[TW: Discussions of transphobia and trans* suicide]
Yesterday, I finished my final draft of my dissertation before sending it out to my committee. This was a joyous event, and one well worth celebrating. After two and a half years of writing, researching, working alongside fabulous participants, writing, revising, and then writing again, I have a document of which I am really very proud.
And then, right after I finished the draft, I logged on to Facebook and saw many of my friends had posted the tragic news of a young trans* woman, Leelah Alcorn, who committed suicide. Faced with a family who took her out of school, shuttled her to "reparative therapists," and a group of fellow youth who she felt did not truly care about her, she decided her life was unlivable. In her suicide note, which she posted on her personal Tumblr page, she wrote, "My death needs to mean something. My death needs to be counted in the number of transgender people who commit suicide this year. I want someone to look at that number and say, 'That's fucked up' and fix it. Fix society. Please."
The tragic irony of the juxtaposition of my learning about Leelah's suicide with my finishing a dissertation study focused on trans* resilience is not lost on me. In fact, it has kept me thinking over the past day and a half, specifically about what the use of the work I do is when those of us in educational research are always already behind (for those who may not know, it can take up to a year or two for any of our publications to see the light of day) and there are trans* youth who need livable lives right now...or perhaps days, weeks, months, or years prior to right now. For me, this thought process helped me realize I need to be vigilant about being visible and vocal in many public spheres, including this blog, my local community, talking with others in my academic department, and publishing in venues with high readerships/are open-access/have a quicker turnaround time so the work might have a deeper impact on improving educational contexts.
More than this, however, I kept thinking about the absolute limits of practicing resilience. Here's what I mean by that...
In my dissertation, I write about the concept of resilience as a verb, or a action one can practice repeatedly, rather than a noun, which the word etymologically is. Specifically, I discuss how participants were able to practice resilience in different locations and in different ways, all with varying levels of success. So for example, some students walked certain paths on campus in order to be resilient, or they texted their friends while they walked, or they had a friend or partner help resist genderist rhetoric with them. These are all examples of how participants practiced resilience in manners that allowed them to successfully navigate their college environments. Sometimes, participants' practicing resilience didn't work out so well, meaning they needed to try something different when confronted with the same situation. For example, one participant, Kade, tried to confront a teacher who was using some deeply transphobic logic in class. When his instructor did not respond well, he reached out to trans* kin and a couple supportive staff members to intervene with his instructor.
And sometimes, the ways participants practiced resilience, while allowing them to lead the life they wanted, also had the effect of limiting their life chances. For example, three of the nine participants alongside whom I worked left City University (a pseudonym for our field site) and have yet to return (a fourth student, BC, left, but has returned after spending a full academic year off campus). Far from being a read on these participants' lack of intellect, ability, or grit (a popular term being used in educational research these days to denote an individual's ability to push through negative experiences), these trans* students' leaving CU indicates the very limits of practicing resilience. Put another way, regardless of their ability to practice resilience, the genderism that was embedded in the CU culture was so intense, and it was so pervasive, that they still left CU.
And this is where Leelah comes back into the story. Like the participants who left City University, Leelah seemed to have tried several different ways of practicing resilience (some of which are particularly similar to the ways participants practiced resilience, like creating virtual kinship through online spaces like Tumblr). However, despite her ability to practice resilience, the cultural genderism facing her, participants, and all other trans* people was so intense, and so pervasive, that she was convinced she could not have a livable life.
And so there are limits to resilience (just as there are to notions of grit). In other words, someone can be resilient, can practice resilience in lots of ways, but still may not feel they will have a livable life. Although leaving college and committing suicide are incredibly different outcomes, which have vastly different impacts, the phenomenon that precipitated both outcomes is the same: the overwhelming and unwavering prevalence of cultural genderism, a social logic that positions trans* people as less than, other, invisible (and also hypervisible) in many problematic ways, and as leading impossible lives.
So why does this matter? Why is it important to highlight the limits of resilience? What does this mean for educators and others who work alongside trans* youth? It means that sometimes, practicing resilience just isn't enough. It means that beyond discussing and developing strategies for resilience, we need to continue confronting, questioning, interrogating, critiquing, and tearing down the genderist logic that makes life unlivable for many trans* people. It means we need to continue to proliferate possibilities for gender by being visible as trans* people, and by speaking our truths, in whatever ways feel safe and good for us. Indeed, by seeing other trans* people, and meeting other trans* people, and reading other trans* narratives, participants and I shared with each other that we felt our lives were increasingly livable. We cannot rely on resilience, be it conceptualized as a noun or verb. And we cannot be satisfied with hoping trans* people will become gritty. We need more.
In all my thinking, I was brought back to an amazing quote from Judith Butler. Although many think of her as an insufferably dense writer, there can be no denying the power of her words when Butler (2004) wrote, "Some people have asked me what is the use of increasing possibilities for gender. I tend to answer: Possibility is not a luxury; it is as crucial as bread" (p. 29, emphasis added). Yes. Increasing possibilities for gender is crucial. It is for the participants I worked alongside of who have yet to return to CU, and it is for youth like Leelah, who feel their lives to be far gone.
So let's get to fixing society. Because resilience isn't enough, and we owe it to Leelah, along with the countless others who have been or are in the same place she was, to imagine a better future culture free from gender-based oppression.
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.