University of Limerick’s School of English, Irish, and Communication, in conjunction with the Gender Arc @ UL and the School of Education hosted a day workshop entitled “Gender, Sexuality, and Citizenship” on Wednesday, 21st February, followed by a guest lecture from prominent queer theorist, transgender activist and educator Professor Jack Halberstam (Columbia University, New York).
The workshop, held in the Pavilion on North Campus, brought doctoral students and early-career researchers from all over Ireland to give presentations, each of which was followed by a response from a senior scholar, in a wide variety of academic disciplines relevant to gender and sexuality studies. Participants from UL, MIC, DCU, NUIG, MU, UCC, and UCD took part. Papers ranged widely, from the experience of ambiguous loss by transwomen and their families, to the representation of home in Irish women’s writing 1920-40, to teaching practice integrating anti-homophobic and transphobic bullying policies in 5th and 6th year classrooms, to the putative gender fluidity of Irish-born New Woman journalist Kathleen “Kit” Coleman.
The day culminated in a tour-de-force lecture by transgender activist and educator Jack Halberstam, entitled “Trans*: Visualizing the Gender-Variant Body”. The lecture focused on films from 1980’s Dressed to Kill to 2015’s Tangerine, as well as a variety of still images from the nineteenth to twentieth centuries. Using these texts, Halberstam chronicled the representation of transgender and gender-variant people in visual texts because, as he stated, “Today’s images of transgender people did not come from midair,” but are instead based on a rich queer heritage of triumph, tragedy, and solidarity.
Halberstam drew a clear chronology from these films to more recent cultural output like the Amazon television series Transparent, which generally seems to reflect a more positive attitude toward transgender people. For society to be inclusive of transgender people, Halberstam said:
“The future is not all just us running through sunshine happy fields. The future is that we have reimagined who we are, the space we take up, the way we relate to one another.”
This vision of the future must be mindful of the past and proceed with honour and respect for those that came before. Speaking of the influence radical feminism has had on today’s transgender politics, Halberstam stated “Only because of feminism do we have a robust, nuanced understanding of gender. This cannot be resolved through one argument at a time, it has to be resolved by solidarity.” Through the collaboration between feminists and transgender and queer rights groups, a more authentic gender equity across and outside the masculine/feminine binary might be achieved.
In a highly productive and insightful Q&A session, Halberstam offered opinions on topics including gender exploration among primary and secondary school students, the linkage between transgender studies and disability studies, and the ethical viability of academic projects reclaiming or reading fictional characters as transgender.
The lecture, hosted in the Graduate Entry Medical School, saw a packed theatre. Audience members travelled from as far as Galway and Dublin to hear Halberstam speak, and ranged from university students, teachers and youth workers to members of the general public.
This workshop and guest lecture are among several important and symbolic measures taken by University administration which contribute to an atmosphere of welcome and positive visibility for UL’s transgender and gender-variant students.
The workshop and guest lecture were organised by Drs Tina O’Toole (English), Aoife Neary (Education), Margaret O’Neill (Gender Arc), and PhD candidate in English Alena Kiel, with support from Dr Breda Gray (Gender Arc) and from postgraduate students in English at UL. The workshop was generously funded by the AHSS Faculty Teaching Board, the National Forum for the Enhancement of Teaching & Learning in Higher Education, the Gender Arc@UL, and the School of Education; the lecture was funded by the School of English, Irish & Communication, and was made possible thanks to the generosity of Professor Jack Halberstam.
Many thanks to Alena Kiel for the write up of this event.