities and expressions.
At the same time, non-transsexual trans people are often viewed as more respectable and work this angle to obtain rights. Again, class plays a significant role. Middle class – and often heterosexual – trans activists politicize what benefits them directly. To use the SRS example again, there are currently efforts to remove “gender identity disorder” from the DSM-IV. The ablest thread that runs through these arguments needs to be acknowledged, as does the class position of those most likely to argue that trans people are not mentally ill and that sex/gender variance ought to be recognized and respected. The argument often entails the degradation of transsexual people – “not all of us want to alter our bodies” and “we have the right to live lives free of harassment and this cannot occur if we are viewed as mentally defective or delusional.” Despite their obvious problems, these arguments often garner the most attention and resources.
While pathologization of trans people is problematic, it remains necessary to have official legitimation in order to be approved for publicly funded procedures – wherever these remain – and to protect against daily police harassment. Some trans people actually carry a letter explaining the discrepancy between their sex/gender identity and appearance to present to police and other authorities. This explanation is offered as proof of treatment, which can be to the advantage of trans people when confronted by cops on the streets.
Are there problems with how postmodern forms of theorizing are applied to trans experiences?
In the academic literature, there have been critiques directed towards “postmodern” feminists and queer theorists regarding the ways that trans identities are often objectified to buttress arguments concerning sex and gender. Perhaps the most notable example has been the critique of Judith Butler’s early work, where commentators like Viviane Namaste have taken exception to Butler’s use of drag performers to further her theory of gender as performative. One of the key tensions concerns how the objectification of trans identities prevents a comprehension of actual trans people as subjects with concrete material experiences.
Theoretical differences arise concerning the positioning of trans people and whether we’re subjects or objects. This split reflects a particular moment in the early 1990s when post-structuralist commentators were introducing transgender for discussion at a time when “trans studies” had not yet formed and when trans commentators – and especially transsexual commentators – were struggling for a voice in the scholarly literature. The antagonisms were both theoretical and political – who can speak about trans identities and subjugation? Does the location of the theorist determine how trans gets theorized? Why is trans often represented as a reified and unitary identity when there are significant differences amongst trans people? What happens to actual lived experiences like poverty, violence, harassment, and lack of social services?
These are all important questions. However, they’ve gotten lost due to the over-exaggerated divisions that reduce “postmodernism” to a caricature. This lack of serious engagement is reflected in claims that post-modernism separates the cultural from the material, or that the focus on the discursive comes at the expense of the ability to analyze capitalist social relations. In States of Injury, Wendy Brown argues that we must not have a negative reaction to those who try to think through the multiple sites of power. Instead, it is the condition of post-modernity itself that ought to be the subject of criticism and resistance.
Nevertheless, these divisions persist and often get translated into politics “on the ground.” Post-structuralism gets dismissed as useless theorizing conducted by privileged academics. Meanwhile, the “real” political work is thought to be the preserve of grassroots activists working to make a difference in trans “communities.” As an activist in non-university spaces, I’ve witnessed the flippant dismissal of post-structuralism. Similar to the way that Janice Raymond is taken to typify all feminists, Judith Butler has come to stand in for all post-structuralists. Whether in a “community” meeting or in the classroom – I teach a seminar on Trans Theory and Activism – one merely has to mention Judith Butler and you’re guaranteed to get a laugh. “This is written inaccessibly and has nothing to do with us,” my students often say.
But they can’t get away with this dismissal. Not only are they required to read and engage critically with Butler, they’re also assigned trans commentators – Dean Spade, Sandy Stone, Bobby Noble – whose work is grounded in post-structuralist frameworks. Instead of legitimizing the division, I would like to point to some concerns that both Butler and Foucault raised concerning the making of a subject. When students sit back, fold their arms, chuckle, and say “this has nothing to do with me, I don’t see myself in this theory,” we discuss this in terms of how relations of power operate in late capitalism.
Power works best when undetected. Is it a surprise, then, that in a social context shaped by neo-liberalism, trans people often tend to understand themselves as individuals whose transgression of the heteronormative sex/gender binary is indicative of their “genuine” or “authentic” trans sex and gender? One of the key questions raised by post-structuralist commentators concerns the ways that power structures all identities according to hegemonic premises. Under these conditions, to be recognized as a legitimate subject, one has to be socially intelligible.
How do relations of power get written on and entrenched within our bodies? My students are encouraged to realize that these questions relate directly to them. For instance, if bodies and identities have to be rendered socially intelligible to be recognized, can one “be” or “do” trans within a moment shaped by the two-sex two-gender binary? Regardless of how individuals actually feel about their sex/gender identity they are socially bound to present themselves as either a (trans)man or (trans)woman, transgendered, or transsexual in order to be recognized by state and society.
