« Undoing Theory : The « Transgender Question » and the Epistemic Violence of Anglo-American Feminist Theory » de Viviane Namaste

Undoing Theory : The « Transgender Question » and the Epistemic Violence of Anglo-American Feminist Theory de Viviane Namaste


For nearly twenty years, Anglo-American feminist theory has posed its own epistemological questions by looking at the lives and bodies of transsexuals and transvestites. This paper examines the impact of such scholarship on improving the everyday lives of the people central to such feminist argumentation. Drawing on indigenous scholarship and activisms, I conclude with a consideration of some central principles necessary to engage in feminist research and theory—to involve marginal people in the production of knowledge and to transform the knowledge-production process itself.

10.1111/j.1527-2001.2009.01043.x About DOI

Since the early 1990s, Anglo-American feminist theory has articulated a project of critical reflection in which the lives, bodies, and realities of transsexual women are front and center.1 With the publication of Judith Butler’sGender Trouble (1990), followed by Bodies That Matter (1993), feminist theory has interrogated the ways in which categories of both « sex » and « gender » are constituted.

Butler’s argument, well known in academic circles, is that by looking at the bodies of transsexual and transgender women, we can reflect on the ways in which all manifestations of gender are secured through specific forms of speech, dress, and mannerism. In this logic, gender is not something that exists prior to a subject, but is something achieved in and through its repetition. In Butler’s project, transsexual women and transvestites are central objects of inquiry. The epistemological questions Butler raises have been taken up with great interest and enthusiasm within Anglo-American feminist theory. Course outlines and conferences, for example, are incomplete without reference to her contribution. Prestigious feminist theory journals like Signs include recent contributions that theorize the importance of transgender questions to feminist theory (Heyes 2003). For nearly twenty years, then, Anglo-American feminist theory has been preoccupied with the « Transgender Question. » This phrase—the « Transgender Question »—refers to the ways in which feminist theory depends on looking at transsexual and transgendered bodies in order to ask its own epistemological questions. Current discussions within Anglo-American feminist theory—notably the central question of considering how gender is constituted—take place primarily through citing transsexual and transvestite bodies. Anglo-American feminist theory asks the Transgender Question in order to go about its business.

Given that the field of Anglo-American feminist theory has relied on transsexual women to ask theoretical questions since the early 1990s, it is perhaps appropriate at this point in history to evaluate the extent to which transsexual women themselves have been served by such an academic feminist project. If feminist theory emerged as a way to explain women’s lives so that we can better intervene to improve our everyday worlds, then it is important to consider the ways in which knowledge and action are connected. If one holds this particular understanding of feminist theory, one might expect, given that so many feminist theorists, teachers, and graduate students are speaking and writing about transsexual women, that this knowledge is useful for the lives of the transsexual women central to feminist argumentation and theory.

Yet such expectations arise only from a certain vision of feminist theory, a certain understanding of the role of the intellectual. Because feminist theory has made transsexual women central to its project over the past (nearly) twenty years, the time is ripe to unpack not just what feminist theorists say about gender or about transsexuals. Rather, the intellectual and political project at stake is to examine the particular model of theory and politics espoused in Anglo-American feminist theory and to adequately theorize the political consequences of such a framework. This article takes up this challenge through a detailed reading of Butler’s work. Given the importance and impact of her oeuvre within feminist scholarship more generally, however, the questions that I raise are posed with respect to the broader field of Anglo-American feminist theory.


To begin an article with an examination of the recent history of transsexual women in feminist theory privileges the realm of academic scholarship. Yet a careful, grounded approach to knowledge-production and transsexual women since the early 1990s would also need to consider the ways in which transsexual women themselves have been central to generating knowledge. The specific case of HIV and transsexual women amply illustrates this problematic. I offer an overview of this question here (admittedly incomplete), set within the same time parameters as the Anglo-American feminist theory discussed above (late 1980s/early 1990s to the present). This snapshot provides a different window into questions of knowledge and action concerning transsexual women than those posed by most Anglo-American feminist theorists.

To declare that HIV has had a significant impact on the lives, bodies, and communities of transsexual women would be an understatement. Across the globe, transsexual women—and transsexual prostitutes and drug users in particular—indicate some of the highest rates of HIV seroprevalence of any particular community. To those of us who have been in the milieu for some time now, to those of us who have thought about these issues since the 1980s, such information is hardly new. Already in the late 1980s, transsexuals began organizing worldwide to study the impact of HIV in our worlds and to organize a collective response. Diana Alan, an Australian activist, was one of the first leaders in this area, noting that transsexuals indicated HIV seroprevalence rates double that of other populations (Alan 1988; Alan et al. 1989). New Zealand witnessed community organizing among transsexual and transvestite prostitutes in the early 1990s and published a newsletter: ON TOP (Ongoing Network—Transsexual Outreach Project 1992). Also in the early 1990s, transsexual women in Montréal organized a community-based HIV-prevention project that was designed to produce information that was relevant and adapted to our lives, and that respected the work of prostitution. In Paris, the project Prévention Action Santé Travesti pour les Transgenres (PASTT) offered information, resources, referral, and condom distribution to the large Parisian transsexual community—in bars, associations, and, of course, the Bois de Boulogne. All of these projects—and many others like them around the world—were formed in an attempt to stem the dramatic tide of HIV among transsexual women. This history (admittedly brief, partial, and incomplete) reminds us that activists and community leaders have known for more than twenty years the devastating impacts of HIV on transsexual women.

