Featured QYou Faculty

Transgender Studies and Trans Activism
A Q&A session with Prof. Marcia Ochoa

Professor OchoaTransgender Studies has emerged as an exciting field of inquiry in the past 10 years. Related to Feminist Studies, Disability Studies and Science/Technology Studies, Transgender Studies provides multiple points of entry for students interested in engaging with social issues such as gender violence, health disparities, mental health, immigration/citizenship, cultural production, poverty and sexuality. Ultimately Transgender Studies emerges out of an activist project that pushes back against prevailing theories of gender to honor and increase the life chances of trans people everywhere. It makes our engagement with theories of the body, social justice, violence and gender even more robust.

Prof. Ochoa, who offers courses in Transgender Studies in the Feminist Studies Department at UCSC, where she serves as Chair. Ochoa also serves as a founding editorial board member of Transgender Studies Quarterly. She will answer questions about her Winter Quarter course, FMST 41 (trans|gender|bodies), and other opportunities to pursue Transgender Studies and trans activism at UCSC and in the Bay Area.

1. Tell us about you.

I'm an anthropologist specialized in the ethnography of media and gender in Latina/o and Latin America. I am specifically interested in the role of the imaginary in queer/trans third world survival. I am also a co-founder of El/La Para TransLatinas, a social justice project for transgender Latinas based in San Francisco's Mission District. I've worked in queer/trans Latina/o communities since 1994, and am deeply committed to changing the distribution of life chances for trans women of color. I just published a book called Queen for a Day: Transformistas, Beauty Queens and the Performance of Femininity in Venezuela with Duke University Press. It's what I call a "queer diasporic ethnography" of beauty and femininity in Venezuela. In it, I think about beauty and glamour as strategies for recognition and survival of feminine people, including trans and cisgender women.

In a world that is actively misogynist, that hates femininity in many forms but especially when it manifests on a body that is assigned male sex at birth, I think divas figure out how to make space for themselves in very important ways. I wanted to work out a way to recognize how divas really create the terms for their dreams and survival, because I know these are crucial to the survival of the trans women I am close to. These translatinas were the first people who knew how to read my own gender presentation, and gave me a kind of gender recognition at a very young age that made a huge difference in my life. As a gender-variant person (I present masculine but am not interested in using transition technologies like hormones and surgery, and I use feminine pronouns mostly out of habit - I actually answer to most pronouns!), I saw that my own struggle was bound up in theirs, and that my privilege as a light-skinned middle-class, college-educated Latina gave me space to express my gender that other folks have to fight tooth and nail for. I've been involved in trans activism in the Bay Area and Venezuela for going on 20 years now, and I am always floored by the style and grace of translatina survival and activism.

2. Tell us about Transgender Studies here at UCSC.

We are really just starting to set the terms of what Trans Studies means at UCSC and in many other places, and it's an exciting time! We are one of a handful of universities now that have seen the value of this emerging area and are actively offering courses. Santa Cruz has a deep history of queer theory, Trans Studies and queer/trans activism. We actually coined the term "queer theory" at a conference that Teresa de Lauretis (History of Consciousness) organized back in the early 90s. I started teaching FMST 41: trans|gender|bodies in 2011 after I came to Feminist Studies, and I really want to create a space where students can take their own experiences with trans issues as a jumping-off point for further inquiry. I know I have always had a hard time working on things I'm not deeply passionate about, and I think trans issues are a really important way to approach areas like creative writing, art, biology, law and policy, psychology, history, anthropology and sociology, as well as the larger body of Feminist Studies and feminist activism. I've been really happy with the kind of commitment students bring to the class, and designed a Senior Seminar last year in Transgender Studies to follow it up (FMST 194T). What I've learned is that when you center trans experience, especially that of trans people of color, you get a really clear sense of the kinds of violence institutions and disciplines can do to people who don't fit their categories. This kind of thinking really helps you understand categories critically and propose alternative ways of organizing work and processes. So far, I've only been able to offer these two courses, but I am starting a Project Leader program for FMST 41, where students who have previously taken the class can organize a project group to address specific issues, get some mentorship and training in feminist pedagogy, and receive credit for their work. The class also benefits from the amazing connections we have with Bay Area trans advocacy organizations, and we have done great projects on immigration, education, sexuality, and hormone access in CA state prisons to support the work of these organizations.

3. What does the Cantu mean to you?

I am so grateful to the Cantú Center for supporting our students in such deep and meaningful ways. You provide amazing opportunities for students to get support, leadership experience and connection. For me as a professor, the Cantú has meant that I have a place to refer students who run into all kinds of trouble and drama as they are trying to get through school, and see them get resources to deal with whatever comes up and thrive. It's also been a great place to collaborate with staff and students on bringing speakers to campus and lots of great things. The Cantú is awesome!