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Swamp Monsters and Trans Studies
Notes from the F. O. Matthiessen Lecture in Studies of Gender and Sexuality
On November 9th, Harvard affiliates gathered in the Barker Center for a public lecture from Professor C. Riley Snorton, the F.O. Matthiessen Visiting Professor of Gender and Sexuality. The talk, titled “Swamp Tales, Trans Ghosts, and Nonbinary (Magical) Realism,” focused on Snorton’s recent work on black ecology and trans studies. The lecture hall was packed, with attendees standing against the back wall and sitting on the floor.
The chair of the Women, Gender, and Sexuality (WGS) department, Professor Jocelyn Viterna, greeted attendees and set the tone for the evening: general discontent with the state of society. Viterna bemoaned Dobbs v. Jackson, Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay Bill,” and other state-level “anti-trans” legislation, which she described as overt attacks against women and gender minorities.
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Viterna also argued that a conservative narrative of heteronormativity pervades public discourse. For example, when Senator Tim Scott criticized Florida’s curriculum on slavery, he asserted that slavery was really about “separating families, about mutilating humans and even raping their wives.”1 Less discerning listeners may have understood this as a straightforward condemnation of slavery, but according to Viterna, Scott’s rhetoric treated wives as belonging to humans and thereby implied that wives themselves are less than human.
Her introduction was the most accessible part of the evening. Professor Snorton, a self-described “trans-maximalist,” began by asserting that transgender studies should be integrated in every academic discipline. Through dense jargon and references to scholarship on swamp monsters, Snorton presented the swamp, which is neither land nor water, as a space of perpetual transition that encapsulates both life and death. This, Snorton said, makes the swamp the ideal lens for exploring a non-binary reconstruction of the world. The professor also clarified that to be non-binary is not to reject binaries but more accurately to refuse to be compelled by them.
Snorton used two stories to illustrate this idea. The first was of the Green Swamp Monster. After rumors began to circulate about a mysterious creature dwelling in a Florida swamp, police captured an Asian immigrant in the nearly uninhabitable terrain. Snorton’s second story followed local Louisiana myths of the Honey Island Swamp Monster. These myths originated near swamplands in which runaway slaves and indigenous peoples had built communities as outcasts. According to Snorton, these stories illustrate an American tendency to treat underprivileged people as subhuman.
Snorton went on to draw an analogy between plants in destroyed habitats and the people of marginalized communities: the persecuted, particularly ethnic and gender minorities, share a parallel fate with plants, as well as a parallel resilience and beauty. Behind Snorton, a screen displayed clips from the movie Uyra: The Rising Forest, a PBS documentary that features a transgender and indigenous dancer who uses art to confront “historical racism, transphobia, and environmental destruction.”2 Drawing upon this similarity between plants and people, Snorton argued that the answer to the climate crisis is decolonization and abolition. What, exactly, Snorton intends to abolish was left unstated—perhaps the professor assumed the audience was already of one mind on the question.
Professor Snorton, a self-described “trans-maximalist,” began by asserting that transgender studies should be integrated in every academic discipline.
Despite the highly theoretical nature of the work, the audience remained engaged throughout the event. The lecture was punctuated by vocalized “hmms” and head-nodding, especially in response to buzzwords like “disaster capitalism” and “heteronormativity.”
During the Q&A, an attendee teared up as he relayed the sad state of transgender rights in his home region of Latin America. One audience member even asked for Snorton’s general thoughts on the study of mushrooms and fungi. It is unclear whether the question was tied to ecology or gender and sexuality; given the nature of the talk, it seemed to be tied to both.
Another audience member claimed the evening was the most “intellectually grounded” she had felt in a long time. Her statement was met with raucous applause.
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Qtd. in Aaron Navarro et al., “Tim Scott Slams Florida's Black History Curriculum: "There is no Silver Lining" in Slavery,” CBS News, July 28, 2023.