Shannon Minter Speaks on Transgender Issues in Queer Theory

Shannon Minter, a staff attorney for the National Center
for Lesbian Rights in San Francisco, presented an
enlightening and engaging talk called Piety, Projection,
and Denial: The Uses and Misuses of Transgender People
in Queer Theory at a well-attended CLAGS colloquium
on November 30th. Minter is well known for having
transitioned from female to male (FTM) while working
for a national LGB rights advocacy organization. In
addition to his work on LGB custody, parenting, youth,
marriage, and immigration issues at NCLR, he is also a
leading advocate for the rights of transgendered people.

Focusing on the way queer theory often uses the idea of
transgendered people while ignoring or distorting their
reality, Minter’s talk began by addressing the need for
effective political alliances between lgb people and
transgendered people. Minter described the disconnect
between LGBTQ organizations and transgendered
people over the question of whether it makes sense to
categorize them within a lesbian, gay and bisexual
movement. He explained how transgender groups have
recently been meeting with the leadership of national
LGBTQ organizations to press for inclusion. Minter said
that while these groups have assumed their experience
to be part of a queer movement, the leadership of some
national LGBTQ groups is still not sure of how—or even
whether—to incorporate transgender issues into their
agenda. Nonetheless, Minter said that the LGBTQ
organizations are at least discussing the matter and
beginning to move on it and that their understanding of
transgender issues often surpasses that of queer theorists.
“I think there is an assumption that queer theory is ahead
of the political organizations in this regard, that while
our political organizations are still stuck in a liberal
model of interest group or identity group politics based
on a more or less naive or essentialized conception of
sexual orientation as a unified stable and coherent
category, queer theory has contested those naive
assumptions, adopted more sophisticated models of
identity, gender and sexuality, has recognized that
lesbian and gay identities are mediated, provisional and
contingent, and thus has no problem recognizing or
embracing transgendered people as a part of the larger
queer movement,” he said. But, he added, that
assumption “is both dangerous and unwarranted. In
fact, when you actually look at how transsexual people
show up or figure in many queer theory texts, it is often
not much different from how we have been received—at
least initially—by established gay rights organizations.”

Minter noted how transgendered people are often
dehumanized, their experience erased or explained away as
a confused “fulfillment” of homosexuality. Specifically he
cited the metaphor Judith Butler has made of transgender
experience, the gruesome and horrified descriptions Bernice
Hausman has offered, and the honesty and clarity Heather
Findlay has expressed in an essay chronicling the transition
of her ex-lover from female to male. In much queer theory,
Minter contended, lesbians and gays have assumed a
relationship to transsexuals similar to that maintained
by mainstream heterosexuals towards them. Namely, the
sense of deviance ascribed to lesbians and gays in
homophobic or heterosexist discourse is paralleled
by that which lesbians, gays and bisexuals impose upon
transgendered people.

He explained, “What is missing in many discussions of
transsexualism in queer theory generally, is that same
concrete, immediate sense of familiarity and solidarity that
forms the usually unspoken and unmarked but nonetheless
critical context for theoretical discussions about gay identity.
The result, in many cases, is that when queer theorists write
about transsexual people, what emerges is a disconcerting
sense of distance and abstraction and unreality that often
ends up objectifying and even dehumanizing transsexual
people in a way that unfortunately often mirrors and
reproduces many of the ways that trans people are
dehumanized in the larger, non-gay world.”
Minter grounded his analysis in personal experience as
much as in theory. His account of the impact of the
marginalizing language used by both national LGBTQ
organizations as well as by theorists discussing
transgendered people was telling and moving. His points
raised a number of questions among the audience, which
led to a lively discussion after the presentation. Inquiries
and comments touched on the dubious benefits of gender
identity disorder as a mental health category, the visibility of
FTM-gays, the distinctions between the terms transsexualism
and transgenderism, and the urgent need for health care
protections for transsexual people, particularly for those in
prison.

The monthly CLAGS colloquium series—an excellent way to
learn about new work in LGBTQ Studies—is organized by
CLAGS board member Paisley Currah, a professor of
political science at Brooklyn College. Consult the CLAGS
calendar for the Spring semester line-up.

Salvador Vidal
The Graduate Center, CUNY