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y position engaging West's work comes from both my personal everyday lived experience as a fairly privileged white, abled, precariously middle-class trans woman as well as from being informed by the experiences of often less privileged trans women and transfeminine friends and acquaintances. Academically, I fly geography as a flag of academic convenience, encompassing political theory, information science, and spatial urban studies. Combining the personal and the academic, then, my engagement with West comes from a community-building, mutual aid, street-level perspective of everyday trans life mixed with this book’s potential for conceptualizing and situating further political action.
In his introductory chapter, West offers a solid treatment of the discursive space around gender/sex and transgender. It is a good overview, one that I would recommend to those wishing to learn more as well as demonstrating how cisgender writers can and should approach trans topics. Most importantly, it demonstrates West's sympathy with trans lives, something which is sadly absent from the majority of academic work about trans folk. Toward this end of identifying his relationship to the trans community, West's explicit declaration of his position and limits as a cis, white, gay man is also appreciated. Trans folk have been burned by cisgender academics before, so West's honesty is welcome.
Throughout the book, West frames his case studies and ultimately his theorizing around the everyday lived experience of trans people. Foregrounding trans experience should be the fundamental approach or lens for writing about trans people as too often (gender) theory is twisted in a hostile manner against trans existence. This subordination of actual lives to academic theory applies especially to trans women, who have even been attacked by prominent academics from Janice Raymond in the 1970s to Sheila Jeffreys most recently. Conversely, West rightly shifts from the academy to everyday life, and as a law scholar "from the courtroom to the spaces of everyday life" (p.21). As a result, he succeeds were many other cisgender researchers fail in that he sympathetically, though not uncritically, approaches his subjects, who are after all members of deeply marginalized groups, from their lived reality.
West's first case consists of a historical snapshot of transgender politics in the 1950s through a biographical glimpse of Debbie Mayne. While trans people's medical and legal autonomy remains highly controlled to this very day, it was eye-opening to read how Ms. Mayne deftly played the medical and legal establishment of her day—an American era that I can imagine as beyond hostile and transantagonistic. Using archival information, West sketches a trans woman who not only built a better world for herself through her own agency, but who also paid it forward for trans people who would follow. It is only disconcerting that Ms. Mayne is not better known. Trans history is little regarded, certainly within the broader GLb(t) movement, so West's historiography in this case is as welcome as it is important.
For that reason, the existence of what West discusses as public and private transcripts is invaluable to recreating the fuller story. The court records and newspaper articles describe Ms. Mayne's very public actions; however, despite their nature, much of Ms. Mayne's amazing assertion of her agency remains hidden below the surface. Here is where the private transcripts reveal the "back channel" tactics Mayne used to influence public re/action as well as to bend everyone who attempted to control her life. Through an interweaving of multifarious records, West draws a rich portrait of an early trans rights agitator.
What is most useful about the discussion of the two types of transcripts is the reminder that contemporary justice work requires multiple messages, or approaches, for multiple audiences. Even within a single campaign, of course, there is a need for public-facing actions as well as private, and sometimes back channel, work. This is basic politics. However, it seems as though we may forget the need for these multiple approaches these days when it seems everything is public, or at least when the public transcript is assumed to be the only transcript.
Dovetailing into this intricate dance between public and private is West's discussion of performative repertoires—“embodied practices enabled by and negotiated through the logics of subjective recognition” (p.39)—or as I glibly restated "what trans folk call survival”. In fairness, performative repertoires allow for much more than just survival. The term is a useful name for the collection of tools, methods, tactics, and strategies trans people use not only to fight basic struggles but also to organize and act in broader and larger campaigns. Further, they are toolboxes that trans actors use to build a new world. As actions with a public aspect, they can span and tie together the public and private transcripts that are produced by multiple trans agents engaging in multiple struggles using multiple methods and channels. Just as with Ms. Mayne, actors aid themselves as well as, potentially, their peers. As praxis, performative repertoires link theory to action by mobilizing agency in everyday life, all within a social-political milieu that is still largely transantagonistic.
Moreover, notions of transcripts and repertoires are useful concepts in today's more networked and nimble world of activism. When information flies at the speed of social media, these approaches let us pause briefly to figure out what information needs to go where. Additionally, we may consider repertoires as tactics and strategies whose analysis, success or failure, may offer others actors tools for future actions. Viewed through an Arendtian lens, they are actions put out into the world that are read legibly and reacted to. Now freed from their authors, they may exist as tools to be used and modified by others.
Moving these ideas closer to the present in subsequent case studies, West illustrates their relevancy and currency for analyzing contemporary political action. His subsequent case studies—the PISSAR coalition of disability and genderqueer activists at university, followed by the trans-inclusive ENDA coalition—illustrate another important concept: consubstantiality. In short, consubstantiality is an assemblage of shifting, moving, endlessly reconfiguring flows and intensities, be they the dis/connection of people, groups, ideas, campaigns, and direct actions. Writing about the coalitions of diverse actors in both cases, West describes the slippery difficulty of working for justice. Namely, consubstantiality is a temporary “fragile union” requiring constant renewal of elements that are “joined and separate.” Here lies part of the heavy but rewarding lifting of social justice work: connection among actors building foundations for the future. Beyond just acting in the present, consubstantiality is a form of empathy building with potential promise of future solidarity.
