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14 September 2009

Viviane Namaste: Invisible Lives – a review

See also: “A Gang of Trannies”: Gender Discourse and Punk Culture – a review of the chapter by Viviane Namaste

Viviane did a BA in Sociology at Carleton University, Ottawa, 1989, an MA at York University, Toronto, 1990, and a PhD in Semiology at the Université du Québec à Montréal, 1996. She is Principal at the Simone de Beauvoir Institute, Concordia University, Montréal. She was awarded the 2009 Canadian Award for Action on HIV/AIDS and Human Rights for her efforts to address the HIV prevention and treatment needs of trans people, bisexuals and the swingers community.
  • Viviane K. Namaste. Invisible Lives: The Erasure of Transsexual and Transgendered People.  University of Chicago Press, 2000.

    Namaste, as the subtitle of the book says, is concerned with the erasure of trans people in both straight and gay/lesbian contexts. Of course any conceptual or bureaucratic system emphasizes some people and erases others.   In addition, the high estimate for transsexuals being 1 in 500, it is inevitable that social workers, civil servants etc will neglect us, which makes it all the more important to speak up for our existence.   In turn, inevitably,  Namaste’s book also erases some types of transsexual. Her major concern is with trans prostitutes, unemployed and seropositives. It is of course good that someone is speaking up for this group. However trans persons with regular jobs are not much mentioned in this book.  She says not a word about trans people who erase themselves by going stealth and denying that they were ever a different gender. Nor does she say anything about gay scholars, Jonathan Katz the most prominent, who treat trans people as either gay or lesbian.

    If you are the kind of reader who ignores footnotes, you will miss Note 3 to the introduction where Viviane mentions that she herself is trans, and goes on: “I am not interested in situating myself personally in this book. There are a variety of reasons to justify my position. First, autobiography is the only discourse in which transsexuals are permitted to speak. An academic text on transsexuality and the institutional world that does not address the transsexual author’s personal history, then, is a critical intervention in the existing knowledge paradigm”. She extends this with a disinterest in the personal history of the other writers that she engages with, some of whom are trans and some are not. Those readers who happen to know which ones are, will be reading a somewhat different book to those who do not.

    Throughout the book she inserts comments by Diane Gobeil, Mirha-Soleil Ross and Margaret O’Hartigan, much in the same way as television documentaries have talking-heads, but beyond the simple fact of them being MTF activists, she tells us nothing of them.  Again, some of us know who they are, and others do not.

    This is an academic text. It is concerned with the implications of post-structuralist theory and sociology. It is narrower than post-structuralist, it is post-Foucaultian. Much of the theory discussion will not interest the general reader.

    In 1995 Namaste was funded by Health Canada to do a needs assessment for transgendered persons in Toronto. She interviewed 33 people, 31 mtf, 2 ftm, 6 post-operative, 19 enrolled at the Clarke Institute (now the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health=CAMH) Gender Identity Clinic (more), 12 sex workers. She does not explain why it was so difficult to find more than 2 trans men. Toronto, after all, is the city where Rupert Raj (not mentioned in the book), has worked so long and hard in organizing trans men.

    It is no surprise that the 12 sex workers reported frequent police harassment, and in a back-handed way it is encouraging that only one other did so: she is a métis who was stopped in northern Ontario for driving with a broken light, and who was then jailed when they realized that she was trans.

    It is also not a surprise that homeless trans persons avoid the youth, women’s and homeless shelters where they were usually expected to impersonate their birth gender, and even then were often turned away. Seven years later in 2002, Toronto revised its shelter standards: "It is expected that all shelters be accessible to transgendered/transsexual/two-spirited residents in their self-defined gender and that shelters will work toward improving access to this group”. This was a step forward, but practice lags behind theory. Interestingly, Namaste reports that some trans women opted to go to gay bathhouses rather than to the city shelters. This in turn raises questions that she does not answer. The gay bathhouses admit only men, and therefore to some extent the trans women must be impersonating their birth gender there also.

