Trans-, Trans*, Trans, Transgender, Transsexual, Android, or Starfish?

November 2, 2015babystarfish

This paper was originally written for an Intro to Graduate Studies course, the assignment being to write a short critical “conversation” paper about a single article and one or two other articles that it cites. As a later paragraph makes clear, the title of my paper is not a joke; it is not a mockery of the proliferation of terms for trans individuals, nor does it equate trans individuals with androids or starfish. Rather, it follows the theoretical moves of recent transgender scholarship and makes an explicit attempt to embrace terminological proliferation for the sake of a more robust transgender studies engagement with other humanities disciplines.


Trans-, Trans*, Trans, Transgender, Transsexual, Android, or Starfish?

In this paper I trace the history of “trans” terms and their relation to the larger project of transgender studies as it is situated in the academy. To do so I focus on an article from the recent special issue of TSQ, “Tranimalities,” to understand the etymology of trans terms, their deployment in various critical contexts, and their uses at present. David Huebert’s “Species Panic” is a well-placed example because it offers a transing reading of a single text, Philip K. Dick’s proto-cyberpunk noir detective thriller Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968), and in the process adopts and adapts multiple uses of “trans.” Reading backward to Huebert’s sources—to Stryker et al.’s now seminal article and to Hayward’s “Lessons from a Starfish”—it is possible to chart the differences and usefulnesses of trans terminology in its multiple manifestations, and to see each as having a unique theoretical and praxis-driven purpose that coexists in a larger toolkit for the deconstruction of historical and contemporary concerns about non/human identity.

In the past few decades, the discussion of what the category “trans” is—that is, what such a term should look like: quite literally, what the term or set of terms, and the distinctions among them, should be, on the one hand; and what or whom such a term (or terms) should denote, on the other—has become central to the development of the growing body of literature that is more often than not referred to as transgender studies, and its attendant theoretical conversations, transgender theory. Despite the apparent unity represented by the “transgender” in transgender studies, the (inter)discipline has in fact proliferated the theoretical categories and linguistic markers for such identities beyond the bounds of earlier models (see Simmons and White’s chapter in Trans Bodies, Trans Selves for a parsing of the many terms now associated with trans individuals and communities). As Susan Stryker elaborates in her book Transgender History, the vocabulary for such identities that might be considered “trans” is quite recent. While transsexual was coined by German-Jewish sexologist Magnus Hirschfield, an early advocate for what we now call LGBT civil rights, in 1910 it was not popularized until the 1940s, when it was used by the medical sciences to pathological transsexuality as a mental disorder (16). Transsexual remained the primary term for “trans” individuals in the 20th century, a history traced by Joanne Meyerowitz in How Sex Changed (2002), but was still understood as distinct from the social transgressing of gender boundaries, which was instead represented by another term coined by Hirschfield: transvestite. It is this word, Stryker notes, that “was used in much the way that ‘transgender’ is used now, to convey the sense of a wide range of gender-variant identities and behaviors,” without pathologizing the particularities of such behaviors (16-17). These identities, however, remained outside of the academic discourses on gender and sexuality and also the limelight of political activism until the end of the 20th century.

In the 1990s, transsexual and transgender activists took advantage of lesbian and gay militant activist networks, many of which arose in response to the AIDS crisis, and created groups such as Transgender Nation, Transsexual Menace, and Camp Trans. Such consciousness-raising efforts propelled the rise of transgender studies in the following decade, especially through the efforts of Susan Stryker, an avowed Transgender Nation member who became one of the first “openly transsexual lesbian” women in the academy (2008, vii) in 1992 and who began publishing on what it was/is to be transgender as early as 1994 in GLQ. In the wake of her and others’ early work to create an academic discourse around trans issues, transgender became the preferred term, perhaps because of its implication that both sex(uality) and gender, so intimately tied together in Western social, political, and cultural life, and implicated via a term transgender, whereas transsexual refers rather too specifically to a bodily crossing-over that while participating in the transgressing of gender boundaries does not address the lived experiences of those who do not receive sexual reassignment surgery. Hence, a preference for the more broadly appealing, and applicable, transgender. But as with any realm of theoretical inquiry, the foundational assumptions of transgender studies—namely, that “transgender” is the appropriate word—have not gone without challenge.

