Now that I am home from my summer teaching in the Northeast, I have been trying to get back into my usual routine. As someone who tends to be a fairly strong 'J' on the Meyers Briggs scale (no comments from the peanut gallery), having a routine is helpful for me in order to get things done. Especially given my own commitment to completing and defending my dissertation by the end of March 2015, routine feels essential to my ability to making the progress I need to be making.
Part of my routine has been to wake up, make my morning coffee, and do a bit of correspondence before diving into my work. I find that answering emails in the morning and evening is a good way to wake my mind up, and thankfully it rarely takes long to get through. I also tend to scroll through Facebook as I work through my coffee, checking in on all the latest from friends across the country. Lately, however, among some of my friends, there have been a devastating rash of postings about Black youth being murdered by police as well as the murder of trans* women of color. While some of my friends continue to post about these atrocities, I have also noticed a visible silence among many (not all, but many) of my White peers regarding these incidents. It is this continuation of the murder of Black youth and trans* women of color, the systemic nature by which this persists, and the seeming lack of conversation by many of my White peers that has me feeling a range of emotions lately.
I feel lost and confused, particularly because I myself am not sure what do to. I am not sure how to move forward given the pernicious realities that face Black youth and trans* women of color. As someone who is a resiliency researcher, these tragedies are stark reminders that there may be limits to one's ability to be resilient. That despite one's ability to bounce back from facing difficulty, there are ways in which many will not be allowed to bounce back, and that inability is through no fault of their own. Not everything is good and well in the land of resiliency-based research, and sometimes I struggle with how to tell a narrative that highlights the complex both/and nature of the lives of participants alongside whom I've worked.
I am angry that more people are not talking about these events; that more people do not understand that these are not singular events, but they are the manifestation of the persistent and ongoing realities racism, genderism, and transmisogyny in this country. My anger is also bound up with a complete and utter sadness, a gut-wrenching feeling that I have not known to this level for some time. I am sad for the lives that have been taken, and I am sad for their families. I am also sad for the people who have lived in fear (and will continue to do so) as a result of these murders and these forms of overt policing of identities and life chances. My sadness reached a zenith a few weeks ago, when one of the participants with whom I have been working for the past year and a half uploaded a #iftheygunnedmedown photoset. Seeing this photoset served as another painful reminder about the ways racism and genderism intersect to further delimit possibilities for some. Even thinking about this photoset brings tears to my eyes as I type now, as I don't want to imagine a life without Micah (a pseudonym), a world in which these forms of senseless violence continue to happen.
In the wake of the recent media attention regarding Ferguson, and the people in my life who have been posting important, yet painful news articles about the many Black youth and trans* women of color whose lives have been taken, I have found myself asking on more than one occasion, "What can I do?" I understand that I have a specific sphere of influence, and I have a set of talents, but I have been wondering what I can do that will make an impact, and will, in some way, help to increase life chances for those who are the most marginalized (Spade, 2011)?
And so I continue to post and repost, and I continue to talk about the effects of these systems of oppression in the classes I teach, and I continue to talk to my friends and family about what it means to live in a society regulated by White supremacy and genderism, and I continue to explore how I am complicit in that same White supremacy and genderism (among other systems of oppression) that I work to deconstruct on a regular basis. And yet, it still doesn't seem like enough...because there are more news articles that are posted each morning, and there are still many of my White acquaintances who are not talking about this.
Now I get that I am a Millennial, and I know one of the (several) uncool things about my generation is that we need instant results. I am guilty of falling into this logic (again, no comments from the peanut gallery). I also know that these are realities about which there are no easy or quick fixes. Change, especially the sorts of cultural change I am wishing to see, take massive amounts of time. Because of this, I have come to the realization that I, too, need to spend large chunks of time focused on these events if I want to see some change. I need to be dedicated to continuing to bring these things up in singular moments, or in spaces where the attention span of those listening is short (e.g., Facebook), but I also need to be heavily invested in continually building a narrative about how these systems of oppression play out in the lives of those who are highly marginalized.
Because of this, I have decided to focus my work toward exploring the effects of racism, genderism, and transmisogyny in the lives of trans* women of color. This is not so much a calling as something in which I feel it is truly important for me to be invested. This is my community, and these are my people who are being found dead and are being slain for no other reason than being Black and trans*. As I told the students in the Diversity and Social Justice class I taught this summer, this is not an abstraction; this is real life, and these systems of oppression have real effects on people's life chances.
I don't want, nor do I expect, high fives or pats on the back for this post. In fact, I hope they do not come, because at the end of the day, the work isn't about me. It's about us, and it's about making change within my particular sphere of influence in a way that makes lives better for those who face extreme marginalization, vulnerability, and threat. It's about making sure that Micah, and everyone else who has posted a #iftheygunnedmedown photoset, can feel safe, and it's about lifting up the power, support, and love of community action and resistance against state-sanctioned violence. It's high time I did something, and in fact, I still fear my actions are not enough. But I have to start somewhere, and I hope that I can propel the conversation and action further, even if it gets one more of my White peers to wake up and realize there is a persistent problem regarding racism and genderism in our country, and that these acts of violence can no longer be overlooked as singular, isolated events.
