Skip to main content

On Trans Dissemblance: Or, Why Trans Studies Needs Black Feminism


This essay addresses how Darlene Clark Hine’s foundational concept of dissemblance unsettles, challenges, and pushes transgender studies to think more capaciously about racialized gender and, more specifically, the work of antiblackness in producing and structuring transgender as a category. Building from ethnographic fieldwork with transgender-focused organizations in Philadelphia, I critically interrogate how the institutional uptake of transgender—including not only how the category circulated for my interlocutors but also the rhetorical work of some transgender studies scholars—relies on antiblack assumptions about privacy and recognition. Dissemblance as a theoretical concept, and black feminist theory more broadly, I argue, allows transgender studies to more robustly address transhistorical and ongoing structural forms of racialized and gendered power.

Laughter bounced off the walls in the office as Andrea, one of two co-coordinators of a grassroots trans-focused organization, acted out a dramatic scene for the room.1 Andrea, a black transgender woman, was demonstrating for a client—an Asian American trans woman, Micky, who had come into the office looking for help seeking housing for the night—how to secure a spot at a local shelter. After Andrea had printed out a folder of materials for Micky and discussed some logistics (what kind of documentation she would need to present, how much baggage she would be allowed to bring, and how to get to the shelter), she explained: “And if anyone gives you any trouble, here’s what you need to do.” She started with short, sputtering sobs before dramatically falling on the office floor, banging her hands against the floor and gesturing to others in the room (myself and her co-coordinator, a black trans man) as she cried out, “Oh, please, please, let me stay here!” Everyone in the room laughed as Andrea demonstrated how, if Micky performed her precarious situation just right, she would more easily find shelter for the night.

Such a scene was a fairly regular occurrence in my fieldwork with trans-focused programs and organizations in Philadelphia, a historically and predominantly black city (Lane 1991; Hunter 2013) that has a rich and yet understudied history of black queer- and trans-led advocacy and institution building. Given such a history, many of my interlocutors, like Andrea and her co-coordinator Dorian, who are both black and trans-identified, were well versed in navigating different kinds of systems and programs in and beyond the city limits. They offered clients, many of whom were trans people of color like Micky and most of whom were black, robust advice on where and how to seek trans-affirming services. As Andrea’s dramatic scene demonstrates, trans and gender-nonconforming people like Micky and Andrea have to find creative ways to highlight their need in order to appeal to institutions that, despite providing resources, were not necessarily prepared or equipped to serve trans communities. Andrea, who had moved to Philadelphia from New Orleans, remarked that “even with all those resources” provided in and by the city, “there are very few for trans individuals.” For Andrea, this led her to encourage clients like Micky to perform their precarity, however they saw fit, in order to access the services they needed.

While a transgender studies reading of this moment might be most concerned with what it means for (racialized) trans and gender-nonconforming bodies to occupy and navigate public space in this way, I am interested in what it might mean to map Darlene Clark Hine’s concept of a “culture of dissemblance” (1989) onto this moment. “Dissemblance” provides insight into how racialized gendered subjects, specifically black women, strategically balance their inner lives with the often-antiblack demands of public spheres and institutional contexts.2 Mobilizing dissemblance as a concept that originated in and necessarily speaks to violence against black women, I argue, provides one way that transgender studies might take up the call from black feminism to reconstitute “the terms and terrain” (Green and Bey 2017, 439) of the field. That is, I want to pursue a transgender studies project that moves away from emphasizing transgender-specific conditions, needs, and subjectivity and toward recognizing how (trans)gender is always already racialized and reliant upon (anti)blackness as its “condition of possibility” (Snorton 2017, 59). In what follows, I aim to interrupt trans studies’ positioning of trans and gender-nonconforming subjects as exceptionally marginalized by reading dissemblance into Andrea’s performance and mobilizing the concept to challenge recent scholarship on trans recognition.

“We have always survived”

As she demonstrated through her theatrical display in the office, Andrea brought a great deal of experiential knowledge to her work with trans and gender-nonconforming communities in Philadelphia. She talked openly about her own experiences with “navigating through” different kinds of institutions and, as a frequent result, different forms of trauma. In an interview, she explained: “Me myself as a trans woman, I know what it feels like to have to do sex work. Me myself as a trans woman, I’ve been through my addiction stages. Me as a trans woman, I’ve been incarcerated. Me as a trans woman, I’ve been assaulted. I deal with a lot of individuals who share similar traumas, but I’ve also been helping them try to navigate their traumas as they help me navigate through mine.” For Andrea, then, her traumatic experiences—assault, addiction, poverty, and incarceration—are part of being “me myself as a trans woman.” Despite the fact that Andrea’s advocacy work in Philadelphia, and her prior work in New Orleans, was primarily with and among black trans women and that she often identifies herself as a “black trans revolutionist,” she chose not to name these experiences in relationship to (anti)blackness but rather in terms of her identity as a trans woman.

