Recently, I was able to watch the first part of the Frontline special, United States of Secrets. For those who have followed the news the last few years, the release of information regarding the government's warrantless wiretapping of Americans is nothing new. The special traces the now-not-so-secret policies of the US government, many of which have been made public by the NSA documents Edward Snowden leaked. Although much of this story has been told, often from various perspectives (e.g., Snowden-as-whistle-blower, Snowden-as-traitor), one of the things I kept thinking about was that trans* people should all have a vested interest in this case, as the issues of state surveillance, the culture of fear in which the vast apparatus of surveillance has been constructed, and (gender) non-normativity are heavily linked. Thus, regardless of one's political orientation, all trans* people have, as the saying goes, some skin in the game.
Toby Beauchamp has done a brilliant job writing about the threat posed to trans* people by the increased US state surveillance in an essay included in The Transgender Studies Reader 2. Essentially, the argument is that there is a pervasive culture of fear that has increased exponentially in the US since the events of 9/11. This fear is based, at least in part, on not knowing/being able to see 'the enemy.' This manifests in heightened surveillance by the state in an attempt to seek out and prevent threats, which are oftentimes discussed in terms of hiding in plain sight. The result of this means everyone is told to be on alert for those people, events, or interactions that seem 'out of the ordinary.' Think about announcements that you hear when you are waiting for a flight in an airport. You are asked to report 'suspicious behavior' to TSA officials. However, there is no real discussion about what should be considered 'suspicious' or why that is suspicious in the first place. Thus, suspicious individuals are linked to those who are non-normative in some way. Enter the reason why trans* people should care about the rise in surveillance, the linking of suspicious individuals with non-normative identities, expressions, and embodiments, and, thus, the heightened risk for trans* people, many of whom are labeled as deceptive to begin with (for a great primer on the labeling of trans* people, especially trans* women, as deceptive, I would recommend checking out Julia Serano's (2007) book Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity).
The effects of living a non-normative life in a culture that demands normalcy are very real. Not only do things like travel become unsafe, but everyday necessities (e.g., using a restroom, finding housing, accessing healthcare and shelters) become dangerous, tenuous, and, in some cases, downright impossible for many trans* people. Moreover, trans* women of color are invariably under greater risk and threat, as shown by the recent national study, Injustice at Every Turn. Furthermore, because college and university campuses are microcosms of the broader cultures in which they are embedded, these deleterious effects impact trans* college students. For example, studies have shown that trans* spectrum students feel less safe and have a lesser sense of belonging on campus than their cisgender peers. This is not due to any lack of behalf of trans* students themselves. Instead, it is due to an environment that was not constructed, nor has it been perpetuated, with trans* people in mind.
Because trans* people identify with, express, and/or embody non-normative genders, and because normalcy has increasingly been required as a prerequisite for maintaining a livable life, trans* people face numerous barriers throughout a variety of social institutions, such as (higher) education. Granted, not all is lost; trans* students thrive, despite these barriers. However, the culture of fear and cultural push for normalcy impose a series of high-risk consequences for those of us with diverse genders, including within educational institutions.
And this is why increased US surveillance, both abroad and at home, should matter to trans* people. As I said above, not only do we have some 'skin in the game,' but based on the multiple identities we may have (e.g., trans* people of color, non-binary trans* people, homeless trans* youth, undocumented trans* people) and the other communities with whom we have natural alliances who are also deemed 'abnormal' or 'non-normative,' we have a lot to gain from facing these threats to our shared humanity together in a pro-active fashion. What these confrontations may look like could take several forms, but the important first step is to recognize that these issues, which may otherwise seem isolated and/or mutually exclusive are very much linked.
Late this past week, the Department of Education released some very big news: Trans* students are now protected under Title IX!
Title IX, which was passed into law in 1972, is most well known for it's connection to addressing sex discrimination in intercollegiate sports as well as sexual harassment and sexual violence. However, the law seeks to confront discrimination based on sex in ten key areas of any educational institution that receives federal aid (e.g., financial aid for students, federal funding for the institution, federal grant money). However, it was never clear--at least to me--that Title IX could be used to fight for the legal recourse of students who faced gender-based discrimination.
