Frank Benson’s 3-D printed sculpture, Juilanna (2015), is a twenty-first century response to the marble sculpture Sleeping Hermaphroditus (1620) by Gian Lorenzo Bernini. In Benson’s work the model’s gaze, breasts, penis, and futuristic sheen challenge the fixed idea of “female.” Rather than on an abstracted or mythical figure, Benson modeled his sculpture on a real person, Juliana Huxtable, an American poet, model, artist, and dj.
GLAAD, a non-profit organization in the service of LGBT communities, describes transgender as “a term used to describe a person whose gender identity differs from the sex the doctor marked on their birth certificate…For transgender people, the sex they were assigned at birth and their own internal gender identity do not match. People in the transgender community may describe themselves using one (or more) of a wide variety of terms, including (but not limited to) transgender, transsexual, or gender queer…being transgender is not dependent on medical procedures. Transgender is an adjective and should never be used as a noun. For example, rather than say “Max is transgender,” say “Max is a transgender person.” And transgender never needs an “-ed” at the end.”
According to the National Center for Transgender Equality, the prejudice, discrimination, and violence transgender people overwhelming experience is deeply connected to intersections of heterosexism, homophobia, and racism. These account for high rates for suicide attempts (41%) and homelessness (69%). In 2013, 72% of anti-LGBT murder victims were transgender women. 90% of transgender people experience discrimination and harassment at work, and they experience twice the national unemployment rate—and, for transgender people of color, up to four times that rate. Transgender people cannot serve in the military, and most states provide no legal protections in housing, employment, and healthcare.
But transgender is a natural category of being. Evolutionary biologist Joan Roughgarden explains this naturalness, “It is a mistake to classify organisms as either male or female as though whole individuals were unproblematically binary…even in species where bodies can be unambiguously classified male or female… multiple forms of males and females may occur.” Science, she argues, recognizes sex diversity.
Some scholars and activists claim trans as a category that can revolutionize the kinds of normative and binaristic thinking that perpetuates all kinds of social and political inequalities. They invite resistance to thinking of “trans as a gender category, somehow distinct from more established ‘woman’ or ‘man’.” Instead, scholars such as Susan Stryker, Paisley Currah, and Lisa Jean Moore understand gender as porus with the potential to shape and explore the diversities of embodied difference.
Trans—and the attendant social and political movements view gender as multiple, and importantly, it questions the normative roles that insist on the static categories of “woman” and “man.” All gender-defined spaces contain multiple and intersecting forms of gender embodiment that are also informed by differences other than gender assignments. Stryker, Currah, and Moore explain:
Do transgender phenomena not show us that “woman” can function as social space that can be populated…not only by people born with typical female anatomy and reared as girls who identify as women, but also by people who were born with typical male anatomy but who self-identify as women and take all possible steps to live their lives that way, or by people born female who express conventionally masculine social behaviors but who don’t think of themselves as or want to be men? (12)
Watch: “10 Things You Need to Know About Transgender People” (2015)
Indeed, some people who occupy the social space of manhood have vaginas, not penises. Because gender is contingent, transgender can identify the body’s orientation within space and time, not simply between the two established species of “woman” and “man.” Bodies also live within the contexts of history, nation, race, and class (among others). All of these contexts contribute to embodied difference.
Joan Roughgarden, “Evolution and the Embodiment of Gender” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 10:2 (2004).
Mark Seliger, On Christopher Street: Transgender Stories (2016)
Susan Stryker, Transgender History (2008)
Susan Stryker, Paisley Currah, Lisa Jean Moore, “Introduction: Trans—, Trans, Transgender” Women’s Studies Quarterly 36 (Fall 2008)