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Aizura’s Mobile Subjects operationalizes an innovative elevation of trans studies through and beyond the body, by using gender reassignment surgery (GRS) as a way to conceptualize the entanglements of mobility, trans intelligibility, and transnational circuits of capitalism. Specifically, this book attends to the ‘elsewhere’ spaces that enable normative Euro-American journeys of gender reassignment, situated in the specific context of Australia’s medical gatekeeping of those trans people who seek hormones or forms of GRS. Aizura theorizes the global mobility of transness in two parts, with part 1 of the book drawing from historical media analyses, while part 2 utilizes his rich ethnographic research conducted in Australia and Thailand.
In part 2 of Aizura’s book, transnational imaginaries and mobilities of transness are linked to the hyper-controlled and pathologized medicalization of trans people in Australia, with the juxtaposition of trans somatechnics in Thailand. This crucial intervention in trans studies and geography attends to local and global biopolitical structures that dictate the construction and manifestation of trans bodies, subjectivities, and places. Aizura argues that the construction of these bodies and spaces often reaffirm orientalist gazes by entrenching them into the globalizing discourses of trans medical entrepreneurialism. The imagined orientalist geography of Thailand, combined with initiatives in Thai GRS clinics that offer feminization services for non-Thai trans women, cultivates a trans-specific discourse that produces Thailand as an exotic site of transformation.
As feminization services and discourses in Thailand are specifically directed to non-Thai trans women and are not as regularly available for Thai trans women and kathoeys, Aizura (2018: 198) argues that the construction of womanhood in Thai GRS clinics “relies on a form of racialization that, no matter how pervasive elsewhere, differentiates between the bodies of more and less valuable, more and less ideal trans subjects.” This is particularly visible through Aizura’s ethnographic research in which the whiteness of the women travelling to Thailand for GRS is emphasized against the backdrop of an exoticized experience of femininity and space. In the distinctly white experiences of travelling to Thailand for GRS, Aizura’s writing charts how whiteness and orientalist fantasies manifest in medicalized travel discourses for trans people, and become enmeshed within trans materialities, mobilities, and worldings. Aizura (2018: 192) illustrates how affective labor in Thai GRS clinics aimed for non-Thai people models femininity for patients, built upon orientalist fantasies of Thailand that “associate the imagined cultural and spatial milieu of Thailand with femininity… [and] a particular transformative power that is specific to trans embodiment.” In this exotic alternative geography, Thailand is modeled as progressive in its openness toward trans people and reputation in the medical community for the successful production of femininity.
Aizura’s analysis of the production of race in Thai GRS clinics predominantly centers the role of whiteness in constituting ‘proper’ and legible femininity. While critical whiteness studies offers certain interventions into both trans studies and geography, I am curious about the distinct theoretical interventions that can be made by incorporating the perspectives, experiences, and bodies of trans women of colour living in the global north who also engage with the global mobility of Thailand’s trans somatechnics. In the United States and Canada, trans people of colour and immigrants are disproportionately subject to securitization and criminalization, which maintain and depend upon systems of racialized and transphobic violence that condemn trans women of colour as disposable, unvalued, and perpetually proximate to violence and death. This disposability marks necropolitical conditions in which it is increasingly challenging for trans women of colour to negotiate and manage the task of survival. Given the widespread narratives in which trans women of colour are marked as necropoliticized subjects, Aizura’s Mobile Subjects can further interrogate formulations of trans intelligibility and possibility through global travel where gender affirming procedures are performed, alongside the complex racialized negotiations that occur in these mobilities. What may happen when placing Mobile Subjects in conversation with texts that explicitly capture the experiences of trans women of colour in these mobilities and global travels of trans femininity?
In her (2014) auto-biography Redefining Realness, Janet Mock (2014) offers an account of navigating the world as a Black and Native Hawaiian trans woman. As a sex worker in Honolulu, Mock generated enough finances to support her college tuition and desired GRS. As Mock’s GRS would cost upward of $30,000 in the U.S., she followed the guidance of one of her friends to have GRS in Bangkok. While Aizura’s white research participants from the global north shopped for doctors in Thailand, Mock relied on the scribbled name of a doctor on a napkin – the surgeon who performed her friend’s GRS. Four weeks before her scheduled surgery in Bangkok, Mock was robbed at knife-point and beaten in a van while she was working, narrowly escaping with her life. With her cash and all identification stolen, hair torn from her head, this moment stood in sharp contrast to the marker of life Mock was waiting to experience in a month’s time in Bangkok.
