By Jake Beardsley '21
March 31st is Transgender Day of Visibility, a holiday for raising awareness about transgender issues and celebrating the accomplishments of trans people. To celebrate, I’ve interviewed Dr. Jennifer Putzi, a W&M Professor of English and Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies. Dr. Putzi teaches several courses that draw from Transgender Studies, and she’s also worked for years to improve William & Mary’s course offerings and resources in that field. I asked her about how she started teaching these courses, how William & Mary’s offerings have changed over the past several years, and what she hopes students will get out of her classes.
“When I was director of GSWS, for a while we had been teaching a memoir by a trans woman named Jenny Boylan, and then I wanted to update and increase the way we treated trans studies in our intro course, so we did a lot of work on that together. Now that takes up a good two, three, or four weeks, depending on who’s teaching our intro course. What we were trying to do in GSWS was incorporate it at all stages of the curriculum so that it’s not just at the intro level, it’s not just at the upper-division level, but also so that, when students take a course like Trans Literature, they’re not going to have to do a course like Trans 101 every time. You know, because it’s annoying, especially for the trans and genderqueer students in the class to have to defend their existence every time they take a class, or to have students not understand what it means to be transgender, rather than jumping into the texts.
“In terms of what brought me into it, my daughter is trans. She’s fifteen now, and she knew as soon as she could express anything about herself to us. So she transitioned, socially, at—I think she was seven? Even though I was a feminist and a Gender Studies professor, that sort of upended everything I thought I knew about gender. So my partner and I—he teaches in the English Department as well—we both got really interested in Trans Studies as a field, and what it has to say about larger issues of gender and intersectionality. Now I teach it partly because students seem really interested in it, and partly because it seems really important, and I’m the only one to do it. Now a couple of other folks are starting to teach trans books in their classes, which is awesome, but when I first started doing this, not only was no one doing it here, but there weren’t that many trans lit classes nationwide.” Dr. Putzi mentioned that Alicia Andrzejewski, Simon Joyce, and Reya Farber also include transgender authors in their syllabi or their research.
“For the intro to GSWS and the intro to trans studies, I just hope they take away a basic complication of the notion of gender, and an understanding of gender as performance, but also some understanding of the lived reality of trans people, and what their identity means inexperience. And at least that they’ll read something by a trans person, right? Most students haven’t when they take GSWS, they haven’t read anything by a trans person. In the upper-division classes, I want them to be able to really complicate all of that and to think in more complex ways about the range of transgender experiences and identities, so it’s not just this static single identity, from one binary to the other. And also to look at the multiplicity of genres and how wide the field is. I first taught the trans fiction class in 2015, and I struggled to find a syllabus at that point, to find a group of texts that I thought would reward sustained study. I even taught a book by a cis author about a trans character, and I would just never do that now—politically, but I would also never need to because there are so many texts out there. As I was finalizing everything for my syllabus this semester these two novels came out, and I was just dying to—I wanted to include them both, and they were both hardcover, and I couldn’t do that. There’s just so much new stuff that every time I teach it, everything changes.” One of the two novels is Detransition, Baby.
“I think the most important thing for me, though, in terms of what students take away from it, is that I really want queer and trans students to find a place in these classes where they’re not having to defend their existence and they’re talking about things that matter to them, where they feel like they’re taken seriously. I’m really committed to that because I want, someday, for my own child to have that experience.”
For students looking to research Trans Studies, Dr. Putzi recommends the
LGBTQ+ database and the Transgender Studies Quarterly, both of which are available through library resources. She also strongly recommends Susan Stryker’s Transgender History. This spreadsheet contains an incomplete list of Transgender Studies resources that are available through W&M Libraries. Swem acquired about thirty of these sources in 2014-2015 when Dr. Putzi applied for and received a $1,500 grant to develop the university’s Transgender Studies collection. Among these texts are documentaries, narrative films, novels, memoirs, a poetry collection, and research in history, anthropology, sociology, philosophy, and critical theory. “When I announced this to the students, they just felt valued,” Dr. Putzi said. “And that was significant for me—it felt like support for my teaching.” The spreadsheet is a work in progress, and I will continue to update it as I discover new sources. I earnestly hope that this will be of use to students and faculty who want to learn more about this important subject.