Given her framing, then, we might first read Andrea’s experiences and narrative through transgender studies frameworks of visibility and recognition: Andrea’s characterization of her life and work seem to gesture toward answering Aren Aizura’s recent question, “What are the stakes of familiarity when familiarity breeds contempt?” (2017, 609). Speaking to the complicated question of recognition for trans and gender-nonconforming people, Aizura urges trans studies scholars to think about the “empty promises of visibility and legibility” (606), particularly for those who do not fit a normative (white, heterosexual, upper-middle-class) vision of the category “transgender.” Andrea, as a black transgender woman circulating publicly as an activist in LGBTQ organizations (or grassroots organizations fueled by LGBTQ-focused funding), might demonstrate such stakes, which are exacerbated by the murders of trans women of color at the “extreme of this continuum of violence” (Raha 2017, 635). Characterizing Andrea’s experiences as simply indicative of the high stakes of transphobia and trans-focused violence, however, does not—and, I would argue, cannot—account for the ways in which she and other black women, who both do and do not identify as trans or gender nonconforming, have continually navigated in and through these realities.

I suggest a turn instead to Hine’s concept of dissemblance, introduced in her groundbreaking 1989 article “Rape and the Inner Lives of Black Women in the Middle West.” Dissemblance, which refers to black women’s strategic balance of openness and a “shield[ing of the] truth” (1989, 912) of their inner lives in order to maintain sexual autonomy under hostile (antiblack, classist, sexist) conditions, provides a framework with which to capture not only the harsh realities that someone like Andrea faces on a day-to-day basis but also the ways in which she has come to live within and strategically navigate such realities. A culture of dissemblance, according to Hine, developed in direct response to the “ever present threat and reality of rape” that black women have continued to experience. In the face of such realities, Hine argues, “it was imperative that they collectively create alternative self-images and shield from scrutiny these private, empowering definitions of self” (916). Because “empowering definitions of self” were (and continue to be) dangerous under threats of sexual violence, Hine argues, black women necessarily developed strategies to present “the appearance of disclosure, or openness about themselves and their feelings” in public (915). Dissemblance thus provides a framework for recognizing how black women have always already known how to navigate hostile public spheres and spaces.

We might, then, look at Andrea’s dramatic display in the office as exemplifying the appearance of disclosure. From her experiences navigating different kinds of institutions as a black trans woman, she knew that she had to present a particular version of herself in order to acquire necessary resources. More specifically, Andrea knew that to receive housing as a black trans woman, she would have to perform her precarity: crying out “Oh, please, please, let me stay here!” and demonstrating her desperate need for housing would render her legible (that is, eligible for resources) in the eyes of organizations and institutions that receive funding for trans-specific services.3 Theorizing Andrea’s experiences through a culture of dissemblance thus allows us to center black women’s survival, particularly within a “hostile world,” as Hine characterizes it (1989, 920). Andrea, too, recognized the ways in which “we”—which she mobilized generously—have persevered under particularly antagonistic conditions: speaking about her and her community’s fears about the Trump presidency, for example, she said, “One thing that we have always done, we have been conquerors, we have always survived.” As Hine has described through and with dissemblance as a concept, this has also always been true for black women.4

“A life without reserve”?

When we are read as trans, our inner life, exemplified by our earlier selves, is externalized. Being read is one of the ways that trans people, particularly those who are multiply oppressed, are socially denied interiority and forms of reserve, privacy, and respect enjoyed by nontrans people.

