A medical anthropologist examines the ethics and history of transgender medical procedures


Eric Plemons

Eric Plemons, an associate professor in the School of Anthropology at the University of Arizona, received a public scholarship from the National Endowment for the Humanities to work on a new book called “What to Make of Me: The Transgender Body as a Valuable Resource”.

Plemons is a medical anthropologist who studies the politics and practice of transgender medicine and surgery. Her first book, The Look of a Woman (2017, Duke University Press), examines facial feminization surgery, a series of bone and soft tissue reconstructive surgeries intended to feminize the faces of trans women.

With the NEH grant, Plemons, who is a faculty member at Stanford University this year, will research and write a book on the ethics and history of how transgender medical procedures have supported health technologies. more traditional reproduction and organ transplantation.

Transgender people undergoing reconstructive surgeries have been giving up genital tissue for decades. But in emerging medical research, the historically marginalized transgender body is being recast as a source of uniquely valuable material capable of cementing the normative gender of others, Plemons said.

In the first case, penile tissue from trans women could be used to design penises for soldiers who lost them in battle. In the second case, the wombs of trans men could be used to enable others to become pregnant.

“The NEH Public Scholar’s Grant will help support fieldwork in the clinical and research settings where this new science is being developed and will allow me time to complete the archival work and writing process,” said Plemons said.

Q: Why did you decide to write a book on this topic now?

Transgender genital reconstruction surgeries are on the rise in the United States. The same goes for the accessibility of the uterine graft. So is the military’s need for tissue-engineered genitalia to repair/replace those lost during the record rates of genital injury in the Iraqi and Afghan conflicts.

In this context, it makes sense that some researchers are looking for a way to use healthy tissue donated by one group to meet the needs of others. But this is not a simple utilitarian exchange. In order to harvest their organs for the transplant, the future trans donor would have to undergo much more complex and invasive surgeries than current practice. Proponents justify the enormity of these interventions by pointing out the immeasurable value that intact penises or functioning uteruses would have for potential recipients suffering without them. What has not been addressed are the implications of these proposed transactions for the transgender person.

What to do with me is a unique book not only because it examines emerging fields of medicine, but also because it addresses the history and dynamics of medical fields that have not typically been the subject of conversation – transgender transition, organ transplantation, tissue engineering and assisted reproductive technologies.

Q: How are you going to research this topic?

What to do with me combines archival work on the history of medicine with ethnographic and interview-based research between researchers and patients that contributes to emerging medicine in real time. This mixed-methods approach allows me to tell a nuanced and complex story about technologies and desires put into the contexts from which they derive meaning.

Archival research will focus on the historical contexts, both technical and social, that shaped the emergence of the medical innovations studied. Transgender medicine is often presented as a niche field practiced by a few doctors for the benefit of a few patients. In fact, the knowledge created by the management and treatment of gender variant bodies has been central to a number of medical specialties.

I will also conduct ethnographic research with clinicians, scientists, and patients at three U.S. research institutes, each contributing vital new knowledge to these rapidly changing areas of specialty medicine.

As an anthropologist, I am committed to learning from and with these people whose lives are shaped in profound ways, both by developing expertise in these areas and by being subject to their interventions.


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