By Mae Morgan
Trans Intellectual History constitutes a necessary intervention within Intellectual History and, moreover, for the spiritual edification and progression of our societies. Moving beyond contextualism, it seeks to conceptualize in relation to systems of oppression the instrumental use of reason by and against transgender people. Intellectual History ought to facilitate emancipatory acts of destabilizing the violent normalcy of our inherited civilizations. We are at once born free, only for others to initiate us into a conceptual dominion of social assignment—our corporeal selves are at once subordinated to the higher calling as avatars for our sacred notions. The assignment of gender is the original and prevailing act of violence against our Unique Selves.
One of the foundational problems trans people face in academia and in public is a broad misunderstanding about what being trans means. Transgender itself is an umbrella term for the diversity of those whose gender diverges from their assignment-at-birth. While most people think of transsexuals (technical shorthand: those whose gender and/or medical transitions are oriented towards the ‘opposite’ gender), a spectrum of trans/non-binary identities and varying transition needs exist which may encompass one, both, or neither femininity and masculinity.
A common misunderstanding is the ‘sex/gender dichotomy’: there is something called biological sex which is binary and ‘determined by chromosomes’; and, there is gender, which is a ‘social construct’, a ‘performance’, another’s ‘perception’, or just a personal ‘identity.’ The consequence of this binary is that being transgender is conceived as nonessential, as sociological. Thus, trans people by this logic are viewed as less real than cisgender men and women (we call this cissexism). Thus, this conception of biological sex reifies sex-assigned-at-birth as essential, as concrete, as scientific. Speaking as a transsexual woman: I was not a male who became/chose/started performing as a ‘woman-sociologically-speaking’; in other words, when I was assigned male, this was a mistake—one which was continually enforced and to some degree internalized. Simply put, being transgender does not mean that one changes their gender—it means one’s actual gender diverges from their assignment. By conceiving transness as a ‘psychological misunderstanding’ or as ‘mere sociological performance’, the natural binary assignments and distinctions of man and woman remain intact. Thus, when I say I experience myself as female, that a first principle of my personhood is a femaleness, people who think in terms of ‘sex vs gender’ read my experience as a ‘gender identity disorder’, since I supposedly do not correctly perceive that I am biologically (that is, really) a male. However, the currents of trans and transfeminist theory of the past few decades have reacted against this conception (see Julia Serano’s Preface in Whipping Girl). It does not make sense to isolate our minds and experience of gender from the rest of our corporeal personhood, especially in light of trans peoples’ experience of subconscious sex.
Coined by biologist and transfeminist scholar Julia Serano, subconscious sex describes the ways in which trans people—and, she argues, everyone—intuit ourselves as our gender. For trans women, this can include feeling out of place, guilty, or confused about being divided into ‘boys’ or ‘mens’ groups; not being able to relate to or connect with male social groups (or being drawn to female social groups); daydreaming about being reborn or living a second life as a girl; crossdressing; sexual embodiment fantasies about ‘being a girl’ or ‘being a lesbian’; feeling uncomfortable with the presence and/or development of ‘male’ sex characteristic (especially starting with puberty). Furthermore, even gendered ‘socialization’ is often unsuccessful or ‘incorrectly’ internalized by trans people. In my own experience since childhood, this led me to do things like sit in distinctly ‘feminine’ ways (very cross-legged), mimicking my mom’s voice and feeling viscerally awkward speaking ‘masculinely,’ feeling alienated from masculine expectations and expressions of misogyny, relating strongly to girl characters in media, and experiencing body dysphoria as well as euphoria when expressing myself femininely. In short, there is no hard line between sex and gender, ‘scientifically’ or experientially.
Nonetheless, some trans people (and many allies) accept hard distinctions. In this famous infographic, assigned-sex-at-birth is equated to physical genitals and DNA, while gender identity is solely a matter of cognition. It also enrages reactionaries, despite ceding their fundamental point about ‘biological sex’. Thus, Trans Intellectual History must understand that there is no unifying ‘gender ideology/orthodoxy’ amongst trans people—let alone universal ecumenism. That being said, differences in conceptions are less about disagreements about the existence of the aforementioned experiences and more about the language we use to express that; in the final analysis, we experience our gender as something more than choice or mere performance—our gender is corporeal, is analytical to our Absolute Personality.
