Review Essay: Thinking with Trans

Brian Riedel, Rice University


  • Brubaker, Rogers. 2016. Trans: Gender and Race in an Age of Unsettled Identities. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  • Gonzalez-Polledo, EJ. 2017. Transitioning: Matter, Gender, Thought. New York, NY: Rowman & Littlefield International.
  • Plemons, Eric. 2017. The Look of a Woman: Facial Feminization Surgery and the Aims of Trans- Medicine. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
  • Snorton, C. Riley. 2017. Black on Both Sides: a Racial History of Trans Identity. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

The years bridging the Obama and Trump administrations saw an enormous expansion of public discourse about transgender people in the United States.  The change of administrations also shifted how federal agencies interpret existing laws.  The four books reviewed here offer useful insights into both processes.  They also help to ground current legal and policy debates by drawing attention to the realities of lives and bodies that challenge hegemonic understandings of gender.

Although these four books were released in 2016 and 2017, their production and circulation has a longer history and a wider context.  A precursor essay to Eric Plemons’ The Look of a Woman came out in May 2014, two weeks before the City Council of Houston, Texas voted 11–6 to pass the trans-inclusive Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO).  Rogers Brubaker’s first essay considering Rachel Dolezal and the category of “transracial” was published six weeks before Houston voters overturned HERO by a vote of 61% in November 2015.  Although HERO would have protected fifteen categories of people in employment, housing, and services, the opposition to HERO made transgender people (specifically transwomen) the focus of the public debate.  The opposition built their campaign on the idea of “No Men in Women’s Bathrooms,” and broadcast a television commercial[1] featuring a young girl looking up in fear as a strongly male-coded person entered her bathroom stall.  The political success of that campaign to narrow the meaning of HERO crystallized in the name many gave the ordinance – “The Bathroom Bill.”

Even as these four books entered a world of increasing trans self-representation, federal agencies were narrowing key definitions in policy, specifically their interpretation of the word “sex.”  In February 2017, a joint memo from the Department of Education (DOE) and the Department of Justice (DOJ) rescinded prior guidance that included transgender and gender non-conforming students under Title IX of the 1972 Education Amendments Act, which provides protection against sex-discrimination.[2]  Only three weeks later, the television network FX would authorize filming for the pilot of Pose.  As production for that pilot began in October 2017, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a memo rescinding prior DOJ policy on Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, overturning previous interpretations that included “gender identity” under protections against discrimination because of “sex.”[3]

All the while, the #BlackTransLivesMatter movement on social media has collected what might be mistaken for disconnected, individual deaths to focus international attention on the systematic risks borne by transgender people.  Indeed, C. Riley Snorton writes that as he was preparing Black on Both Sides to go to press he attended a memorial and celebration for Kendra Adams, a black trans woman and community leader who helped found the House of Merlot in Ithaca, New York (200).  She was murdered in June 2017, and although Michael Davis was found guilty of her murder in 2018, there was not enough evidence to classify her killing as a hate crime.

Similarly, I write this review as the United States Supreme Court considers the import of the October 8, 2019 oral arguments on whether Title VII bars employers from firing an employee on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity.  The DOJ filed briefs in the two cases arguing that it does not.

The four books reviewed here give us theoretical and ethnographic insight into these high-stakes debates.  In particular, they explore the degree to which selves and bodies are given, chosen, and alterable.  They help us understand more clearly the links forged between selves and material bodies, and they parse the extent to which those links depend on recognition and the visible.  These books thus collectively interrogate two core beliefs: (1) that the categories of gender and race are in fact visible on the body, and (2) that they ought to be so visible.  These studies also help us diagnose the translation of those beliefs into activist, medical, and legal discourses.

Several additional through-lines mark the conversations these works productively engage—conversations that exceed the disciplinary boundaries of transgender studies.  Specifically, they enrich theorizations of recognition, passing, and the role of the visible.  They illustrate the continuing relevance of anthropologists’ strategies of self-representation in their texts.  They underscore the importance of geographic and cultural contexts for analyses that would link gender, race, and the body.  Finally, they suggest an expansive conception of the possible relationships between gender and time.


