Prompted by Rushaan Kumar
In May 2014 Time Magazine announced the transgender tipping point, heralding transgender rights as America’s “next civil rights frontier.” With trans actors and celebrities like Laverne Cox and Caitlyn Jenner receiving unprecedented media attention, and Facebook introducing a new menu of gender-sexual identities for users, with fifty-one new options, many explicitly challenging the male/female binary, there was widespread celebration of increased trans visibility. In subsequent years however, this collective euphoria has taken a beating in the face of legislative hostility under the current administration. The disproportionate targeting of transgender people in hate crimes, police profiling, and deportation proceedings urges us to consider more seriously the intersections of race, class, ability, and citizenship, with transgender identity. But what is the relationship between trans thought and advocacy and the theory of intersectionality?
The theory of intersectionality was posited by Black legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989. Challenging the single-issue understanding within law of crimes against black women, Crenshaw emphasizes the simultaneity of racial and gendered discrimination—their cumulative effect being greater than the sum of its parts—in shaping black women’s experience. The theory has become mainstream in more recent years, frequently invoked to describe how multiple structures of domination reinforce one another to inform marginalized people’s lived experience. This mainstreaming has inevitably garnered critique from conservatives and liberals alike about encouraging an “oppression Olympics” among victimized identities; being a reductive or exclusionary way of framing difference; and so on.
In light of these criticisms are trans theory (which, even at its most rudimentary, expands and explodes the gender binary to make place for difference) and intersectionality (which variegates and complicates difference itself) adversarial projects? Or are they mutually allied? This roundtable discussion urges us to reflect on the entanglements between trans studies and the theory of intersectionality, and discuss what is gained or lost in their estrangement.
Some of the most generative contributions made by trans studies and activism stem from the intersectional work of taking all experiences of embodied difference seriously—raced, gendered, sexed, classed, dis/abled. And it is trans theory’s commitment to intersectionality that can serve as a reparative to its own investment in the ultimately exclusionary dichotomy of cisgender and transgender, for instance (Chaudhary, 2019). In other words, any theory of difference and identity risks exclusion, especially in its application in everyday politics and practices. So, in accounting for difference and inclusion, how might we as scholars, artists, activists mobilize an intersectional trans lens? How can artists, scholars and activists ensure that the theories we use and popularize stay accountable to the lives and identities of those who occasioned the theories in the first place?
Suggested reading and media
About the Prompter
Rushaan Kumar is an Assistant Professor of Feminist and Gender Studies at Colorado College. He holds a PhD in Feminist Studies from the University of Minnesota and an MA in Literary and Cultural Studies from EFLU, India. He teaches and researches transnational gender and sexuality, critical trans/masculinity studies, postcolonial media, public culture, and queer social movements in India and the South Asian diaspora. His current book project, Apprehending Female Masculinity in India, is an examination of the simultaneous impact of globalization and the rise of Hindu supremacist nationalism on female- and trans-masculine people in India, specifically in and through media representation.