In fact, the title of this paper evokes the challenges brought to bear in recent transgender studies scholarship, and plays on the title of the 2008 paper co-authored by Susan Stryker, Paisley Currah, and Lisa Jean Moore, “Trans-, Trans, or Transgender?” which served as the introduction to their special issue of WSQ, 36.3/4 (Fall/Winter 2008) on transgender investments in feminism as a mode of theoretical investigation and social justice, and conversely on feminism’s historical, methodological, and theoretical investiture in transgender studies. Their paper points away from the fixity of a term like transgender, bounded as it is to one category of transgression or crossing, and rather to the usefulness of another term, “trans-.” Stryker et al. take trans- to be an expansion of the theoretical scope of another term commonly used in transgender studies and activism, “trans,” which is a shortening of both transgender and transsexual, and in was crafted by political activists to move attention away from what was being transgressed (gender vs. sex), and toward the identity of the transgressor as such. The prefixial nature of “trans-” and the methodology of “transing” (cf. queering) offered by Stryker et al. achieve an expanding, multi-sited, and highly intersectional interrogation of identity and its relationship to biopolitical hierarchies of all sorts.

While the question mark punctuating Stryker et al.’s article appears at first glance to ask which is the appropriate term—that is, to call for a reckoning of an expanding, jargonistic vocabulary—their essay reveals that the question mark is less a demand for (inter)disciplinary unity and more a marker of productive ambiguity. As Stryker at al. comment, “we didn’t want to perpetuate a minoritizing or ghettoizing use of ‘transgender’” as a preference over the various and multiple ways of boundary crossing that combinations of trans- with identities beyond -gender might profer. Far from eliminating transgender—obviously, since the journal Stryker and Currah later co-founded is called Transgender Studies Quarterly—Stryker et al. splay open the theoretical possibilities of a boundary-crosser’s discipline by offering both a methodology and a critical framework. Trans-, for them, is a word fraught with biopolitical implications. As they argue, it is “the capillary space of connection and circulation between the macro- and the micro-political registers through which the lives of bodies become enmeshed in the lives of nations, states, and capital-formations” (14). By understanding trans- as a rhizomatic nexus between individual actions and interactions, on one hand, and biopolitical formations and systems of control, on the other, “-gender” “becomes one of a set of variable techniques or temporal practices (such as race or class) through which bodies are made to live” (14). Stryker et al.’s theorization of trans- is therefore an exceptionally productive analytical tool for the humanities and social sciences, and is at the same time a marker of the profound insights transgender studies offers to the academy at large. By blowing the concept of transgression beyond its originally intended meaning in the study of transgender and transsexual individuals’ lives, Stryker et al. propose a unique tool for understanding biopolitical hierarchization in ways that mimic the usefulness of earlier feminist calls for intersectionality but that also bespeak the present need for a conceptual space that can make sense of the boundaries, porous or otherwise, between a vastly expanded set of identity categories.

One productive locus of interrogation that the “capillary space” of trans- opens up, is that of the non/human, a concern of scholar brought to light particularly by posthumanism, and made especially pertinent to the project of queer theory as articulated by Noreen Giffney and Myra J. Hird in their edited volume Queering the Non/Human, where they assert that the “queer” is a means to disrupt the categories which pertain to the non/human, and that, if “queer theory is  is undoubtedly the most radical challenge yet posed to the immutability of sexual identities,” as Jeffrey J. Cohen argued, then so too might it function as a radical challenge to the boundary between nature and culture, non-human/animal and human (6). It is easy, then, to see how trans- operates along such lines to blur and question the boundary that separates the human and the whatever else. In his article for the TSQ special issue on “Tranimalities” David Huebert applies trans- to the intersection represented by the slash in non/human, doing so through a reading of the android figure in Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? At the heart of that novel is the question of androids’ humanity and, as Huebert shows, of the anxiety that is produced in the male heterosexual human protagonist as he experiences the slow revelation that the boundary between human and android is not a hard and fast one. The anxiety, or “species panic,” the novel’s protagonist Deckard experiences is brought on by the fact that seemingly no boundary exists between the human and the android. After all, an android’s materiality cannot be distinguished from humans’, composed as the former are of biotechnology mimicking human “meat”; androids’ lack of reproductivity does not set them apart since a vast majority of humans in Dick’s novel cannot reproduce (247-248); and they cannot be distinguished on purely emotional grounds, as the “Voigt-Kampff scale” Deckard uses to ‘test’ Rachael’s humanness (or lack thereof) attempts, since androids do in fact have emotions, several of them disturbingly human, as Huebert argues (255-256).