In the 2016 book Trans: Gender and Race in an Age of Unsettled Identities, Rogers Brubaker expands an argument he first developed in an essay published in September 2015, shortly after Rachel Dolezal (now Nkechi Amare Diallo) and Caitlyn Jenner had become household names.  A Professor of Sociology at UCLA, Brubaker’s work before that point had largely been about citizenship, ethnicity, and immigration.  Accordingly, he self-consciously frames his entry into transgender studies as an “essay in trespassing” (xi), a turn of phrase that anticipates one angle of the vigorous debate his work initiated in the pages of Ethnic and Racial Studies and Transgender Studies Quarterly, among other venues.  Notably, he is not the only academic to stir controversy while comparing Dolezal and Jenner.  Rebecca Tuvel’s 2017 article “In Defense of Transracialism” created a social-media frenzy that eventually upended the leadership and policies of the feminist philosophy journal Hypatia; Brubaker in turn wrote a New York Times op-ed critiquing the negative reception of Tuvel’s article (Brubaker 2018).

It is beyond the scope of this review to rehearse those rich, public debates; interested readers can access them in full, including Brubaker’s and Tuvel’s responses to their critics.  I choose here instead to highlight themes that resonate among these four projects in thinking about and with trans.  The shift in preposition here should also be understood to signal a shift in transgender studies itself.  It remains fruitful and necessary to focus on trans lives as a topic (thinking about), but what these four books also do in various ways is theorize (think with) the concept of trans in order to present new questions and perspectives.

Brubaker centers his book on just this assertion – that trans is good to think with, rather than just about – and takes as his object of study the analogy of transgender (a category derided by some, but largely recognized) and transracial (derided by many, recognized by a few).  An introduction and conclusion bracket two main sections of the book.  In the first section, he lays out a history of what he and others have dubbed “the trans moment” of 2015, when trans lives seemed everywhere and Caitlyn Jenner and Rachel Dolezal became subjects of mainstream debate.  The second chapter in that section traces the historical mutability of both race and gender as categories.  In the second section, he sets out a tripartite exploration of “trans” organized around relations to a binary – (1) as migrating from one state to another in a binary, (2) as between two states in a binary, and (3) as going beyond those binary states altogether.  Brubaker closes his book with an extended meditation on the conceptual tools available to us for imagining the mutability of sex, gender, ethnicity, and race.  In his final analysis, an individual’s sense of self has sufficient cultural currency to override the authorities of medicine and law when it comes to sex and gender.  At the same time, he holds that our conceptions of ancestry continue to stabilize racial and ethnic categories as given rather than chosen, even as the “possibilities for choosing and changing one’s race have been substantially enlarged” (147) by the long arc of multiple migrations, campaigns to understand multiracial identities, the growing popularity of DNA testing, and other factors.

This book’s key contribution is not new or original research; the materials Brubaker brings together include news coverage of Jenner and Dolezal, as well as pre-existing scholarship about gender and race.  Rather, the book’s signal offering is an example of a theoretical vocabulary for thinking with rather than about trans, written in accessible prose for a general audience.  Some of that vocabulary comes in the first chapter, where two framing questions about change – “Can one legitimately change one’s gender?” and “Can one legitimately change one’s race?” – allow Brubaker to organize the varied responses to Jenner and Dolezal into four heuristic types: essentialist, voluntarist, gender voluntarist / racial essentialist, and gender essentialist / racial voluntarist.  These positions in contemporary debates about the chosenness and givenness of identity then play out in relation to an additional vocabulary that would organize all imaginable change into three kinds: migration, between, and beyond.