Such knowledge has been present in certain circles and circumstances for twenty years now: community leaders and everyday people have exchanged information and resources internationally—in an era before the Internet—as a fundamental aspect of survival. Although it is true that certain key people have understood the terrible consequences of HIV within transsexual communities since at least the late 1980s, it is also true that there was very little scientific data to support such a claim. Epidemiological categories, organized around distinct « risk groups » (for example, men who have sex with men, intravenous drug users, people from a county where HIV is endemic), had no place for transsexual women or transsexual men (Singer 2008). Unrecorded in official statistics, the extent of the epidemic among transsexual women remained hidden.

The 1990s witnessed an important development in this field, in that certain epidemiological studies on HIV seroprevalence among transsexual women were conducted. The results are staggering. Transsexual women have indicated rates of HIV seroprevalence that not only surpass those of other marginalized populations, but that provide clear evidence that populations of transsexual women are some of those most affected by HIV internationally. Statistics from available studies point to cause for concern, such as the seroprevalence rate of 14% among transsexual women in Puerto Rico (Rodriguez-Madera and Toro-Alfonso 2005) or Chicago (Kenagy and Bostwick 2005). Yet the available data underlines that the situation is more than worrisome, as transsexual women indicate HIV seroprevalence rates that exceed those of other populations affected by the pandemic, such as the rates in Houston (25%, Risser et al. 2005), Sydney (21%, Alan et al. 1989), Amsterdam (24%, Gras et al. 1997), or San Francisco (35%, Clements-Nolle et al. 2001). Further analysis reveals that the situation is grave indeed not just for transsexual women in general, but for certain people within this broader population, notably prostitutes, women of color, drug users, and prisoners. If the previous statistics were already alarming, analysis of these subcategories reveals increased vulnerability to HIV: 63% of transsexual women of color in San Francisco indicated HIV-positive status in one study (Clements et al. 2001). With regard to prostitution, an epidemiological study in Lisbon found an HIV seroprevalence rate of 46.4% (Bernardo et al. 1998), while in the early 1990s Atlanta indicated HIV seroprevalence rates of 68% among transsexual sex-trade workers (Elifson et al. 1993). Internationally, the rates of HIV are as high if not higher: Rio de Janeiro indicated 63.8% seroprevalence (Surratt et al. 1996); researchers confirmed a 62% HIV seroprevalence rate among transsexual women and travestis in Buenos Aires (Berkins and Fernandez 2005); Sao Paulo revealed an HIV seroprevalence rate of 78% among travestis who were imprisoned (Varella et al. 1996); and a research project in Rome confirmed an HIV seroprevalence rate of 74% among transsexuals and travestis who use drugs (Gattari et al. 1992). Perhaps most notably, the last study cited also demonstrated that 100% of people in the sample population of travestis and transsexuals were HIV-positive after being in the milieu for more than four years.2

These data tell us a number of things. First, it is clear that HIV has ravaged communities of transsexual women around the world. More optimistically, however, the recent studies conducted—some in collaboration with transsexual communities themselves—suggest that transsexual women have at least entered into the terms of epidemiological knowledge. While the HIV seroprevalence rates cited are, quite simply, horrific, this information can also be used for policy, programming, services, and community organizing. In this light, the past twenty years have also witnessed some small gains in which a marginalized population has, at the very least, been afforded a certain kind of recognition.


The knowledge outlined in the previous section, which demonstrates the vulnerability of transsexual women and travestis to HIV, is of a different order than most of the reflections offered on trans lives in the context of academic feminist theory. This article, then, asks for some critical reflection on this disjuncture as a way to begin to imagine different models for the production of theory.

Given the significance of Butler’s oeuvre, it is useful to think critically about the nature of the theory that she proposes, as well as how she arrives at her particular model of theory. A more detailed reading of a recent text explicitly concerned with gender—indeed, with the Transgender Question itself—provides a useful point of entry for considering the limits of Butler’s approach, and for thinking through the weaknesses of the particular model of feminist theory she advocates.

Undoing Gender (Butler 2004) is a collection of essays whose shared objective includes thinking about people who often remain excluded from the very category human. It is both marked by, and in dialogue with, certain forms of political organizing related to gender. In Butler’s words,

my own thinking has been influenced by the « New Gender Politics » that has emerged in recent years, a combination of movements concerned with transgender, transsexuality, intersex and their complex relations to feminist and queer theory. (4)

This engagement with social movements informs, in part, the choice of an object of study. Butler makes a compelling argument that, when considering transsexual and transgender people, the question of violence is central. She considers « why violence against transgender subjects is not recognized as violence, and why this violence is sometimes inflicted by the very states that should be offering such subjects protection from such violence » (Butler 2004, 30). This focus on violence against transsexual and transgender people brings into sharp relief the limits of the very category human. By examining how violence occurs, as well as how it may not be recognized, Butler’s project seeks to imagine the very challenge to individuals’ and communities’ survival (Butler 2004, 206–7). Thinking about survival in relation to knowledge-production, for Butler, illustrates the political import of feminist theory (Butler 2004, 207; 217).

