Trans Panic Otherwise: On Jules Gill-Peterson’s “A Short History of Trans Misogyny”

Juno Richards reviews Jules Gill-Peterson’s “A Short History of Trans Misogyny.”

Trans Panic Otherwise: On Jules Gill-Peterson’s “A Short History of Trans Misogyny”

A Short History of Trans Misogyny by Jules Gill-Peterson. Verso. 192 pages.

MARY JONES HAD many names. According to the 19th-century New York newspaper The Sun, she was also known by the names Miss Ophelia, Miss June, and Eliza Smith. But she was Mary on the night of June 14, 1836, when she first encountered Robert Haslem on Bleecker Street. At this time, Lower Manhattan was a mix of red-light districts and upscale hotels, working-class homes and grand theaters, with no segregated district for the city’s sizable free Black population. It is not surprising that Haslem, a white man and stonemason, would cross paths with Jones, a free Black sex worker, walking these streets.

According to the coverage in the papers, Haslem propositioned Jones obliquely, asking, “Where are you going, my pretty maid?” There are narrative variations here, depending on whether your source is The New York Herald or The Sun. The Herald claims that Jones embraced Haslem, drawing him to her heart, then walked alongside him to an alley behind Greene Street, where he paid her for sex. On Haslem’s way home, he discovered that his wallet was missing, replaced by the wallet of another man. In a series of events both implausible and legally fortuitous, Haslem located this man and instigated a sting operation with an undercover police officer posing as a john. The papers give conflicting details about the specifics of how exactly Jones was caught in the act. But it is clear enough that after her arrest, when the plainclothes officer began to search her person, he was surprised by her anatomy. According to The Sun, it was only then that the officer “discovered that he [Jones] was a man.”

In 1836, neither prostitution nor interracial sex were illegal in New York. Jones was arrested for grand larceny. The court records are scant; we know that she pled innocent but was found guilty and sentenced to five years’ imprisonment at Sing Sing. In the years that followed, she would be arrested frequently, most often for vagrancy, an elastic charge used to criminalize sex workers and free Black citizens alike.

At a moment of heightened racial tension, in the years of both proslavery riots and abolitionist agitation, Jones appears in the penny press as a compounded threat. Her person signaled the social chaos that might result from abolition of slavery. She became an example of the kinds of havoc free Black people might wreak and a method to ridicule the white abolitionists who would make the case for their citizenship. Her gender was understood as a kind of trickery, but this trickery involved many layers: appearing as a woman while being a man; appearing as a fashionable, upper-class lady while working in the sex trade; appearing fashionable and sophisticated at all while being Black.

The story of Mary Jones appears in Jules Gill-Peterson’s A Short History of Trans Misogyny, published this January. For Gill-Peterson, Jones’s gender is incidental to the scandal of her personhood. Her gender is but one of the social and sexual crossings that rendered her dangerous to the status quo, including the more gripping threats of sex across the color line and sex work more generally. Jones herself would not have identified as a transgender woman, a label that would not appear for more than another century. “The point of studying Jones is hardly to define what a Black trans woman is and then pin it on the past,” writes Gill-Peterson. Instead, Jones’s story offers an episode in a wider history of transmisogyny.

“Transmisogyny” names the impersonal or state violence meted out to people who are perceived as transfeminine, whether they would understand themselves that way or not. Gill-Peterson pointedly locates the origins of transmisogyny in 19th-century colonial statecraft, a history spanning the hijra panic in colonial India, the gendered legacies of the transatlantic slave trade, and the genocide of two-spirit people in the United States. Departing from modes of scholarship that fixate on the Global North, this global turn does not signal the triumph or ubiquity of trans identity on an international stage. Rather, for Gill-Peterson, “the word global is meant in a devastating sense,” as an index to the success of colonial and capitalist reach that has homogenized vastly different cultural formations of embodied gender into a single script. In this accounting, transmisogyny is not so much a personal hatred of trans women but a state-sponsored pattern of violence that has reached global proportions.

