Archaeology and Trans Rage: On this a day of Transgender Vengeance

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by Owen Hurcum

Transgender Day of Vengeance, Image courtesy of Noah Buchanan

To quote Henri-Jacques Stiker; “At the risk of being dismissed even before being read, I shall begin by being outraged”[1]. For I am, as articulated by Susan Stryker in her seminal My Letter to Victor Frankenstein Above the Village of Chamounix, “fuel[ed by] a deep and abiding rage in me that I, like [Frankenstein’s] monster, direct against the conditions in which I must struggle to exist”[2]. Whilst I could now explain some of the ways transphobia creates the hostile environment all trans people struggle against, as I did at the tail end of my last post to this blog, I shall instead defer to Camille Auer’s potent rage that flows from and through her essay Antiphallic Dick. I don’t need to reference every instance of transphobia “because that’s not the point… i checked it it’s real. google it.”[3] (And if you don’t want to Google it you can literally click the above link).

What then is the point? Simply that transphobia is real. Such a statement is self-evident, but also ever more ‘contentious’, and it will either be met with agreement or hostility depending on your camp. This is why there is no point providing a list of references. For instance, after I shared on social media that I had attended a conference to present on the topic of transphobic invocations of archaeology I received my now expected deluge of transphobic crap. One memorable example was being sent a picture of a mutilated chicken carcass with badly photoshopped blue hair and the words “I am a woman now” written at the top. There is no number of references that will convince these people transphobia exists. Just as there is also no risk of my outrage causing me to be dismissed before being read by these people, for they already dismiss me simply for being trans. In which case why should I not also perform trans rage?

Trans Rage in written theory is, after all, an extremely potent methodology. As Harlan Weaver writes, its “affect seeks to shape with its touch, to convey change through feeling, so that reading the written word becomes an encounter that transforms”[4]. In essence, trans rage gives monstrous agency to the text we write as trans individuals because it demands non-passive engagement. Much as Victor Frankenstein was forced to confront his monstrous creation on the mountain slopes above Chamonix, so too does trans rage cause its reader to confront their part (however unconscious, accidental or incidental) in the monstrous creation that is transphobia.

There is to me then, when understanding trans rage, multiple monsters at play. The monster of Frankenstein’s creation that Stryker claims as her own by virtue of being a trans woman, and the monster of transphobia. Yet only one is actually monstrous in an evil sense. Trans people are made monster by a society that sees us “as less than fully human due to the means of [our] embodiment”[5]. And as the quote un-quote “monster” of a more recent (and overtly trans coded) work of fiction, Nimona, says, “Little kids. They grow up believing that they can be a hero if they drive a sword into the heart of anything different…And I’M the monster???”[6].

So, what does all this have to do with Archaeology? Or whatever the Trans Day of Vengeance is that this blog post has put in its title? Well, simply that this article is a call to accept trans rage as a necessary and unavoidable part of progressive and transformative heritage and archaeological praxis.

Transgender Day of Vengeance was born out of trans rage. That much should be obvious. Whilst a Transgender Day of Vengeance event was planned for April 1st 2023, “‘Trans Day of Vengeance’ is not [just] a specific day or a call for violence. It’s a meme that’s been around for years, a way of expressing anger and frustration about oppression and violence the trans community faces daily”[7]. It is a natural consequence and outpouring of rage occurring from persistent transphobia. And for us, on this day, a day of trans vengeance, it serves as a context from which this rage can pour into heritage and archaeology.

How does one read archaeology with trans rage? Perhaps similar to how one reads the archaeology of Paul Bahn with feminist rage. As in, very easily[8]. Pithy (yet true) remarks aside – trans rage reconfigures language to make us “feel not for but with”[9] its transgender subject to affect us into enacting meaningful change, instead of simply stewing with naught but ineffectual sympathies. A trans rage filled archaeological reading is thus taken from the perspective of Philip Duke’s assertion that “archaeology’s primary, perhaps only, responsibility is to contemporary people”[10], therefore it is not only irresponsible for archaeology to ignore contemporary issues of trans equality, but actively violent. A claim similarly made by Mary Weismantel in her 2013 paper Towards A Transgender Archaeology: A Queer Rampage Through Prehistory [11]. A violence, even if accidental, that trans rage can help elucidate.