To be sure, Butler’s project holds the promise of creating knowledge useful to victims of violence. In an explicit attempt to account for questions of race and class in this question, Butler notes the inordinate amount of violence directed against « trans persons of color » and locates that violence as « part of a continuum of the gender violence that took the lives of Brandon Teena, Matthew Shephard, and Gwen Araujo » (Butler 2004, 6). The substantive content of Butler’s argument—that many trans people are subject to violence based on their perceived appearance—provides a compelling background for her broader project that seeks to interrogate the limits of the human. Moreover, if, as Butler argues, this specific manifestation of violence goes unrecognized and or is legitimated by states, then she is also correct to argue for the political function of knowledge that makes visible such realities.

A concern with violence against transsexual and transgender people is also evident in sites of political organizing outside of academe. In the English-speaking world, perhaps the most notable articulation of activism in this regard is the Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR) and its affiliate website, Remembering Our Dead (Smith 2008). TDOR is an annual occasion to take stock of the violence to which trans people are subjected. Taking place in the United States and internationally, activists organize candlelight vigils, political rallies, and social activities as a way to recognize and denounce this violence. The Remembering Our Dead website, closely affiliated with TDOR, offers a list of the women and men who have been killed because of their transsexual or transgender status. In the words of site organizer Gwendolyn Ann Smith, « over the last decade, one person per month has died due to transgender-based hate or prejudice, regardless of any other factors in their lives. This trend shows no sign of abating » (Smith 2008). TDOR and Remembering Our Dead engage in the political work brought forth in Butler’s theory: to make visible the consequences of living beyond normative sex/gender relations and to denounce the violence directed against visibly transsexual and transgender bodies. Although Butler does not explicitly refer to either TDOR or Remembering Our Dead, her invocation of a « continuum of the gender violence that took the lives of … » (Butler 2004, 6) shares both political and theoretical affinities with Remembering Our Dead’s proclamation that people are killed due to « transgender-based hate or prejudice » (Smith 2008).

Violence against transsexual and transvestite bodies, then, is central to Butler’s feminist theory, as well as to contemporary political activism. Certainly, the claim that transsexual and transvestite bodies are subjected to violence cannot be disputed. Butler cites numerous cases of such acts in passing (Butler 2004, 6; 34; 216–17), and both TDOR and Remembering Our Dead provide ample evidence that transsexuals and transvestites are verbally, psychologically, and physically assaulted. The social science literature further confirms such empirical realities (Namaste 2000). Yet how to account for, understand, and respond to such violence remains contested, at least if one negotiates spaces outside of academic feminism and mainstream transgender politics. The interventions of activist Mirha-Soleil Ross bring such questions to critical light.

Ross is highly critical of analyses of violence against trans people—such as those advanced by Butler, TDOR, and Remembering Our Dead—that establish gender, specifically the violation of sex/gender norms, as central to understanding such manifestations of violence. She offers a careful reading of the Remembering Our Dead project:

I invite people to take a minute to look at the Web site for the Transgender Day of Remembrance. You’ll find four people from Toronto: Grayce Baxter, Shawn Keegan, Deanna Wilkinson, and Cassandra Do. They were all trans prostitutes who were murdered while working. According to the web site, they were killed because of « anti-transgender hate or prejudice. » But Grayce Baxter—who was a completely passable, post operative transsexual woman—was working as a genetic woman and was killed by a client who didn’t even know she was a transsexual. He learnt it from the newspapers’ headlines— »Transsexual Hooker Disappears »—before his surrender. Marcello de Palmo, the man who shot Shawn Keegan and Deanna Wilkinson, also shot a non transsexual prostitute, Brenda Ludgate, that same night. He was out on a killing spree and was targeting prostitutes. He didn’t say anything, during his trial, that showed evidence of « anti-transgender hatred. » He said, however, that he considered « street people and prostitutes to be the scum of the earth. » For Cassandra Do, we still don’t know why she was murdered and in exactly what circumstances. All we know is that she was strangled and that some DNA found on her body was linked to the sexual assault and attempted murder of another sex worker, a non transsexual woman, in 1997. So linking, at this point, Cassandra’s murder to « transphobia » is ridiculous. But that didn’t prevent the organizers of the Transgender Day of Remembrance to use her picture on their 2003 poster, turning her into a martyr for their cause.
(cited in Namaste 2005b, 92)

Ross brings forth nuanced and detailed evidence that compels a re-evaluation of the centrality of gender in explaining the murders of these transsexual women. She makes the convincing argument that these assassinations were not, in fact, primarily linked to an individual’s transsexual or transvestite status, but were rather the horrific consequences of a social world that stigmatizes prostitutes such that they are inhuman, « the scum of the earth. »

