Cisgender Hegemony and the Transgender War Machine

This started as a reading response for Becoming Poor, a theory reading group at the UW that I’m part of, but it sort of ran away and became bigger and perhaps of interest to a larger group. If that’s true, I’d appreciate comments in hopes of following up in greater depth. Transdudes, I speak only from my transfeminine position; I’d love to hear your take(s). In any case, I have cross-posted to both Becoming Poor as well as our cross-country collaboration with OSU, Nomad Scholarship.

On the face of the Earth, spreading like disease
Contaminating, Infiltrating like a horde of bees.

–“Raising Hell”, Run D.M.C

Having made a guest appearance in Holland’s paper, the ages-old conundrum of “reform or revolution?” seems to have played out in the set of Harvey and Holland readings. As to David Harvey I found his Rebel Cities far less rebellious for my tastes, what with such a promising title. In all fairness, I must give him the benefit of the doubt and resolve to read the remaining chapters. For now, though, suffice it to say that his benign socialist statism 1 seems less exhilirating than, say, both the delicious theory and inspiring praxis offered by Jeff Hou’s edited volume, Insurgent Public Space. (Full disclosure: My colleagues and I have a chapter in this book.) Harvey represents, at this writing, the reform side of the equation, while Holland offers a more revolutionary path.

First, though, I offer an aside that will become relevant soon enough. Lately, I have been approaching readings in a new applied light, thinking about them from a trans* point of view–at least some of the time. Gender has been on my mind for the last 20 years and now that I have transitioned it continues to be on my mind, albeit in new ways. As a result, I see fertile ground for soaking our theory through the transgender wringer. Toward that end, then, I’d like to explore the reform vs revolution discussion that Holland brings up, as well as the war machine concept, with respect to what I, as an admitted newbie, see occurring among trans* discourses.

The reform vs revolution argument comes up frequently in broader LGBT discussions. Do we work to reform the system, or overturn it, or create something entirely new? For example, the push for same-sex marriage is less revolutionary than reformist. We are demanding to be seated at the wedding table along with our hetero friends. It is certainly a righteous and necessary goal, and these reforms are necessary. However, same-sex marriage as a sole, or most important, focus cannot be the end game. Furthermore, it cannot divert focus from other important struggles that need to be fought in parallel. This is where a little bit of revolution comes in handy.

Toward such ends, I am lately finding more excitement in talk of GSRM (or Gender, Sexual, and Romantic Minorities) discourses as an antidote to the often intellectually ossified and statist aspirations of “LGBT”. All too frequently, the term LGBT itself needlessly gender-essentializes L and G, leaves B lying starving in the streets, and throws T under the bus for the sake of mainstream-appealing cis LG respectability.2

Reframing the discourse in terms of GSRM molecularities (particularities) rather than LGBT molarities (generalities) pulls apart some of the stodgy, essentialist definitions wrapped up in LGBT. It disentangles sex and gender and it acknowledges a plurality of interpersonal relationships between people. Further, even though trans* is already an umbrella term, GSRM further examines and acknowledges granularity under that umbrella.

Now that we’ve opened up a new way to speak of gender minorities, I believe that Holland opens up a path of action for us. His discussion of the uncertainty of actions in the moment they are happening gives us license to flood the world with actions at all scales. Some initiatives will assuredly fail, some will be quashed, some will replicate and move forward, and others will mutate and move forward. Yet, we must act. Action is one aspect of the contagion released into the social atmosphere by the war machine. This is a good way forward. Only upon later reflection can we identify the tipping points, or bifurcation points as Holland calls them, and ascertain their affect and success. It seems useless and stifling to preoccupy ourselves with too much caution. We have seen too many times in the LGBT discourse where organizers have opted for safe plays, tiny incremental steps which have not gotten us nearly far enough in the struggle. It’s time for bolder demands and actions, both in reconfiguring the existing system as well as in creating new possibilities.

