This past week, two things happened to me that, at first blush, are far from related. However, the more I thought about them, and the more I thought about them in the context of the work I do and where I am at personally currently, I had this nagging feeling they were not all that unrelated, and that as a result of their confluence, I felt the need to be again play my role as a killjoy.
The first thing that happened was I finished reading Lani Guinier's book The Tyranny of the Meritocracy: Democratizing Higher Education in America. Among the books strengths, Guinier picks up on notions of "collective intelligence," suggesting that viewing education, intelligence, and merit through collective and collaborative lenses can help resist what she refers to as the testocratic mindset that rules the day in postsecondary education.
The second thing that happened was I read a blogpost in which the author talked about how important it was that everyone work to realize the following maxim: Love yourself.
So, two things that seem (a) innocuous and (b) seemingly completely unrelated, right? Yeah, I thought so, too, for a minute. But then I started thinking more, and asked myself the following questions:
But what if I cannot love myself? And what if I have been socialized to believe I should not love myself? And if I don't currently love myself, how the heck can I ever get to a place where I can love myself? Lastly, I wondered, why should I love myself? And by that I mean, are there other, more accessible, or better ways to love and be loved?
And then it dawned on me...maybe these two things that happened weren't as disconnected as I at first thought.
Still don't see the link? Totally fair; I'll be a bit more explicit.
Okay, so here it goes. First off, many people with marginalized identities have literally been told they are unloved and, even worse, unlovable. In thinking about trans* people, activists and scholars alike have discussed how being trans* means one is abject, weird, wrong, and/or lots of other terribly pejorative terms. Moreover, we are often told we will either be alone for the rest of our lives or, if not, we will be lucky to find love. The specter of losing family, friends, and loved ones upon coming out is a real fear for trans* people (myself included), and so we are taught that perhaps love will not come for us...and if it does, it will not come easily.
Laverne Cox (who, I will just state yet again for the record, is the bee's knees) demonstrated this beautifully in her answer to a question about passing privilege (see the video below) when she said people still yell transphobic slurs at her when she is walking down the street. So yeah, I think it is pretty clear that we as trans* people are not always encouraged to love ourselves...and that our access to loving ourselves is not as clearcut or simple as it may be for other communities with dominant identities (for example, I think many cisgender, White, able-bodied, and/or wealthy men learn to love themselves at an early age, and continue to have this reinforced throughout their lives in lots of ways). I myself have struggled (and still struggle) with feeling unlovable at times, and these feelings are directly related to how I have been socialized to think about my trans*ness. It's not true, of course (as Laverne also articulates), but that doesn't stop the feeling of being unlovable from taking hold...because feelings are very rarely (or ever?) rational.
Okay, so accessing the notion of loving oneself, which, it must be said, has been taken to be axiomatic in many circles, is always already asymmetrical. Moreover, those with marginalized identities (and those with multiple marginalized identities) have a tougher go at accessing this notion of self-love. Now the next step: Lani Guinier's book.
So in Lani Guinier's book, she wrote about challenging the individualistic, neoliberal logic upon which the educational testocracy (reliance on standardized tests as a metric of merit and intelligence) is built. Which got me thinking...isn't all this stuff about loving yourself, in all its individualistic glory and splendor, and in its overwhelming pervasiveness, itself an extension of neoliberal logic? Could the continued proclamations to "love yourself" be just another way in which neoliberalism has seeped into the very core of our lives? It's not enough that it has gripped our political and educational structures, but it now has to come for our feelings and perceptions of self-care?! Curses to you, Milton Friedman!
But seriously; I don't mean to suggest that people who suggest we should love ourselves are malicious in extending neoliberalism. Instead, I am suggesting that the individualistic approach to love and care, experienced in the pervasive messaging around what has become a taken-for-granted, pre-packaged axiom to "love yourself," is imbued with neoliberal ideals (e.g., one must go it alone; the only way forward is by yourself; if only you work hard enough, you too can love yourself). So here, not only is loving oneself less accessible for those of us on the margins, but the imperative to do so is also steeped in neoliberalism. Add to that the fact that I literally have not seen much out there that helps me or others understand how we can start to love ourselves, or even maintain that self-love once we achieve it (because it surely isn't something that stays without constant attention), and the idea to "love yourself" becomes a bit unwieldy, to say the least.
But I don't think this means all of us who cannot or do not (always) love ourselves are out of luck. Much to the contrary, I think there is a different approach that both cracks open the inaccessibility of love and resists neoliberalism (take that, Milton!). That concept, to use Guinier's language, is "collective love."
Instead of suggesting people love themselves, I suggest we talk about how we can cultivate, develop, and maintain groups in which we can love each other, thus building a sense of shared collective love. Therefore, when I cannot/do not love myself, I can rely on others who do love me, can reflect what they see when they see me, and can help me at my lowest moments. Similarly, when they cannot/do not love themselves, I can do the same for them. It's synergistic, collaborative, collective, and community-based rather than individualistic, mastery-oriented, and solitary. To put an example to this, when I am not feeling so beautiful, or so lovely, because the society in which I live tells me I am unlovable as a trans* person, I can rely on Laverne (and other people in my loving trans* network) to remind me that "being transgender is beautiful."