Ross continues to condemn activists and theorists of violence by further underscoring the gendered aspects of these acts. For Ross, violence against « transgendered people » needs to be further examined with specific regard to gender, as the vast majority of such violence is directed against male to female (MTF) transsexual and transgender people. In her words,

One last thing. Not only are most of the trans people murdered sex workers but they are nearly 100 per cent male-to-females. And that very crucial aspect is completely erased when people frame the issue as one of « violence against transgender people. » This is … an issue of violence against transsexual women and against male-to-female transvestites who are mostly prostitutes. … the fact that MTFs are the ones who are almost exclusively attacked and killed is something that needs to be pointed out.
(cited in Namaste 2005b, 92–93)

It is instructive to read Ross’s comments alongside Butler’s project. While Butler would refer to a « continuum of gender violence that took the lives of Brandon Teena, Matthew Shephard and Gwen Araujo » (Butler 2004, 6), Ross is suspicious. Instead of a continuum of violence with regard to gender, Ross advocates for a contextual analysis that does not, a priori, insist on the primacy of gender as a category of analysis. Instead of establishing a metonymic relation between transgender men and transgender women with respect to violence (enacted by Butler’s continuum and by concomitant references to Teena, Shephard, and Araujo), Ross argues for the importance of examining the nature and sheer volume of violence against transsexual women in comparison to that against transgender men. In a brilliant theoretical and political move, she illustrates the paucity of a feminist position that—somehow!—forgets entirely to account for the specificity of women’s bodies and women’s lives in explaining the question of violence. Ross’s analysis of violence demonstrates the manner in which framing violence against transsexual prostitutes as « gender violence » is a radical recuperation of these events and their causal nature—a violence at the level of epistemology itself.

If violence against transsexual and transvestite bodies is central to current feminist theory and politics, it remains imperative to recognize that there are different explanations for how to conceptualize such violence, as well as how to respond to it. Reflection on such explanations is useful, then, to begin to imagine a vision of feminist theory that is both intellectually sophisticated and politically useful.


The exclusion of labor in Butler’s analysis of violence against transsexual women is authorized by a vision of feminist theory that accords primacy to the concept of gender. Indeed, Butler’s earlier work on gender in Gender Trouble (1990) initiated such a project of feminist theory for the Anglo-American world. Beginning her work by looking at transvestites and transsexuals, Butler raises theoretical questions as to how we understand and reproduce gender. Importantly, she further imagines the political possibilities opened up through conceiving the constitutive nature of gender: if gender is something realized in and through its constant repetition, it can also be resignified and displaced.

Although Butler certainly acknowledges that she came to ask these questions through her observations of transvestites, drag queens, and transsexuals, she provides her reader with very little contextual information. As Butler declares, her observations are deployed for the realms of philosophy and feminist theory in an attempt to ask theoretical questions about gender.

Yet even a cursory consideration of the milieux and sites invoked by Butler—female impersonation in gay bars—suggests that interactions and social relations are not structured merely by gender. Indeed, performances of female impersonation in the United States are characterized by an explicit relation to work—performers solicit cash contributions from the crowd, often singing and attempting to embarrass audience members until they are handed a dollar or two. Relations of labor are so central to such performances that the waitstaff provide change to audience members before the show begins (exchanging a $10 bill for ten one-dollar bills, for example). While the performances undoubtedly raise questions about gender and its constitution, they are also inextricably linked to matters of work. Academic scholarship on this subject quite clearly confirms the importance of labor as a social relation in these settings, amply evidenced in Esther Newton’s Mother Camp: Female Impersonators in America (Newton 1972).

More broadly, Butler’s oeuvre in feminist theory provides scant consideration of the centrality of labor to the bodies, identities, and lives of transsexual women. Because she chooses to neglect the specific work of female impersonation in gay bars, it is perhaps not surprising that Butler’s observations of these milieux do not include attention to the work of prostitution. In many (gay) bars in the United States where drag queens and transsexuals perform, one can also readily witness the work of transsexual prostitution (Valentine 2007).

The work of prostitution is not incidental to many transsexual women. It provides us with the financial means necessary to pay the rent, go shopping, or buy the latest feminist theory book on the market. Prostitution also enables transsexual women to enact our physical transformations—to pay for hormones, reconstructive surgeries, breast augmentation, electrolysis, and/or genital reconstruction. In this way, the work of prostitution is a necessary precondition to sex change for many transsexual women.

Given this reality, the absence of a sustained consideration of work in Butler’s version of feminist theory is unfortunate. She contends that we need to write a feminist theory centrally concerned with the constitution of gender. Yet it is in and through work that transsexual women are able to physically embody our sex changes, and thus to interact in the world as women. It is in and through work that the gender of transsexual women is constituted. The challenge then is to understand the constitution and reproduction of gender itself as enabled through work. Labor is a missing category of contemporary Anglo-American feminist theory.

