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t the AAG meeting in March 2019, Natalie Oswin invited me into conversation about Mobile Subjects with generosity and care. These generous engagements by AM Kanngieser, Debanuj DasGupta, and Rae Rosenberg distil the best of my aims in Mobile Subjects while calling me into greater faith to a political vision we all share: that of abolishing racial capital, and a reckoning with the history of violence in the name of racial capital, visited upon those whose bodies and selves have stood in the way of European imperialist and colonial expansion. AM Kanngieser pays me a huge compliment by calling the methodologies practiced in Mobile Subjects strategies of attunement or listening. Meanwhile, I hear and appreciate the critiques in this; particularly how Rosenberg draws attention to how theoretical interventions can be made when thinking about trans women of color living in the global North, who, as he points out, are also present in Thai trans surgery clinics and who also experience exoticist or racist microaggressions, perhaps from surgeons but also from white trans women. This brilliantly encapsulates a major limit of the book: a basic inattention to anti-Blackness as a transnational racial formation which is central to global racial capitalism and different in its manifestations in different regions, particularly in south-east Asia.
Rosenberg’s attention to Mock’s account illustrates precisely why it was important for Mobile Subjects to show that not all the clients of premium Thai GRS surgeons are white, and how transnational economies of value—especially the value of citizenship—shape trans women’s experiences of surgery and care. Mock’s account in Redefining Realness is instructive here. As Rosenberg points out, Mock contrasts the fact that she’s broke, financing her surgery with savings earned from sex work, in comparison white Australian Genie, who occupies a privileged position as a professional. At the same time, Mock relates being treated with care by the surgeon, Dr. C. Indeed, in Redefining Realness Dr. C. appears as something of a savior, friendly and respectful. Mock describes his staff as kind; Mock adds that she “lucked out”, aware that it is rare to be treated kindly at all by medical professionals as a Black, Native trans woman. Mock’s experience is thus shaped by her Blackness and biracial identity, but also by her status as a U.S. citizen, entering Thailand from a nation located in the global north. Perhaps the point is that, from the perspective of medical travel markets, a Black trans woman like Mock can occupy both positions at once: valuable to Dr. C. and his staff because of the potential she has for expanding the market to more trans women in North America, and at the same time, materially impoverished and racialized. Her experiences both exceed and are determined by the tensions and crises in transnational racial capital that produce such contradictions.
In a recent Social Text roundtable I edited with some other trans studies scholars, we discussed how to practice a trans studies that rejects a unitary theorization of the subject, particularly given the dynamic in North American trans politics wherein trans women of color are made hypervisible, represented as vulnerable, threatened, and perpetually proximate to violence and death. As Jules Gill-Peterson (2021) writes, trans studies often figures trans women of color as “political signifiers, people in whose name the business of queer and trans politics is conducted,” rather than the authors and creators of their own political forms. In the roundtable conversation, Treva Ellison (cited in Aizura et al. 2020, 134) cites Stuart Hall’s work in Policing the Crisis to teach us how to think through the figures trans studies throws up as discursive articulations of crisis: “what do the articulation of these questions and the impulse or coercion to ask them tell us about the changing nature of matter and material, crises in racial capitalism, and the ongoing crisis of the subject?” It’s difficult but rewarding to refuse the valence of any given trans subject as political signifier, while also looking at how particular figures function to articulate crisis across the breadth of capital, surveillance, policing. While Mobile Subjects doesn’t quite do justice to this vision, it tries.
