I realize that it has been quite awhile since I’ve been posting about some of my own research and an update is long overdue. Hence, I decided that it might be a good point to talk a little bit about my dissertation project and what I’ve been working on over the past year [warning: it is a rather academic read].
In my dissertation titled “Terrorizing Gender: Transgender Visibility and the Surveillance Practices of the U.S. Security State,” I explore how the media representation of transgender bodies is connected to the surveillance practices enacted against trans communities at the hands of the state, e.g. through disproportionate rates of criminalization and incarceration etc. I’ve become particularly interested in exploring how mediated visibilities of marginalized communities, particularly those perceived as gender-non-conforming, impact the material realities of those communities, principally in terms of their access to national belonging and U.S. citizenship.
In recent years, the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) movement has gained unprecedented legal victories – with marriage equality, the passing of federal hate crime legislation, and the repeal of the military’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy – granting recognition and rights to certain gay and lesbian citizens. The increased media representation of LGBT people – 2013 saw a record number of queer characters on broadcast networks – further suggests the successful inclusion of gays and lesbians into society. Indeed, gays may be “The New Normal,” as the title of a popular NBC sitcom proclaims. In sharp contrast, the disparaging media coverage of whistle blower and Wikileaker Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning, which focused on her gender identity as a motivation for her leaking classified documents largely to the omission of her own account that she did so out of a “love for my country and a sense of duty to others,” paralleled the state’s own conceptualization of Manning as a traitor. Similarly, the local story of CeCe McDonald, an African American transgender woman charged with second degree murder and sentenced to 41 months in prison for killing her attacker with a pair of fabric scissors during a violent assault motivated by racism and transphobia in 2011, has turned a national spotlight on the discrimination, bigotry, and violence transgender people frequently face. These two stories, then, point to the ways in which, despite being nominally included in the LGBT moniker, transgender individuals were (and still are) not assimilated into the nation state, but are rather excluded from it.
The contrast between gay and lesbian inclusion and transgender exclusion by both the state and mass media has caused some scholars in queer studies (e.g., Spade, 2011) to ask whether transgender bodies, communities, and issues are the excluded “step child” of LGB(T) politics. Using Manning and McDonald’s stories, as both illustrative and representative of everyday transgender experiences, my research takes up this contrast as a problem intensified by the practices of and connections between corporate media and the U.S. security state (an amalgam of governmental, corporate, and civil entities invested in fostering national security and citizen safety at the expense of civil liberties). I examine the media and the state’s differential treatment of transgender individuals as an entry point through which to analyze gender and sexual visibility within the contemporary United States because it affords the ability to interrogate the state’s increasingly prevalent surveillance practices since September 11, 2001.
Using Chelsea Manning and CeCe McDonald as case studies, my project examines how transgender lives are represented by the media and surveilled by the U.S. security state, specifically how media coverage of these individuals is connected to state surveillance practices post-9/11. My dissertation moves beyond studies of representation typical in media studies to build interdisciplinary bridges between critical media studies, queer studies, and surveillance studies. My dissertation asks how and why certain transgender people come under scrutiny by the surveillance practices of the security state as it analyzes the power relations intrinsic to those practices. I argue that the mainstream news media’s portrayal of Manning as “emotionally fractured,” plagued by “disciplining problems” and “delusions of grandeur” provides a rationale for the state surveillance of transgender bodies by tying their gender-non-conformity to mental instabilities that threaten state interests. Relatedly, the media’s framing of McDonald and her gender-non-conforming body as deceptive, as well as the state’s refusal to grant McDonald a right to self-defense, and the denial of her transgender subjectivity by the prison system (through placement in a male correctional facility and the denial of hormone therapy) further illustrates how both the media and the state deem transgender bodies deviant and therefore threatening. I suggest that in this mutually reinforcing process intersecting logics of gender, class, and race inform state surveillance practices that disproportionally subject transgender communities (particularly those of color) to frequent policing, discrimination, and incarceration.
Hopefully, this conveys a good glimpse of my larger project and over the next few weeks I plan on sharing some specifics and examples from the chapters that I have already completed and/or are appearing in publications. So stay tuned for more!