‘No Outlaws in the Gender Galaxy’: A Trans- feminist review/discussion


A couple of weeks after having read No Outlaws in the Gender Galaxy, I found myself halting before I used the term ‘transgender’ to refer to self. I was speaking to a feminist, cis-woman friend. We were talking about possible college applications, colleges that may have added the column for ‘transgender’. Even in a safe space with a friend, it took me a moment to realize that I could use this word again and again and again, to define myself. The irony was not lost on me as I skipped back to the Introduction of the book under review that quoted a UGC notification (pursuant to the NALSA judgment) stating the inclusion of ‘transgender’ under various scholarships and fellowships offered by the State. In that moment it struck me: that quote (p. x) was perhaps the only place in the book where the term ‘transgender’ is used as a legitimate political category; a quote that can be attributed not to the authors, but to the State.

Before I explain my disagreements with the book it is essential for me to clarify that I have in passing been associated with, thought of possible political collaborations with and eventually disagreed with the politics of the space (LABIA – A Queer Feminist LBT Collective, active in Bombay) that the authors occupy. At one level, despite the disagreements, there was a forced sense of solidarity that one wished to hold on to. It is with that sense that one approached the book, only to be more thoroughly disappointed, even aghast, at the complete erasure of the histories of trans identities, trans-resistances, the vague, diluted misrepresentations of trans-politics, and a superficial, hackneyed ‘theory’ of gender, put forward by the authors.

In the time that has elapsed between the publication of the book and now (two years) much has changed in the space of ‘larger movements’, shifting perspectives towards critique and solidarities. Now, too many say, is the time to put aside your ‘petty’ differences. Everyday there is a new call somewhere to unite for some larger cause (often followed with an almost threatening ‘or else’!). So today, when I write this, I do write with a good amount of fear; the fear of being called ‘divisive’, one who couldn’t fight ‘the real fight’; the fear of one’s words being used to sabotage ‘solidarities’ and ‘movements’ and what not. Of course one’s own insignificance in the political canvas allows one to laugh this off on most days. On other days, the fear of being outlawed from known political spaces, being dropped off mid political flight, further away from erstwhile accepting spaces of political discussion can be acute. On most days, one realizes that this dropping off has already happened because of prolonged inability to ‘articulate effectively’ one’s disagreements. So the dreams are often of starting from scratch and what not, or simply disappearing.

“Fear. I was scared to walk on the road for fear of people recognizing me. I was worried someone might mock me while I walked on the road. I was afraid the police might arrest me. I held back from taking the bus because I wasn’t sure who I could sit next to. I was scared to use the public toilet for fear that people might know I was different. I was scared that rotten tomatoes might be thrown at me in the market. I was scared of falling in love for fear of being punished hard. Fear of everything and anything. Why am I so scared? This question haunted me.” (Revathi, 2016; from the introduction ‘Beyond Black and White’ to A Life in Trans Activism; p. ix)

It has become impossible for people, particularly from certain sheltered social locations, to understand constant, dispersed, staggering, structurally embedded, hopelessly consuming fear and anxiety. Mustering a response to this fear and mistrust takes not only time and the presence of a validating space, but access to information, education, health, nutrition and affirming narratives of one’s histories. Most often, in a short life, this does not happen. Each of one’s struggles pulls one in some deeply bungled direction, one gets lost and one loses one’s lot. If these entangled struggles are in the queer universe the chances of coming out and thumping one’s chest with pride, if they do arise, often tend to erase pain, persistent betrayal and the loss of faith.

At this point in life, I would like to avoid doing this. If there is a chance to be a part of new structures of solidarity, I would first like to be ‘divisive’ and ‘separatist’ in my politics. I would like to acknowledge the loss of faith. I would like to go beyond not knowing, carefully, after first admitting to self the depths of not knowing. And in all cowardice, I have no intention of directly engaging with the authors, or their attendant, alienating political spaces. But for me to pursue a politics rooted in my identity, it is essential to clarify, in whatever way I can, the disagreements with the politics espoused in the book; so that I may find worthwhile directions of political engagement ahead. To that end, this is a selfish political act. This is largely a conversation with a self that has bungled through a savarna cis-heteronormative and cis-homonormative hypersexual world, as an OBC transgender asexual person.

About the book and my approach:

The book (of 250 pages), published by Zubaan Publishers (2015), provides to authors copyright (among other things) over the narratives of 50 respondents and an ‘idea’ of ‘plasticity’ of gender that they have offered in place of ‘fluidity’. The book is divided into 11 chapters with an additional note titled ‘Introduction and Context’. Out of these 11 chapters, chapters 4 through 10 (too neatly categorised as ‘The Early Years and Families’, ‘Experiences of Formal Education’, ‘Sport and Other Passions’, ‘Work and Livelihood’, ‘Public Spaces’, ‘Intimate Relationships’ and ‘The Self and the Body’) are truncated, selective narratives from the lives of the respondents. At no point here will I be referring to any of these narratives, in any manner, except if required to substantiate a point. The rest of the chapters, where the authors voices are alone present (almost as if in a white/savarna Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist vacuum), will be what I argue with. These chapters are Method and Process (1), Profile of Respondents (2), A Gender of One’s Own (3) and Gender: Some Conclusions and the Path Ahead (11). In the following paragraphs I will try to look at the framing of their questions and contexts, their methodology and ethics, the manner in which narratives and bibliographical sources have been misrepresented and the ultimate (lack of) transformative potential of the theory they’ve offered.

