n Isaac West’s Transforming Citizenships, we are treated to a rich archive of trans activism and to a complex argument that raises important questions about how we conceptualize citizenship and engage with the law—both analytically and politically. The book operates, in many ways, through a reparative approach to existing forms of citizenship and engagements with the state, which is meant as a corrective to the relative hegemony of anti-normative critique in queer studies (cf. Wiegman, 2012). Whether investigating activism seeking discrimination protections for gender identity or examining the coalitional politics of trans and disabilities activists coming together to challenge the spatial orderings of public restrooms, West is attentive to how engagements with the law may exceed both the coordinates of state power and the limits of anti-normative critique. Attempting to recuperate citizenship and the law as something more than the bad objects of queer politics, West offers a vision of an impure trans politics that attends to our inevitable implication in prevailing regimes of normativity and suggests that such implication may actually offer more opportunities for political action and meaningful change than might sometimes be supposed.

Articulation, Coalition, and Analogy

The subtitle of the book, “Transgender Articulations of the Law,” highlights the centrality of a concept of articulation to West’s project. Following Stuart Hall, he understands articulation in a dual manner—first, it is a process through which a medium enables the communication of a message and second, it names the linking together of disparate elements to form a complex and differentiated whole. In West’s hands, this becomes a powerful concept for understanding the performative force of claims to legal equality or recognition, as well as for engaging the possibilities of coalitional politics. In an early example, West suggests that a claim by a trans person to equal protection under U.S. constitutional law involves an articulation of trans identification with a constitutional principle that—even if it is ultimately rejected by a court or other receiver of that claim—nevertheless has important effects. He suggests:

“Once articulated in unexpected or novel ways, these dynamic pieces in the network of larger discursive formations transform the meaning of the elements themselves” (page 8).

Articulation is also a crucial concept for understanding how coalitions emerge. West shows for example, how trans and disabilities activists at a University of California campus jointly articulated their mutual concerns with public restroom safety and accessibility though a kind of queerness that, instead of emphasizing sexual identity, privileged the destructive force of bigendered and abled normativities and the renunciation of the shame and stigma associated with being pushed outside those norms. In this example, the articulation of trans and disabilities politics allowed a discursive intervention that is important for our understandings of queerness and also achieved some concrete changes to public restrooms on a university campus.

In another account of articulation and coalition, West recounts the story of the failure of the U.S. Congress to pass legislation implementing employment discrimination protections for both sexual orientation and gender identity. To sum up the details briefly, sexual orientation and gender identity were initially both included in the proposed bill, but—in a concession meant to make passage of the protections for sexual orientation more likely, the bill’s sponsor, Barney Frank, introduced a second bill that removed the language offering protection for gender identity. In the end, neither the gender identity-inclusive bill nor the sexual orientation-only bill passed. West’s reading is really quite interesting because what has traditionally been a story of failure—both in the failure to get employment protections of any kind through Congress and the disappointment that an important advocate of lesbian and gay issues in the Senate would throw trans folks under the bus—is rescripted here as a powerful moment of political promise. It is a moment of promise precisely because of the negative reaction to Frank’s action from a wide cross section of LGBT advocates—including most, though not all, of the national LGBT organizations. These advocates roundly criticized Frank’s actions and withdrew their support from the sexual orientation-only bill. Here a coalition between sexual and gender minorities articulated the problem of discrimination facing lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trans people in terms of a common vulnerability to gendered norms that focused on the shared—though not identical—ways that LGB and Trans individuals were vulnerable to gender policing and discrimination.

This notion of articulation also allows for a slightly different approach to the analogies that are sometimes drawn between political struggles, wherein, for example, a struggle for rights for LGBT communities are connected via an analogy to the African-American civil rights movement. Such analogies have, quite rightfully, faced considerable critique for the ways that they sometimes simultaneously bulldoze over important differences between movements, as well as treat the two sides of the analogy as distinct struggles of distinct communities that occlude their mutual constitution (e.g., Somerville, 2000). Rather than dismissing them out of hand, however, I think that analogies, if carefully developed, retain a certain political value when it comes to forging coalitions and cultivating particular kinds of political subjectivity. West’s use of articulation seems like a promising start in helping us think more capaciously about both the political potential of analogies and their evident dangers.

Anti-normative Anxieties

If it is not already obvious, I find much to admire in Transforming Citizenships. Its thoughtful engagement with the contextual specificity of particular moments yields a powerful argument about the contingencies of law and activism engaged with the state. As much as I find useful in West’s project, I do want to note an anxiety. It is entirely conceivable that this anxiety simply results from the book’s incisive challenge to the anti-normative grounds of queer critique that leaves me feeling even less grounded than usual. But I think it might be more than that. The following sentence from the book’s concluding chapter crystallizes both what is thought-provoking about West’s argument and what simultaneously provokes some hesitation, at least in this reader:

Legal discourses available to citizens in the here and now are capacious enough to allow for similar, if not better, results than a nebulous future free from liberalism (page 178).

