University of Massachusetts-Amherst
As a trans person, I have many awkward social interactions. Several times recently, a new or long lost friend has invited me out for a meal. Once we begin eating, the “friend” asks uninvited questions about my genitals, my family’s reaction to my gender, or “what direction I am going.” A couple of times, the friend has invited others at the table to ask me about my gender directly. I realize that these friends probably don’t know any other trans people and are probably just curious, but these questions are personal. Each question indicates that these friends perceive a difference between us, and thus I become a curiosity deserving examination.
In “Becoming Ever More Monstrous: Feeling Transgender In-Betweenness,” I autoethnographically investigate experiences like these – where people perpetrate microaggressions towards me within the context of everyday social interactions (Nordmarken 2014). The term “microaggression” is often used to describe various kinds of derogatory or offensive actions, but I define microaggressions as interpersonal manifestations of particular forms of systemic oppression, which take shape through often-unintentional, often-unconscious communications. Typically, a microaggression carries an inherent, often underlying, derogatory, degrading or othering meaning. For this reason, I see general insults and blatant expressions of prejudice as distinct from microaggressions. Microaggressors are usually well-meaning friends, colleagues, acquaintances, and strangers who are unaware of the degrading meaning of their communications. As they often occur in friendly or neutral contexts, microaggressions can be confusing to receive and difficult to identify and respond to. Therefore, the discomfort or unease of the person receiving a communication is an important indicator that it is a microaggression.
My dinner interactions can be usefully analyzed using microaggressions as an organizing concept. I consider communications like the ones described above as microaggressive because a) these comments are intrusive b) these comments indicate a kind of entitlement on the speaker’s part and c) these friends probably have no idea that their questions are intrusive.
The fact that the experience of receiving questions like these (often worded in virtually identical ways) is such a common one among trans people suggests that there is a widespread belief that asking trans people personal questions is socially acceptable. However, it is generally considered socially inappropriate to ask a non-trans person questions about their genitals or gender. Generally, non-intimate social actors maintain a degree of polite social distance between each other. How is it then, that asking trans people personal questions seems socially acceptable, when in most other circumstances, this is understood as taboo?
Perhaps there is a common perception that the norms and rules that govern everyday interactions do not apply to trans people; perhaps we are seen as states of exception – as “bodies of exception” to which rules of interaction do not apply. According to Giorgio Agamben (2005), a state of exception occurs when a government declares a state of emergency in order to suspend and operate outside of the law. In a state of exception, a government may target certain individuals, depriving them of rights and agency over their own lives, reducing them to “bare life.” Agamben first theorized bare life as it manifested in the Roman Empire. There, citizens who committed certain crimes were exiled from society and their rights, including the legal right to life, were revoked; this made it legal for anyone to kill them (Agamben 1995). Agamben extended this analysis by examining how the U.S. state captured and imprisoned many individuals in Guantánamo Bay without trial, violating the Geneva Conventions (2005). This example illustrates how the U.S. state suspended laws in a crisis; the prolonged operation outside of law in such a situation is a state of exception. The U.S. state deprived Guantánamo Bay prisoners of the legal rights that any other person charged with a crime in the U.S. would have. Treating them outside the law erased their legal status and produced them as legally unnameable and unclassifiable beings; this is a contemporary example of bare life in a state of exception. Although there are important distinctions between governmental actions, lawful killing, and commonplace social interactions, there are also similarities.
My dinner experiences suggest that social actors’ unfamiliarity with trans people presents an interactional predicament, to which they respond by suspending and operating outside of proximity and distance norms. Typically, social actors maintain physical and psychic boundaries between themselves and those they don’t know, keeping a polite distance, which assures ease for both parties. As a norm, it is an unspoken rule. Asking personal questions disregards this rule and boundary. These intrusions deprive trans people of privacy and reduce us to what I call here, “bare bodies” – where a focus on our bodies appears to override a more holistic recognition of trans individuals as fully human. These intrusions also suggest beliefs that our personal space is not our own, that we are not autonomous beings, but that we (as bodies, not people) are public goods fit for public examination. Thus, bare bodies are imagined to lack subjectivity, agency, and dignity. From this perspective, social boundaries, protective norms, and rights to privacy and respect do not apply to trans individuals.
