The Cislation of Transness in Higher Education and Student Affairs Scholarship, Part 2

The author of this post is a transgender person conducting research on higher education in the United States. This week, they continue their discussion from last week (see Part One here) on the ways cisgender assumptions, norms and influence impact higher education scholarship and suggest some ways to overcome and work against these issues in higher education and other fields of scholarship. 

In part 1 of this piece, I began sharing my perspective and ire regarding the scholarship on trans campus populations in the field of higher education and student affairs (HESA). That post introduced Johnson’s (2015) conception of cissexist analytic pitfalls and provided a few initial examples of these within HESA scholarship. Part 2 picks up from there.

Qualitative studies ought to be able to do better, but they are still ripe with generalizations and objectification. The aggregation of “trans” is still an issue in most of the studies I have read, e.g. “5 of the participants identified as trans.” Readers are meant to draw assumptions based on what pronouns are used (which is not ok to begin with, but as a reader I also don’t know if those pronouns were asked for or put on), or some of the content of the study and quotes. Meaning our own gendered biases fill in the blanks, contributing to the removal of the students’ self-determination. When distinctions are made, they tend to include their medical transition status, which is almost always irrelevant to the topic at hand. Even in studies that are about gender, including ones exclusively focused on trans students, rarely do they inquire about the students’ conceptions of transness or how transness informs their conceptions of gender.

When trans students are aggregated in this way, whether in quantitative or qualitative studies, especially when their different gender identities are not at least nominally described, their experiences and perspectives are presented as a generalized “trans” experience/perspective. This is a huge problem, considering a particular study may actually only include trans men for example, with little or no representation of trans women or nonbinary students. Erasure also is a symptom of the fact that the vast majority of these studies do not share the students’ other identities, such as race, class, ability, etc., important mitigating factors in gender, as well as campus experiences in general. Sharing these identities is a base minimum. It would be better, but perhaps asking too much given where we are, to treat these identities intersectionally.

Reading many of these studies often makes me feel a little dirty, like someone (I didn’t want) caught me getting out of the shower. I have come to realize it’s the cis gaze staring through the academese. It clicked for me when some of the transmasculine students I talked to in my studies told me they no longer participated in research unless they knew the researcher was trans, because they were tired of being asked the same questions over and over again, sharing their “coming out” stories, things they were not, or at least no longer, interested in talking about. Trans students are eager to share their stories and perspectives, but have we stopped to ask them what they want to talk about? So the cis gaze doesn’t begin in the analysis stage, but from the onset, from the moment research questions and protocols are assembled. The essence of ciscentricity.

The cis gaze in HESA studies seems too often only able to see trans students through a lens of tragedy and deficit. It’s a miracle more of us are not killing ourselves given how horrible our lives are, how much we are hated – including by ourselves – and how little we have to contribute to our campuses and humanity. Now I’m not saying we shouldn’t look at the hostility and trans-antagonizing environments on our campuses. But when we don’t situate that within the institutionalized and cultural systems of genderism/cissexism, the harassment and the microaggressions become individualized problems, behaviors of “bad” or “mean” individuals. When we individualize problems, it is only natural that we then individualize the solutions, making them about reactionary sensitivity trainings and sanctions through (racist, classist, etc.) conduct processes, rather than thinking about doing meaningful (and hard) transformative work.

Now I know where some of you have gone, if you’re not so frustrated that you gave up before you made it here – am I suggesting that cisgender people should not do research with trans participants? I mean, I won’t lie. If some want to actually take a break from this and make room for trans-driven scholarship to take up more space, I’m not going to be mad at them. Swing for the fences and maybe (financially or through uncompensated labor) even support trans-driven scholarship and trans scholars. While taking a break from trans-specific research, cisgender researchers can focus on trans-integrated research. Turns out gender or being trans isn’t the only thing trans students want to talk about. Some of them might want to participate in that leadership study; or take that quality of life survey; or join the disability office’s focus group. Can they access it – meaning, will they even find out about it and when they do will they be able to participate authentically? Are they being asked what pronouns to use for them in the write-ups? Cis researchers are also smart folks – I’m sure they can think of a number of ways to better integrate trans participants. And if not, some of us would not say no to a paid consulting opportunity.

For those who don’t want to or can’t take a break from it – hey, they might be steeped in the middle of it right now or working on a trans scholar’s research team – I’ll suggest two things. First, and most importantly, invest time in reflexivity. And I don’t mean the surface level “I identify as a cisgender white lesbian woman” type of reflexivity, where we get a laundry list of identity labels and nothing else. Rather the deep meaningful type of reflexivity, where cisgender researchers actually think about what being cisgender (and the rest of that laundry list) means to them, what it might mean to how they approach all parts of the research process, and for study participants to be vulnerable and generous with a cisgender person. They can take a look at Johnson’s (2015) article on transfeminist methodology and consider how they might have fallen into some of those pitfalls and what they can do to avoid them in the future. This might be laborious initially – tough! – but only with practice does it becomes habit to conduct trans-affirming research. Second, and very much relatedly cisgender researchers can take guidance from trans scholars. They can read our work, including some of our writing on trans epistemologies and methodologies, attend our presentations and ask us about how we approached various aspects of the studies (not irrelevantly about our own trans identities – yup, it’s happened), and bring us on to consult or even work with on these projects.