While Brubaker’s sociological imagination tracks shifting categories of gender and race over time, Eric Plemons’ 2017 book, The Look of a Woman: Facial Feminization Surgery and the Aims of Trans- Medicine, offers an ethnographic analysis of facial feminization surgery (FFS), its providers, and the experiences of transwomen encountering it.  An Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Arizona (and part of the history-making cluster hire of trans scholars Susan Stryker negotiated), Plemons examines the increasing acceptance and popularity of FFS since the mid 1980s and argues that as ideas change about what sex is, so too do the technologies to change sex.  An introduction and conclusion bracket six chapters separated by three interludes that bring Plemons’ personal experiences into context.  Where Brubaker self-consciously frames his work as “trespassing,” Plemons arrives at his account through alliance and empathy.  He acknowledges the differences his interlocutors experience from his own life as a transman; if others question his status as male, he can “shrug in the shape of [the] privilege” (16) he wears relative to many transwomen.

The main chapters move in and out of the clinical setting.  Plemons outlines a shift in what he terms trans- therapeutics (the set of assumptions undergirding what counts as “good” trans- medicine), first by discussing Dr. Douglas Ousterhout’s development of FFS in San Francisco, and then by analyzing two transwomen’s initial consultations with different surgeons.  These analyses set the groundwork for Plemons’ assessment of how surgeons frame and perform their relationships with patients under the affective rubric of “care.”  The fourth chapter will interest legal anthropologists because of its argument about the social and cultural work that FFS does post-surgery.  Specifically, Plemons argues that the concept of “passing” privileges the well-resourced, and narrowly focuses our attention on individual trans people rather than the network of people with whom they interact.  He suggests adopting a framework of “recognition” that can account for the variety of social relations a trans person might encounter, including refusals of recognition.  Plemons also highlights the variety of scales at which recognition matters beyond the strictly interpersonal – such as legal recognition based on administrative classifications – even as he acknowledges Elizabeth Povinelli’s intervention on the costs of recognition.  Gender studies scholars will be especially interested in the fifth chapter, which carefully parses the tensions between the material body as surgeons transform it on the operating table and the abstract, performative body described in Butler’s canonical theorization of gender.  The book concludes with three stories of transwomen’s experience post-surgery.  While for two of these women sufficient time has passed that they assess their surgeries through the language of success and failure, Plemons also offers us Rachel’s experience immediately post-surgery.  For Rachel, such terms as success and failure were not yet available.  Driving home the argument that FFS cannot guarantee others’ recognition, he closes his book with Rachel, just after her surgery, when “all there was to do is sit and wait” (156).

Plemons’ lucid and accessible work is not the first to track clients and providers through processes of transition; Aren Aizura has also attended to these relationships in the Thai context.  However, Plemons’ ethnography is novel as a sustained encounter with facial feminization surgery, and is predicated on the close relationships he has built with both transwomen and surgical providers.  Those relationships, and the theoretical framework he brings to interpret them, inform a persuasive argument about how and why socially visible facial surgeries are supplanting less socially visible genital surgeries as milestones of transition, despite the hegemony of genitally determined sex classification in United States legal structures.  That the “success” of facial feminization surgery depends on highly mediated interpersonal relations underwrites Plemons’ key theoretical intervention to favor recognition over passing.  Thus, while Plemons’ work primarily thinks about trans, it also engages in thinking with it.


Where Plemons attends to the processes shaping bodies and selves as they transition, C. Riley Snorton interprets representations of bodies and selves over time in Black on Both Sides: a Racial History of Trans Identity.  This 2017 volume retells black and trans histories, and in a theoretically deft move, finds many contemporary transgender narratives to be predicated on the abjection of blackness.  This book is an archival and textual experiment that offers a partial retelling and recasting of fragments discarded from hegemonic transgender narratives.  He locates in blackness parallels to transness that create the conditions of possibility for imagining gender to be fungible, even as race becomes imagined as stubbornly fixed – an interpretation of these social facts that sharply contrasts with that of Brubaker.  One factor informing this difference is Snorton’s deployment of the intersectional concept of racialized gender.