Treating trans people as “bare bodies” and “bodies of exception,” (suspending interactional norms and disregarding personal boundaries) is likely at play in the various forms of violence that many trans people encounter. Trans women of color are vulnerable to the most extreme forms of violence, including interpersonal violence, state violence, and structural violence — and each of these may result in fatal violence. In 1995, emergency medical technicians failed to bring a fatally injured black trans woman (Tyra Hunter) immediately to hospital; instead, they stood around and made fun of her body; later, she died in hospital due to inadequate medical care (Juang 2006). This patient’s bodily difference was none of these EMTs’ business, but upon seeing her body, they suspended their job and duty to rush her to hospital to try to save her life. This case suggests that bare life can manifest through social imposition in addition to state imposition, and that the interpretation of bodies as exceptional plays an important role in this process. Thus, in addition to a state of exception where a government actively enacts power over life, any number of unpredictable and/or unidentified social actors may be potential threats to the lives of those whose bodies are deemed exceptional. The trans body is constructed as exceptional, and this construction serves to grant exceptions to norms that protect and foster life.
Let’s return to my dinner experiences, where I was wined and dined and then questioned. I have experienced a similar dynamic at other times, when acquaintances have asked me intrusive questions while giving me something, such as a ride. In these situations, although the power dynamic has not been extreme, I have felt generally indebted to them at the outset because they have done me a favor. The dinner experiences, as they manifested, felt creepily like I was expected to “put out” – that my dinner date had spent money on me or cooked for me and now I was obligated to reveal myself, and it would be impolite to refuse. I call this a transactional microaggression – a complex exchange where a microaggressor sets up an obligatory dynamic to normalize their microaggressive behavior and then demand a return. Certainly, not all intrusions are transactional – microaggressors frequently ask trans people to explain themselves without offering any prior gift. I’ve experienced requests that I disclose personal information from strangers, acquaintances, people I know in a particular space, such as work or school, and friends and family who have known me my entire life. Disclosure requests are generally uncomfortable to receive, but the obligatory dynamic of a transactional microaggression is especially awkward. Transactional microaggressions manifest in friendly spaces where people ask each other getting-to-know-you or catching-up questions, and it is expected that all parties share about themselves. Exchanges in this context are expected to be pleasant. These expectations make it difficult to interrupt and point out when questions or comments are inappropriate. When I have done this, microaggressors usually have either a) failed to understand the problem with their questions, b) understood immediately, becoming embarrassed and apologizing profusely and repeatedly, or c) gone silent. So, interrupting and illuminating a microaggression can heighten interpersonal awkwardness. To escape this uncomfortable awkwardness, I often feel compelled to do the work of excusing and forgiving their insult and then redirecting and saving the conversation. This is a burden on top of the original burden of receiving the microaggression. Many times, I don’t have the energy to deal with all of this, so it is easier to just skirt around the question. Perhaps because I was socialized to go along with the will of others, I sometimes answer the questions. This usually feels like I am participating in the act of violating myself. (In case you are interested, appropriate getting-to-know-you or catching-up questions for a trans person could be, “What work do you do?” or, “How is work going?” or, “Did you like that movie about birds?” or, “Could you recommend a good dentist?” Although it may be tempting to probe, remember that disclosing gender identity is not an invitation for gender-related questions.)
My account of transactional microaggressions illustrates one way the institution of gender structures the everyday lives of trans people differently from how it structures the everyday lives of non-transgender men and women. To be sure, a single account is not generalizable to a population. However, autoethnographic analysis can be a useful device that members of marginalized groups can use to develop analytical counter-narratives and epistemological counter-knowledges. Trans people live in an epistemic context where researchers have treated us as lab experiments, figured us as objects, curiosities, and monstrosities, and exploited us to produce knowledge about gender. In addition to the ethical problems of this research, there are also concerns with its validity. Interactional theories of gender are often traced to Harold Garfinkel (1967), who based much of his ethnomethodological work on the case of “Agnes,” a 19 year-old trans woman. However, Agnes’ access to gender-affirmation genital surgery was contingent on her participation in Garfinkel’s study, making the research both coercive and unsound. In response to this violence, trans people can appropriate the tools of social science to create polyvocal knowledges about gender and power from marginalized positions that speak and stare back in the face of the objectifying gaze.
Agamben, Giorgio. 1995. Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Agamben, Giorgio. 2005. State of Exception. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Garfinkel, Harold. 1967. Studies in Ethnomethodology. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall.
Juang, Richard M. 2006. “Transgendering the Politics of Recognition.” In Transgender Rights, edited by Paisley Currah, Richard M. Juang, and Shannon Price Minter. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Nordmarken, Sonny. 2014. “Becoming Ever More Monstrous: Feeling Transgender In-Betweenness.” Qualitative Inquiry 20(1): 37-50.