Thus, it is important to restate that these bolder demands operate on both reformist and revolutionary levels. The question of reform vs revolution is not a mutually exclusive either/or proposition; sometimes it becomes a smokescreen which clouds our vision. Rather, the struggle must occur on multiple fronts with multiple methods for multiple outcomes. The answer to the question reform or revolution? is a simple and resounding yes! As a result, the methods that we mobilize must include networks of meshed initiatives loosely strung together with and and and and and…

Specific to trans* communities, we see calls for simultaneous operations already. One of my favorite bloggers, Monica Roberts, exhorts us all to vote3, for example.

But the bottom line is that the ballot is the most powerful weapon in your arsenal to change society. Direct action protest only highlights the issues of the day. It is legislators who have the power to enact law that will correct the issues you highlighted by doing your protest, and you have to show up on election day to put those folks who support your policy positions into office and keep them there.

Not only is it feasible and practicable, but it is also more immediately effective. Therefore it is of paramount importance to vote always. We tend to get cynical and forget the power of voting. Yet, we must absolutely must infect and reform the current system simply because, as Roberts points out, it is the system that most readily dictates our ongoing daily lives. Voting and reform, then, is an important starting point from which to base further action.

At the same time, there are more revolutionary ambitions in simultaneous operation. They propose to change the very underpinnings of society. They rise from mobilizing counterpublics. Nancy Fraser defines (subaltern) counterpublics as “spaces of refuge and regroupment”, parallel to dominant publics, where individuals form counter-narratives to dominant ones with aims to move them out into the world. The trans-feminist blogosphere, for example, contains robust, contentious, and productive discussions challenging dominant narratives, critiquing dominant culture, and pushing forward trans*-positive counter-narratives. On good days, it can propose ideas for action. Relatedly, a growing number of individual trans* voices are speaking out within the dominant publics. Whereas in the past trans* people were more likely to stay hidden, to never leave the counterpublics to use Fraser’s term, a growing number of trans* people today are speaking out to enhance visibility in order to increase social and political power, make claims, and make demands. These theoretical and practical examples exhibit the potential to build a critical mass, to move out into public, and to directly affect people’s lived experiences.

Enter the war machine. These are assemblages which according to Holland “operate by means of a very particular kind of social cohesion, and… produce change.” Concerning the choice of martial metaphor, there remains a danger in adopting the “war machine” nomenclature in this case. Trans* folk already know this, so bear with me. Within certain sectors of old-wave feminism, there are “trans-exclusionary” radical feminists who view trans people, and trans women specifically, as violent usurpers of femininity and the female body itself to invade women’s spaces with our altered bodies and to violate womanhood. Allegedly. In their manner of speaking, we are still male privileged outsiders violently appropriating an unprivileged group. Thus, the idea of some war machine, with the violent connotations it brings up, certainly plays into this rhetoric. On the other hand, the ugly reality is that trans* opponents are using that accusation against us already. So we’ve nothing to lose.

Holland, though, does us a bit of a linguistic favor, explaining Deleuze & Guattari’s war machine as being a sort of “mutation machine” or “metamorphosis machine”. At the very least, his clarifying terms better explain what it is that a so-called war machine does. It is here that trans* actions, as a war machine, are illuminated in their potentially revolutionary light. We aim to radically alter (mutate) and transform (metamorphose) social structures, starting simply by just being out and proud in public and subsequently moving onto organizing and acting in political spheres.

So how can the trans* war machine go about this? In calling up D&G’s image of the wolf pack engaged in hunt, Holland elucidates the war machine’s “significant degree of role-specialization” and pack operation “via collective coordination of member’s activities rather than via obedience to a single leader.” We are agents, with our own drives and talents–individual molecularities. Yet when the opportunity comes, we may operate “via spontaneous or horizontal coordination.” In these networked days, such efforts may occur through a contagious coordination of loosely connected individuals, social media mobilization being an example.

Indeed, the trans* community is completely decentralized, and only marginally and partially organized, if at all. There are no leaders, only loose, impermanent wolf packs. (Personally, I have issues with the monolithic connotations of community but that is a post for another time.) Yet this is not necessarily a weakness as it creates numerous openings for bifurcation points, especially given my earlier interpretation of Holland’s discussion of the uncertainty of actions as license to act. A number of initiatives are immanently rising, making their way outward from trans* counterpublics. Time will tell whether these are the tipping points, I suppose. For now, we act and do.

