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Transgender Representation and the Violence of Visibility: A Review of Trap Door.

Spring 2018. I'm sitting in a circle with a dozen other graduate students in a meeting of Riley Snorton's Critical Encounters: Black Feminisms and Transgender Studies course at the University of Southern California. (1) Our special guest is Eric Stanley, co-editor of Trap Door: Trans Cultural Production and the Politics of Visibility. We've had two weeks without classes or other reading to comb through the entire 400(+)-page anthology.

The class session begins with student presentations on Trap Door and on the film Tangerine. One of the key themes that emerges is the question of representation versus representability, or what it means to push past the question of being accounted for in culture, toward questions of whether and how representation becomes possible and for whom. This sparks another set of questions about visibility and its connections to performance, performativity, and spectacle. We push even further and name the intimate links between visibility and violence that several contributors discuss. Already, within the first 20 minutes of a three-hour seminar, we've named key concepts that those with a background in cultural studies, gender studies, and related fields might recognize--and simultaneously upended them, just like the contributors to Trap Door.

With Dr. Snorton's facilitation, Dr. Stanley's presence as co-editor, and vibrant student participation, we had a riveting class that day that resulted--at least for me--in more questions than answers with which to revisit the anthology and, in my case, to write this review. Trap Door left us all wondering--and will likely leave many other readers wondering--if visibility for trans people can be untangled from violence against us, if we've put too much pressure or placed too much onus on representation to make our lives more livable, and if policy changes and legal reform could ever be enough to make cultural shifts toward self-determination and liberation for trans and queer people.

These questions may seem quite heady. But the liveliness and candor in this book--in interviews with artists like Juliana Huxtable and activists like CeCe McDonald and Miss Major Griffin-Gracy, in the sharp critique of thinkers like Che Gossett and Dean Spade, and in the tongue-in-cheek, hand-on-hip deliverance of trans art history from Chris E. Vargas--make the anthology read like anything but another coffee-table art book or jargon-heavy academic anthology.

Despite that introduction, though, I want to clarify that Trap Door is not the anthology for a Transgender 101 course. It should not be mistaken for an introduction for readers unfamiliar with transgender phenomena. It's also not the anthology for health care, mental health, or social service professionals who want to better understand how to serve their transgender clients or patients. Trap Door will not provide the foundational knowledge necessary for culturally competent transgender service provision. It could actually frustrate someone seeking a clear, concise definition of transgender or other key terms like "visibility," "representation," or even "art."

Although the collection may not be accessible to all audiences in terms of content and scope, the language itself is easier to read and follow than much of the academic literature in transgender studies. What it lacks in explanatory discussion of who or what transgender is, it more than makes up for in the breadth of its topics. Contributions such as Morgan M. Page's "One from the Vaults: Gossip, Access, and Trans History-Telling" and Abram J. Lewis's "Trans History in a Moment of Danger: Organizing within and beyond 'Visibility' in the 1970s" should appeal to anyone interested in history and how stories of transgender lives and social movements are told, while pieces like Mel Y. Chen's "Everywhere Archives: Transgendering, Trans Asians, and the Internet" should be read by anyone concerned with how "trans" as a category, both of people and of analysis, complicates our ideas about how to archive and what constitutes an archive. Page and Lewis both remind us that this moment of heightened visibility is neither novel nor neutral. Page goes so far as to suggest that "[v]isibility, this supposed cure-all, might actually be poison" (p. 143).

