Like many queers on the Internet, I found myself perusing the 2023 Target Pride collection when it dropped earlier this month. (Full disclosure: I bought the rainbow buttondown shirt.) Over the past few weeks, I found myself returning again and again to look at the “Cure Transphobiawp_postssweatshirt, created by trans designer Abprallen. [Note: I wrote a draft of this article in mid-May, and by the end of the month, Target had pulled some of its Pride merchandise, including this sweatshirt, after conservative backlash to the collection. I’ll address this at the end of this piece.] The light pink sweatshirt features a design of a blue snake twisting around a winged staff, references to dominant symbols of medicine as well as the colors of the trans pride flag. Wrapped around a staff is a banner that reads, “CURE TRANSPHOBIA, NOT TRANS PEOPLE.wp_postsAt a cultural moment in which transphobic politicians and right-wing thought leaders propose bills banning healthcare for trans kids and adults, and amid a national legislative assault on trans lives, the shirt affirms that transphobia is the social disease that needs to be eradicated, not trans people. The message of the sweatshirt is clear: Trans people are not sick, but transphobia is.
This sweatshirt is one cultural object through which we might explore the dynamic relationship between disability politics and transgender politics. Historically, trans identity and embodiment have been pathologized in U.S. medicine. As the sweatshirt suggests, generations of medical and psychiatric professionals have strived to “curewp_poststrans people of their non-normative gender identities. Current anti-trans legislation works in this tradition, as it proposes to make providing gender-affirming care a crime in order to deny trans people access to the medical care they need. Scholars working at the intersection of trans and disability studies examine how medical institutions and laws like these regulate gender and sexuality in ways that often reinforce the gender binary and deny trans people (and all of us) bodily autonomy.
I was thinking a lot about the “Cure Transphobiawp_postssweatshirt while reading The Terrible We: Thinking with Trans Maladjustment by Cameron Awkward-Rich, an Assistant Professor of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Awkward-Rich’s book, which is a finalist for the 2023 Lambda Literary Awards, builds upon the intertwined histories and politics of trans and disability studies to examine the stories we tell about transness and illness.
Taking a close look at transmasculine writing and trans studies itself, Awkward-Rich implores readers and scholars to think with what he calls “trans maladjustment,wp_postswhat he briefly describes to me as the “durable association between trans identity and particular forms of bad feeling.wp_postsRather than disavow “bad feelingwp_posts— “things like depression, social withdrawal, unruly post-traumatic identity/affect, suicidality, dysphoria, feeling haunted, and so onwp_posts— he is interested in exploring how these feelings “show up again and again in transphobic and trans-affirmative discourse.”
Put another way, Awkward-Rich is wary of the way trans scholars and activists have been quick to distance themselves from accusations of illness. To be sure, affirming that “we are not sickwp_postscan be a politically important rhetorical move in the face of entrenched medical pathologization. However, Awkward-Rich writes that this rhetorical move is “produced only in direct opposition to the word sick.wp_postsThe Abprallen sweatshirt, for example, declares that trans people are not sick; Awkward-Rich argues that this kind of rhetoric distances trans people from disabled and mentally ill people, re-marginalizing the latter while trying to legitimize the former. If we say “trans ≠ sick,wp_postsas Awkward-Rich simplifies it in the book, where does that leave everyone who is sick?
The Abprallen sweatshirt is just one example of this disavowal. We can see it over and over again in our contemporary moment. During our conversation in May, Awkward-Rich and I discuss how we repeatedly see calls for representations of “trans joywp_postsonline and from our students. And this impulse to celebrate trans joy is extremely understandable as a response to the political right’s focus on stigmatizing trans lives. “The Terrible We, of course, does not set out to contest the critical value of potentially good trans feelings—euphoria, curiosity, hope, earnestness,wp_postshe writes in the Introduction.
