All my ducks were in a row, but it was turtles all the way down

[Posting very  short excerpts from my book, as I work on last edits to it.]

For years, I had put off doing the paperwork to change my legal sex in my Social Security records. Partly I had delayed doing this because word had it on the transgender digital street that during the administration of President George W. Bush, the SSA had tightened the requirements for changing the sex marker in one’s record.  (It had.) I had also procrastinated because this was not a bureaucratic transaction I could accomplish through the faceless anonymity of the U.S. mail. Unlike residents of, say, Nebraska, at that time residents of Brooklyn, Queens, and five other municipalities across the country had to show up in person at a “Social Security Card Center” to “strengthen the integrity of the Social Security Number.” The idea of outing myself in a face-to-face transaction with a government bureaucrat was not appealing to me. (I had already had that odd experience at the New York Department of Motor Vehicles, described in the preface.)

But by the time President Bush left the Oval Office, I had decided to get all my ducks in a row, and get the record changed.  I had developed a slightly paranoid fear that I would be denied my social security benefits at some point in the future because of a mis-match between the SSA’s record associated with the number that was assigned to me and (what I can only describe as) myself. A few years earlier,  as I was researching the history of New York City’s policy for changing the sex marker on birth certificates, in a relatively dustless archive of a medical association, I had read a letter written in 1965 by a federal official at the Division of Vital Statistics at the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. He was responding to an inquiry from the head of New York City’s Bureau of Records and Statistics who had asked for his department’s input on a policy for applications for a “change of sex” on the birth certificate. In researching the question, the federal official surveyed various federal agencies and found that the “crucial problem” raised by the question concerned the status of the connection between two different files, with different names and sex markers. “Assuming that ‘x’ has undergone medical treatment [operations for “change of sex”], how do we link ‘x’ with the birth certificate?” As a researcher, it had been exciting to come across a letter, written over forty years prior, in which a federal bureaucrat consciously reflected about one of the central problems of modern state formations—how to recognize its citizens—and tied that to the question of legal sex classification. Somewhat later though, and from the perspective of myself as an economic being who hopes to receive Social Security benefits upon retirement, the idea that the SSA might not be able to connect me to my records instilled a sense of vertigo. What if the government said the Paisley Currah in their records was not me? What if “I” was not sufficiently linked with the Paisley Currah who would be the future recipient of Social Security benefits?

In 2009, the handbook for consumers on the Social Security Website explained what forms and documents one must tender for an ordinary “change of information” request, including changing one’s name or correcting one’s date of birth. Change of legal sex presumably fell under this “change of information” category, but there weren’t any particular instructions for that. Digging deeper, I came upon the SSA’s online manual for its field officers, Programs Operations Manual System (POMS).  There, under the heading, “Changing Numident Data for Reasons other than Name Change,” I found what I needed. SSA field officers are instructed: “Sex-Operation: Applicant must submit a letter from his or her surgeon or the attending physician verifying that the sex change surgery was completed. All documents must clearly identify the NH.”[iv] NH is the acronym for Numident Holder; Numident is a short form of Numerical Identification System. “My” number, my file, is the Numident; I am merely the Numident Holder. If my request was successful, the regulations state, “a new record showing the new data is appended to the prior record(s) on the Numident.” My identity in this federal database would not be erased but augmented—the records of the male “Paisley Alan Currah” would be appended to prior records of the female “Paisley Ann Currah.”  While the Social Security Administration has not yet identified a solution to the larger epistemological uncertainty hovering over the link my SSA files and myself—or, more precisely, the link between the Numident and the presumptive Numident Holder—at least “my” different records would be connected administratively.

The documents the SSA required for me to change my information were filed away at home. I filled out Form SS-5, “Application for a Social Security Card,” which is used for new cards as well as for change of information, checked the box marked “Male,” wrote in my new name and my old name, and went downtown to 625 Fulton Street in downtown Brooklyn to get the deed done. When I arrived, about fifty people were already in line, waiting to get through metal detectors before going up to the sixth floor where the card center is actually located. Three armed guards from a private security firm periodically broadcast directives to us Numident Holders and would-be Numident Holders—no food, no drink except for water or infant formula, no alcohol, no weapons of any kind, no tools.

