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hoped that this research might help me understand more completely the highly vulnerable position of trans women of color on the edges of the gay village in Atlanta. I live five hours from Atlanta and for the past twenty years have been an intermittent visitor to the city, but have never lived in the city.
My research does make me critically aware of the difficulties faced by most if not all trans people living in the deep South, where hatred and intolerance run deep (Doan, 2001; Doan, 2007; Doan, 2009). The larger cities and college towns are relative oases of tolerance, and Atlanta is perhaps the epicenter of the queer community in the southeast. However during my research it has become increasingly clear that my experiences as a white trans woman have only limited relevance to the experiences of trans women of color, especially in and around Midtown, Atlanta. So when the opening paragraphs described the author’s experiences while living in Atlanta in 2006, my appetite was whetted.
I was also hooked by the avowed approach of the book to avoid theorizing citizenship as a state-enacted form of recognition in favor of a discursive approach to the topic that asks how people enact citizenship. The chapter topics all seem well chosen in terms of critical issues faced by transgender individuals: the legal ramifications of reassignment surgery, the need for safe bathrooms, the desire for recognition in non-discrimination ordinances, and the horror show led by U.S. congressman Barney Frank’s ENDA (Employment Non-Discrimination Act) without gender identity.
But frankly, after finishing the text, I was more than a little disappointed. My graduate training (30 years ago) was in Urban and Regional Planning in less developed countries, incorporating urban geography, urban economics, regional science, community development, and planning theory. The methods I was trained in were not textual analysis, but the more or less standard (at the time) social science quantitative analytic techniques to make sense of social phenomena. When I physically transitioned and began presenting as the woman I know myself to be, I also shifted my primary research agenda to planning issues around gender and sexuality, using different types of methods: including qualitative analysis, thick descriptions, grounded theory. These techniques were new to me, but I have found them quite useful in understanding how queer spaces are discursively created by the people living and working in them as they engage in the dance between structure and agency, seeking to carve out pockets of safety in which to explore their subjectivities (Browne, 2006, Knopp and Brown, 2003). But no matter what the underlying theory or the methods used to explore them, I have taken as my primary subject the way that people who live on the margins of society seek to survive, whether they find themselves in urban areas in the developing world, or more recently in North America.
The focus of this book is the law and how it is changing after being challenged by some transgender activists. While I am fascinated with the topics in each of the chapters, I came away from each with a sense of missed opportunity—that the emphasis on the law somehow obscured the concerns and lives of the people whose lives are so profoundly influenced by these laws that they are willing to stand up in the face of intolerance and demand justice.
I can certainly appreciate the importance of examining the various texts around the issues raised by the author, transcripts of court cases, county and city commission hearing, newspaper articles, public testimonies, blog posts and the like. These materials can provide vital insights into the processes at work; but without direct interviews with the participants I fail to see how one can analyze what it is that transgender activists are in fact articulating. Again perhaps it is my own inability to grasp the nuances of textual analysis, but in my notes in the margins of the book, I kept jotting down small outrages. All actions are performative and are not merely texts; they signify a range of meanings, both intended and unintended. Because performance of transgendered identities in public is almost always highly scrutinized, it is important to probe more deeply about the intended signification of their actions. As a trangender woman, I am not a text! If you want to know why I engage in certain kinds of activities, ask me.
Transgender performance in the course of daily living is always composed of a set of subjectively constructed actions (sometimes consciously, sometimes sub-consciously) with a dynamic quality that shifts as the environment around us shifts. As I construct my performance of each action, the environment in turn shapes me; I make an adjustment and in doing so re-shape the nature of the space around me. This subtle, and sometimes not so subtle, set of interactions occurs and recurs each time I leave my house (see for example Doan, 2010).
When I attended the Leon County, Florida Commission hearings on a gender inclusive human rights ordinance, the nature of my public testimony was partly shaped by the conservative minister who spoke just before me, calling transgender people “abominations.” But it was also influenced by the Presbyterian minister who had risen moments earlier to share his love and support for the diversity of the LGBT community and his deep conviction that justice required the adoption of the ordinance. The words that were expressed are available in the transcript of the commission hearings, but the significance of the intentions and strength of the reactions lie deep beneath the surface. Can one understand how these words affected me and continue to affect me and others by reading the transcripts? I am not so sure. The ordinance passed after further debate, but the intolerance lingers and the echoes of “abomination” continue to shape my performance, in spite of the legal protections enacted.