If the absence of labor in feminist theory is cause for concern, it is also imperative to think critically about the ways in which matters of race are conceived. In Butler’s work on violence, she notes that trans people of color experience an inordinate amount of violence (Butler 2004, 6). That said, since she has not considered the matter of prostitution in any serious way, her reflections on race are devoid of a broader contextual analysis: that street prostitution in many urban locations includes a high representation of people of color.3 The violence directed against them may be racially indicated or marked. But the violence may simply be that of violence against street prostitutes, with no racial overtones. Conversely, even if racism is not a motivating factor in violence against prostitutes, the question of race may be central to the treatment of suspects in the courtroom, as Sherene Razack has shown (Razack 2002). My point here is that a detailed, contextual analysis of the different ways social relations of race, labor, and gender intersect is required in order to adequately understand violence against trans women of color. A simple appeal to the prevalence of that violence does not, in my view, offer an appropriate model for understanding these social relations. Theory is in the details.

Contemporary discussions of Anglo-American feminist theory, exemplified in Butler’s work, begin with the Transgender Question as a way to narrow our focus to the constitution, reproduction, and resignification of gender.4 Here, critics like Butler could take inspiration from feminist theory itself, notably with the radical move offered by feminist theorists on the « Woman Question. »

Briefly, one of the central tasks of feminist theory has been to expose the manner in which androcentric theories have framed the place of women, the Woman Question. Rather than merely inserting women into the categories and frameworks of existing theories (for example, Marxism, psychoanalysis), feminists have first set out to account for the ways in which the existing theories have excluded the complexity and diversity of women’s lives. Within the field of Marxist scholarship, for example, feminists have written against the « add women and stir » approach embodied in the old Marxist argument that if women enter the public sphere, they will help strengthen the force of the workers’ movement and assist in the overthrow of capitalism itself (Hartmann 1981). Refusing to limit themselves to mere insertion, Marxist feminists have questioned the neutrality of the very categories employed in theory. They have cogently argued that, despite its many contributions, the Marxist tradition relies on a notion of production that is defined in androcentric terms—work in the public sphere. They have demonstrated the central role of domestic labor to a reproduction of the economy in the public sphere. Two conclusions can be drawn from this move: (1) that women’s work is also productive in the Marxist sense, and (2) that traditional categories of Marxist analysis are inadequate for explaining women’s lives. Feminist theorists have made such arguments (and eloquently so) as a way to reframe the theoretical and political questions. Feminists have demonstrated how the problem raised by the Woman Question is a problem of theory itself.

It is useful to consider this rich and engaged tradition of feminist thought’s displacement of the Woman Question in our contemporary considerations of the state of Anglo-American feminist theory. Just as feminist theorists have challenged the epistemological and political presuppositions of the Woman Question, the time is ripe—arguably, it is far overdue—to question the theoretical cogency and political relevance of a field that structures itself on the Transgender Question. Indeed, insofar as Anglo-American feminist theory eclipses the social relations of labor in the realization of gender for (transsexual) women, a move that de facto excludes most transgender women of color working as prostitutes, we can witness a philosophical question embedded in a framework that is itself biased. Does the absence of labor at this moment in Anglo-American feminist theory not reflect a broader ideological project, one in which social theories have no need to account for labor and capital? How is this version of Anglo-American feminist theory, then, complicit with broader social relations of global capitalism?

If the Transgender Question in feminist theory is ideological, short-sighted, and of limited political value, how might we theorists think about these issues otherwise? What might be some key guiding principles for research, and what are some useful models for knowledge-production? How might we reconceive the work of feminist theory, beyond mere critique, to include action? The following section addresses these challenges.


I have argued that articulations of Anglo-American feminist theory are inadequate for understanding the complexities of women’s lives. The weaknesses of this scholarship need to be understood and explained with reference to how information is gathered and analyzed. The epistemological shortcomings of certain forms of feminist theory are causally related to their methodological choices. In order to advance a more useful version of feminist theory, then, some reflection on methodology is in order. My discussion here is limited to a few central principles. These are not, of course, exclusionary or definitive criteria necessary for critical feminist social theory. But they are part of such necessary conditions: other theorists can engage them, argue for their modification, and or propose additional or alternative criteria required to produce feminist knowledge that is truly emancipatory.


To invoke the notion of empiricism in an essay on feminist theory may seem to be a contradiction. Theory, after all, is defined by properties of reflection and abstract thought. It is often opposed to matters of empiricism in both subtle and unsubtle ways.

A complicated and uneasy relation to empiricism is advanced in Butler’s work. Her project, of course, is committed to a kind of poststructuralist inquiry that questions the taken-for-granted presuppositions of theoretical concepts. Her interrogation of gender itself for feminist theory is to be read in this light. Given such a commitment to an anti-foundationalist endeavor, Butler is necessarily skeptical of facile appeals to evidence. In her reflections on gender regulation, she makes her position clear:

But it would be a mistake, I believe, to understand all the ways in which gender is regulated in terms of those empirical legal instances because the norms that govern those regulations exceed the very instances in which they are embodied.
(Butler 2004, 40)

Here, Butler enacts a typical poststructuralist move and asks that we think about the unacknowledged presuppositions of regulatory norms. If Butler is skeptical about basing her analysis exclusively on the empirical, she nonetheless recognizes its importance:

On the other hand, it would be equally problematic to speak of the regulation of gender in the abstract, as if the empirical instances only exemplified an operation of power that takes place independently of those instances. (Butler 2004, 40)

This acknowledgment of the empirical can be found throughout Butler’s work—her project is centrally concerned with social norms governing gender, which obviously invoke specific empirical realities. In fact, bits and pieces of empirical reality are necessary conditions for her theoretical ruminations.

