Abstract

Sex and the State Allison Brown (bio) Sex Is as Sex Does: Governing Transgender Identity by Paisley Currah NYU Press, 2022, 256 pp. Click for larger view View full resolution Documentation of gender-based government censorship in film from Julia Weist's Motion Picture Division Association of America (2022) (courtesy of the artist) [End Page 106] As a program representative for a state social services department, my primary role is "determinations interviewer." I conduct short interviews with people claiming benefits and their various contractual counterparties, write summaries of the factual information I have received, and then use legal precedent and established administrative procedure to determine the claimants' eligibility for benefits. The systems, both legal and technical, are highly standardized. Let's briefly walk through the standard experience of a claimant. First, they're (hopefully) sent their state-mandated forms that explain, in legal jargon, how to apply. After filling out a long form with detailed information and submitting it, they'll typically be scheduled for an interview with someone like me. These interviews happen about a month from the claim filing date, and during this time, any benefits are placed on hold. All interviews are conducted remotely by phone, all office locations are treated as confidential, and there are no corresponding public offices. If claimants have issues navigating the system, we provide them with a customer service number, which frequently hangs up before they ever reach a human. To maintain a facade of administrative technocratic omnipotence, we're encouraged to rely on wonky "guide sheets" for issues that we have not been trained on if the claimant asks about them. Claimants often experience disorientation at every level of the system. At some point on the job, I began to encounter cases in which the claimant's listed sex did not correspond to the pronouns they used. Here, I found out the instructions were shockingly simple: ask the claimant what their gender is, then update it in the system. From a certain perspective, the ease with which I could update the claimants' data reveals the gains won by trans people: trans claimants are, without much fuss, properly recognized by my state agency and subsequently subject to the same rules as any other claimant. Take that, transphobia! But after reading Paisley Currah's new book Sex Is as Sex Does, I'm increasingly convinced that this is a moral Band-Aid for the injustice of our system: as easy as it is to acknowledge a claimant's identity, the barriers for them to actually receive benefits remain prohibitively burdensome. What good is equal recognition by laws and institutions that reproduce and sanction repression and inequality? ______ For a book that seeks to address a seemingly simple question—why is legally changing your sex so hard?—Sex Is as Sex Does amounts to a dizzyingly dense 151 pages (not counting endnotes). Currah walks readers through the political philosophy, critical theory, and legal scholarship that addresses the current moment in gender discourse and politics, with little philosophical hand-holding. Those willing to brave its theoretical depths, however, might be surprised at how grounded the text is in the facts of its case studies. Currah touches on Tennessee state legislation, Florida marriage court, New York State DMV policy, the Maryland Court of Appeals, and numerous other legal incidents and institutions throughout the book, snapping the reader back to the stakes of the issue whenever things start to get a little wooly. The resulting tapestry is a little patchwork, but Currah's conversational style and sense of humor keep things mostly cohesive. Recounting his approach toward archival research, Currah cheerily reports his passion for lesser noticed (and much less sexy) apparatuses and domains of governmentality that even Foucault found too dull to look into: administration, unenumerated police powers, the population, norms of classification that precede inaugural moments, texts as dull as the [End Page 107] Domesday Book, regulatory decisions and interpretive rules, and the US Social Security Administration's manual for field personnel. Through this omnivorous, detail-oriented approach to the historical record, Currah shows that state actors (such as myself) do not produce transphobic results merely out of a deep-seated fear of those who...

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