For a more contemporary episode in this populated history, Gill-Peterson turns to the case of Jennifer Laude, who died on October 11, 2014, in Olongapo, a port city near Manila. She was murdered by Lance Corporal Joseph Scott Pemberton of the US Marine Corps, whom she met earlier that evening at a disco bar. Around 11 o’clock, Pemberton left the bar with Laude and her friends, moving to a nearby hotel, the Celzone Lodge. Hotel workers later found her body in the bathroom, slumped over the toilet. The autopsy revealed the cause of death as asphyxiation by drowning.

In the trial that followed, Pemberton claimed he had acted in self-defense, because Laude did not disclose her transgender identity to him until after they had become sexually intimate. According to Pemberton’s attorney, this discovery after the fact made him feel “that he was being raped.” A jury found Pemberton guilty of homicide and sentenced him to six to 12 years’ imprisonment. However, this charge was downgraded by the judge, who ruled that Laude’s death did not meet the standards for a lengthier sentence due to mitigating circumstances, namely that Laude did not disclose her biological sex, withholding information that caused Pemberton to take her life in an act of violence fueled by “passion and obfuscation.” Five years later, the Philippines’ far-right president Rodrigo Duterte granted Pemberton an absolute pardon, a decision likely inflected by ongoing pressure from the United States military.

The “trans panic” defense employed in Laude’s murder trial insists upon a specific temporality. In this case, transmisogyny is both a projection and misrecognition, one that perceives the transfeminine as a mere ruse that obscures a deeper, inherent male aggression. This imaginary threat retroactively justifies violence or punishment, understood as self-defense after the fact. In Gill-Peterson’s formulation, “trans misogyny operates through the logic of the preemptive strike.”

Living more than 100 years apart and on different continents, Jennifer Laude and Mary Jones fit into very different paradigms, in terms of how they understood themselves and how they were understood by the law. Holding these two moments of trans panic together, across years and continents, does not solidify the category “trans woman” so much as it allows us to see the blurred and snaking ways that transmisogyny has constructed a shared world of diminished life chances.

A Short History dwells in the material particulars of this shared world, allowing us to see the reach of colonial state violence as a devastating motor behind the seeming ubiquity of trans identity today. This is a trans panic otherwise, global in its articulation. Rather than begin with Magnus Hirschfeld in Germany or the rise of West Coast social movements, Gill-Peterson draws together histories across an international landscape and vast temporal scope, including antebellum sex workers, hijras in colonial India, street queens, two-spirit people, and Latin American travestis. None of these groups would identify as transgender, a vocabulary that rose to prominence in the 1990s, first through a predominantly white activist milieu in the San Francisco Bay Area, then through NGO-funded development work across the Global South.

Gill-Peterson aptly observes that this story of unification is a limited one, not just for the umbrella term “transgender,” but also for one of its more particular specification “trans woman.” Over a hundred years ago, just as now, there were many kinds of people who adopted ways of living adjacent to or overlapping with womanhood. This might have involved dressing in feminine clothes, wearing makeup, changing one’s pronouns, or performing feminine-coded work. However, many of those who adopted these modes of living would not identify with the received collective script “trans woman.”

A Short History of Trans Misogyny draws our attention to this friction in the social construction of identity, pointing to the ways that the rise of transgender as an identity category often obscured or rewrote the self-definitions of people forced to live at the bottom of the social hierarchy. For the street queens living in 1990s New York and for gender variant people across the Global South, “transgender” and “trans woman” came as labels imposed by outsiders, something institutional or normatively white and Western, rather than a triumphant rallying cry for collective identity.

In response to this conjuncture, Gill-Peterson offers a different term to think about this historical arc, setting aside the false universalism of “trans woman” to consider instead what she calls “trans-feminization.” This process describes what happens to groups subjected to transmisogyny, regardless of whether they identify as trans women or not. The trans-feminization of populations is a work of coercive interpretation and colonial statecraft, one that rewrites a variety of Indigenous subject positions according to a Euro-Western model. The global spread of trans-feminization is not therefore a victory for trans identity but a devastating litmus test, “an index of the saturating reach of both colonial and capitalist projects that have violently homogenized land, cultures, languages, religions, and labor into a single planetary system.”