Up on the sixth floor, the wait was much shorter. When I was called to window #21, I passed my SS-5, through the slot below the window. “Is this for a new card?” the field officer asked through the window’s intercom system. This was the moment I had been dreading. “I’m just updating the information on the card, the gender and the name,” I responded, wondering if any clients at nearby windows could hear me. I was instructed to slide my documents over, which included my passport as proof of identity, proof of my name change, and a notarized letter from a surgeon.  The clerk first looked at the order from the Civil Court of the City of New York granting me “the right to assume the name of Paisley Alan Currah”—this was a familiar document. (I had already changed my name on my old passport and driver’s license—Paisley Ann Currah—to Paisley Alan Currah, and also my sex classification on both documents.) After she’d skimmed it, she ran her hand over the last page to feel for the court’s seal. She turned to the next document, the doctor’s letter. It stated that, “Psychological and medical testing has been carried out to determine the patient’s true gender. In the case of Paisley Currah, this was determined to be male.” It also stated the patient had undergone “surgical procedures…to irreversibly alter his anatomy and appearance to that of a male.” This document, which was only five sentences long, took this field officer what seemed like quite some time to read.

After a few long minutes, the officer looked up, smiled, and said, “All right, I’m just going to check this out, verify it, and we’re good.” She left the window in search of a supervisor, or at least someone who knew what to do with my request. After wandering from one end of the long glassed-in area to the other at least three times, she finally found someone to advise her—the field officer at window 25. They consulted for a few minutes, looking over my documents together.  Before my field officer returned to the window, she photocopied my documents.  “Okay, it’s all checked out, and we’re good.” She started typing away at the computer, making changes. She looked up once to inform me that my immigration status had never been updated. “I can fix that right now.” The friendliness level had ratcheted up significantly. She was now super helpful and I was super appreciative. When she was done, she had me sign a form consenting to all the changes to my record and returned all the originals and a receipt to me. I thanked her and skedaddled out of there.

It was, but for the long wait, the security checks, and the suspense at window 21, a relatively painless exercise. I had done what conscientious “numident holders” are supposed to do to keep their information up to date. I had figured out the proper procedure, filled out the form, waited patiently in a long line, and proffered the right documents to the Social Security Administration. And since domestication/recognition involves mutuality, the federal government, at least this particular agency in this particular case, had assented to my request for recognition. My sex classification had been changed to reflect the changes to my body described in the doctor’s letter, my name had been changed, even my citizenship status had been updated. All my ducks were in a row, but it was turtles all the way down.

From the beginning of the chapter on states and sex classification. 




Feminism, Gender Pluralism, and Gender Neutrality: Maybe it’s time to bring back the binary

Why is there so little talk of boycotting anti-abortion states? Tim Cook, Mark Zuckerberg and other CEOS appear to have no hesitation calling anti-LGBT laws “bad for our employees and bad for business.” So why are they so silent on ant-abortion legislation? (SF Gate has a useful summary of anti-LGBT legislation. And for state anti-abortion initiatives the Guttmacher Institute has a page that describes what these bills and laws attempt to regulate or ban.) The SF Gate list points out how many of the anti-LGBT bills (e.g. Arkansas, Georgia, Indiana, Wyoming) failed to passed or were revised because of threats from businesses. The Human Rights Campaign suggests it’s because corporate employee resource groups for women must not be be pushing the issue, unlike their LGBT counterparts. But that explanation can’t be the whole story.

(Warning–this is a longish read, working out some ideas for the book and needed to imagine an actual audience. I can’t provide the definitive answer to the question of how support for LGBT rights have outpaced abortion rights or women’s rights generally.  But I’m working out a few ideas on how the concept of transgender figures in all of this.  This is still rough, comments welcome. Part of this is based on a talk I gave at the CUNY Graduate Center, “Are Transgender Politics Feminist?” in November.)