Inconvenient questions, convenient contexts:

The authors’ stated objective is to ‘complicate the binary’ or ‘go beyond the binary’. Throughout the book they seem to be struggling with one central question of ‘what does transgender mean and who, then, is transgender’ (p. xi) – which they leave unanswered – that then appears in at least two more forms such as ‘why you are a woman’ (p. xii) and finally as ‘why you are ‘x’ gender’ (p. 230). The ultimate answer they seem to arrive at is feeble at best, ‘[W]e have learnt… that the question, ‘Why are you ‘x’ gender?’, seems to have no answer other than, ‘Because this is how I feel’ (p. 230). Read as it is this may seem radical, but by progressively diluting the political category and identity of ‘transgender’, erasing the term itself from the text, to be replaced with an ‘x’ – and its ‘feelings’, the authors take away the power of the composite, complete ‘being’ (as) a transgender person. You could counter this with the argument: don’t trans-people themselves say that they are this gender because this is how ‘they feel’[0]. I wouldn’t disagree completely. But here is the problem. When you systematically erase the term transgender from a text and replace it with a seemingly fluid ‘x’, you are required to qualify this very carefully. You are required to qualify the position from which you are seeking to erase a term from political and theoretical vocabulary. Do we have an answer to what this ‘x’ will be allowed to stand for? Who will decide these assignations? Without dismantling cis-man and cis-woman (terms that the authors have hardly used in their work towards ‘breaking the binary’), how do we recognize the true depth and breadth of this ‘x’ that you wish to arrive at? Historically, has not ‘transgender’ as a political category offered some of the most powerful critiques of the gender binary that the authors want to go beyond? Have transgender people not repeatedly stated ‘this is who I am’? (Insert background score: Shea Diamond’s ‘I am Her’). And therefore, is that not enough (whatever the bodily-discursive expression may be)?

If the authors recognized and accepted the validity and history of this political and theoretical category, and its powerful critique of ‘humanity’ in all its diversity and struggles, they wouldn’t frame their first question as some form of ‘who/what/why transgender’ (p. xi), leave it unanswered, and then follow it up with a pithy observation that this is a necessary but insufficient question, and that there are far more ‘crucial questions’ about ‘norms’ and ‘socio-political-cultural structures’ and ‘conformity/divergence’ (do we smell a ‘radical’ binary?) that need to be answered. Let me clarify this a bit more.

The authors state that ‘what does transgender mean and who, then, is transgender’ (p. xi) is a necessary but insufficient question. My contention is that they are far from the truth, and their methodology and final conclusions lay this bare. My truth is this: the question is itself irrelevant and any attempt of enquiry into categories of marginalized gender that begins with establishing ‘conditions’/‘standards’ of categorization (namely, who? Or, as the authors have used, a more dehumanizing, ‘what’?) is exclusionary and oppressive. The authors do not identify this very fundamental problem with the framing of their question, nor do they recognize its empirical undertones. And so, even though at first glance it seems they have left the question ‘unanswered’, the effort to establish conditions, categories, standards, and hierarchies of gender struggles unfold throughout the book. The politically radical moment for the authors would have been to establish unequivocally the necessity of assertion and self-determination of transgender and gender non-conforming identities and reflect on their own histories of insufficient engagement with the diverse evocations of trans-politics (feminist/otherwise).

Instead, they seem to wrap a warm blanket of comfort around themselves and draw out a very localized and evolutionary history of organizing rooted in cis-women’s movements they are familiar with. The authors draw out a story of the first responses to ‘why you are a woman’ beginning in 2001 in their feminist circles, of 1990s being an ‘intense period of activism in lesbian and gay organizing’ (in cities that are part of their networks only, with some examples of such well documented organizing), and end with this thoroughly unsubstantiated claim that ‘At that particular moment in history [whose history? Or is that no longer a cis-feminist question?], though, the stress was much more on sexuality, and issues around gender were not being addressed as clearly’ (p. xii-xiv). The authors repeatedly hark back to the women’s movements (the cis-savarna autonomous women’s movements) as their point of departure without acknowledging these and other LG spaces as being historically trans-exclusive, violently trans-negative. This could have been a moment to acknowledge the transgender people who were kept out of ‘women-only spaces’ and ‘elite queer only’ spaces. This could have been a moment to apologise even, if they so staunchly mark their roots in the cis-women’s movements. Because, that is how justice ought to work. But in one fell swoop their history-telling erases the record of this women’s movement’s (a space that they claim to be the first to address structures of gender and sexuality) participation in and continued practice of trans-exclusionary radical feminisms. Instead, they would rather acknowledge the ‘difficulty’ faced by practitioners of this ‘women’s movement’ politics to ‘wrap [our] heads and politics around the fact that many of those who are not socialized as women also feel like women. And the next logical step – that their lives and concerns were also as valid a concern of our work and movements as of those who were brought up as women – was even more difficult’ (pp. xv–xvi). When will this politics of patronage end? The hierarchies of movements and discourses are very clear to these authors: the cis-women’s movement is the first space, queer (strictly LG) organizing becomes the second space and in passing they mention ‘masculinity studies’ as a ‘third space’ in ‘contemporary discourses of gender’ (p. xxi). A history of transgender politics and organizing quietly removed, as these ‘difficult struggles’ and discourses of ‘wrapping their heads around’ transgender identities, are put on record.

Continuing on the path of erasing the systemic oppression of transgender people from political contexts, and assuming gender rights and sexuality rights to be in an evolutionary relationship (when we are done talking sexuality we will ‘adapt’ and start talking gender beyond women?) the authors also go on to express their panic around the increasing role of the State in fitting ‘multiple ways of being into yet another new straitjacketed category of transgender’ (p. xxii). I have no love lost for the State. But can we collectively balk at this particular – again, unsubstantiated – phrase: ‘new straitjacketed category of transgender’? This phrase succinctly expresses the ahistorical position of the authors; a position that allows them to simultaneously erase the history of transgender identity politics, introduce their text with a recent quote from the State machinery on transgender inclusion and conclude in standard liberal anti-state rhetoric that ‘oh shit oh shit, state is creating new category, need to oppose, need to oppose!’

