Viviane Namaste's "Undoing Theory: The 'Transgender Question' and the Epistemic Violence of Anglo-American Feminist Theory"
Viviane Namaste’s article, "Undoing Theory" is a very sobering intervention in debates surrounding the relationship between Anglo-American feminist theory and trans people. For over twenty years now, feminist theorists have used the lives of transsexual, transgender and transvestite people to further their work. Transsexual women, particularly, have been poorly served by feminist theorists.
In this way, Namaste claims, feminist theorists have adopted a colonial attitude towards their (indigenous) subject, that is, by appropriating their subject’s knowledge for their own projects, thereby altering and even erasing their subject’s knowledge and experience: “Anglo-American feminist theory has provided an intellectual framework in which the specificity of transsexual” actual, empirical, lives is erased. Hence, “the knowledge gained has been of little benefit to transsexual women” (27).
Judith Butler is the theorist under closest scrutiny. While Butler uses trans people throughout her work to advance her epistemological reflections into gender (in Gender Trouble , Bodies That Matter  and Undoing Gender , notably), she has cared little for trans people own experience. Though Butler makes “gender” a central element of trans people’s lives, Namaste argues that labor is, instead, the cornerstone of the trans experience. “The exclusion of labor in Butler’s analysis of violence against transsexual women is authorized” Namaste believes, “by a vision of feminist theory that accords primacy to the concept of gender” (18). While performance is indeed an important component of trans identity, Namaste points out that “relations of labor are central to such performances” (19):
“performances of female impersonation in the United States are characterized by an explicit relation to work—performers solicit cash contributions from the crowd, often singing and attempting to embarrass audience members until they are handed a dollar or two” (19).
It is through such performative work, often linked to various degrees to sex work, “that transsexual women are able to physically embody […] sex changes, and thus to interact in the world as women. It is in and through work that the gender of transsexual women is constituted” (19).
New research protocols need to ground the collaboration between theorists and trans people in order to avoid the latter’s knowledge and experience being mined away from them. Namaste here finds helpful guidance in post-colonial methodologies and aboriginal research protocols, which articulates the bases of meaningful social research. For research to be meaningful to the community, Namaste remarks, it must first and foremost show relevance as well as equity in partnership and ownership (26).
It has been noted on numerous occasions that the relationship between trans and feminist theory—much like the one between trans activists and feminists—has not been an easy one. In fact, the relationship was off to a rocky start with the publication of lesbian feminist scholar Janice Raymond’s The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male, and Sandy Stone’s rebuttal, The Empire Strikes Back: A Posttransexual Manifesto. Central to this feud was whether or not MtF trans should be “allowed” to take part in lesbian, feminist and women only events and movements. Raymond famously claims to have “fel[t] raped” by her encounter with Stone, then an engineer at the all-women recording studio Olivia Records. By joining Olivia Records, Raymond asserts, Stone exhibited typical “masculine behavior”: “After all his male privilege” Raymond wondered whether Stone was set “to cash in on lesbian feminist culture” as well. Raymond’s charge on transpeople was not limited to personal attacks on Stone, but aimed far wider. Raymond, in fact, views MtF people as enacting a transition meant as an assault on women. “All transsexuals” Raymond claims, “rape women’s bodies by reducing the real female form to an artifact, appropriating this body for themselves”. Furthermore, they “cut off the most obvious means of invading women, so that they seem non-invasive”.
Raymond’s writings have been criticized as transphobic, constituting hate-speech against trans men and women, a fact that might be more self-evident today. Since the publication of Raymond’s incendiary book, feminists and trans allies have hashed it out on numerous tribunes—conferences, edited volumes and special journal issues. It is therefore surprising to read, today, similar attacks on trans people launched in the name of feminism. In Julie Burchill’s now infamous January 13, 2013 Observer column, the professional loose-cannon likened MtF trans to “chutzpah” for cutting off their “cocks […] and then plead[ing] special privileges as women—above natural-born women”. Burchill’s language is surprisingly offensive, especially for a high circulation publication like The Observer. For instance, Burchill used words such as “a bunch of dicks in chick’s clothing”, “a gaggle of transsexuals”, “screaming mimis”, “trannies”, “shims”, “shemales” and—for reasons that escape me—“bed-wetters in bad wigs” to describe trans people. This verbal diarrhea of insults, topped with a vague threat of retribution (“You really won’t like us when we’re angry”) was indeed scary—though perhaps not for the reasons Burchill had in mind. To be fair, Burchill is a “habitual line-crosser” with a tendency to go off on over-drawn, public, spiteful rants punctuated by personal attacks , and The Observer has both removed the piece and issued an apology for its ill-advised publication .