A key strength of Trap Door is its gathering of multiple voices within a single volume. Several of my favorite chapters are interviews, conversations, or roundtables featuring multiple participants and many influential voices. For example, in "Models of Futurity," a roundtable with Dean Spade, Kai Lumumba Barrow, Yve Laris Cohen, and Kalaniopua Young, we learn that the anthology was compiled during a time of upheaval in 2016 that made the premise of the collection feel urgent to many of its contributors (pp. 321-322). With police violence against Black people in the U.S. reaching a fever pitch of documentation and public discourse, the then-impending election of President Donald Trump, the tragedy at Pulse Orlando, the Brexit vote, and the lifting of the trans military ban in the U.S., the energy of various social movements felt both at odds and overlapping according to roundtable participants (pp. 323-325). Both this roundtable and the conversation between Miss Major Griffin-Gracy, CeCe McDonald, and Toshio Meronek in "Cautious Living: Black Trans Women and the Politics of Documentation" reveal the collection's strong abolitionist leanings and show how the politics of visibility shape the lives of trans people--particularly trans women of color. Like Lewis and Page in the previously mentioned chapters, McDonald sharpens the contradiction of hypervisibility in the wake of the "transgender tipping point," stating that "it is also necessary to recognize that this 'trans tipping point' is bringing an unsettling rate of violence toward trans women" (p. 26). As Griffin-Gracy also notes, "There's a backlash.... [W]ith that newfound visibility, there's always a reverse reaction" (p. 26). These pieces in particular highlight the paradox of visibility in naming both the violence that follows increased visibility and the ostensible cultural and political shifts in favor of transgender people's integration into mainstream society.

For those trying to bridge discussions--in relatively straightforward language--of the prison-industrial complex, visibility and representation, and the ways in which trans/gender is racialized, the pieces discussed here and much of the rest of the anthology could be quite useful in your classroom, reading group, or community program. A more knowledgeable transgender studies classroom may find Eva Hayward's "Spiderwomen" particularly useful in taking the pulse of one ongoing conversation within trans studies. I'd suggest reading it alongside Micha Cardenas's "Dark Shimmers: The Rhythm of Necropolitical Affect in Digital Media" for her brilliant integration of her own art practice and the methods she offers for new media production and analysis. An art history class would enjoy Chris E. Vargas's "Introducing the Museum of Transgender Hirstory and Art," precisely because no such brick-and-mortar museum exists. And once that has raised questions about the canonization of art histories and the institutionalization of trans history, you can follow it up with Roy Perez's reflections in "Proximity: On the Work of Mark Aguhar," the conversation between Che Gossett and Juliana Huxtable in "Existing in the World: Blackness at the Edge of Trans Visibility," and Che Gossett's single-authored piece, "Blackness and the Trouble of Trans Visibility"; your students will have taken at least a brief foray into the world of contemporary trans art. Finally, ethnic studies classrooms could spend an entire week discussing prison abolition with the pieces I discussed in the previous paragraph, pairing them easily with Treva Ellison's "The Labor of Werqing It: The Performance and Protest Strategies of Sir Lady Java."

Fifteen hundred words can't do justice to the breadth of topics broached in Trap Door; nor can I adequately convey the sheer import of a volume like this and the critical juncture at which it was published. I hope 1 have laid out enough about this text that librarians will be inspired to add it to their institutions' collections, instructors will have some sense of where to begin incorporating selections from it into their courses, and researchers at any career stage will be convinced of the usefulness of reading and citing this volume because of the ways it fills a gap in published material between queer art history and transgender studies writ large. Ultimately, Trap Door's biggest strength is its diversity of topics and voices. As the editors note in the introduction, "The biggest effort for this to allow the paradox of trans representation in the current moment to find form in conversations that don't attempt to smooth the contradictions" (p. xxiii). My only word of caution, therefore, is not to think too hard or too long about which shelf to put this book on.


1. Snorton's Black on Both Sides: A Racial History of Trans Identity is also reviewed in this issue of Resources for Gender and Women's Studies.


Reina Gossett, Eric A. Stanley, & Johanna Burton, eds., Trap Door: Trans Cultural Production and the Politics of Visibility. MIT Press, 2017. (Critical Anthologies in Art and Culture.) 419 pp. notes, index. ISBN 978-0262036603.

[Avery Rose Everhart is a Ph.D. student in the population, health, and place program at the University of Southern California. She has written about queer and trans survivors of intimate partner violence, the global state of sexual and reproductive health and rights for trans people, and the political economy of pharmaceuticals used for medical gender transition. Her current research is on transgender healthcare within community health settings, with health and human rights, history, and spatial epidemiology as her lenses.]
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Title Annotation:BOOKS
Author:Everhart, Avery Rose
Publication:Resources for Gender and Women's Studies: A Feminist Review
Date:Jun 22, 2018
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