Method and Pedagogy in Trans Studies, Trans History, and the History of Science: An Interview with Beans Velocci
by Yingchen Kwok
Beans Velocci is a historian of classification and sex science. They recently joined Penn’s department of History and Sociology of Science as a postdoctoral fellow and will become an Assistant Professor in the department effective July 1, 2022, while also acting as a core faculty member for the Program in Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies (GSWS). Yingchen Kwok is a Ph.D. student in the Department of History and Sociology of Science who is also pursuing a Graduate Certificate with GSWS. In this transcripted interview, which has been edited for clarity and length, Yingchen (YK) asks Beans (BV) about their experiences moving between the fields of trans studies, trans history, and the history of science.
YK: Thanks for agreeing to this interview. Please introduce yourself to people who don’t yet know who you are, yet being the operative word.
BV: Thanks for interviewing me! I'm working on a book that's tentatively titled “Binary Logic: The Incoherence of Sex and American Science.” It argues that sex came to work as a classification system not despite huge disagreement about what sex is and what fits into its categories, but because scientists are able to hold on to multiple definitions of sex at the same time. This has a lot to do with the flexibility of the categories, “male” and “female.” I look at how this happens in five sites of research—zoology, eugenics, gynecology, trans medicine, and statistical studies of sex—from the mid-19th through the mid-20th century.
These are all site sites where scientists were trying to sort the entire living world by sex, but they kept coming across all kinds of bodies and people who didn't neatly fit into the categories that they had outlined. So, scientists spent way more time bringing bodies back into normative categories of maleness and femaleness than closely regulating the borders of those categories. In other words, it’s not transness that’s made up. It’s cisness that takes a ton of work to create and maintain. The book is about making that work visible.
YK: There’s this dual dynamic of observation of what is out there followed by its recuperation into an intelligible framework. And you’re arguing that such a framework always requires multiple definitions, sometimes conflicting or contradictory, to be able to accommodate these observations. And then work goes into pretending that the resulting definitional mess is intelligible anyway. You must discipline these categories to tolerate contradiction more than you discipline life into hiding it.
YK: To what extent do you see this as characteristic of the “scientific process,” and to what extent do you see it as unique to sex science?
BV: A lot of my feelings about any potential uniqueness have to do with the repercussions of erasing the work needed to create and maintain the categories of “male” and “female” feeling important to me in a way that doesn’t apply to other sciences. But I think this does happen in science more broadly. I’m interested in and inspired by work in agnotology—about why don’t we know certain things—and that happens in many forms of science beyond sex and gender. The methods of knowing that my historical actors use aren’t that different than scientists at large—and a lot of the scientists I write about actually didn’t even see themselves as primarily working on sex. But I think sex science gives a particularly salient example of how this process happens because there were such high stakes for how society should be arranged depending on what they naturalized.
YK: How do you see your positionality as a trans person and your training in trans studies informing your work in the history of science? Is it about your relationship with the history of sex classification in particular or is it about your relationship with the history of science as a whole?
BV: I have a real indebtedness to the history of sex science—honestly before trans studies really took off—because encountering it as an undergrad gave me a sense of freedom to realize that I didn’t have to live in the way that I thought I was supposed to. If contemporary gender categories were constructed, then I could let go of trying to fit into them. But at the same time, most of that literature wasn’t formulated with transness or a critique of cisness in mind. So my work is informed by a desire to bring to the history of science the radical potential that my 19-year-old proto-trans self latched onto.
I’m coming to the history of sex science and history of science more broadly with a different set of assumptions than the existing scholarship stemming from the premise that sex fundamentally isn’t real. It’s my baseline assumption that people don’t naturally fit into these binary categories. This allows me to ask a different set of questions that emerge from both my experiential knowledge as a trans person and my training in the history of sexuality, queer studies, and trans studies.
YK: And you’re saying this basic assumption that sex is not real changes the game for how you do history of science.
BV: It allows me to move beyond reading the history of sex science as a cultural valence imposed onto something that exists out there in the world. If we start from the basic assumption that sex is an incoherent category, and it describes something ontologically incoherent regardless of the sexual politics brought into it, then I can focus more on asking what needs to happen to make it seem coherent. I think it’s about starting several steps earlier in the process of some of the work we have so far, which, again, is important and not something I’m trying to align myself against. But I want to go beyond “how do scientists talk about sex?” and ask “why do scientists think there’s even this thing called sex, to begin with?”Not just “how do scientists think about sex on the margins,” but “why do we think most people just happen to fit into male and female categories”?
YK: I’m reminded of how David Valentine’s book, Imagining Transgender, treats “male-bodied” and “female-bodied” as ontological, pre-discursive categories that he then employs to understand how people create trans meaning. Yeah, transgender is imaginary. News flash: so is sex.