However, Awkward-Rich asks, what happens when we deny or ignore “the full range of human experience and emotion and relation to trans life”? Feminist scholar Sara Ahmed has critiqued how the cultural imperative to be happy limits our ways of understanding how oppression and marginalization feel in our everyday lives. Along these lines, Awkward-Rich tells me, “what actually is it that my desire for the absence of suffering or my joy, in this simple [way of] reflecting myself back, like, [how] is that asking me to live? And do I actually like that? Joy is a great way of reproducing normativity.wp_postsPerhaps over-emphasizing narratives of joy might put pressures on trans people to perform euphoria and happiness in a way that limits our understanding of the workings of transphobia.
Throughout the book, Awkward-Rich argues for “maladjustment as a resource for doing trans theory.wp_postsThe Terrible We launches “a version of transgender studies that does not begin with the premise that a commitment to doing justice requires the wholesale disavowal of transgender’s historical association with madness.wp_postsHe imagines “a version of trans studies that can acknowledge and think with a more expansive we, terrible though it might feel.”
“The terrible wewp_postsis a phrase Awkward-Rich borrows from Carson McCullor’s novella A Member of the Wedding, a story about a twelve-year-old white tomboy named Frankie Addams who feels disconnected from her gender-normative peers and instead feels an affinity for a group of racially and gender-diverse people she at one point calls “the terrible we.wp_postsTaking inspiration from this idea of “the terrible wewp_postsas a collective of marginalized individuals, Awkward-Rich wonders, “How do we stay with with the ‘we’ that we are of, knowing that it is terrible, but knowing that that terribleness is the conditions of its existence in the first place?wp_postsIn other words, how do we hold transness and disability together, rather than denying the ways the “bad feelingswp_postslike dysphoria and anxiety have historically been a key part of trans thought, art, politics, and media?
In the book, Awkward-Rich’s “terrible wewp_postsprimarily includes case studies of white transmasculine scholars and historical subjects, including his academic peers as well as people like Jack Bee Garland and Brandon Teena. This focus is very purposeful: He explains to me that, up until very recently, “trans studies was a field where the objects largely were trans women and the people doing the writing were white trans guys. And I thought, in order to do a study…that’s interested in the emotional life of the field, one has to be interested in white transmasculinity because that’s where that’s where the emotional life is emerging from.”
Awkward-Rich elaborates: “Part of the project of the book is to insist that the attempt to disavow maladjustment is always going to be a distancing of transness from other minoritarian forms of life, specifically, disability, and also Black life, also various kinds of racialized life. And I think that the case studies are white transmasculine ones because it’s an attempt to insist to white transmasculine discourse that it need remain attached to all of these other forms of minoritarian life, and that the disavowal of maladjustment is is one of the many mechanisms by which that distancing happens.”
As an academic field, trans studies shares some of its intellectual roots with feminist and queer theory but is less institutionally supported than either of these disciplines. For example, there are fewer academic jobs in transgender studies and no academic departments dedicated to trans studies; therefore, there are fewer institutionally-funded positions for scholars to do this work. In the last 20 years, pioneering trans scholar Susan Stryker has worked hard to create infrastructure to support trans studies, including co-editing a trio of Trans Studies Readers, co-founding the field’s journal of record Transgender Studies Quarterly, and creating the University of Arizona’s Transgender Studies Initiative. Now trans studies is a burgeoning, if institutionally precarious, discipline, and increasing numbers of trans of color and trans femme scholars are working in the field: “It’s possible to have conversations with each other in a way that I think was not exactly possible a decade ago,wp_postsAwkward-Rich tells me. His book is part of these conversations.
