Trans: A Review
TRANS*: A QUICK AND QUIRKY ACCOUNT OF GENDER VARIABILITY
J. Jack Halberstam
Trans* theory and history
I both love queer/gender theory books and hate reading theory. To write good theory, authors needs to use careful, purposeful language, which often translates into dense, difficult texts. I wouldn’t say this was a particularly dense or difficult text, but it was a slow read for me, and I am a very fast reader. I think the subtitle is misleading. I found this neither all that quirky nor all that quick.
Here's the Table of Contents:
- Trans*: What’s in a Name?
- Making Trans* Bodies
- Becoming Trans*
- Trans* Generations
- Trans* Representations
- Trans* Feminisms
A couple of weaknesses before I get into the strengths of the text: Halberstam makes it clear
that Trans* is heavy on the trans* masculine experience and light on the trans* feminine experience. He says it is partially because most texts center on the trans* feminine experience, but mostly because Halberstam’s experience is trans* masculine. I understood why he made the decision, but I would have preferred a longer text that was even more inclusive. The other weakness I found was Halberstam’s handling of the differences between older trans* generations and younger trans* generations. Halberstam spends a good amount of time talking through the differences, mostly language, between older and younger trans* people, but places the majority of the blame for misunderstandings and hurt between the generations on the younger trans* people.
As a queer person who has reached the age where the language divided is occurring, that knowing your history as a young queer person is important, but if the older generation isn’t around to pass down and teach that history, the younger generation will miss it. I feel like Halberstam missed out on a moment to discuss why the younger generation is missing out on that teaching. He spends a lot of time going over how the generations misunderstand each other, but not a lot of time covering the why. The author got into a public fight with younger trans* people over language, making the lack of discussion more obvious.
Now the strengths: I really liked Halberstam’s writings about the architecture of the trans* body. Even down to the word trans*, used throughout the text to imply that trans* bodies do not have “relation to a destination, a final form, a specific shape, or an established configuration of desire and identity." Trans* people are the architects of their own categorizations. Halberstam discusses how changing outside or physical gender indicators is a natural and fluid process, and it can be useful to change the focus away from being “trapped in the wrong flesh.” Instead, the trans* person is fluidly moving between forms with various stopovers on the way. This may not resonate with everyone, though, and a common critique of this theory has been that it implies, in a way, that trans* bodies will never just be their gender but will always be working to be their gender. It is an important argument and a fair argument. The theory, I think, fits more with nonbinary, gender fluid, and genderqueer peoples, and this is somewhat covered in the text as well.
Another strength of the text is the continual narrative of privilege and how it works and works
against those in the trans* community. While Halberstam does not have a specific chapter
dedicated wholly to the discussion of privilege, it is a thread that appears throughout the text.
I found it refreshing to have a white theorist talk about white, able-bodied privilege. He talks about not only how white trans* people have privilege, but also goes through several instances of how the very institutions that have given white trans* people privilege have led to the direct harm of trans* POC. Halberstam also talks about how disability leads to difficulties in trans* identities and about how colonization has affected trans* bodies, but it could have been gone into more detail.
Halberstam gave a broad overview of the history of gender and trans* identity. This is not a
history text, though, and so readers looking for in-depth gender or trans* history should look elsewhere. There are many instances where the author just lists non-gender conforming
people in history and why they were gender non-conforming while also taking the time to
remind the reader that terminology changed over history and that as modern readers we
cannot take modern terminology and nicely place it over history. I enjoyed these bits, but they
were little tidbits sprinkled throughout. Halberstam helpfully references several additional texts throughout the book for further reading.
My favorite part, probably because it is most relevant to my life, was the final chapter, where
Halberstam goes into the intersection between trans* and feminism. A good chunk of the
chapter deals with they ways that feminism has related to the definition of woman for good or
bad. Parts can be boiled down to the position that TERFs are not new and are toxic individuals, and that feminists of all genders and representations have fought against TERFs, who have been a vocal minority since about the late 70s. Halberstam spends a good deal of time going over Judith Butler’s writings, mostly explaining ways in which Butler has been used and misused for different agendas. It was an interesting chapter, and my only complaint with it would be that it focuses a lot on history and misses out on more recent discussions of feminism.
Overall, I found it a rewarding and interesting read, even if I did not learn anything new
about current theory. There were some scandals and fights Halberstam references that I did
not know about, and they brought a certain depth to my own understanding of historical context and current thought. Even if I did not always agree with the author’s arguments, I
understood them. If a reader is uncomfortable with reading gender or trans* theory and theory in general they may struggle with this text at times. Theory can tie language in knots and it can, occasionally, leave the reader in a labyrinth trying to decipher what is being said. Anyone who thinks they may be interested in this should read J. Jack Halberstam’s author bio. How you feel about his biography should give you a good idea of how you’ll feel about his writing.