Imagining Transgender

An Ethnography of a Category

Imagining Transgender

Book Pages: 320 Illustrations: 7 illustrations, 3 tables Published: August 2007

Author: David Valentine

Anthropology > Cultural Anthropology, Gender and Sexuality > Trans Studies, Theory and Philosophy > Feminist Theory

Imagining Transgender is an ethnography of the emergence and institutionalization of transgender as a category of collective identity and political activism. Embraced by activists in the early 1990s to advocate for gender-variant people, the category quickly gained momentum in public health, social service, scholarly, and legislative contexts. Working as a safer-sex activist in Manhattan during the late 1990s, David Valentine conducted ethnographic research among mostly male-to-female transgender-identified people at drag balls, support groups, cross-dresser organizations, clinics, bars, and clubs. However, he found that many of those labeled “transgender” by activists did not know the term or resisted its use. Instead, they self-identified as “gay,” a category of sexual rather than gendered identity and one rejected in turn by the activists who claimed these subjects as transgender. Valentine analyzes the reasons for and potential consequences of this difference, and how social theory is implicated in it.

Valentine argues that “transgender” has been adopted so rapidly in the contemporary United States because it clarifies a model of gender and sexuality that has been gaining traction within feminism, psychiatry, and mainstream gay and lesbian politics since the 1970s: a paradigm in which gender and sexuality are distinct arenas of human experience. This distinction and the identity categories based on it erase the experiences of some gender-variant people—particularly poor persons of color—who conceive of gender and sexuality in other terms. While recognizing the important advances transgender has facilitated, Valentine argues that a broad vision of social justice must include, simultaneously, an attentiveness to the politics of language and a recognition of how social theoretical models and broader political economies are embedded in the day-to-day politics of identity.


Imagining Transgender proceeds through sophisticated and multilayered analysis. It offers a new way to approach gender and the institutions that name and manage it, and this is a provocative contribution. . . . Scholars will find this readable and engaging book well worth their time, as it will allow them to develop a nuanced understanding of transgender and its social ramifications.” — Anne Enke, NWSA Journal

“[A]n important read for activists, scholars, teachers, graduate students, and advanced undergraduates. . . . It will also be an eye-opening read for case workers, counselors, therapists, and clinical psychologists. . . . It is, in any case, a compelling example for ethnographers and qualitative researchers. . .” — Daniela Juak and Kathryn Feltey, Sex Roles

“[Valentine’s] text brilliantly encapsulates the present thinking around ‘transgender’ . . . [you] will be hard-pressed to find a better, more comprehensive articulation of these struggles.” — Bri Smith, Lambda Book Report

“David Valentine’s Imagining Transgender is a well-written and well-executed ethnography that is able to balance a critical take on the category of transgender while not denigrating those most affected by rethinking the term. . . . Imagining Transgender is an example of what we as ethnographers should be doing and is a must read not only for those in transgender studies, gay and lesbian studies, or queer studies, but throughout the field of anthropology.” — Anne Rohlman, Journal of Homosexuality

“Highly accessible. . .” — Lorraine E. Herbst, GLQ

“In questioning the theoretical separation of sexuality and gender that has become a requirement for doing ethnographic research in women’s and gender studies, Valentine opens a path for a more complex understanding of the relationship between the two but also implicates the gender/sexuality debate in obscuring other positional factors, namely class and race.” — Brian Joseph Gilley, Journal of Anthropological Research

“Undoubtedly, the book will become a base from which many others will be able to take up similar questions, and that is a significant contribution to the field. “ — Morgan Holmes, Canadian Journal of Sociology

“Valentine’s writing manages to be both theoretically insightful and accessible. Whether musing on his bicycle as he travels between fieldwork sites of the street and the drag ball, or reflecting on conversations with clients and staff at GIP, Valentine presents a humorous, touching and very relevant political tale of the state of play of ‘transgender’. This is an extremely valuable contribution to work on gender and sexual diversities, and, importantly, a very enjoyable read.” — Sally Hines, Sexualities

“Valentine. . . does an excellent job in showing just how messy the category ‘transgender’ is; how it was born of a variety of discursive practices; how those discursive practices had little to do with the lived realities of many of the people the term ‘transgender’ claims to represent; and how taking the time to think critically about transgender as a category can create space, literal and symbolic, for those whose lives most thoroughly blur the neat distinctions between some of the foundational categories of our time: male/female, straight/gay, represented/not represented.” — Laurie Essig, American Journal of Sociology

“David Valentine had the good fortune to be conducting anthropological fieldwork in New York at the precise moment when a new term, ‘transgender,’ was first coming into widespread use. Now we have the good fortune of sharing his ethnographic insight into this new category’s emergence. Imagining Transgender offers a provocative on-the-ground account of this important shift in Western notions of gender identity and sexuality. The book is sure to stir debate in the emerging field of transgender studies, as well as in other disciplines that concern themselves with this timely topic.” — Susan Stryker, coeditor of The Transgender Studies Reader

“The definitive study that documents the rise and spread of ‘transgender’ as a category and a field of knowledge, activism, and power but also as a mechanism for disenfranchisement, discrimination, and violence. Deeply learned, wonderfully accessible, and ethnographically rich, this remarkable book sets a new benchmark not only for all future work on transgender but also for how we might think about gender, sexuality, identity, and politics more generally.” — Don Kulick, author of Travesti: Sex, Gender, and Culture among Brazilian Transgendered Prostitutes

“There is a paucity of ethnographically based work on transgender, and David Valentine’s book is a major contribution not only ethnographically but also historically and theoretically. Valentine is concerned with a range of value and political questions, committed explicitly to humane positions without being ideological or propagandist.” — Esther Newton, author of Margaret Mead Made Me Gay: Personal Essays, Public Ideas


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

David Valentine is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Minnesota.

Table of Contents Back to Top
List of Illustrations ix

Acknowledgments xi

Part I: Imagining Transgender

Introduction 3

1. Imagining Transgender 29

Part II: Making Community, Conceiving Identity

Introduction to Part II: Reframing Community and Identity 68

2. Making Community 71

3. “I Know What I Am”: Gender, Sexuality, and Identity 105

Part III: Emerging Fields

Introduction to Part III: The Transexual, the Anthropologist, and the Rabbi 140

4. The Making of a Field: Anthropology and Transgender Studies 143

5. The Logic of Inclusion: Transgender Activism 173

6. The Calculus of Pain: Violence, Narrative, and the Self 204

Conclusion: Making Ethnography 231

Notes 257

Works Cited 277

Index 299
Sales/Territorial Rights: World

Rights and licensing

2007 Ruth Benedict Award, SOLGA

Finalist, 2008 Lambda Literary Award (non-fiction category)

Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-3869-7 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-3853-6
Publicity material