In Gender Trouble (1990), Butler extrapolates from the case of a drag queen in a gay bar to broader questions of feminist epistemology. In Bodies That Matter (1993), she uses the documentary film Paris Is Burning, with its representation of transvestite ball culture, to ask questions about gender and kinship. And in Undoing Gender, she refers to a social movement and collective entity as « the New Gender Politics » (Butler 2004, 4) that has influenced her reflections.

If her theoretical work relies upon and appeals to the empirical, it is appropriate—at least from the perspective of critical social science and social theory—to consider the nature and extent of the empiricism offered. The weakness of Butler’s argument, in my view, is a function of an underdeveloped empirical approach.

The arguments I have previously advanced with respect to Gender Trouble are further explicated though a consideration of empiricism. Butler uses the case of a drag queen to inquire about the constitution of gender. But a careful examination of the social locations in which drag queens perform reveals the centrality of work to what is going on. Indeed, ethnographic studies such as those offered by Newton (1972) and David Valentine (2007) confirm the importance of work to the milieu.

Because Butler has not engaged in a detailed, careful study of a milieu, the theoretical and political frames she proposes are equally insufficient, based as they are on incomplete information. Butler is interested in thinking through the regulation of gender. Yet as we have seen in the case of violence against transsexual women, the TDOR, and the Remembering Our Dead website, the regulation of the everyday lives of transsexual women and transvestites is often better explained through an analysis of prostitution than through a lens concerned solely with gender. Here again, detailed empirical work could highlight the theoretical and political importance of attending to matters of prostitution in order to understand transsexuals’ lives. Available empirical studies suggest that for many transsexual women, it is the criminalization of prostitution that governs their everyday lives (Pettiway 1996; Valentine 2007). Outside the United States, the matter of understanding the regulation of transsexual women has been addressed—intellectually and politically—through an analysis of prostitution (see, for example, Fernandez 2004; Berkins and Fernandez 2005; Instituto Runa 2006; Moreno 2007). Such scholarship locates the focus of regulation as the regulation of public space. Sustained analysis of regulation thus considers not only the repression and violence against transvestites and transsexuals, but also that directed against the homeless, street vendors, and street prostitutes. In such a framework, violence against trans people is part of a continuum of violence against the poor and the disenfranchised in the broader context of global capital. The repression and displacement of travestis is linked to the forced removal of street people, prostitutes, and « undesirables » from specific sites. My point, then, is that careful empirical research is necessary in order to truly understand how regulation functions—and therefore how it can be resisted.5


Empirical inquiry alone cannot, of course, solve all the problems feminist theory faces. Nor can it provide an easy alibi for « good politics » or « ethical research »—there are certainly scores of empirical studies on transsexuals and transvestites that are of questionable political import given their objectification of the people under study.6 So the challenge is not just to engage in empirical inquiry, but to think about different ways to achieve this. Here, my focus is less on substantive approaches—say, ethnography, oral history, qualitative analysis of interviews—and more on some central principles to keep in mind as one conceives, implements, analyzes, and disseminates research and theory. If marginalized people like transsexuals and transvestites have been excluded from knowledge-production (including within feminist theory), how might we proceed otherwise? Attention to some of the central arguments of indigenous knowledge is helpful here.

Indigenous knowledge refers to a body of scholarship—both intellectual and activist—that explores the complex ways that colonialism has been enacted through knowledge-production, and that provides alternative models of research. As Linda Smith argues in her book Decolonizing Methodologies (1999), knowledge has been central to the colonial project: anthropologists, ethnographers, historians, and linguists have produced volumes of scholarship that map the difference and inferiority of aboriginal people in relation to western and northern Europe. Edward Said makes a similar point, demonstrating the close connections between humanities-based scholars who provide an imaginary representation of the Orient, and colonial administrators who enacted policies based on such perceptions (sometimes, of course, these scholars and colonial administrators were one and the same; see Said 1994). In more contemporary times, aboriginal people see the biomedical and genetic research paradigm as a continuation of colonialism. Much biomedical research, for example, relies heavily on indigenous knowledge of plant life to develop pharmaceutical medications (Zerda-Sarmiento and Forero-Pineda 2002). More starkly, current work in genetics—such as the Human Genome Diversity Project—is literally dependent on the blood of aboriginal peoples (Lone Dog 1999; Zerda-Sarmiento and Forero-Pineda 2002). Both historically and today, then, indigenous peoples have been subjugated through knowledge itself.

