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Aren Aizura charts the motilities and mobilities of trans/bodies through an exploration of gender reassignment surgery as a set of procedures and technologies which allow individuals of diverse nationalities to achieve their gender identity. Aizura suggests thinking about gender affirmation procedures both as a right and a commodity, since access to them is often affected by state regulatory regimes and niche markets. Mobile Subjects offers a trans/materialist approach as a fresh perspective within transgender studies and related fields such as geographies of sexualities and migration studies. Aizura’s trans/national materialist perspective takes into consideration technologies, desires, border regimes, market and state regulations that frame inequitable access to gender affirmation surgery based upon race, class and nationality status.
In discussing representations of gender affirmation procedures and migrant transgender communities, the book situates specific economies of race, capital, desire and gender affirmation surgeries. The book makes an important contribution to transgender studies by showing how spaces, economies, and desires remain interconnected with technologies for achieving gender identity. In his introduction, Aizura offers “somatechnologies” (2018: 13) as the interface of embodiment, technology and bodily practice. Such an interface is framed through political economies of medical tourism, global racial and class hierarchies, as well as regulation of migration across sovereign borders. The introduction charts out the theoretical contours of Aizura’s thinking, offering transmaterialist analysis as an analytic for writing about transgender lives. Broadly divided into two parts, the book first charts out discursive tropes and representations of gender affirmation surgery in recent documentary films, popular media, and websites related to surgery and after-care. In the second portion, one gets a better sense of Aizura’s transmaterialist approach as he analyzes routes and destination sites (such as Bangkok, Thailand) for accessing gender affirmation surgery. This section of the book is perhaps most compelling owing to Aizura’s discussion of how race, affect, and specific clinics in Thailand come together in order to create racialized pathways to surgery.
By “following the actors” (Aizura, 2018: 135), Mobile Subjects offers students and researchers working in transgender and queer studies an example of a useful methodological framework, one which has always been a method of queer studies and yet remains under-theorized. Aizura follows surgeons, clinics, patients, and, to a lesser extent, his own gender affirmation journey while mapping the racialist hierarchies of gender reaffirmation clinics. Further, Aizura elaborates on travel as a metaphor for being trafficked between bodies by illustrating how transgender and gender non-conforming individuals are trafficking nation-states in order to access gender affirmation procedures, thereby moving between markets, national borders and medical regimes. Following as a method, coupled with a detailed discussion of Aizura’s ethnography at clinics in Thailand clearly enumerates a transmaterialist approach, yet left me as a reader wanting more connections with Aizura’s detailed discursive analysis in the first portion of the book.
I highlight the two strengths of Aizura’s book, while offering ways to extend Aizura’s transmaterialist work for future research in the field. First, I focus on Aizura’s transmaterialist analysis, and outline how the reader might find his cultural analysis of transgender documentaries and his ethnography at clinics in Thailand as examples of such an analysis. While Aizura doesn’t explicitly make a connection between his analysis of the films and Thai transgender clients in the clinics of Bangkok, I find these two portions as compelling sites for undertaking transmaterialist analyses of race, class and gender affirmation procedures. Secondly, I discuss following as a methodology and its potential uses in transgender and queer studies. In the end, I remain in agreement with Aizura about how gender affirmation procedures have now become a commodity to be consumed at sites that offer a cost-benefit deal. The deal being that gender affirmation as a right requires navigating state regulations while buying one’s somatechnological procedures offers the freedom to mix and choose as per need. Even when the nation-state might not offer transgender individuals formal equality, the market offers opportunities for consuming one’s gender identity. However, Aizura points out that the ability to consume one’s gender identity often is a privilege accorded to white, upper-class individuals from the global north whereas bodies from the global south labor in the north, or stand precariously at the gates of nation-states, waiting access to gender affirmation surgeries.
