The Transgender Movement’s Contestation of Sex: Overcoming Forces of Governmentality and Moving Towards a Transgender Politics of Rights

In the aftermath of Obergefell v. Hodges, attention has rapidly shifted to transgender identity and interests as a new battleground in the fight for LGBTQ rights. In light of the increased attention being focused on transgender rights, this paper examines the costs and benefits of maintaining alliances with existing gay rights groups versus crafting an independent transgender movement, and concludes that the long-term interests of transgender individuals are best served by making the case for a transgender “politics of rights” that challenges the homonormative priorities and conventional legal tactics (such as the binary operationalization of immutable characteristics) associated with mainstream gay rights organizations (Scheingold 2004).

The first half of the paper discusses and analyzes the pros and cons of maintaining alliances with existing gay rights groups versus working to leverage a politics of transgender rights that “politicize[s] needs by changing the way [transgender] people think about their discontents” (Scheingold 2004, 131). While the “T” in LGBT has been largely symbolic and this political alliance has been fraught with difficulties, recognizing that favorable political conditions must converge with preexisting organizational resources to provide activists with a context for effective collective action suggests that transgender interests may be best advanced by working within existing LGBT organizations and capitalizing on their resources to advance transgender rights (McCann 1994, 136). On the other hand, given the gay rights movement’s history of marginalizing transgender interests, the prioritization of homonormative ideals and goals, the emphasis on immutable characteristics and the binary operationalization of sexual orientation, and the possibility that mainstream advocacy groups are confronting waning support in the aftermath of the marriage equality victory, it may be advantageous for transgender advocates to coalesce an independent movement that prioritizes their interests and enables new strategies for pursuing rights based on gender identity.

In the second half of the paper, I argue that an independent transgender movement that gives voice to the broad array of gender identities and perspectives and explicitly challenges the sex binary is necessary to elucidate and challenge the implicit and explicit forces of governmentality that sustain the discriminatory legal and bureaucratic classifications that work to marginalize and subject transgender individuals (Spade 2014). In addition, a transgender social movement that validates and seeks rights recognition for the full range of fluid and complex gender identities will be able to challenge and offer an alternative to the dominant cis-homonormative values that inform and dictate the policy priorities of mainstream gay rights organizations. Such a movement has the potential to produce substantive and meaningful change in the lives of all transgender and gender non-conforming individuals.


Part of panel Constructing and Transcending Homonormativity
October 2, 2016, 14:15–16:00