Black lives matter. Trans* lives matter. And these events have been, are, and will continue to happen unless we collectively wake up and resist it. So I add my voice to the collective resistance.
Thanks for the people in my life who have continued to talk with me about these recent events and who have (and continue) to work alongside me in not only checking my own White privilege, but also helping me refine a research agenda that will address these intersecting forms of oppression. Specifically, I would like to thank T.J., Susan, Dan, Tobias, Michael, A.J., and my mother, Nancy. And for my friend Micah, who I care for immensely and am honored and humbled to be witness to your vulnerability and determination to make our world a safer place.
I am assuming most people who may happen across this blog know who CeCe McDonald is. If not, the short story is she is a trans* woman of color who was imprisoned (in a men's prison facility) for 19 months for defending herself against transphobic violence. The night she was arrested, she and other friends she was with faced racial profiling from a police officer who stopped them without provocation.
Since her release from prison, she has continued to be a vocal activist for prison abolition and trans* rights. Along this front, she has partaken in some brilliant dialogues with Dean Spade, the critical legal scholar and founder of the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, and Reina Gossett, Membership Director for the Sylvia Rivera Law Project and Activist-in-Residence at Barnard College's Center for Research on Women (how cool must that gig be?!), which specifically address themes of prison abolition, community development, and community love.
As I have written about in previous posts, I have been spending some time this summer listening to all the interviews I had with the lovely trans* students with whom I am engaged in my dissertation study. During these conversations, one of the things we kept coming back to was the notion of community; how to develop it, what it meant for us, and how community allowed us to navigate our multiple environments. Furthermore, we talked about the importance of developing and maintaining community (and the difficulties associated with doing so) in light of our living largely in environments that are not welcoming to us as trans* people. And, because colleges and universities are microcosms of the larger social environments in which they are embedded, these difficulties do not stop at the edges of campus. Instead, they are present for the many trans* people who bump into transphobia on a regular basis; as CeCe did. Or as Jordan Henderson is when thinking about how she will vote in Kansas given the new voter ID laws, which will likely lead to many people, including trans* people, being turned away at the polls for not having names, gender markers, and/or appearances on their identification documents that don't match their current lives and realities.
In light of these complexities, I found this short clip of CeCe McDonald talking with Dean Spade and Reina Gossett so incredibly compelling. In it, CeCe makes several important points. First, she highlights the absolute imperative to come together as a community of trans* and queer people. She rightly points out that police, prisons, and other regulatory institutions are not out to 'protect and serve' trans* populations. Because of this, she states we need to come together, stating emphatically, "We keep each other safe." She also makes a compelling case for setting aside the respectability politics and trans*-normativity that keeps us from coming together as a collective in the first place. She argues that we shouldn't ostracize our fellow trans* comrades because "they don't have this surgery or that surgery," but instead, we should all come together to create a coalition based on safety, care, and love. In her words, "We as a community ... need to put our pride to the side" and come together to look out for one another.
If you don't know of CeCe or haven't heard her speak, you should take the time to do so. She is a brilliant activist who has so much love for her trans* family, and her words are a real beacon of light at a political moment when identities have the ability to be just as divisive to some as they are meaningful to others. As she stated toward the end of the above video, "Prisons don't help; cops don't help. None of this is actually helping our communities. ...We keep each other safe."
This past week ended in a bit of a blur for me. It started out harmlessly enough, with days full of course prep and teaching in the evenings. I even got to have lunch with my Aunt Mary, which was wonderful. However, things came to a head on Thursday.
For those who are not in the field of student affairs, one of our leading professional associations (ACPA – College Student Educators International) announced that Laverne Cox would be the closing speaker for this year’s Annual Convention. However, what was exciting news was largely overshadowed by the use of an overtly racist slogan in the announcement. The next day (Thursday), the Association posted an apology for the underlying racism in the announcement. In one sense, this was revolutionary for ACPA, which, as an Association, has made a number of gaffs throughout my 10 years of membership, but has not always apologized (or done so far too late and after a lot of hemming and hawing). Unfortunately, the apology was further problematic in a number of significant ways. First, it traded in deficit-based rhetoric, highlighting the importance of Cox being the closing speaker as a way to highlight the fact that “millions of trans-identified individuals experience bias, hatred, violence and the threat of death every day” (We’re Sorry. We Made a Mistake, 2014). They went further, saying they “hope[d their] mistake didn’t overshadow this [reality of ongoing fear and violence]” (We’re Sorry. We Made a Mistake, 2014). There was no mention of the fact that being trans* is not always already synonymous with tragedy. Additionally, ACPA marketed Laverne’s speaking by way of her being in the Netflix series, “Orange is the New Black,” which led me to wonder if the Association was trading on her celebrity as a way to get people to register. Essentially, I wondered what the effect of highlighting Cox’s being a part of a hit show shadowed her radical gender activism, and, by extension, allowed ACPA to back away from the reality of genderism within higher education and the Association itself. ACPA also missed a chance to interrogate the propagation of the Prison Industrial Complex (and the school to prison pipeline that pervades in US education) by trading on Cox’s stardom in “Orange is the New Black.” Needless to say, there was a lot amiss with the apology, regardless of how great it was to see an apology happen (and for it to come so quickly).
