Complete Transformability: The Incoherence of Sex at Two Eugenics Laboratories
University of Pennsylvania
211 Dickinson Hall & Zoom
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In the early years of the twentieth century, researchers at the Eugenics Record Office and the Station for Experimental Evolution dreamt of achieving white perfection through science. As they set out to understand heredity and gain control over reproduction, much of their research came to be about sex and its role in making better forms of life. This talk explores the way that eugenic scientists deployed a capacious and often contradictory understanding of what sex was—static or malleable, hormonal or anatomical, binary or not—depending on what species they were using in their research and what kinds of problems they wanted to solve. Researchers' acceptance of this incoherent array of sexes enabled eugenic inquiry to proceed without much need to sort out these discrepancies, at the same time that the intellectual and practical needs of eugenics contributed to an enactment of sex that could contain multitudes.
Beans Velocci is a historian of knowledge production in the realms of sex, gender, and sexuality. Their work uses queer, trans, and feminist methods to interrogate classification systems and how they become regarded as biological truths, primarily in the nineteenth- and twentieth-century United States and its colonial and white supremacist context. Their first book project, tentatively titled Binary Logic, looks at how sex emerged as a privileged way of sorting bodies not despite but because of its incoherence. Rather than focus on those whom scientists and medical doctors cast out of male and female categories as pathological aberrations, the book traces how knowledge producers brought ill-fitting bodies back into a normative binary with no harm done to sex itself. It follows a sprawling cast of researchers through zoology, eugenics, gynecology, statistical studies of sex, and transgender medicine as they self-fashioned their expertise, created enmeshed fields of sex science and race science, and made science the way to know sex. Research for this project has been generously funded by the American Philosophical Society, the Kinsey Institute, and the Yale Fund for Lesbian and Gay Studies.