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Imagining Transgender: An Ethnography of a Category

Imagining Transgender: An Ethnography of a Category

by David Valentine

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Imagining Transgender is an ethnography of the emergence and institutionalization of transgender as a category of collective identity and political activism. Embraced by activists in the early 1990s to advocate for gender-variant people, the category quickly gained momentum in public health, social service, scholarly, and legislative contexts. Working as a


Imagining Transgender is an ethnography of the emergence and institutionalization of transgender as a category of collective identity and political activism. Embraced by activists in the early 1990s to advocate for gender-variant people, the category quickly gained momentum in public health, social service, scholarly, and legislative contexts. Working as a safer-sex activist in Manhattan during the late 1990s, David Valentine conducted ethnographic research among mostly male-to-female transgender-identified people at drag balls, support groups, cross-dresser organizations, clinics, bars, and clubs. However, he found that many of those labeled “transgender” by activists did not know the term or resisted its use. Instead, they self-identified as “gay,” a category of sexual rather than gendered identity and one rejected in turn by the activists who claimed these subjects as transgender. Valentine analyzes the reasons for and potential consequences of this difference, and how social theory is implicated in it.

Valentine argues that “transgender” has been adopted so rapidly in the contemporary United States because it clarifies a model of gender and sexuality that has been gaining traction within feminism, psychiatry, and mainstream gay and lesbian politics since the 1970s: a paradigm in which gender and sexuality are distinct arenas of human experience. This distinction and the identity categories based on it erase the experiences of some gender-variant people—particularly poor persons of color—who conceive of gender and sexuality in other terms. While recognizing the important advances transgender has facilitated, Valentine argues that a broad vision of social justice must include, simultaneously, an attentiveness to the politics of language and a recognition of how social theoretical models and broader political economies are embedded in the day-to-day politics of identity.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“David Valentine had the good fortune to be conducting anthropological fieldwork in New York at the precise moment when a new term, ‘transgender,’ was first coming into widespread use. Now we have the good fortune of sharing his ethnographic insight into this new category’s emergence. Imagining Transgender offers a provocative on-the-ground account of this important shift in Western notions of gender identity and sexuality. The book is sure to stir debate in the emerging field of transgender studies, as well as in other disciplines that concern themselves with this timely topic.”—Susan Stryker, coeditor of The Transgender Studies Reader

“The definitive study that documents the rise and spread of ‘transgender’ as a category and a field of knowledge, activism, and power but also as a mechanism for disenfranchisement, discrimination, and violence. Deeply learned, wonderfully accessible, and ethnographically rich, this remarkable book sets a new benchmark not only for all future work on transgender but also for how we might think about gender, sexuality, identity, and politics more generally.”—Don Kulick, author of Travesti: Sex, Gender, and Culture among Brazilian Transgendered Prostitutes

“There is a paucity of ethnographically based work on transgender, and David Valentine’s book is a major contribution not only ethnographically but also historically and theoretically. Valentine is concerned with a range of value and political questions, committed explicitly to humane positions without being ideological or propagandist.”—Esther Newton, author of Margaret Mead Made Me Gay: Personal Essays, Public Ideas

NWSA Journal - Anne Enke

Imagining Transgender proceeds through sophisticated and multilayered analysis. It offers a new way to approach gender and the institutions that name and manage it, and this is a provocative contribution. . . . Scholars will find this readable and engaging book well worth their time, as it will allow them to develop a nuanced understanding of transgender and its social ramifications.”
Journal of Homosexuality - Anne Rohlman

“David Valentine’s Imagining Transgender is a well-written and well-executed ethnography that is able to balance a critical take on the category of transgender while not denigrating those most affected by rethinking the term. . . . Imagining Transgender is an example of what we as ethnographers should be doing and is a must read not only for those in transgender studies, gay and lesbian studies, or queer studies, but throughout the field of anthropology.”
Sexualities - Sally Hines

“Valentine’s writing manages to be both theoretically insightful and accessible. Whether musing on his bicycle as he travels between fieldwork sites of the street and the drag ball, or reflecting on conversations with clients and staff at GIP, Valentine presents a humorous, touching and very relevant political tale of the state of play of ‘transgender’. This is an extremely valuable contribution to work on gender and sexual diversities, and, importantly, a very enjoyable read.”
American Journal of Sociology - Laurie Essig

“Valentine. . . does an excellent job in showing just how messy the category ‘transgender’ is; how it was born of a variety of discursive practices; how those discursive practices had little to do with the lived realities of many of the people the term ‘transgender’ claims to represent; and how taking the time to think critically about transgender as a category can create space, literal and symbolic, for those whose lives most thoroughly blur the neat distinctions between some of the foundational categories of our time: male/female, straight/gay, represented/not represented.”