The more I thought about it, the more I realized that Cox’s coming to ACPA may not really signal the sea change I (and likely others) were hoping it would bring. Historically, I and other trans* individuals and advocates have had to push very hard to get minimal accommodations (like all gender restrooms). Even when we have gotten these in the past, the LGBT affinity group has had to pay for marketing materials, and the only support we have gotten from ACPA has been largely due to one or two compassionate LGBTQ advocates. Problems abound, and history has taught me to feel ambivalent at best about ACPA’s commitment to their mission of social justice. I don’t think I am the only one, either.
After posting a message on my Facebook wall about the complicated emotions I was experiencing regarding this all, I was contacted by a flurry of people. One individual is a dear friend of mine who asked if she could pass my messages along to members of the ACPA leadership team. I let her know I was fine with that, and although I was uncomfortable speaking on behalf of all trans* people, I was glad for others to see my message as my thoughts as a trans* person and as someone who used to serve on the ACPA leadership team. About twenty minutes later, I received a Facebook message from the person who had been sent my status updates. The message was, well, not good. It was defensive, minimized my feelings and experiences, and gave a lot of ‘perfectly logical explanations’ for how things were being taken care of for the upcoming Annual Convention. So, basically, it was a bit of cisplaining, wrapped up in some language about wanting to ‘work together to create change.’ To be clear, there was no togetherness in this message.*
Oh, and did I mention this all happened about two hours before I had to facilitate a dialogue on race and sex for the Diversity and Social Justice class I am teaching at Merrimack this summer? Because it did…so there was that, too.
I ended my day exhausted. Class went well, which was life giving, but it gave just enough energy to allow me to drive home. I ended my night by sending a message back to the person who had sent the defensive note to me. I tried very hard not to call this person out, but to call them in…which was way harder than I had wanted it to be. I detailed how the original message did not acknowledge anything I had said, operated at an individual level of oppression without addressing the historic institutional and systemic genderism throughout ACPA, and minimized my perspective. What I received back was a message full of apologies and the recognition that, yes, the original message was very defensive. We left it at trying to contact each other over the next few days to talk via phone.
Now that I have had a few more days to think about all of this (much of it done alongside some amazing colleagues who has reached out to me and done an amazing job listening and allowing for dissent to exist without needing to come to a resolution), I keep going back to something the students and I discussed in our Diversity and Social Justice class. We were unpacking an article by Audrey Thompson (2003) called, “Tiffany, Friend to People of Color.” For those who have not read this yet: do it. Seriously. The article is amazing, life changing, and an amazing challenge to the notion of being a ‘good White person.’ In the article, Thompson wrote about a situation that I feel deserves to be quoted at length. Specifically, Thompson wrote:
Guilt is indeed paralyzing. But I do not think it follows that the solution to white guilt is to help whites feel “good.” Let me tell you a story that I hope will show you what I mean. A year or so ago, I spent a couple of weeks taking care of the children of my friends Howard and Janet, who live in another state. A few hours after Janet and Howard left, I realized that they had forgotten to leave me any keys to the house or the car. I knew that the next-door neighbor had a spare key to the house, but no one had a spare key to the car, so I phoned my friends’ hotel to leave a message asking them to Fed Ex me the car key. After they got the message, I received daily, anguished phone calls about how dumb it had been to forget to leave the key, how guilty they felt, and how lucky it was that I am a bus person and could make do without a car. During one phone call, Howard urged me, “Be sure when you talk to Janet that you make her feel better; tell her it doesn’t matter. She feels so guilty, and it’s just ruining our vacation.” “There’s no need to feel guilty, Howard,” I said. “Everything’s fine. These things happen. Stop feeling guilty. Just send me the key.”
In reply, Howard suggested various ways to get around the car problem – maybe call the dealers to see if they had a copy of the key, maybe ask neighbors for rides to the grocery store and the dentist, maybe ride bikes or take the bus. “Why don’t you just overnight me the key?” I asked. He hemmed and hawed and finally said, “We’re not sending the key. It just doesn’t seem practical. By the time we find somewhere to mail it and everything, we’d almost be home again. And we just don’t want to think about it any more. It’s ruining our vacation.” In later phone calls, therefore, I concentrated on making my friends feel better and assuring them that we were having fun, that the kids were enjoying the adventure of taking buses and bikes everywhere, that it was no big deal and not to worry about it. Once I knew that there was no question of doing anything about the key, I focused on making our conversations as comfortable as possible. But I did wonder why alleviating their guilt was the issue. Recently it occurred to me that there was an analogy here to white guilt about racism. It is not a perfect analogy, by any means – putting up with racism for a lifetime is not exactly like having to take the bus for a couple of weeks – but there’s one point I think the two situations may have in common. People of color are not really interested in daily phone calls about how bad we feel. They just want us to send the key (pp. 15-16).