In the last decade, movements for transgender equality appear to have advanced  with astonishing speed, while other issues of concern to women’s movements have largely stalled, either making little progress (equal pay) or suffering real setbacks (abortion access). From policy reforms to public opinion trends, it seems that the situation has changed faster, and in a more positive direction, for trans people than for women. (And yes, of course I include trans women in the category of “women.”) This apparent gap may be exacerbated in the United States: at the conclusion of the culture wars of the last forty years, the almost inseparable bond between movements for sexual and gender freedom that marked liberationist discourse of the 1970s has been torn asunder, reconstituted through the logic of an identity politics that affirms the demands for recognition of sexual and gender minorities but finds the misogyny that still structures all women’s lives less intelligible, outside the scope of the liberal project of inclusion. One 2015 poll (PDF), for example, found that 72 percent of the millennial generation in the United States favor laws banning discrimination against transgender people—a proportion very close to the 73 percent who support protections for gay and lesbian people. But only 55 percent of this generation, born between 1980 and 2000, say abortion should be legal in all (22 percent) or some (33 percent) cases.

Given this divergence in public opinion on LGBT and abortion access, then it’s no wonder that businesses are silent on abortion rights (not to mention redistributionist demands for reproductive justice, which really aren’t ” business friendly”). But how did we get to this point? What happened? It’s as if second-wave feminism was surpassed by the next wave before it could realize its goals: eliminating or radically reorganizing the economic structures (targeted by Marxist and socialist feminists) and institutions and norms (targeted by cultural and liberal feminists) responsible for the subjugation of women. But burdened internally by the racial and class hierarchies it reproduced, limited by an analytical framework that invariably prioritized the workings of the sex/gender binary over other oppressive processes, and confronted externally by emerging neoliberal technologies of governance that could accommodate new articulations of social difference without having to modify the fundamental algorithms for the distribution of inequality, second-wave feminism was not equipped to succeed. Certainly, the long-term transformative potential of the sex positive, trans-affirming, more racially aware and engaged, and more politically ecumenical third/fourth wave remains unknown, but there is some promise in the ways it has departed from the various grand narratives of the European Enlightenment, which include the third/fourthwave’s refusal to accede to the ontological priority of any particular group; its capacity to make visible the effects of power on vastly different scales, from the molecular to the global; and its rejection of the primacy of traditional political forms (the party, legal institutions) in favor of situating resistance in cultural moments and provisional events.

A little background on what “transgender” has come to mean: By the late 1990s, the division between what Jay Prosser called the transsexual who “literalizes” gender, and the transgender who “deliteralizes”  has been resolved: “transgender” emerged as the conceptual victor. Its very plasticity meant it could accommodate specificity of all kinds—including “wrong body” transsexuals–under the abstract construction of gender non-conformity. At this point, the notion of a “transgender umbrella” emerges as an educational device to represent (or to contain) all the many different forms of gender non-conformity extant at any one time and in any one place. As Ben Singer recounts, one of its earliest documented sightings was in the form of a “a hand drawn umbrella with an open canopy stretched over a now dated set of terms: “crossdresser (‘drag’),” “transvestic fetishist,” “transvestite,” “transgenderist,” “’transsexual” and “man/woman.” Since then the term “transgender” imagined as an umbrella has never stopped expanding, and generates a seemingly endless proliferation of practices and identities. Susan Stryker explains that transgender now stands for “any and all kinds of variation from gender norms and expectations.”

The political function of the transgender umbrella was to aggregate all these disparate ways of being together in order to constitute a group organized around a coherent politics of identity that could become a political force. And in that way, it has been very successful. But “transgender umbrella” obscured and continues to obscure fundamental disagreements between those it shelters about sex, about gender and the gender binary, about transition, the ontological status of the body, the fixity of gender, differential vulnerabilities based on race and class. In short, there are lots of noises coming out from underneath the transgender umbrella–it’s not at all harmonious, it’s actually quite cacophonous if you’re listening.