But it’s also relevant to the history of science because historians of science often “read against the grain” by juxtaposing the actor’s categories of their archival sources with their estimation of what the actors were really seeing based on contemporary scientific understanding of the “ontology” behind these phenomena. And that includes ideas of how bodies work. For many trans histories and ethnographies, it’s the idea that binary sex classification largely works even if it is troubled at the margins. For you, it’s the idea that sex is fundamentally incoherent.
BV: My against-the-grain tendencies come from my training in reading queer archival sources. Which is often about reading for coded language and small traces of evidence that so-and-so might be queer or trans in a different time and place, even if it’s not explicit in the text. I rely on those queer reading practices because it’s similarly not obvious how sex is being made in my materials. Nobody is talking about the fact that this is what they’re doing. Often, I’m also reading for absences, coded language, small traces of things, to figure out what these sources are not saying about sex.
But your point about the “male-bodied” and “female-bodied” binary operating in so many anthropological and historical accounts of gender nonconformity also leads me to think about a cis-trans binary in trans history. Like, of course, we want a usable—or useful—history in which trans people have existed for a long time, but that has the unintended consequence of implying that cis people have also existed for a long time. And I don’t think that they have. I think they're pretty new.
YK: And if you fall back on a definition of transness as living as a gender other than the one you were assigned, then you take for granted the very stability of sex that you’re trying to problematize in the first place.
YK: Am I right to say that you think trans history is more attached to these operative binaries than trans studies as a whole?
BV: Yes, but that’s only part of it. There’s a disjuncture between trans studies and trans history that I find interesting and troubling. Trans studies has an expansive view of what transness is relevant for, but it’s also very present-focused. I’ve become disciplined as a historian, so part of this is a methodological quibble, but thinking about it from an STS kind of perspective, I’m more interested in the structures at work here. Because, not to get territorial about it, I think it’s weird that the historical research in trans studies is increasingly happening outside of history as a discipline altogether.
I just published an article in TSQ, and I needed special permission from the journal to use footnotes rather than parenthetical citations. Because it was a historical piece based on archival material, which they don’t usually publish. That is, the style of the journal doesn’t really allow for archival material because I think there is an assumption that that’s not what trans studies does. It’s a question of what kind of evidence we think is relevant for a particular problem.
YK: There was a recent controversy over the perception that TSQ values even “edgy” cisnormative accounts of transness, so long as it has a strong humanities or interdisciplinary bend, over trans scholarship on trans topics in the social sciences, like legal studies or public health. The emphasis on wanting transness to be “interdisciplinary” and category-defying is a problem because younger trans scholars today can’t get jobs writing about transness in this lofty manner. TSQ has an outsized effect on defining the core and periphery of the field of “trans studies,” for better or for worse.
But you’re saying that despite TSQ’s proclaimed humanities-oriented focus, it doesn’t even value history as a method that much. It’s not that trans studies doesn’t invoke history, but when it does, it is in this lionized form that doesn’t value the display of care in how one works through the nitty-gritty of the archives.
BV: Yeah—this is an aspect of citational politics we need to think more about. On the other hand, trans history too has a fraught relationship to evidence and burden of proof that has forced it into this narrow scope of what transness is and what a trans analytic is for. I think that historical work about trans people is really important, and we should keep doing that. But I also think that it’s a problem if trans history feels a need to focus on the classification of historical figures who could conceivably be trans to justify its existence as trans history. No one is like, including paragraphs in their book introductions explaining what behaviors they looked for in the archive to prove that their historical actors are cis.
It feels telling that scholars working trans history don’t tend to be in history departments. A few people are, especially after recent shuffling, but a lot of the work also comes out of American Studies, Gender and Sexuality Studies, Africana Studies, English, and so on. I’m thinking of the recent special issue on Early Modern Trans Studies as one example. It was historically interdisciplinary from a mostly literary studies approach.
It’s not like I think these fields aren’t producing good or interesting work—that’s not the critique here. But history departments aren’t at the forefront of trans history. I mean, I’m in a History and Sociology of Science department now, even though I was trained in a History-History department. There seems to be an uncomfortable relationship between history and transness, broadly speaking, such that trans history has gotten weirdly compartmentalized, even as everyone acknowledges that the historical is important.
YK: Do you think this has more to do with how trans scholars see history or how history departments see transness?
BV: Probably both. It feels cumulative such that the expectation that there’s little space in history for transness means that people doing trans history turn to other fields whether or not history is really an unwelcome space. But there are also real methodological reluctances to see transness in the past.
YK: Maybe it’s no coincidence that history is so easily punned as cistory. Cistory for cistorians.
