Kimberlé Crenshaw’s theory of intersectionality carries incredible weight in the field of Trans(gender) Studies, as it should in all sociological fields, if for no other reason than the majority of the trans people murdered every year are trans women of color, who are lower class and, in many cases, sex workers. The intersections of their oppressions, and of the oppressions faced by all trans people, all ultimately come down to one unifying factor present in every aspect of society here in the United States: White Supremacy. White Supremacy is the notion that the actions and cultural standards of white people and western (euro-centric) societies are inherently better than those of any others, which encourages racism, xenophobia, and systematic reinforcement of these views due to the fact that here in the US the majority of our infrastructure and system of government is run by people who benefit from — if not wholeheartedly subscribe to — the ideals of White Supremacy.
What does this have to do with trans studies and intersectionality? asks the person who didn’t read the first two sentences of that previous paragraph. Well, I answer, after telling them to do so, we can start with the fact that the Male/Female Sex/Gender Binary that we know and our system subscribes to here in the US (and in most — if not all — of the Western World) is a product of White Supremacy, as many other cultures from around the world have concepts of genders that fall outside of this concept. Unfortunately, White Supremacy has taken this fact and twisted it to suit its needs by forming the anthropological category of “Third Gender”, which Towle and Morgan assert “[accords these societies] a primordial, foundational location in our thinking, as though they underlay or predated Western gender formulations”, “lumps all nonnormative gender variations into one category, limiting our understandings of the range and diversity of gender ideologies and practices”, and “may isolate the West… thereby reinforcing our ethnocentric assumptions; and inducing us to focus on diversity between cultures while ignoring diversity, or the complexities of social change, within them” (Towle & Morgan, 477). Anthropology has always seemed to me like a very White Supremacist field of study (looking at people who are living today with almost the same level of respect as they would look at ancient, long dead societies, or animals), and this category of “Third Gender”, applied like a blanket to all non-Western-Binary identities in non-Western societies only serves to reinforce that.
This isn’t only apparent in anthropological studies Towle & Morgan’s essay, however. Western trans people/activists themselves will project White Supremacy onto people who are placed into such a category in order to use them like a prop to justify their own existence, completely disregarding cultural relativity, as is evidenced by Nancy Nangeroni’s article in the magazine Transgender Tapestry, about māhū on the Molokai, in Hawaii (Towle & Morgan, 479-80) in which she conveniently and purposefully disregards cultural context in favor of a more simple and pleasant take on the situation of her source, Moana, and the material’s relevance to trans identified people in the United States. Similar is the story of Anne Ogborn, a trans woman from the States who went to India and ‘adopted the identity of a hijra’ (Towle & Morgan, 480-481, 484-485, 487-489), and even though entirely immersed in the culture for (I assume) months, she remained willfully ignorant of the cultural significance and complications of her ‘assumed identity’ for and to people actually members of that particular culture. For Ogborn, her time in India as a ‘hijra’ was an example of “Eat, Pray, Love” syndrome, in which a white person (which I am assuming about Ogborn as I cannot find anything reliable from a cursory googling about her race) travels to an impoverished nation, spends time among the ‘unwashed masses’ and find spiritual awakening, so that they can return to their privileged lives in their home country enriched and better for the experience, while offering nothing whatsoever to the place they found this enlightenment except perhaps some white saviorism (so certainly nothing of value).
Even if we don’t take travel into other cultures into account, White Supremacy is still present in trans studies and ‘trans histories’ focused on the United States, as can be found in Clare Sears’ essay “All that Glitters: Trans-ing California’s Gold Rush Migrations”. The myriad of gender-variant actions and presentations (or, as some would say, gender-fuckery) found during the Gold Rush era here in San Francisco offers plenty of interest to trans-focused historians, and plenty of evidence of my focus in this post. The pervasive cross-dressing at dances and the like were used to reinforce the exclusion of Mexican and Native-American women who were present during this period but viewed as “un-marry-able” and thus invisible to the white settlers, and since they couldn’t fulfill the only purpose of women during that era (bear legitimate children in wedlock), their dehumanization was that much further reinforced (Sears, 385, 391). Additionally, the cross-dressing practices were interrelated with racist blackface “minstrel” performances (Sears, 391-2) and managed to “consolidate white working-class masculinity” (Sears, 392) and thus reinforce White Supremacy even to the extent of enabling these men to ignore their own then-socially-normalized “deviances” and dehumanize Chinese workers & miners for being “too feminine” for working “female jobs” too well, leading to institutional repercussions like the Chinese Exclusion Acts (Sears, 393-7) and stereotypes of Asian men that persist to this day.
It is crucially important for Trans Studies as a field to constantly keep White Supremacy in mind when conducting research in order to make sure that our writings (especially when done by white people like myself) and research do not perpetuate it and so that we do not ignore its impact on people around the world or here in the United States and how it combines with other modes of oppression for individuals in our field of study and in our communities.