[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 morning, I had the pleasure of having breakfast with Silvia, one of the dissertation participants with whom I have had the pleasure of working the past two years. We haven't seen each other for several months due to her studying abroad, but have kept in touch through regular email correspondence. Also, although it may seem antithetical, I have the sense that we have grown closer as a result of our increased (spatial) distance. Specifically, because we could not see each other (both visually and in terms of spending time together), we have deepened our friendship in new ways, particularly through writing. Because we both learn best through reading, and best make sense of our worlds through writing, this has opened up an exciting set of opportunities for getting to know each other as individuals, friends, and kin.
Our breakfast was nothing short of amazing. The food, coffee, and conversation were invigorating, and exactly what I needed after retreating for the past week and a half. I have been house and dog sitting for a friend who does not live in Oxford, which has afforded me the opportunity to hibernate away from my usual setting. Therefore, seeing Silvia was the exact break I needed and wanted today. Although I could keep gushing about Silvia, there was one particular idea that has stuck with me after our meeting: time.
On my walk to breakfast, I kept thinking about time: how long it had been since we have been in the same room (about four and a half months); how it feels like no time has passed due to our keeping in touch; how long it has been since we first met (about two years); the length of time we have been working together (about one and a half years); and about how excited I was to spend time with her today. Most of these thoughts were fairly innocuous. In fact, I (and I am assuming others) have these thoughts often when we see people with whom we feel connected. However, when Silvia and I got to talking, it turned out that we have a similar fascination with time. Specifically, we talked about how time works in different ways for trans* people, people with disabilities, and trans* people with disabilities.
See, Silvia identifies as a trans* person with disabilities. Much of her rationale for studying abroad for an entire year has been to take a break (take a time out) from her life at City University (the pseudonym for the institution at which we did our work together). She talked eloquently (as she always has) about reorienting herself to time, in particular how she spent her days (how she used her time) while abroad. She mentioned that she felt like she had more time, thus giving a sense of time's expansiveness, and her ability to stretch time. She talked about not scheduling herself, said she was not sure when she would be going back abroad, and did not even know how long she had been back stateside. This was not due to confusion on her part, but on her lack of marking time in the way it is often categorized and understood in U.S. culture.
Additionally, she talked about the joy of being able to talk with "normal people" (her term for people who are temporarily able-bodied) about the various (and often conflicting ways) she experiences similar phenomena. For example, she discussed how rain influences her, which was vastly different than my experience of rain. She ended her thought by saying that her disabilities offer her a richer understanding of her world, and if she had the choice, she would not want to rid herself of her sensory disability. Her comment then got me thinking about Alison Kafer's book, Feminist, Queer, Crip (here is a review of the book). Specifically, Kafer takes on notions of crip futures, in particular, what it may mean to desire crip futures.
Silvia's comment about desiring her cripped reality--and thus, desiring (a) cripped future(s)--got me thinking about how one can mold time into something that is pliable, something that is flexible and is fitted to one's own particular tastes and needs. In a sense, the possibilities for Silvia's cripped futures are hers and hers alone. Yes, she is operating within the confines of only having 24 hours in a day, and only having a certain number of days in a week. And yes, she does schedule herself (for example, she scheduled our breakfast). However, by desiring her cripped experience, and by extension desiring potential cripped futures, she is altering time. No longer is Silvia's time marked by able-bodied understandings of progress, success, movement, ability, and health (we talked about this last concept in detail). Instead, she is changing time by reorienting herself away from these concepts, and toward new visions of who she is, how she experiences her world, and the richness of her experiences as a result of her cripping time.
Similarly, I talked to her about the possibilities that were opened up by the ways I as a trans* person have begun to think about time. For example, I operate in multiple times (those where I am out as trans* and those where I am not out), both with unique (overlapping and intertwined) trajectories. Additionally, my own possible futures have been reoriented due to my non-binary identity; how I show up today may very well be different than how I show up tomorrow (materially and otherwise). These ruptures in the solidity of A Future (these ruptures in time) are not only things I experience, but they also create effects that others respond to, forcing me to respond to these responses. For example, this past fall semester, I wore heels to class one day. This prompted one student to comment on how they were excited to see genderqueer people (this is not how I identify, but how I was identified by this particular student) in the classroom, particularly as instructors. The next week, when I wore a pair of Chucks, the same student walked into class, looked at me, and immediately said, "No heels today?," suggesting my trans* future should always include heels. This question further suggested that my trans*ness should be written on my body, that I needed to embody my trans*ness in visible ways--something I have discussed in a previous blogpost and write about extensively in my dissertation. However, by resisting the future this student was attempting to impose on me, I was in a sense changing time. My possible futures were different than the stable future the student had fashioned (literally, as their comments related to my shoes) for me. Furthermore, through my resistance, I was suggesting there are multiple ways in which we all may live, be, and practice our genders, thus opening up our space to various futures.
I desire my trans*ness in ways that are similar to how Silvia desires her disabilities. Part of the reason I desire my trans*ness is because it opens up possibilities for how I and--because gender is always already understood in relation to others--others (re)fashion our myriad futures. In other words, my trans*ness, like Silvia's disabilities, are destabilizing, and they crack apart staid notions of "time" and "the future" as knowable, constant, consistent, and stable constructs. And this goes beyond my non-binary identity. Indeed, even trans* people who transition are in the process of de/re/constructing time and futures, as there is really no end to one's transition. In this sense, trans* and crip identities can be seen to open up possibilities for how we understand the various times in which we operate; and when I say we, I mean everyone, regardless of their gender and/or disability identity. As Cooper (2012) wrote:
Transgender is a term that implies an identity forever in transition. But I cannot think of a single person who is not in transition to some extent, regardless of gender. That’s what we do as humans; we evolve constantly. (p. 47)
Therefore, Silvia's experiences of time (understood via crip futures) and my experiences of time (understood through trans* futures) help everyone trans(*)gress time in libertory (and counter-neoliberal, but this is perhaps a post for another time) ways.
And this is why I just adore my times with Silvia.
This blog is a space where I engage with ideas, concepts, and research that seeks to increase life chances for trans* people.