The point of this very abridged genealogy of  “transgender” is show how the term found an intellectual foundation in the trends in what became the dominant tendency in US feminist theory. Just as transgender superseded transsexual (by absorbing it), the notion of gender won out over the conceptual frame of sex difference. Rather than seeing gender/sex as a binary structure defined by the Symbolic, as in French psychoanalysis or by the somatic, as in American radical feminists, what was then called postmodern feminism has, as Rita Felski put it in 1996, “sought in different ways to break out of the prisonhouse of gender by reconceptualizing masculinity and femininity as performative, unstable, and multiply determined practices.” The fixed sexual binary was replaced by what people took to be gender fluidity and multiplicity, endlessly proliferating gender differences. And of course, with that approach, the binary became a continuum, eventually an embarrassment, and sex was absorbed into gender (much as transsexual was uneasily absorbed into transgender). Through all this somehow transgender maintained its dual use. As a term of identity politics, it represents a group of people defined by gender non-conformity. In theory, on the frontiers of gender activism, it can signal the fundamental instability of any kind of gender practice, conforming or not. (I had not realized until just now when I looked it up that “dual use” originated in the Cold War to describe technologies that can be used for both war-making and peace-making.)

Much was gained with this move away from the centrality of the sex/gender binary. The sexual difference framework established that binary as universal, ahistorical, and primary, and as a consequence analyses focused on race, class, and other intersectional social locations were pretty much impossible. One could focus on the social and material determinants of differential vulnerabilities of actual people rather than just re-read Lacan or Mary Daly. Gender provided a theoretical home for queer and trans gender subjects that sexual difference mostly could not.

But one crucial tool was lost: the emphasis on asymmetry. A gender theory, a transgender umbrella, that transcended the binary, that observed and enabled a multiplicity of differences, could no longer say much about women’s subordination, in the parlance of the second wave. As Rosi Braidotti asked Judith Butler in 1994, a few years after Gender Trouble was published and had begun to change everything, “Whatever happened to sexual difference understood as the dissymmetrical power relations between the sexed subjects?’”

What are the consequences of this shift away from the gender binary and toward gender pluralism?  For one thing, misogyny begins to disappear from our political lexicon.  As I wrote in a post on “disappearing women” last year, while it’s certainly right to demand that providers of reproductive health services use trans-inclusive language, we lose important historical and analytical frameworks for understanding the restriction and possible ending of abortion as part of a war against women.

With the rejection of a binary organized around sexual difference, and the concomitant inability to acknowledge asymmetrical gendered power relations, we no longer have the ability to examine how gender still matters in the unjust distribution of resources, how one’s position toward the feminine end of the continuum (if not the binary) still has effects. Instead, the agenda becomes the demand that all forms of gender difference be included and recognized. For all those many kinds of people under the transgender umbrella, politics focuses now on all the ways in which gender can be remixed: from the now traditional male-to-female and female-to-male transition trajectories to genderqueer to non-binary.

That is all well and good, it’s necessary, and important and that has been much of what I’ve focused on in my earlier work. Indeed, at earlier points in my own intellectual history, I’ve suggested gender pluralism should be a or the goal of trans movements for equality. I saw it as a move away from identity-bound rights discourse and made room for both a critique of the medical model (in which transsexuality is seen as merely reinscribing gender) and a critique of the critique (in which transgender as it’s been absorbed into queer theoretical projects becomes the new revolutionary class). I thought of gender pluralism as an arrangement in which transsexual and genderqueer narratives would not cancel each other out.

My approach was, I have to say, necessarily liberal in that it centered the quests for recognition of trans communities, sub-communities, genres. Now, however, it’s become clear that this sort of gender pluralism and the reconstructed autonomy that attends it resonate deeply with a neoliberal ethos that has begun to value gender “diverse” people as a potentially valuable forms of human capital. In this vein, Jasbir Puar describes (PDF) a new transnormative body, one “predicated not on passing but on ‘piecing,’ galvanized through mobility, transformation, regeneration, flexibility, and the creative concocting of the body.” In the new metrics of diversity, no one under the transgender umbrella, regardless of the form their gender non-conformity takes, should be locked out of the market.  As a form of human capital, gender non-conformity is something we can attend to, invest in, turn into a commodity.

At one point, matters of recognition for trans people and feminist projects were more deeply linked, though few outside trans communities understood this early on.  Longtime trans activist Phyllis Frye certainly did–though her arguments about the importance of transgender quests for recognition to the same-sex marriage debate were pretty much ignored by the gay rights impact litigators who did not want the stigma attached to transsexuals to contaminate the marriage equality movement. Julie Greenberg’s important 2000 article, “When is a man a man, and when is a woman a woman,” explained that the transsexual marriage cases could have “a profound effect on the rights of gays and lesbians to marry.” Gender has long been a mechanism for the distribution of resources, rights, and obligations: coverture, property and inheritance rights, military service, marriage and the benefits that come with it.