For example, if one was to read Pape & Ialongo’s 2023 paper Error or Minority? The Identification of Non-binary Gender in Prehistoric Burials in Central Europe, they might perhaps focus on the authors’ trans affirming conclusion that: “The data would suggest that [prehistoric] gender is mostly binary, with a small but noticeable non-binary component”[12]. Yet if the same paper was read from the perspective of trans rage, then the violence of questioning if people like me have a history, or whether our prehistoric counterparts are nothing more than faults in sex estimation and gender attribution by archaeologists – literally “Error or Minority?” – is laid painfully bare. I should stress that my trans rage is not with these authors, or others, who have attempted (yet arguably failed) to write from a trans positive position, but rather an archaeology that, even when openly queer, cannot fully conceptualise genders outside of a strict typology, and places a burden of proof on non-binary that is never placed upon binary genders. A fact made ragefully obvious in Gaydarska et al.’s 2023 paper To Gender or not to Gender? Exploring Gender Variations through Time and Space (a real ‘who’s who’ of contemporary gender archaeology written with trans affirmation in mind, but hamstrung by archaeology’s inadequate framework)[13].

If one writes about trans individuals from a position of attempted academic neutrality, then it perhaps makes sense to categorise transness as testable in the record. Surely this is the safest, most ‘objective’ approach? And if it is visible in the record then, from an abstracted distance, it makes sense to think about ‘how is it visible?’ Logically the answer to this question is in the ‘gender ambiguous’ burials (i.e where sex estimation and gender attribution are incongruous) that archaeology has long pondered the gendered meaning of[14]. This is how gender archaeology has arrived at, as so bluntly written by Pape & Ialongo (but used by many), a rigid and ironically binary non-binary formula. 

In instances where a skeleton’s binary Male/Female sex designation does not match their binary Man/Woman gender assignment based on grave goods (and for only as long as neither of these have been assigned erroneously), and only then, do we have ‘non-binary’ in the record[15]. Remains excluded from non-binary analysis by this formula are thus always deemed cisgender for certain. Resultantly, genders outside of a modern cis western man/woman binary remain, as a priori assumed, to not exist except in cases with exceptional evidence to the contrary. Why is my gender exceptional? Why do I need to prove people like me existed in the past, regardless of how we may have presented or talked about ourselves across deep time, when cis people never do? And more importantly, would archaeology have been willing to conclude that trans/non-binary people didn’t exist in the past had Pape & Ialongo’s statistical analysis of sex determination and gender estimation showed that ‘gender ambiguous’ burials were primarily a matter of misattribution by archaeologists? Would archaeology have put out a paper entitled ‘Errors not Minorities’ in that instance? Publishing that article into a world where many wish to see people like me removed in one way or another from public life? This is what fills me with trans rage.

As Bettina Arnold stated, the archaeological record “can only produce answers if the questions asked are the right ones”[16] and as I have hopefully demonstrated; we are currently asking the wrong ones. A trans rage methodology does not ask of the record “did genders outside of the modern cis western binary exist in ways wholly relatable to how we assume trans people to present today?”. Instead, it understands that transness – and equally gender in general – is something experienced by individuals in unique and personal ways that do not necessarily always, or even ever, leave marks in the archaeological record we can find or decode today. It asks in its place “how have our assumptions of gender, even if trans inclusive, pigeonholed and excluded the multiplicity of gendered embodiment and being by reducing that experience to bones, grave goods and temporally immemorial assumptions?”.

Near the start of this blog post I quoted Susan Stryker’s iconic line; “my exclusion from humanity fuels a deep and abiding rage in me that I, like the monster, direct against the conditions in which I must struggle to exist”[17]. In that instance, like Stryker, I contextualised this within the broad trans struggle of acceptance in everyday life. Now to end I offer an alternative, tighter, reading; ‘my exclusion from the archaeological record fuels a deep and abiding rage in me that I, like the monster, direct against the frameworks in which I must struggle to abide’. And as in Stryker’s conclusion, but specifically as a rage filled trans archaeologist, I “do have something else to say, if you will but listen to the monsters: the possibility of meaningful agency and action exists”[18]. Archaeology just has to ask itself if it wants to affect trans equality, or continue to reduce our community to existing only when we fit within its reductive and binary frameworks?

