EssaysFeatureSex & Gender

Trans Bodies/Trans Identities

Arlene Stein and Tey Meadow in dialogue

Tey Meadow is the author of Trans Kids: Being Gendered in the Twenty-First Century (University of California Press, 2018), an ethnographic and interview based study of the first generation of families actively facilitating transgender identities in youth. Arlene Stein is the author of Unbound: Transgender Men and the Remaking of Identity (Vintage 2019), which follows the lives of four individuals over the course of a year as they masculinize their bodies. Public Seminar invited Meadow and Stein to have a conversation about their recent work. Below they explore the politics of their work, generational differences between them, and the use of the self in sociological research on gender. Trans Kids (University of California Press, 2018) by Tey Meadow.

AS: Tey, thanks so much for the opportunity to engage in this dialogue, and Public Seminar for inviting us. We’re both interpretive sociologists who have recently published books about trans issues. I wonder if we should start out by talking about what motivated us to write our respective books. Perhaps this will allow us to segue into a discussion of the fact that we’re members of different intellectual/political cohorts, a fact that surely shapes our perspectives… How does this sound?

TM: Arlene, what a treat to be in dialogue with you! I think that is the perfect way in. I am struck by the very different ways, for example, we each raise our subjectivities in the very first pages of our books. I begin by noting the ways my gender emerged as an urgent question for the people with whom I interacted during my fieldwork, so much so that it became clear at a certain point that their questions and assumptions about me were valuable data. I ultimately made an intellectual and political choice not to discuss my identity in the text. Instead, I focused on the kinds of relational moments my gender presentation facilitated – the things it provoked parents to want from me (to spend time with their children, to tell them about my school experiences), and the very different labor extracted by clinicians (questions about how I was parented, what my political perspectives might be). You, in contrast, note on pages 8-9 of your intro that you are cisgender, and that you identify as a lesbian and a feminist. I wonder if you might talk a bit more about how those aspects of your identity contributed to your investment in the topic?

AS: Thanks for this, Tey! It’s interesting, and fitting, that we should begin by talking about our own gendered subject-positions, and how they shaped our respective projects. I appreciated the deft way you discuss your gender nonconformity in Trans Kids, using it as a kind of Rorschach for understanding your subjects, and their perceptions of you. I took a different tact, as you note. I decided to identify myself as a feminist, and a lesbian early on in my book, to signal to readers that I am bringing to the subject a particular set of experiences which are at least partially generational in nature. I came of age in the 1980s, when one was encouraged to speak as a member of a particular identity grouping — “as a lesbian” or “as a disabled person,” and so forth. That strategy was designed, in part, to make visible the invisible. Though acutely aware of the limitations of identity politics, I have also spent much of my intellectual and political life “speaking as” a lesbian, and knew I would bring that identity into a project on trans, and use it as a kind of resource to think with. At a time when lesbian feminists are often (rightly or wrongly) viewed as TERFs (trans exclusionary radical feminists), it’s a risky move. But I hoped the book might open up some space for speaking about trans across different groups.

You’re about twenty years younger than I am, right? I suspect that you came of age in an era of queer theory, and of greater skepticism toward identity categories than I did. Can you say more about this, and how it shaped your approach?

TM: That’s a great question. According to Wikipedia, I’m 17 years younger than you are. And yes, I did encounter queer theory in my later college years. Standpoint feminism was, at that time, mostly taught as one among many ways of approaching epistemology. What I can say about my approach to my own positionality is that after carefully considering the payoff of either positioning myself as trans or as not-trans, I worried that answering that question would foreclose in the reader the opportunity to do the very same kind of wondering my parent participants did. And indeed, I have heard that some readers really balk at not knowing precisely “what” I am; that they feel less able to accept the narrative on its face without knowing. That said, I drop more than enough clues to suggest that I’m to some degree non-normatively gendered. And that my appearance affected in significant ways my interactions with participants. The inclination to wonder if I’m trans-identified is very much the exact social process I’m trying to depict – the cultural movement of gender nonconformity from signaling always a failure of gender, to one which can signal a new form of gender, the trans identity.

This leads me to another major difference in our orientations to the material. You recruited participants in the waiting room of a doctor who performs body masculinization procedures. This meant two things: first, that your participants are all somewhere on the transmasculine end of the spectrum, and second that they are the kinds of trans subjects who engage medical transition. I’m wondering if you could talk a bit about how you decided to approach the subject in this way. And relatedly, whether your approach tells us something about why this topic in particular mattered to you.

