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Transfeminist Perspectives on History and Pedagogy

finn enke

Finn Enke is a professor of history and gender studies at the University of Wisconsin and began teaching transgender history in transnational perspective in 2005. He is the author of Finding the Movement: Sexuality, Contested Space, and Feminist Activism (2007) and Transfeminist Perspectives in and beyond Gender and Transgender Studies (2012). He currently serves as the book review editor for Transgender Studies Quarterly.

This interview with Finn Enke was conducted by Anne E. Parsons, assistant professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and chair of the OAH’s Committee on the Status of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Historians and Histories

You work in the field of transgender studies. Can you briefly describe what that field entails?

Transgender studies analyzes the constitution and articulation of gender, recognizing that gender is neither a universal nor static concept. Throughout human history we find contexts in which gender is recognized to be complex and diverse and not reducible to a male/female binary; cultures the world over have articulated gender in ways that challenge the notion that people are simply man or woman. Yet even as humans have recognized vast social and biological gender diversity, scholarship as well as culture have simultaneously erased this diversity by overlaying it with a binary normative interpretation. Gender diversity is present everywhere throughout history and yet also obscured. Transgender studies illuminates this entire dynamic. Transgender studies takes place within and across all disciplines of the humanities, social sciences, and biological/life sciences.

You have argued for a transfeminist perspective. Can you talk more about that and why it’s so important?

Transfeminist perspectives illuminate and affirm the gender diversity that is present in our classrooms and the world while addressing the ways that institutions (including education) continue to devalue women, people of color, people with disabilities, trans people, and poor people. This has scholarly/intellectual and also pedagogical implications.

Specifically in historical research how, across time and place, do we illuminate gender diversity and the ways that gender has been complexly articulated through race, nation, class, empire, ability, and other aspects of human social organization? Scholars have offered brilliant research elaborating trans as a heuristic. For example, when looking at another context, we might first allow that we don’t know how, what, or even if “gender” meant anything particular. Can we open up the possibility that people were seeing and constituting something more complex than a simple binary of male/female? In the twentieth-century United States we can see the naturalization of concepts like sexual dimorphism and beliefs about the relationship between sex, sexuality, and gender; we can historicize this rather than assuming this paradigm should be applied universally. As scholars develop new analytical rubrics, we are also developing new vocabularies that—ideally—are rooted in and responsible to the historical contexts we are studying. That is to say, a trans heuristic has the potential to more deeply attend to the cultural meanings that people were producing in other times and places.

As historians we can be conscious of the ways that our historiography constantly interprets and makes assumptions about gender. Why do we see male and female in these historical subjects? Was it truly that simple? I like to highlight the fact that we may not know much about people’s identities and we almost never know anything about their genital status. I use phrases such as “male presenting” or “socially recognized as female.” I also emphasize the interpretive work of people’s contemporaries, acknowledging that a subject does not simply possess gender but also has gender imposed on them by others. A person’s gender is therefore anything but static. I notice gender variation and situations where people exceeded gender norms. All this is method; it involves paying extremely close attention to context and registering the perspectives expressed in that context as significant. Our work is then to perceive and understand rather than correct those perspectives. I think this is the quintessence of historical scholarship.

How can a transfeminist approach shape our pedagogy?

There are two aspects involved in trans studies that are relevant not only to what we teach, but also how we teach. The first is the pedagogical and political commitment to acknowledging, respecting, and learning from people across cultural backgrounds, age, ability and disability, sexual orientation, gender identity, religion, and class. It includes the commitment to support every person in their self-definition, no matter how uncommon. Only when we honor what people say about who they are and the way they experience the world can we actually be present with each other.

The second aspect is the critical reflection on the ways we participate in the production of power, hierarchy, liberation, and oppression. We do this through our actions and beliefs on macro and micro levels: for example our investments in bodies, histories, property, nation, reproduction, community, and even who belongs in our classrooms or what constitutes “smart” or “polite” behavior.

Our campuses now are increasingly gender diverse. What makes it hard to hear or perceive gender diversity?