The first part of Mobile Subjects undertakes a cultural analysis of how logics of neoliberal capital, migratory circuits, and racialized regimes can be traced in diverse representations of gender transformation. I found Chapter 3 particularly compelling as it discusses Bubot Niyor, a film about a dancing troupe of Filipina migrant workers living in Tel Aviv, Israel (Aizura, 2018: 111). The “Paper Dolls,” as the troupe calls itself, immigrated from the Philippines as care workers, found each other, and created a sense of family together in Israel. While the film attempts to portray Tel Aviv as a liberatory site , the film also represents the alienation felt by the Paper Dolls in Tel Aviv. Aizura provides a brilliant illustration of how to read the representational politics of documentary films about subjects from the global south, by analyzing the directorial intent. Aizura reads the colonialist intentions of the director to interpret, explain, and also manage the budding career of the Paper Dolls in Tel Aviv. Such a reading is congruent with his analysis of Les Travestis pleurent aussi- a film about Ecuadorian transgender women travesties living in an outer suburb of Paris. Aizura situates the film within the anti-immigrant political context of France, while, highlighting how precarious travesti sex workers from the global south attempt to form families and access hormones as well as surgery in the global north. The travels of racialized transgender immigrants remain marked with state violence, border regimes, and working in informal sectors rendering many of them as abject. In contrast to the migrant trans feminine subjects of Bubot Niyor and Les Travestis, the film Gender Redesigner’s narrates the travels of fAe, a trans masculine person living in rural Pennsylvania. fAe travels between Ohio and San Francisco, California in order to access chest surgery, name change, and ultimately a happy life as a performer in a band in San Francisco. The journey of a trans-masculine white person within the domestic borders of the USA is far less precarious. Aizura thus illustrates how race, class, and global migratory regimes frame gender affirmation related somatechnologies.
The cultural-materialist approach in reading trans/documentaries is at times vivid, yet at times could have highlighted the voices of trans/migrants from the global south. As mentioned earlier, Aizura’s ethnographic journeys into the clinics in Bangkok are one of the strongest features of the book. Yet, perhaps to accommodate the demands of the publishing industry, the ethnographic vignettes are rather slim. We are introduced to characters such as Som and Emma, who are both migrating from rural Thailand to the metropolitan center (Chaing Mai and Bangkok) for accessing surgery. Som’s surgery is financed by her Australian boyfriend. In her interview with Aizura, Som reflects upon her experiences at a premier clinic in Thailand. She felt that the doctor was partial to his American, Australian and European clients. Yet, as a reader one is never given fuller details about both of their lives. Further, Aizura provides glimpses of the affective labor performed by the staff at different clinics in Bangkok. The staff provide care, imitate appropriate femininity for their clients. These services are primarily provided by Thai women workers. Following Pheng Cheah and Rey Chow, Aizura theorizes the workers as “third world women workers,” and “subaltern subjects” (Aizura, 2018: 195). A majority of the women workers offer their services to clients from the Global North. This portion of the book extends the transmaterialist analysis by showing how predominantly white travelers from the north experience surgeries differentially than women such as Som and Emma. It thus offers a racialized reading of gender affirmation surgeries and clinics.
The second genuine contribution of the book is Aizura’s (2018: 15) discussion of “Following” as a research design. The text follows both human and non-human actors across diverse spaces, sites both virtual and real in order to show how narratives, biomedical regimes, and immigration regimes fold into each other creating diverse somatechnological assemblages. Following as a method requires deciphering meanings within films, documentaries and medical literature, as well as tracing networks of surgeons, clinics, care givers, and the travels of transgender persons in search of their gender identity and creating a sense of community. While Aizura offers travel as a metaphor for understanding gender affirmation procedures, following becomes a research design, a trans/methodological innovation where there is no unitary subject of analysis nor a single method (such as participant ethnography or textual analysis). Rather, following offers the journeys of a trans/researcher, who exposes his own body, follows friends, doctors, clinics, medical narratives, LGBTQ film festivals across seemingly disparate locales in Thailand, Australia, France, and the USA in order to present how trans/persons travel towards achieving their true gender identity.
