It's been (more than) awhile since my last post, for which I have no real good excuse. However, this past weekend provided an opportunity for me to head to the National Symposium on LGBTQ Research in Higher Education. The Symposium, which was an outgrowth of the National Study of LGBTQ Student Success (a mixed-methods study of which I am a part) and was a terrific opportunity to spend some time thinking about the doing of LGBTQ research in higher education. In other words, educators gathered this weekend to think collectively about how it is we go forward in collecting data and doing research alongside of LGBTQ populations, particularly in ways that highlight LGBTQ individuals' resilience, human dignity, and human worth.
Not only was I humbled to be presenting a paper alongside of T.J. Jourian (a colleague and friend who I have immense admiration for) about the liberatory potential of participatory and collaborative methodologies when used with LGBTQ populations, but I was also a part of the opening panel. I was joined by Dr. Mitsunori Misawa, Dr. Dafina-Lazarus Stewart, and Dr. Michael Woodford (who is also the Co-PI for the National Study for LGBTQ Student Success). Although folks were able to listen in to my talk via a live streaming audio setup, I wanted to share my opening remarks on this blog. Although the talk was about the doing of research, it is my contention that how educational researchers choose to do research influences what data is collected as well as how it is analyzed and, as a result, put into practice. Thus, the methodological questions I raise have direct connections to the policies and practices of college educators working alongside trans* students.
My talk was titled Complicated Bodies of Knowledge: The Varied Effects of Trans* Research in Higher Education, and the full text was as follows...
First off, I would like to thank the Symposium organizers for extending me the opportunity to be a part of such an esteemed panel. The people alongside whom I sit are people whose work has given me life and pushed me to think in more complex and nuanced ways. Moreover, there are people in this audience who I similarly admire and I look up to as activist educators. I am humbled by my place on this panel, and want to thank those who made this chance possible for me.
Secondly, I feel compelled to take a moment to honor those who are not here today, but have made my sitting here, on the verge of attaining a Ph.D., possible in the first place. Specifically, I would like to honor the trans* activists, educators, artists, and critical scholars who came before me, many of whom are trans* women of color. People like Sylvia Rivera, Marsha "Pay It No Mind" Johnson, Miss Major, Dean Spade, Kate Bornstein, Susan Stryker, and yes, even Big Freedia have all paved the way for me to be here. Thanks be to those folks, and to the many beautiful trans* people in this room and beyond who have continued to resist the boundaries of what it means to do gender. You all have given me life and opened up the space for me to be here and do what I do. Thank you.
In her essay titled “The Impossibility of Women’s Studies,” Wendy Brown (1997) asked readers to consider was what is the disciplining effect of a discipline. Specifically, she was concerned with what it meant for Women’s Studies as a discipline to be created and maintained. She asked critical questions about who was left out, consumed, resisted, or colonized in the name of “Women’s Studies,” as well as what possibilities may be delimited in the rush to construct and maintain the discipline of Women’s Studies, a discipline that was initially created to counteract systemic sexism.
Now more than ever, Trans* Studies is nearing a similar crossroads to the one Wendy Brown foretold for Women’s Studies some 17 years ago. In the first edition of the Transgender Studies Reader, Stephen Whittle (2006) proclaimed, “Trans identities were one of the most written about subjects of the late twentieth century” (p. xi). Similarly, it could be argued that trans* people have enjoyed increased social visibility, a fact that was cemented with Laverne Cox becoming the first openly trans* person to grace the cover of TIME magazine. Trans* Studies has also begun to take shape as an academic discipline, with the creation of the scholarly publication TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly and the Trans* Studies Initiative at The University of Arizona, a first of its kind cluster hire of faculty to develop a new field of study. Additionally, and perhaps of particular salience for our purposes here, there is an increase in scholarship regarding trans* students in the field of higher education. Susan Marine, Chase Catalano, T.J. Jourian, Symone Simmons, Kara Devaney, Erich Pitcher, and Alandis Johnson are among the scholars who are developing a robust field of study focused on trans* students and issues. Even Dean Spade, the renowned legal scholar and founder of the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, has entered into higher education scholarship. Although we have a far way to go, trans* scholarship in the field of higher education has certainly arrived on the scene, and in fabulous fashion.