On the surface, the economic and social landscape in which the forms of trans mobility and consumer subjectivity registered in Mobile Subjects appeared to change completely in the short decade from 2010 to 2020. Such changes are significant enough to enumerate here: Obama-era mandates for health insurance to include trans health care mean that in the U.S., more trans people now access surgeries locally through health insurance, rather than privately through transnational medical travel. Meanwhile, the intensified criminalization of sex work and ramping up of austerity politics—more wage stagnation, increasing shifts in labor management away from salaried work towards gig work, and the tyranny of the “independent contractor” designation, and the collapse of multiple service industries during the pandemic—increased economic precarity for everyone. Austerity measures on top of austerity measures have hit trans people especially hard, in particular Black and brown trans and non-binary people who already experience difficulty finding formal waged work. It is not surprising, then, that the most popular question in U.S. trans social media spaces lately has not been, “Which surgeon should I choose?” but “Can you contribute to my Venmo/CashApp/Paypal fund?” Consequently, scholarly attention has redirected to the informal and material tactics of trans care (Malatino 2020), as well as how to practice mutual aid itself (Spade 2020). Throughout the pandemic, we all witnessed a turn to mutual aid networks and crowdfunding as a means of survival for trans and non-binary people.
But these mutual aid networks, as well as the mere transferring of small amounts of money around via Venmo or CashApp, are an extension of networks that already existed pre-pandemic. And if we look beyond the United States, we can see that waiting lists for trans surgeries are only growing longer. This is sometimes due to health care cuts but more often due to state disinvestment in trans health care because it is still “controversial”: TERFs, “gender criticals”, and right-wing evangelicals are calling for bans on trans health care for minors; for these allied groups, trans people represent the danger of global social collapse. In these times, geographical mobility will continue to be central as a tactic for trans people to evade scrutiny, to access even the most basic health care. While health care and social services continue to be structured to punish the poor or disenfranchised, reward upward mobility, and encourage us to see health as something we “invest” in, geographical mobility to access trans health care will continue to entrench and reproduce inequity. The question of how representation of these inequities can unfold will accompany us on whatever political responses we make.
If mutual aid and trans care can provide a means of subsistence outside of formal waged work, it is key to investigate how the spaces of trans life are represented outside of the wage or the family form. During the ascendancy of Fordism during the twentieth century, the wage was meant to guarantee the social or financial capacity to invest, take risks and to be an entrepreneurial subject—if not with actual capital, then by property acquisition or debt. Yet, the family form, or genealogy, is far more crucial as the supposed guarantor of subsistence and fodder for investment and (thus the discipline of social order) than the Fordist wage—particularly through inheritance and economic relationships such as marriage and household debt (Cooper 2017). Trans people often encounter being pushed out of families of origin and being pushed out of workplaces; thus, neither of these guarantees are stable sources of subsistence—or stable spaces that can impose social or economic discipline.
Critics such as Michael Denning and Neferti Tadiar characterize the spaces outside of formal work as wageless life (Denning 2010; Tadiar 2012). Tadiar offers some insights on the politics and creativity of wageless life when she theorizes surplus labor as remaindered life or “disposable life-times”, whose futures function as liquid reserves or assets that states risk in gambling for investment or offer as collateral for debt. These life-times have value only in aggregate form, bundled as population itself. Tadiar (2012, 33) argues that the temporalities of disposable life-times do not reflect the accelerated futurism of capitalist temporal logics but rather the restlessness of perpetual motion.
In the 2015 film Tangerine (2015, dir. Sean S. Baker), two trans girl BFFs walk endlessly through the neglected urban landscape of West Hollywood. The film’s major plot arc involves Sin-Dee, who just got out of a month of jail time and is looking for the white cis woman her lover Chester has been cheating on her with. Sin-Dee’s best friend Alexandra accompanies her on a shifting quest to get revenge, or an account of what happened. We never see where Alexandra and Sin-Dee live; their lives may as well be conducted entirely on the street. Because neither one has a car, they walk everywhere. Walking means (among other things) hanging out, conducting social and financial transactions, exchanging drugs, services, and sometimes having or getting gossip, support, or intimacy. Alexandra and Sin-Dee are wageless: they make money by doing sex work and possibly other informal transactions. A stable wage is out of reach and possibly undesirable, as are the structures of debt and formal financial accounting practices that characterize “inclusion” within contemporary capital. For that matter, the transnational and geographical mobility required in order to access gender-affirming surgeries in a place like Thailand is not just laughably out of reach, but subtended by the processes that disallow participation in waged work and saving or debt. For the trans girls in Tangerine, inhabiting public space is also precarious: their whole world involves walking while trans .
