With my PhD in English Literature at Edinburgh University about to begin, I will be reading lots of stuff this year. Do not expect weekly reviews, I do not read quickly. But I will share with you anything interesting I do read, whether it’s a novel that’s in vogue, or something from my course that I think is worth knowing that broadened my horizon. I’ll be reading a lot of things about transgender discourse, but hopefully, a lot of things which aren’t, as well.
Trap Door: Trans Cultural Production and the Politics of Visibility (MIT, 2017)
We are living in a time of trans visibility. Yet we are also living in a time of anti-trans violence. So begins Trap Door, a 400-page anthology of interviews, essays and reviews of the experiences of predominantly African-American and Latino transgender people in the US. The intro refers to the original Stonewall riots of 1969, and how Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera became quietly whitewashed from LGBT history. There is a sense that fragments of a forgotten history are being reclaimed from the sands of time.
For me already, strong feelings emerge from reading this, of my desire to go to the Stonewall Inn in New York in a pilgrimage, and so too the Compton Cafeteria in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco – arguably the Mecca and Medina of Trans visibility, places that are probably commercial as hell, or gone altogether.
Yet these feelings are already indulgently personal. Trap Door recounts in different chapters African-American and mixed-race trans people: the model-like Sir Lady Java, the survivor Miss Major Griffin-Gracy, in conversation with CeCe McDonald. Their dialogue is a particular highlight, of CeCe's imprisonment for the self-defence-based manslaughter of one of her attackers, and Major's intersectional reflections: We are always going to have to look over our shoulders. Just being black, you're the dirt that everything else is built on. So people are like, "Fuck you. And then you have the nerve to be a transgender person too?" CeCe mentions the "trans panic" defence, of the outrage cis-gendered men and women feel about sleeping with a trans person, and the potential abuse and legal consequences against trans people that can follow, as seen in the 2013 murder of Islan Nettles or the trials where trans people get imprisoned for sexual fraud and failure-of-disclosure of their trans identity before the act of sex. Another of CeCe's observations that resonate concerns the kind of white-hetero-friendly role models in the mainstream, the Caitlyn Jenners, for example: 'I feel that if there were more trans, queer, and GNC people of color having agency in mainstream spaces, then our narrative definitely could change.' This, indeed, is an issue even in white trans awareness, with its priority on passing and the paradox of highly visible invisibility, of trans women who look like cis-gendered models. It's great that they're visible, but we need diversity because trans people come in all shapes and sizes.
Trap Door is more than just an anthology, though. As an art experiment, it reflects on the Museum of Transgender Hirstory (MOTHA) in San Francisco which serves in turn as politicized spark for debates about the nature of the radical, and solutions against violence and stigma, not least against black and Latino trans people. The book accordingly covers trans-related art and political debates, tying into calls for models of futurity: coalitions and radical overhauls of neoliberal capitalism and the violence it causes. African American experience is the driving theme: the demands of 21st century abolitionists and the calling out of the enduring US settler colonialism that haunts US politics and culture today, issues not covered in white trans biographies in my experience.These are just some of the standout themes and moments. In truth, such a densely packed tome as Trap Door would take thousands of words to cover the content. Its value, however, can be summed up by the way I scrambled to re-write my PhD structure days before my 2nd year review submission, having realized how profoundly white my perspectives had been.