Snorton begins by reconfiguring an archive of the life and work of J. Marion Sims – a surgeon internationally recognized in gynecology for developing a cure for vesicovaginal fistula.  Snorton rethinks this archive through the flesh and agency of the enslaved black women on whom Sims experimented to create techniques and tools for any female body.  The next chapter highlights “cross-gendered modes of escape” (56) that structure many well-known fugitive slave narratives.  Together, these two chapters develop a layered concept in the word “fungible” – already ripe with a legal and economic history – as interchangeability (via Sim’s “misnaming” of the enslaved women Betsey and Lucy), as racially linked (via black bodies rendered as commodities), and as foundational to black gender (via the escape narrative of William and Ellen Craft, among others).  The third chapter interprets the widely circulated 1965 text Three Negro Classics.  For Snorton, these narratives are about divergent “movements across space […] time and being, and concomitantly about movements across blackness” (107).  His interpretation positions blackness “as a condition of possibility that made transness conceivable in the twilight of formal slavery” (135).  The final part of the book focuses on the erasure of black lives from transgender histories.  It sets the well-known narrative of Christine Jorgensen against a range of other public, yet less hegemonic, trans life-stories: those of Lucy Hicks Anderson, Georgia Black, Carlett Brown, James McHarris / Annie Lee Grant, and Ava Betty Brown.  Their histories lead Snorton to reinforce “a growing consensus in transgender studies that trans embodiment is not exclusively, or even primarily, a matter of the materiality of the body,” and that “[w]here one locates a ‘transsexual real’ […] shifts in relation to racial blackness” (175).  Snorton closes his book by turning to another archive: the collection of news, cinema, and historiography surrounding the death of Brandon Teena in a triple murder that, as Snorton reminds us, also included the death of Phillip DeVine – a black male amputee.  Snorton illustrates how DeVine’s murder is often “cut” from the seemingly primary narrative thread of Brandon Teena’s murder.  He then goes about “inventing” a life for DeVine from the ample yet still insufficient archive at hand.  Through that invention, Snorton develops a concept of “still life” – positioned in relation to Giorgio Agamben’s “bare life” and Achille Mbembe’s “raw life.” The concept of “still life” is meant to help us “think about and express genres of life that are reiteratively, transitively, and transversally related to death” (185).

Deeply intertextual, Snorton’s work claims its roots in black, feminist, queer, critical race, trans, and disability studies.  He reinterprets well-known archives and texts in order to bring blackness and transness “into the same frame” (6) and ask “[w]hat pasts have been submerged and discarded to solidify – or, more precisely, to indemnify – a set of procedures that would render blackness and transness as distinct categories of social valuation” (7).  That perspective undergirds a key contrast with Brubaker’s work.  Where Brubaker arranges race and gender as distinct categories to think about with trans, Snorton sees race and gender as tightly imbricated historically – as racialized gender – and positions blackness as a predicate of transness.  For Brubaker, ancestry continues to stabilize racial categories even as options multiply for individuals to shift their racial identification; for Snorton, the metonymic figure of the black mother in Three Negro Classics illustrates that black gender is “open to (at least literary) manipulation and rearrangement” (12).  Thus, Black on Both Sides provides an intellectual genealogy for thinking with trans that refuses Brubaker’s impulse to reify categories of race and gender.  The two books also differ in their stated ambitions: while Brubaker’s vocabulary offers a typology explaining all forms of trans (migration, between, beyond), Snorton’s project explicitly “does not attempt to be exhaustive or even fully explanatory” (11).  Rather, he writes, “I am seeking to understand the conditions of emergence of things and beings that may not yet exist” (xiv).


Snorton’s theoretically rich treatment finds a kindred project across the Atlantic in E.J. Gonzalez-Polledo’s monograph, Transitioning: Matter, Gender, Thought.  Explicitly committed to “thinking ‘with’ rather than about trans issues” (30), this book examines various aspects of transitioning through sustained scholarly assays informed in part by ethnographic interviews conducted from 2006 forward with transmen living primarily in London, but whose lives have also occasionally taken them elsewhere.