    In discussing trans persons who attend Alcoholics Anonymous, she mentions that many AA members are transphobic. Some trans persons attend AA either as their birth gender or as their chosen gender but in both cases feel frustrated in that they cannot talk about what actually drove them to drink. Now just a minute. The latter group, those who attend as their chosen gender are complaining that they pass. The down-side of stealth or passing is that there are things that one cannot talk about. It is difficult for a trans alcoholic to attend AA unless he or she is out, for this very reason. Ideally there should be a specialist trans AA group, but failing that would it not be better to attend a gay/lesbian group where one can be out as trans, rather than a heterosexual group where one is intimidated not to discuss the real issue.

    While Namaste was conducting her study in the Summer of 1995, a provincial election returned the Progressive Conservatives under Mike Harris with an item in their manifesto that they would discontinue funding under the provincial health plan for SRS. This put Namaste in a bind when she wrote her report in that she did not want to provide material that would support that intention. This book, published in 2000, contains data that she left out. Nevertheless the Harris government did suspend funding in 1998, and the suspension remained in place until reversed by the Liberal government in 2008.

    The major complaint of the 19 respondents who were or had been enrolled at the Clarke Institute Gender Identity Clinic was the requirement that they do 12 months of real-life test before starting hormones. This is more than is required by the HBIGDA (now WPATH) Standards of Care, but is required by several Gender Identity Clinics. Namaste reports that the staff at the Clarke Institute Gender Identity Clinic estimate that 30-50% of their clients are receiving hormones from somewhere else, but contrary to what some expect, such clients are not expelled from the program. It is of course, as Namaste explains, not good health care to force persons to cross-live without hormones if such policy leads to them being beaten up.

    The second complaint of the respondents is that the Clarke Institute Gender Identity Clinic does not provide any counselling in dressing, passing etc. Personally I would never have expected such advice from a GIC. Such is part of what is offered by transsexual peer groups.

    The Clarke Institute Gender Identity Clinic is (in)famous as the institution where the concepts of autogynephilia and Homosexual Transsexual (HSTS) were developed, first by Kurt Freund and then by Ray Blanchard.  In addition to the many web pages that discuss this issue, it is explained at length in a book published by the Clarke Institute Gender Identity Clinic, Gender Dysphoria: Development, Research, Management, 1985.  This being the case, I found it particularly odd that Namaste’s book does not mention Blanchard nor the 1985 book nor the concepts of autogynephilia and HSTS, nor even the idea that there are two types of transsexualism.  I wanted Namaste to ask her respondents whether they tried to present themselves more as autogynephilic or more as HSTS. But it is as if the Clarke had never coined the concepts.

    Those who have read Michael Bailey’s The Man Who Would Be Queen, 2003, may be left with the impression that trans prostitutes are the epitome of HSTS.  In addition, Namaste quotes Dallas Denny from 1992 who expressed the opinion that prostitutes were over-represented among the clients at GICs, and then Namaste makes a very strange comment: “Nevertheless, her position assumes that most ‘true’ transsexuals are not involved in prostitution and/or street life”.   Is Namaste asserting that most transsexuals, or at least ‘true’ transsexuals, are prostitutes?   She never defines what might constitute a ‘true' transsexual, and what would be a ‘false’ transsexual.     Traditionally most trans women went into prostitution because all other types of employment were closed off to us.  This is still the case in some Mediterranean countries, but this is hardly the case in modern Canada.  While prostitutes are still a significant proportion of us, it has not been my experience that they are the majority, and certainly Namaste does not supply any statistics or any other evidence to get me to change my mind. In her own sample only 12 out of 33 are prostitutes.

    Anyway the reality at the Clarke Institute Gender Identity Clinic was that prostitutes were not accepted. The GIC does not regard prostitution as a typical female employment, and of the nature of the trade, prostitutes are not able to present a tax return in a female name showing that they have been working as women. Namaste also interviewed GIC staff in Montréal and Québec City and shows that they have a very similar attitude. Not surprisingly only 4 of the 12 prostitutes in Namaste’s sample were enrolled at the Clarke Institute Gender Identity Clinic, and only two of those admitted to them that they were prostitutes. One of these was told that she would get no help if she were busted by the police again, and withdrew from the program. An angle that Namaste does not pursue: as clients are expected to show their tax return to prove that they are working as the target gender, do not some other self-employed persons run into similar problems of proof?

