UN-building Gender

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Jack Halberstam is a recipient of the Arcus/Places Prize, which supports innovative public scholarship on gender, sexuality, and the built environment.

The form of embodiment that, in the 20th and 21th centuries, we have come to call transgender is not simply a gender switching, a wrong body replaced by a right body, a shift in morphology. Trans* embodiment, rather, is the visual confirmation that all bodies are uncomfortable and wrong-ish, situated as they are within confining grammars of sense and security. The wrong body — an appellation mostly used in the 1980s for people who have felt themselves to be out of place or out of time — now comes not to claim rightness but to dismantle the system that metes out rightness and wrongness according to the dictates of various social orders. Trans* bodies, in other words, function not simply to provide an image of the non-normative against which normative bodies can be discerned, but rather as bodies that are fragmentary and internally contradictory; bodies that remap gender and its relations to race, place, class, and sexuality; bodies that are in pain; bodies that sound different from how they look; bodies that represent palimpsestic identities or a play of surfaces; bodies that must be split open and reorganized, opened up to chance and random signification. And because it is not a matter of replacing wrong with right, we require different visual, aural, and haptic codes and systems that can figure the experience of being in such bodies. After all, the trans* variant body is not so easy to represent, and the visual frames that establish such representation tend either to reveal sites of contradiction upon the gender-variant body (through nakedness perhaps, which risks sensationalizing) or to mediate other kinds of exposure, violent, intrusive, or otherwise.

While the trans* body represents one particular challenge to ideas of physical coherence, all bodies pass through some version of building and unbuilding.

In recent years, many theorists of transgender embodiment, as well as various artists and activists, have steered clear of the identitarian traps presented by political strategies that center on recognition or respectability, and have begun to think in greatly expanded ways about the experience of “wrong” embodiment. Within a beautifully shifting (kaleidoscopic even) series of discursive and aesthetic maneuvers, scholars and artists and activists have turned away from a purely figurative regime for representing transgender bodies — a system, in other words, committed to offering recognizable and pleasing forms of trans embodiment. They — we — have turned away from figuration or indexical or mimetic representation and towards the abstract, the symptomatic, even the architectural. What might the abstract and architectural offer in terms of transgender representation?


As the first of several answers to this question, on a most basic level, current conversations about transgender embodiment often relate to an ongoing national discussion about bathrooms and public access to facilities that are marked in binary terms. At least one solution to the so-called bathroom problem could be architectural and/or design-centered, and a number of recent projects offer design solutions to the binary management of public space. Second, many transgender people engage in medical procedures to rebuild their bodies, modifying this, extending that, smoothing one area, enlarging another. This act of rebuilding, rather than its outcome, is what preoccupies many transgender artists and theorists. Third, while these bodily modifications have often followed certain medical and psychiatric protocols and been understood using the language of a voyage of discovery, nowadays many such procedures are improvised and undertaken in no particular order. The framework of a journey has become misleading: it proposes a destination to which many transgender people are indifferent. In an enormous paradigm shift, we have begun to think less about definitive transition and more about a continuous building and unbuilding of the body. We have begun to engage in conversations about the various kinds of cuts and scars that unmake the normatively gendered body and make up a transgender body. What was previously theorized as a becoming, a stubborn pursuit of a seemingly impossible goal, now appears as a project of dismantling and remaking, a sculpting of flesh and molecular form — using the tools of surgery and hormones, for sure, but also deploying the concept of transgender as a kind of wrecking ball that can knock and batter at the fortress of binary gender.

To give one example of an emergent architectural turn in transgender studies, an essay by Athina Angelopoulou (in a special issue of Footprint focused on “Trans-Bodies/Queering Spaces”) looks to architecture in a discussion of gender transitioning, in order to explore the spatial dimensions of bodily transformation, medical or otherwise. Angelopoulou proposes that we think about architecture and surgery together, in order to locate the very specific remaking of space that the trans* body represents. The cutting and stitching that the trans* body undergoes creates a corporeal surface marked by the encounter with technologies of fabrication. This is a body that has been made and unmade, undone, frayed, opened up and then closed — imperfectly, and in ways that challenge many more binaries beyond male versus female. The trans* body as presently imagined confronts rather than confirms common assumptions about the coherent and incoherent, material and immaterial, internal and external. As Susan Stryker’s early essay on trans-monstrosities vividly puts it, the trans* body is “an unnatural body.” This body, Stryker continues, “is the product of medical science. It is a technological construction. It is flesh torn apart and sewn together again in a shape other than that in which it was born.” Positing a connection to Frankenstein’s creation, Stryker embraces the darkness of the unnatural, makes peace with the cut, and embraces the monstrous.

Gordon Matta-Clark’s art offers a fantastic legacy to trans* artists interested in unmaking frames of representation.

In the present essay, I myself look towards anarchitectural practices of unmaking as promulgated by the American artist Gordon Matta-Clark (1943–1978), extending the ideas of unbuilding and creative destruction that characterize his work in order to develop a queer concept of anarchitecture focused on the trans* body. The concept of “anarchitecture” is attributed mainly to Matta-Clark, whose inventive site-specific cuts into abandoned buildings demonstrated approaches to the concept of home and to the market system of real estate that were anarchistic, creatively destructive, and full of queer promise.

Of course, this is not to say that Matta-Clark or any of the participants in the Anarchitecture group that he helped to found in downtown Manhattan in 1973 and ’74 would have understood their work in this sense. Rather, we might take up the challenge offered by Matta-Clark’s anarchitectural projects in order to spin contemporary conversations about queer and trans* politics away from notions of respectability and inclusion, and towards the anti-political project of unmaking a world that casts queers and trans people (and homeless people and immigrants, among others) as problems for the neoliberal state. I propose that, just as the transgender body once represented a form of bodily abjection counterposed to gender normativity, now trans* bodies offer fleshly blueprints for the unbuilding of binary understandings. Matta-Clark’s art offers a fantastic legacy to young trans* artists who, as we will see, are less interested in making work within existing parameters for painting, sculpture, and/or performance than in tearing those parameters apart. Indeed, much of what we might now call trans* art engages in violent, destructive, and rigorous if chaotic attempts to unmake the frames of representation through which the transgender body has been viewed.

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