Transgender history, life and politics cannot be reduced to a straitjacketed category. To be able to ‘wrestle’ with this reality it is required that one have complete respect and understanding for [trans]gender identity politics – irrespective of  political differences of opinion. You may critique me for my politics, but it must not be from a position of disrespect towards and invalidation or appropriation of my identities. You may critique me for my politics after explaining first, your understanding of my histories. You may offer your alternative after first appropriately engaging with the various alternatives already struggled through and articulated by the marginalized identities. That is, for me, trans-feminist integrity. And that is integral to the practice of trans-feminisms (the existence of which is not acknowledged in this book). Pushing the unsubstantiated argument that transgender is a straitjacketed category ‘under construction’ in the State discourse makes a mockery of all the struggles of identity, identification and difficult conversations that are taking place within various realms of the trans-community. In her book ‘A Life in Trans Activism’, A. Revathi (2016) gives us a clear picture not only of her individual struggles as an (outlawed) transwoman, but also the difficult paths of political articulation and activisms she traversed, with many others – and this was happening in the same time period when activism, according to the authors, focused only on ‘sexuality’. I reproduce below excerpts where Revathi talks about her daughter Famila, hijra, bisexual and feminist, and her articulations of gender and sexuality rights:

“Famila lived her life based on the principles she believed in…Through principles and practice, she challenged the norms of hetero patriarchal society that she felt was oppressive and unfair not only to women but to people who were of different gender and sexual orientation. She was the first person from the transgender community, who without fear or hesitation told the media that she was also a sex worker.
I must confess that until I met Famila, I was ashamed of being a sex worker and felt guilty and ashamed about it. But Famila helped me to realize that by subscribing to such negative stereotypes, I was indulging in self-hatred and discrimination–the very aspects of mainstream society that I was trying to address through my advocacy.

Famila’s home was an open house that overflowed with every denomination of sexual and gender minority people…She did sex work to support her large family whose members seemed to increase with every passing day. She was the first person from the hijra community who openly supported female to male trans persons or trans men…
This was something that even I did not expect her to do. Because even within the hijra community, female to male trans persons are not accepted, they are treated with contempt and scorn.” (Revathi, 2016: pp. 92-3)

These excerpts describe in short, the many layers, internal critiques, identity questions and multiple structural exclusions that transgender people, (across spectrums of gender and sexuality), have been engaging with for years now. It also describes the deep sense of alternate community building (not without their problems) that will not and cannot have singular articulations. An understanding that is completely lacking in the authors’ positions vis-à-vis trans identities. Hence it must be that they are quick to worry about the State ‘creating’ a ‘new straitjacketed category’ but spend hardly any time in their book to discuss a long history of violence by the State [1] directed at transgender people, and the difficult negotiations with the State – for citizenship and basic human rights – led by transgender people (which are ultimately responsible for the NALSA judgment) – that in turn have opened spaces for articulating and re-imagining gender; spaces that urgently need to be democratically supported and critically engaged with.

Coming to the second part of their premise (the first being that answering the question is necessary but insufficient): they say that there are other crucial questions about socio-political structures, norms etc that need to be answered.  They claim that in ‘this work…there has been a constant effort to see the intersections of various structures of society…’ (p. xx; Emphasis added). But they have not framed even one such question that tells us how authors have reflected upon or that invites the reader to reflect upon the oppressive structures, socio-political formations and the repetitive and tenacious nature of normative behaviours in society. Instead, all of these are taken as given, seen and the excerpts from 50 narratives are strategically placed within this ahistorical, empirical and unchanging frame to reinforce certain accepted notions around ‘acceptable’ gender transgressions. Ticking the columns is insufficient, the actual manner in which gender transgressions disrupt, challenge and sometimes evoke new norms needs to be excavated, the manner in which extant structures of the particular geographical context, i.e. india (as country with multiple states, not singular nation) participate with structures of gender need to be understood. If indeed the authors’ primary objective is to break the binary, how have they understood the construction of binary as it is done specifically in our geographical context? Do they recognize the primacy of the caste structure in this construction? Do they understand how femininities and masculinities are appropriated for the maintenance of caste purity? How do they understand the operation of violent female masculinities such as those celebrated by forces such as RSS and its Durga Vahinis, and its role in maintaining the patriarchal nation? Have they been able to locate the relations between labour, employment, caste, class and cis-masculinity? Or are they still crying over whether to accept or reject trans masculinities?

Trans activist, Gee Imaan Semmalar, writing about the anti-caste imperative in trans movements says, ‘The rejection of endogamous reproductive function by trans people means an abdication of the reproduction of caste relations and labour force making us lesser citizens of the Brahmin empire/Indian nation state.’ (Gee Imaan Semmalar, 2016). He also quotes Living Smile Vidya when talking about the exclusion from gainful employment, ‘As my sister Living Smile Vidya says, “Begging and sex work have become almost like fixed caste occupations for trans women in India.” The only other jobs are provided by NGOs which depend on HIV funding and retain feudal power structures of having cis, dominant caste people at the decision-making level in high salaried posts with trans women from lower caste backgrounds working in low-paid positions as condom distributors or community mobilisers. Having said that, the fact that NGOs provide a semblance of dignity in employment where a trans woman can work in an office rather than face public and police harassment doing street-based labour cannot be denied.’(Ibid)

Such analysis that drawn connections between various forms of exclusion, is wholly absent from the text of the book where identity specific exclusions are highlighted via narrative accounts (which, I argue, are used as empirical data) and little else is sought to be analysed outside immediate or known contexts.

On methodology, categories and ethics:

Susan Stryker, who has been duly noted in the bibliography (with no quote attributed to her appearing in the text of the book), speaks of the critical impetus of a ‘transgender will to life’:

“A transgender will to life thus serves as a point from which to critique the human as a universal status attributed to all members of the species, and to reveal it instead as a narrower set of criteria wielded by some to dehumanize others.”[2]

The authors, however, have shown a clear theoretical and political preference to stay within their own limited, narrow contexts and wield – powerfully – their own criteria, establish it as unchallenged, and continue to participate in erasing transgender histories and dehumanizing the ‘transgender’ will to life; instead of learning, critically engaging with, reinterpreting and expanding its ‘trans’-formative potential.

Now, you might counter this with the charge that I am being essentialist; why must everything speak to the transgender will to life? My response to this might seem at cross-purposes with your Universalist agendas, but the point is simple: it is the first ‘will to life’ sacrificed at the altar of small gains in gender justice. When the authors, speaking of the efforts for this book, say that they have interviewed 50 PAGFB identifying ‘queer in some way’ (p.xxiii) and that  ‘our effort has been to understand not just various gender identities, but gender itself in all its nuance and complexity’ (p. xxiv) the question one has is this: how can one claim to look at gender in all ‘its nuance and complexity’ (except that which has already been explicated from within the savarna cis-gender framework) while systematically and methodologically excluding transgender women, trans femininities, and PAGMB who are on the trans/agender spectrum? How can you fashion an ‘alternate theoretical universe’ for gender where there may be ‘no outlaws’, while methodologically outlawing an entire identity category of the gender spectrum from your political/theoretical and experiential universe?

