Invisible Lives: The Erasure of Transsexual and Transgendered People, by Vivian K. Namaste. University of Chicago Press, ISBN 0-226-56810-5 (paper).
First published in Triple Echo v. 3 no. 1, 2001
“That looks like an interesting book,” the obviously gay male said to me as he rang in Vivian Namaste’s book Invisible Lives on the cash register at Chapters. “What’s it about?”
Oh dear. Where to begin.
As a gay male, he must know something about invisibility. Gays and lesbians in our society reside in a curious sub-reality. They’ve made it to television, but if you haven’t had much experience with alternate lifestyles, you’d swear there weren’t any where you worked or played.
I had assumed this would be the theme of Namaste’s book, particularly since compared to gays and lesbians, trans people are – not to put too fine a point on it – completely off the radar. Invisible Lives is instead about research on trans people and how society comes to understand us. While this is primarily a scholarly discussion, Namaste makes a convincing argument that our invisibility extends far beyond the street. We are removed from academic discussion even as we are the principal topic of it.
This “erasure”, as Namaste calls it, occurs in a number of ways.
The first focus of her discussion is queer theory. Queer theory interprets sexual behaviour in the context of history and culture. The meaning of homosexuality, transgenderism, and even heterosexuality will vary widely depending on their historical and cultural contexts. Consequently, queer theorists question the usefulness of such categories Not only are they relatively undefinable, they serve to separate human beings into a hierarchical system that makes the oppression of one or another category inevitable.
Namaste objects to queer theory on both political and theoretical grounds She contends that queer theorists have little regard for the individuals that are the objects of their study and that they have reduced trans people to the “merely figural”. Trans people become a kind of allegory to explain issues of sex and gender relations, race and class, but trans people themselves become invisible in the process. Queer theory talks about the liberating aspects of defying gender roles, but never about the consequences. “The voices, struggles and joys of real transgendered people in the everyday social world are noticeably absent”.
Namaste also objects to queer theory on a theoretical perspective. “Its restricted conception of text determines the selection and interpretation of evidence, facts, and objects – in other words, what counts as knowledge.” Furthermore, queer theory fails to take into account how these texts (that is, books, movies etc.) are selected.
While the work of social scientists is an improvement on queer theory in the sense that it examines the real world, it too is limited because the issues it identifies as important are important to sociologists and not to the people examined. Much of their work is focused on the medical or psychiatric production of transsexuality and on sociological theory. You can see the results of this kind of study in the work of people like Janice Raymond, of Transsexual Empire fame, and Dwight Billings, Thomas Urban and Bernice Hausman who all more or less argue that “transsexuals are the dupes of gender”. Namaste rightly points out that a “restricted consideration of transsexuality distorts the complexity of the social world as it is lived and experienced by transsexual and transgendered people.”
I suspect this argument that trans people are the dupes of gender will one day blow up in the faces its proponents. It is, after all, a remarkably arrogant argument which positions the liberated academics who profess to understand the constructed nature of gender against what Namaste calls, in one of her rare lapses into sarcasm, “the poor duped transsexuals who are victims of false consciousness.”
We need to go beyond the limitations of queer theory and objectivist social science to make sense of the everyday lives of trans people. Namaste proposes a kind of “institutional ethnography” patterned after the work of Canadian sociologist Dorothy Smith. In this research, trans people would be the subjects rather than the objects of study and the focus would lie on the institutional relations that influence their lives.
Namaste’s analysis of institutional exclusion, the ways in which social institutions effectively wash their hands of transsexuals and transgendered people, is ruthlessly efficient. This portion of the book is complementary to the theoretical bits that come before it in that it demonstrates just how complicated the world can be for trans people and how inadequate is the, “neat theoretical overview of transsexual lives as offered by critics in queer theory or objectivist sociology”.
This is a serious issue for all trans people in that institutions are largely responsible for legitimating our existence in the social world. Unfortunately, the difficulties we face in securing the documents we need to live like so-called normal people in society suggests that institutions as a whole have no interest in integrating us into the broader society. From health care to social services, trans people are erased from the institutional world through specific policies and administrative practises.
Namaste goes about detailing this erasure with commendable restraint, but it is easy to believe that many of these policies are implemented out of sheer cruelty. Whether it is dealing with Quebec’s Direction de l’état civil, the police, shelters, health care institutions or the Clarke Gender Identity Clinic, the overwhelming impression is that institutions feel it is their duty to cure trans people of their “transness” by making it as difficult as possible for us. One transsexual quoted in the book calls it “aversion therapy”. If you manage to survive all the obstacles they put in your way, you must be a transsexual. But the more general result of all this exclusion is that trans people. effectively refuse to deal with institutions, and by doing so they are erased from what are, after all, the foundations of our society.
Knowledge is produced by the accumulation of research through academic inquiry and in the workings of institutions. Our invisibility in these areas, Namaste argues, means that trans people are not so much produced by medicine or psychiatry as we are through erasure. Words, images in the movies and television, the work of government and institutions, all these are “the primary medium of power”. If our real lives are excluded from these spheres, then they are in effect rendered as inconceivable. This, I think, is the crux of the issue. The oppression of trans people begins with a lack of understanding by a population that is deeply attached to prevailing conceptions of sex and gender, and deeply unwilling (or incapable) to reexamine them in any way.
As a transsexual woman, Namaste does not have this problem. Her book begins with a simple premise that is not generally found in books by non trans authors: “I take it for granted that transsexual and transgendered people exist, and that we shall continue to do so even as the theoretical frameworks that explain our etiology, celebrate our transgression of a sex/ gender binary, or condemn us to psychosis go in and out of style.” As trans people, we all know this to be true. It is our misfortune that much of the rest of the world cannot know it also.
Invisible Lives is especially worthwhile for the Canadian reader because it demonstrates how limited and, in many cases, irrelevant the “international” trans activism originating in the United States is to Canadian trans people. Namaste notes that many Canadian trans activists have emerged from the street and that trans activism in this country is centred on access to social services. She reflects that activism with an appreciation of the diversity of trans people and in particular with her defence of trans prostitutes.
Although the book’s scholarly discussion can be turgid at times, Invisible Lives is a significant contribution to understanding the sometimes subtle and apparently innumerable ways in which trans people’s lives are marginalized.