Additionally, consubstantiality holds lessons for the networked, agile nature of coalition, allyship, and alliance. It seems of great importance in the connected world, where one cannot, for example, be “once an ally, always an ally.” Alliance is not a passive steady state noun but, rather, an active renewal, a verb, via solidarity. It emphasizes action that must be reaffirmed at scales ranging from the individual to the interpersonal and communal. These bonds and commitments must be renewed with each turn of injustice, resulting in new and renewed connections between actors.
While offering a number of good frameworks for discussing transgender politics, West’s treatment falls short in places. As the foremost suggestion, the standard advice when writing about transgender politics applies here: employ more explicit intersectional analysis. Transgender marginalization is inextricably entwined with racism and classism. In the United States, for example, where all of West's case studies took place, transgender women of color face the highest rates of violence and discrimination. Additionally, poor trans people and trans sex workers face many dangers on a daily basis. This is where transgender action, advocacy, research, and analysis must be centered, otherwise it tends to benefit only the most privileged trans people. Here is where West’s deracialized and class-blind analysis falls short the most. Only after the needs of the most marginalized are met can the circle spiral outward to benefit others. As a result, transgender analysis must include the intersectional lenses of race and class; theorizing the future of transgender political activity must center these as well.
Secondly, the progression of chapters slowly radiates the focus outwards from a trans person to a trans group working in coalition with others to, finally, a broader LGBT coalition. This progression nicely illustrates the varied scales of trans actions and, through it, West introduces some intersectional analysis in the second case via trans activists working with disability activists. However, the focus shift feels as decentering trans agency, moving from subject to partner to object by the third case. In the ENDA example, it feels most distanced from trans agency—having moved from trans folk as subjects to trans folk as objects. I want to be clear, however, that this chapter is an important historiography and, thus, not without immense value. The sordid history of the ENDA struggle is not well known enough. However, it seems that this history would have fit better elsewhere and a more successful campaign centered on transgender people as agents would have been stronger. In truth, having suffered through watching Barney Frank’s deplorable machinations at the time, and having found West’s first case so amazing, this chapter left me feeling wanting.
In the conclusion, West ties his book together with his thoughts on law and practice, calling for an impure trans politics. While insightful, it nevertheless symbolizes the logical progression of the book, namely that it remains a work about trans folk by a cis academic. This isn't meant to scorn but rather to remind of the limits of one’s positionality as a [cisgender] researcher. As a transgender woman steeped in connection and endless conversation, theorizing, and action with communities of transgender people, West’s conclusions as well left me feeling wanting something more solid. As a result, by the conclusion my marginalia became more emphatic: “we've got this covered,” “makes demands that have already been addressed.”
On a positive note, reflecting on West’s discussion reminds us to pause from today’s high-speed discourse and to not always strive for ideological purity. Those of us in the thick of the work sometimes forget this needed pragmatic balance. On the other hand, working within trans communities, trans folk are well aware of the tensions and contradictions, or the impurity of trans politics. For example, as we work against the neoliberal machine we also recognize the need for people to work and earn a living. In this light, West’s advice is less groundbreaking; as my notes offer, “we actually discuss this all the time.”
Additionally, the case studies underscore a fundamental caveat of doing current trans research, regardless of who the researcher is: timeliness. Trans politics operate instantaneously—call it “in Twitter time” perhaps—thus what is hyper relevant at the moment may be old news when published. Such delay is exacerbated by the practices of traditional publishing, especially academic book publishing. Here we find a huge disconnect between the actual speed of transgender action and writings about transgender action.
Most of the best transgender theorizing, organizing, and strategizing is done online, largely because transgender people are a geographically dispersed and sparse population. Nowhere else can the messiness, or impurity, of transgender politics be seen more manifestly than in these online counterpublics. Thus, while the case studies themselves are a wealth of historical information, West's final analysis—published “in academic time”—raises questions that have been answered, or at least exhaustively discussed, by the time of publication. As a result, a book like this reads as dated upon publication, a little like when adult newscasters run a story about new teenage fads, which have already passed. Writing a book upon this topic, then, the online realm cannot be ignored, as it is a powerful place of comfort, support, catharsis, and resistance. Necessarily, not all such counterpublics are visible to the cisgender world; however, if one wishes to speak of transgender citizenship and performative repertoires, one absolutely cannot ignore the online world.
Although West stumbles at the end, Transforming Citizenships is nonetheless a good read to sympathetically introduce some of the basic discursive space around trans politics. Two places where the book shines are, first, in the case studies themselves: the wonderful historical treatment of Debbie Mayne, the highly pragmatic example of university trans activists, and the thorough history of the failed ENDA struggle of the early aughts. Secondly, West discusses useful concepts like public/private transcripts, performative repertoires, and especially consubstantiality. The first set is enough of an introduction to some of the contours of trans activism and trans politics, hinting at potential methods and tactics for future actions. The latter set gives us some powerful tools for conceptualizing and envisioning transgender political action. Finally, the basic fact of West’s sympathetic approach and treatment of a highly marginalized and maligned population may just be its greatest value.