As a trans person, yes I want legal protections, but I also want to live my life without fear. Ask me how I feel. Ask me why I testify and continue to testify. What did I intend? Ask me how my life has changed or not. Ask about how I enact my citizenship in daily living. Just don’t just read my transcript.
The author recognizes the slippery slope involved in writing about trans people without himself having direct experience of transgender subjectivity. It is certainly not required to be trans to write about trans people, but if an author takes this community as a subject, then surely the author would want to also explore what the performance of that subjectivity entails for people who are trans. The failure to do more substantive interviews with trans individuals undermines the real power of the rich insights that are woven throughout this complex book.
The chapter on trans pioneer, Debbie Mayne, was fascinating and represents the most germane use of textual analysis. Harry Benjamin is no longer living, and I assume that Debbie Mayne is also no longer with us. Thus analyzing the written record is all that we have. But still I wanted to know more about how Ms. Mayne lived her life after the court case.
The chapter on bathrooms is hugely important and quite timely because in 2015 bathroom bills aiming to restrict access of transgendered individuals to bathrooms were debated in Florida, Kentucky, and Texas. While the chapter is quite well grounded in the literature there are several omissions which would have strengthened the piece. Greed (2003), Gershenson and Penner (2009), and Cavanaugh (2010) all address the issue of the inclusiveness of public toilets and might have been usefully cited here. The example of People in Search of Safe and Accessible Restrooms (PISSAR) is potentially really rich and showed promise of addressing one of the most vexing of issues in the daily lives of trans people (i.e. finding safe bathroom facilities). The analysis of the discovered commonality between the trans and disabled communities around bathroom accessibility on the UC-Santa Barbara campus was useful. But I wanted more. I wanted to hear more about how these two communities found each other, and how they felt as they constructed the PISSAR patrols. But even more I wanted a follow-up to see whether the administrative changes had in fact made peeing a non-controversial act for trans people. Many of the reforms seemed aimed appropriately at ensuring access by the disabled. But does putting an all genders sign on a few bathrooms really achieve potty parity? Did these discursive performances make a material change in the lives of the activists?
The chapter on the Bloomington, Indiana anti-discrimination ordinance did finally provide a much clearer perspective on how trans activists were in fact constructing the issues and the strategies for obtaining relief. It is no accident that this chapter also involves actual interviews with trans activists which contributes immeasurably to the strength of the chapter and its persuasiveness. I did wonder what the longer term effects of this particular articulation of the law was for the trans community in Bloomington.
This chapter does a good job of laying out the issues around the formation of an inclusive ENDA and the unfortunate role played by Barney Frank in torpedoing the legislation. This whole chapter is more about the ways that other LGBT activists stood up for and showed that they “got” the importance of trans inclusion, but once again interviews with key participants would have made the case so much more interesting. Why not interview some of the participants, including: Susan Stryker, Mara Keisling, as well as participants from HRC? I suspect that more detail would have greatly added to the richness of the discussion. I know many trans people who 10 year later will still refuse to have anything to do with HRC and for whom Barney Frank is a modern day Benedict Arnold. Still there was a lot of ink spilled on this topic and the textual analysis seems solid.
My favorite theme in the book begins here and is woven through the remaining chapters. The idea that United ENDA is a recognition that the solution to moving forward is wholeness was very powerful. It resonated deeply and provided a solid foundation for the final chapter.
The last chapter begins with discussion of a cover photo used by the New Republic and spoofed by the conservative Weekly Standard edited by William Kristol. The accompanying article in The New Republic interviews a trans activist who made claims for citizenship at the Maryland legislature, but also helped to organize the protest in Maryland at the vicious beating of a young trans woman for using the women’s bathroom in a McDonalds restaurant. I think combining this kind of testimony with activism is vital, but was disappointed that the author did not actually interview the trans activist. Once again, relying on transcripts and newspaper articles provides insights at the surface of these efforts, but does not allow a deeper understanding. If we wish to empower change on a larger scale, if we wish to continue to push for the “impure politics” suggested by the author, hearing the voices of those engaged in the struggle can be an important element in moving forward on so many fronts.
Overall I would recommend this book in spite of some misgivings about the lack of direct contact with the texts analyzed because it is a topic that is seriously under-studied. The text is well written and the arguments are clearly laid out. The author does provide a rich overview of many of the critical legal issues that are most challenging for the transgender and gender queer populations. As such it does provide a contribution and is well worth reading.