Moreover, these very networks were evident throughout the data participants and I gathered during our working together on ye ole dissertation I am always hemming and hawing about. In fact, we came up with a fancypants name for them: kinship networks. These networks were places and spaces in which people could gather to rest, relax, rejuvenate, and cultivate the sort of collective love that resisted the ways society told us as trans* people that we were unlovable. They allowed us to lift each other up when, at our worst, we felt unloved, unlovable, or like we could not go on. They allowed us a chance to eschew the individualizing logic of neoliberalism and, in its place, practice the sort of radical community that affirmed our very lives. These networks were virtual (made and maintained via virtual platforms like social media, gaming, and YouTube) as well as physical (e.g., book clubs, organizations/clubs), and they increased one's accessibility to love. To offer just one example from my own experience, being alongside the nine trans* people with whom I spent much of the last two+ years, I have learned that I am indeed worthy of love and, in many respects, am beautiful as a trans* person (and I don't just mean that in terms of physical appearance).
Additionally, I have began journaling with one of my trans* friends a few months ago. And I don't mean journaling together in separate journals, but I mean we journal together, in the same journal. Every week, we write to each other, sometimes multiple times. And when I feel like I am at my lowest, when I struggle to see myself beyond the awful and harmful way I am our people are depicted in the social imaginary, I can count on my trans* kin to be there for me. That is collective love. That is what I am talking about here. And that is why I am suggesting that perhaps we take a break from focusing on loving ourselves and instead focus on loving each other in tight-knit, close, and collaborative kinship networks.
It's not that self-love is bad (if you can do it, then by all means, get down with your bad self), but it's that it just isn't as easy as the maxim makes it out to be. And so I say: Take A Break From the "Love Yourself" rhetoric and let's find ways to love each other.
Last week, I successfully defended the dissertation nine trans* participants and I had worked on for the past two and a half years. The completion of the dissertation, which was an 18 month critical collaborative ethnographic study focused on trans* student resilience, resistance, and kinship-building, was an amazing moment that I will never forget. However, what is more amazing is the relationships I was able to forge and the way participants and I were able to resist some (not all, but some) of the individualistic logic that pervades much of doctoral education and the completing of dissertations. As much as possible, I spent a lot of time centering attention squarely on participants and our work together rather than worrying about how others may read, understand, or make sense of the project in which we were invested. As a result, this process yielded a dissertation of which I am proud and speaks to the lives of the tremendous people I had the great fortune of meeting along the way. However, more important to me is that I developed a deep sense of connection with nine people who taught me much, touched my heart, and reminded me that I was worthy of love (something I have struggled with throughout my life).
For me, one of the most exciting things about having completed this research alongside the participants with whom I worked means that I can share it with others. I often liken this process of sharing to having audience members meet these amazing nine trans* youth who became more than participants. In fact, they quickly became friends, mentors, advocates, guides, and kin for me, and I would say I became the same for many of them rather than just being a researcher.
One such opportunity to share a couple of the findings from our study occurred a couple weeks ago when I was invited to speak as a part of the Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Spring Speaker Series at the University of Cincinnati. The room was packed with inquisitive faculty, students, and staff, and the presentation was both fun and intellectually stimulating.
In an effort to share the talk with a wider audience, I have posted the slides from my presentation below. I know this is an imperfect science, as some of what I discussed cannot be recreated, and some of the slides read as ambiguous or unknowable due to the context of the talk. For example, the slide toward the beginning of my presentation about starting with stories does not actually delineate what the stories I shared were or why I shared them.* I also know that reading slides may be tricky because one is unable to ask questions (although perhaps the comments section could be a place to ask questions and for me to respond). This being said, I do think that sharing the presentation can begin to invite more people into the room, so to speak, and help advance this scholarship by bringing it to a wider audience. As far as I am concerned, the more people who get to meet and learn alongside the nine people I spent the past two-plus years getting to know, the better.
Of course, if folks have questions, please do not hesitate to ask in the comments section and I will do my best to answer them. Also, if people are curious, I used a Twitter hashtag (#TransingUC) to track conversation and learning throughout the presentation. You can go to that back channel if you want to see more.
What follows is two sets of findings (which I call arrivals, or places where the data converged, and departures, or places where the data diverged in important and meaningful ways) and three findings from our dissertation study. There are more arrivals/departures and implications, but I decided to focus on what I have come to refer to as the two "twin cultural realities" to which the data pointed (and their concomitant implications). In the future, I will hope to post more presentations like this (as well as scripts I write for talks, like I did for the panel address I gave at MSU during the fall 2014 semester). Again, I recognize this is not perfect, but hopefully it can aid in increasing awareness and understanding of the work trans* students and I undertook, not to mention help create the cultural change that is so very needed in higher education environments for trans* students.
* To clarify, I discussed two case studies of trans* students at two different universities. One student was at an institution that did not have any trans*-inclusive policies or practices, and the other was at a university that did have some trans*-inclusive policies and practices. I used the stories to discuss the fact that, although the university settings differed in terms of inclusive policies or practices, the resulting effect of being a trans* student on those campuses was similar: both students felt ostracized and discriminated against at various times of their collegiate careers. I then connected this to Adem's comment on the next slide that policies act as "caution tape," demarcating places, things, and ways of behaving that people should not do, but that such policies in and of themselves do not stop genderism from occurring. Thus, I used the stories to connect to the data from our study to elucidate the fact that trans*-inclusive policies and practices are necessary, but insufficient to address the complex cultural realities participants and I explored in our findings.
This blog is a space where I engage with ideas, concepts, and research that seeks to increase life chances for trans* people.