As mentioned earlier, despite statements of radical inclusion, the primary preoccupations of the authors seem to be in creating new and ill-understood, easily misappropriated categories of inclusion and exclusion suited to their immediate contexts. And hence they are answerable to the transgender will to life, which vehemently resists (and loses life in resisting) such forced, decontextualised categorizations apparently (but without due credit) based on existing transgender political formulations.  The following are the stages of exclusion and forced categorizations that occur, as they have explained in their method and process, through this research.

At the point of selection of respondents: There are two counts on which they rationalize the exclusion of trans women/trans feminine/trans/fluid/agender PAGMB. One is that of taking on ‘too many varied lived experiences’ (p.6) and two is that since concerns of PAGFB trans* persons were not being foregrounded (p.6) this book proposes to focus on PAGFB narratives. Hopefully, you are noting the many contradictions of objectives and methodology here. Now, to their first point the response is simple, in trans-feminism there is no such thing as too many varied lived experiences. To respond to the second point, my argument is that the text is designed to fail in representing the concerns of trans persons assigned gender female.

To understand this at a simple empirical level we need to look at the next two stages, namely collection of data and the final analysis. Contrary to the rationale of foregrounding ‘PAGFB trans* persons’, the authors decide to ‘open up the study to include all PAGFB’ (p. 8) and then within that further focus only on ‘queer PAGFB, who identified as non-heteronormative in some way and allied with queer spaces or organizations.’ (p. 10) Here their rationale is, ‘in any case, that ‘same-sex desire’ becomes a violation of the gender norm too’ (p. 10). This is a limited understanding of the complicated relationship between gender and sexuality, that holds closer the established norms of sexualized queerness to the uncharted waters of genderered queerness and from the start skews the sample in favour of established queer spaces that have a limited (numerical and ideological) trans-representation, and an established, exclusionary language for understanding trans identities.

There are lessons for us to learn from the history of LGBT organizing the world over. There are identities which get left out or subsumed by existing queer spaces. For example, the presence of trans-identified female bodied persons in lesbian spaces. Trans needs have not been met, even recognized, in such spaces. Prevalent lesbian notions of ways of being are inadequate for trans needs. These notions do not enable/empower the trans-identified members of lesbian spaces. Another example would be the ongoing debate about who is the ‘koti’? (a male bodied person with female gender identity) The ‘koti’ is being understood as the ‘vernacular gay-identified person’ where as ‘she’ is clearly a transgender person.’ (Satya Rai Nagpaul, 2016; Where are all the f2ms?* Trans Visibility and Organizing in India; appearing in A. Revathi, 2016; p. 211)

‘Trans persons are not finding any meaningful space within existing queer/LGBT groups. These have in fact been and are increasingly being trans-unfriendly; even trans-phobic. Two days ago, I was told by a trans person, who belongs to a lesbian support group what the key person there said to him: ‘The day you reassign, you count yourself out of the group.’’ (Ibid; p. 213)

This is part of the history we are dealing with. And by going back to these same spaces, the authors reproduce the exclusions, as is clearly reflected in the profile of respondents (pp. 17-24) in the final analysis. Geographically, 46% of their respondents are from the combined areas of North and West India, 36% from South and only 18% from the East. 60% of their respondents are from ‘dominant’ castes (it is unclear what their iterations within ‘dominant’ exactly is), 22% are put under the combined category SC/ST/SBC and 18% is OBC and others. 84% of their respondents are Hindus, i.e. 42 out of 50. The educational qualifications show that only 32% have crossed their Bachelors, 38% are 12th pass or less. Monthly income profiles show that 38% are getting less than 10,000 INR and only 18% are getting more than 50,000 INR. These income and education statistics reveal very little about structural inequalities till we cross reference them with another classification i.e. current gender identification (they have used a three way classification of ‘women’, ‘men’ and ‘others’). Here, we see that 36% of the PAGFB respondents identify as Women (which means they identify with the gender assigned to them and may therefore be structurally located as cis-gender on the gender spectrum), only 20% identify as Men and another 36% identify as ‘Others’. They have not provided data that shows the income distribution across identities, but if we look at the educational levels across identities we see that 69% of those who have crossed BA are women, and 84% of those 12th pass or less were men and others. The authors’ justification (appears with respect to the religious profile and I extrapolate here generously) for this methodological skew in their sample appears as follows: ‘We also found that the make-up of the queer groups seemed to be largely reflective of mainstream society.’ (p. 19) The structural inequality here is not a matter of concern to the authors.

Of this limited and skewed sample, the authors accept that respondents who fell into their ‘others’ category were assigned places of some sort by the authors. “In each of these cases, we used our sense of the person’s gender as articulated in the whole of the interview to ascertain which category they fell most comfortably into.” (p. 27; Emphasis added). There is no clarity on how this was done, barring some examples, and most importantly, whether this categorization was acceptable to the respondent upon whom such assignation was made.

This goes against the idea of gender that they seem to argue for, something they refer to as ‘consensual gender’ (p.25, 238), which itself is a problematic notion. For a moment, even if we agree that gender may be consensual, it is clear that the authors have followed categorizations as they saw fit and have (by refusing to ground themselves in an ethical trans-feminist position) failed to practice any clear form of consent in categorization as well as failed to acknowledge existing hierarchies of power and position between categories and between the researcher and the researched, let alone develop a robust critique of such hierarchies. In fact, they unapologetically accept as much towards the end when they say ‘Their lived realities indicated to us that they had little in common beyond the fact that they were all assigned female gender at birth and hence, this seemed to aptly describe them. While this gender assignment does describe a certain commonality of experience, it does not reflect the diversity of experiences due to various other locations of class, caste, religion, ability and sexuality that PAGFB simultaneously inhabit (p. 238)’ Then what is the point of this utterly painful exercise of hashing and rehashing categories, to suit the authors’ temperaments and immediate analytical requirement, and then attempting to reduce all varied experiences into one button-holed and universalist category PAGFB, within which their political alignment in favour of cis-gender experience is amply evident? So even though they argue for they definitely do not practice consensual gender.