The first chapter outlines an “epistemic history” of transition, moving through the still potent binary model of naturally different and complementary sexed bodies to a contemporary range of possibilities for being and embodiment such that “it has become possible to imagine transition without fixed points of departure or arrival, a transition without gender” (23).  That expansive range of possibilities mirrors Brubaker’s heuristic category of “the beyond.”  New materialists will be particularly interested in the second chapter, “T: Informed Material.”  It emphasizes testosterone’s (T’s) routes of circulation, acknowledging in part its discursive form in the narratives of transmen, but primarily following its material form through the circuits of production laboratories, methods of measurement, pharmaceutical companies, prescribers, distributors, and consuming bodies that T both connects and rearranges.  Here, Gonzalez-Polledo is particularly attentive to the varied temporalities of T, an agentive quality of T some transmen attempt to manipulate but cannot always control as it moves in their bodies.  These transmen’s bodies change in relation with T, but always in modes and speeds that remain unpredictable.  For Gonzalez-Polledo, T’s varied temporality thus belies both linear and teleological conceptions of time (a point to which this essay will return).  The third chapter, aptly titled “Counternarrative,” reconsiders the hegemonic transition narrative as a process of self-realization.  It specifically marks moments when those narratives diverge from the binary and reveal unexpected potentials and capacities, or in more value-laden language, “fail” or encounter “misrecognition.”  Importantly, Gonzalez-Polledo asserts that transmen do not always conceive of this process in visual terms, but experience transition in haptic, affective, and other modes (112-13).  The fourth chapter widens the focus to incorporate time as transmen experience it in transition.  A key conceptual framework for Gonzalez-Polledo in this analysis is the “threshold”: the juncture of present material states with the life-giving and creative “wild.”  Thresholds here do not mark only physical boundaries, but primarily other forms of liminality.  They include both temporal forms – such as a moment marking the passage from one state of being into a different, yet related state – and categorical forms – such as “transferences across domains, from the domain of thought to matter, across virtual, physical, and social dimensions” (128).  This conceptual framework sets up a critical assessment of the concept of passing and its relationship to recognition (128-132).  The fifth and final chapter draws on theories of assemblage to frame transition as both a knowledge-practice and experiment that transgresses categorical distinctions.  As Gonzalez-Polledo summarizes the argument, “the participants in my study viewed transition as a becoming rather than an arrival” (189).

Perhaps the most theoretically ambitious of these four projects, Transitioning takes seriously the invitation to think with trans.  Where Brubaker’s analogic experiment aspires to an encompassing typology of trans, Gonzalez-Polledo’s work articulates a new materialist understanding of transition that is concerned primarily “with possibilities, rather than probabilities” (189) – what Brubaker would categorize as “the trans of beyond.”  Perhaps even more than Snorton’s work, Gonzalez-Polledo’s trades in futures: emerging states, wild openings, and material capabilities.  Transitioning suggests that these dynamics of transition – “an experiment in living” (37) after all – might in fact undergird all material life, not just the lives of the transmen informing Gonzalez-Polledo’s analysis.


While only two of these authors claim anthropology as their field, all four projects contribute to the discipline’s ongoing development of insights into gender diversity around the globe and how anthropologists go about doing that work.  Specifically, they offer new directions for existing theoretical discussions of recognition, passing, and the role of the visible.  They illustrate the continuing need for anthropologists to attend to strategies of self-representation in their texts.  They underscore the importance of geographic and cultural contexts for analyses that would link gender, race, and the body.  Finally, they suggest an expansive conception of the possible relationships between gender and time.

Legal protections often rely on a strategy of recognition through enumeration, while policy protections often rely on inclusive interpretations of what is legally enumerated.  The DOE, DOJ, and Supreme Court examples with which this essay opened are only among the most recent.  Anthropologists have already done much to question the concepts underlying these strategies of legal enumeration and policy interpretations.  Elizabeth Povinelli (2002) has drawn out the costs of protection through state-based forms of recognition.  David Valentine (2007) has questioned the logics of visibility that for him underwrote the solidification of “homosexual” and “transgender” as distinct categories through an argument that variation in gender can be “seen” while variation in sexual orientation cannot.