In Huebert’s reading, these androids which function (literally) as human but which are in some quintessential way nonhuman, are the embodiment of Stryker et al.’s trans-. Moreover, through the android Rachael’s role in the novel, trans- itself is figured as “an archetype of species panic” (252), destabilizing the boundary between human and nonhuman: “the organic yet technological android exists at the definitional threshold of species plasticity, occupying a nebulous interstice between organism and machine, real and electric, genuine and inauthentic, alive and undead” (252). For Huebert and others writing in the posthuman vein of transgender studies, species becomes one of the “variable techniques of temporal practices…through which bodies are made to live” (Styker et al. 14). In conceptualizing the android as a species transgressor, Huebert argues that the android is “paradigmatically trans,” suggesting it is a position of continual transgression by dropping the hyphen which seeks to connect the prefixial meaning of trans- to more concrete concepts (252). In this way, Huebert understands the android not just as an embodiment of the very idea of “trans” as a gender, sexual, and otherwise “crossing” category, but also as a specific and unique “type” of crosser. Though he does not say so explicitly, the implication is that androids are a transspecies. Through the android, the open-ended “capillary space” “trans-” affixes to “-species” and transes all that the latter term implies for the study of the non/human.

Huebert’s understanding of the android as a site of trans embodiment builds not just on Stryker et al.’s theorization of trans-, but also draws on the larger discussion within the work of what Eva Hayward and Jami Weinstein identify as “tranimalities,” or a trans-ontological application of Giffney and Hird’s project to queer the non/human. In the same breath that he uses to cite Stryker et al. Huebert also turns to Hayward’s unique essay “Lessons from a Starfish,” in which she assesses what, exactly, it means to be transsexual and how one might make sense of such an identity with recourse to academic debates about the non/human. The essay appeared originally in Giffney and Hird’s Queering the Non/Human, representing there the sole articulation of a trans approach to the topic; an edited and expanded version appeared within months in Styker et al.’s special issue of WSQ (“More Lessons from a Starfish”). Both versions draw on the conceptual fluidity of Stryker et al.’s trans- and expounds on its “transformative and relational power” through a reading of the song “Cripple and the Starfish” by transgender musician Antony and the Johnsons. A difficult and poetic piece that itself embodies the transformative process of becoming, Hayward develops the starfish as one location for the exploration of trans identity, in particular transsexual identity since the starfish may be “cut” and may as a result reform itself through limb regeneration. For Hayward, the starfish’s loss of a limb is not unlike reassignment surgery: “When I pay my surgeon to cut my penis into a neo-vagina, I am moving toward myself through myself” (255, emphasis in original). That is, while transsexual becoming has been understood by some critics as a violent act of self-mutilation, for a transsexual individual “the cut is not so much an opening of the body, but a generative effort to pull the body back through itself” (255, emphasis in original). In both quotes is latent the notion of identity emerging out of some inner place, a metaphorical figuring of the starfish’s limb regeneration, which might be understood as the new limb being pulled from out of the body to constitute a new whole. Viewing the starfish as a type of trans category, specifically a transspecies one, Hayward argues that “matter is not immutable…it is discursive, allowing sexes and species to practice trans-materialisation [sic.]. The meat and meaning for humans and starfish have no structuring lack, no primordial division, but are sensuously intertwined” (254).