Faced with the misrepresentation of their lives and communities, faced with government policies based on partial and ideological data, and confronted with the very real possibility of the literal annihilation of indigenous peoples orchestrated through « science, » indigenous peoples around the globe have organized to advance the particular model of knowledge-production they find useful. They have offered careful and considered reflection on these issues, and many communities have developed a specific agreement that they require any researcher to sign before collaboration begins (see, for instance, The Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies 2000; Hopi Cultural Preservation Office [HCPO] n.d.; Dene Cultural Institute n.d.). Some central principles unite these various initiatives, and it is instructive to consider them in the articulation of meaningful social research, and therefore meaningful theory: relevance, equity in partnership, and ownership.


Relevance is axiomatic to indigenous knowledge and to the practice of community-based research more broadly. In simple terms, it means being able to demonstrate that the knowledge produced will be useful to the people and communities under investigation. There are different approaches for determining relevance. Some projects may simply ask people to reflect on this question, while others insist that the research question itself be identified by the people concerned (Canadian Aboriginal AIDS Network, n.d.). The latter approach is an attempt to ensure that a research agenda is not imposed from outside. Given the devastating consequences of research on aboriginal people, an insistence that knowledge be relevant is extraordinarily important—politically and intellectually.


The concept of relevance brings into sharp relief the difficulties in defining what is, in fact, useful knowledge. Who gets to decide? Who has the last word on this? Why? These questions call up another principle central to indigenous knowledge: equity in partnership. This concept means that people about whom one writes have an equal say and an equal voice in all aspects of empirical research: defining the question, gathering the data, analyzing the results, and presenting the conclusions. An insistence on equity radically transforms traditional relations between academics and the communities they study, where « partnership » has too often meant a community providing access to a field so a researcher can obtain data to answer the research question she has posed (Barsley and Lewis 1996). Pragmatically, advisory committees are often used as one means to ensure equity in community participation. While undoubtedly not without problems (Cottrell 2001), the conduct of empirical research on marginalized populations in collaboration with an advisory committee is certainly preferable to more traditional models of academic inquiry, in which people and communities exist merely as objects of research.

Equity in participation, then, is axiomatic to helping establish a research question’s relevance. Consider Butler’s project in light of these issues: she argues that her scholarship is politically useful because she helps to show how gender violence dehumanizes trans people. She appeals to relevance, then, both in terms of the substantive matter of violence as well as in a broader theoretical project that explores the limits of the human. But what if Butler’s analysis of this violence were to occur in dialogue with a community advisory committee of transsexual prostitute activists like Mirha-Soleil Ross? What type of data would be gathered? How would it be analyzed? What conclusions could be drawn? If transsexual prostitutes—the very women so often invoked in theoretical and political discussions of violence—had equal voice and equal representation, how would the knowledge we have of this issue be transformed? What priorities would be named as relevant for action?


A third (but again, by no means final) criterion for empirical research and theory is that of ownership. Ownership is key to indigenous knowledge—both in recognition of how aboriginal people historically have been divested of their languages, traditions, and knowledge, and in appreciation of the ways in which knowledge is so easily subject to appropriation, reification, and commodification. Indeed, pharmaceutical companies are active in their attempts to patent plant properties for the development of medications, which in effect means they own this knowledge (Zerda-Sarmiento and Forero-Pineda 2002). Indigenous communities have responded by insisting on the right to ownership—that knowledge of the healing properties of plants comes from indigenous people themselves. An insistence on ownership can have far-reaching consequences. The Hopi nation, for instance, has developed a protocol agreement with researchers (HCPO, n.d.), one clause of which underlines that the community owns the knowledge generated, and that it reserves the right to keep knowledge secret.

The importance of ownership is particularly relevant for transsexual women, and notably for the most marginal transsexual women. In the context of Paris, there has never been a large-scale epidemiological study that examines HIV seroprevalence among transsexuals and transvestites (see, however, CRIPS-CIRDD 2007a). Leaders among transsexual and transvestite communities have expressed grave reservations about how the results of such a study could be used, especially if the HIV seroprevalence rate is high. Would such results reinforce an association of HIV with prostitution? Would they, once released in the media, conjoin transsexuals and transvestites (« les travelos ») with disease in the popular imagination? How could such knowledge impact negatively on the working conditions of transsexual and transvestite prostitutes? Would an association with disease put them at increased risk of violence? Moreover, given the high proportion of transsexual and transvestite populations from migrant communities in Paris (PASTT 1999), how could such data be used as « evidence » of the need to deport such undesirable, « illegal » migrants? Such concerns are, of course, more than abstract, as France effected a virtual expulsion of Brazilian travestis in the mid-1980s (Tavares 2002). More recently, when Nicolas Sarkozy was France’s Minister of the Interior, he proposed and enacted new legislation on soliciting (racolage) designed to eliminate public prostitution and whose central justification was the expulsion of migrant workers (ACT-UP Paris 2003). The concerns expressed by community leaders are quite real. While there is not necessarily unanimity on the need to reject HIV epidemiological surveillance of trans populations in Paris,7 the fact that serious reservations are expressed is important. The invocation of a concept of ownership is central to ensuring that the production of knowledge benefits, and does not harm transsexual and transvestite prostitutes.

