Pictured Aaron Devor, a former lesbian, now a straight man. Judith Halberstam (left) and Joanne Meyerowitz. Halberstam talking with a conference attendee. Susan Stryker and Aaron Devor. Photos by Emily Alpert.
At the Feb. 17 'Trans/forming Knowledge' conference on transgender issues, attendees learned that gender is more than meets the eye.
'At first glance, you'll see before you a middle-aged, middle-class white man,' said Aaron Devor, Dean of Graduate Studies at the University of Victoria. Devor went on to describe himself as straight, married and a grandfather. 'Were you only to know this much about me, you'd wonder what I'm doing here today … [ or ] how someone so not one of us [ could ] ever hope to get it right.'
Of course, Devor is 'one of us': born female, he grew up a tomboy and came to identify as a lesbian-feminist separatist 'who didn't trust men or straight women.'
'I'm sure you can see the irony there,' said Devor, smiling. Over the years, however, Devor became increasingly masculine, and transitioned to living as a man in 1997.
Devor's 'bifurcated life' illustrates the complexities of transgender issues under investigation at 'Trans/forming Knowledge,' a two-day conference sponsored by the Center for Gender Studies at the University of Chicago. The event drew more than 150 participants, including some from Milwaukee, Boston and even Canada.
'There aren't many conferences specifically on trans studies,' said attendee Pat Eliot, who came from Toronto. 'Four leading scholars talking about their most recent projects and ideas … it's a treat.'
Transgender studies is 'the most transformative field' in gender studies, which 'exposes the inadequacy of most feminist and queer theories,' said George Chauncey, interim director of the Center.
Independent scholar and filmmaker Susan Stryker commented on 'how far the field of transgender studies has come in a decade.' She attributed the word 'transgender' to gender activist Virginia Prince, who coined the term as 'a halfway point between transvestism and transsexualism … someone who socially lived in one gender, but had the body of the so-called other gender.' In 1992, transgender labor activist Leslie Feinberg popularized the term through the pamphlet Transgender Liberation: A Movement Whose Time Has Come.
'Leslie used 'transgender' as a pan-gender term, a spectrum of different marginal gender positions,' said Stryker. 'By the end of the last century,' through a series of national conferences and increased communication via the World Wide Web, 'transgender studies could make real claims as an established discipline.'
Chauncey introduced the conference by analyzing a single provocative sketch, found at an antiques sale in Indiana. The image, dated 1932, depicts a person of indeterminate gender in lipstick and a tie, smoking a cigarette. Looking at it, Chauncey mused on whether it depicted a butch woman, a feminine man, or someone else entirely.
'Is his hair deliberately a bit too long for a man, versus a little too short for a woman?' asked Chauncey. Still, he said, the real question should be, 'Why am I so intrigued about whether this is a boy or a girl?'
Transgender people 'force open the simple sex/gender-based us/them dichotomies,' said Devor, author of FTM: Female-to-Male Transsexuals in Society. For this reason, he said, transgender people can be deeply unsettling to both feminists and LGBQ advocates.
Tensions between trans, LGBQ and feminist activists were a common subject of the day's four speakers.
'For those of us who want to see coalitions' between feminists, LGBQ people and transgender activists, said Yale University professor Joanne Meyerowitz, 'the history is fairly bleak.' Meyerowitz is the author of How Sex Changed: A History of Transsexuality in the United States. In the past, she said, lesbian feminists have criticized drag queens for 'parodying' womanhood, and some transgender people have smeared butch lesbians as 'self-denying transphobes.'
Likewise, mutual suspicion has existed—and lingers—between feminists and FTM transgenders, said professor Judith (Jack) Halberstam, director of the Center for Feminist Research at the University of Southern California. Halberstam is the author of Female Masculinity and The Drag King Book.
'Forms of transmasculinity which are deliberately and explicitly antifeminist' have contributed to the problem, said Halberstam, who criticized 'casual but insistent misogyny' among butch women and transmen. 'The denigration of femmes and femininity accompanying the glorification of female masculinity … can strand femmes in the unsexy realm of the normative,' Halberstam remarked, to the applause of many attendees.
Stryker mentioned the controversial Michigan Women's Music Festival, which has pitted some feminists against transwomen. Post-operative MTF women have been forcibly removed from the festival, which bills itself as a space for 'women-born women.'
The struggles of MTF women should have a place in the feminist movement, said Stryker. 'Fighting for representation within the term 'woman' has been as much a part of the feminist tradition as asserting the value of female experience,' she said, recalling Sojourner Truth's famous plea 'Ain't I a woman?'
Despite such tensions, 'the interests of gendered and sexual minorities have always been intertwined,' said Devor.
Legal victories for LGBQ and trans people have usually gone hand-in-hand, Meyerowitz explained. She cited Title 7, which prohibits gender discrimination in employment, as one example.
In addition, said Devor, 'the kinds of people who have been targeted as lesbian, gay, bisexual and queer have been those people who are the most obviously transgendered.' Trans and LGBQ people should be united by their common enemies, he said. 'Those who would deny us our rights have no doubts about who's who.'
The conference began on Thursday, Feb. 16 with a screening of Stryker's recent documentary Screaming Queens: The Riot at Compton's Cafeteria, which chronicles a relatively unknown transgender revolt in 1966. As the program concluded on Friday, attendees reflected on the rare event.
'I've had a hard time finding things like this in Chicago,' said Chicago attendee Roxanne Moreno, who learned of the conference through DykeDiva.com . 'We need more spaces to discuss trans issues—both personally and politically.'
'The diversity of viewpoints here is remarkable,' said SJ Cohen, an undergraduate at the U of C, noting that the four speakers included historical, theoretical and activist viewpoints, and spanned a range of gender positions. 'There's something or someone here that pretty much everyone can relate to.'
Clearly, the conversation isn't over. At the conference's final roundtable, Stryker said, 'Trans phenomena are reshaping our society in ways we scarcely acknowledge and recognize.'