In sum, Mobile Subjects offers methodological innovation through its deployment of ‘following’, as well as epistemic innovation through its trans/materialist analysis. In Aizura’s attempt to bridge between representation and everyday lives of transgender people seeking gender affirmation processes, one could read his work with scholars such as Nicola Mai, transgender studies scholar Sima Shakshari, and geographers such as Petra Doan, Kian Goh, Catherine Nash and Natalie Oswin. As a sociologist and ethnographer, Mai brings together film-making with detailed multi-sited ethnography in order to document trans/migration along the Mediterranean region. A cross-reading of both Mai and Aizura definitely will enrich graduate students as well as advanced researchers looking at questions of ethics and methods for doing research about transgender lives. In the field of trans geographies, scholars such as Petra Doan have argued that transgender persons face a “tyranny of gender,” that frames every aspect of their personal and private lives (Doan, 2010: 635). Petra Doan’s scholarship provides a framework for understanding how the gender binary frames public and private space, thus relegating the transgender person marginalized within urban spaces. Catherine Nash has argued that the field of geographies of sexualities, needs to question the remapping of gender binaries upon LGBTQ spaces such as bars and “gayborhoods,” (2010; 579). Aizura’s book can be combined with the pioneering works of Doan, Mai, and Nash in order to extend a transmaterialist inter-scalar analysis of transgender space, and the politics of transgender place making. Aizura’s detailed discussion about how international divisions of labor, whiteness and class privilege frame spaces such as gender affirmation clinics helps students and researchers in critical geography to take up a racialized analysis of space. As pointed out by Natalie Oswin and Kian Goh, geographers need not simply add race as an additive to understand queer space, rather, read racialization through which queer space emerges (Goh, 2018; Oswin, 2008). In this way, Mobile Subjects helps extend geographic line of thinking about queer and transgender spaces. Aizura remains in conversation with theorists such as Sara Ahmed, Gayatri Gopinath and queer migration scholars such as Eithne Luibheid and Sima Shakhsari. Thus, the book might offer ways for bringing together theoretical dialogs with ethnographic methods. Mobile Subjects definitely could be taken up in geographies of sexualities, social/cultural anthropology, queer and transgender studies, as ways of conducting trans/materialist ethnography, one that reveals the fault lines of nation-states and neoliberal capitalism, and that makes or breaks the livability of the transgender subject.
 See more on how the notion of Israel as a site of LGBTQ equality is used as a form of pink washing by the Israeli state to cover over the occupation of Palestine in the works of Jasbir Puar, Gill Hartal, and Sara Schulman
Doan, P. 2008. “The tyranny of gendered spaces-reflections from beyond the gender dichotomy.”Gender, Place, and Culture. 17 (5). 635-654.
Goh, K. 2018. “Safe Cities and queer spaces: the urban politics of radical LGBT activism.” Annals of the Association of American Geographers. 108 (2). 463-477.
Mai, N. 2016. “Assembling Samira: Understanding Sexual Humanitarianism through Experimental Filmmaking.” antiAtlas Journal. 1. 1-17.
Nash, C. 2010. “Trans Geographies, Embodiment, and Experience.”Gender, Place, and Culture. 17 (5). 579-595.
Oswin, N. 2008. “Critical Geographies and the uses of sexuality: deconstructing queer space.” Progress in Human Geography. 32 (1). 89-103.
Debanuj DasGupta is Assistant Professor of Feminist Studies and affiliated faculty in Asian American Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Her research focuses on how questions of border security, detention, and cross border movement are experienced by trans/subjects in the US and across South Asia. Debanuj serves as board co-chair for the Center for LGBTQ Studies (CLAGS) at the City University of New York and prior to academia has worked for over two decades within HIV/AIDS and international development agencies.