Trans Studies Now – The Conference

The purpose of my trip to Brighton was to attend an academic conference at the University of Sussex. The title of the conference was Trans Studies Now, and the objective, fairly obviously, was to present the very latest in trans studies across a range of disciplines.

Roz Kaveney was one of the keynote speakers, and she opened up the conference with a talk about her work. That included a reading from Tiny Pieces of Skull, some of her own poetry, including her Inanna poem, and a poem by Catullus that she has translated.

The Catullus poem is about Attis, the consort of the Goddess Cybele who, myth has it, castrated himself for the love of the Goddess. This is usually presented to modern readers as being the result of a fit of madness — being unable to possess the Goddess, Attis choses to castrate himself rather than have any other woman, or he’s driven mad by her beauty, anything but the actual reason. Catullus, Roz notes, make it very clear that Attis wanted to become a woman. He is, of course, the archetype of the Galli — the castrati priestesses of Cybele whom I mentioned in my trans history talk. I’ll be having a lot more to say about them in future.

For now let’s just note that Catullus also involves lions in the story. Lions are, of course, sacred to Ishtar/Inanna, and Cybele’s cult originated in Syria, which is not that far from Mesopotamia.

My paper was due up on the first session after Roz’s talk. I was paired with a Californian trans-male poet, Jonathan Bay, who is now based in Edinburgh, and with my new friend Emma Hutson with whom Roz and I had had dinner the night before.

Jonathan’s poetry centered on trans issues. I particularly enjoyed the one about his nervousness about going through US immigration (even as a citizen, as a trans person it is scary), and the one about his transphobic uncle who moved to Montana rather than live close to Jonathan.

Emma gave a really good paper about the “standard narrative” of being trans, and how one size definitely does not fit all. She clearly has a very good understanding of complicated historical narratives such the rise of transgenderism and the split in the trans community it engendered. For a first time giving a paper at a conference it was very impressive. (Believe me, I have heard a lot of bad papers, especially at ICFA.)

The audience listened quietly to my paper and seemed to have enjoyed it. Only Roz was sufficiently well-versed in SF to ask in-depth questions, and she’s heard most of the content before, so I didn’t really have much to deal with. In the absence of questions, I offered to give them an example of trans-themed SF. A few of you will know what I mean when I say I read “Goldilocks” for them, and that appeared to go down well too. My paper is available from

After lunch we had the second keynote speech, which was by Katherine Johnson. She’s been in trans studies for a long time, and gave a fine overview of the history of the field, and where it is now.

The afternoon paper session that I attended featured three presenters from outside of the UK. Olivia Fiorilli is from Portugal, and gave a very nice summary of the state of trans pathology in a variety of European countries. Olivia correctly identified a growing trend towards depatholgisation of the condition, and democratisation of treatment. As I said to her afterwards, it is rather ironic that the roadblocks that gender specialists deliberately put into the pathway with the intention of weeding out “unsuitable” candidates for transition have ended up encouraging people to find ways around the standard treatment pathway, which in turn has caused the gender specialists to adjust their protocols in an attempt to retain control of the process.

Next up was Olga Lidia Saavedra Montes de Oca who is from Cuba. This was a really fascinating paper. Under the old Communist regime gender roles were strictly enforced. Adopting proper gendered performance was seen as being evidence of being a good Revolutionary. Of course trans people existed in Cuba, just as they do in every other country. Typically they would leave home so as not to cause embarrassment to their families. Now that there has been philosophical change in the government, many of these trans people are being welcomed back home, because for Cubans family ties are apparently paramount.

Finally we had Sabah Choudrey, who is one of the founders of Trans Pride and also a Muslim. He gave an excellent presentation about how trans people of color are excluded from trans narratives and trans activism. In the UK that generally means actual exclusion. In the US, where there are greater numbers of TPoC, it generally means separatism — there are white trans activists who are the ones who have a chance of getting the ear of the government and access to what little funding is available; and there are TPoC activists who have to do everything for themselves but seem to get a lot more done.

The final session was a film about trans life in Turkey, but by that time I had been off email for over 24 hours so I took time out to check email. I gather that the film was quite distressing.

Overall it was a very interesting day. I met lots of good people, and I hope that Sally Munt and her team as Sussex do this again.

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