Admittedly, this is a bit of a clunky analogy for me to make, because genderism is not (nor should it be seen as) the same as racism. They have different historical legacies, political realities, and impact people differently across a variety of social contexts. However, like Thompson’s analogy, I have come to the point where I just want ACPA to send the key. I don’t need apologies, or messages about the fact that people are working on it or there is progress being made. That is all fine and well and good, but…send the key. Don’t tell me you’re sorry…just don’t mess up in the first place.
I know I run the risk of being seen as a fuss-fuss, or as an angry trans* person, or as someone for whom it is never good enough. But I have to say, for an organization that has had an affinity group for LGBT individuals for 30 years now, I expect a bit more. I expect not to have to push so hard for all gender restrooms, or the recognition of various pronouns and honorifics on name badges, or the recognition that the sharp increase in registration cost over the past three years (the cost has remained steady from last year to this year, thankfully) does not create a situation whereby young professionals (that make up over half the Association’s membership) can readily access the Annual Convention. I also shouldn’t have to remind people in leadership of the inexcusable reality that several years ago, the Governing Board structure was changed to remove marginalized voices from the Governing Board itself! And remember, all of this happens in spite of the Association heralding its commitment to social justice. So I guess I am okay with that risk…and I am okay with calling it all out.
Don’t get me wrong; I have loved ACPA for 10 years. I have gone to the Annual Convention and been so pleased to have created microclimates of support. I have been involved in some truly radical educational sessions and have created an amazing group of colleagues who are badass radicals and activists. These people, spaces, and sessions have been life-giving beyond belief, and I feel so honored to be accepted as a part of these initiatives, groups, and spaces.
But at the institutional and systemic levels, I just need ACPA to send the key.
*I included this piece of the story as it is very important to the unfolding events and my overall thinking. However, I did not, nor will I, reveal the individual who sent me the original message. This is not important, as I am focused more on the broader systems at work rather than the "who" of the message's origins. As I was recently reminded by a colleague (who was quoting another individual), "Oppression is the enemy, people, not each other."
ACPA -- College Student Educators International. (2014). We're sorry. We made a mistake. Retrieved from http://www.acpa.nche.edu/article/were-sorry-we-made-mistake.
Thompson, A. (2003). Tiffany, friend to people of color. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 16(1), 7-29.
The past week there have been a number of changes for me. One of the biggest is that I packed up and moved to the Northeast, where I will be teaching two graduate courses for the next six weeks. Although I have been looking forward to this summer for some time, the notion of ‘coming home’ has always been one that is a bit difficult for me. I have written elsewhere about what exactly ‘home’ may mean, but suffice to say, I feel a number of dis/connections about the geographic area in which I was raised. Part of this has to do with the vibrant communities of queer people I have become a part of over the past three years while in Ohio.
It’s hard to put into words how much my queer family has meant to me, especially the trans* people I have had the absolute delight to be amongst. When I first came out, I was living and working in rabidly gender-dichotomous spaces, and the only real trans* community I developed was through literature. I felt cut off from people, save for one dear friend who was by my side, and I was eager to move to Ohio, where I thought there was a chance for me to meet and be with other trans* people.
The past three years since my move to Ohio has been exactly what I needed. Although not perfect (wanting/needing any place to be perfect is a bit unreasonable, really), I have found, developed, and maintained a number of terrific relationships with queer and trans* people. The past year especially has brought into sharp focus just how very important these queer communities and spaces are for me. From the ending of a meaningful relationship to the passing of my grandmother, with whom I was very close and was my last living grandparent, it has been my queer and trans* communities who have been there for me, no questions asked. Living out the advice of one of my mentors, I definitely feel like I have ‘found my people’ in Ohio.
This weekend was yet another striking reminder of how very important ‘my people’ are to me. I traveled to New York City for a family wedding, which was scheduled (unintentionally) for the same day as the NYC Pride March. As I got ready that afternoon, sat in the limo with the wedding party on the way to the ceremony, and took part in the festivities, I felt so torn. I wanted to be there with my family, the people who I grew up with and who I love with all my heart. But I missed my family, the queer communities and people who allow me to ‘do me’ in ways I can’t with my most of the people at the wedding and are committed to creating a more just and equitable world for highly marginalized populations. I kept thinking of the trans* women of color throughout the decades who have been so important to the opening up of spaces. I kept recalling the faces of the trans* participants with whom I have worked the past two years, remembering our stories and moments together. I kept thinking about the powerful reminders of trans* resistance to genderism, both within and outside of LGBTIQ communities. I tried to keep it all with me as I floated through the night, but there were so many reminders that I was very likely The Only One at the wedding. I was very likely the only trans* person and queer person. I was also one of the very few single people, which meant there was pressure from others to ‘seek out’ someone to dance with, chat up, and whatever else folks expected me to do.
I felt then (and still do as I write this) so confused and conflicted. I was so happy to be there for my family and to see so many people so very happy. I was glad to add to the joy I saw, and be there in a way I often am not able to due to my living far away. However, I also felt very much like where I was, the people who I was with, was not my ‘home.’ My home was with my radical queer and trans* family, who were resisting oppression in Manhattan. My home is with ‘my people’ in Ohio, who are mourning the loss of one of our trans* sisters of color right now. My heart was (and still is) heavy with these conflicting feelings, and I sat in the limo heading to the hotel at the end of the night feeling like an imposter, like a nomadic trans* kid who had lost hir way. I wanted something I knew I didn’t have at the ready; I wanted my family, my community, my home. I wanted my people.
