Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Queer/Trans/Drag and Gender as Category | Daniel Williford

In June, 2014, a Time magazine’s cover featuring actress Lavern Cox declared a “Trans Tipping Point,” calling transgender rights, “America’s next civil rights frontier.” In 2017, National Geographic magazine featured a trans kid with the title “Special Issue: Gender Revolution.” A number of examples in between are available, mostly centering on figures from art and fashion, but not exclusively. While these declarations sound good as publication titles, they may or may not mean that transgender revolution is taking place. Nonetheless, they index a reality in which trans activism, which started in earnest in the 1960s, has had a real impact on cultural discourse and more importantly on the lived experience of trans and gender non-binary people.1 That lived reality is, nonetheless, one of precariousness in terms of safety, security, health, and wellness: being outside of the norms of gender means being subject to enhanced scrutiny, suspicion, interrogation, and confrontation by representatives of state power and administrative bureaucracy.

In “Administering Gender,” Dean Spade documents the way that a) the administrative practices of the state reinforce the idea that gender is a necessary and central part of our social identities and b) that such administrative practices police our adherence to binary gender categories. Queer identities make such gender-based administrative practices more visible because non-normative social identities do not readily conform to administrative apparatuses. As a result, assumptions about gender identity built into those administrative apparatuses prove inflexible.

Spade is interested in people who occupy social identity positions at the margins of the biopolitical order of things, who are therefore most vulnerable because they are least able to be assimilated into the administrative and bureaucratic systems that govern and order the nation-state. Trans individuals who engage with various apparatuses of administration often show, through a painful experience, just how inflexible such administrative apparatuses are to gender identity. Spade cites examples that show how trans people are subject to not only normative violence in society, but also administrative violence. Spade’s point applies equally to everyone: gender is itself an ordering logic, that establishes norms of behavior across numerous biological systems, all of which are meant to “add up” to a unified presentation of one out of two possible genders.

Transphobia in the LGBT community is far more pervasive than the acronym might suggest, but among those who challenge the insistence on identity as essential, trans sometimes appears conservative. From an outdated queer perspective, transgender people take gender too seriously, because they take it seriously at all. This might be one reason why the popular drag performer RuPaul Charles has once again earned criticism for his transphobia (this time for suggesting that trans women couldn’t perform on his show).2 Of course, it’s crucial to understand that drag is not trans; drag is a theatrical artform in the genre of camp comedy, and as such “makes fun of” and “makes fun out of” gender.3 Still, drag performers like RuPaul are very often high-femme gay men, and as such are often sympathetic to trans-identified people. According to historian-activist Susan Stryker, drag and other forms of stylized gender-crossing and gender-blurring can be considered transgender.4

RuPaul, however, comes from a queer-punk background, and his political engagement has primarily been to reject politics, norms, rules, and structures--except those of neoliberalism; being decidedly of the world of consumer culture. Understanding why RuPaul is obtuse on the issue of transgender identity is complicated, but might come down to his genderqueer-ness: his sense that any gender identity is a societal construct that ties us down into power structures rather than liberating us from them.5 This might be an apologetic or generous interpretation, but as a fan of RuPaul’s work, I say as much based on having heard RuPaul speak about gender at length for decades. His position is not without precedent, even if it seems stuck in the 90s, the decade which, in fact, Queer Theory came into prominence.

Queer identity is often a self-identification with an identity that is non-normative, positioned in opposition to assumed norms, especially related to gender and sexuality. At least, that’s what is meant by the sort of queerness that became solidified in academic queer theory in the 1980s and 1990s in the U.S., a terminology that drew from a longer history of LGBT discourse, especially embedded in AIDS activism, lesbian feminist theory, and camp culture. RuPaul might best be explained with reference to queer theory, but he is obligated to find resources to educate himself about trans identity, if only to keep up in a changing world.

In her critique of the approach by LIS scholars to the project of correcting problematic library classification taxonomies and subject headings, Emily Drabinski emphasizes the role that librarians and others in the field have in emphasizing knowledge structures as incomplete and contingent, rather than portraying reality as it really is or reality as it ought to be. According to Drabinski, categories, especially those about social identity, are “discursively produced and historically contingent rather than...essential or articulable once and for all."6 She suggests that a queer approach is better than one that seeks to correct authoritative sources like subject headings.

RuPaul might agree that it is worth resisting policed language and fixed gender identities, but what Spade reminds us is that the lived reality of trans people means that administrative violence is everywhere present, and that structures of knowledge including classificatory terminology and colloquial language all participate in the administrative ordering of gender. Although there are reasons to challenge the seriousness of gender identity on a philosophical or political basis, we must not be dismissive of calls from the trans community for terminology adheres to state administrative apparatuses, especially when those procedures mean access to safety, healthcare, legal status, rights, and basic visibility.

1 Gender is a topic about language more than about physiology. Structures of knowledge that fall under the purview of Information Studies are involved in the reordering and expanding of language to accommodate a richer articulation of gender. For an IS-specific history of terms related to trans and queer identity, see K.R. Robert, “Inflexible Bodies: Metadata for Trans Identities” in the Journal of Information Ethics, Fall 2011. 
2Michael Blackmon, “Queens are Questioning RuPaul’s Grip on Drag Culture after His Controversial Trans Comments,” BuzzFeed News, March 9, 2018.
3 My reference here is to the description of camp and drag in Christopher Isherwood’s novel The World in the Evening (1954), in which one character explains camp in terms of play: "You can't camp about something you don't take seriously. You're not making fun of it; you're making fun out of it. You're expressing what's basically serious to you in terms of fun and artifice and elegance."
4 Susan Stryker, Transgender History, Berkeley: Seal Press, 2008. 
5For further background on the impact of queer feminist postmodern theory toward questioning gender as binary and inherent, see Hope A. Olson, “Patriarchal Structures of Subject Access and Subversive Techniques for Change,” The Canadian Journal of Information and Library Science 26 (2/3), 2001.
6 Emily Drabinski, “Queering the Catalog: Queer Theory and the Politics of Correction,” Library Quarterly: Information, Community, Policy, 83(2), 94-111, 2013. 

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