Review: Trap Door: Trans Cultural Production and the Politics of Visibility edited by Reina Gossett, Eric A. Stanley and Johanna Burton. 

This guest post comes from Joanna Gammon, an MA student at the Institute of Cultural Practices at the University of Manchester. Joanna recently completed a placement at the RACE Centre in which she helped to redevelop the Gender section in our library. We’ll have a copy of Trap Door available to read and borrow very soon!

Cover of Trap Door Face of Black trans woman with abundant white hair (or hat?)  decorated with roses, wearing dangling bejewelled earrings
1: Trap Door book cover, https://mitpress.mit.edu/books/trap-door

Choosing this book for review began as part of the audit work that I have been working on for the Ahmed Iqbal Ullah RACE Centre at Manchester Central Library. Working with and researching the material within the Sexuality and Gender section, it became clear there is plenty of room for new resources; I came across Trap Door: Trans Cultural Production and the Politics of Visibility by Reina Gossett, Eric A. Stanley and Johanna Burton while researching for potential purchases. The book stood out to me because of one of its editors – Reina Gosset (who is now known as Tourmaline). As a transgender woman who identifies as queer, the author is also an activist, artist, filmmaker and editor. This makes her well placed to compile Trap Door as an anthology of essays, conversations, and investigations which explore the paradoxes, limitations, and social ramifications of trans representation within contemporary culture. Eric A Stanley and Johanna Burton are also well suited to editing this work, as Eric is an associate professor in the Department of Gender and Women’s Studies at the University of California, Berkeley and Johanna is the series editor for the Critical Anthologies in Art and Culture. Making sure that the authors are appropriate and qualified to speak on the topics they are writing about was an important part of my placement research and therefore I wanted to make sure that any book I chose to review fitted with this brief also.

The 2017 anthology highlights the voices and experiences of a broad range of transgender activists, artists, scholars and creative producers in conversations about the “trap of the visual” and how this can define and limit aspects of people’s lives as transgender people. In the context of when it was published, Trap Door can be seen as an antithesis to the 2014 Time magazine’s article titled ‘The Transgender Tipping Point’ which suggested that the rise in transgender representation in the mainstream US media by women such as Laverne Cox in Orange is the New Black, signalled an era of approaching equality for transgender people. This is immediately rebutted in the introduction to Trap Door, insisting instead that there has also been a swell in anti-trans violence (especially against trans women of colour) which has accompanied the rise in popular representation. This juxtaposition of trans visibility and anti-trans violence is what drives Trap Door’s writing, and the book as a whole aims to problematise the idea of progress that the Time article portrays. It points to the cycle of sensationalism and backlash which has characterised transgender visibility in the last century. As Morgan M. Page notes in her essay One from the Vaults: Gossip, Access, and Trans History-Telling, there have been, and will be, other tipping points. 

For the purposes of this review, I have chosen to focus on two chapters in a little more detail: Cautious Living: Black Trans Women and the Politics of Documentation by Miss Major Griffin-Gracy and Cece McDonald in conversation with Tdshino Meronek, and Existing in the World: Blackness at the Edge of Trans Visibility by Che Gossett and Juliana Huxtable in conversation. Firstly, Cautious Living discusses the dehumanisation of trans women of colour through violence and how this violence has been perpetuated by increased visibility. Miss Major considers the idea that visibility can help to display trans women as humans but also can put trans women in unsafe positions, especially if these women are also black. By existing in an inherently racist society, black trans women are suffering because they “have the nerve to be trans as well”. Miss Major also highlights that the most important thing for her is representing her community in her work from a privileged position – “I did it for the younger trans girls, so they can understand that they can get here […] I just want them to be aware that there’s a culture here. We have a history as trans people that didn’t just start with me, or with Laverne Cox being on the cover of Time; it started years ago.”

Secondly, Existing in the World presents the idea of visibility as a deadlock. Through their work as artists, the authors want to reiterate the importance “that as a Black trans woman I have the right not to be documentary, to not have to be literal, to not have to be factual.” The chapter also touches upon the problems faced by black artists of all genders in the art world: “the New York art world is so white. And it’s terrified of—before you even get to transness—blackness”.

The volume is critical of institutional practices that make transgender history and culture inaccessible, yet the layout of the pages resembles an art installation or exhibition catalogue when opened. Although the book suggests that producing trans art is an endeavour that is embedded in the “artfullness” of everyday trans life, its attention to the gallery as somehow less of a “trap” than mass culture is perhaps a limitation of its discussion. Much of the archival and artistic materials discussed in Trap Door continue to be out of most transgender reach.

As a whole, Trap Door employs a multidisciplinary approach to discussions of the political and aesthetic implications of invisibility and visibility. It also provides deep analyses of the places where ‘trans’ and ‘art’ might collide. The anthology is held together by the way it questions how transgender recognition is commonly displayed in the public eye. The book is a mix of original contributions, interviews, and previously published essays which has been described as “a meditation on the paradoxes of transgender visibility” while also being visually appealing to its reader. This volume is clearly not an example of a text which takes a “special guest” approach; transgender voices and theories take centre stage and are not squeezed into the last pages as an afterthought. Kai M. Green endorses the book, saying that it “is necessary for now”, and this is certainly seen by the way in which it demands to be noticed in the question of trans visibility. I think it will be a valuable addition to the collection here at Central Library because of its focus on an aspect which is not represented in the current resources.