Now, its important to take a moment now and note that although there are some (e.g., Kate Bornstein, Judith Butler) who suggest that sex and gender are one in the same--Judith Butler (2006) famously wrote in Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity that "perhaps, this construct called 'sex' is as culturally constructed as gender; indeed, perhaps it was always already gender, with the consequence that the distinction between sex and gender turns out to be no distinction at all" (pp.9-10)--the way sex and gender are understood in the public sphere is as two distinct, yet often overlapping categories of difference.* In other words, although one's sex (e.g., the sex one is assigned at birth) and one's gender (e.g., one's identity and/or expression of masculinity, femininity, androgyny, and/or other configurations of presentation) often overlap, these are seen as two distinct identities. Furthermore, even though they are seen as distinct categories of difference, they certainly overlap and share a close association. For example, Butler outlined the social discourse regarding how one's sex and gender should align, which she referred to as the 'heterosexual matrix.' Essentially, Butler's argument was that the prevailing cultural discourse stipulates that, for example, those born male should present in masculine ways and be attracted to females who present in feminine ways, and vice versa. And, although there are some (e.g., trans* folks) who defy this logic, we are deemed 'culturally unintelligible.' Butler uses the notions of the heterosexual matrix and cultural unintelligibility to go on to proliferate possibilities for how we come to identify and understand gender and, thus, she seeks to, as Spade (2011) stated, increase life chances for those who transgress normative understandings of sex, gender, sexuality, and desire a la the heterosexual matrix.
Now this previous (and incredibly brief) foray into the (basic) underpinnings of queer theory are important because, although there are some (e.g., Butler) who suggest 'sex' and gender are one in the same, there has been some confusion about how this plays out socially, politically, and legally. For example, given the realities of genderism, it has been unclear if one could use a law like Title IX, which uses the language of sex, to address the negative effects of gender-based discrimination (if they are one in the same, one might think this could happen, but has not previously been the case). In other words, because trans* lives have been so incredibly unintelligible, and there is a strong social narrative of trans* people being deceptive, or not really who we say we are (e.g., we are 'born into the wrong body' or are not 'real' men/women), many--including myself--were unclear if we could use laws meant to protect individuals based on sex for protection under the law based on the negative effects of one's non-compliance with social gender expectations and norms. Although I had my hopes it could be used for this purpose, I held a healthy skepticism, as the legal field has never really been a positive place of support for trans* folks, especially trans* women of color (if you need some evidence to back up this last point, please see how the stop and frisk policy in NYC invariably lead to the policing of trans* women of color as well as the recent case of Monica Jones in Phoenix, AZ).
Well, based on the recent DOE announcement, it seems like we can. So, given this recent announcement, it seems important to take some time to think about what this could do (as well as not do) for trans* students throughout all educational institutions that receive any federal funding.
What this could do is open up the potential of trans* students and their families seeking legal recourse for the discrimination, harassment, and violence they face in educational settings. These legal proceedings will likely be long, and could be tricky, as it is often not easy to 'prove' (in a beyond-a-shadow-of-a-doubt legalese sense) that discrimination has occurred. However, there is an avenue for testing the law now, so it will be interesting to see what comes from this DOE announcement. Furthermore, if some educational institutions are found guilty of not providing safe spaces for trans* students, I will be curious to see how this translates to environmental changes. Which brings me to what this announcement may not do...
