Transnational Circulation of "Transgender"

My dissertation, Unruly Categories: The Transnational Circulation of "Transgender," examines how different modes of understanding gender variance are coming to be articulated through the category “transgender.” Whereas prior studies have primarily focused on the emergence of gender/sexuality categories within a specific place, compared categorization across national context, or examined global convergence through the diffusion of Western culture to other parts of the world, I focus on how categories contend with multiple modes of understanding gender in the transnational arena. Drawing from a multitude of archival, interview, and ethnographic data, I analyze the institutionalization and contestation of “transgender” in three key arenas: large international non-governmental organizations (INGOs), the United Nations, and the international biomedical field.


The first part of the dissertation traces the emergence of “transgender” in the West. I analyze how, beginning in the mid-20th century, shifts in medical science, queer and feminist theory, and a broader turn to self-identification and individualization created the discursive preconditions for “transgender” to emerge as a social category. In medical discourse and feminist and queer theory, “transgender” came to comprise three parts: a gender identity, a dissonant sex assigned at birth, and an ontological distinction between gender identity and sexual orientation. An article based on some of this research, "Gender Identity, the Sexed Body, and the Medical Making of Transgender," has received multiple awards and is published in Gender & Society.


The rest of the dissertation examines how the Western category “transgender” circulates transnationally in the 21st century. I find convergence around the three-part definition of “transgender” in early INGO reports and conferences, articles in international medical journals, the international classification of diseases, and UN resolutions and meetings. Yet, the would-be umbrella category contends with multiple modes of understanding gender variance around the world. Dealing with the divergence modes of undesrtanding requires "containment strategies," which attempt to maintain the global relevance of “transgender” but simultaenously transform the category itself.

Medical Expertise and Embodiment

Building on some of my dissertation research, I am studying gender-affirming health insurance coverage in the United States. Insurers and the medical experts they employ are tasked with adjudicating which gender-affirming procedures are medically necessary for patient care. Medical necessity decisions are classifications of gender, since they distinguish the types of body modifications essential for accomplishing (white) masculinity, femininity, and, more recently, non-binary gender. Drawing from publicly available appeals data in five states and national insurance plans, I am examining how and why medical necessity determinations vary over time and how they implicate gendered and racialized assessments of the body. Some of this research is currently under review.


In the future, I will expand on this work by comparing medical necessity decisions across states. While coverage has rapidly expanded over the past two decades, there is wide variation in state-level support for gender-affirming care: some states ban prosriptions on gender-affirming care, some provide limited public funds for transition-related care, and others provide no public coverage. I plan to examine how and why coverage varies across three states that fall within each category by drawing on state insurance plans, publicly-available appeals data, and interviews with insurers and patients seeking gender-affirming care in each state.

Transnational Activism

My work on transnational activism draws from an original dataset of over 8,000 domestic "LGBT" associations founded in over 150 countires around the world to examine contestations over the founding of domestic "LGBT" associations globally. This data, which I have assembled with Kris Velasco, is the largest dataset on domestic "LGBT" associations to date. Drawing from some of this data, I examine cross-national association founding in an article, "Transnational Diffusion and Regionalized Resistance," published in Social Forces. I build on recent critiques of world culture theory by examining contestation and struggle in processes of norm circulation and diffusion. Using multilevel modeling techniques to analyze an original dataset of domestic LGBT associations founded between 1979 and 2009 in 141 countries around the world, I demonstrate that the transnational movement of LGBT norms is not a simple diffusion from the West, but is shaped by regional culture. In related work, which received recognition from the ASA Global and Transnational Section and is forthcoming in Mobilization as “Seeking Friends in Troubled Times,” Kristopher Velasco and I examine the shifting structure of LGBT advocacy networks in Europe. Using longitudinal network analysis, we find that in contrast to prior studies, the most central actors are not the wealthiest or most normatively powerful but rather those most in need of resources.

Global Regulation of Gender Variance

I am assembling a dataset on the regulation of gender variance globally. Many scholars have created similar datasets on the regulation of same-sex practice, and a variety of analyses have shown the West as the center or originator of liberal laws on sexuality. I am interested in seeing whether the pattern holds for the regulation of gender variance and what this means for relationship (and ontological distinction) between gender and sexuality globally. With help from undergraduate research assistants, I have collected cross-national data on laws regulating cross-dressing, name change, gender marker, official ID, and body modification requirements, and am continuing to collect data on employment non-discrimination, hate-crimes, and anti-discrimination.

Other Collaborative Projects

In a number of on-going collaborative projects, I am pursuing my interests in feminist and postcolonial theory. In an invited review article for the Annual Review of Sociology, Leslie Salzinger and I are probing the role of feminist theory in Sociology. In another project with Caleb Scoville and Andy McCabe, I am examining the gendered production of masks as a political symbol. With Mary Shi, I am examining how postcolonial theory is coming to inform mainstream sociology.