In one sense, the weekend was tough as hell. It was hard to miss and (hopefully) be missed. It was hard to feel cut off, lost, and adrift at a specific moment in time when I felt so badly like I wanted (and needed) to be elsewhere.
In another sense, though, I realized how very powerful ‘my people’ have become for me. Thinking of their faces, remembering those who came before me and with whom I am working alongside of now, and remembering our stories together got me through an otherwise very discombobulating experience for me. Going back to my community, although only in an imagined and disembodied way, was my strategy for getting through and processing a tough time for me. This strategy resonated with what I have been talking about with the participants I have been working alongside of, too, as many of us have realized that a way of successfully navigating our gender-dichotomous worlds depends heavily on the development and maintenance of a variety of coalitions. My use of the word coalition here is intentional, in that these groups have been consciously constructed as a way to mediate the overwhelming presence of the gender binary. These groups, although not always political in nature themselves, aid in the ability to deal with social expectations around gender, which is itself an inherently political (and oppressive) set of norms.
And so I go on. I may not have all my people here with me, but I have a few. And those who are not with me in body are there in memory, through social media, and by emails, phone calls, and texts. To them I say thank you for being my people, and allowing me to be one of your people. I miss you all like you wouldn’t believe. And even though I felt like The Only One this past weekend, I know that at the end of the day, I wasn’t. Because you were all there, too. And you will be in the future. Just like I will be there for you.
And so we go on. Together.
By now, I am assuming most folks who read this blog know that Laverne Cox has been gracing covers of TIME Magazine on newsstands far and wide for the past week or so. In doing so, Laverne has become the first openly trans* person to be featured on the cover of TIME. This is no small accomplishment, and has been celebrated far and wide by trans* scholars, activists, allies, and supporters. This is as it should be, in my estimation. That Cox is (a) a trans* woman of color, (b) has continued to be a spokeswoman for trans* rights and advocacy since becoming a public figure, and (c) has an impeccable ability to counter commentary steeped in transphobia and/or genderism while not alienating those (cisgender) people who ask ridiculous questions/make ridiculous statements (be it consciously or unconsciously) (Katie Couric, anyone?) make her cover shoot all the better. Laverne is, I believe, an amazing face for the continuing trans* movement, and I know I was not the only person (trans* or cis) who made multiple trips to multiple stores to buy multiple copies of this historic magazine issue.
Regardless of the positivity of the Laverne TIMEy goodness, there were some who (again, rightly so) critiqued the cover story, which was written by Katy Steinmetz. For folks who may want a summary of what Steinmetz mucked up, Mey over at Autostraddle did a great job of this. Essentially, Steinmetz misgendered Christine Jorgensen, used Janet Mock's birth name, talk about trans* people as being 'biological males' and 'biological females' as though that isn't reducing one's gender to one's genitalia (just so we are clear, it is reductionist, and it is incredibly problematic), and give space to articulating the "anti-science, anti-logic, anti-human-decency opinion of people who 'don’t believe in' the concept of gender identity" (Mey, 2014). The article also suggests that the trans* movement just kicked off, which conveys an incredibly limited understanding of all the badass trans* people who pushed for radical change for decades, most of whom were trans* women of color.
These are problems, no doubt. They are infuriating, and I, too, wish for a world in which trans* people and our allies do not need to continually point out/react/respond to these sorts of microaggressions because people just 'get it.' I mean, wouldn't that be just the best world ever? However, as crumby as these problems continue to be, I do think it is important to think about what it means to write about topics in a complex way when the audience for whom you are writing may not be ready to hear/cannot fully understand the complexity of one's writing. Far from being a TIME apologist, I think the TIME cover story (and the ensuing critiques) allow those of us who are trans* and/or those of us who are working on trans*-related scholarship to think about how to share our lives, experiences, research, and findings with wider publics, many of whom likely will not have any understanding that, for example, gender is not innate. If this is our starting point (as it likely was for many subscribers to TIME who picked up the June 9 issue and where like, "Whaa-??"), then how are we to talk about, for example, trans* people who do not identify with any gender? Or, for people who think trans* = drag queen = gay, how do we begin to talk about the Butlerian concepts of the heterosexual matrix and the logic of cultural intelligibility. Things get real complex real fast, so instead of seeing this as an either/or argument (either we go all the way complex and condemn pieces like the TIME article for 'not getting it right' or we just sit on our hands and be happy with what we get), which is a no-win situation for everyone, I suggest a both/and perspective. In other words, I think there are ways we can and should seek to write for multiple audiences, which will require varying levels of complexity. Furthermore, suggesting that we write in more accessible ways (read: less complex) does not mean we 'dumb down' our lives, experiences, or research. Instead, it means we scaffold our claims, arguments, and findings, making sure to explain what, for many, is very new terrain. Oh, and we should also make sure to do this in a way that doesn't trigger the crap out of people or further repressive ideologies (read: we should not forgive the mistakes Steinmetz made in the TIME piece).