But for gender to do that work, agencies need systems of sex classification, which are effectively metrics for sex re-classification. States couldn’t ban same-sex marriage, Congress couldn’t pass the Defense of Marriage Act, if there were no method for deciding who was a man and who was a woman.  Marriage determines parenting rights, inheritance, access to social security rights, and many other things. Distinguishing between an opposite-sex marriage and a same-sex marriage depends on the power of state actors to make sex classifications, as the trans marriage litigation makes very clear, which I talk about in another chapter. If a trans person’s new gender was to be officially recognized a state agency, the “transition” had better be permanent, trans advocates were told again and again. And surgery was assumed to guarantee permanence. Lisa Jean Moore and I wrote about the presumed importance of permanence in a 2009 article, “‘We Won’t Know Who You Are’: Contesting Sex Designations on New York City Birth Certificates.”  (In case you’re wondering, I use “sex” to refer to M/F classifications backed by the force of law; I use gender to refer to identities, norms, social arrangements, etc.)

As gender becomes less and less a legal mechanism for distributing rights and resources, transgender issues get de-coupled from feminism, although few saw that connection when it mattered most. Now that same-sex marriage is legal in all fifty states, systems for sex classification are beginning to matter less and less–at least for the purposes of marriage. For other state projects, like incarceration, sex classification still matters a great deal. But, overall, the general trend is toward more recognition for more people: sex re-classification systems are beginning to move away from requiring surgery or other body modifications. We’re not there yet, but at this rate of change it’s possible to envision the coming of a gender pluralism recognized by states and valued by markets.

In the move to gender pluralism, to gendered multiplicities of becoming, the sex/gender binary is necessarily displaced by the narrow legal construction of gender neutrality. As a result, even situations that aren’t at all gender neutral as treated as if they were. For example, GLBT legal advocates initially did not include any trans women as named plaintiffs in their lawsuit challenging North Carolina’s HB2, which was passed in part because of the panic surrounding the idea of trans women using women’s bathrooms. As I wrote in a post about the new bathroom trans panic last month, leaving them out [in favor of two trans men], the legal groups skirted around the crux of the controversy. That may be a reasonable legal strategy, but it’s not a political response to a raging conservative anti-trans agenda. Nor is it a response to the violence wrought upon trans women. Some of that violence is made possible by the same ideas about gender that make the trans panic defense for homicide seem reasonable.” Here the the legal intervention into the bathroom rule was based on the abstract category of “transgender.” This case shows how gender neutrality projects the too analytically neat assumptions of the legal sphere onto the social, and makes it difficult if not impossible to challenge the misogyny that trans women encounter and that underwrote the rule in the first place.

I’m not suggesting that we rehabilitate the sexual difference framework in its entirety. Any conceptual framework, from the sex/gender binary to the transgender-cisgender dichotomy, risks ossification, risks turning what had been a provisional and generative idea into a methodological imperative that over time obscures more than it reveals.  Plus I am too old a dog to start reading Lacan now, and I’m not interested in going back to the radical feminists or, heaven forbid, trying to convince TERFS of anything. But I do think that, in particular moments and circumstances, we need a transgender feminist approach that is not gender-neutral–that dares to identify asymmetry when it sees it.




Trans Political Economy — CFP


TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly Issue 4 Volume 1, 2017

Special issue on Trans- Political Economy

Co-editors Dan Irving ( and Vek Lewis (

Trans* embodiment, subjectivities, networks, advocacy and resistance are mediated by global capitalism and neoliberal regimes of accumulation on national, state and local levels. This issue invites trans scholarship that engages with political economy as an assemblage of dynamic processes that frame but do not completely determine the material lives of non-normatively sexed and/or gendered individuals and communities.