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Imagining Transgender

An Ethnography of a Category
By David Valentine


Copyright © 2007 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-3853-6

Chapter One

Imagining Transgender

Since no one had ever seen the diversity of the lesbian, gay, and bi populations, most people assumed that being gay meant being transgendered. We thought so, too.-LESLIE FEINBERG, Transgender Warriors

Nearly a hundred years since homosexuality was formally defined, news reports and gay and lesbian activists still routinely claim both historical and contemporary transgendered people as lesbian and gay.-AARON DEVOR AND NICHOLAS MATTE, "One Inc. and Reed Erickson: The Uneasy Collaboration of Gay and Trans Activism"

Leslie Feinberg's Transgender Warriors focuses on reclaiming a specifically transgender history and demands attention to a long history of transgender people from antiquity to the present. Simultaneously, ze and Devor and Matte imply that transgender people have, for a long time, been misrecognized-or misclaimed-as homosexual. The reclamation of "transgender warriors," and their distinction from homosexuals, is a central feature of contemporary transgender activism and history making, but by creating a distinct transgender history, transgender-identified writers are not acting withoutprecedent. From the 1970s on, gay and lesbian writers and scholars have made similar kinds of claims about those they perceived to be their ancestors and who were misrecognized as heterosexual (e.g., Katz 1976), including some who, in Feinberg's and Devor's and Matte's view, are more accurately understood as transgender.

Another approach to history, however, problematizes these kinds of simple reclamations (Altman 1993 [1971], Foucault 1990 [1978], D'Emilio 1983b, 2002, Halperin 1990, Weeks 1981). Most famously, Foucault has argued that "homosexuality" was not even a category of personhood until the mid-nineteenth century. At the root of this social constructionist view of history is the contention that the organization of contemporary gay and lesbian (and by extension, transgender) identity cannot make sense of historical modes of non-normative gendered and sexual identities or of romantic and affective relationships between people of the same sex/gender. From this viewpoint, to imagine historical subjects as "gay," "lesbian," or as "transgender" ignores the radically different understandings of self and the contexts that underpinned the practices and lives of historical subjects. How then is Feinberg able not only to claim specifically transgender warriors from antiquity to the present day but also to distinguish them from distinctly homosexual forebears? And how are Devor and Matte able to posit a (misrecognized) historical distinction between homosexual and transgender subjectivities? These questions are particularly important in the light of opposing claims of who fits in what category but also because of the apparent merging of these categories in the common contemporary acronym LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender).

In this chapter, I approach history from a social constructionist perspective, but not simply to contest the reclamation of historical figures as homosexual or transgender. Rather, I aim to examine the history of "transgender" and "homosexuality" as categories, the history of their relationship, and the theoretical and political implications of seeing them as discrete throughout history. Following Foucault, I take a genealogical approach, one which examines the meanings, values, and investments of naming and labeling. Like Foucault, I am interested in how these categories do not simply describe discrete histories but rather are productive of the very phenomena they seem to describe. Put another way (in James Ferguson's Foucauldian terms), rather than simply asking "'What does this concept mean; what does it really refer to?'" I want to ask "'How and to what effect is this concept deployed; what does it do?'" (Ferguson 1999: 205, emphasis in original). If, as I noted in the introduction, transgender as a category itself only emerged in a collective, institutionalized way in the early 1990s, what histories, politics, and practices have enabled this kind of historical claim? Moreover, if "homosexuality" is also a relatively new concept, and if it has been used to describe transgender forebears, how do we account for what Feinberg and Devor and Matte see as this conflation? In short, how is it possible to extract certain actors from the categorical embrace of "homosexuality" and into "transgender"? What has this historical reorganization done?

A crucial corollary to these questions is: how else could those people described as transgender or homosexual at different historical periods be described? By this I mean, what other forms of social identification-racial, class, national-cross-cut these sexual and gendered categories of being and knowing, and how might those identifications disrupt the easy assertion of homosexual or transgender identification? How does race, class, or geographical location figure into the naming of people as transgender and/or homosexual? These latter questions are engaged in the analysis below, but I take them on most fully in chapters 2, 3, and 4.

Underpinning the historical reclamation of certain homosexual forebears as transgender is a distinction between two other categories: gender and sexuality. To invoke Foucault again, how might the claim that gender and sexuality are distinct be productive of that distinction rather than simply a description of the way things are? Such a question is vital to ask if we are to make sense of contemporary, historical, and cross-cultural evidence of (what we call) gender and sexual variance, and the racial and class dynamics that underpin it.

I am working here with an assumption that is central to anthropology: that language shapes how we make sense of our worlds (Whorf 1956 [1939]). In this view, "gender" and "sexuality" are not self-evident experiences or domains outside language. Rather, they are linguistic tools which extract certain information, experiences, and feelings about ourselves and others from the stream of daily life for the purposes of making meaning about, and representing, ourselves and others. But the absorption of certain meanings by these terms is not a natural fact: it is the product of a constant, social reiteration (and contestation) of those meanings in a range of contexts-from the day-to-day assertions of gay, lesbian, and transgender identities and the activist strategies of LGBT movements, to the intellectual labor of scholars.