As Spade (2011) has eloquently argued, the instituting of trans*-inclusive policies does not always equate to the creation of trans*-inclusive environments. For example, just because gender identity and expression are included in an educational institution's non-discrimination policy does not mean that institution will be free from genderism. In fact, these policies may do some potential harm in that they provide the veneer of inclusion, but do not change the ethos of inclusion at the institution. Thus, to suggest that the DOE announcement is, in and of itself, a boon for trans* students and their families is a bit of a red herring. Yes, it is an important step, both in its symbolism and it's opening up a legal path to redress the effects of genderism on a individual level. However, I am not convinced that these sorts of announcements have the types of sweeping institutional or cultural levels of change we may want, desire, or hope to see. For example, if a student brings a discrimination suit against an institution and wins, that institution may easily create some accommodationist policies (e.g., creating an all-gender wing in a residence hall, designating a couple of bathrooms on campus as all-gender restrooms). To be clear, these are important and necessary steps. However, if all that is done is accommodationist in nature, the opportunity to change the ethos of an institution and those who work at it is lost. In the previous example, to just create an all-gender wing in a residence hall, and seeing this as an end to which all should aspire, forecloses the needed conversation regarding how designating one floor, wing, or building as all-gender provides a buffer for the enactment of genderism in all other residential spaces. So, while individuals may be accommodated, and people may get some basic (and very much needed) necessities (e.g., comfortable places to live, use the restroom, meet other people, develop a sense of belonging), educational institutions will still operate in accordance to genderist discourses.
Confronting and resisting genderist discourses in educational spaces, and creating liberatory cultures and climates, is not as simple as enacting policy changes. Yes, these policies are dreadfully needed and long overdue. I am not suggesting otherwise. However, I think it is important to recognize that the DOE announcement is both important/needed/about time and that it is not a panacea. Thus, it is important to recognize--to use Spade's (2011) language--the limits of the law as we continue to work toward equity and change. What might that look like? I would suggest we continue to think about seeking justice through both the legal sphere and others. I would suggest we continue to build coalitions with other marginalized populations and our allies, seeking those places and spaces of overlap where we can work together in the recognition that our oppression is, in many ways, connected. It may not be the same--in fact, it rarely has the same historical, legal, political, or social expressions--but it is all connected and, thus, our best work can and should be done in coalition with each other.
To be honest, I am not sure exactly what that would look, feel, or sound like. I am not sure what a radically coalitional approach to activism (in education and/or any other sphere) may be like. I am still trying to imagine what forms this could take, especially in the field of higher education. However, I am confident that we have not yet allowed ourselves to fully embrace the notion that it is, indeed, possible and/or desirable to work toward that goal. Some organizations (e.g., the Sylvia Rivera Law Project) have worked to create and highlight models for what coalitional and collective movement building could look like, and I for one am excited at these prospects. I am also deeply interested in using these strategies and models as a way to resist the neoliberal logic that pushes an individualistic agenda dictating that marginalized populations should look out for ourselves above all else. This work can happen, and we can do it together.
So again, chapeau to the DOE. Thank you for your announcement. However, let's not think our work is done. We have a long way yet to go, so let's think about how we can do it together!
*The theoretical underpinnings and lived effects of thinking of sex as always already gender is an important (and fertile) topic to be mined. However, it needs more space and attention than I am able to give it in this post. So, while I will likely address this issue at a later time, I view these two categories of difference (i.e., sex and gender) as distinct yet overlapping for the remainder of this blogpost given that this is often how they are viewed and understood currently in the public sphere.
"In the glow of the enduring success assured to those who benefit from a women’s college experience, a moment of change has arrived at these institutions. Particularly documented and commented upon at the five remaining Seven Sisters (Barnard, Bryn Mawr, Mount Holyoke, Smith, and Wellesley Colleges), and other highly selective women’s colleges, a small but visible (and vocal) cohort of students are emerging who have made a decision to transition their gender, sex, or both, and to live as male-identified or genderqueer individuals (Brune, 2007; Chen, 2010; Greenaway, 2001; Morais & Schreiber, 2007; Offman, 2005; Quart, 2008; Raftery, 2003; Smothers, 2006). Although their (known) numbers are small, their presence has become a lightning rod for a renewed examination of the mission, history, and future of women’s colleges. They have raised questions about belonging, agency, self-definition, and the intersection of individual and community identity. After nearly 150 years of quiet but powerful endurance, a small handful of students have forged an ideological chasm in the basic premise of these colleges" (Marine, 2011, p. 1166).