Writing for different audiences, and audiences with varying levels of understanding regarding trans* identities, subjectivities, and experiences has been (and continues to be) a struggle for me. I have had an ongoing conversation with my advisor about the frustration I experience regarding the need to define every single one of the terms I use (like, every. Single. Term). At my worst, I want to say (and have said a few times), "Can't people just Google it?," and at my best, I remain a bit incredulous as I shake my head while footnoting the heck out of my manuscripts. I am also working with a colleague on a manuscript where we argue the necessity for people studying alongside marginalized populations needing to constantly define terms (while our friends who study alongside normative/privileged populations don't because, well, privilege) constitutes a microaggression. I know these concerns are not new for people who have and/or work alongside those with marginalized social identities. I feel like we could (and often do) tell you'd-never-believe-what-I-had-to-deal-with sorts of stories that revolve around these microaggressions. But still, the struggle is real, and it is not easy to navigate (for any of us).
But the reality is that, in some contexts, writing in an accessible way is not 'giving up' on complexity; it's just making sure your readers will stay with you while you ramp up the complexity throughout whatever you are writing. Also, it means that although the constant need to define is indeed a microaggression that needs to be addressed (I know, I know, I'm working on it), it is something all scholars should do rather than none of us doing. And, when it gets too exhausting, it's important to find and utilize venues that attract audiences for whom you do not need to do this sort of constant definition. Thus, we can embrace a both/and approach to sharing our stories, experiences, and research findings. We can both share them with audiences who may not be ready to fully embrace their complexity by scaffolding how we do the telling and find venues where we can jump right into the complexity because people already 'get it.' Similarly, we can both write in less complex, more accessible ways and do so in a way that doesn't further the harmful narratives, myths, and misperceptions about who we are as trans* people. And when I use the word 'we' here, I mean both trans* scholars as well as our cisgender peers who work alongside trans* people; trans* people should not have to feel the burden of teaching others about us (just like other marginalized populations shouldn't have to be the sole bearers of the responsibility to teach dominant groups about themselves). Finally, I believe we can (and should) realize that we can both continue to scaffold our arguments and writing and uncover, interrogate, and problematize the sheer ridiculousness of our needing to scaffold in the first place. The critique does not mean that scaffolding serves no purpose, and vice versa.
This issue of audience and complexity has an additional impact on my own research alongside trans* college students. Specifically, I have been talking with some colleagues about the difficulty of doing resilience-based research because it may promote the sense that trans* people have arrived. In other words, if we as trans* people are resilient, then we must not struggle at all. More to the point, when we realize our embeddedness in a cultural moment that foregrounds an either/or perspective (either one is resilient or one is not), it is hard to talk about our lives, experiences, and narratives as being full of both resilience and struggle/hurt/shame/pain/frustration/enter-counter-resilience-term-here.
I am not convinced I have been able to negotiate this fully, nor have others. In fact, this is another one of my own critiques of the TIME cover story, in that it vacillates between the trans*-as-victimized and trans*-as-incredibly-successful narratives (fairly wildly at points) without any sort of nuanced understanding that these could both be realities for the same person, possibly even at the same time! It's a dang tricky negotiation to undertake, but it is a necessary one if we want to provide an accurate reflection of who we are in all our beauty, tragedy, and overall muddiness. And not knowing how to do this doesn't mean we give up the ghost; it just means that we are humble in our attempts, become comfortable with producing shitty first drafts, and, again paraphrasing the words of Anne Lamott, take it on, bird by bird.
The following blogpost was written for my friend Neena "Domino" Thurman over at The M.I.C. Neena has graciously given me permission to also post this on my own blog, as it relates to my work around trans* identities and resillience. Thanks, Neena!
After a hectic spring, I have spent the last few weeks doing some self-care. For me, that means riding my bike as often as I can and reading some books that have sat on my nightstand for a long time. The first two books, which I have been meaning to read for years (no joke) are Brené Brown's The Gifts of Imperfection: Letting Go of Who You Think You're Supposed to be and Embracing Who You Are and Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead.
Now, perhaps it is odd that my definition of leisurely reading are books that deal intimately with difficult issues that have plagued me for what seems like an awful long time (e.g., perfectionism, vulnerability, and what Brown refers to as not feeling ____________ enough, where the blank space can be filled in with any number of adjectives). For those of you thinking this very thing, I would say two things: first, I am also (slowly) making my way through George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series, and second, I often need to be intentional about setting aside time to invest in this sort of self-care. If I do not, it is likely to be the first thing that falls off my To Do List, despite my knowing it is important. I am also preparing for a job search in the coming year, which, as a trans* person, has been something that is already surfacing some deeply held insecurities. Thus, I figure now is as good a time as any to begin doing some of this self-exploration.