Future Intellectual History may include surveys and genealogies of difference, as well as investigations why certain ideas of transness and gender emerge discursively in relation to intersecting systems of oppression. We must also avoid hyper-contextualizing transness as a ‘modern’ phenomenon (as queerness in general often is), incommensurable with human experience of the past.
In my work, I identified two major oppositional forces to trans liberation: firstly, I coined Sarkology to describe:
“the ideological rules by which bodies, sexuality, and embodiment are assigned genders, controlled, intuited, and judged. More concretely, sarkology tells us what kind of bodies men and women ought to have, what kind of sexual partners are legitimate, and how we should (or should not) enjoy our sexuality in relation to them.” (Thesis, 17).
This is not just a consideration for white patriarchal societies—while transgender classes in ‘non-western’ societies (‘3rd-gender’ groups) are often brought up in opposition to de-naturalize transphobia in ‘western’ cultures (see Leslie Feinberg), trans folks there are no less subjected to power dynamics forcing them to bargain for their existence. In truth, trans women are perennial—we exist beyond discursive ‘context,’ rallying to the same slogans (‘trans women are women’) against our oppressors.
Secondly, I developed a three-part typology of reactionary transphobia in contemporary discourse:
Trans activists are conceptualized as radical ideologues, Trans activists are conceptualized as radical ideologues, simultaneously a minority of a minority and yet extremely powerful, who are driven to ‘trans’ as many genders as possible by ‘grooming’ impressionable children and using our ‘sizable power’ to ‘cancel’ anyone who stands up to the trans agenda … Trans victims are simply the children we are supposedly ‘grooming’ and ‘seducing’ into becoming trans—they are then tricked into undergoing dangerous, experimental hormone treatments and surgeries in order to destroy the reproductive abilities of ‘your daughters’ and emasculate ‘your boys’ in the ongoing ‘war on women’ and ‘war on masculinity.’ Finally, trans predators pertain to trans women who are using being trans as cover to access women’s spaces in order to get away with sexual assault—in other words, men are dressing up as women in order to sexually assault white women. (Thesis, 21)
Transmascs especially are portrayed as victims, whose ‘mutilation’(!) denies society their role as birthing vessels.
This rhetoric and disinformation is widespread in political discourse, promoted recklessly by ‘non-reactionary’ media, such as the BBC and NYT. It is also steeped in transmisoyngy, the particular patriarchal oppression affecting transfems, wherein our transness is uniquely sexualized, vilified, and pathologized for its transgression against patriarchal hierarchy. Claims that trans women are ‘predators’, ‘fetishistic’, ‘aggressive’, ‘sexual’ and ‘deceptive’ betray the ways in which we are intuited as ‘males’ and femininity is perceived as subordinate to masculinity (see Serano’s primer). It also relies on a long Christian tradition of “portraying minorities as sexual predators in order to deny them basic civil rights” (Warren Blumenfeld’s “How LGBTQ people and Jews were stereotyped as violent predators”); indeed, heresiology since Irenaeus has fixated on ‘sexual immorality’ (see Bart Ehrman’s overview). Before the anti-trans moral panic, ‘save our children’ was the rallying cry of anti-gay activists. Today this same slogan is used by QANON and in the moral panic against ‘Critical Race Theory’. Conspiracies depicting minorities as controlling academia and institutions are present across fascist discourse in order to create coalitions against emancipatory movements. This continuity betrays reactionary performance through a common stock of formulae against marginalized groups.
TERFism’s spurious radical feminism likewise draws from this stock to intellectualize its misogyny and transphobia, portraying the academic consensus in favor of trans people as a plot against women. ‘Gender ideology’ and concern trolling about ‘children’ and ‘women’s rights’ have become the cover for their activism and psy-ops supporting anti-trans coalitions across transnational political discourse and fascist regimes (see Judith Butler’s recent essay). We are constantly vilified by anti-trans academics (most recently Kathleen Stock), with institutions all-too-eager to defend their hate speech as ‘academic freedom’.