My truth is this – there cannot be such thing as consensual gender. Gender is unequivocally self-determined. That ‘self’ in self-determined may well be a relational being, located at multiple intersections, but their gender is self-determined. This is a fundamental and non-negotiable position vis-à-vis trans-politics. The politics of consent has developed through a very different trajectory in the gender and sexuality rights discourse. It speaks of the structural obstacles before someone who is denied the right to consent, it speaks of a person in a structural position of power having the onus of seeking consent – as many times as required – when engaging in a sexual, bodily interaction with another person. It speaks of the discursive limits of consent. From there it also develops a discourse of multiple languages of consent, deconstructs situations of complete impossibility of consent and making consent an integral part of all conversations around sex acts in particular and sexuality/sexual exploration in general. In this discourse, while recognizing the systemic denial of right to consent to marginalized gender locations, a determinist understanding of gender (or age or ability) becomes irrelevant (even as the structural location of the oppressor needs to be underscored). In the broadest frame then, consent is a conversation between people seeking a specific relationship with each other, all the while navigating the difficult terrain of hierarchies, power, bodily reality, ability, labour, desire, pleasure, pain and health[3].

Gender, on the other hand, is an intensely personal conversation of self with one’s own body and its multiple identities, all the while navigating the difficult terrain of hierarchies, power, body, ability, desire, pleasure, pain, health and imagination. Consent itself can be incontrovertibly self-determined. But self-determined gender needs no consent, and at its most empowered moment seeks no consent. Arguing for, or loosely teaming up these separate concepts can be counterproductive to the politics of trans identity struggles. In the current context of heightened state intervention (something the authors have noted, but not dealt with), the government of india is tending towards a reversal from the NALSA position of complete self-determination of gender to greater intervention and surveillance of identities[4], the authors may not have considered the following: to own one’s body and affirm one’s identity is to declare that one requires no individual or institution’s consent over such ownership, as well as that one has no business giving consent to others for the ownership of their body and expression of their genders; no institutional (State/medical/familial) or community gate-keeping can be allowed; no consensus, in other words, need be arrived at regarding the gender identity of an individual – it is what I determine it to be, for as long as it is so determined by me. Any conversation must begin from the complete acceptance of this.

Here I will take a moment to also underscore the faulty alignments of choice and assignation that the authors have decided to undertake. The authors say that ‘Each person also lives within the realm of their imagined body, whatever be their gender, whether assigned by society or chosen by oneself.’ (p. 234; Emphasis added) This is the catch – particularly in queer discourses where the authors claim that same sex relations are already challenging gender norms — only when chosen and claimed by self (within one’s own limits), does the assigned gender become the person’s gender. Till then it is simply that, assignation by the powers that be. There is no easy choice for sure, but the easiest by far is to chose the assignation and make it one’s own. There is no assigned gender identity and chosen gender identity – all gender identities are self-determined.

As with the idea of consensual gender (a phrase used in passing in the text) we can also quickly challenge the theoretical basis of the idea of ‘plasticity’ that they offer. As clear from the bias in the methodology, any attempt at a theoretical generalization is futile and only deepens the bias inherent in the methodology.  (One implication of this is that even if ‘plasticity’ were a theoretical possibility, it would be so only for those who are not already outlawed by the structures of society.) The authors claim that ‘plasticity’ may be used instead of ‘fluidity’ to understand the gender system. Here again, they repeat the fundamental flaw of reflecting a deep seated fear of robust and diverse identity politics onto the process of theory building itself. It seems the authors have taken ill-understood identity categories, associated narratives, excluded a large majority of narratives and arrived at their own understanding of gender and gender systems. The authors, in their urge to theorize, do not differentiate between gender identities and gender systems/structures. They do not offer a sufficient reason for replacing fluid with plastic, nor a meaningful engagement with their idea of plasticity. Links between the narrative histories mentioned earlier in the text and the intervention of plasticity are not clear, or perhaps not even existent. Is plasticity a characteristic of gender expression, an identity position on the gender spectrum, or an element to understand the gender system or all of it? What are the interpretations from each angle? Though they say that plasticity is used as a characteristic of gender, the discussion is pretty sparse and depends solely on the validation of a random quote from one Mr. Bingham’s 1922 text called Fluidity and Plasticity that deals with physical chemistry.

First of all, it is abominable that transformations and expressions of a person’s gender identity must be compared (without context) to shape changing solids being ‘deformed’, ‘worked’, ‘molded’ under ‘shearing stresses’ (p.233). It reeks of the dangerously experimental processes undertaken by medico-legal establishments upon gender non-conforming bodies, even provides them uncertain ‘scientific sanction’.

Secondly, it doesn’t stand the test of personhood and self-determination. If we understand the extent to which trans and non-conforming gender identities have been dehumanized, objectified and in certain select spaces unduly sexually fetishised we will be careful about arriving at such characterizations of gender without due thought. When the authors say (about plasticity) that ‘people occupying definite identities and locations, even though they might shift shape over time or move from one location to another’ (p.233) they are collapsing gender into body and biology – fixing it – and then focusing on the possibility of ‘shifting shape’ or ‘change’. They are going against everything they have earlier mentioned by – in the particular context of transcending bodily boundaries -defining gender in and as a material body that has a ‘before/after’ trajectory of ‘change’. They also compare ‘plasticity of gender’ with the everyday meaning of plastic or synthetic. The dichotomies being maintained here are internal/external, organic/synthetic and felt/made. Apart from maintaining the before/after trajectory, the relationship between two is again designed as former influenced by the latter. Unintentionally as it were, the authors have reduced their elaborate intervention around understanding gender and gender expression to the matter of bodily alterations – without adequately appraising themselves or the reader of the many complicated narratives surrounding this one much inflated aspect of trans lives i.e. medically assisted transition, including hormone therapy and gender affirming surgeries.