But while this realization is exciting, I also greet it with some trepidation. Thinking back to Wendy Brown’s comments about the disciplining of Women’s Studies as a discipline, I have begun to wonder what the possibilities and limitations of this increased visibility of trans* studies in higher education may be. Specifically, some of the questions I have been wondering are:
So you see, although there is much to be excited about, and many people about whose work I, for one, am eagerly anticipating, I also see several methodological quandaries that are already staring us square in our pretty faces. To highlight how these play out in research, I want to share a story or two from my own research alongside trans* college students. I also want to note that for those of you interested in troubling notions of "collaborative" or "participatory" research, including addressing whether such research can ever be fully realized, I would encourage you to check out the panel on which my dear colleague T.J. Jourian and I are presenting. T.J. has been doing some unique and exciting thinking about this topic and has generously allowed me a front row seat from which I have been able to witness his brilliance. However, for the purposes of this talk, I want to focus on what we as co-researchers meant when we uttered the word "trans*."
By way of background information, I am a fourth year doctoral candidate and am in the final stages of writing up my dissertation, which was an 18-month critical collaborative ethnographic study alongside nine trans* college students at City University (a pseudonym). Specifically, we explored how we navigated a collegiate environment that is heavily steeped in genderism, or the notion that there are two distinct, immutable, and supposedly 'natural' genders (e.g., man and woman) that align with two distinct, immutable, and again, supposedly 'natural' sexes (e.g., male and female). Although Brent Bilodeau (2005, 2009) clearly located genderism in higher education environments, the questions my co-researchers and I ask revolved around how, despite such pervasive genderism, we continued to be successful in pursuing our goals and aspirations. Thus, we took a decidedly affirmative approach to inquiry rather than the deficit approach that runs throughout most of the scant amount of empirical and best practices-related work about trans* populations.
As is to be expected with an 18-month ethnographic study, participants and I engaged in multiple forms of data collection, including what Heyl (2011) described as ethnographic interviewing. Also of little surprise, I asked participants if they would prefer to see more trans* people at City, to which they answered with a resounding "Yes!" Again, this seems like a fairly innocuous piece of data; of course people from this highly marginalized population would want to see more people with diverse gender identities and expressions on campus, right? However, as the saying goes, the devil is in the details.
In answering the question about wanting more trans* people at CU, Raegan Darling, who identified as trans* masculine and non-binary, suggested they wanted to see more non-binary trans* people, thereby reflecting their identity on campus. Specifically, they stated:
If I'm at The Sandwich Depot, or places like that [on campus], it matters to me [to see other non-binary people]. I may never meet this person in real life, I may not ever interact with them, but if I know that they're there, it makes me feel better. …I’m kinda biased [chuckles].
Raegan’s ‘bias’ for seeing other non-binary people on campus makes sense given their own identity as non-binary. It makes further sense given Raegan’s desire to reclaim the notion of passing as a process of being read by others as being a man or woman. In fact, Raegan stated that their “ideal setting for passing is people not knowing [their] gender.” Thus, it makes good sense that seeing other people who are similarly playful with their gender expression would increase Raegan's comfort. This was much the same for BC, who stated her ultimate desire was to “change [her] appearance daily; real butch to real femme, and then androgynous, and always make people question.”
However, the politics of trans* visibility were far from uniform. For example, Kade, a trans* masculine student who had been taking T for approximately five years, shared a profound sense of loss of community due to his passing as a man. He told me in our first interview that he now understood why students in his high school wore rainbow neoprene bracelets as a visual marker of their queerness, and was wondering what he could do or wear to denote his trans*ness. Thus, for Kade, who admitted that he could easily pass as a cisgender man, it was hard to know just what heightened trans* visibility would look like at CU. Kade discussed being trans*, but not being perceived as trans* due to his socially intelligible masculine gender expression. In this sense, one might understand Kade as being trans*, but not feeling ‘trans* enough’ due to his not being read as trans* by other (cisgender) students, faculty, and staff at CU. I recorded something similar in my fieldnotes at the start of my second semester at CU, writing:
I am intrigued by the fact that I have no clue who may be a potential participant in my study! …There are not obvious physical indicators (or not necessarily anyway) that ‘mark’ trans* students. Even those markers that may exist (e.g., ‘boys’ wearing nail polish, ‘women’ dressed in a butch way) does not always translate to someone’s identifying as trans*. This invisibility could be both challenging and wonderful. …This also makes me think about all the assumptions I make about bodies, expressions, and identities. For example, I see many bodies around me, all of which I immediately ascribe particular sex and gender designations. …Maybe this means sex/gender designations say as much (or more) about the one designating them as about those on whom they are being designated. (August 28, 2013, emphasis in original)
Although both Kade and I would have preferred to know there were more trans* people at CU, the contestation was around what (in)visibility meant. In other words, the comments both Kade and I wondered related to what assumptions we were making when we suggested there was a ‘lack of trans* visibility’ on campus. Were we privileging non-binary and openly disruptive expressions of gender? How might this privileging dismiss those who did not feel safe, comfortable, or interested in expressing their trans*ness in this way? Furthermore, in light of comments made by Micah and Silvia, both of whom identified as Black, about the lack of interest in even discussing gender transgressions in Black spaces on campus, let alone expressing such gender transgression, it may stand to reason that privileging openly transgressive expressions of gender may indeed mean privileging Whiteness at CU. When added to BC and Raegan’s reflections that transgressive gender norms on campus cost money—suggesting the need for disposable income that many of the participants did not have—it becomes clear that desiring trans* visibility could easily slip into reinforcing classism as well as White supremacy.
