Gender as a Strategy: Exploring the History of Black “Transness”

Shelby Davidson
Shelby Davidson Updated:
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Discussing the idea of transgender individuals in the African-American community is relatively uncharted territory, but one of BET television’s “Ten Transgender People You Should Know” is going where few have dared for the chance of a lifetime.

C. Riley Snorton, an assistant professor of Africana studies and feminist, gender and sexuality studies in Cornell’s College of Arts and Sciences, has been awarded a National Endowment for the Humanities-Schomburg Center Scholar-in-Residence fellowship for his research on black “transness” presented in his new book.

“I understood myself to be trans, I think, maybe in my junior year of college,” Snorton said. “That was one of the identifications I held, and when I went to graduate school, people expected that I would work on ‘trans-related topics.'”

Snorton is blazing a trail in transgender studies as one of six black trans academics in the U.S. as he attempts to help pop culture and the media rethink a misunderstood slice of Americana.

The First of Many Accomplishments 

Snorton wrote a book on the topic of  “transness” when he first identified as a transgender person in 2014 called “Nobody Is Supposed to Know: Black Sexuality on the Down Low.” Not only was this one of his first big feats in this topic, but it also addressed issues of contemporary politics, sexuality and disease transmission.

Centering the majority of this book on the rap opera “Trapped in the Closet,” Snorton thoroughly examines the world of down low, which he said typically refers to black men who do not identify as gay or bisexual but have sex with both men and women.

The First of Many Accomplishments

Centering the majority of this book on the rap opera “Trapped in the Closet,” Snorton thoroughly examines the world of down low men who don’t identify with any specific sexual orientation.

According to Snorton, each down-low character in this rap represents, “a figure who is by all accounts undetectable and also omnipresent and is being described (by the federal Centers for Disease Control) as the cause for increased rates of HIV/AIDS cases among African-American women.”

He was much more interested in what the narrative was revealing about sexuality, factors of race and how the diseases work rather than what the people were actually doing.

The Next Step

This pioneer in transgender research will continue to break ground by writing a second book. Snorton already knows he wants to cover a more historical angle of black “transness” by looking at the years 1850 to 1992.

As a historian of black gender identities, he claims there are two distinct researchable eras of “transness” during this time period. There’s the founding of gynecology, where people are exploring and codifying how genitalia “should look,” and there is the heyday of the Underground Railroad with escaping slaves.

The Next Step

In the 1850s, individuals were gender crossing in order to get from the South to the North through avenues like the Underground Railroad.

Snorton will focus on, “the host of stories we get in the mid-1850s of people who are gender crossing in order to get from the South to the North, in the Underground Railroad or other modes of escape,” he said.

In terms of the 20th century, Snorton plans to elaborate on the relationship between blackness and “transness” and how we think of them in terms of open-ended gender articulation.

The Future

Using the Schomburg Center in New York City to dig up a rich archive of old magazines like Ebony and Jet, Snorton is going to bring to light the many gossipy outings of trans people and explore what the stories of gender transformation tell us about integration during that time period.

Furthermore, he wants to understand the politics of assimilation during the Civil Rights era and how people’s attitudes changed with the rise in technology and individuals like Christine Jorgensen, the first woman to have sex reassignment surgery.

The Future

Christine Jorgensen, a former male GI in the U.S. Army during World War II, was the first woman to have sex reassignment surgery.

“What I want to do is give the stories room, so rather than place your finger on ‘What gender was that person?’ I want to say, ‘Look at how gender was a strategy for how that person lived,’” Snorton said.

Through extensive research, literature and exploration, this associate professor might be able to reinvent the definition of gender and make some new discoveries in the field of black “transness.” He might even shed some clarity on the recently discovered “first black woman to be a Civil War soldier.”

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