By seeking to replace fluidity with plasticity they have challenged (without much basis) the identity categories, ‘gender fluid’, ‘amorphous’ and ‘agender’ – categories that have come into existence over a long period of time – and again leaves very little scope for self-determination. Which brings forth the question – when we understand gender identities as self-determined, located on a considerably vast spectrum of identities and mediated by multiple graded hierarchies of the social location of (a)gendered persons, what is the theoretical/political potential offered by plasticity? Perhaps rheologist Bingham from 20th century Britain may have an answer.

Essentialist feminism and the misrepresentation of trans-theorists:

The authors claim a feminist methodology and political position. What is this position and who does it favour? My argument is that the authors come from a very problematic cis-savarna feminist position that speaks to cis/savarna gender categories and values their gender struggles over and above transgender struggles. The authors validate only the experience and practice of a certain kind of cis-feminism; one that grudgingly accepts, ‘includes’ and often ‘favourably’ (for self) appropriates limited elements of transgender struggles wherever possible. In doing so they constantly seek to establish that ‘everybody’ faces gender struggles, but there are specific feminist struggles and those are of the women.  In chapter 3 they make a comparison of individual struggles in this manner: after quoting one of the respondents, who is a cis-woman, talking about how as a working woman she doesn’t meet societal standards of being a woman, the author’s say – ‘We may reads in ____’s assertion a continuing of the feminist project of pushing boundaries and further liberating the category of ‘woman’’ (p. 28) This is immediately followed by a quote from a respondent who identifies as a boy, talking about a childhood memory and the arrival at their identity. The authors’ response to this is as follows – ‘All our ‘man’-identified respondents were able to express their gender through clothes and behaviour in public places, as well as in interactions with others.’ (p. 29)

A cis-woman’s assertion of her working woman identity evokes imagery of the continuation of a feminist project; a transman’s assertion of his gender identity evokes a pithy generalization about gender expression which is both untrue and empirically invalid (given the very small size of their sample).

In chapter 10 where they try to talk about gendered bodies, they make a clear separation between the ‘female’ body and the ‘visible’ body. Here they assert that women had their ‘fair share of negotiation with gendered expectations of the body’ (p. 189) and speak at length about how cisgendered doesn’t mean complete comfort with the body. The ‘visible’ body is described only in relation to its departure from the ‘female’ body – where the female body is taken as its idealized cis-heteronormative versions, and differences are marked in terms of ‘gender expressions’, and some ‘bodily markers’. The very idea of the ‘female’ body and the ‘male’ body is left unchallenged. Moreover the male body of transgender people is not named as such, rather forcefully locked into the biologically ‘female’ and left there to either ‘converge’ or ‘diverge’. In this brand of defeatist feminist project, self-determined bodies and identities are important only in so far as they reflect or reject established norms, thereby further reifying these norms. And any attempt to separate the discourse, and establish an independent narrative will evoke epistemological violence as follows:

While it is clear that trans*persons face brutal violence due to the gender binary, they are not the only ones. Such violence has to be understood in conjunction with the violence that ‘women’ face within the same heteronormative patriarchal system. Recognising cis privilege and understanding how it operates is crucial and needs to be more and more part of the ongoing discussions in queer and feminist spaces, but it would be incorrect to say that trans*persons are the only ones fighting gender battles. Every time the gender expression of a person does not match their perceived identity, the person is subjected to intense scrutiny, which is often violent. Hence, ciswomen, cismen too, who defy the norms of masculinity and femininity have to fight long hard battles with little or no support.” (p.228)

In one succinct paragraph not only is the transphobia intrinsic to queer cis-gender perspectives laid bare, but also the inherited savarna insecurity of different ‘causes’ forming and strengthening within and outside the established spaces of ‘one unified white/savarna radical dreamy queer feminist movement’.  The whole book comes across as an exacting exercise in stating ‘not-all-cispeople’ (much like the hashtag not-all-men or all lives matter!). Indeed, they would rather speak about gender battles of cismen than open up their ideological and support spaces for transwomen.

For the authors, feminism is not practiced and cannot be embodied in transgender bodies. Trans people are mere cogs who rotate in the expanding universe of outlawed genders, quietly absorbing anything that comes their way, not thinking for themselves or challenging norms in any way. They take a wholly insulting position with respect to trans men when they say ‘It is not surprising, then, for example, that a PAGFB who identifies as ‘man’ will adopt those traits of masculinity that are prevalent around him. If dominant ways of being ‘masculine’ are not under scrutiny in his society by and large, then these will not be readily reflected in his way of being a man. In all probability the prevalent traits might be even more obvious, in the sense that a transman might seem more masculine to us because that is what he is projecting as a gender cue in order to gain acceptance for his gender identity.’ (p. 231) For the authors, trans-feminist iterations and positions do not exist and so they have not also sought to excavate such positions through their methodology.

This brings me to one final aspect of the discussion. The misrepresentation of trans/gender theorists, particularly with respect to medical interventions and bodily alterations. It is very clear that the authors have taken a position against medical interventions or body alterations, even without openly saying so. They have only scarcely referenced and never critically engaged with trans/gender theorists and activists in the book. Riki Anne Wilchins’ (consistently misspelled as Rikki Ann Wilkins!) ‘What Does it Cost to Tell the Truth?’[5] is used to advocate that violence is faced not ‘only’ by trans*persons (decontexualised quote appears on p. 228). What Wilchins is arguing in this piece is almost diametrically opposite. Wilchins is thoroughly and quite profoundly marking the difference between those whose ‘truthful’ self is relatively closer (i.e. cisgender people, who may nonetheless have their own struggles) to cultural norms and those whose ‘truths’ come at great costs. A reality that these authors are simply unwilling to accept and understand.

They also quote Dean Spade from his work ‘Mutilating Gender’ to claim that trans/gender nonconforming persons enter into forced compromises (a term not used by Spade himself) with the medical establishment when they seek body alterations. The quote from his work is followed up with these assertions: ‘As mentioned earlier, the limits of transgression are often built into the systems of control and reproduction since this helps sustain these massive systems while maintaining fictions of flexibility and accommodation. We believe that even in a society where more and more gender and body variations are accepted, people might still want medical changes.’ (p. 236) It is the second sentence that I would like to emphasize – even in a society where ….variations are accepted…people might still want medical changes. Does that mean that the ideal is to NOT want medical changes? Does that mean the onus of change still lies on people fitting into different variations that may/may not be accepted (a huge gamble there) rather than the medical establishment itself taking up the onus of losing its oppressive histories? And is that what Spade is hinting at?