AS: I really like your discussion of whether trans can be seen as a new form of gender rather than necessarily signaling gender failure. I saw this tension at play among those I interviewed. Many evoked the medicalized term “dysphoria” in order to gain access to body modification surgery. For some people, the term really spoke to their experience of distress, but others used the term strategically, as a way of gaining access to surgery, and as a way of signaling to other trans people a sense of solidarity. Even among my very small sample of individuals which, as you note, I found in a surgeon’s waiting room, there was a great deal of variety in terms of how people saw themselves, and what they were seeking. Some wanted nothing more than to “become normal.” Others were trying to embody a different understanding of gender, one that transcends binary categories. The very willingness of some of them to disclose their trans status to others opens up the possibility of a more complex understanding of gender. I was impressed that my subjects were willing to tell their stories to me, a “cisgender” stranger, and do so in ways that didn’t try to wrap them up in a neat package. You’re right that by finding my interviewees among those who were undergoing chest masculinization, I focus upon those who are on the transmasculine spectrum. But the variety of stories I heard even within that group was quite interesting, and surprising to me. They had varied understandings of masculinity, strategies of disclosure, hopes and dreams.

To answer your question: I undertook this project because even though I had researched the topic of non-normative sexualities for years, I knew relatively little about the trans world. I felt that it was my duty to get up to speed. I had come of age when trans meant “transsexual” and when popular understandings of trans body modifications were synonymous with spectacular transformations, and media sensationalism such as the headlines “Ex-GI BECOMES BLONDE BEAUTY!” The popular notion is that someone goes into surgery as one person and comes out someone altogether different. That discourse is still with us to some extent, but we seem to be at a moment when the biomedical model of trans is giving way to something much more complicated. Is that your sense as well?

TM: Yes and no. On one hand, your work is a perfect example of the creative ways individuals use biomedical discourse to accomplish both personal identity and social-political projects. People are enormously inventive in that regard. But, only part of that inventiveness works through publicness. One of the things I’ve written about elsewhere is the ways biomedicine will make it possible for trans children, once fully transitioned, to totally assimilate without coming out, to develop narratives of self as simply “boys” and “girls,” rather than transboys and transgirls, to disidentify with the trans communities, identities and politics that came before. That doesn’t mean they will do these things; it simply means they will be able to.

I’m curious to know: in doing this research, what the most interesting or important or revelatory thing you learned?

AS: In my book, while telling the stories of my trans interviewees, I discuss the ways they challenged my own views about gender and sexuality as well. Getting to know younger trans men as they were undergoing transitions helped me to think about the social construction of gender in more sophisticated ways. Like many feminists of my cohort, I had embraced the position that gender is wholly a matter of socialization, cultural categorization, social structures, and so forth. But my interviewees helped me to see that there is also an internal, psychological component that can’t be ignored–that’s why some people go to such great lengths to modify their bodies, and undergo gender transitions despite great personal costs. That doesn’t mean that gender is, in the end, simply a matter of biology and bodies. Rather, trans folks challenge us to understand the linkages among biology, psychology, and social processes without reducing gender to any one set of factors. Still, as sociologists, we’re principally trained to analyze the social; and to offer analyses that look at how gender, and other dimensions of human experience, are lived and experienced in relation to their social and historical contexts. At least, that is how I see it. What about you, Tey?

TM: Trans Kids is my first book, and my first experience of fieldwork. While I had been trained by my excellent feminist mentors to know my subjectivity would a key component of my interactions with my participants, I was profoundly stuck by the actual experience of being watched, observed, classified and categorized. For the parents I met, who and exactly what I am was deeply significant. Some read me as trans; others as not trans. Both sets of parents made efforts to mobilize my identity to help them understand and parent their own children. Understanding the kinds of thoughts, hopes, fears and interests they attached to my body, my comportment, my clothing choices, became an embodied ethnographic project. It is in the moments I felt the most acutely scrutinized that I feel I came the closest to understanding the experience of transgender children, by which I mean the experience of having one’s body, one’s identity be the object of a searching gaze, often tinged with intense affect, hope, fear, confusion, celebration. Thanks for the conversation — this has been so much fun!

AS: It has been fun. Thank you!

Arlene Stein is professor of sociology at Rutgers University, where she directs the Institute for Research on Women. 

Tey Meadow is Associate Professor of Sociology at Columbia University.

Also for you:

Arlene Stein

Previous post

Undocumented in the Ivory Tower

Next post

Women of Color Resisting Hegemony in the Academy