Trans Studies at the Crossroad: From Racialized Invisibility to Gendered Legibility

The Oxford Handbook of Shakespeare and Race, ed. Patricia Akhimie (Oxford University Press, 2024), pp. 195-211. 

Premodern critical race studies have broadened our understanding of the discourse of race and gender.

     This chapter argues that race and gender are social practices that evolve over time, in each other’s presence, and in inter-connected social spaces. Race and trans studies are fields of study borne out of necessity, the necessity to understand the world, and the necessity for all to live a liveable life. 

     In 1976, singer Joni Mitchell traversed race and gender by performing blackface acts and declaring that they are a “Black man trapped in a white woman’s body.” In 1998, Mitchell told New York Times that they were “the only Black man at the [Halloween] party.” In what ways are similar claims complicated by pandemic-era hate crimes, such as the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis in 2020 and the mistreatment of trans women in a Korean spa in Los Angeles in 2021?
     Racism and transmisogyny deny people’s access to public spaces, and public performance has been seen as a way to reclaim inclusive social spaces, even though it is a winding path. 
     Does Belinda Sullivan’s ‘doubled drag’ performance of Falstaf as the Witch of Brentford in the 2013 African-American Shakespeare Company production of Merry Wives of Windsor diminish ‘the impact of what would otherwise seem to be . . . transphobic violence’?
     Why are such performances, similar to cisgender interpretations of Viola in Twelfth Night, typically received as pragmatic and temporary gender nonconformity to score personal gains in patriarchal worlds rather than as transgender expressions?
     Actors’ offstage racial identities add nuance to the picture. How does British-Indian actor Shubham Saraf ’s trans performance of Ophelia, against Michelle Terry’s cross-cast white Hamlet, traverse gender and racial lines at the Globe in 2018?
     Similarly, how does British-Ugandan actress Sheila Atim’s trans masculine performance of Cesario in Adam Smethurst’s film Twelfth Night complicate class aspirations and embodiment of genders?

     This chapter brings critical race theory and trans studies together to examine racial and gendered otherness through case studies of performances of Shakespeare’s plays. Providing critical tools to understand atypical bodies, trans studies solidifies critical race studies’ support of minority life experiences. Critical race methods, with their attention to the social production of hierarchies, can also help trans studies address its often-unacknowledged whiteness. 

     To correct the early modern studies’ tendency to privilege narrative texts, this chapter uses global and performance studies methods—as critical tools that are designed to capture transformative cultural practices—to highlight embodied significations of transness.

     The chapter concludes with a reflection on pedagogical implications of multidisciplinarity. Providing critical tools to understand atypical bodies, trans studies solidifies critical race studies’ support of minority life experiences. 

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