Not in the least. Through his work in Mutilating Gender[6], Spade is arguing for very different things than what the authors have gathered. Indeed he is seeking for people to not pretend as though SRS (or gender affirming surgeries) is this process through which hapless transgender/transsexual ‘victims’ are forced into conforming to the gender binary (the subtext being that the onus of diverging from/conforming to the binary is NOT on trans people, and that divergence/conformity is not a simplistic narrative). He is focusing on the many ways in which transpeople navigate and negotiate the ever expanding powers that be. He seeks to ‘critique’ the containment of ‘gender distress’ within the invented norms of ‘transsexualism’ by gatekeepers of medico-legal institutions. He asks, ‘If we start from an understanding that gender behavior is learned… how can a desire to transgress an assigned gender category be read outside of cultural meaning?’ Here I read the implied query to psychiatrists, cis-feminists and sociologists that how can opting for SRS be a ‘return’ or a ‘regress’? He asserts that an ‘arbitrary line’ has been drawn ‘between technology and body’ and placed at ‘sex-change procedures’. He says of theorists, such as these authors, who picnic on transsexual identity, ‘They fail to include in their analysis the fact that people…change their gender presentation to conform to norms with multiple other technologies as well, including clothing, make-up, cosmetic surgery not labeled SRS, training in gender specific manners, body building, dieting and countless other practices.

He values the trans-activist space and its power of disrupting the narratives enforced by medical institutions. He says, and I do concur from my own experiences, ‘I’ve found that in trans contexts, a much broader conception of trans experiences exists. The trans people I’ve met have, shockingly, believed what I say about my gender. Some have a self-narrative resembling the medical model…some do not…Wilchins posits an idea of identity as “an effect of political activism instead of a cause”. I see this notion reflected in trans activism, writing, and discussion, despite its absence in the medical institutions through which trans people must negotiate our identities.’ This underscores the agential and transformative potential of trans/gender non-conforming lives and identities beyond normative boundaries. It states emphatically that which the authors here have not understood: that the trans identities have already broken the binary in multiple ways, and at great cost too. The struggle is to understand this history, to take this forward, to sustain the movement, to engage with trans activism as trans activism and more, to not fall into the trap of using trans narratives as an additive layer to incomplete, essentialist and hackneyed theories of gender that only assist certain acceptable divergences.

And so it is that Spade sees surgery and negotiations with medical establishments in a much more nuanced way than these authors do. He underscores the scary reality of norms and how it can deny us access to surgery. He says, ‘Even though I don’t believe in real, it matters if other people see me as real – if not I am a mutilator, an imitator, and worst of all I can’t access surgery.’ It is easy for authors to see this as ‘forced compromise’ that ‘hapless trans people’ outside ‘white/savarna radical cis-feminist ideals of untainted, untouched bodies’ undertake. By reducing their engagement to only this interpretation they reduce trans lives and ideas of conformity/divergence to the extent of body alterations. Everything else disappears – the wealth of dissent and dialogue that has happened between trans activists and medical establishments, the small ways in which the medical establishment has been challenged and made more accountable, the non-surgical medical and healthcare needs of trans people that never gets talked about, the slow (and very recent) replacement of GID with the term dysphoria, and the unequal treatment of sexual non-conformity and gender non-conformity within the medical paradigm that allows for the former to no longer be a ‘deviant condition’ in Western medico-legal discourse.

Spade clarifies his political project as follows, ‘My project would be to promote sex reassignment, gender alteration, temporary gender adventure, and the mutilation of gender categories, via surgery, hormones, clothing, political lobbying, civil disobedience, or any other means available.’ He asserts, ‘…I reject the narrative of a gender troubled childhood.’ This is important, not because we need to invalidate gender troubled childhoods, but because that narrative should not be compulsory or singular. That narrative offers only a simplistic evolutionary perspective of human lives, heavily misused by the medico-legal establishment. The authors here also arrange the narratives in this simplistic manner, dividing their respondents’ stories into neat categories from childhood to work, leaving little space for reflections beyond linear storytelling. That the authors have not nearly grasped the many layers of Spade’s arguments in Mutilating Gender is apparent.

A final note on terminology and a conclusion:

The authors have alluded to the absence of adequate languages to fully capture meanings of gender non-conformity. When they set out to introduce the text they say, ‘For many people who break the gender binary, there is no popular terminology to describe their realities in ways that feel affirmative, while access to discourses in other languages, such as English, is usually a matter of class privilege. It is in the groups and collectives that are working to evolve a more inclusive lexicon, then, that these gender non-conformists are able to find not just a community but also a language that lets them feel they finally belong.’ (p. xxvii) These are standard caveats. And it is known (within the limited circles of gender politics) that there is staunch disagreement of terminologies that is on-going, wherein the introduction of terms such as PAGFB has been challenged. Personally, I am very happy with ‘transgender person’. I have arrived here after rejecting queer and only trans* that I used to earlier uphold. I am happy with transgender asexual person because I have now spent a considerable amount of time engaging with terminologies and their histories and political implications. Unlike queer (which was ‘reclaimed’/’subverted’ from a slur[7] and still has no space for asexual expression), the origins of transgender terminologies are taken by the community[8] however complicated its meanings and understanding of sex and gender differences. In earlier contexts I have mentioned that I find PAGFB/PAGMB useful to indicate assignation (though they are not my preferred terms) and misidentification, as well as to explore multiple directions and journeys of transition/transgression. But the methodological pitfalls of the term (however useful it may be for administering services only) come to fore in this work. The authors have carelessly bundled all narratives together as a ‘universal political category’ (NOT as an administrative category) and created their own set of categories as well (mentioned earlier). They seem to have taken some effort to simply not use the term transman in their text, even going to the extent of using unqualified terms such as ‘non-cisman’ (p. 22) and everywhere the term man/boy is used to signify self-identification, for some reason it is set in quotes. Within their categorization of ‘Others’ one will find identities such as ‘ftm’, ‘Man but…’ as well as an intersex person, all bundled together. The critique of gender from a trans perspective is unimaginably different from that of an intersex perspective, their notions of identity, the extent of support in reclaiming bodies from medical violence are all so different (and I am ill-equipped to represent it here). Such vague and misdirected additions to the terminology soup are best avoided and the histories of terms be staunchly interrogated.