Since much effort is put into achieving social validation for transgendered and transsexual people, the importance of recognition cannot help but impact trans politics. Trans activists often appeal to “common knowledge” concerning sex and gender to achieve validation of trans identities. In Toronto, there is currently a campaign to secure access to women’s shelters for trans women operating under the slogan “Trans women are real women.” Since social recognition is tied to material survival, we need to ask ourselves if trans people really exist as “Others” or if the possible “knowledge” about trans identities is determined in advance by the binary system of sex/gender.
How can trans people be accommodated and assimilated within capitalist social relations? Are there ways that notions of the “constructed self” can be matched up with consumer capitalist paradigms and class relations?
Trans people can be assimilated into capitalist relations in the same way that everyone else can. However, if we are speaking specifically of trans issues, we can evaluate the conditions that structure ‘tolerance’ of sex/gender variance. As mentioned above, these relate directly to adherence to normative embodiments of sex, performance of dominant gender roles and expressions, and collusion with heteronormativity. My current research focuses on the formation of trans subjectivities vis-à-vis broadly defined capitalist relations of production and I have not thought through linkages to consumption. Given the struggles trans activists face concerning obtaining access to and funding for SRS, I’m reluctant to discuss this question further. Medical procedures that assist in the embodiment of trans identity and expressions are often dismissed as “cosmetic” and therefore unnecessary. The Conservative Party in Ontario used this reasoning to legitimize the de-listing of SRS from OHIP in the mid-1990s.
With respect to achieving the “constructed self” through consumption, class tensions arise since “passing” hinges on the projection of a “convincing” appearance that, due to the lack of public funding, has to be financed by trans people themselves. To be read, accepted, and validated as a “proper” man or woman, one may have to undergo a series of expensive procedures. For instance, trans women may have to go on hormone therapy, obtain surgeries, get electrolysis, buy a new wardrobe, and obtain vocal training.
Since all of this is obtained through consumption, it is not readily available to trans women who cannot afford it. Again, it must be stressed that capitalism itself depends on exchange markets and relations of consumption. The surplus value congealed in commodities cannot be realized until these goods and services are bought and sold on the market. Therefore, we need to focus less on the realization of individual needs and desires through consumption and more on the heteronormative capitalist system in which efforts to attain the symbolic ideal must be realized in part through the market. So how are trans identities shaped through dominant sex/gender constructions mediated through relations of consumption? Since the oppression of trans people is systemic, we can’t answer this question from the perspective of trans individuals in their role as consumers. Instead, we must question how trans identities are validated as “genuine” or are dismissed as “abnormal” based on systems of consumption.
Trans people are assimilated into capitalist social relations by fitting into the parameters of the “normal.” Legal scholars like Andrew Sharpe, Shannon Minter, and Dean Spade have done an excellent analysis of the ways that heteronormative standards are upheld through judicial rulings. Currently, I’m investigating how this assimilation is made manifest through conceptualizations of “the citizen” and relations of productivity. I am interested in the historical connection between medical practitioners as gatekeepers for SRS and discourses of citizenship.
To be approved for surgery, “transsexuals” had to prove that they were capable of functioning in all capacities as properly sexed/gendered. In this concrete example, we see the ways that sex/gender are mediated by components of nationalism and productive economic relations. To be eligible for surgery, transsexuals were required to work successfully as the “opposite sex.” These surgically reconstructed citizens were expected to give back to society through their labour. Within both the mainstream media and the media serving trans and queer communities, this exchange is represented through transsexual success stories. Trans media often recount the narratives of white middle class professionals who transition or cross-dress on the job and continue to advance professionally.
It’s important to recognize that poverty, criminalization, unemployment, and homelessness are all vital to the functioning of capitalist social relations. It is through the creation of desperate, vulnerable, and precarious pools of labour that capitalists can drive down wages, bust unions, and discipline the population. Trans people are incorporated into the system by the very processes that render our bodies abject and force us to exist on the margins where life is reduced to a daily struggle for survival.
This is very evident for those engaged in community-based activism. However, it has been less evident to privileged scholars theorizing about trans lives and oppression in the academy. In contrast to the time devoted to discussing the ways that trans people struggle to become recognized and valorized members of society, this facet of capitalist society is under-theorized. Nevertheless, it remains the case that the “proper” man and woman, the “ideally” masculinized and femininized, the “coherently” heterosexual – not to mention the body, the worker, and the citizen – cannot exist without their constructed opposites. Capitalist socio-economic and political relations continue to function because of the paradox in which the outsider stands as key to the system.