An insistence on empirical approaches to theory, and the integration of principles of relevance, equity in participation, and ownership would radically transform the production of academic feminist knowledge in the Anglo-American world. There are a myriad of models for engaging in such a transformative intellectual practice; I have only briefly outlined a few examples here. Drawing from scholarship and activism in indigenous knowledge, I wish to raise questions about some of the central tenets of how we go about producing theoretical explanations of the world. If people are marginalized in and through the production of knowledge, then a truly transformative intellectual practice would collaborate with such individuals and communities to ensure that their political and intellectual priorities are addressed. Simply put, Anglo-American feminist theory would be well served by actually speaking with everyday women about their lives.


Your theories are covered in our blood.
—Transsexual activist button, Toronto, mid-1990s.

The Transgender Question in Anglo-American feminist theory has spawned a plethora of reflection on the bodies, lives, and realities of transsexual women. For nearly twenty years now, Anglo-American feminist theory has relied on transsexual women to ask its own epistemological questions.

Yet the consequences of this knowledge are troubling indeed. Anglo-American feminist theory has provided an intellectual framework in which the specificity of transsexual prostitutes’ lives is erased. Perhaps more disturbingly, such theory authorizes political actions that recuperate the violence against prostitutes into a generic violence against « trans people. » This evacuates the analytical category of labor as central for feminist inquiry, and thus also manages to exclude the realities of most transgender women of color who are working as prostitutes. Moreover, this theoretical position paradoxically neglects the specificity of women’s lives, assuming that one can understand violence against transsexual women and that against transsexual men on the same gender continuum. As Mirha-Soleil Ross contends, it is ironic indeed when feminist theory itself obscures the gendered dimensions of violence against women.

Although Anglo-American feminist theory has focused on transvestites and transsexual women for nearly twenty years now, it is clear that the knowledge gained has been of little benefit to transsexual women ourselves. Indeed, in certain respects feminist theory has worsened the situation: the Transgender Question has written the prostitutes and grassroots community organizers out of history, politics, and knowledge itself.

The conclusion of this essay includes the unsettling reality that the gap between transsexual women’s everyday lives and the theoretical explanations of those lives offered by Anglo-American feminist theory has only increased over the past twenty years. While theorists have expounded the virtues and political importance of reflection on gender, transsexual women themselves have confronted realities outside the narrow scope of gender as a concept. For more than twenty years, transsexuals who are somewhat older (forty and over) have witnessed the horrific consequences of HIV in our communities, burying friends, lovers, and co-workers over and over again. The past twenty years have seen the loss of an entire generation of transsexual women, dead to AIDS, suicide, overdose, or murder by a client (Namaste 2005a). Transsexual women age with the unsettling knowledge that many of us—often, most of us—do not live to be forty years old.8 Every day, transsexual women see our work, lives, community organizing, and even personal relationships criminalized through an invocation of prostitution laws. The details, substance, and concepts of these realities are chillingly absent from Anglo-American feminist theory and its framing of the Transgender Question.

The theoretical and political task at hand, then, is not one of undoing gender. What is required is nothing short of undoing theory.


1. The invocation of Anglo-American feminist theory does not designate the tradition of Anglo-American analytic philosophy per se, but rather the writing and production of theory that takes place in English, and that is primarily located in the United States, Great Britain, English Canada, and Australia.

2. In keeping with the language used within the milieu in question, I use the term travesti and not transgendered. Throughout the paper, I invoke different terms (transsexual, transvestite, travesti) to designate different individuals born as male but living and/or working and/or identifying as female. I also use the terms transgender and trans in an umbrella sense, typical to current usage in Anglo-American contexts. That said, since most of my own empirical research is not based in English-speaking contexts (see Namaste 2005a), my own invocation of the term transgender always seems a bit foreign, a misnomer of sorts.

3. The 1999 Annual Report of PASTT (Prévention Action Santé Travail pour les Transgenres) notes that of the clients they serve (transvestites and transsexuals), only 13.3% were born in France: the rest come from other parts of the world, notably the Maghreb, Africa, and South America (PASTT 1999, 19).

4. This is not, of course, to suggest that all Anglo-American feminist theorists have ignored labor. Nevertheless, the centrality of Butler’s work for the field means that questions of work and labor are increasingly absent from an analysis of women’s everyday lives.

5. On this matter, see also the astute comments by Vek Lewis (2006), who demonstrates the ways in which analysis in Spanish of travesti lives focuses on matters of prostitution, and differs markedly from those in Anglo-American queer and feminist theories.

6. I have developed this argument in greater depth elsewhere (see Namaste 2000).

7. On this question, see CRIPS-CIRDD 2007b.

8. The statistics provided by Berkins and Fernandez document the situation in Buenos Aires: 69% of the community of travestis and transsexuals had died by the age of forty-one (Berkins and Fernandez 2005, 13).


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Source : Hypatia, Volume 24, Issue 3, Pages 11-32 (Published Online : 16 Jul 2009).

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