In conclusion, it is difficult to find any political use to which the arguments/analysis of the book can be put. It is clear that their politics and methodologies are skewed towards securing cisgender struggles, where intersectionality is merely additive in nature and a thoroughly oppressed gender category is merely a decontextualised layer to be added to existing cis-feminist theorizing. This they clarify when they say, ‘Varied transgressions, actually offer newer ways of living the binary as well. It is in all our collective interests to facilitate this opening up of the binary. This will also help transform many of the cisgender gender battles.’ (p. 238) So, one wonders, if cisgender battles are won, will they no longer wish to break the binary?

To quote Spade, quoting Wilchins, in Mutilating Gender – ‘Riki Anne Wilchins describes how trans experience has been used by psychiatrists, cultural feminists, anthropologists, and sociologists “travel[ling] through our lives and problems like tourists . . . [p]icnicking on our identities . . . select[ing] the tastiest tidbits with which to illustrate a theory or push a book.”[7].  In most writing about trans people, our gender performance is put under a microscope to prove theories or build “expertise” while the gender performances of the authors remain unexamined and naturalized.’

In my assessment No Outlaws in the Gender Galaxy continues this trend, but strategically (and therefore more dangerously) masks it under the garb of a methodology that claims that the researchers are engaging with ‘people like them’ (p.3). This danger is made very clear when they first align themselves with Halberstam (an eminently problematic figure) and then say, ‘we belong to the school of thought that allies itself with the ‘subversive intellectual’ who agrees to steal from the university, to ‘abuse its hospitality’ and to be ‘in but not of it’ (Moten and Harney 2004: 101)’ (p.xxviii). My contention remains that they have hardly been to the university to steal anything for this book. Instead they have stolen from trans histories, abused our hospitality and continue to be around but never in or of it. I am reminded of an event to discuss the Trans Rights Bill 2016, held at a social sciences university in Bombay. The issue of bathrooms came up again, and a cisgender student from women’s studies asked the panel this: ‘won’t women give up all that they have struggled for if bathrooms become unisex?’ When books such as this reach university spaces, as they easily will, it will strengthen such ill-advised voices as they challenge the most marginalized, instead of reflect on their participation in keeping structures of oppression alive. If consensual gender were to become a thing, we will have to continue queuing up with our ID cards in front of the bathroom, seeking permission to pee.

I end with a quote from ‘Oru Malayali Hijadayude Athmakatha’ ( can be translated as ‘The Autobiography of a Malayali Hijra’) by Jereena.

In front of the house, there used to be a photo of me dressed as a woman. Kohl in my eyes, a bindi on my forehead, rose powder on my cheeks, lipstick on my lips, earrings in my ears, it was a very beautiful picture. My brothers had removed it. When I asked them where it was, they said that people seeking marital liaisons with their sisters might see the photo and ask who it is and so they removed it. They had questioned, challenged my femininity. I held on till my brother’s wedding got over. Two days after the wedding, when no one was watching, I took a train back to Bangalore.’ (Jereena, 2006; p. 53)[9]   

If you would like to believe that there are no outlaws in the gender galaxy, perhaps it is time to look again. Because your telescopes are pointed at the spots from where our photos have been removed.


  1. Revathi. 2016. A Life in Trans Activism. Zubaan Publishers, Delhi
  2. Gee Imaan Semmalar. 2016. Why Trans Movements in India Must Be Anti-Caste. Accessed from http://www.trans.cafe/posts/2016/12/12/why-trans-movements-in-india-must-be-anti-caste
  3. Satya Rai Nagpaul. 2016. ‘Where are all the f2ms? Trans Visibility and Organizing in India.’ In Revathi, 2016. A Life in Trans Activism (Ch. 18). Zubaan Publishers, Delhi
  4. Jereena. 2006. Oru Malayali Hijadayude Athmakatha. Papyrus Books, Calicut.
  5. Shah, C. Merchant, R. Mahajan, S. Nevatia, S. 2015. No Outlaws in the Gender Galaxy. Zubaan Publishers, Delhi.


[0] See this piece on (among other things) the false dichotomy between transwomen’s feelings and cis-women’s experiences – https://feminisminindia.com/2017/03/17/othered-womanhood-adichie-trans-women/

[1] Most recently, Tara a transwoman from Tamil Nadu was brutally murdered by the police leading to numerous protests and demonstrations led by transwomen http://www.thenewsminute.com/article/transgender-woman-dies-chennai-she-was-found-burnt-outside-police-station-52639

[2] http://www.boundary2.org/2014/08/transgender-studies-today-an-interview-with-susan-stryker/

[3] Please see this discussion (between Zoe Samudzi and @pastachips) on the spectrum of consent, the notion of enthusiastic consent and dangers of uncritical sex positivity – https://storify.com/samudzi/on-sex-positivity-and-empowerment

[4] See Nadika N’s piece on the 2016 Transgender Persons Bill here – http://www.thenewsminute.com/article/transgender-persons-bill-it-claims-grant-rights-will-end-curtailing-them-47649

[5] Text sourced from here – http://sites.middlebury.edu/soan191/files/2013/08/wilchinsReadMyLips2.pdf

[6] Text sourced from here – http://www.makezine.enoughenough.org/mutilate.html

[7] See with caution and a critical lens http://www.dazeddigital.com/artsandculture/article/32213/1/tracing-the-history-of-the-word-queer and https://www.bustle.com/articles/139727-is-the-word-queer-offensive-heres-a-look-at-its-history-in-the-lgbtqa-community

[8] See http://www.thenewsminute.com/article/debunking-origin-behind-word-transgender

[9] This is not an official translation, but done in parts by me for the purpose of this piece. All errors are mine.



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