    Namaste mentions that many think that there is a quota re how many transsexuals the Clarke Institute Gender Identity Clinic can approve per year and quotes in refutation a representative of the Ontario Health Insurance Plan (OHIP) that the numbers vary from year to year. Surely the wrong question is being asked here. The population of Ontario is 13 million and was 10 million in 1995. We divide the 1995 total by 1,000 to get a rough estimate of transsexuals in the province which would be 10,000, and further divide by 50 to get the number who apply in any given year. Therefore we would expect around 200 per year. The Clarke approval figures are around 10 a year. There may not be a quota as such, but the Ontario Ministry of Health expects the Clarke to keep the figures closer to 10 than to 200. They have been very efficient at this.

    From 1998 to 2008 OHIP did not fund SRS. Hence the Clarke Institute Gender Identity Clinic was without its carrot. Why did people continue to enrol and put up with their nonsense? While this happened after Namaste’s study, her data offers a snapshot of Toronto transsexuals just before the funding suspension was introduced.  We should be able to extrapolate from her data to answer the question, but the data presented does not do so.
    A few notes on word usage.
    • Not everyone will understand ‘Anglo-American’. It does not mean UK + USA, as in the mining company. It is Quebec usage in contrast to Franco-American. American here = US + Canada. This usage of course erases Hispanic-American and Aboriginal American and all the types of immigrants.
    • A footnote on the word ‘travelo’ would be useful.
    • transsexuel/transsexuelle. Which is which? Just as Anglophone sexologists describe trans women as ‘male transsexuals’, so I think that there is a political dispute as to whether a transsexuelle is a trans man or a trans woman. This is not clarified.
    • Namaste is constantly saying “transsexual and transgendered (TS/TG) people”, which does of course become tedious. At least in the chapter on applicants to the Clarke Institute in Toronto, '”transsexual” alone would have sufficed.
    • Sometimes she says ‘transgenderist’, as does Anne Bolin whom she quotes several times. This form of the word is, of course, associated with Virginia Prince whose meaning is distinctly different from what Namaste and most writers mean by ‘transgendered’. Prince is not mentioned even once in this book, but the use of her word does open up confusion.
    • What does Namaste mean by ‘heterosexual’? E.g. p63 ‘MTF queens who are unapologetically heterosexual’. I read this twice, once thinking that she means gynephiles and then that she means androphiles. She is doing here the writing equivalent of mumbling, and her meaning is not clear. She never uses ‘androphilic’ or ‘gynephilic’, and one is left uncertain at best.
    • There is a contentious translation on p12: “La fierté gaie, lesbienne, bisexuelle, travestie, et transsexuelle” is rendered “lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender pride”.


    1. "...An academic text on transsexuality and the institutional world that does not address the transsexual author’s personal history, then, is a critical intervention in the existing knowledge paradigm.” It's early yet. I was up late and have yet to get through my first cup of tea, but it strikes me that this is an academic work and Ms. Namaste writes like an academic - in the worst sense of what that means. I am, indeed, sick of the sex worker/drug addict stereotype; but if this footnote is indicative of Namaste's prose style, I will
      1. give the book a pass
      2. give kudos to you for slogging through it.

    2. Considering: pos+/prostitution focus, post-Foucaultian (which I can entertain but is way over my head once it turns scholastic), the abysmal sounding glossing over of the Clarke Institute and company and other points, I shall join with Gillian (I have my afternoon cup going right now!), and give this book a pass.

      BTW I read a preview on Google and a number of reviews of this book:
      Transpeople: repudiation, trauma, healing By Christopher Shelley.

      I'd like to get it, I wonder if you have read it or have any opinions?

      Thank you for your thorough work here, it brings a lot of strings together for me.

    3. I'm sorry, but since when was being a sex worker some kind of insult or disparagement? Look around - in MANY parts of the world trans women/gender variant persons who live in the feminine work in the sex trade. Namaste doesn't erase middle class transsexual women employed in the professional/formal sector, as they have been prominent in transgender studies and activism in the US already. I believe she is rebalancing the equation.