For fear that this post could easily turn into a book report, I will just say that Brown's work revolves around issues of shame and vulnerability. Brown argues that when we are vulnerable, and embrace ourselves as imperfect people, we are able to build our own resilience to shame. Her work, then, is about moving people from saying things like, "I am not ___________ enough," to, "I am ___________ and I am comfortable with that." And, if ever we become uncomfortable with being ___________, as often is the case, we are able to address these feelings in ways that allow us to live with courage, purpose, and connection. As Brown wrote in Daring Greatly, "What we know matters, but who we are matters more" (p. 16, italics in original).
Now I know the critique of Brown's work and, in fact, I agree with some of it. Yes, Brown's work is rooted in the seeming immutability of a gender binary (e.g., Brown often uses 'men and women' and 'he/she' language) that forecloses the possibilities of gender variance. Her work also leans on heterosexual narratives, which is problematic. These issues are real, and I am sure Brown, who is a talented and thorough researcher, has (or would) respond to them with the importance they deserve. However, the one thing I have often heard from people, especially those friends and colleagues of mine who share my critical worldview, goes something like this:
Well, Brown's work is fine, I guess, but come on; not everyone can be vulnerable all the time. And really, what does authenticity even mean? I think Brown is forgetting that there are some real issues of safety that make a lot of what she writes about inaccessible to marginalized communities.
This critique has been on my mind the past few weeks as I have been reading (and really jamming on) her work. Certainly, I have several privileged identities; I am White, temporarily-able bodied, and have a level of economic security that affords me some comfort. However, I also am trans*, and am not out to everyone in my life specifically due to issues of safety. Put in other words, I hear, get, and live the critique to Brown's work. That being said, I still don't agree with it, as I think it misses the point of what Brown is trying to say.
I do not read Brown as saying, "Being authentically you means being the same person in all settings at all times." Nor do I read her as saying that being vulnerable means sharing your life story with everyone you know, meet, or with whom you interact. In fact, she says something much to the contrary; she suggests we all need to find those people with whom we can be vulnerable and will be vulnerable back with us. Brown states that our stories are precious, and we should be careful and planful in determining with whom we choose to share them. So I think she gets that there are spaces and people with whom we cannot--nor should we feel compelled--to be vulnerable. Also, related to this, I read Brown as saying that being authentic means doing what is best for us in terms of taking risks and making meaningful connections with other people. What Brown sees as damaging is isolating ourselves and falling into our own feelings of shame and worthlessness, not that we do not reach out to every single person around us. Therefore, if we do not share pieces of ourselves, our histories, and/or our identities, it does not mean we are being inauthentic or are trying to eschew vulnerability. Instead, it means that we may be making good choices about with whom, and where, we can take the risks that encourage connection and build our own resilience to shame so that we can state affirmatively, I am enough.
Thus, the critique I laid out above seems like a bit of a red herring to me, as it is not wholly based on the point Brown is making. In fact, I think she would likely agree with the comment, and then quickly say something like, "but that's not really what I am suggesting in my work.
Another word that I have often struggled with is 'bravery.' This word came into sharp focus for me this weekend when I was with a participant with whom I have been researching for the past two years. We were walking together when we heard Sara Bareilles' song "Brave." I have to admit that this song holds a special place in my life. Although I have struggled with the imperative in the song to 'be brave,' (as if that is an equally accessible, safe, or wise thing to do for everyone), a dear friend introduced me to the video about a year ago and whenever I watch it, without fail, it brings me close to tears. There is something so lovely about seeing people 'do them,' and I am always slightly envious of their abilities to be comfortable enough to just dance. So there I am, wondering again what it means to 'be brave,' and if it is safe/accessible/ever okay to not be brave, with a participant walking alongside me singing and dancing to the lyrics. The more I thought about it, I started to realize that Bareilles isn't suggesting bravery looks the same to people across all contexts and in all moments. Instead, one way to think about the song is to queer the notion of bravery as a unified concept and see that being brave means different things across times and spaces.
Similar to my thoughts on 'bravery' as a concept, I think 'authenticity' and 'vulnerability' do not have stable or static meanings. I have spoken with several friends about my own discomfort with authenticity as a singular construct, as it seems to suggest we are--and should be--the same person in all settings and at all times...and if we aren't, then we are inauthentic, which, as it sounds, comes with a normative value judgment (i.e., authenticity = good; inauthenticity = bad, immoral, fake, false, deceptive). The labeling of 'inauthenticity' as 'bad' or 'deceptive' in this sense hits very close to home, as the trans*-as-deceptive narrative is still a widely-held common conception, especially for trans* women (for more on this, please see Julia Serano's 2007 book Whipping Girl, published by Seal Press). But I don't read Brown or Bareilles as saying this. Instead, I see them as telling folks they need to make good choices about where and with whom we are vulnerable, brave, and authentic (in the myriad forms and iterations these may take across spaces and times). If we do this, then we are reaching out, making connection, and working to reclaim our narratives rather than being subjected to the negative messages that tell us we are never _____________ enough.
And maybe, just maybe, if we do this, we can reclaim vulnerability, authenticity, and bravery, which are terms that speak to many people across a wide array of identities. I am also thinking there may be something here that relates to how one can understand resiliency as not a solid, stable, or unified concept...but I'll save that for a future post...
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.
