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Transgender Studies: Literature in an Evolving Field (March 2022): The Literature

By Robert Ridinger

The Literature

The corpus of transgender studies literature published since 1980 comprises basic readings discussing and defining the theoretical structure and issues of the discipline; first-person accounts by both adults and youth of the experience of transitioning to a new gender identity; works written by family members of trans individuals recounting their journeys to acceptance; studies of legal issues encountered by trans people in a wide range of professions and social settings; and works exploring health concerns specific to transgender people. The discipline of anthropology (from whose ethnographic literature many of the examples of people with variant gender identifications have been drawn) continued its involvement with the trans subject during the 1980s with the publication of In Search of Eve: Transsexual Rites of Passage, by Anne Bolin. Bolin followed sixteen men who were planning to or actively involved in transitioning and analyzed their situation within the standard ethnographic category of the “rite of passage” into adulthood but recast to mark passage into a new gender identity.

Readers desiring a basic historical introduction to the field should begin with The Transgender Studies Reader [volume 1], edited by Susan Stryker and Stephen Whittle. Its fifty entries range from the sexology writings of Krafft-Ebing, Hirschfeld, David Cauldwell, and Benjamin to the influential work of authors such as Leslie Feinberg, Judith Butler, Kate Bornstein, and Stryker herself. Its component sections illustrate the full range of subjects addressed by the field of transgender studies, including masculinity, identity, community, gender, feminism, and race. Features of transgender scholarship noted are the low number of empirical studies of gender diversity as opposed to extensive cultural and medical commentary; the predominant role of trans men in generating sociological and legal studies; and the need to address significant barriers to trans identity created and maintained by language. The Transgender Studies Reader 2, edited by Stryker and Aren Aizura, focused on identifying new major areas of investigation that complement the theoretical discussions in the first volume. Issues explored include the evolving relationship between transgender and feminist scholarship, disability, transnationalism, social policy, performance, history, and political economics.1 The most recent addition to transgender scholarship is the comprehensive two-volume Sage Encyclopedia of Trans Studies, edited by Abbie Goldberg and Genny Beemyn, which is available online and in print. 

Leslie Feinberg’s “Transgender Liberation: A Movement Whose Time Has Come,” a foundational text in the literature of gender politics, appeared initially in pamphlet form, published by Workers World in 1992.2 Feinberg reviewed the presence in the records of the history and anthropology of men and women who adopted the gender expression of the opposite sex and their attempted repression by Christianity and capitalism. Feinberg developed and augmented the ideas in this pamphlet in two subsequent works, Transgender Warriors: Making History from Joan of Arc to Dennis Rodman. Also included in the reader was “The Empire Strikes Back: A Posttranssexual Manifesto” by Sandy Stone, considered to be a major catalyst for the appearance of contemporary transgender scholarship, research, and theoretical debate. Its discussion of the failed attempts to establish criteria for the clinical term gender dysphoria syndrome used to classify transgender people is particularly illuminating.

In the 1990s the social sciences literature began to map the presence of specifically transgender identities as subjects of recognition and research. The groundbreaking anthology Third Sex, Third Gender: Beyond Sexual Dimorphism in Culture and History, edited by Dutch anthropologist Gilbert Herdt, presented data from historical periods as diverse as Byzantium and eighteenth-century England and the ethnography of India, Native America, Polynesia, and New Guinea. Herdt’s thoughtful opening introduction, “Third Sexes and Third Genders,” explores the need for what he terms “a new historical ethnography that reveals the everyday life of sexuality and power relations,” and calls for such investigations to be expanded. The next decade witnessed the expansion of anthropological investigation into transgender identity as expressed in cultures as diverse as Japan, Thailand, the Philippines, and Brazil.

The ongoing issue of obtaining recognized civil rights for transgender persons, whether in specific areas of society and employment or within a national political system, has been documented substantially in the journal literatures of law and criminal justice, but has also been reflected in monograph publications. The emergence of people from within the gay and lesbian movement who claimed the new identity of being transgender meant that their civil rights agenda would initially parallel those areas of society in which gay men and lesbians were raising challenges to culturally imposed limitations, including employment, education, and specific legal rights. The impetus for this change came from the low-profile community of cross-dressers, an activist history well summarized in the third chapter of Wilchins’s Queer Theory, Gender Theory (discussed below).

One of the first monographs to acknowledge this aspect of transgender studies was the 1997 anthology Gay/Lesbian/Bisexual/Transgender Public Policy Issues: A Citizen’s and Administrator’s Guide to the New Cultural Struggle, edited by Wallace Swan. The title is deceptive, however, in that the entry on transgender rights occupies only half of one page in the chapter “The Agenda for Justice,” by Swan. This brevity notwithstanding, Swan offers a concise agenda for change. He notes that “the issues of transgender persons are only recently being recognized as being those which should be accorded the status of rights … other issues of importance … include providing funding to assist in making this transition, assistance with mental health issues, provision of appropriate support, and the development of an advocacy movement that will ensure political action to maintain and promote the rights of the transgender community."3 A sequel volume, Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Civil Rights. A Public Policy Agenda for Uniting a Divided America, also edited by Swan, appeared in 2015. By that time the movement that Swan had advocated for was firmly in existence and detailed analyses were being done of various issues of significance to trans persons. This is evident in the variety of subjects treated in the papers in the later volume, subjects that included transgender as a demographic characteristic and the associated problems with methodology and data, the National Transgender Discrimination Survey, transgender aging and health, homelessness, workplace inclusion, and homicides.

Journals are, of course a legitimate part of the critical literature in every discipline. Although transgender people have been represented at times in the research periodicals of certain subject fields (chiefly medicine, psychology, and sexology), journals explicitly focused on the full range of transgender issues only began to appear in the late 1990s, but many survived for only a brief period of time. Most contemporary research journals in transgender studies are products of the twenty-first century, paralleling the development of a distinctive body of monographs on detailed aspects of trans life ranging from health care to civil rights. Among those valuable for research are TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly and Transgender Health. Most scholarly journals are available online.


1. See “The Development of Transgender Studies in Sociology,” by Kristen Schilt and Danya Lagos. Annual Review of Sociology 2017 43:1, 425-443. Schilt and Lagos covered the period from 1967 onward, examining the discipline’s changing use of the paradigms of gender deviance and gender difference in framing sociological writing about transgender people and their issues. 
2.  This important piece was ultimately one of the essays in The Transgender Studies Reader [1].
3.  Swan, 1997: (p. 127).