Annual Research Theme









2023-2024 Theme: Histories of the Transgender Present

Theme year events include a Fall 2023 interdisciplinary in-person seminar titled, GSF 960S: Histories of the Transgender Present, lead 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.