(Please note: I haven't updated this page since the XXth Century.
There are plenty of other places to get more up-to-date info.)

The landmark Camp Trans, at the 1994 Michigan Womyn's Music Festival.
(Try Camp TRANS 2005 for a more recent look.)
If you like real-life action and adventure, try being a trans political activist at a lesbian separatist event!

Transgender is a term whose exact meaning is still in dispute, and I consider that a very healthy sign. The most widely accepted definition is that transgender includes everything not covered by our culture's narrow terms "man" and "woman". A partial list of persons who might include themselves in such a definition includes transsexuals (pre, post, and no-op); transvestites; crossdressers; persons with ambiguous genitalia; persons who have chosen to perform ambiguous social genders; and persons who have chosen to perform no gender at all.

The idea that gender is something that is performed may initially seem strange. It is a fairly old idea in studies of gender and sexuality, perhaps best stated in Judith Butler's (rather theoretical) Gender Trouble (Routledge 1991), and in Kate Bornstein's (terrifically readable) Gender Outlaw (Routledge 1995). Bornstein's book, by the by, is in my opinion the first book on transgender (or transsexual) theory to be written by a transgendered person, rather than by a "non" attempting to speak for the transgendered. (My initial work The Empire Strikes Back (1987) is an essay rather than a book; my book-length work on transgender studies is in the mill...)

My work in transgender studies, performance, and performativity is based on the assumption that gender is a performance that we all learn to do from birth, and that by the time we are old enough to notice that we are performing, we have gotten the act down so well that its wholly artificial nature is invisible even to us. (Judith Butler has written along similar lines; her work is not undertaken from a specifically transgendered viewpoint.) However, be cautioned that the situation is somewhat more complex than this brief page permits.

Before I pass on to other things let me add that there are four main threads in studies of gender and sexuality. These are categorized (by Susan Stryker, myself, and others) as follows:

  • Essentialist

    Also sometimes called naturalist. Essentialists believe that sex and gender are the same thing, or at any rate inseparable. Both arise from "nature" or are "God-given". Chromosomal characteristics, visible sex markers (penis, vagina), and gender cannot be separated. Essentialists usually believe that there are only two genders; these are present at birth; remain unchanged for life; and there is no territory between. Behaviors or appearances that do not fit these assumptions are viewed as "perversions".

  • Social Constructivist

    Social constructivists believe that both sex and gender arise in social interaction and have no existence independent of social interaction; i.e., they are not grounded in "nature", the meaning of which is itself socially determined. The "constructedness" of sex and gender is made invisible by the normal workings of social life, so that they appear natural rather than artificial. Recent constructivist theory also points out that the idea of two absolute chromosomal sexes is also a social construction. Recall the film Alien 3, in which the inhabitants of the prison colony are all double-Y chromosomal; thus although they possess many of the secondary sexual characteristics of males, genetically they are not male, nor are they any other category for which we currently have a socially understood name. (Heartfelt thanks again, Ridley!)

  • Performance

    Gender performance theorists believe that gender is performed like any theatre work, is independent of sex, and is best understood through performance studies. Performance has been seized on most productively by political activists to make visible the structure of the performance (body position, gesture, facial expression, proxemics, voice modulation, speech pattern, social space, markers of clothing, adornment and cosmetics) and to point up its artificial quality in direct ways.

  • Memory and Language Generation

    In this thread the body is a central node and apparatus for meaning production in a complex system of symbols and their exchange that we commonly call language. However, rather than simply being a passage point for always-already socially understood symbols, the body is a source of new symbols which are taken up by social networks and incorporated into a larger cultural language which includes words and gestures but is not limited to them. The body is also linked to deeper knowledges which cannot be expressed through text or sound and that originate before the growing child learns to verbalize or to gesture. One of the characters in my novel repeatedly says "The body remembers. Not the mind. The body."

  • About the logo:

    Nancy Nangeroni's wonderful logo is an excellent rallying point, which is why I've used it here. But I don't accept the representation without pause for thought. The inverted triangle (pink in Nangeroni's design) and familiar sex icons suggest that transgender theory arises under the sign of gay and lesbian discourse, and the metonymy is troubling. Here at the fragile beginning of a new academic discipline it behooves us to observe with greatest care the nature of the symbology which will come to represent us in the future.

  • This concludes today's episode of "More Than You Wanted To Know About Transgender Studies". We're in a bit of a dry period with links, because old sites have changed and I haven't had time to update recently. In all such instances, Google is your friend. (Last time I looked, there were 7,820,000 links in response to a query for "transgender". A lot of them are crap, but Sturgeon's Law states that 90% of anything is crap, so as you go through the lists keep reminding yourself that perseverance furthers.) I don't necessarily agree with the viewpont or content of most sites anyway. Many feature stylized drawings of nubile women in provocative poses as part of their logo, i.e., Ideal Woman seen through the eyes of an adolescent male, regardless of the male's chronological age. That's a trope we should have been finished with years ago, and very far from my idea of what Trans is about. Most of the links I keep on this page are to activist organizations and support networks, rather than to discussions of theory (or of anything); but as I said, this is a dry season and I've been busy. Eventually I will provide a link to the Transgender Academic Network (TAN). In the meanwhile, I'm adding pages on trans theory as fast as I can. For openers, here's one: Suggested Rules for Non-Trans Writing About Trans. It impressed me greatly.

    Got any sites to add? Tell me about it.

    Last meaningful update 28 March 1999. I removed all dead links as of 5 December 2006.
    Trans logo by Nancy Nangeroni, Ninja Design. Colors mine. Commercial use prohibited. Give it away.

    Go: Back to Sandy's home page