February 16, 2006
Vol. 25 No. 10

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    Trans/Forming Knowledge: A look at transgender identities, how they unsettle some basic assumptions

    By Jennifer Carnig
    News Office

    The Center for Gender Studies is sponsoring a conference this month that challenges the core of the fields of gender and sexuality studies by asking questions such as “What does it mean to be a woman?” “What does it mean to be gay or lesbian?”, and “Are those labels real or a construction imposed by a heteronormative society?”

    “Trans/forming Knowledge” will focus on transgender studies, a relatively new field and one with few scholars and no established university or college department. But questions invoked by those in the field cannot be ignored, said George Chauncey, Professor in History and the College and Interim Director of the Center for Gender Studies.

    “The emergence of transgender studies in recent years has raised far-reaching questions about the theoretical and empirical underpinnings of gender, women’s, queer and sexuality studies,” Chauncey said. “This symposium invites the community to consider the significance and implications of these questions by engaging in a sustained, interdisciplinary conversation with four of the field’s leading scholars.”

    Included in the conference are two of the field’s founders—sociologist Aaron Devor and historian Susan Stryker—as well as Yale University women’s historian Joanne Meyerowitz and University of Southern California feminist theorist Judith Halberstam.


    The contemporary transgender movement started in the early 1990s, emerging around the same time as queer studies but also intersecting with feminist theory, said Stryker, co-editor of The Transgender Studies Reader, due out from Routledge in June.

    “The focus of the conference is to look at the impact of transgender studies on sexuality studies, gender studies and feminist studies,” she explained. “What’s interesting is that all of those fields in some way look at the relationship between sex, gender and sexuality—our bodies, our social roles and our desires. And each one of these fields has been productively unsettled by new work coming out in the field of transgender studies, which looks at the growing number of people who problematize what it means to be men or women. The self-identities of people that we call transgendered productively unsettle assumptions about sex, gender and sexuality for other people.”

    Thinking about gay, lesbian and queer studies, Stryker explained, the whole idea of being same-sex depends on what the definition of “sex” is.

    “You’re agreeing to an assumption of what a man is and what a woman is,” she said. “But how about somebody who was born female but never identified themself as a woman? Someone who had mastectomies, genital surgeries and now takes testosterone—who lives as a man—and has sex with men. Is that gay sex? That’s just one example of how transgender identities are unsettling a really basic assumption of queer studies.”

    Thinking about women’s studies, Stryker asks a similar question—who is a woman? And perhaps more importantly, what is the nature of a gendered self—the nature of being a man or a woman?

    While these questions may seem important only to a small segment of the population, Stryker said that the fact that such questions are being asked at all signals the start of a paradigm shift in gender studies and gay and lesbian studies that could have major repercussions.

    “These questions become a critique for everyone and a launching point for a re-examination of how it is that all humans understand their bodies,” she said. “There is a whole new intellectual movement starting to happen.”

    As she writes in her introduction to the forthcoming Transgender Studies Reader, “Ultimately, it is not just transgender phenomena per se that are of interest, but rather the manner in which these phenomena reveal the operations of systems and institutions that simultaneously produce various possibilities of viable personhood, and eliminate others. Thus the field of transgender studies, far from being an inconsequentially narrow specialization dealing only with a rarified population of transgender individuals represents a significant and ongoing critical engagement with some of the most trenchant issues in contemporary humanities, social science and biomedical research.”

    The conference begins at 8 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 16, in the Biological Sciences Learning Center 109, 924 E. 57th St. A screening of Stryker’s public television documentary, Screaming Queens: The Riot at Compton’s Cafeteria, will be followed by a discussion with the director. The film uncovers a 1966 event in which transgender people physically fought back against police harassment at a restaurant in San Francisco, a full three years before the more widely known Stonewall riots that occurred in New York’s Greenwich Village.

    The discussion continues from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Friday, Feb. 17, in Room 122 of the Social Sciences Building, 1126 E. 59th St. In the morning, Chauncey, Devor and Stryker will discuss the intersectional origins and developments of transgender studies. Meyerowitz and Halberstam will then explore the implications of transgender studies in the afternoon session.

    The conference is being organized with support from the Lesbian and Gay Studies Project and is free and open to the public. For more information, call (773) 702-9936 or visit http://humanities.uchicago.edu/orgs/cgs/.