The above extended quote was taken from an article Dr. Susan Marine wrote regarding her dissertation study. Her study, titled Navigating Discourses of Discomfort: Women's College Student Affairs Administrators and Transgender Students, explored the various perceptions of student affairs administrators at women's colleges regarding trans* students. As Marine accurately noted, a moment of change had indeed arrived; a moment that has continued to build momentum. Most recently, Smith College's decision to deny admission to Calliope Wong has sparked further controversy about the place (or lack thereof) for trans* students in higher education, and specifically at women's colleges.
According to the Smith College website:
An application from a transgender student is treated no differently from other applications: every application Smith receives is considered on a case-by-case basis. Like most women’s colleges, Smith expects that, to be eligible for review, a student’s application and supporting documentation (transcripts, recommendations, etc.) will reflect her status as a woman.(http://www.smith.edu/diversity/gender.php)
This policy presumes that all trans* students: (a) have a desire to change documentation, (b) have access to change their documentation, (c) would have support (family and otherwise) to do everything necessary to change their documentation, and/or (d) that one's gender is or should be seen as directly connected to sex and/or gender markers on documentation. However, as Tobin (2011) stated:
Nationally, the percentage of transgender people who are unable to update identification and official records to reflect their lived gender varies from 41 percent for driver’s licenses and 51 percent for Social Security records to 74 percent for birth certificates. Prior to a change in federal policy in June 2010, 75 percent of transgender people were unable to obtain a passport that reflected their lived gender, and 79 percent were unable to update all their identification and records (National Center for Transgender Equality and National Gay and Lesbian Task Force forthcoming).
Thus, even if it were the case that all trans* college applicants desired to change their legal documentation--which is admittedly a substantial stretch of the imagination--a large majority of these individuals would not have access to do so. This means that trans* college applicants whose names and sex and/or gender designations on their college applications do not match those on their federal supplemental documentation (e.g., FAFSA applications) will not be granted the ability to attend women's colleges. It also suggests that one's gender identity is only as real as one's legal documentation supports. Thus, trans* people whose sex and/or gender markers disagree across documents, or those trans* people (like myself) who choose not to legally change their names or sex/gender markers on their legal documentation--which in my case is due to there not being a suitable option to which I would change said markers--are made out to be 'false,' 'fictional,' or 'unreal.' In this way, the continued requirement on behalf of Smith College (and other institutions of higher education that have similar policies around trans* student admission) perpetuates the harmful myth that trans* people do not, nor should they, have agency in determining their own gender. It also suggests that trans* people are deceptive, a notion that Julia Serano (2007), among others, have highlighted as being highly dangerous to trans* lives. For a population that already faces severe challenges and oppression, situations like the denial of trans* women from applying to and matriculating at women's institutions serve as a microcosm of the negative yet prevailing social view that trans* people deceptive and, thus, are not 'real' people, regardless of how they (we) identify their (our) genders.
All this being said, I am incredibly encouraged to hear of the activism going on at Smith. A recent Buzzfeed article stated that over 200 Smith students protested the school's policy that bars admission to numerous trans* individuals who identify as women (as Calliope Wong did). Furthermore, I was pleased to read this protest took place during an "official admissions event for prospective students" (Yandoli, 2014), and that several prospective students and family members were similarly confused as to why Smith did not allow all trans* women to apply to and attend Smith. Although some Smith employees were quoted in the article as saying it was just 'business as usual,' there was also some suggestion that the protest interrupted the admissions event, requiring staff to reroute parking and tours. To quote Dean Spade (2002):
I want to be shocked and undone and delighted by what you're doing and how you're living. And I don't want anyone to be afraid to put on their look, their body, their clothes anymore. Resistance is what is sexy, its what looks good and is hard to look at and what sometimes requires explanation. Why would we want to do things that don't require explanation, that are obvious, impervious to critique because no one even notices we're doing them?
