Fall 2020 Faculty Interview: Paisley Currah

Paisley Currah is a Professor of Political Science and Women’s & Gender Studies at the Graduate Center and Brooklyn College. He is the 2019-2021 Endowed Chair of the Women’s & Gender Studies Program at Brooklyn College, the founding editor of TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly and author of the forthcoming Sex is as Sex Does: Transgender Identities, Sex Classification, and the State (NYU 2021).

Alana Pagano: What led you and Susan Stryker to found TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly?

Paisley Currah: In the ’90s, there had already been this growth of transgender studies in a bunch of different disciplines but what Susan and I realized was that a lot of people doing that kind of work lacked credibility. A lot of people who were doing really great work weren’t necessarily finding publication homes. The point of doing TSQ was to be a venue for the new interdisciplinary area but also to signify to other journals that transgenger studies is a credible academic area of inquiry.

AP: Can you share a bit about what you’re doing as the 2019-2021 Endowed Chair of the Women’s and Gender Studies Program at Brooklyn College?

PC: A chair position allows you to do some programming with the faculty and students of Brooklyn College around your area of expertise. This year, the second year, is going to be organized around a tripartite of knowledge, policies, and activism. I want to show how activism leads to policy change and knowledge can be in the service of policy. Policy isn’t necessarily some top-down, technocratic approach. A lot of the activism I did earlier led to policy changes and it wasn’t about elites giving the right answer, it was coming from the ground up.

AP: Can you comment on how activism has shaped your work?

PC: Yeah, I think it’s really helped me. To be involved in activism and actually talk with policy makers about what they think is clarifying. Activism and advocacy has helped me figure out, on a theoretical level, what is going on. If you read too much theory, you can get caught up in all its permutations. Meanwhile at the level of policy it’s much more clear what’s going on and it makes you think that perhaps we don’t quite need to split so many hairs over these theoretical debates. For me, being grounded in what is concretely happening to people is really useful for my project.

AP: What is your forthcoming book about?

PC: Coming from my work as an advocate and activist, I’m making this argument that advocates are always looking at what sex is and governments are always looking at what it does. I came to this book trying to understand these contradictions — why is someone male in one jurisdiction and female in another. After a while, I realized that while they’re unfortunate for the individual, they’re not really contradictions but effects of the fact that states do different things and so your legal sex classification does what government needs it to do. I talk about this in relation to marriage, identity documents, incarceration. It also addresses the question of identity politics. In some sense, providing a justification for it and, in another sense, talking about the dangers of transgender identity politics.