Most people are taught that biological sex is the truth of a person’s gender and also that biological sex (or more accurately, genital birth assignment) is transparent—that is, that you can tell by looking at someone what sex they are. Most people are taught first to screen out all kinds of variation in order to determine male or female and second to interpret those same variations according to conventional gender norms. Thus people might perceive “pretty women,” “masculine women,” “handsome men,” and “effeminate men,” all stemming from an assumption about those people’s genital assignments. These are habits of perception, and they are enormous barriers to comprehending the diversity of gender identity and the fact of transgender existence.

The truth is that a person’s appearance tells us little or nothing about their gender history and identity. Because transgender and gender-nonconforming identities are still so stigmatized, people who come out as trans or gender-nonconforming risk losing family, friends, employment, housing, and educational access. Stigma thus also contributes to the failure to perceive and respond to gender diversity.

Many educators are surprised to learn that there are transgender people present in every classroom and that the vast majority of trans people are not out as such. Many trans people are living in their gender identity, many may be in the process of transition, and many may be waiting for another stage of life when social and/or medical transition becomes possible.

Sometimes failure to see gender diversity comes from an active refusal to accept that we are who we say we are. For example, there is a small but vocal version of feminism that believes genital anatomy at birth must determine our lifelong identity. There are still scholars of psychology who believe that “transgender” is a misguided concept and that our genital anatomy should provide the unchanging basis of our identities. With such scholars, there really is no conversation to be had because by definition we don’t exist; they talk about us, but without us. It’s surprising to see this among people who are in other ways committed to dialogue and education.

Whether or not you perceive the large numbers of trans and gender-nonconforming people in your classrooms, it is still critical to counter transphobia and support all people in their identities. Lives are literally at stake.

What kinds of practices are most helpful for supporting all people’s access to and ability to contribute to the learning environment?

The Big Picture

Sometimes pedagogy requires working at every level, from classrooms to housing to campus climate to state and federal laws—all these arenas directly determine whether it is possible for trans, queer, people of color, people with neuroatypicalities or physical disability, or people of particular religious or national backgrounds to be students. Women and queer students experience high rates of sexual assault and harassment; already marginalized communities of students are targeted for harassment, excessive punishment, and incarceration; students withstand explicit racism, transphobia and homophobia, sexism, and ableism. Educators who believe that all people should have access to quality education—and that it is the mission of educational institutions to serve the public—must work beyond as well as within the classroom.

Campus and Classroom

We can ask, “Is this environment structured around assumptions of normative binary gender?” If so, it is not fully accessible. Do our classrooms and assignments depend on neurotypical performance that excludes students who would otherwise learn and contribute to the community? What things we can do in our various capacities to make the space more accessible to more people?

Policies and Practices

We can ask, “In what ways are women, gender-nonconforming, LGBTQ, and people of color actively protected from violence, harassment, and discrimination on campus?” Are we at risk of losing our jobs or receiving poor grades based on perceptions of our gender history and identity, race, and queerness? Are teachers and students free to research, write about, and teach transgender and LGB and queer content without professional marginalization?

The Built Environment

I can’t overstate the importance of bathrooms. With political campaigns working to ban trans and gender-nonconforming people from public restrooms, we are experiencing more harassment and violence than ever. Even as a privileged, tenured, white faculty member, I organize my path through campus according to the bathrooms I can use; I often choose between being uncomfortable and being late. Students and staff face even greater risk of harassment, with greater impact on their ability to be present.

Pronouns and Names, Again

Misgendering is an erasure of a person. This raises dilemmas for the person being misgendered. For example, if a colleague persistently uses incorrect pronouns when referring to me in professional correspondence, I have to interrupt the conversation, out myself, correct my colleague, and introduce the topic of transgender into whatever that correspondence was supposed to be about. Misgendering thus creates professional interference at best. People who don’t have the privilege to correct others are actually removed from participation. Our students, staff, untenured professors, lecturers, and those who are not out may be under significant structural and psychological risk. Indeed, the very people we most need to contribute to our learning environment may be the least able to be present due to misgendering and other forms of harassment.

Educators can work to ensure that their colleagues and administrators understand that it is necessary to learn, respect, and use people’s names and pronouns. All educators should ensure that every building has safe, accessible bathrooms where people will not be harassed if they are gender-nonconforming or known to be transgender. Try not to make assumptions about anyone’s gender identity, regardless of their appearance.