Awkward-Rich is in conversation with a number of other contemporary trans scholars interested in the politics of bad feelings. Hil Malatino’s 2022 book Side Affects: On Being Trans and Feeling Bad and Cael Keegan’s recent work on the “bad objectswp_postsof trans representation both explore what might be possible when we stop focusing on “goodwp_postsfeelings or “positivewp_postsexamples of trans representation. When I ask Awkward-Rich why there might be increased interest in “bad feelingswp_postsin this moment, he explains:
“I think I can only speculate about this…My tendency as a thinker is always to suppose that intellectual trends are in one way or another related to the kind of institutional conditions of their emergence. It’s actually not surprising to me that there would be a turn to think about bad feeling, or a set of people thinking about bad feeling in trans studies…having lived through or being the test subjects of two things. One, the over and over again insistence on the arrival of trans studies to the university. And two, the insistence over and over again on the arrival of trans people to the ‘official scene’ of American political life. And the simultaneous knowledge that all of us have, which is that our arrival was announced at the same moment as it seemed to become impossible to be here. By which I mean in the university, by which I mean the very tight window between the announcement of trans inclusion and the arrival of a huge backlash politics that I think many of us kind of anticipated would come. And so I think that It makes sense, right? That many of us would be interested in the failures of a kind of politics of inclusion, of a politics of legibility, on the level of the sensorium, right? I think that we all have these intellectual and political critiques of this, but I think that all of us have been feeling it very intensely in a way that is interesting, you know? And it’s interesting especially because, yeah, I think that we’re also living at a time where many of our students and many people are very interested in a discourse of trans joy, or trans non-pathology, but to me, there’s a huge disjuncture between what that orientation seems to promise and what actually materializes.”
Nearly a decade after Time Magazine declared the arrival of the “trans tipping point,wp_postswe are living “in optimism’s wake,wp_postsas Awkward-Rich writes. This writing suggests we might need to take a closer look at “bad feelingswp_postsas we build coalitions between trans, feminist, queer, racialized, and disability politics, activism, and theories to confront this particular trans-antagonistic moment.
For Awkward-Rich, “the terrible wewp_postsmight be an aspirational vision of these kinds of coalitions. “So much of the project of the book,wp_postshe tells me, “and also I think the project of various kinds of feminisms, is the project of learning how to do the work necessary to be with each other in difference. And I think that obviously, trans and lesbian politics have been one of those contentious sites of, how do we figure out how to be together in difference?…Part of the problem with disavowing bad feeling is that to move away from bad feeling, from conflict, from irresolution, what we’re always doing is moving away from each other. And that ‘each other’ being a capacious ‘each other’. …So it’s also for me a way of trying to think about how to stay with the ‘we,’ terrible though it might be.wp_postsThe chapters of the book explore these dilemmas, engaging with longheld debates and taboo subjects in the field — the TERF wars, sexual violence, suicidality — in order to chart new ways to think with, instead of move away from, these conflicts in trans studies.
Thinking with Awkward-Rich and “the terrible we,wp_poststhe “Cure Transphobia, Not Trans Peoplewp_postssweatshirt might carry a different meaning. Perhaps we can let go of the need to “curewp_poststrans people not because trans people aren’t sick, but because we can deeply understand all the reasons why trans people might feel bad, feel sick, feel dysphoria, feel anxiety, and feel depression in the contemporary moment. In his book Brilliant Imperfection: Grappling with Cure, trans and disability studies scholar Eli Clare rails against what he calls the “ideology of curewp_posts— the idea that disabled people are “brokenwp_postsand need to be “fixedwp_postswith medical intervention — because the emphasis on “curingwp_postsdisability functions to uphold limited ideas of which bodies are considered “normal.wp_postsLike Clare’s book, perhaps Abprallen’s sweatshirt calls “curewp_postsitself into question.
Target’s decision to pull some of the trans-specific items from its Pride collection, including the Abprallen sweatshirt, certainly inspires bad feelings: frustration, resentment, fury, and indignation, to name a few. As many have suggested, we cannot rely on corporations to support LGBTQ rights and justice when their main concern is for their bottom line. Perhaps the failure of corporate pride calls the focus on “pridewp_postsas the central emotional orientation to LGBTQ politics into question. If “pridewp_postsis a “positive feelingwp_poststhat has been assimilable into corporate media, does its failure point to the need for “bad feelings” to re-emerge as different political orientations to the world? If we continue to see corporations walk back their vocal support for LGBTQ issues amidst conservative anti-trans backlash, we might need to invest in alternative strategies for transformative change. Instead of a focus on pride or rainbow capitalism, we can embrace a more radical stance: in order to confront anti-trans oppression, we, the terrible we, need to harness our bad feelings to restructure our gendered social institutions and ideological systems altogether.