For the books under review, the register of the visible remains a primary staging ground for their engagements with the concepts of passing and recognition.  At the same time, they do question the primacy of that ground.  For Brubaker, passing relies “above all on the manipulation of visual signifiers” (144), which implies – though he does not develop this idea – that some other, non-visual manipulation might also be afoot.  Where Brubaker implies, however, Gonzalez-Polledo actively argues “[a]gainst visualist paradigms” (113) and asserts that transmen experience transition in haptic, affective and other modes (112-13).

The four works also offer varying conceptual stances toward both recognition and passing.  Brubaker employs recognition differently from passing, but he does not explicitly theorize that difference or suggest privileging one concept over the other, perhaps because he intends his book to reach a general audience.  Brubaker’s logic aligns passing with stealth modes of trans life, and recognition with post-transsexual lives (as Sandy Stone has framed them).  For example, consider this passage from Brubaker’s “Trans of Migration” chapter: “Just as immigrants increasingly seek to be recognized and acknowledged as legitimately different, so gender migrants increasingly seek recognition as trans men or women, rather than concealing and erasing their past in an effort to pass” (78).  By contrast, Plemons explicitly argues that we should prefer the concept of recognition over that of passing, as described earlier.  Gonzalez-Polledo offers a third approach.  Just before launching a sustained critique of passing, Transitioning also specifically call us to think transition through “a politics of life, rather than a politics of recognition” (128).  Like Snorton, Gonzalez-Polledo is more interested in understanding what new ways of being transition might enable.  And for his part, Snorton recalls in his preface (xii) that he and his collaborator Jin Haritaworn regard “state-based inclusion projects” with suspicion.  Their “Trans Necropolitics” essay framed such recognition as one among many uninterrogated aspects of a transnormative subject (Snorton and Haritaworn 2013, 67).  In short, Brubaker deploys both passing and recognition with little problem, Plemons argues for recognition rather than passing, and Snorton and Gonzalez-Polledo promote suspicion of both concepts.


The authors also differ sharply in the strategies they deploy to represent themselves in their works.  In the mid-1980s, the postmodern turn gave rise to reflexive strategies in ethnographic writing, and writing the self of the anthropologist into the ethnography became more common.  Anthropologists judged this technique variously as methodological innovation, a passing academic trend, or ill-considered narcissism.  Over three decades later, however, the decisions these four academics make about writing themselves into their scholarly work remain instructive.  Identifying as cisgender, male, white, and a newcomer to transgender studies, Brubaker frames his analysis as an essay in trespassing; his admirably broad (though not exhaustive) strategy of citing trans-authored scholarship could be interpreted as compensation for that outsider status.  Plemons writes himself directly into the ethnography in the introduction and interludes, marking himself as a transman with his own complicated relationships to medicine and surgery.  This positionality, he argues, shapes how he interacts with his research participants and, in turn, their likelihood to trust him.  He does not, however, claim any special insider status from that identity; his ethnographic authority is based instead on affiliation, alliance, and empathy.  Snorton also writes himself into his book, but in less direct ways than Plemons.  While discussing the black trans man Blake Brockington, Snorton writes that he grew up in South Carolina as well.  Describing how Brockington’s foster family judged him for only bringing more misery on himself when he came out as trans, Snorton writes: “Suffice to say that I understand his family’s reaction” (x).  Thus, Snorton does not hide or omit his publicly available biography as a black trans man, but he does not make it explicit either.  That indirection is congruent with his “scholarly gambit to replace certain aspects of what is commonly regarded as methodological rigor with a political and ethical imperative to the right to opacity” (11).  That right inheres both to the subjects he represents, and to himself.  Gonzalez-Polledo is similarly circumspect about self-identification in Transitioning.  While many passages are written in the first person – particularly when discussing ethnographic work or the stakes of the book – Gonzalez-Polledo’s most self-descriptive moment comes when narrating the steps taken to protect the identities of the book’s interlocutors: “Because I was also linked to the community, I knew that in these spaces negotiating researcher access could upset the primary reason people attended” (27).  The passive construction “I was also linked” yields important, relational information, but not over-much – an indirection aligned with Snorton’s opacity.  These different strategies for self-representation in scholarly writing perform different ethics, enable different claims, and produce different effects of authority.  The Brubaker and Tuvel controversies reinforce the continuing need to be mindful of those strategies and their varying effects in anthropological writing.  No matter how intentionally anthropologists frame their writing strategies, their gambits may still be misrecognized.


