CW: Talk of Transphobia and TERFs
When I started searching for materials on transgender museum studies, I found essentially nothing. Literature on queer museums focuses so much on sexuality that I have seen LGBT and sexual minorities used interchangeably. In one of the few articles that I found that actually addressed transgender issues in a meaningful way, Robert Mills described “the T in ‘LGBT’ is often a fake T” (Mills, 256), a phrase often by trans activists to discuss the lack of trans visibility in the queer community. That article was originally published in 2006 but even 15 years later, I do not believe enough has changed to make that characterization any less true. For the most part, this usually encourages me to keep doing what I am doing, reminding me just how important my voice is to this field, but it can get so exhausting.
As Mills explains in his article, transgender identity and politics have largely been understood and framed as it pertains to sexuality (Mills, 257). The LGBT makes strange bedfellows, and it is not enough to just assume that what holds true for sexual minorities also holds true for gender minorities. Most of the time, when reading queer museum studies and find it lacking trans voices, I consider it an opportunity for me to speak on the matter and expand the conversation. It gets a tad annoying but it does not come across as especially harmful. There are two exceptions to this that I have found, however.
The first comes from Prejudice and Pride, published in May 2018 by the Research Centre of Museums and Galleries, edited by Richard Sandell, Rachael Lennon and Matt Smith. Prejudice and Pride was a collection of short reflections on the introduction of queer interpretation and programming at the National Trust. As a whole, the collection is an excellent source of case studies on bringing queer content to normative institutions. The part that stands out for this conversation comes from the section titled “Whose Voice Do We Hear?” This section considers the range of visitor responses to the queer heritage programs offered at the National Trust sites. One such response is as follows:
I have to say though I’m confused by the whole transgender thing, and I consider myself quite a liberal person. But all these different words! I’m supposed to call myself a ‘cis’ woman, so I’ve been born a woman and I identify as a woman. So all this new nomenclature I’m confused by and I suppose it’s quite a fresh debate at the moment. We’ve got some feminists coming out and going ‘if you’re born as a woman and you live as a woman you will have had a different experience, a cumulative experience or affect, but if you’re born as a man and you transition to becoming a woman you will not have the same life experiences’. I agree with them, but I kind of have this slight liberal thing where I go ‘ooh am I allowed to admit that? Am I not politically correct? … I mean I don’t care, if you want to become a man or a woman that’s cool, but why does that mean I have to change what I call myself, how I identify myself, so I’m not resisting it I’m just a bit confused about it.
If you are unfamiliar with this kind of rhetoric, it is transgender exclusionary radical feminist (often shortened to TERF) talking points. There is a lot to unpack in those quotes and I am not prepared to take on that task at the moment, but needless to say that these are not new thoughts on trans people. The problem lies in how these quotes are presented. The authors describe this visitor as having been “challenged to think differently” (Dodd and Plumb, 80-81) but that is not at all the conclusion that I draw. I see someone who was able to express her beliefs on trans people without being viewed critically. She outright says that she agrees with the so-called feminists that oppose transgender existence. This is not the innocent visitor that the authors present.
Platforming these views is incredibly dangerous. This is especially true in the UK where trans exclusionary politics have gained very strong footholds recently, including the Bell v Tavistock case that blocked the prescription of puberty blockers to trans kids. (For a full history of the current environment in the UK on trans rights, this tweet thread is an excellent source). As Jennifer Tyburczy writes, museums are often the battlegrounds for culture wars (Tyburczy, xiv) and one of the biggest culture wars of our day is on transgender rights. By platforming these voices that wish to legislate us out of existence, museums further marginalize trans people.
The second example that I found comes from the previously referenced Jennifer Tyburczy book Sex Museums. Tyburczy’s book attempts to present a progressive view of how sex and sexuality have been portrayed in museums, exploring how concepts like homonormativity and neoliberalism have affect the museum landscape. As I started reading, there were the usual cases where trans experiences are overlooked, such as with the display of the bearded lady in dime museums (Tyburczy, 71), but this was more of the same that I felt I could expand upon. The section on Matisse’s Blue Nude is different though.
Matisse’s Blue Nude was a controversial painting in its time, and Tyburczy starts by laying out its history with controversy. At the heart was the more masculine nature of the depicted model. Nude meant more than just simply being naked, it was “an artistic genre of idealized femininity” (Tyburczy, 83). By being more masculine than previous nudes, Matisse was denigrating the art form, it was claimed. Where Tyburczy missteps, however, is through some of the critics she quotes. One describes it as a “mannish nymph” while a more contemporary critic claims to have been “repelled” by it being “a voluptuous nude of a woman which includes physical elements of a man.” (Tyburczy, 87).
I relate to the “gender trouble” that is the Blue Nude. I, myself, am a “woman with the physical elements of a man” on account of a masculinizing puberty. While I am very privileged with my transition, there are still parts of myself that I cannot undo or change, at least not easily. And so, when I read about how these deviations from what is considered to be traditionally feminine are considered “repellant,” I cannot help but read myself into that statement as well. There is a hint of transness in Tyburczy’s analysis, with the critic then describing the Blue Nude as being “a drag-queen picture,” but it feels like a transfeminine person like myself was not expected to read this section.
It is this aspect of the Blue Nude that affects me so much. In this book, which has seemingly become a staple of queer museum work, trans voices are not present. Once again, “the T in ‘LGBT’ is a fake T.” (Mills, 256).
I want to state outright that I do not believe that these examples were intentionally written to disparage trans people. That said, they were both published in the last five years. They are recent. This reveals a much larger problem; museums studies has a cisgender problem. Being cisgender is often taken for granted, even in queer museum literature, allowing harmful rhetoric to be published. Trans people continue to have very few voices within the museum community.
Dodd, Jocelyn and Sarah Plumb. “Whose voice do we hear?” In Prejudice and Pride , edited by Richard Sandell, Rachael Lennon and Matt Smith, 76-81. Leicester: Research Centre for Museums and Galleries, 2018.
Mills, Robert. “Queer Is Here? Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Histories and Public Culture.” History Workshop Journal, No. 62 (Autumn 2006): 253-263.
Tyburczy, Jennifer. Sex Museums: The Politics and Performance of Display. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016.
Trying to bridge the gap between transgender studies and museum studies.