Aside from the University of Arizona’s commitment to foster trans as a field of study, trans studies’ foothold in academia is limited. Trans issues are usually addressed—when addressed at all—within women’s studies and gender studies programs. As Gayle Salamon puts it, however, while trans challenges the “fixed taxonomies of gender”, women’s studies, as a discipline, “depends upon the fixedness of gender: “The category of ‘woman’, even if it is understood to be intersectional and historically contingent, must offer a certain persistence and coherence if it is to be not only the object of study but the foundation of a discipline”. Hence, “a subject formation that describes a position of referential resistance might not be easily incorporated into such a schema” (Assuming a Body, 98).
Most often, Salamon continues, trans studies has been lumped with lesbian and gay studies, a most confounding agglomeration. Trans* has to do with gender identity, not sexual preference. Gender, sex and sexuality are intimately linked and they often match, but this isn’t to say they are the same. A transwoman might like women and consider herself a lesbian, but she might also like men and enter into heterosexual relationships. The dating pool is a separate issue from one’s gender.
 See Rose, Katrina C. (2004) "The Man Who Would be Janice Raymond." Transgender Tapestry 104, Winter 2004, Julia Serano (2007) Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity, pp. 233-234, Namaste, Viviane K. (2000) Invisible Lives: The Erasure of Transsexual and Transgendered People, pp. 33-34 and Hayes, Cressida J., 2003, "Feminist Solidarity after Queer Theory: The Case of Transgender," in Signs 28(4):1093-1120.
In 2012, a group of 16 undergraduate female students at Duke University started the “Who Needs Feminism” photo campaign. Throughout various social media, the campaign quickly took off on a life of its own—as it was intended—, with men and women posing along signs that read “I need feminism because….”. As a popular trend, the “Who Needs Feminism” campaign circulated, at first, mostly with women of various backgrounds. Soon though, it included men as well, showing not only that while there are few “typical feminists”, there are plenty of “atypical feminists”, but also that feminism benefits men as well as women.
In the same vein, I stand—as a cisgender and cissexual, heterosexual woman, whose sexual identity has never been questioned nor mistaken—holding a figurative sign that reads “I need trans theory because…”. Like the men holding the “I need feminism” sign, I in no way intend to speak for trans-people and co-opt their voice. But I do feel that trans theory has brought in crucial theoretical advances to both feminism and gender theory, and that it helped solved some of the riddles of these fields of inquiry. Like feminism, trans theory’s advances benefits all, not only trans people. More precisely, and in the field of film studies, trans theory helps solve serious issues of gendered authorship, something which I hope will become evident throughout my posts here.
 The campaing’s Facebook page received over 4000 “likes” in its first 36 hours of operation, while the Tumblr account was visited by almost 13 000 people from 2000 different locations. See Matt Petronzio, « ‘Who Needs Feminism ?’ New Tumblr Promotes Gender Equality ». Mashable. April 12, 2012.
http://mashable.com/2012/04/13/tumblr-who-needs-feminism/. A year later, the Facebook page had been liked by 30 000 users, and thousands of pictures had been submitted to the Tumblr (Kim-Marie Saccoccio, “Who Needs Feminism? One Year and Going Strong”. Women Advance. April 11, 2013.
 Allison Beattie, Michelle Burrows, Kate Gadsden and Sarah Kendrick, « Who Needs Feminism ? », The Duke Chronicle, April 12, 2012.
Anchoring my project on Dorothy Arzner is an exploration of gender through Trans Studies. Here I post snippets of my research on the theoretical aspects of Trans Studies.