      Your post implies that sex work isn't a "real" job -

      I refer to this section:
      "Her major concern is with trans prostitutes, unemployed and seropositives. It is of course good that someone is speaking up for this group. However trans persons with jobs are not much mentioned in this book."

      And lastly, "Anglo-American" points to a racially/ethnically privileged group in the U.S. and the world. In Spanish "anglosajón" is used. Many of us do not think it is some corporation owned by the US/UK. That footnote is strange! Anglo-American makes sense to me. As a Latino or black person in the U.S., you aren't in that space of privilege and full citizenship. What's more, versions of trans activism and feminism are allied to priorities that concern the Anglo-American population, and don't necessarily respond to realities for those who aren't Anglo (latinos and many others).

    4. For clarity I have changed 'jobs' to 'regular jobs' in the quoted sentence.

      I have nothing against sex workers and have frequently featured sex workers of different kinds. However I do object to Namaste's implication that only sex workers are 'real' transsexuals, and that they are the majority of transsexuals in Canada.

      Why, in a discussion of a Canadian book about transsexuals in Canada, have you posted generalizations about a different country? Namaste is not the only Canadian academic to emphasize sex workers and street people. See also Bobby Noble and Dan Irving.

      In your comment about Franco-American vs Anglo-American in Quebec you talk only about a different usage in another country. You demonstrate no understanding of Quebec politics. The "Latino or black person in the U.S" are not in Quebec. Why don't you talk about the metis and the first-nations persons who are the relevant groups without privilege.

      Your position that Canadian experience must be redefined in terms of US experience is quite insensitive.

    5. Here's an interview with Namaste on Gendertalk.

      "Pricilla Queen of the Desert" is about Australian nationalism. According to Namaste it is. And the primary population of transpeople in Quebec are sexworkers? According to Namaste they are. She says the violence against trans prostitutes might be more about them being prostitutes than because they're trans... which is total bs. There's nothing wrong with talking about community rifts between women of color/white and between sexworker/non-sexworkers, but Namaste is really not someone I respect.

    6. translocal19/9/09 07:23

      No, I didn't mean to impose a U.S. framework on Canada or Québec. Actually I am not from the U.S. - I live in Australia but I speak Spanish and English. I have connections with Mexico...

      I meant that Anglo-American sounds like a reference to the (Anglo) U.S. in other parts of the world. I guess all these terms do get used differently. In Australia, for people of Anglo-Celtic background I would say "Anglo-Australian", for example. Saying Australian when one means someone of British heritage is problematic given the country's colonial status. And the fact that Australia is ethnically diverse. In my city, Vietnamese and Arabic are widely spoken and are our top "community" languages.

      I apologise for any confusion or offence. I can see your point re British/English Canada and French Canada and also the colonial frameworks/erasure of First Nation peoples. (Just a bit more on language: here "native" is offensive, and neither First Nation or even "people of color" are really used. It's Indigenous...)

      Re trans sex workers:
      I still think it's a little ironic that some transsexuals are so quick to disown their sex working peers, just to gain some respectability. It's a class thing, to my mind.

      How do you see it?

    7. Yes do listen to the Gendertalk mp3. The last 18 minutes are with Viviane. Here are some quotes: Priscilla, Queen of the desert is a "horrifically nationalist piece"; "many of us are prostitutes"; "prostitutes have organized to get [transexuals] services for 35 years"; "Most mtf transsexuals who transition under the age of 30 get involved in prostitution".

      I think that she is overstating her case, but more seriously she does not spell it out in her book which is statistics-free. Nor does she give that 35 year history.

      Also her erasure of the whole Clarke-Blanchard-autogynephilia-HSTS thing rather than spelling out how it fits in with her approach is just frustrating in a book with a large section on the Clarke.

      Yes it is class, but the class snobbery of the petty-bourgeois Hyacinth Bucket type.

    8. The use of the word "trans" in the article when referring to a transsexual is yet another way of erasing the identity of transsexuals.

    9. Viviane's preference is to keep saying "transsexual and transgendered (TS/TG) people" which I find rather cumbersome. "trans" has almost the same meaning and is a lot shorter.


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