Holland succintly summarizes Deleuze & Guattari’s war machine, pulling out it’s characteristics:

“mutation machines operate via contagion, enthusiasm, esprit de corps, and solidarity [ATP 241-49, 267-69, 278, 366-7, 384, 390-93] rather than strict obligation or duty.”

As an example, we have Twitter connecting loose, broad networks of trans* folk. It happens in various other social media, as well. However, I single out Twitter here for its lateral, informal, ever-shifting, and rhizomatic networks of communication. (I have every confidence that Deleuze would be an avid tweeter with Guattari adding an occasional response.) Conversations form and re-form, new configurations of users are added, other users are dropped. Hashtags, re-tweets, and follows keep conversations re-routing and moving. It reminds me a bit of Arendt’s assertion that once a word or act is release, it can take on a life of its own, independent of the author. Here we can readily see the aformentioned 4 characteristics demonstrated. Specific to trans* folk, Twitter is a personal support network, a news wire service, an advice forum, general kvetching circle, and base from which to launch network actions. Speaking only for myself, I have only been immersed in the “trans* twittersphere” for about 6 weeks; however, the solidarity, enthusiasm, and esprit de corps is quite phenomenal. The #girlslikeus hashtag4 is a fierce example of the above-enumerated qualities in action. The machine is in full operation.

Being a spatial scholar, I would be remiss by neglecting to mention the direct connection of online networking to physical-world manifestations. People connect in real life as a result of online communication, mediated by networks of affinities activated on-line. In addition, more and more trans* people are showing themselves in public and demanding the same rights and considerations afforded cis people. Monica Roberts reminds us that simply being out and proud is a revolutionary act in itself5. Partially in response to the problem of anti-trans violence, trans* people from all walks of life are stepping out into the limelight. This visibility is indispensable in creating solidarity to fight isolation, promoting hope, encouraging those not yet out, and supporting those just coming out. I remember the isolation I felt as a young trans* person in the 1990s and I can say that what is happening now is revolutionary.

The power of public presence by both popular persons or, say, just your friend at school cannot be overstated. The idea is best theorized by Hannah Arendt’s conception of speech-action creating “spaces of appearance” by which we reveal ourselves legibly to others. We speak and thus reveal who we are, as political agents. Speaking, as an inextricable part of and prerequisite to action, are important for Arendt. Without speech, there is no action. Subsequently, ee are read and, in turn, we read others. We then act politically in the relations to others that manifest themselves in these spaces of appearance. This is another contagion of the trans* war machine. We are not merely appearing to ourselves. Rather we are speaking, appearing, and acting upon the cis world at large. We are everywhere and we are increasingly being seen. We speak our truths, challenge our oppressions, and release our counter-narratives into the world.

So what does the trans* revolution want? Well, there are a few tiny things long denied, among them access to affordable and necessary health-care, fairness in housing, employment protections, general safety, affirmative care, and world domination. Also: we want safe places to pee. That’s quite a number of things, to be sure. A diverse and sufficiently large war machine with different agents can act on these different initiatives. There exist numerous fronts and numerous scales into which to carry the struggle. Although we’ve a long way to go, more forward motion is happening now that has ever happened. These are our potential bifurcation points, to bring it back to Holland. Perhaps these are reformist demands; who cares. We do have concrete demands simply because there are many utterly basic rights that are denied us.

At the same time, I believe there is a broader and overarching goal–and excellent rallying cry–which is to dismantle the dominant cis hegemony. We challenge the notion that being trans* is “abnormal” or that GSRM folks are even out of the ordinary. We are challenging the rigid, essentialist gender binary. We have identified the cis hegemony and are taking bricks out of its walls. There are many walls and many bricks. Among them: the aforementioned discriminatory practices are part of the cis hegemony. Cis gatekeepers to trans*-affirmative care are part of the cis hegemony. Cis doctors and cis-paternalistic standards of care are part of the cis hegemony. Transmisogynistic media images are part of the cis hegemony. Even supposedly allied, alleged queer spaces and organizations are too frequently part of the cis hegemony. The fact that we’ve illuminated, painstakingly documented, and critiqued the concept of cis privilege shows that cis hegemony is in the crosshairs.