Apart from the concrete harm, what makes this excuse for academics weaponizing their power to promote transphobia indefensible is that their perspectives are exceedingly marginal. Analogously, academia has no problem marginalizing Young Earth Creationism or traditionalist views of biblical history—very few take their absence from mainstream scholarship as evidence of ‘silencing free speech.’ From my own Intellectual History work on fundamentalism and higher criticism, it is striking that Stock and others (like sexologist Ken Zucker) make the same arguments that fundamentalists a century ago made to explain why their peers disagree with them: namely, that the presence of a certain ‘philosophy’ or ‘agenda’ (Hegelianism, Marxism, Liberalism, Modernism, Postmodernism, &c.) has caused radical positions to emerge. However, these shifts in consensus are the result of overwhelming evidence that makes these positions untenable, leaving scholars who defend them to resort to discovering ad hoc conspiracies and schemes. These academics retreat with these narratives to the court of public opinion to legitimize their scholarship (Stock is a trustee of the anti-trans hate group LGB Alliance), wherein they argue that anything other than their view ‘threatens’ a broader movement: fundamentalists claim anything short of inerrancy ‘threatens the gospel’ and transphobes claim anything short of effective trans genocide ‘threatens women’s rights.’ ‘Academic freedom’ apologetics ignore how reactionary movements breed and adopt scholars to intellectualize regressive ideologies. The defense of anti-trans scholars by academia demonstrates special pleading which can only exist under systemic patriarchy, transphobia, and transmisogyny. And for all the tears shed in the name of ‘silenced free-thinkers,’ no concern exists for trans people like me and too many others who have lost our families and had our rights stripped in hundreds of bills since 2021 due to transphobia legitimized by their ‘academic freedom.’ Intellectual History which demures from systemic analysis in its history and its ethics is not just naïve—it is negligent in a world where fascism enthuses systems of oppression.
The past few years have brought trans people to the forefront of culture. Unfortunately, this visibility has incited increased hate against us, galvanizing reactionaries and facilitating the deadliest year on record for trans people in America. We have little power and few prominent voices, making it easy for reactionaries to paint us as nefarious ‘activists’ with an ‘agenda’ targeting ‘your children’ and ‘canceling free speech’ in order to ‘destroy Western Civilization’. The moral panic over transgender people is not limited to ‘the Right’: it includes liberal darlings like the BBC claiming trans women are pressuring cis lesbians into sex, Pope Francis calling ‘gender ideology’ colonization, and Macron and his allies decrying non-binary pronouns and ‘American sociology’. Trans people increasingly cannot rely on ‘liberal’ power or ‘democratic’ institutions within our societies to protect our existence, let alone rights, against burgeoning fascism. 2022’s legislative wave has erased any doubt that the end of transphobic ideology is genocide.
In Texas, Governor Abbott unilaterally directed DFPS to investigate parents of transgender children for child abuse. Idaho Republicans are attempting to make treating transgender children punishable by life in prison. Immediately after being platformed by the BBC, Lily Cade called for the rape and lynching of trans people. Marjorie Taylor Green called all trans women pedophiles, implicitly directing ‘defensive’ violence against us. Former Republican gubernatorial candidate Robert Foster called for all trans people to be executed by firing squads. Like their Nazi forfathers who burned our books and murdered my sisters in their razing of the Institut für Sexualwissenschaf (namely Dora Richter, the first recipient of sexual reassignment surgery) and in their camps, genocidal fascists are agitating for legislative violence and stochastic terrorism against us, especially trans women.
More than ever, we require Trans Liberation—Intellectual History must be a force for us and by us.
Mae Morgan is a 25 year old trans girl with an MLitt in Intellectual History from the University of St. Andrews. Her thesis focuses on transfem thought and transmisogyny, with emphasis on gender and sexual embodiment in literature & practice as political speech, as well as phenomenological & thaumaturgical actualization. She lives with her girlfriend Devin, her rats Daisy and Trixie, and cat Mr. Pink.
Edited by Shuvatri Dasgupta
Featured Image: Transgender Pride Flag, Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.