The TRANSRIGHTS project focuses on the lives of trans-people seeking to identify different patterns of selfhood but, most importantly, different forms of coping with difference, discrimination and social exclusion. Considering that trans-lives cannot be ignored and easily included in binary systems of gender citizenship, our project will enlighten how trans-people might be able to construct viable lives in different European contexts. As the focus of this research shifts from the most common approach to the problem and investigates real lives and the rights that frame them rather than just self-displayed identities, four analytical problems come into play.
Firstly, the politics of gender and sexual rights are to be discussed as the traditional division between politics of equality and politics of difference seem unable to provide new answers when the inclusion of trans bodies, identities and performativities is at stake. This first objective implies bringing the perspectives of history and medical knowledge, law and the political philosophy of justice alongside a sociological grounded approach to trans-lives, their constraints and possibilities.
Secondly, by comparing the lives of trans-people in five European countries – Portugal, United Kingdom, France, Sweden and the Netherlands – we wish to attain a comprehensive overview of how legal and institutional frameworks impact on these lives. In the choice of these five contrasting countries, two criteria were considered: (a) gender and sexual politics and (b) the migration profiles stemming from the history, often of a colonial past and a post-colonial present, of each society under scrutiny.
Thirdly, our approach to trans-lives − framed under different institutional strategies for dealing with gender citizenship − will take into account the immigration trajectories of trans-people into and within Europe, whether in the search for recognition and inclusion or as a way of survival that often leads to many-sided forms of sex work. Trans-lives in Europe are a transnational phenomenon linked to the circulation of people, and bodies, from non-western or very conservative countries to western or less-conservative countries. In this sense, Western Europe can at the same time represent a place of opportunity and a sexual market for trans-bodies. Unveiling the intermingling of these dynamics of inclusion and exclusion is one key objective of this project. As a consequence, different flows of migration to different countries also imply a comprehensive approach to the labeling and the self-display of gender categorizations. In the end, what matters the most when using a transnational stance is to identify the factors that may or may not lead to the exclusion of trans-individuals as well as the position they occupy in each national gender order. A comprehensive intersectional strategy for the identification of factors that might compel individuals to exclusion implies then an empirical comparison of trans migrants and non-migrants.
Fourthly, by comparing different countries, different groups of trans-people – migrant and non-migrant; sex-workers and non sex-workers −, different forms of attaining inclusion or dealing with exclusion, different conceptions of gender citizenship and sexual rights, we wish not only to gain a deeper understanding of societal change and its impact on the real lives of trans-individuals, but also to identity the gaps between policies and rights and the categories actually mobilized for self-identification. The aim is not to merely describe identities, but to explore the possibilities for different conceptualizations of gender, sexuality and citizenship, which can be critical of the current categories and promote inclusion without falling into the fetichization of the other: a potentially transgressive, institutionally controlled and often unnamable Other. Such a task implies combining the effects of policies on the materiality of lives with different conceptualizations of selfhood that do not necessarily confine to the European context and its traditions, under the umbrella that still opposes the global North (in spite of its internal differences) and the global South (also in spite of its internal differences).
Our approach to trans-people stresses two problems. Firstly, we do not wish to simply focus on life narratives. Rather, we consider them as a privileged locus from which to investigate the doing of gender. Extreme conditions enable the visibility of hidden processes in which gender is produced by agency and institutions. Secondly, we mobilize conceptions of power that emphasise material constraints and discursive disciplinarization, thus avoiding the reification of gender categories or the endless multiplication of differences and identities. Subversion, conformity and body performativity, though strongly enacted through discourses, are also produced in practices and cannot be understood without considering material-based inequalities. As such, further attention must be given to gender in a multidimensional perspective that emphasizes agency, norms and institutions (the family, labour, sexuality, health, etc.) and tackles power and domination. This implies a critical approach to subordination and gendered otherness in a number of settings, each of which with its own regulatory regimes and configurations of practice.
Beyond the fact that we are developing a yet under-explored field, namely regarding the cross-national and transnational comparative analysis of trans-lives, there are important elements of innovation in our theoretical and methodological research design, which are deeply linked to a vision that does not separate empirical findings from social theory. With the aim of contributing to a grounded theoretical perspective on the problems of gender citizenship and sexual rights, we focus on people whose lives and claims bring to the frontline of the agenda the notion of personhood and the theoretical apparatus constructed to deal with gendered selves and social justice.
In short, we seek answers to two vital lines of questioning. Firstly, how can trans-lives be viable? How does one become a person when outside of a binary gendered codification of bodies? By analysing trans-people we are posing key questions on normality and subversion. In providing answers to this problem, we are not only discussing the viability of atypical lives and transitions but also further advancing our knowledge on how forms of recognition and redistribution are institutionally enacted. Therefore, how are these lives dealt with from an institutional perspective in different contexts? Secondly, which recognition is today at stake in political terms? Most importantly, which redistribution can be coupled with recognition without falling in the traps of either operating with a utopian view of equality or of reifying difference and otherness? Undoubtedly, the claims for the recognition of multiple gender categories, beyond the dualist opposition between male and female and the heterosexual order it implies, suggests a wider field for recreating selves. However, even if new forms of categorization emerge, femininity and masculinity still provide, in most cases, the basic standpoint from which other possibilities are imagined. Disentangling these old and new categories by investigating trans-lives is paramount, if we want to move forward the debate on citizenship and rights. Not just a debate cloistered in European constructed categories, but one that privileges a transnational approach and critically benefits from a wider range of experiences. Most importantly, we do not intend to develop a monograph on trans-people, but rather to study the workings of gender and citizenship through trans-people.
The TRANSRIGHTS research unfolds along four thematic lines of inquiry:
- Gender orders and trans-biographies
- Vulnerability, bio-power and health
- Migrations, post-colonialism and cultural difference/inequality
- Gender citizenship