This resistance is most definitely sexy, and it is in this resistance that there springs hope for a transformed future that honors, respects, and recognizes the agency of trans* women (and all trans* individuals) to name, identify, and speak for themselves. The protest was well planned and executed, and has even stretched beyond the walls of Smith. As can be seen by the Smith Trans Women Tumblr, this movement has built support from students at numerous women's colleges. Furthermore, it has the potential for future coalition-building, as the notion of 'realness' and what it means to be a 'real woman' extends beyond just the questioning of trans* bodies, experiences, and lives. Although they each have their own historical and political realities, campaigns like I, Too, Am Harvard (focused on racial inequity at Harvard) and Queerability(focused on the intersection of queerness and disability) each have their own stake in the deleterious notions of what it means to be 'real.'
In talking with a colleague, I recently learned that a new Dean of the College and Vice President for Campus Life will be starting at Smith soon. As my friend aptly said, this new VP (Dr. Donna Lisker, who will be coming from Duke University) "will inherit this issue" (S. Marine, personal communication, May 1, 2014). So the question then becomes, what might Dr. Lisker do? What might I want to suggest that VP Lisker do? Here are some thoughts...
The first thing I would like to see happen is an open conversation about the real impacts of Smith's current policy regarding trans* women. In all I have read, it does not appear as though upper-level administrators at Smith have discussed not just what the policy is (which is vague and, thus, open to individual discretion), but what the policy does (its effects). Once there is a handle on the negative impacts of the policy, it would be nice to see how this policy connects with the broader systems of genderism and trans* oppression. If Dr. Lisker and others want a start on these links, I may suggest checking out my brief analysis of the policy above. Also, Catalano, McCarthy, and Shlasko's (2007) chapter on trans* oppression in Teaching for Diversity and Social Justice is an exellent (and more in depth) primer. From there, I would strongly urge Dr. Lisker to work alongside all Smith colleagues to change not just the policy regarding admission for trans* women, but the ethos on campus. In Marine's aforementioned study, she found a variety of attitudes regarding trans* women at women's colleges, including ambivalence, support, and advocacy for trans* students. Changing a policy is not sufficient for changing an environment; a point Spade (2011) deftly makes in his most recent book Normal Life: Administrative Violence, Critical Trans Politics, and the Limits of the Law. Although this a good start, it is just that: a start. More must happen at Smith (and other campuses) to address the pernicious (and often tacit) forms of transphobia and genderism that will likely pervade campus. In doing this, I would strongly suggest Dr. Lisker listen to students, but not wait for students to be the main actors in this movement. All too often I have been on college campuses where those who are the most marginalized are pushed to create change. This means that the role of change agent falls invariably to marginalized students, who already have a full load of courses and activities, and are often times trying to cope with the negative effects of whatever systems of oppression are rearing their ugly heads on campus. It is not fair, nor is it ethical, to assume that students can (or should) change any campus culture. While they should be listened to, Dr. Lisker and Smith employees need to make the inclusion of trans* women a priority in their own work, and they can do this specifically by interrogating the notion of 'realness' that I discussed earlier. What makes a 'real' Smithie? Who is included and excluded? Why? How has realness changed over the years? What are the potential ramifications of realness? How can changing the ethos at Smith regarding trans* students both honor the ongoing historical and political necessity for women's colleges, while also allowing people to understand that trans* women are indeed women? That trans* women do not harm nor do they dissolve the need, veracity, or force behind the ongoing need for feminism or the feminist movement, but instead they add to an ever-expanding notion about how feminism can (and must) advocate for the rights of all women?
These are tough questions, no doubt. But they need to be taken on, and I think Dr. Lisker could be just the person to lead this effort. My fist is raised in solidarity with the brave students at Smith who are saying enough is enough. Your message encourages me, and your strength empowers me. I once got a postcard with a message on the front that seems to ring true now. It said, "Your heart is a muscle the size of your fist. Keep loving, keep fighting."
(Image above found on Smith Q&A Facebook group)
This blog is a space where I engage with ideas, concepts, and research that seeks to increase life chances for trans* people.