Beyond dismantling the current hegemony, though, I believe that there is an emerging parallel, new hegemonic struggle. This one intends to directly infuse feminist and political discourse as well as practical political action. We are not just standing in the public square and declaring ourselves. Rather, we are also projecting our values–our counter-narratives–into general culture. This is our new contagion and it is being adopted. We are installing our new hegemony. For example, transmisogynistic hate speech has been countered not only by trans* writers but is also increasingly challenged by cis feminist allies. There is more news coverage about trans* people (which is slowly getting somewhat better, sort of, probably, some of the time). Still, the very fact that trans* narratives are making their ways into the discourse is evidence of the trans* metamorphosis machine beginning to churn.

Clearly, one personal academic project is to re-visit and re-engage with Chantal Mouffe. Hegemony in all its conceptual forms and modes of operation and (re)production is a line of thought I’ve always been interested in. It’s often rightfully imbued with negative connotation when speaking of a dominant, oppressive hegemony. However, I’m with Mouffe; I’m not convinced hegemony as a machine or a struggle is entirely negative. After all, increasing trans* visibility and political power is a positive hegemonic move. As a result, I have strong suspicions that, slowly but surely among certain sectors of society, we may just be starting to become hegemonic.

In any case, trans* communities seem to be acting as war machines already. This certainly calls for a look back into ATP with respect to the war machine for perhaps a deeper analysis. Again, going back to Holland, it exhibits a particular social cohesion and is beginning to produce change. Additionally, it calls for a deeper look into Hardt & Negri. As a multitude trans* folk are a constantly shift mass, or maybe mass of masses more appropriately, individually engaging in rhizomatic networking and communication.

Yet, something always remains: a residual noise, akin perhaps to Lefebvre’s “cry and demand”, echoes over the palace walls. It’s as if there were a cis fortress and one day an administrator heard something, looked through the portcullis, and shrieked in terror as s/he finally realized that outside the walls, adjoined to the cis fortress was a trans* encampment. It was a highly nomadic encampment, with people always coming and going and with communication between camp, fortress, and hinterland. What’s more, a few cis people were mingling out in the trans encampment, picking up contagion. And trans* folk were making their way into the fortress to buy trinkets, swipe bread, yell from the parapets, and wheat paste graffiti when nobody was looking.

That’s the trans* war machine, laying siege to a social and personal circle you’re in.

1. Did I pull this phrase out of my own mind or did I generously appropriate it from one of you? The librarian values I have been properly inculcated with demand proper citation, of course.
2. TAL 9000. “Cisnormativity Constructed as Respectability Politics”. Retrieved from
3. Roberts, Monica. “Rethinking How We Think About Voting”. Retrieved from
4. Mock, Janet. “My Journey (So Far) with #GirlsLikeUs: Hoping for Sisterhood, Solidarity & Empowerment.” Retrieved from
5. Roberts, Monica. “Being Fearlessly Out And Trans Is A Revolutionary Act”. Retrieved from


Arendt, Hannah. The Human Condition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958.
Fraser, Nancy (1990), “Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing Democracy”, Social Text (Duke University Press) 25 (26): 56–80.
Harvey, David. Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution Verso, 2012.
Holland, Eugene. “Occupy America and the Slow-Motion General Strike”.
Mouffe, Chantal (with Ernesto Laclau) Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics. London – New York: Verso, 1985.

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4 Responses to Cisgender Hegemony and the Transgender War Machine

  1. Reblogged this on Nomad Scholarship and commented:

    Better late than never, I suppose. I’m finally jumping into the pool… starting with a response to the Holland/Harvey readings.

  2. cheryl gilge says:

    excellent. I only have one request:
    get the fuck to work on your reading bibliography. (!)

  3. cheryl gilge says:

    for the general exam, that is…

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