An Orientalist History of Transmisogyny

The latest success in trans publishing is Jules Gill-Peterson’s A Short History of Trans Misogyny. Released at a time of global backlash to trans rights in a coalition bringing together figures as varied as J.K. Rowling and Javier Milei, it purports to analyze the origins of a world in which hatred of transfemininity has become so stunningly useful. And it would seem that many agree that it has accomplished these ends, as the book jacket features praise from such luminaries as Torrey Peters, Shon Faye and Susan Stryker. Gill-Peterson, to her credit, attempts to frame transmisogyny in the longue durée, contextualizing the transmisogynistic moral panics of the early twenty-first century through a history of colonial violence, particularly focusing on the antebellum United States. Unfortunately and ironically, however, when she deems to look to the Global South — particularly Latin America — she engages in a peculiar game of erasure and romanticization, underestimating the very real problems faced by transfeminine people outside the imperial core while idealizing their lifeways. Her conclusion, to paraphrase Edward Said, involves a way of coming to terms with Latin America that is based on Latin America’s special place in North American experience: a source of fantasies of sexual liberation rather than an enormous, extremely diverse region with its own complex history.

The problems begin early on — Gill-Peterson begins her analysis of imperialism and transmisogyny not with the Spanish and Portuguese conquest of the Americas, but around the time of the Indian Rebellion of 1857 —a full three decades after the collapse of the Spanish Empire, constituting an erasure of anti-trans colonial violence throughout what is now known as Latin America. “A new relationship between men and trans femininity was taking shape,” she writes about nineteenth century imperial violence, as if it had not already taken shape centuries beforehand in large parts of the world she chooses to ignore. No archival research would have been needed here: in even an undergraduate-level text such as Bernal Díaz del Castillo’s The True History of the Conquest of New Spain, there are countless scandalized references to Mesoamerican “sodomy” and accounts of the conquistadors’ attempts to end the sexual practices that fall under that umbrella, “because there were many boys dressed in women’s clothing who earned money in that cursed trade.” This transmisogynist violence continued throughout the colonial era; one of the most famous cases is that of Cotita de la Encarnación, an Afro-Mexican crossdresser who was tortured and burned at the stake in Mexico City in 1658 and whose story has even been immortalized in a story in Camila Sosa’s I’m a Fool to Want You — given her romanticization of travesti identity, one would assume that she has read Camila Sosa, but that assumption may be incorrect.

This lack of familiarity with the literature outside of the Global North is a running theme throughout the book, belying its claims to be a global history. In the introduction, she attempts to examine the theme of why misogyny so often turns deadly without citing a single Latin American feminist, despite femicide and the structural conditions that make it possible being perhaps the single most theorized theme in the region’s feminisms. In spite or perhaps because of this ignorance, the book’s conclusion is a shockingly orientalist depiction of South American travestis. It’s particularly perverse that she finds only romance here after systematically erasing the anti-trans violence endemic to the region, which is perhaps the most dangerous in the world for transfeminine people. For Gill-Peterson, travestis are beautiful souls in the Hegelian sense, free from any compromising entanglements with capitalism, the state or heteronormative assimilation. Yet while praising the Argentinean travesti activist Marlene Wayar’s concept of “good enough” organizing, which embraces practicality and imperfection, she seems to fail to understand the ways in which “good enough” organizing, under conditions harsher than those of the East Coast of the United States, might lead to joining a left-wing political party, or to allying with radical feminist “anti-trafficking” organizations. As the Mexican transfeminist philosopher Siobhan Guerrero Mc Manus has written, Latin American transfeminisms are “radically heterogeneous […] if we examine their varied positions on topics such as the political subject of transfeminism, the place of enunciation from which demands are made and, finally, a series of issues connected to sex work, the prison system, migration, violence and justice, both in the redistributive and economic sense as well as in terms of restoring and repairing the harm done to trans populations.” In Latin America, there are trans activists who fight for the abolition of the prison system and trans activists who lobby for harsher prison terms as a solution to the problem of transfemicide. There are trans activists who ally with radical feminists against sex workers and trans activists who ally with sex workers against radical feminists; those who have joined political parties in order to secure reforms and those who have bet on a radical anti-assimilationism and engage in street activism; transmedicalists and gender mutants. In a word, Latin American trans people are people, in all their diversity, capable of triumphs and stumbles alike. All of these differences are smoothed over by Gill-Peterson, who has instead found an idealized, homogenous subject that responds more to her concerns over US queer politics than any of Latin America’s political crises and the role of anti-gender movements in precipitating them; the region’s history of dictatorship and current wave of electoral victories by right-wing populists are entirely absent in her book. If her book rightly criticizes the romanticization and exoticization of Black trans women, writing that they are “politically idealized by those who don’t know them…often claimed uncomfortably like possessions by those looking backward for guidance,” she seems unaware of the irony that she does the same to travestis, that she expects their “mere presence…to leap into good politics.”

