Annual Research Theme

Histories of the Transgender Present (2023-2024)

Theme year events include a Fall 2023 interdisciplinary in-person seminar titled, GSF 960S: Histories of the Transgender Present, led by Gabriel Rosenberg and GSF Postdoctoral Scholar Zavier Nunn.

This seminar examines the relationship between historicist thinking and transgender identity and activism. Popular and politicised discussions on transgender identity in the United States and Europe are run through with contrasting claims to history. Heated media discussions of trans politics often circulate around the alleged historical novelty of trans persons, with “tipping points” and “social contagion” narratives both suggesting that trans people are a worrying and sudden development unique to our historical moment. Against claims of epochal historical divergence, liberal allies and some activists position transgender inclusion as the fulfillment of a progressive march towards sexual and gender equality, assertions that sometimes depend on a universal category of trans identity and a whiggish historicism. 

However, this seminar attends not only to how these juxtaposed narratives operate in the present, but how they have a longer history of their own. Dualistic epistemologies—stretching back over a hundred years—frame and condition trans personhood, with competing claims to whether trans-ness (articulated variously as ‘transvestism’, ‘inversion’, ‘transsexualism’ and other categories) was an inborn or social phenomena characterising the rise of a recognisable ‘trans subject’ in the Global North. Beyond focusing exclusively on contemporary debates, the seminar explores how discourses around transness materialized and diverged historically within particular social, political, juridical, and medical contexts and it attends to the often multiple and competing categories currently held in relation to transgender identity. Similarly, the seminar examines how these categories articulate with the grand historical problems of race-making, colonization, globalization, and nationalism. Readings will include a variety of disciplinary and interdisciplinary perspectives that illuminate how history, historical narrative and narratology, historicism, historical materialism, temporality, the untimely and anachronistic, memory, commemoration, and witnessing, and archival methods and evidence all inform the politics of transgender identity, activism, and study in our moment and in others.

Biographical Sketch of Dr. Zavier Nunn

Zavier Nunn is the postdoctoral associate on the theme ‘Histories of the Transgender Present’ in the Gender, Sexuality and Feminist Studies Department at Duke University. His PhD dissertation provides an everyday history of trans feminine life in Weimar and Nazi Germany, which de-idealizes the European medico-legal codification of trans identity. Here he also argues that trans women's liminal position within Nazi society reveal state persecution practices concerned with race, labour value, and (sexual) social threat. His second project will historicise modern trans subjectivity, specifically the ontology of an internal gender identity and its epistemological counterpart, the ‘wrong body narrative’. Across his research, he uses micro-historical methods to unpick how macro systems and institutions are stitched together, and how affects circulate on a personal and collective level. His work is published in Past & Present and forthcoming in Gender & History and German History.

Theme Events
Fall 2023: Kadji Amin Talk - October 4. 2023
“The Respectability Politics of Gender Identity, A History

Kadji Amin is Associate Professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Emory University and a 2023-4 fellow at the Cornell Society of Fellows. Amin is a materialist theorist of gender and sexuality. His research brings empirical scholarship on the history of sexuality to bear on trans and queer theory. Amin’s book, Disturbing AttachmentsGenet, Modern Pederasty, and Queer History (Duke 2017) won an Honorable Mention for best book in LGBT studies form the GL/Q Caucus of the Modern Language Association. He is currently at work on a second book titled, “Trans Materialism without Gender Identity.”

On October 4th, Duke GSF hosted Professor Amin for a presentation in the East Duke Parlors, which aimed to historicize the political and social conditions used to create respectable and disreputable transgender identities. Amin’s research traces the origins of “gender identity” to 1920s Berlin, Germany, and follows the movement of this discourse into the United States towards the 1960s and present day. Read more or watch below.

Spring 2024: Beans Velocci Talk - February 1, 2024

"The Normal Woman: On the Irrelevance of the Body to Sex in Early Twentieth-Century Gynecology"

Beans Velocci is a historian of sex, science, and classification, and an Assistant Professor in the Department of History and Sociology of Science and Program in Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. Their work uses queer, trans, and feminist methods to interrogate how classification systems become regarded as biological truths, primarily in the nineteenth- and twentieth-century United States. Their first book, "Binary Logic: The Power of Incoherence in American Sex Science" is currently under review with Duke University Press. It is a prehistory of cisness that looks at how sex emerged as a privileged way of sorting bodies not despite but because of its incoherence. They have also published work in Transgender Studies Quarterly, Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences, the American Naturalist, the Washington Post, and Avidly. Beans' work has received multiple awards, including Yale University's George Washington Egleston Historical Prize, the OAH John D'Emilio LGBTQ History Dissertation Award, and the Margaret Rossiter History of Women in Science Prize.