To focus on trans-feminization as a process, linking together the disparate material histories of Mary Jones and Jennifer Laude, underlines one of the key arguments of the book, one that distinguishes it from some of the most dominant modes of contemporary trans scholarship. Much of this work is preoccupied with responses to trans-exclusionary radical feminists (TERFs), a venomous contingent often located in the anti-trans feminism of the 1970s and crystallized in the “gender-critical” feminism of the 2000s. For Gill-Peterson, there is little use in untangling the illogical rhetoric of these self-declared figureheads, nor in giving further platforms to their particular brand of hatred. Set next to the combined forces of colonialism and state violence, TERFs are but a short episode in a much longer history of transmisogyny. The material effects of TERFs’ rhetorical and political violence are real but relatively slight in comparison to the combined global forces of colonialism and racial capitalism.

This shift in perspective is crucial for the ways that it upends flash points of the current discourse. Without letting anyone off the hook, outrage turns to the engines of greatest damage: not TERFs and their claims about human women, but the criminalization of sex work; not J. K. Rowling’s inane tweets, but the policing of public space and the devastation of transfeminine modes of life.

Indeed, A Short History has little patience for the sort of trans scholarship that locates the solutions to the current crisis as a matter of theoretical rationale—of finding the correct term, the right formulation, the perfectly logical counterpoint, the crystalline argument that will trounce transphobes for good. The preface states this plainly: “There is no perfect language to be discovered, or invented, to solve the problem of trans misogyny by labeling its proper perpetrator and victim.” For Gill-Peterson, transmisogyny is vast, spanning two centuries and many continents. The perfect enumeration of its workings, alongside the most eloquent rebuttal, is an idealism that will inevitably fail to deliver: “While each day seems to bring new taxonomies for assigning value to would-be gender identities, sex classes, or variously privileged and oppressed people, I offer this book as a materialist case for leaving such losing games behind.”

What remains beyond the ruse of taxonomy? Not the perfect classification or philosophical logic, nor a legislative agenda that further criminalizes violence against trans women as a hate crime. Instead, Gill-Peterson asks us to listen to what trans women and transfeminine people say about the violence directed towards them. The book is full of these stories, thick material histories that recount the ways that transfeminine life has become a part of our social fabric. These accumulated narratives make A Short History of Trans Misogyny more capacious than its title suggests. The book gathers a cohort of transfeminine people and trans women who would not understand themselves in identical ways, though they might experience similarly diminished life chances.

In trying to recount some of those stories here, in the strange and elliptical context of a review, I sometimes worry that I am too stuck in the details, too preoccupied with the sophisticated dress and daily habits of Mary Jones, age 32, in the alley behind a brothel on Greene Street in antebellum New York; or the bizarre temporality of how, precisely, Lance Corporal Joseph Scott Pemberton understood himself as a victim after he strangled Jennifer Laude. But it is this kind of documentation, in the granular accumulation of what facts can be known, that allows us to understand transmisogyny as both what Gill-Peterson calls “the infrastructure of the shared world” and a form of violence not easily abstracted into a single theoretical paradigm. Rather than analytical clarity or logical taxonomy that sets every subject in its properly valued place, here is the messier warp and weft of a material history, one that includes the particularized lives of Mary Jones and Jennifer Laude, Latisha King and Miss Destiny, Loop the Loop and Jennie June.

Settling into the heft of these particulars, in all their contradictory offshoots, A Short History of Trans Misogyny is also an archive, something that feels like both safekeeping and amplification. A project of unlearning and listening closely, turning to what Mary Jones and others had to say about themselves, Gill-Peterson’s work offers a record of the ways transfeminine lives have been and continue to be lived, amid and despite the violence of our shared world.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!