David Valentine’s “‘I Know What I Am’: Gender, Sexuality, and Identity”

In his chapter “‘I Know What I Am’: Gender, Sexuality, and Identity,” anthropologist David Valentine discusses how the category of “transgender” circulates amongst different communities in New York City in the late 1990s. He analyzes the multiple ways that individuals describe themselves and writes about how he as a researcher tried to make sense of their descriptions in relation to the category of transgender and dominant understandings of gender and sexuality. He is interested in thinking about how some people who are understood to be “transgender” by social services and public health outreach organizations don’t actually think of themselves as “transgender.” Valentine argues that the category of transgender has become institutionalized but doesn’t capture the ways that people self-identity. He contends that social theorists, activists, and social services use “transgender” to mark gender and sexuality as being separate from each other, but when it is used to categorize different groups of people, “transgender” can erase the complexity of people’s lived experiences and desires.

(1) Many of the people Valentine talks with use multiple terms simultaneously to describe themselves – gay, woman, man, drag queen, fem queen – and not all of them use the term transgender. How does Valentine explain the differences in people who use transgender and those who don’t?

(2) How can identity politics – and the creation of categories like “transgender” – erase the intersectionality of individuals’ lived experiences? Why does Valentine take issue with transgender as a category that designates a certain type of gender variance that corresponds to an internal gender identity?

(3) What are Valentine’s recommendations for public health service outreach and other social services in relation to the use of the category of transgender? Do you agree with his suggestions?

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