I think West is quite right to assert that legal discourses may be more capacious than we often realize, and he is also right that a future free from liberalism is necessarily a bit nebulous, from the perspective of current conjuncture. Nevertheless, I worry that it is precisely the possibility of a future beyond liberalism—and the critical resources provided by the possibility of that future—that is absent in Transforming Citizenship. In a critical academic context, I understand how the anti-normative thrust of queer studies can be limiting—and even a bit paranoid, in Sedgwick’s (2003) terms—when it comes to investigating the necessarily impure politics of communities working in challenging circumstances to organize against violence, exclusion, and marginalization.[1] This can, as West argues, limit our political imaginations and obscure vital, if necessarily compromised, engagements with the law. And yet, to turn our back on anti-normative critique would seem to risk limiting our imagination to prevailing liberal coordinates. To put it in a different way, the reparative gesture can itself become paranoid in its rejection of paranoid theory, as, for example recent dialogues between Lauren Berlant and Lee Edelman (2013) have suggested.

To be clear, Transforming Citizenship does not, in the end, entirely turn its back on critical approaches of the sort advocated by someone like Dean Spade (2011) in Normal Life. Nor am I interested in indicting West for holding a paranoid position toward the anti-normative proclivities of queer studies. And yet, something happens in the movement between analytic and political registers that I worry may risk having something of that same effect. On the one hand, there is the argument that anti-normative positions in queer, trans, and other branches of critical theory have hampered our ability to understand the generative possibilities of political engagement with the law—a position that, with some caveats, is compellingly and convincingly argued here. On the other hand, there is the entirely different normative argument that trans activists should engage with the law as a central strategy for achieving more just and livable worlds. The second would, for me, always be a contingent matter of context and strategy. However, I worry that without the anti-normative horizon of a future free from liberalism (cf. Muñoz, 2009), our imaginations might be too constrained to effectively navigate those diverse contexts and understand the stakes of our strategic decisions. Of course, political engagement with the law will continue regardless of our theoretical position toward such engagement, and precisely because of the performative iterability involved in such work, the political effects of these efforts are unpredictable and irreducible to the legal frameworks with which they engage. This is, as West suggests, a reason for hope, but I would also suggest that this unpredictability need not always work itself out in a positive way. There is thus, reason for caution as well.

Continuing the Conversation

I want to conclude by offering a series of questions that I think are raised by the exciting work that West has done in Transforming Citizenships.

1) How can we best think through the relationship between citizenship, law, liberalism, and the state? In the book, these terms can sometime seem to stand in for one another—where the differences between them are partially elided because each term seems to occupy roughly the place in the overall argument, i.e. as bad objects of queer critique to be theoretically recuperated and politically engaged. New insights might emerge if we spent some time dis-articulating these terms. For example, what might it look like to approach citizenship—in exactly the kind of performative sense that West outlines—but beyond or at some distance to liberalism? Similarly, what happens if we place the state and its administrative agencies in a more complicated relationship with the legal frameworks that authorize them?

2) As a communications scholar working with the frameworks of rhetorical theory, West productively engages with critical human geographers—particularly in the chapter exploring the spatial orderings of public restrooms and the tactics developed by the coalition of trans and disabled activists to contest those orderings. More broadly, I was struck by the ways that the concerns of rhetoric—with contingency and context—dovetail so nicely with geographical tendencies in the same direction. With those shared concerns in the background, I want to pose a few questions that might help continue this conversation between rhetoric and geography. How do we understand the subject of rhetorical contingency and context and what are their geographies? If the subject is not simply an individual free to do whatever they want with a discourse—a point on which I suspect West would agree—how then do we understand the relative extents of constraint and agency involved in the citationality and performance of law? Are there material geographies that give some more freedom than others? When/where do we, as subjects, mobilize discourses? And when/where do discourses mobilize us? To what extent are actors able, as West suggests, to pragmatically produce "public transcripts" articulating their interests to dominant orderings while maintaining a critical distance from those public performances? When do our public pronouncements and postures become sedimented in who we are?

Transforming Citizenship is a timely and important intervention that deserves serious engagement, and I offer these questions in the spirit of continuing to explore the problematic that West has so productively set out in the book. 


[1] This is a tendency that extends beyond queer studies and the critics of left legalism that West engages. The use of Jacques Rancière’s work in critical geographic scholarship—which, in some iterations, tends to privilege political acts that explicitly break with the state and prevailing orders—would be another example (Ruez, 2013).


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Muñoz JE (2009) Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity. New York: University Press.
Ruez D (2013) 'Partitioning the sensible’ at Park 51: Rancière, Islamophobia, and common politics Antipode 45(5) 1128-1147.
Sedgwick EK (2003) Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity. Durham: Duke University Press.
Somerville SB (2000) Queering the Color Line: Race and the Invention of Homosexuality in American Culture. Durham: Duke University Press.
Spade D (2011) Normal Life: Administrative Violence, Critical Trans Politics, and the Limits of Law. New York: South End Press.
Wiegman R (2012) Object Lessons. Durham: Duke University Press.