I have a confession to make: there was a period of time this past year when I questioned my long-held belief that I was a feminist. It wasn't because I came up with a rationale for the pay wage gap or wanted to revert back to a 1950's domesticity; both of these things were far from the truth. It was because I began to question what feminism as both a sphere of activism and as represented in an academic discipline (a la Women's Studies) could do for trans* people and burgeoning field of Trans* Studies. Many of my concerns regarding the possibility of no longer being able to call myself a feminist revolved around the critical legal scholar Janet Halley's (2006) treatment of what lies at the root of feminism, which I found (and still find) to be highly compelling. In her book Split Decisions: How and Why to Take a Break from Feminism, Halley laid out three points she suggested all feminisms have in common. She described these as:
(1) m / f, or that "to be feminism, first a position must make a distinction between m and f" (p. 17), which she noted could look differently in different feminisms (e.g., male/female, masculine/feminine, man/woman);
(2) m > f, or that "to be a feminism in the United States today, a position must posit some kind of subordination as between m and f, in which f is the disadvantaged and subordinated element" (p. 18); and
(3) feminism carries a brief for f, or as she wrote, "And third (here is the normative turn), feminism opposes the subordination of f" (p. 18).
I think these are fair claims to make about feminisms, and because of this, I became concerned that thinking, theorizing, living beyond, and/or transgressing in any way a binary understanding of m/f, which is very much the realm of trans* people and Trans* Studies as a discipline, meant I may need to, in the words of Halley, Take a Break from Feminism.
After reading Halley's book, and after several ongoing conversations with dear friends who do or have worked in Women's Centers/Women's Studies on college campuses for a bulk of their careers, I was still hesitant. Is feminism for me? For us? Do I need to consider taking a permanent vacation from an epistemology that has given me so much in terms of how to read, see, make sense of, and resist systems of oppression? Was there a middle ground? Or was holding hope for a middle ground just wishful thinking?
Due to my unrest, I purchased an edited volume titled Women's Studies on the Edge. My hope was to gain a critical understanding of Women's Studies as a field of study that could work in collaboration with trans* people, subjectivities, theories, and perspectives. Although I had read several of the chapters previously (most notably Wendy Brown's The Impossibility of Women's Studies, which I highly recommend to anyone interested in challenging the normative assumptions are what it means to create disciplines around "area" studies), my main objective in purchasing the text was for Gayle Salamon's chapter titled Transfeminism and the Future of Gender. It was in this chapter that I was hoping to find some way to reconcile what I had previously held as being at odds with one another (i.e., feminisms and trans* realities). Thankfully, Salamon's work did not disappoint.
In this chapter, Salamon addressed the issue head-on, suggesting in the second sentence, "In asking after the place--or lack of place--of transgender studies within the rubric of women's studies, I want to suggest that feminism, particularly but not exclusively in its institutionalized form, has not been able to keep pace with nonnormative [sic] genders as they are thought, embodied, and lived" (p. 115). She goes on to state emphatically, "Genders beyond the binary of male and female are neither fictive or futural but are embodied and lived" (p. 115). This statement alone is a powerful one to make in the context of feminisms and Women's Studies, as there are some who claim that being trans* is a fiction that is damaging to feminism and womanhood itself. Although this is not a pervasive view held by most feminists, it certainly has a grip on the field, so reading these words from Salamon was terrific. (For more information on the supposed 'harmful effects' of trans* identities on feminisms and 'womanhood,' I would recommend you look into the Butch FTM Borderwars as well as Trans Exclusive Radical Feminism).
Salamon goes on to claim that the major contribution of feminism to Trans* Studies is its ability to account for an historical understanding of the discourses of gender, including how the present state of gender emerged socially. Similarly, feminisms and Women's Studies needs trans* people and Trans* Studies to provide a deeper understanding of just who it is that is affected by gender discourses. This means thinking beyond binary understandings of m/f, or what Halley stated was a hallmark of historical underpinnings of feminisms.
The remainder of Salamon's chapter was a critical analysis of several depictions of trans* people via a dismissive New York Times article and a series of photographs. What is important about these sites of analysis, and what shines through, is Salamon's questioning the link between certain bodies, specifically those bodies with breasts, with certain identifications, specifically 'woman.' By doing so, Salamon raised important concerns about how femininity is read on the body in ways it very much shouldn't be. This is a similar analysis to the one written by C.J. Pascoe (2007) in Dude You're a Fag: Masculinity and Sexuality in High School, where Pascoe suggested that masculinity and bodies should not be seen as tethered together. It is also similar to Halberstam's (1998) analysis in Female Masculinity, which Salamon cited.
All things tolled, I was relieved to find some connections between feminisms and trans* subjectivities. It is true that they two are not the same, nor do I hold the opinion that there is heavy overlap between the two all the time. However, I do love Salamon's language of their both being able to offer the other something important. These offerings, and wrestling with the tensions and confluences between and among the fields of study/lived realities has helped me gain a new perspective on how coalition-building may be able to take place not just on the individual level, but on the disciplinary level as well.
And, at the end of the day, I am happy to be able to call myself a trans*feminist.
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.