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Jake and Ellen in Transition: On Clarissa Sligh’s Mutable Bodies

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Part of the Palgrave Studies in (Re)Presenting Gender book series (PSRG)

Abstract

rl goldberg’s contribution focuses on Clarissa Sligh’s photography project Wrongly Bodied (2009), which tracks two gender transitions: that of Jake McBee, a transgender man transitioning in Texas, and that of Ellen Craft, a formerly enslaved woman who passed as a white disabled man to escape slavery. Drawing on theories of the archive by Ann Cvetkovich, Diana Taylor, and Jacques Derrida, goldberg argues that by pairing Jake and the Crafts’s narratives, Wrongly Bodied reframes both the nineteenth-century story of racial passing and the twenty-first-century story of trans ‘passing’. It thus produces new understandings of trans materiality and strategies of narrativization that reject dominant discourses of mid-twentieth-century sexology and generates insights into the workings of the archive and the law.

Keywords

  • Transgender
  • Passing
  • Archive
  • Racialization
  • Photography

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Notes

  1. 1.

    This is a point compellingly made by C. Riley Snorton in Black on Both Sides: A Racial History of Trans Identity (2017). For Sligh, turning to the archive of slavery allows for an amplified understanding of crossing, and thereby of transness. Snorton’s intervention is different: like Hortense Spillers, Snorton conceives of slavery as the foundational rupture in gendered syntax, whereby gender becomes enclosed as the property of whiteness, and the enslaved become, in Spillers’s term, “ungendered” (68). Snorton offers the case narrative of J. Marion Sims, the ‘father of modern gynecology’, and his brutal experiments to cure vesicovaginal fistula on enslaved women. For Snorton, Sims is emblematic of the ways in which the enslaved body was used to shore up modern ideas on gender/sex through the abuse of enslaved, ungendered ‘flesh’ (19–20).

  2. 2.

    On racial and gendered passing, see also Werner Sollors’s Neither Black nor White Yet Both: Thematic Explorations of Interracial Literature (1997) and Marjorie Garber’s Vested Interests (1992) respectively. The messiness of the discourse of ‘transracialism’ can be seen at its worst in Rebecca Tuvel’s 2017 article “In Defense of Transracialism” and in the academic community’s beleaguered response to it. The publication of the article immediately resulted in an open letter of opposition, with nearly 900 signatories and a string of resignations on the editorial board.

  3. 3.

    This understanding of trans corresponds with current scholarship in trans studies, like Eliza Steinbock’s use of the term as a cluster “under the holey umbrella of transgender (it doesn’t catch all the possibilities) in order to better stress the gendered elements of subjective identity formation” (2019, viii), or Patrick Califia’s sense that the term transgender registers how gendered ‘boundaries’ are permeable (2003, xiv).

  4. 4.

    Jake says as much when he comments about meeting a trans man for the first time: “I went down there expecting the worse [sic]. But he looked like a guy. He didn’t look like he had five eyes or three noses. You wouldn’t notice him in the street. I was so impressed. I thought, ‘My God that is what I want to be – normal.’ Whatever the hell that is, but I knew I had not been that. I just wanted to go to work and live my life and have my relationships and just be normal” (Sligh 2009, 31).

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goldberg, r. (2022). Jake and Ellen in Transition: On Clarissa Sligh’s Mutable Bodies. In: Dexl, C., Gerlsbeck, S. (eds) The Male Body in Representation. Palgrave Studies in (Re)Presenting Gender. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-88604-2_9

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