Trystan Cotten

 BTHM-Trystan-Cotten

1.For people who don’t already know you, please share a little about yourself, your work, and/or your activism.

Like most men, I answer the first question about who I am by talking about my work and career. I’m an associate professor at California State University, Stanislaus and the managing editor of Transgress Press. My teaching and research is in Gender Studies with specific emphasis on intersectional identities, transgender migrations, and transgender medicine. I’ve been in academia for a long time. In some ways, you could say I never graduated, since I never took time off between undergraduate and graduate school. I just went from one degree program to another, in part, because academia felt like home to me, “my crew” so to speak. But I also grew restless in the world of intellectuals; I was getting bored, I wasn’t feeling sufficiently stimulated by the ideas or debates anymore. I lived through the years when we wondered if postmodernism was good for feminism, debated the merits of social constructionist over essentialism and enshrined  performative theories of gender establishment of queer theory as a discipline separate from LGBT studies, and witnessed the birth and enshrinement of the FTM/ butch border wars.

2. Many things shape who we are. What is one person or event or experience that has empowered you?

I was a part of these disciplinary developments and debates and became bored after a while. The ideas were getting stale, in part, because people became so entrenched in ideological positions and defensive with very little ability or commitment to thinking critically about them. I also realized at some point, “Who cares? Even if these issues could be understood and resolved, who is all this academic writing really benefiting?” And that’s where Vivian Namaste’s work had a huge impact on me. She was doing research in the late ‘90s that upset a lot of people in academia because she asked questions that went to the bone. Essentially, she highlighted the contradiction between the ideas about trans people that academics study and the much larger and complicated realities of trans people’s lives. And she went after some of the sacred cows in clear theory, which was very courageous. Jay Prosser was also raising some critical questions about academic colonialism of queer theorists, and both of these academics helped me to see that, ultimately, we academics profit tremendously off of trans people’s lives, produce theories that are out of touch with the circumstances of trans peoples’ lives, don’t give anywhere near as much back as we gain, and are really writing to each other and the few people in our discipline. Prosser and Namaste got me to thinking about the morality of building a whole career and a nice life from the study of people’s suffering. At the same time, I was teaching a course on global economics and there was an assignment in which the students had to write proposals for social entrepreneurial projects that would have a positive impact in some corner of the world. They were turning in some amazingly creative ideas for social change and their work inspired me to put my academic skills to better social use where I could have a greater impact on more people’s lives. The life of the mind is a wonderful middle-class luxury, and one that’s already mapped out: which things are important to study and publish on, what can and can’t be said and who I should engage with, whose voices I should privilege and listen to. So I decided to switch gears a few years ago and put my academic skills to better use serving a broader segment of the trans community instead of academia. And that’s what led me to found Transgress Press: a trans, queer, feminist publishing house that is devoted to producing high-quality, thought provoking literature that pushes the normative boundaries of both mainstream and marginalized discourses. I conceived the press on some of the philosophical principles of black nationalism and the Black Panther party 10-point plan. Black folks have always understood the importance of (and been engaged in) building strong institutions–the black church, black schools and universities, black banks and insurance companies–and having our own institutions that reflect our lives and struggles, our artistic and cultural productions. We don’t want to look back on this 50 years from now and have only one account, scholarly research discourses, about our lives and who we are. So a lot of the literature we produce at Transgress Press is by ordinary people in the community. We are producing knowledge of our lives and our struggles that don’t require formal training in academic theory or a lot of money to purchase. And we donate a percentage of our profits to organizations in the trans community, especially grassroots groups who have a harder time getting funding than nonprofits.

 

3. What is a piece of Black Trans History that you want to make sure others know about and don’t forget? (person, event, cultural development, trend, ___?)

All of Transgress Press’s principles and practices come out of my love for black nationalists like Angela Davis, Barbara Smith, Malcolm Max, and Huey Newton. People who, instead of sitting on a perch thinking about the revolution, got down in the trenches with the common folk and put their minds to work, and the brave soldiers like Harriet Tubman, Nat Turner, and Toussaint L’Overture, who risked everything, including their lives, so that others could be.

 

How to connect and learn more about Trystan Cotten:

Transgress Press

www.transgresspress.org

 

See more black trans leaders questions/answers!

http://forge-forward.org/2016/02/blacktranshx/
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