Kadji Amin Presents "The Respectability Politics of Gender Identity"

Amin stands at the podium beginning his presentation
Professor Amin at the podium in the East Duke Pink Parlor

On Wednesday, October 4th, Duke GSF hosted Professor Kadji Amin from Emory University’s Department of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies for a presentation in the East Duke Parlors as a part of this year’s research theme, “histories of the transgender present.” In her introduction, Professor of Literature Robyn Wiegman referred to Amin’s visit as “a much-anticipated queer homecoming,” as Amin received his PhD from Duke in Romance Studies and received the GSF certificate in Feminist Studies. Professor Amin, currently on a fellowship at the Cornell Society for the Humanities, presented a talk titled “The Respectability Politics of Gender Identity, A History,” which attempts 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.

Amin began with the argument that “gender identity” is, in the global north, regarded as the “sole legitimate reason” for the existence of transness. Amin counters “gender identity” as an explanation for understanding transness by historicizing the origins of the terminology, arguing that it develops as a form of respectability politics to “distinguish privatized bourgeoise trans subjects from the disreputable public trans populations.” The overarching question of Amin’s talk was how gender identity came to dominate conversations surrounding transness in the global north, and what alternative theories were rejected through this process.

Amin finds the origins of contemporary “gender identity” in the discourse within the German homosexual and transvestite emancipation movement, particularly in an underlying class conflict. The homosexual culture in Berlin during the 1920s was prolific, however, the identity was still criminalized. Bourgeoise men were able to pay for private sexual and romantic relationships with male “hustlers”, and in return, lower and working-class men were able to find jobs, money, and shelter in exchange for sex. In this way, Amin characterizes the homosexual movement for decriminalization as dependent on hustler populations, while, socially and politically, public prostitutes and crossdressers were characterized as the hyper-visible “scourge” of homosexuality.

When American doctors “pick up the scalpel” dropped by German sexologists at the ascent of Nazism, works such as The Transsexual Phenomenon, written by Harry Benjamin, and Robert Stoller’s book, Sex and Gender, exclude cross-dressing from a transsexual “gender identity.” Stoller’s beliefs, adopted by the medical community, are that “truly” transsexual and transgender women would and should desire to quietly pass as women, and that public trans figures, particularly those who have received bottom surgery, are “impersonators.” These arguments served as disqualifications of the labor that economically supported trans feminine women from medical or social legitimacy.

In the 1960s, limitations were placed on access to medical treatment by doctors in the newly emerging field of trans medicine. While “disreputable” trans subjects (people of color, sex workers, criminals, etc.) were used for experimental research projects, they were excluded from treatment by doctors who wished to retain the “respectability” of the profession by accepting only white, conventionally attractive subjects who they thought had the best chance of passing. The justification behind this exclusion was overwhelmingly the “pure” pursuit of “gender identity”, which Amin disproves with the assertion that it was essentially impossible to seek bottom surgery in a vacuum. All expressions of transness in the 1960s were mediated by class, race, profession, romantic relationships, etc. Bottom surgery was more than a means to access one’s “true gender identity”; it was necessary to avoid persecution, job loss, and violence. By discriminating in this way, American doctors were able to construct the “transsexual” as a private individual who blended anonymously into society distinct from the visibly “deviant” (ie. Working-class trans, people of color) who wielded cross-dressing and homosexuality as solely a means for economic gain.

Amin’s talk concluded with a section titled “Trans Materialism”, which argues that “core gender identity” is a fiction, a “structural cut” between the private, bourgeoise, “real” gender identity, and the public gender identity incapable of existing outside of structural constraints. While hustlers, prostitutes, and street queens were the originators and sustainers of the homosexual and trans culture that the queer bourgeoise enjoyed, they were structurally precluded from accessing the “respectable” and subsequently “legitimate” trans identities that the upper class occupied.