This chapter is thus a genealogical and critical review of these categories -transgender, homosexuality, gender, and sexuality. First, we must examine the category of transgender itself.


Let me start with a somewhat standard account of the history of "transgender" in the United States.

Most authors give credit to the activist Virginia Prince for her coinage of the term "transgenderist" in the United States sometime in the 1970s (e.g., Docter 1988, Frye 2000, G. MacKenzie 1994), though its actual origin in Prince's writing is less than clear and a more complicated history of its origin has been suggested by Robert Hill (2007). Though she more frequently used other terms, Prince is represented as using this concept-or variations of it-to describe those who, like her, lived full time in a gender other than that to which they were ascribed at birth, but without surgical intervention. By doing so, she and others differentiated themselves from transexual men and women on the one hand, and fetishistic cross-dressers on the other, which was (for Prince at least) a moral claim to (implicitly white, middle-class) normality and a rejection of deviant sexuality (Califia 2003 [1997]: 199, Meyerowitz 2002: 181) though others explicitly saw such a "third way" in more politicized terms (Hill 2007; see also Ekins and King 2005, 2006).

With the advent of early 1990s activism and scholarship in the United States, "transgender" gained a new meaning as the "radical edge" (Ekins and King 1999) of gender variance by people such as Holly Boswell (1991) who advocated for a position of crossgender identification which embraced an androgynous style and mode of identification, a position which also drew on more radical 1970s conceptions of gender-variant identity. Unlike Prince's assertions of normality, Boswell challenged the notion of "normal" itself, claiming a space for transgender not simply as a category between "transexual" and "transvestite" but as an alternative to binary gender. Boswell's call resonated with the radical call to embrace (specifically) transexual experience by Sandy Stone in her classic essay "The Empire Strikes Back" (1991), though Stone did not herself use "transgender" as a category (see Stryker 2006).

However, the idea of transgender as a radical alternative or as a "third way" between transexuality and transvestism, both of which had developed unevenly through the previous two decades, was quickly overtaken in the early 1990s by a third usage of transgender as a collective (often spoken of as a spectrum or umbrella), inclusive of all and any gender variance (Bolin 1994, Califia 2003 [1997]). Leslie Feinberg's early call for "transgender liberation" in 1992 is among the first published uses of the collective form of transgender which explicitly politicized transgender identification beyond individual radical acts and called for a social movement organized around its terms. This collective sense is that which most activists and social service providers adopted in the early 1990s.

Contemporary activists, providers, and scholars include different kinds of people in this collective/spectrum/umbrella, and a relatively modest list would include at least some of the following identity categories: transexuals, transvestites, cross-dressers, men or women of transgender or transexual experience, drag queens, drag kings, female or male impersonators, genderqueers, intersexuals, hermaphrodites, fem queens, girls, boys, trannies, feminine gay men, butch lesbians, male-to-female, female-to-male, female embodied masculine persons, and even, simply, men or women. The inclusion of certain kinds of people-and the absence of others-from lists of this sort is, as we will see shortly, a significant feature of definitions of transgender.

"Transgender" in this collective sense, then, arose in the United States in uneven, often contested ways, primarily in white, middle-class activist contexts in New York and California in the 1990s, though it appears to have had earlier manifestations in California in the 1980s, and in independent, if resonant, developments in the UK around the same time. In the context of activism and social service settings, "transgender" was seen as a way of wresting control over the meanings and definitions of gender variance from medical and mental health professionals to replace an assumption of individual pathology with a series of claims about citizenship, self-determination, and freedom from violence and discrimination (see Stryker 1998, 2006). Just as importantly, it was seen as a way of organizing a politics of gender variance that differentiated it from homosexuality.

In the years since then, particularly since the mid-1990s, "transgender" has become ubiquitous in progressive community-based organizations, identity-based political movements, popular media accounts, international human rights discourses, academic debates, anthropological descriptions of gender variance cross-culturally, and, astonishingly, it is even finding its way into the medical establishment, the very institution to which transgender was originally opposed. Transgender Studies is becoming an acknowledged field of inquiry (see chapter 4), and in popular culture, transgender is being used in TV shows, newspapers, magazines, movies, cartoons, personal ads, and on the World Wide Web. Transgender-identified activists are lobbying federal, state, and local legislators around issues of hate crimes and discrimination, and the right wing has discovered in "transgender" the latest enemy of American Family Values. It has been used on the floor of the U.S. Senate and was already included in the Merriam-Webster dictionary by 1998 (see note 2). Currently in the United States there are several national and dozens of statewide and local organizations which are dedicated to transgender issues. Web sites, newsletters, sections in bookstores, funding proposals, magazines, meetings, conferences, and social services focused on or incorporating transgender issues are springing up all across the United States (and the world) or are using "transgender" as part of organizational schema. This is all the more remarkable as the earliest use of transgender (in its institutionalized, collective sense) in U.S. activism dates back no further than 1991 or 1992, and therefore marks a significant shift in discourses, practices, and personal identities around gender variance in an astonishingly short period of time.

