Confession #1: I have almost deleted this entire blog because I have questioned if what I have to say is "worth sharing."
Confession #2: When I dance, I look as awkward as Taylor Swift.
Over the past few days, I traveled to collect data for a new research project. While the trip rewarding and rejuvenating in many ways, one of the highlights was that I had the ability to share time with a new colleague. You know those people who you don’t know well, but when you meet them, you know they have a certain way of thinking about and approaching the world that is freeing and liberatory? Or those people who live their values, and that living of their values makes your time together all the richer? Or those people who convey a sense of gratitude and deep interest in you as a person rather than you as a worker/entity/writer/insert minimizing notion of selfhood here? Well, this person was very much one of those people for me.
While I was in town, we spent an evening having dinner and dessert together when as well as getting coffee the morning I left. Throughout our incredible conversations, we spoke about ego, particularly our own investments in our egos in light of our new jobs, and how we were making sense of—and working through—our own ego investments. The conversation continued to roam, but this particular element of our chats stuck with/to me, and I couldn’t stop rolling it over in my mind.
As I got into my car for the long(ish) drive home, I began to think about the different ways my own ego had haunted me this past year. To be fully honest, I have noticed the trace of my ego more than I would care to admit as an early career scholar. For example, I have wondered why my work is not being cited in certain pieces (answers: because most of my work isn't yet published; because there is a lot of other good literature to cite; because the world didn’t stop when I defended my dissertation). I have been told by a former friend I "one up" others when they share positive news about their work. I have also begun to question if I should share the work I am doing with others, as if doing so would be seen as me trying to "take the spotlight" rather than aligning with my values to seek equity and justice alongside trans* collegians.
It's true, I have encountered a fair spot of success early in my career. I have won a significant award, have a book contract, and have gotten some good luck with reviewers and journal manuscripts. I also know this is not all luck; that I am a good writer and thinker. However, I am smart enough to know it is not a simple either/or proposition. I know that some of it is luck, some of it is interest convergence (because "no one is writing about trans* collegians," some publications may want to position themselves as "on the forefront of the conversation"), and some of it is very much political and people opening doors for me. I also know these successes have had a splitting effect on me in terms of my own ego investments. In one sense, my extreme excitement about the work participants and I did together has meant I want everyone to be reading and using our work. And in another sense, I experience a range of emotions and thoughts when people are not using our work "enough," whatever that means.
Upon reflection, I suspect the "enough" is the leaking of ego into my life. I suspect that the "enough" is the neoliberal effect of privatizing and individualizing "my" work that is inconsistent with the collective and communal values I espouse and work hard to enact. I suspect the "enough" is my investment in seeing "my" work in the way the academy has conditioned me to think of it: as a meal ticket to individual success and glory…because promotion and tenure may be many things, but it surely isn't a collective process.
So I have been tracing the slow dance I have been doing with my own ego over the past year. I have been following my own movements with my ego across the dance hall that is publications, professional conferences, and casual conversations. And what I have noticed is that I have gotten extremely awkward about it all.
When my new friend asked me what I was working on over dessert the first night in town, I found myself saying what I have told many people who have asked this question. I heard myself say, "We really don’t need to talk about this if you don’t want to," as if I needed to apologize to her for discussing my work…about which she asked me. At a dinner with another colleague and one of my co-researchers the next evening, I was asked what I was looking forward to in the coming year. The immediate thing that bumped into my head was my book coming out…and I then immediately thought, "But should I share that? Isn't that self-serving? Isn't that just my ego?"
On my drive home, I called a friend of mine who I trust to talk through these things. I knew they were at work, but I took a chance, and was fortunate they picked up the phone. I told them what I had been discussing and thinking about, and we began to wonder out loud together how gender socialization, ethnic identity and heritage, and racialization were implicated in this conversation. We began to talk about how our experiences of being femme may influence the way we attempt to and/or think about making ourselves as small as possible, about minimizing conversations about our work and/or successes in way that our previous socialization as young boys defied. As we talked, I wondered how my socialization as a boy, a dance-like-no-one-is-watching carefree ethic, collided with my articulation of a femme gender practice, which has me always already aware that people are always watching and judging the moves I make. I am also writing this now remembering that when people aren't judging me, it is likely because they see me as an effeminate man (what I call compulsory heterogenderism), or "not as trans*, but as just a boy with dangly earrings" (something I have been told before). This, then, has the effect of my feeling I need to amplify my femme-ness, whatever that means, and leads to a further Taylor Swift awkwarding of my dancing with myself and my ego. I feel like I need to make myself smaller to the point where I erased myself/am erased completely from the public sphere (see Confession #1 above).
Implications of ego are deeply entrenched in Western, masculine, and White perspectives, which extend and can be—and are—taken up by more than just Western, masculine, and White people. Specifically, who can "own" ego without being marked as "ego-driven" are dances that certain people, with certain ideological investments (e.g., Western, individual, masculinist, White), get applauded for making, while others are continually marked as "pushy," "too loud," "making the work about themselves," and needing to "let their work speak for itself."
And as someone who has/does experience various forms of gender socialization and positionalities, as someone who is White, as someone who believes firmly in communal uplift and amplifying the work and lives of my people, and as someone who is entrenched in an academic system that does not wholly match my values, I am swinging between shaming myself into silence and feeling smarmy and self-promote-y when it comes to discussing my work in the public sphere. I also have felt increasingly lonely in professional spaces, as if people may not really know (or care?) who I am, but flatten me to my writing (as if my self and my work are interchangable)…but that is a different post for a different day.
When I was driving home, my femme friend and I realized an uncomfortable truth: that the effect of all this difficulty with ego may ultimately be the same, while the causes may be different and not be wholly clear to others. What I mean by that is we may talk about our work (the effect), but the reason we do so is for our people (our cause) rather than our own individual self-aggrandizement (the cause others may place on us). Further, the way those causes are (not) placed on us are due to overlapping systems of erasure and oppression. For example, if I am not chastised for sharing my work, it could very well be due to heterogenderism rather than someone knowing my values orientation. However, if I am, it could be the negative effect of my misogyny and transmisogyny taking up "too much space" and extending further than is deemed "appropriate" by hegemonic ideological frameworks and epistemologies.
And now I am sitting at my desk, writing this post while dancing to Demi Lovato's song "Confident." I am thankful there is not a live feed of me typing, because I really am an awkward dancer, but I am also thinking this is such an apropos way to finish this post, because I really just don’t know how to answer the question Demi posed in the song: what's wrong with being confident?
In some senses, there are people who are made out to be problems because of who we are and how we waltz through this world. In other senses, there shouldn’t be much wrong with it because some people don’t know why we dance the way we do or with whom we dance. And in all senses, it will continue to be awkward and challenging, as we will continue to be (mis)read due to the realities of systemic oppression, erasure, and the relational nature of selfhood, self-making, and world-making alongside marginalized communities.
As awkward as it is, I am trying to hold tight to both Anzaldúa's and Lorde's words when confronted with these types of hard challenges. In her book Borderlands/La Frontera, Anzaldúa wrote:
I will no longer be made to feel ashamed of existing. I will have my voice: Indian, Spanish, white. I will have my serpent's tongue—my woman's voice, my sexual voice, my poet's voice. I will overcome the tradition of silence. (p. 81)
And in her poem New Year's Day, Audre Lorde wrote:
I am deliberate
This blog is a space where I share my thoughts on trans*-related issues. I also will share my own research as it develops, including papers, presentations, and the development of my dissertation study with trans* college students.