The second irony here is that there is much that trans people in the Global North can learn from travestis — but less in terms of identity than their political accomplishments. Contrary to the radically anti-assimilationist picture that Gill-Peterson paints of Argentina’s travesti/trans movement, Argentina had historically been at the vanguard of securing rights for the community, a status it maintained since it became the first country to allow for the legal recognition of trans identities through self-identification up until it all came crashing down as the far right took power a couple of months ago. We can learn from the Mocha Celis Travesti/Trans People’s School, a popular education project aimed at the community, or the Trans Labor Quota, an initiative of the Fernández government that reserved 1% of public sector jobs for trans people and provided incentives for the private sector to do the same, making an enormous difference in the lives of working class trans people — two years after its passage, the number of trans people employed by the public sector increased by 900%, although this progress has since been undone through mass firings of travesti/trans public sector workers by the Milei government. Another initiative involved reparations for travestis and trans women who had survived the repression of sexual and gender dissidents under the CIA-backed military junta, a repression which continued on through the democratic transition as the bourgeois democracy that emerged from the junta’s collapse conserved its laws criminalizing trans people. All of these initiatives were the result of political organization and militancy, which is a lesson anyone in the world can learn from. It is difficult to see how travesti identity can be exported without simply turning into a hipster pose of seeing who is the most subversive and transgressive, however, which does nothing to uplift the community as a whole.

We must also acknowledge their mistakes, as well. One of the biggest stumbles of Argentina’s travesti/trans movement has been its shameful collaboration with sex worker exclusionary radical feminists, an alliance that undermines the material position of countless precarized travestis and trans women. At one point, Gill-Peterson approvingly cites Marlene Wayar for her anti-assimilationist stance without mentioning her sex work abolitionism, which has taken her to sign open letters opposing the decriminalization of sex work alongside such organizations as the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women in Latin America and the Caribbean (CATWLAC), an affiliate organization of the global transphobic alliance known as Women’s Declaration International (WDI) and whose treasurer (and former codirector) is none other than ur-TERF Janice Raymond. Once again, the complexity of trans politics in Latin America seems to escape Gill-Peterson, yet I doubt she loses much sleep over it, as her conclusion offers an orientalist fantasy of a perfect travesti politics come to redeem the assimilationist sins of the Global North. This perhaps explains why perfectly translatable words and phrases such as “precarización,” “coexistencia” or “lo suficientemente bueno” are often left in Spanish, like a tourist trying out words in the local language — it aids in exoticizing subaltern subjects. 

At this moment of global crisis for transfeminine communities, we deserve a history of transmisogyny, but we also deserve better than this. We deserve one with a global scope, that takes the tragedies and triumphs of the Global South seriously in their own right, rather than functioning as a mere foil to the internal conflicts of trans communities in the Global North. We deserve a book that can look to trans people in the Global South and “speak with them and lower them from the pedestal of idealization, which is another way of taking away their humanity,” as the Spanish trans novelist Alana S. Portero wrote in her excellent debut Bad Habit. We deserve a focus on forms of political organization so we can fight back as a community, rather than on questions of identity. We deserve revolution, rather than romance.

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