An interview with Rogers Brubaker, author of Trans: Gender and Race in an Age of Unsettled Identities
This book has taken you into new territory. What drew you to the subject?
In the summer of 2015 I became fascinated by the intertwined debates about whether Caitlyn Jenner could legitimately identify as a woman and Rachel Dolezal as black. The debates were dominated by efforts to validate or invalidate the identities claimed by Jenner and Dolezal. But at the same time they raised deeper questions about the similarities and differences between gender and race in an age of massively unsettled identities. I had planned to spend the summer months working on a completely different project, but this “trans moment” afforded a unique opportunity to think systematically about sex and gender in relation to race and ethnicity as embodied identities that are increasingly – yet in differing ways and to differing degrees – understood as open to choice and change
You begin with the pairing of “transgender” and “transracial” in the debates about Jenner and Dolezal. One common trope in the debates was that transracial is “not a thing.” Do you disagree?
Of course transracial is not a “thing” in the same sense as transgender: there’s no socially recognized and legally regulated procedure for changing one’s race or ethnicity comparable to the procedures that are available for changing sex or gender. But I do think the term “transracial” usefully brings into focus the ways in which people do in fact move from one racial or ethnic category to another or position themselves between or beyond existing categories.
The second part of your book is called “thinking with trans.” What do you mean by this?
The idea is that one can use the transgender experience as a lens through which to think about the instability and contestedness of racial identities. I distinguish three forms of the transgender experience, which I call the trans of migration, the trans of between, and the trans of beyond. The trans of migration – the most familiar form – involves moving from one established sex/gender category to another. The trans of between involves defining oneself with reference to both established categories, without belonging entirely or unambiguously to either one. The trans of beyond claims to transcend existing categories or go beyond gender altogether. I argue that each of these can help us think about race and ethnicity in fruitful ways. Racial passing (including “reverse passing” like Dolezal’s) exemplifies the trans of migration, the multiracial movement the trans of between, and indifference or opposition to racial or ethnic categorization the trans of beyond.
Doesn’t sex have a deeper biological basis than race?
Exactly, but this presents us with a paradox. Morphological, physiological, and hormonal differences between the sexes, although not as marked in humans as in many other species, are biologically real and socially consequential. Nothing remotely analogous can be said about racial divisions. Yet as the debates about Jenner and Dolezal showed, it is more socially legitimate to change one’s sex (and gender) than to change one’s race.
How do you explain this?
The distinction between sex and gender – a distinction that has no analogue in the domain of race and ethnicity – has made it possible to think of gender identity as an inner essence that is independent of the sexed body. Yet according to the widespread “born that way” narrative, this inner essence is understood as natural – as unchosen and unchanging. Changing one’s sex or gender does not mean changing one’s identity; it means changing the way one is recognized and classified by others. This usually involves changing one’s self-presentation and may also involve transforming one’s body to bring it into alignment with one’s identity. We have no cultural tools for thinking about racial identity as an inner essence that is independent of the body and knowable only by the individual. A key part of what is understood as constituting racial identity – notably one’s ancestry – is located outside the self and is open to inspection by others. An individual who identifies with an ethnic or racial category to which she is not entitled by ancestry cannot intelligibly make use of the “born in the wrong body” narrative to justify changing her racial classification.
The broad sympathy toward Jenner seemed to suggest that transgender, unlike transracial, had achieved a remarkable degree of mainstream public acceptance. Were you surprised by the more recent controversy over transgender access to bathrooms in schools?
Not really. The shift toward public acceptance of transgender has been astonishingly rapid, but it has been uneven across regions, generations, institutions, and milieux. As transgender claims have moved from insulated settings like liberal arts colleges to mainstream settings like public school systems, and as courts, civil rights agencies, and legislatures have taken action to establish broad transgender rights, it’s unsurprising to see a backlash. Controversy has focused on access to bathrooms and locker rooms, tapping into public anxieties about vulnerable children, sexual predators, and the presence of people with penises in girls’ and women’s spaces. It’s also worth noting that to cultural conservatives, especially religious conservatives, preserving sex and gender boundaries is much more important than maintaining racial and ethnic boundaries. So while Dolezal’s claim to identify as black provoked fiercer opposition than Jenner’s claim to identify as a woman, transgender rights are likely to be far more controversial in the coming years than practices associated with choosing or changing race.