At the same time, "transgender" has already come under critique by many who are seen to fall under its purview in institutional terms. FTMS, transgender-identified butches, and female-bodied masculine people have argued that it is formed implicitly on a male-to-female model that cannot account for the complexity of butch/FTM experience (e.g., Halberstam 1998b, Hale 1998). Some, who adopt a more radical view of gender-variant identification, argue that "transgender" has either become a synonym for "transexual" or renders the specificity of transexual experience invisible (e.g., Valerio n.d.). And a younger generation of self-proclaimed gender-queers explicitly reject "transgender" as an identifier at least in part because of its institutionalization (e.g., Nestle, Howell, and Wilchins 2002, Wilchins 2002). However, despite these and other critiques from among those who are seen to occupy the category, "transgender" has been phenomenally successful in becoming institutionalized in an enormous range of contexts, and attempts to deconstruct the category have themselves been critiqued by activists who see value in institutionalization (Park 2003).

This potted history, though, requires asking four interrelated questions: first, why did the collective sense of "transgender" emerge in the way it did only in the 1990s? Second, what do different people mean by "transgender" and which meanings have gained traction in institutional settings? Third, given the move to the acronym "LGBT," what is the relationship between transgender and gay and lesbian identities and politics? And finally, what role do class, race, and geographical location play in these dynamics? To answer these questions we need to look first at the development of "transgender" in the 1990s.


Califia (2003 [1997]), Cromwell (1999), and Bolin (1994) all discuss the rise of transgender activism in the 1990s, implicitly pointing to qualitatively new forms of social organizing around gender-variant identities in that period. Meyerowitz (2002: 208ff.) notes, however, that activism by transexuals and transvestites-and other people we might refer to today as transgender-is not new. After Christine Jorgensen's highly publicized sex reassignment surgery in 1952, people who were coming to understand themselves through the new medical category of transexual began organizing themselves through social and activist networks (see also Frye 2000, Members 1998, Silverman and Stryker 2005, Stryker 2006). Transexuality in the United States was both celebrated and contested from the 1950s in popular culture, medical, and scholarly contexts, but claims and counterclaims over this subject position also emerged among those who saw themselves framed by its terms. That is, many of the features associated with contemporary transgender activism-the rejection of pathologization, social and political networking, the celebration of the possibilities of shifting genders-were evident in specifically transexual activism of earlier decades of the twentieth century.

Yet it is also clear that for various reasons the 1990s saw qualitative and quantitative shifts in these kinds of activism, theory making, and contestations (Broad 2002). Bolin (1994), for example, argues that the closure of university-based gender identity clinics in the early 1980s allowed for the possibility of client-centered, private clinics to offer services, enabling surgeries for people who had been turned down by the more research-oriented university centers. Califia (2003 [1997]: 223ff.) suggests several other specific reasons, including the anger at poor surgical results in university clinics, the growing visibility of people who were unable to "pass" in their chosen gender, and the politicization of transexual women because of their negative experiences with lesbian-feminists. Califia also sees the emergence of FTMS as a strong and vocal group in the 1990s, and the increasing visibility of FTMS and transmen as another important impetus for the coalescing transgender movement (see also G. Rubin 2002, Broad 2002, Cameron 1996). This activism has further been facilitated by communication technologies such as the Internet and the World Wide Web which radically transformed communicative possibilities from the early 1990s on (see Stryker 2006 for a broader historical contextualization of the emergence of transgender activism and scholarship).

These different factors enabled a groundswell in activism, publications, and a radically different intellectual and political project around gender variance through the category of transgender. At the same time, the "new" transgender politics of the 1990s has also been characterized by debate and contestation over methods, theory, identity, and indeed the very boundaries of the category itself (Broad 2002). These debates, as we will see, are central to the constitution of what "transgender" can mean in different contexts. However, in this early period, the sense that something new had emerged was powerful indeed (Broad 2002: 44ff.). Sandy Stone's essay "The Empire Strikes Back" (1991), the early 1990s battles over the exclusion of transexual women from the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival, and the vigils at the trial of Brandon Teena's murderers in Falls City, Nebraska, in 1993 are all early moments in the consolidation of the meanings of transgender in the 1990s, despite differences and contestations about those meanings.


Excerpted from Imagining Transgender by David Valentine Copyright © 2007 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

David Valentine is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Minnesota.

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