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Talking about trans without getting stuck

A colleague recommended an interview on the French History podcast with Rachel Mesch, who is Professor of English and French at Yeshiva University, on her new book Before Trans: Three Gender Stories from Nineteenth-Century France. Since I’m trans and I’ve been studying nineteenth-century French literature, it’s right up my alley!

Of course, the big thing I noticed was that Dr. Mesch and podcast host Gary Girod kept getting stuck in the muck of categorizing people. Mesch profiled three nineteenth-century authors who were assigned female at birth, but presented a masculine identity to the world at times in their lives. Were any or all of the three authors transgender? Were they women? Were they men? Were they feminists? Were they gay? Were their husbands gay?

As my colleague knows, I’ve argued that categorizing people is almost impossible and tends to cause more problems than it solves. Transgender issues become so much more understandable if we stop trying to categorize people and instead talk about feelings, beliefs and actions.

On the level of actions, Mesch makes it crystal clear: Jane Dieulafoy and Rachilde not only dressed in men’s clothes of the period, but obtained an official “permission de travestissement,” which apparently was only a thing for people assigned female. Rachilde and Marc de Montifaud wrote under male identities. In terms of beliefs, also, Mesch tells us that Rachilde wrote that she didn’t think of herself as female.

Mesch describes how all three authors wrote about the three major transgender feelings, as experienced either by themselves or by their fictional characters: gender dysphoria (when a person feels discomfort living in their assigned gender), transgender desire (a desire to live as a different gender from the one assigned at birth) and gender fog (an intense excitement connected to the anticipation, experience or memory of transgender actions).

In terms of gender categories, I’ve argued that it makes much more sense to treat “woman” and “man” as radial categories in the tradition of Wittgenstein (1953), Rosch (1973) and Lakoff (1988). Were Dieulafoy and Rachilde men? I’m guessing their tailors appreciated the business. Were they women? They were ineligible to vote. You can go on to various contexts where the categories mattered in their lives, and you can apply the same principles to the categories of “feminist” and “gay.”

Mesch describes her own conscious decision to refer to all three authors consistently with “she” pronouns, but as a linguist what I’m interested in is the gender of the pronouns and adjectives they use to refer to themselves. In particular, Mesch tells us that people regularly wrote to the two masculine pseudonyms of de Montifaud, Marc de Montifaud and Paul Erasme, under the impression that they were writing to someone who hadn’t been assigned female at birth or lived as a woman. I assume that when writing under those two identities, de Montifaud used gendered language consistent with their masculine names.

What I’m curious about is whether de Montifaud or the other two authors used masculine gendered adjectives or pronouns to refer to themselves when addressing people who knew they had been assigned female at birth and raised as women, and if so, at what points. Mesch did not address this in the interview, but she may in the book.

Mesch tells Girod that she felt a bit apprehensive writing about people who she considers to be transgender in some sense without identifying as trans herself. From the interview it sounds like she did a very respectful job. I’m sure some trans people will object to her use of “she” pronouns for the authors, but otherwise I didn’t hear much to object to.

One area where not being trans may have held Mesch back is in her respect for the dominant narratives in trans politics. As a trans person it’s easier for me to challenge those dominant narratives than it is for Mesch who needs to show respect for trans culture. Slightly easier, at least.

One way that it’s important to challenge those dominant narratives is in their insistence on categorizing people: as trans or not, as men or women or nonbinary. One of these narratives is that in the past people were confused about trans stuff and had weird categories. Often these categories were imposed on trans people by outsiders who hated or patronized us. Now we have these categories for people, and things are finally right with the world.

Mesch does not challenge this view of progress, and as she describes the ontological struggles that some of these authors went through as they tried to fit themselves into their view of the world, she seems to imply that they would have had an easier time if they had our 2020 categories for gender and sexuality available to them.

Sadly, as a trans person who’s lived through the past thirty years of categorization debates and who regularly talks to people dealing with trans feelings, beliefs and actions, I don’t see any evidence that people these days find it easier to understand what’s going on with their lives. As a scholar of the nineteenth century I’m sure Mesch knows that historical progress is rarely linear, and sometimes it goes backwards.

In this post I’ve already argued that the dominant trans practice of categorizing people is hugely problematic. I’ve laid out my own alternative practices, but it’s possible that the systems used by the authors Mesch studied were in some ways superior to the system she was taught, and even the one I’ve articulated.

A final note: Mesch says that “it was hard to find people who are French historians or French literary scholars who felt really that they knew trans studies enough to speak to these issues.” It’s been hard for me to be recognized as a scholar of French literature, language or history, or of trans studies. Like many people, I worked hard to get a doctorate and taught as an adjunct professor for years. I applied for many full-time jobs, and didn’t get called for a single interview. So now I work as a web developer.

If we really want to be able to find knowledgeable trans scholars, we need to give them work. And that may mean hiring a trans scholar instead of someone you went to grad school with, or yet another student of that famous scholar, or someone with a degree from a fancy university.

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