This issue aims to problematize the multidimensional circuits and flows of capital, labour and bodies across various types of borders. How do the material experiences of trans* subjects advance understandings of the political economy of intra- and transnational mobilities? What do the politics of trans migration reveal about the gender/labour/violence nexus and racialized hierarchies that facilitate the advancement of passable bodies while hindering others? How is the legibility of gendered, racialized, sexualized bodies contingent on being properly located in relation to social, economic and cultural capital? How do trans/feminist and other social justice scholars and activists hold particular trans subjectivities (especially trans women) personally responsible for their participation in geopolitical and biocapitalist relations in ways that other gender non-conforming individuals are not?

Debates concerning post-Fordist productive/consumer relations, gender and immaterial labour represent another point of entry for scholarly-activist inquiry into the political economic relations governing these new times. While the expansion of the service economy within post-industrial societies is characteristic of Post-Fordism (e.g. food and hospitality services, childcare, retail), this regime of accumulation emphasizes the centrality of service relations between workers and consumers in all sectors. Capitalist relations exceed narrowly defined economic processes (i.e. commodity production/consumption) and pivot around affective labour, moral or emotional economies.  In other words, individual bodies and personalities are put to work to create positive consumer experiences (i.e. workers’ appearances must be attractive, voices soothing, and behavior must signal enthusiasm, dedication, and/or deference to authority).  How do the un/der/employment experiences of trans men and women, demonstrate the failure of particular bodies to produce feelings of security, safety, belonging, and satisfaction? How does trans labour contribute to economies of desire? What logics and interests underline the criminalization and/or precarity of such labour and the lives and status of those implicated?

We are producing trans- political economic analysis in times of war, economic and ecological crises. Such precarious times demand inter/disciplinary inquiry into the ways that gender non-conforming bodies and/or Trans Studies as a body of literature, artistic and activist production serve as sites of contestation. How are the logics of capital being embodied and resisted on micropolitical levels, through non-profit organizations, via social service agencies and through other efforts to achieve substantive equality and transformative justice?

Possible topics may include:

  • trans* affective economies
  • trans entrepreneurialism and economic empowerment
  • the structural realities of race and gender in locales of trans* mobilities
  • Trans and allied critical work and activism that seeks to interrupt ruling relations of contemporary capital and Empire to forge a transformative and decolonial project of social and economic justice.
  • trans* intranational and international migration
  • Trans Studies as marketable brand
  • trans theories of value
  • criminalized economies
  • neoliberal biopolitics and/or administering life chances
  • economies of trans representation within neoliberal market society
  • accumulation processes and bodies that matter
  • trans/gender and immaterial labour
  • biomedicine and global capitalism
  • Trans sexualities, commodification and re-appropriation in contemporary junctures.
  • Trans lives in the context of parallel powers, para-state formations and economic contention.
  • Capital and the uses/misuses of stigma
  • substantive equality in contradistinction to formal equality
  • trans necro political economies
  • The profitability of “diversity” in neoliberal contexts and discourses
  • Trans lives, states of exception, disposable labour and market value in the shadow of law and state
  • trans* specific and inclusive social service provision in austere times
  • trans subjectivities and class
  • theorizing economic and ecological crisis
  • Politics of public/private in trans lives
  • Trans sexualities, commodification and re-appropriation in contemporary junctures.
  • trans un/der/employment
  • trans networks and circuits of human, cultural and social capital

To be considered, please send a full length submission by January 31, 2016 to With your article, please include a brief bio including name, postal address, and any institutional affiliation as well as a 150 word abstract with 3-5 keywords. The expected range for scholarly articles is 5000 to 7000 words, and 1000 to 2000 words for shorter critical essays and descriptive accounts. Illustrations should be included with both completed submissions and abstracts. Any questions should be addressed by e-mail sent to the guest editors for the issue: Dan Irving ( and Vek Lewis (

TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly is a new journal, edited by Paisley Currah and Susan Stryker published by Duke University Press. TSQ aims to be the journal of record for the interdisciplinary field of transgender studies and to promote the widest possible range of perspectives on transgender phenomena broadly defined. Every issue of TSQ will be a specially themed issue that also contains regularly recurring features such as reviews, interviews, and opinion pieces. To learn more about the journal and see calls for papers for other special issues, visit   For information about subscriptions, visit