Going Stealth: Transgender Politics and U.S. Surveillance Practices
Duke University Press, 2019
Reviewed by Emma Train
In Going Stealth: Transgender Politics and U.S. Surveillance Practices, Toby Beauchamp argues that transgender as a cultural category is produced and policed by post-9/11 US surveillance practices. These practices are pervasive and diffuse, delimiting the most bureaucratic and state-mandated of practices, such as the regulation of vital documents like ID cards and birth certificates, as well as the most seemingly quotidian aspects of daily life, like using a public restroom or walking down the street. The category transgender is “produced, regulated, and contested” through contemporary surveillance while it also “simultaneously coheres and further fractures through surveillance.” In this way, transgender becomes a dynamic site of struggle where “new political possibilities can emerge.” Beauchamp therefore effectively negotiates between both discursive and material analyses. Using a Foucauldian lens, Beauchamp demonstrates how transgender functions as a conceptual category produced by discourses and by (often militarized) state procedures while also demonstrating how the US surveillance state coercively polices and violently regulates actual transgendered bodies, in particular, and all nonconforming bodies, in general. This latter point is at the heart of Beauchamp’s argument as Going Stealth reveals how the category transgender intersects and interacts with racialization, citizenship, xenophobia, disability, militarism, and medicalization as much as it interacts with gender and with heteropatriarchy. In general, Beauchamp’s argument is nuanced and subtle, as he makes clear that his book “aims not to clearly define the category of transgender or to perfectly trace the workings of surveillance practices, but rather to refocus our energies on the fraught negotiations between them.”
Beauchamp’s text is divided into what we might call ‘case-studies,’ which form Going Stealth’s four central chapters. Chapter One examines government identification documents, particularly the introduction of the Read ID Act in the wake of 9/11 and in the shoring-up of American nationalism against the racialized specter of the terrorist. Chapter Two examines X-ray screening and airport security in the context of bodily technologies and prosthetics. Chapters Three and Four examine the government regulation of public bathrooms and the trial of Chelsea Manning, respectively. In the first chapter, Beauchamp outlines a brief history of gender categories on identity documents and demonstrates how the titular phrase “going stealth” encompasses the deep paradox of legalized gender identification. These tensions between visibility and concealment, between gender ‘passing’ and gender deviance, are maintained by the often competing and inconsistent demands of local and state agencies, which sustain the primacy of the medical institution in upholding the gender binary. Beauchamp explains that legal gender classification (especially changing one’s gender on legal documents) frequently requires permanent medical interventions where the ‘success’ of such intervention is defined as the ability to pass as non-transgender and as gender normative. This is the meaning of “going stealth.” And, as Beauchamp notes, the term is further complicated because it “invokes a sense of going undercover, of willful secrecy and concealment, perhaps even of conscious deception. The resonance of militarism in this term suggest the extent to which going stealth entails a certain complicity with state agencies, which demand compliance with specific legal and medical procedures and ostensibly offer in return official documentation that helps make stealth status possible.”
The consequences of going stealth extend far beyond an individual’s legal gender status or their ability to pass as gender normative. Going stealth implies a continual and ongoing process of enforced complicity with a racialized ideal of US citizenship. Echoing and dovetailing Jasbir Puar’s argument in Terrorists Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times (2007), Beauchamp writes that going stealth “means not simply erasing the signs of transgender identity, but rather maintaining legibility as a good citizen and patriotic American, providing evidence of legitimate transgender identity that erases any signs of similarity to the deviant, deceptive terrorist figure.” Therefore, going stealth becomes a flashpoint example for how the institutional regulation of gender identity is a means to perpetuate the American state’s ideal citizen-subject. Going stealth is an often fraught process that requires a constant maintenance of normative ideals of whiteness, able-bodiedness, and even heteronormativity. On the other hand, Beauchamp’s conclusion (entitled “On Endurance”) ends with an incisive reflection on a radical trans and queer praxis. He cautions against a simple embrace of illegibility or deception as a political tool and cautions against an embrace of gender nonconformity as an inherent strategy of resistance to contemporary surveillance. He reminds his readers that the flux of surveillance practices across “fluctuating population categories, political moments, and technological developments shows how their endurance depends of a dynamic relationship with us.” To return to Beauchamp’s opening dynamic of coherence and fracture, it is up to us to track the coherences and the fractures created by surveillance so that “we might attune to the possibility in the spaces that open, however briefly, through that interplay.” In this way, Beauchamp’s tackles the complexity of his project’s key term by demonstrating the continually shifting boundaries between fugitivity, freedom, and entrapment that all gender nonconforming people must constantly negotiate.
Going Stealth’s intervention is vast and interdisciplinary, contributing to trans studies, queer of color critique, disability studies, surveillance studies, and science and technology studies. In particular, Beauchamp builds on queer of color scholarship, bringing transgender as a category of analysis into the fold, and further extending Roderick Ferguson’s foundational queer of color critique to more intensely hinge on and exceed gender nonconformity. As Beauchamp writes, the “transgender critique” that he seeks is not “limited to a clearly circumscribed category called transgender. Rather, it is most useful when leveraged to unseat those categories of gender and sexuality that might be normalized and taken for granted through their assumed contrast to transgender.” Thus, building on what the queer theorists David Eng, Jack Halberstam, and José Esteban Muñoz have called a “subjectless critique,” Beauchamp uses “transgender” as, first and foremost, an “analytic” rather than as an identity category. This emphasis on a transgender analytic is what makes Beauchamp’s critique radical and sweeping, and what makes Going Stealth an ultimate critique of the hegemonic practices of the contemporary post-9/11 and post-Trump US nation-state.