If anthropologists differ regarding the value of the discipline’s reflexive turn, they largely agree that geographic and cultural contexts matter for analyses that would link gender, race, and the body.  This disciplinary principle positions anthropologists well to “think transgender both transnationally and intersectionally” (Snorton and Haritaworn 2013, 67).  The four books reviewed are all firmly tethered to the global north; at the same time, their scholarship includes examples drawn from Egypt (Gonzalez-Polledo 2017, 94) and India (Brubaker 2016, 45), and the people these books describe traverse the globe – like Phillip DeVine’s mother Aisha, who gave herself that name while in Ethiopia (Snorton 2017, 188) or Zoe, who was detained by armed guards at the Dubai airport until she offered to prove herself female by showing one of them her vagina, an offer that “must have pushed him over the line because he let [her] go” (Plemons 2017, 144).  Comparative legal anthropologists may find it helpful to read Plemons and Gonzalez-Polledo together as case studies for trans-medicine in the United States and the United Kingdom.  To be sure, other scales of geography also matter in these projects.  Brubaker, Plemons, and Snorton all write primarily about the debates around trans identities in the United States, but they also draw attention to specific locales and regions within the US.  Plemons marks the epicenter for FFS as San Francisco, the location of Dr. Ousterhout’s practice; Snorton’s histories of slavery and racialized gender make both the southern region of the United States and the idea of “The South” central to his work.  That said, the histories and ethnographic encounters in these works are primarily set in the United States and the United Kingdom.  Placing them in conversation with accounts attending to other locales and connections among these locales offers promising ground for teaching and future directions in research.  (Potential interlocutors here might include works by Aren Aizura, Evelyn Blackwood, Zobaida Nasreen, Svati Shah, Afsani Najmabadi, or Don Kulick, to name just a few.)

The call to think transgender transnationally and intersectionally also points to how these four books address race.  The strength of Brubaker’s book here is that he builds on a career of thinking and writing about citizenship, ethnicity, and immigration; he knows the arguments and texture of the field deeply.  Yet, while his book acknowledges the relevance of intersectionality at the end of the introduction, he names it only in order to set it aside.  The book’s engagement with the concept is limited to a footnote marking two exemplars “from the very large literature” on the concept (154).  Brubaker’s project is specifically interested in gender and race as “systems of social classification with distinctive yet in some ways converging logics” (11); his response to critics who raise the question of intersectionality has been to reassert that it is beyond his project (Brubaker 2017, 1332).  By contrast, using an intersectional lens, Snorton draws very different conclusions about the reasons for the fluidity of gender relative to the fixity of race.  That contrast makes reading Brubaker and Snorton together a productive exercise for graduate students and advanced undergraduates looking to understand how theoretical frameworks shape the kinds of arguments researchers make.

For anthropologists interested in intersectional knowledge production around race and gender, reading Plemons with both Brubaker and Snorton opens another fascinating angle: physical anthropology plays a starring role in the historical development of FFS.  As Plemons documents, Dr. Ousterhout could not find information about cranial sex-markers in standard anatomical and surgical literature, but paleontologists regularly identify skeletal remains by sex.  As Plemons writes, however, “[t]here is no such thing as a skull that exhibits sex characteristics alone” (26), raising complicated questions about the racialized standards of beauty toward which transwomen move as they undergo FFS and how surgeons are schooled in conceiving and achieving those standards.  The sources Ousterhout used for his 1987 study date from 1954 to 1979; contemporary forensic science reinforces those sources’ findings (Rogers 2005).