In a key scene in Tangerine, the least frenetic moment in the movie—a kind of suspension or oceanic beat—Alexandra runs into her friend Razmik, a middle-aged Armenian cab driver. Both are coming from failed attempts to exchange services for money. Alexandra’s previous client can’t get hard and refuses to pay; when Alexandra takes his car keys, he attacks her. Meanwhile, Razmik has his own problems: at the beginning of the film two wasted guys puke in his cab. Later he picks up a trick, Selena, on a block where trans women usually walk. On parking, he asks for oral sex—not, as she assumes, on him, but for him to give her a blowjob. When he pulls her underwear down, he balks. “What’s wrong?” she asks him. “Is it tucked?” he asks. Selina doesn’t know what he’s talking about: “What the fuck!” she says. “What the fuck is this?” he says. “It’s a pussy!” she replies. He hustles her out of the car and tells her, in no uncertain terms, that the block she was working on is “not for pussies.” “That’s the wrong track for you man!” he tells her. “Don’t work that track!” This exchange neatly reverses the stereotypical cinematic transgender reveal moment where undressing exposes the disturbing fact of transness to characters and viewers, who are supposed to have been oblivious. Instead, Razmik and Selena are both baffled by the discovery that he doesn’t want the cisness she is offering.
When Alexandra runs into Razmik in the following scene, they are both relieved to find someone who offers what they’re looking for. “I’m so fucking happy to see you today,” Alexandra says as she gets into the cab. “Oh my god, you would not believe what I have been through. What a sight for sore eyes.” Elsewhere, meanwhile, Sin-Dee has found Dinah and is dragging her down the street, to the sound of loud, frenetic techno; this sequence feels or is slightly sped-up. Dinah fights back without success. As Razmik and Alexandra pull into a car wash, the music fades, exposing the relatively sparse and banal sounds of the car engine. “I think this is becoming our favorite spot,” Alexandra says wryly. In the following take, the camera is positioned in the backseat, the windshield filling the screen, with Razmik and Alexandra on either side. Brushes whoosh and churn over the stationary car; the whirring, liquid, mechanical noises of the car wash swell until they engulf all other sound. Razmik leans down to give Alexandra a blowjob, Alexandra caressing his back lightly, and his head disappears. This static long take brings us nearly through the entire car wash, nearly two whole minutes. Baker crosscuts a few seconds of Sin-Dee and Dinah fighting in the middle, but the sound of the car wash continues. We cut back to the same shot inside Razmik’s car, where rivulets of wax light up like chandelier crystals in the golden light. Razmik’s head comes up just as the carwash ends and a gas station employee wipes the windshield over. After a brief cut back to Sin-Dee and Dinah, Alexandra is outside the car, bringing Razmik a Car-Freshner. “Merry Christmas,” she says, smiling. She hands him a flier for her performance later that night and walks away.
Tangerine has a reputation for being “authentic” and “realist” cinema, as Jules Gill-Peterson points out (Gill-Peterson 2021, 413) citing director Baker’s description of the film as “socialist-realist”. But the film itself continually destroys the illusion of cinematic realism by speeding up the action and slowing it down. The duration of the car wash shot is key: in contrast to the frenetic action of the preceding scene, it dramatically slows the action. This sequence also depends on an optical illusion. Razmik and Alexandra’s encounter takes place in a car, the universal global symbol of economic and geographical mobility, but the car itself is not moving. The carwash gives an effect of constant movement without its materialization. A space that is both continuous with the street because it is still “public” yet affording momentary privacy, Tangerine’s carwash is a place that can only be grasped temporarily and that affords the same restless, perpetual motion as walking. No-one is going anywhere “else” in this movie: they are moving in place.