What kind of archaeology do we want? What kind of archaeology will you make? To quote Stryker one last time; “Be forewarned, however, that taking up this task will remake you in the process” [19]

By Owen J Hurcum [They/Them]

Owen (They/Them) is an AHRC (WRoCAH) funded PhD researcher at the Centre whose PhD project, ‘Transgender Archaeology’, will look at the impact of archaeological research on the transgender community, how archaeology is being (ab)used in discussions around rights and equalities for transgender individuals as well as investigating identities in the past that do not fall within the modern West’s notion of cisgender men and women.

Image Credit

Image made for Transgender Day of Vengeance (https://www.assignedmedia.org/breaking-news/interview-noah-buchanan-founder-of-the-trans-radical-activist-network)

In Text References

[1] Henri-Jacques Stiker. 2019. A History of Disability: New Edition, Translated by William Sayers. The University of Michigan Press, p. 2

[2] Susan Stryker. 1994. ‘My Words to Victor Frankenstein Above the Village of Chamounix: Performing Transgender Rage’, GLQ, (1), pp.238

[3] Camille Auer. 2017. Antiphallic Dick, https://camilleauer.com/antiphallic-dick/, [accessed 18/03/24]

[4] Harlan Weaver. 2013. ‘Monster Trans: Diffracting Affect, Reading Rage’, Somatechnics, 3(2), p.287

[5] Susan Stryker. 1994. ‘My Words to Victor Frankenstein …’, GLQ, (1), pp.238

[6] Robert L Baird. &. Lloyd Taylor. 2023. Nimona, Film Script, https://deadline.com/wp-content/uploads/2023/12/Nimona-Read-The-Screenplay.pdf, [Accessed 18/03/24], page 87

[7] Even Greer. 2023. Quoted in, ‘Twitter removes tweets about “Trans Day of Vengeance”’, CBS News, 30 March 2023, https://www.cbsnews.com/news/trans-day-of-vengeance-twitter-marjorie-taylor-greene/, [Accessed 18/03/23]

[8] In particular: Paul Bahn. 2012. Archaeology: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press, pages 91-92

[9] Harlan Weaver. 2013. ‘Monster Trans…, Somatechnics, 3(2), p.302

[10] Philip Duke. 2010. ‘Ethics in Question’, in Yannis Hamilakis & Philip Duke (eds.) Archaeology and Capitalism: From Ethics to Politics. Routledge, p.41

[11] Mary Weismantel. 2013. ‘Towards A Transgender Archaeology: A Queer Rampage Through Prehistory’, in Susan Stryker & Aren Z Aizura (eds.) The Transgender Studies Reader 2, Routledge

[12] Eleonore Pape & Nicola Ialongo. 2023. ‘Error or Minority? The Identification of Non-binary Gender in Prehistoric Burials in Central Europe’, Cambridge Archaeological Journal, 34(1), p.8

[13] Bisserka Gaydarska et al. 2023. ‘To Gender or not to Gender? Exploring Gender Variations through Time and Space, European Journal of Archaeology, 26, (3)

[14] Bettina Arnold. 1995. ‘’Honorary Males’ or Women with Substance? Gender, Status, and Power in Iron-Age Europe’, Journal of European Archaeology, 3, (2)

[15] Eleonore Pape & Nicola Ialongo. 2023. ‘Error or Minority?…’, Cambridge Archaeological Journal, 34(1)

[16] Bettina Arnold. 1995. ‘’Honorary Males’…’, Journal of European Archaeology, 3, (2), p.153

[17] Susan Stryker. 1994. ‘My Words to Victor Frankenstein…’, GLQ, (1), p.238

[18] Ibid. p.250

[19] Ibid.

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