A final thread to trace here is how concepts of time relate to gender in these works, particularly those of Plemons, Gonzalez-Polledo and Snorton.  For Plemons, the passage of time is determinative, not just in the lives of transwomen, but “for all women,” as “the feminine body requires constant maintenance and vigilance against time, its perpetual enemy” (149).  In that analysis, the linear march of aging puts both performative and medical achievements of gender to the test.  Time is also the determinative dimension for the success or failure of FFS.  As Plemons sat with Rachel shortly after her surgery, they were both acutely aware that they could not yet engage the language of success or failure—“all there was to do was sit and wait” (156).  For Gonzalez-Polledo, that same uncertain future is also the place of possibilities and becoming.  Transitioning frames its fourth chapter on “thresholds” through a concept of “chronobiopolitics” (36), meant to capture the ways that transition both deploys and “works against binary formulations of before and after” (37).  Prioritizing “becoming” and process rather than “arrival” at a specific material state (of gender or otherwise), the thresholds Gonzalez-Polledo theorizes “allow us to forward, rewind, fast forward and reproduce connections between gender regimes and gender identities” (141).  At the same time, recall that the transmen Gonzalez-Polledo interviews do not have complete control over that temporality.  “T” exhibits its own varying speeds, and opens to futures only opaquely.  Snorton similarly positions his project as about the problem of time.  Focused on “the conditions of emergence of things and beings that may not yet exist” (xiv), Snorton seeks paths toward a time that is not yet now.  While that time does not (yet?) have a guarantee of arrival, his stance toward that future might be described as hopeful pragmatism.  This temporality and feeling also shape the end of both “DeVine’s Cut” and his book as a whole.  Snorton writes of a “future imperfect” (197) – of a time “in which black lives will have mattered to everyone” [emphasis his] – a future that may well signal the end of the world, but “[e]ven so and as yet, there is still life” (198).

These temporal arguments hold particular import for legal anthropologists interested in gender.  The languages of law lag behind the social and cultural present.  To take seriously Brubaker’s heuristic of the beyond – which I argue requires also embracing both Gonzalez-Polledo’s thresholds and Snorton’s future imperfect – enumeration strategies alone are insufficient.  It is impossible to name now those things and beings that have yet to become.  That truth might prioritize interpretive strategies, but in the spirit of hopeful pragmatism, work does and should continue to move forward on both fronts.  Meanwhile, the temporal tension between our present and a future as yet imperfectly realized remains at the core of the question before the Supreme Court as to whether “sex” includes “sexual orientation” and “gender identity.”  With the oral arguments done, I find myself in a situation like that of Plemons’ interlocutor Rachel.  All there is to do is sit and wait.  These four books have given me much to consider as I do.


Brubaker, Rogers. 2016. “The Dolezal affair: race, gender, and the micropolitics of identity.” Ethnic and Racial Studies 39(3): 414-448.

Brubaker, Rogers. 2017. “Thinking with trans: reply to my critics.” Ethnic and Racial Studies 40(8): 1330-1336.

Brubaker, Rogers. 2018. “The Uproar Over Transracialism.” New York Times website, May 18. Accessed October 19, 2019.

Plemons, Eric D. 2014. “Description of sex difference as prescription for sex change: On the origins of facial feminization surgery.” Social studies of science 44(5): 657-679.

Povinelli, Elizabeth. 2002. The Cunning of Recognition: Indigenous Alterities and the Making of Australian Multiculturalism. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Rogers, Tracy L. 2005. “Determining the Sex of Human Remains Through Cranial Morphology.” Journal of Forensic Sciences 50(3): 1-8.

Snorton, C. Riley and Jin Haritaworn. 2013. “Trans Necropolitics: a Transnational Reflection on Violence, Death, and the Trans of Color Afterlife.” In Transgender Studies Reader 2, edited by Susan Stryker and Aren Aizura, 66-76. New York, NY: Routledge

Tuvel, Rebecca. 2017. “In Defense of Transracialism.” Hypatia: A Journal of Feminist Philosophy 32(2): 263–278.

Valentine, David. 2007. Imagining Transgender: an Ethnography of a Category. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.