Hayward’s starfish is, much like Huebert’s (or should we say Dick’s?) android, “paradigmatically trans” (Huebert 252), embodying that space which offers connection between various temporal and geographic ways of being. And, like the android, the starfish is a transing of the species. But unlike Huebert’s android, Hayward encourages us to view the starfish as more than just “a stand-in for transsexual transformation” and to see in the starfish a subject position that is, in fact, transsexual. Through a densely theoretical reading of “Cripple and the Starfish” Hayward concludes that the starfish is more than just metaphor—“I’m not like a starfish; I am of a starfish” (259)—it is a referent constantly embodying her own, and by extension transsexuals’ own, corporeal being; in her words, “starfish and transsexuals share world-hood both semiotic…and phenomenological” (262). Despite the incongruities between the distinct trans-figurations, Huebert positions his android alongside “Hayward’s transsexual”—though he would be more accurate to say ‘Hayward’s starfish’—as a “fringe condition that exposes the radical incoherence of all bodies,” since the android disrupts Deckard’s ideas about what it means to be human and is at the same time never fully human itself (252). The starfish and the android, then, are not the same; they are, however, enactments of Stryker et al.’s “transing” methodology that take trans- as the locative modifier for -species, laying bare the biopolitical structuration of the non/human with intersecting dimensions of gender, sex, and sexuality, and with the potential to also address other modes of temporal and geographical categorization that impact the figuration of the non/human.

In reading backward from Huebert’s piece on Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? I have emphasized the significance of Stryker et al.’s concept of trans- introduced in 2008. Their article might be said to be a foundational text of transgender studies, its influence visible throughout the field and especially obvious in the TSQ issue on “Tranimalities,” where special issue editors Hayward and Weinstein refigure the hyphen in trans- as an asterisk, rendering “trans*” as a further categorical exploder/imploder. Both Huebert and Hayward take the hyphen (and/or the asterisk) as a locus from which to explore the boundaries of the non/human, discovering unique categories of interpretation in the process, the android and the starfish. Given the productive pulsions of hyphens and asterisks to expound new ways of thinking categorization, transgender studies will continue to challenge the insufficiency of monolithic terms to address historical and contemporary modes of embodiment and becoming by proliferating a new vocabulary. My readings here suggest a new, more discursive title for this paper: “Trans- / Trans* / Trans / Transgender / Transsexual / Android / Starfish.” With surety that the interest of transgender studies is not in deciding the “proper” term for individuals or phenomena designated as some type of “trans,” such a title erases the question altogether and elides the commas and the conjunction “or” which place the terms in opposition to one another. Slashes instead place the terms in relative equality, suggesting as one reads through the list a similitude in difference between the physical shapes of letters and symbols and the various meanings they might denote; the lack of a conjunction and question mark erases the compulsion—for the field, for the reader, for the “trans” person—to choose a label. Moreover, slashes suggests a fluctuation between, through, around, within the possibilities offered, and perhaps point to a generative, possibly infinite tacking on of slashes, letters, and symbols that can account for new explorations of (even unforeseen) biopolitical measures of control.


Works Cited

Giffney, Noreen and Myra J. Hird, eds. Queering the Non/Human. Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing. Print. Queer Interventions.

Hayward, Eva. “Lessons from a Starfish.” Queering the Non/Human. Ed. Noreen Giffney and Myra J. Hird. Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing, 2008. 249-263. Print.

Hayward, Eva. “More Lessons from a Starfish: Prefixial Flesh and Transspeciated Selves.” Trans-. Spec. issue of WSQ: Women’s Studies Quarterly, 36.3/4 (Fall/Winter 2008): 64-85. Print.

Hayward, Eva and Jami Weinstein. “Tranimalities in the Age of Trans* Lives.” Introduction. Tranimalities. Spec. issue of TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly, 2.2 (May 2015): 195-208. Print.

Huerbert, David. “Species Panic: Human Continuums, Trans Andys, and Cybererotic Triangles in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?Tranimalities. Spec. issue of TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly, 2.2 (May 2015): 244-260. Print.

Meyerowitz, Joanne. How Sex Changed: A History of Transsexuality in the United States. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002. Print.

Simmons, Holiday and Fresh! White. “Our Many Selves.” Trans Bodies, Trans Selves: A Resource for the Transgender Community. Ed. Laura Erickson-Schroth. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 3-23. Print.

Stryker, Susan. “My Words to Victor Frankenstein above the Village of Chamounix: Performing Transgender Rage.” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, 1 (1994): 237-254. Print.

Stryker, Susan. Transgender History. Berkeley, CA: Seal Press, 2008. Print. Seal Studies.

Stryker, Susan, Paisley Currah, and Lisa Jean Moore. “Trans-, Trans, or Transgender?” Introduction. Trans-. Spec. issue of WSQ: Women’s Studies Quarterly, 36.3/4 (Fall/Winter 2008): 11-22. Print.

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