Mock’s experience encapsulates the necropolitical conditions that so often capture the lives of trans women of colour – as she (Mock, 2014: 214) writes, “No one cared about or accounted for us. We were disposable, and we knew that.” This experience and reflection upon the daily conditions of violence faced by trans women of colour stands in sharp juxtaposition to Mock’s experience of GRS, which, for her, was a way to insist upon life in spite of the conditions that brought her so closely to death. When Mock read through her surgical consent form, she (Mock, 2014: 230) notes that she “didn’t dwell on the risks because there was no other alternative… Death was guaranteed for all of us…” Mock’s narrative oscillates between the notion of GRS as insisting upon life and the perpetual reminders of her proximity to dying due to the ways in which her poverty, race, and transness intersected in America.
During Mock’s recovery in the Bangkok hospital, which she notes felt like a hotel, she was visited by an Australian patient named Genie, a white, middle aged trans woman who financed her GRS with savings from her previous well-paid engineering job. Mock felt bitter about Genie’s financial security in comparison to her own experiences of saving thousands of dollars through sex work, and still having a zero-dollar balance in her bank account at the time of surgery. Mock (2014: 236) reminds readers that despite recovering in a Bangkok hospital that was heavily curated toward white women travelling from the global north, “[she] was still operating in the world as a young black woman, subject to pervasive sexist and racist objectification as well as invisibility in the U.S. media, which values white women’s bodies and experiences over mine.” Mock’s experiences provide a contrasting viewpoint into the role of Thai GRS clinics in producing proper, valued, and racialized (white) feminine subjectivities in global networks and discourses of trans migrations. In the hospital, Mock comes into similarity with other women through their mutual ‘westernness’, discussing where they grew up and their trips to Bangkok, finding mutual ground through their distance from home. This sense of trans mobility furthered by the absence of Thai patients in Mock’s experience at the clinic, with the only other noted visitors being her doctor, nurses, and room attendant. Staying within the confines of the hospital and almost entirely interacting with other foreigners, Thailand remains a distant, exotic land in which women approach life through the Euro-American orientalist gaze.
Yet Mock experiences this place through racial difference, reminding readers that her femininity is also Black. Her gender identity, embodiment, and subjectivity is couched within a genealogy of being colonized and enslaved, impoverished, and adjacent to death, regardless of how femininity is integrated into her body, how she is read by others, and how she takes up space. The category of the ‘western’ trans figure travelling to Thailand for GRS is troubled as Blackness migrates with it, particularly given the bio/necropolitical production of Black trans womanhood, which is so frequently adjacent to routinized violence. Black trans womanhood also follows the global trans somatechnics that Aizura theorizes, however it does so much differently than the white subjects attended to in Mobile Subjects, and in doing so indicates the necessity for further interrogation into the local histories and meanings of race and bio/necropolitics as they enter global trans migrations.
In these spaces of trans feminine legibility and manifestation, we cannot ignore how the politics of anti-Black racism and the hyper-precarity of trans women of colour in the global north also travels. The production of Blackness in Thai GRS clinics shifts the analysis of how GRS travels and mobilizes transness not only through the management of Thai trans subjectivities in relation to white, ‘western’ trans subjectivities, but also the multiple racialized ‘western’ subjectivities that exist in these global mobilities and transmissions of transness. Through Mock’s account of her GRS in Bangkok, we witness a Black and Native trans woman simultaneously insisting upon life while still, and always, sitting within necropolitical holdings. Such an act perverts the grip of death that so often narrates the stories of trans women of colour, and witnessing these experiences as equally enmeshed within these global trans migrations disrupts the invisibilization of trans women of colour from trans discourses and theoretical inquiries that center life.
Mobile Subjects provides a crucial, interdisciplinary theoretical foundation for understanding how trans subjectivities, bodies, and discourses are mobilized and made legible on a global scale. Aizura centralizes race in these circulations, observing how value is dictated and measured between Thai and white trans people from the global north. As Mobile Subjects illustrates how processes of racialization are vital to informing trans somatechnics, Aizura’s work invites a future of trans studies and geography to place the mobilities of people of colour from the global north into such formulations as well, insisting that scholars bear witness to the radical insistence of living by trans subjectivities marked as undeserving of life.
Mock J (2014) Redefining Realness. New York: Atria Books.
Rae Rosenberg (he/him) is a Lecturer in the School of GeoSciences at the University of Edinburgh. He holds a Ph.D. in Critical Human Geography from York University and his work in queer and trans, urban, and critical race geographies explores the contestations of living and forms of resistance amongst multiply-marginalized LGBTQ2+ people. His writing is published in journals such as Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, Urban Studies, and Urban Geography.