Lastly, Adem pointed out another nuance to the ideal of having increased trans* visibility at CU. In our second interview, they stated,
I would definitely like to see more [of a trans*] presence. I would like to see that in the hiring practices. That would give me hope for the future, but at the same time, I feel like that automatically pigeonholes [me]. …Like, if there's a trans* identified professor in computer sciences and there's me, and someone happens to know both of us, or somehow we end up connect—like, it's because of that [their shared trans* identity]. I don’t know, I feel like it narrows my scope of possibilities [for meeting people].
At the same time that Adem recognized their desire for trans* inclusion to be embedded in institutional practices like the hiring process, they also suggested it may serve to limit them and, by extension, other trans* students. Specifically, Adem felt that increased visibility for trans* people may mean their cisgender peers would only encourage them to interact with fellow trans* people. Again, this is a form of identity commodification reflective of the neoliberal context in which Adem (and all participants, including myself) found ourselves. By turning our identities into something to be seen, which could be a potential byproduct of increased trans* visibility, Adem worried their lives would be limited by others regulating those with whom they could befriend and associate. In this sense, Adem’s comment reflects my aforementioned fieldnotes, in which I suggested trans* invisibility could prove both challenging and liberating.
It is worth further emphasis that neither participants nor I suggested that an increase of trans* students, faculty, or staff would be a de facto bad phenomenon at CU. In fact, as Adem’s extended quote above suggests, participants had an acute awareness that in terms of structural diversity alone, increased representation and visibility for trans* people at CU was incredibly important. Participants and I were steadfastly in agreement about this particular point. However, what was at stake for us was what such representation and visibility meant in relation to the wide diversity amongst trans* communities. Thus, it was not a matter of if we would want there to be more trans* people at CU, but of what assumptions we made about who counted as trans*. In other words, when we admitted we wanted there to be more trans* people at CU, we were suggesting there was a lack of people we would identify as trans*. Thus, we all had a vision of what trans* people looked like and, by extension, did not look like.
This complexity is particularly hard for me to talk about, as it underscores the way I have been socialized to buy into the very concept that continues to harm me as a trans* person; namely, notions of not being ‘trans* enough.’ For example, when I say I want to see more trans* visibility, I am basing my desire on wanting to see more people who disrupt gender normativity. Given the vulnerability of doing this, along with the amount of money it may take to do so and the complex intersections of race and gender identity that foreclose such expressions of gender at CU, it becomes clear to me that my desire is a reflection of wanting to see more White, middle-class representations of genderqueerness and non-conformity. To want something different, then, would mean recognizing the tensions inherent in placing value on trans* visibility in the first place, as if to be trans* is synonymous with being visible as such. It would also mean troubling notions of how trans* visibility may unwittingly further specific visions of who is seen as trans* and, thus, reifying various intersecting systems of oppression such as racism, classism, ableism, ageism, and colonialism.
Applying these data to our focus during this symposium on the doing of research with LGBTQ populations, and specifically trans* populations for my talk, I am still sitting with the following questions:
I have no specific answers for these questions, nor am I sure others do right now either. However, as trans* studies begins to become further legible, both as a distinct field of study and as a field of inquiry within higher educational research, these are important questions for us to be asking, sitting with, and attempting to answer from a methodological vantage point. Thus, my concerns echo those of Wendy Brown's for the then burgeoning field of Women's Studies. My hope is that today we can start to think through these together, and we can start to think about the complexities of the doing of research alongside trans* participants. In fact, if I may be so bold, I would suggest that as educational researchers, we must do this.
This blog is a space where I engage with ideas, concepts, and research that seeks to increase life chances for trans* people.