PhD students and historians aren’t shut off from contemporary events. As much as we might seem (and sometimes want to be) consumed with and lost in our own particular slices of academic knowledge, like everyone else we are constantly engaging in what’s happening in the world around us. That includes issues and “debates” (or what passes for them) that are not immediately relevant to our particular areas of expertise. However, historians in particular (because history as a discipline is methodologically open to the study of times and places in a way other disciplines are not, I think) are inclined and well-positioned to draw connections between what we study and developments that at first glance might seem wholly disconnected.
So what does my dissertation research – on 18th and 19th century China – have to do with the current controversy about the right of people who identify as transgender to use the bathroom matching the sex with which they identify? Well, at a basic level I am interested in the relationship between state, government, and identity, a theme that runs through much of the conversation about this issue. I hope you will read this post not so much as my opinion about this issue but as a case study for the value of historical thinking in the present – not in the sense that we can only understand something by learning about what preceded it, but that studying history allows us to approach contemporary problems in a way that contextualizes the problems we face and helps us identify underlying dynamics at work.
As I said, a significant point of connection between my own research (and that of many other historians) and this issue is the importance of identity formation. The by no means insignificant difference is that my research focuses on identity in terms of place, whereas the more pertinent categories of analysis here are sex/gender. The crucial similarity, though, is that both types of identity can be studied as social constructs that change over time – both at the level of the individual and society. That’s not to say that it’s impossible that humanity is characterized by an unchanging essence but that (1) this isn’t something that historians (and politicians) can study with the intellectual tool kits at their disposal and (2) no matter what you believe about human essence, there is still a realm of identity that can be studied historically.
Unfortunately, when people here a phrase like “socially constructed,” they often treat it as meaning that whatever is being talked about is detached from all moorings and completely fungible. In the transgender bathroom access debate this takes the form of thinking that people who support allowing transgender individuals to use their bathrooms of choice want to make it possible for people to simply use whichever bathroom strikes their fancy (or facilitates their nefarious pursuits) on a given day. These laws are not designed to make identifying with a particular gender irrelevant but to recognize the complexities of how individuals go about this. People who think seriously about these issues don’t consider gender to be choice that can be made willy-nilly without a considerable amount of “work” invested in that identity. (“Work” can mean a variety of things: wearing the “right” clothes, making fun of people who wear the “wrong” clothes for their gender, using the bathroom matching your sex, feeling deeply embarrassed when you accidentally walk into the wrong one, etc. – all of these and many more shape how we identify ourselves.)
Where does the government come in? Well, it is also part of the work that goes into how we identify ourselves; from the day you were born different levels of the government have required a determination about your sex and have required you to answer for this decision that was made on your behalf. It seems like most people actually agree that government does have a role to play in arbitrating gender/sex identity, so I don’t want to drone on about this too much. (i.e. I haven’t heard anyone say that government should get out of the gender business.) But it is worth pointing out again that government organs are not simply passive actors responding to an individual’s already-and-always-existing gender identification but are actively involved in constituting and affirming that identity – if you find it natural to check the male or female box on a government document, then you’ve been well-disciplined.
Above I mentioned the state as a concept distinct from the government that is also connected to identity formation. I would argue that we can see the utility of that distinction in the (sadly predictable) vigilante efforts that have sprung up to police bathroom access and the (again, sadly predictable) abuses they are precipitating. It is a reminder that individuals and groups outside of formal government institutions but claiming to act in the interests of the public also affect the formation and performance of different forms of identity. This is not to say that such actors are always without any kind of government sanction, but the effect of their actions is to extend the reach of public power beyond what would otherwise be feasible. Examples from both Chinese and American history abound. For example, during World War I the American Protective League – a private, voluntaristic association – assisted the Department of Justice in rounding up individuals suspected of being draft-dodgers and German sympathizers. (See Christopher Capozzola, Uncle Sam Wants You: World War I and the Making of the Modern American Citizen.)
If you began reading this post skeptical that bathroom access for individuals who identify as transgender was really about Chinese history, then, here you go: it’s not. But where did the thinking I’ve laid out above come from? Whether you agree with me or not, it is my study of Chinese history that has led me through various other fields of scholarship to be able to think through this issue from a perspective beyond my own (very limited) personal experiences. That is one of the great values of a historical education.