BV: I’ve often wondered if part of the weird relationship between transness and history has to do with, like, trans people’s discomfort with our own pasts? Like, to just totally psychoanalyze us for a minute. I don’t want someone digging into my, I don’t know, first-grade school records or something to be like, I think I can understand something about this person based on how they dressed in the past.
YK: Now you’re just attacking me.
Would it be right, then, to describe trans studies and trans history as a failed marriage? Or maybe all marriage, like sex, is inherently failed, and you’re this poor marriage counselor bringing a spray bottle to a dumpster fire. Has history of science helped you in any way? Given you a larger nozzle, maybe a water gun?
BV: (Laughs) It was history of science and STS that helped me realize that there is a classification problem in trans history and the history of sex science more broadly. So much of trans studies/history has been oriented around the question of category—who counts as trans, what is the proper subject of trans studies/history, and so on. History of science has given me tools for thinking about how categories are made in the first place, how they function. That goes beyond the scope of trans history and the history of sexuality, especially insofar as it’s descended from a lineage that is still very invested in pronouncements like, “in 1870, the homosexual became a species.” It naturalizes a rather dogmatic approach to classification that doesn’t encourage sophistication in really thinking critically about categories. Let’s talk about what it means to be a species, not just a homosexual!
History of science attends to fact-building and ontological politics in a way I’ve found useful for thinking about a more expansive framing for trans history that's still grounded in the material consequences of categories. How did the categories of sex even come to exist at all? Why do they have such sticking power, even though the moment you start poking at them, you realize they don’t make any sense? They’re questions that matter because taxonomies are a space where power is exerted. In any case, I’m not sure I think trans history and trans studies ought to be brought back together. I’m very much a believer in the idea of multiple conflicting but coexisting strategies.
YK: Which is maybe a better way of showing trans-disciplinary care than forcing failed marriages. Speaking of care, the FQT Center’s theme for this year is Care for the Future. Last semester, you taught a course on Queer Science, to which you tried to take a different pedagogical approach. What did care in teaching this course look like for you?
BV: If history of science and STS tell us that all knowledge is the result of negotiations of power, then we need to be really careful about what we do in the knowledge-producing space that we're in. My pedagogical approach stems from thinking about how knowledge-making institutions and infrastructures work. Knowledge doesn’t come out of brains in jars that are kept on shelves in universities.
I've been trying to figure out how to trust students to be engaged and learn new things without the threat of a bad grade. I’ve found that students are willing to take bigger intellectual risks if they’re not afraid of getting things wrong, if the risk they take is not what might keep them from getting into med school, if they’re not having panic attacks all the time, if they can prioritize taking care of themselves.
Sometimes, giving people leeway to take care of themselves does not produce better work. That’s also okay. Sometimes, it’s enough to plant some seeds for a student who is dealing with a lot. Maybe they’re going to sit in class and listen to stuff when they can make it. That still counts. Students should not have to apologize for having a chronic illness or having trouble getting out of bed in the morning amid a pandemic. I've started telling my students that I wouldn't be teaching this class if I didn't think it was important, but it shouldn't be the most important thing in our lives.
I fundamentally believe that if the conditions of producing knowledge are rooted in the denial of being a person with a body and emotions and relations to others, we’re just not going to produce very good knowledge. In a class like Queer Science, it feels especially perverse—the bad kind of perverse—to not also interrogate the pedagogical structures that we're dealing with.
YK: Unfortunately, caring about students in this way often means more work as instructors. Even during this pandemic, universities want to continue operating as “normal,” which means that instructors have to put in an exceptional amount of work into making things work “normally.” It ties to the scholarly impulse to produce more talks, panels, and conferences about the pandemic to prove our intellectual care for society, even though this demonstration of “care” precisely plays into ideas of the “normal” intellectual output academics must produce to prove their economic worth. How do you balance caring for your students, your research, and yourself during these times?
BV: (Laughs) I wish I had a good answer. I won’t say I’ve been particularly successful in balancing anything. Mostly what I’m working on is trying to afford myself the same care as I afford my students—but it’s hard. I find myself falling back on this narrative that now is just an “exceptional” time and I need to push through and get to the other side, even as I am also trying to understand the perception of exceptionality as an effect of power. I recently wrote a short piece about how universities have galvanized around the phrase “these uncertain times,” even while there’s a lot we know about how they’re not doing anything different than usual. So much of my work revolves around “normality” as an ideal form that has to be created, not simply what is quantitatively frequent.
I’ve been trying to think about how the academy has been pulling this trick of having the current situation be both “exceptional” and “normal” at the same time. We are not usually in a pandemic. But also, universities relinquished responsibility of care long before now. They already thought about having a body as this degrading thing that might get in the way of your intellectual work, and that caretaking labor is a burden to be resolved privately without involving universities or hampering our productivity. This has real consequences for the kind of knowledge we produce. We’ve had enough of whatever it is that has led our society to where we are now.