—Amanda Armstrong (2017, 625)

Amanda Armstrong’s recent article, “Certificates of Live Birth and Dead Names: On the Subject of Recent Anti-Trans Legislation,” poses significant questions about racialized-gendered subjectivity, legibility, and survival, particularly in light of recent antitrans legislation such as bathroom bills. Armstrong is particularly interested in “clocking” (2017, 622): the moment in which a person is recognized and read as transgender, which, as she argues in the quotation above, signals a moment wherein a trans person’s inner life becomes externalized, available for the policing and surveillance of any and all nontrans people. While Armstrong acknowledges the ways being read as trans can be complicated by such factors as race and class (“particularly [for] those who are multiply oppressed” [624]) and elsewhere in the article acknowledges the ways in which black and Latinx communities face increased surveillance by police and law enforcement, I am wary of her insistence that trans people are uniquely denied “interiority” (623).

As Hine’s concept of dissemblance reveals, such a claim violently obscures the ways in which nontrans people (which is in and of itself an illusory collective) are not unequivocally provided access to “reserve, privacy, and respect” (Armstrong 2017, 624). Rather, as Hine argues, black women have, out of necessity, had to protect their inner lives through secrecy and dissemblance: “Because of the interplay of racial animosity, class tensions, gender role differentiation, and regional economic variations, Black women, as a rule, developed and adhered to a cult of secrecy, a culture of dissemblance, to protect the sanctity of the inner aspects of their lives” (1989, 915). The material conditions that black women have historically faced as a rule have led to a necessary protection of the sanctity of inner life. Hine’s characterization of these patterns “as a rule” (915) stands in stark contradistinction to Armstrong’s temporal marker of “when we are read as trans” (2017, 624) and thereby exposed as having had some earlier or inner life. Armstrong’s emphasis on the uniquely precarious positioning of trans and gender-nonconforming people ignores not only the lived realities of black women but also the potential for transgender studies to take up and take seriously the demands of a black feminist theoretical and political project.

What, then, might a concept like dissemblance yield for transgender studies? With an emphasis on black women’s necessary secrecy and, in Hine’s words, the “sanctity of the inner aspects of their lives” (1989, 915), dissemblance offers a way for transgender studies to move away from insisting that trans subjects represent, in Armstrong’s terms, “a life lived without reserve, privacy, or other forms of self-protection” (2017, 625). Dissemblance yields a sharper understanding of the ways antiblackness (more specifically, the interplay of factors that Hine highlights as influencing black women’s lives) always already undergirds any institutional uptake of (trans)gender. Transgender studies must thus focus on these forms of power and oppression rather than insisting upon trans-specific realities, issues, and needs. A deeper and more structural recognition of historical and current cultures of dissemblance—which, again, have existed for black women as a rule—might allow transgender studies to speak more thoroughly to the lived realities and “mental and physical survival,” in Hine’s words (1989, 920), of people like Andrea, whom the field claims to represent.


I thank the editors of Signs for their rigorous engagement with this article in its development. I also thank Shoniqua Roach for the invitation to participate in this exciting forum, as well as for her feedback on drafts of this essay. The ethnographic research discussed in this essay was supported by a Dissertation Fieldwork Grant from the Wenner-Gren Foundation and a Dissertation Fellowship from the Sexualities Project at Northwestern.

1 All names are pseudonyms.

2 My framing here draws on theorizations of racialized gender from scholars such Enoch H. Page and Matt U. Richardson (2010) and C. Riley Snorton (2017), who have written about the ways state-based, antiblack, and colonial processes of racialization are intimately intertwined with violent forms of gendering. As Snorton describes, “There is no absolute distinction between black lives’ mattering and trans lives’ mattering within the rubrics of racialized gender” (2017, x).

3 Andrea spoke openly about what she called the “revolving door” of services wherein organizations—largely due to mandates from funding sources—required that service recipients have a positive HIV status or evidence of drug use in order to receive necessary resources. “You’d be surprised how many people go seeking HIV just to live a little,” she told me.

4 We might think, here, about how “black women” as a category could denote black subjects who have been marked by gender, whether through conventional modes of feminine presentation or through marked gender nonconformity, while recognizing that black subjects have not had access to gendered categories like “cisgender,” “transgender,” “woman,” or “man” (see Spillers 1987). The pitfalls of racialized and gendered language, however, limit the possibilities for potential categories to use: Savannah Shange (2019), for example, describes such pitfalls when explaining her use of “trans” and “nontrans” to recognize the material realities for trans-identified people while “also not fronting like non-trans Black women wield structural power” (53, n. 26). Given such linguistic limitations, the structural positionality of black women, and the material realities facing many of them (which Hine’s concept of dissemblance draws clear attention to), “black women” as a category has the potential to speak (perhaps more clearly than other categories) to the interconnected nature of racialized and gendered power.