Transgender issues have become “crazily important” topics of national debate in recent years, Jack Halberstam said at the start of his talk, “Trans* Bodies, Hapticality and Popular Culture,” in the Gund Gallery’s Community Foundation Theater last Thursday.
Conversations about transgender identity have garnered attention on Kenyon’s campus, as well: Halberstam, a visiting professor of gender studies and English at Columbia University and author of five books on gender, drew a standing-room crowd. Halberstam is one of two transgender speakers who will have appeared on campus within a week. Today, Chris Mosier, the first openly transgender athlete on team U.S.A., will give a common-hour talk in Rosse Hall followed by a Q&A at 7:30 p.m. in Peirce Pub.
In response to mainstream conversation about transgender issues, Halberstam asked his audience to step back and contextualize the current transgender movement within what he called “the long history of gender variability.” Through references to art, film and dance, he complicated the recent push for trans visibility, arguing that transgender people have long been represented as spectacle.
Halberstam proposed a concept “transgender gaze,” through which the transgender identity becomes “a way of seeing, an epistemology.” He asked the audience to resist pinning a narrative on the body and push back on fixed narratives of trans-ness and gender. At times he criticized the political left in general for focusing on “local, particular struggles,” like trigger warnings in classrooms, rather than protesting against the political right, especially after President Donald Trump’s inauguration. He also identified what he called a “vexed relationship” between “transgenderism” — an idiosyncratic word of Halberstam’s — and the mainstream feminist movement and urged both groups to move past it.
“The lecture was challenging but accessible,” Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies Laurie Finke, who organized the talk, said. “He said exactly what I said to peers.”
Though well-attended, the talk received a mixed reception from some transgender students.
Ez Raider-Roth ’19, who uses the pronouns “they, them and theirs,” thought there was an “insurmountable generational gap” between Halberstam and his audience, in part because he refused to accept the validity of non-binary identities, like Raider-Roth’s.
“But, you know, it’s a trans theorist who’s coming to talk,” Raider-Roth added. “We never have that.”
Robin-Phalen Rayson ’18, who is transgender, found problems with the overall message of the talk. “If I have a larger or broader criticism under which my other criticisms fall,” she said, “it’s that Halberstam spoke on the ideal of what trans people could be, which I think, we’re still in a place where we have to focus so much on survival.”
For Sarah Speroff ’18, who helps run Kenyon College Athletes for Equality, the marginalization of the transgender population is why trans speakers should come to campus. Kenyon College Athletes for Equality, a group dedicated to LGBTQ issues in athletics, co-sponsored Chris Mosier’s visit today with Kenyon Students Athletes. Mosier made the national men’s duathlon team in 2015, and Nike featured him in an ad during the 2016 Rio Olympics.
“We feel that transgender people are often excluded from conversations regarding ‘queer’ issues or topics,” Speroff said, “and that this is particularly true in athletics. So we hope that by having Chris speak to his experiences as a trans* athlete, we can educate and make the fight for trans* equality more transparent to our community.”
Raider-Roth is looking forward to Mosier’s talk. “As a trans athlete, it’s so much about the body, about physical, and I felt like Halberstam was talking so much about the theoretical body,” they said.
Rayson, too, thought that, in some ways, a focus on the theoretical ignores the reality of the daily lives of transgender people. She said she has heard men on Kenyon’s campus whispering about her and has not always felt safe.
“Let’s not pretend that we’re a campus that is completely comfortable with trans people,” she said. “We can’t pretend there’s no transphobia.”
Chris Mosier will give a common-hour talk in Rosse Hall next Thursday and Q&A at 7:30 p.m. in Peirce Pub.