Meanwhile, the conflicts animating the plot of Tangerine appear from one perspective to be petty, both in the sense of minor or inconsequential, and in revealing what Tadiar (2012, 794) calls the “petty auxiliary enterprises” of broken windows policing and criminalization of sex work that congeal around regulating the city and nation. But by intercutting the two scenes—Alexandra and Razmik, Sin-Dee and Dinah—Tangerine also refuses to cordon off sex work from “real life”. The street and the car both function as spaces in which contingent transactional affect and bodily force are more important than “empowerment” or “redemption”. Thus, to read the film as a merely individual or “petty” shuts us down what LaVelle Ridley (2019, 483) brilliantly refers to as “imagining otherly”, a Black trans practice of epistemological desertion from the dead end of “reveling in the supposed arrival of equality”. Read imagining otherly, we don’t need to view the film as a moral fable about the so-called destitution of street-based trans sex work, or understand Alexandra and Sin-Dee as “tragic” figures who need rights and recognition (or visibility) in order to live better lives. The disposable life-times of Tangerine’s characters are filled with creative, aesthetic, and collaborative social practices involving forms of mutual aid and care—although what “care” means is open. Alexandra fights the guy who tries to rip her off, strategically taking his car keys so he can’t go anywhere. Sin-Dee’s ferocious search for Dinah is also a form of vengeance on white, cissexist heteronormativity. While Ridley suggests Alexandra’s vocal performance is what offers her a reprieve from the depiction of Black transness as coterminous with violence, poverty, and abjection, I argue that the entire film asks us not to see “violence” or “vengeance” or sex work itself as abject. Rather, Tangerine offers a moment in which the disciplining and normative forces of social order cannot gain purchase.
My broader point is that within “disposability”, people still organize. Politics happens in the spaces designated outside the nuclear family form, and outside the wage. It is only invisible to those who do not have the optic to notice. A related lesson is that the decriminalization of sex work is integral to trans and queer politics; claims for trans recognition that rely on respectability politics and claims to normality will only sell out the population who most need a world without violence. But in order to see this political work, within trans studies or geography or whatever disciplines we inhabit, our definitions of the political need to shift.
 Walking while trans is a phrase coined by Black trans sex work activists to describe how trans women of color are routinely criminalized for daring to make visible their departure from racial and gendered normativity, a departure universally understood as both threatening and signaling something sexual.
Aizura, Aren Z., Marquis Bey, Toby Beauchamp, Treva Ellison, Jules Gill-Peterson, and Eliza Steinbock. 2020. “Thinking with Trans Now.” Social Text 38 (4): 125–47.
Cooper, Melinda. 2017. Family Values : Between Neoliberalism and the New Social Conservatism. New York: Zone Books.
Denning, Michael. 2010. “Wageless Life.” New Left Review 66: 79–97. Available here.
Gill-Peterson, Jules. 2021. “General Editor’s Introduction.” TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly 8 (4): 413–16.
Malatino, Hil. 2020. Trans Care. University of Minnesota Press.
Ridley, LaVelle. 2019. “Imagining Otherly.” TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly 6 (4): 481–90.
Spade, Dean. 2020. Mutual Aid: Building Solidarity During This Crisis. New York: Verso.
Tadiar, Neferti X. M. 2012. “Life-Times in Fate Playing.” South Atlantic Quarterly 111 (4): 783–802.
Aren Aizura is the author of Mobile Subjects: transnational imaginaries of gender reassignment ( Duke UP, 2018). He is the co-editor of Keywords in Gender and Sexuality Studies (NYU Press, 2021) and the Transgender Studies Reader 2 (Routledge 2013) and his work has appeared in numerous edited collections and journals, including Social Text, Transgender Studies Quarterly, and Medical Anthropology, and books including Queer Necropolitics (Routledge, 2014) and Trans Studies: Beyond Homo/Hetero Normativities (Rutgers University Press, 2015). He is associate professor in Gender, Women and Sexuality Studies at the University of Minnesota, located on Dakota and Ojibwe land.