Anything but the Present: Reflections on Transgender People as Symbols of the Past and the Future

A few months ago, I struggled to pay attention while I sat in a stuffy, cramped grad school classroom.  A colleague of mine was giving a presentation on the week’s readings.

“I noticed,” she offered, “that the author did not consider transgender people in this text.”

I smiled because I recognized her question as a gesture of solidarity.  Our professor had reacted negatively when others posed questions about trans erasure.  I admired my classmate’s bravery.

“Oh, this book was written in 1994,” the professor said.  “Transgender wasn’t really a category at that time.”

I covered my mouth to hide the gasp that escaped.  Transgender wasn’t a category in 1994?  Professor, please.

Lately I have spent a lot of time thinking about when transgender people are judged to be relevant to feminist theorizing and activism.  I would love to ask my professor when she thinks we began to matter.  Was it in 2014, when Time magazine declared it to be the year of the “transgender tipping point?”  Or were we important sooner?  Perhaps we are still in the process of acquiring legitimacy.  Is trans a matter for the future?

In fact, when we examine our history we find that we trans people have long been associated with notions of futurity.  A conservative scholar might begin US transgender history on December 1st, 1952 when the New York Daily News reported on transgender women Christine Jorgensen’s gender confirmation surgery.  The media became fascinated by Jorgensen’s transition, casting her as a symbol of technological advancement and sci-fi-style possibility.  On May 5, 1954, the weekly magazine People Today reported, “Next to the recurrent hydrogen bomb headlines, reports of sex changes are becoming the most consistently startling world news.”  Jorgenson herself often invoked the atomic bomb as a metaphor for the way that surgery technologies changed her life.  Transgender identity became a symbol for both progress and American post-war anxieties.  Trans became indelibly marked as new.

Today, we are used as symbols of neo-liberal advancement, as though our increasing visibility was an inevitability, not the result of decades of struggle.  This association with progress, newness, technological advancement, and futurity has done little to improve the lives of trans people.  In fact, as my professor’s comments indicated, it erases our past, delegitimizes our identities, and minimizes the urgency of our demands.

There is another way, however, that trans people are invoked. Sometimes, we as symbols of a long-lost past.  In this depiction, contemporary trans people are described as kin or heirs to “ancient” cultures in which gender was conceived in more expansive ways.  In the United States, this depiction draws on reductive and inaccurate understandings of Native cultural practices and racist archetypes of “noble savages.”  Transgender people certainly have a long history, but we are not reflections of some purer, freer past.  This discourse does damage to Native people, including Native queer and trans/two-spirited people, who deserve to be understood and respected on their own terms as living, contemporary, complex people.  Casting transgender people as reflections of the past does little to improve our lives.  It is a only more romantic way to call us irrelevant.

“We’re always symbols of the future or the past,” I told one of my advisors.  “Anything but the present.”

“Yes,” he said.  “And that means anything but power.”

That’s it, isn’t it?  Power.  That’s what is at stake when we are robbed of our present.

h o t - a i r

I can’t do it without you! Support “If We Knew Trans History” on Patreon.