Luckily, some of what I have described above is finally beginning to shift, albeit slowly and incrementally. That shift is predominantly due to some of us trans student affairs practitioners deciding to move into the scholar/researcher camp, whether entirely leaving the practitioner camp or straddling them both to varying amounts (because we’re trans after all, and we don’t do binaries!). People like Z Nicolazzo, D-L Stewart, S Simmons, Erich Pitcher, finn schneider, Melvin Antoine Whitehead, Kari Dockendorff, and thankfully many others. It brings me hope and empowers me to know that there is a cohort of us writing ourselves, our selves as students, our selves as staff and faculty, into our scholarship. I’m emboldened by this, not only for perhaps that obvious reason, but also because that is a group of people I can rely on to pull me out of cissexist analytical pitfalls in my own work. As I grow older and more distant from students and their daily lives, as I grow more into myself as a fairly genderconforming able-bodied light-skinned transman of color, I need this cohort even if only as a reminder to stay intentional and connected to a vast network of trans communities. After all, it’s not just our selves that we are writing into existence, but also the selves, outlooks, challenges, and contributions of more and more trans and gender nonconforming people. And within this neoliberal-white-supremacist-colonial-ableist-patriarchal-heterosexist-monosexist-cissexist culture that is higher education, that is a tremendous privilege AND responsibility. Our existence is resistance, and our scholarship ought to reflect that.

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The Cislation of Transness in Higher Education and Student Affairs Scholarship, Part 1

The author of this post is a transgender person conducting research on higher education in the United States. Here, in Part One, they discuss cisgender assumptions, norms, and influence that impact higher education scholarship, and next week in Part Two, they continue this discussion and suggest ways to overcome and work against these issues in higher education and other fields of scholarship.

In my previous life, I was a student affairs practitioner, a role I thought I would stay in for a good long time. For folks who might not know what that is, student affairs practitioners are (usually) non-academic professionals on college campuses that are the student-facing individuals – for example, staff who work in residential life and housing, student activities, career services, or multicultural affairs, to name a few. Most recently, I was in the latter category and dabbled in some other ones, and I really saw myself moving up the campus diversity work chain.

Then I decided to go back to school and try out the faculty route instead.

One of the handful of reasons I did that, although admittedly not the primary one, is because of the incredible dearth of literature in the higher education and student affairs (HESA) field – yup, it’s a field of its own, supposedly interdisciplinary, and fairly young – about trans students. Trans staff and faculty didn’t really exist; what little there was was about students, primarily undergraduates. Very little of it was actually helpful for me as a practitioner, most of it was non-empirical (usually “best practices” or “trans 101” type of work), and hardly anything felt like it was about me.

The last point rings ironic to me now, because as an undergraduate student I was a participant in a study on trans students, one cited fairly often and actually one of the better studies out there. My words are in there – they’re in quotation marks, after all – but reading the published article now, something about it reads… not me. Sure, I myself have changed a lot since then, including how I see myself and articulate my conceptions of gender. But it’s not the words in the quotation marks that sound off. It’s the analysis, the translation of them to a dominantly cis readership, that puts a distance between them and me. The “trans-“ prefix in “translation” feels oddly inappropriate here. Maybe I should call it cislation instead.

Cislation goes hand-in-hand with ciscentricity, which Johnson (2015) described as a practice that imposes a cisgender worldview marking trans perspectives and experiences as other. Some of our experiences and how we talk about them don’t make sense to cisgender people. Additionally, because so much of our own hirstory and language is inaccessible to us, we might ourselves engage in cislation. As trans folks, we are also at times limited by our own internalized cisgender worldview and lack the ancestral know-how to articulate ourselves in a more authentic-to-us way, or try to simplify our complexities so that we are not too much to deal with for cisgender people.

Johnson (2015) also laid out a series of cissexist analytical pitfalls in research, which although were derived from examining sociology, could easily have been about HESA. In addition to ciscentricity, these pitfalls include cissexist double standards, objectification, and overgeneralization. That’s the dominant HESA literature on trans students in a nutshell right there.

Call it a lack of courage, call it a desire to stay connected to cisgender people, or whatever else you like, but my academic status makes me cautious here as I proceed. The HESA field is pretty small. Our scholarly association boasts 2,000 members as compared to over 13,000 in sociology or 115,000 in psychology, just to give you an idea. And if I’m invested in making an impact in the field as a whole (which I am), and not just at whichever institution I happen to work, I need to stay somewhat connected and not entirely a persona non-grata. So rather than stomp on specific research projects or scholars, I’m going to speak in generalities here. Most of the folks researching and writing about us so far in the field have been cisgender people and that reality has brought on some issues.

Let me start there – with researchers being cisgender. One of the things consistently missing from studies on trans students done by cisgender researchers is reflexivity – an acknowledgment and awareness of their own limited gendered worldview and how that might both exert power over trans participants, as well as influence what (yeah, we are holding back, because we don’t really know whether we can trust you as so many of you have hurt us) and how (we distill ourselves into descriptors that we think you might understand or accept) and which (it’s not just your gender identity that causes some of us not to respond to your call) participants share their experiences with them, not to mention the whole cislating thing again.

Speaking of cislating, one of the things I am tired of reading are long and often static/inaccurate/problematic/limiting terminology sections in every paper or book that includes trans people’s stories. Yup, I totally get it, some folks (including trans and gender-questioning folks) do want/need this in order to engage with the rest of the material and language can be very inaccessible. But what concerns me about the persistent existence of and demands for these terminology sections is that they continue to ‘other’ us, by positioning us and our identities as inherently unknown and un-understandable without quick and easy definitions. And it’s that “quick and easy” part that lends itself to further oversimplifying and generalizing our genders, and marking them as static rather than fluid and contextual. What if instead we admitted that language is limiting; that we can’t possibly fully understand everyone else’s gender and most of the time don’t really need to; and that to actually know the meanings behind the words we (each) use to describe our genders at any given time we would actually need to invest in building trusting relationships with each other? And this might seem a bit petty, but every time I’m asked to include one of these terminology sections, I have to then decide what to leave out in order to meet a particular journal’s word limit. Whose story is less compelling, which quote is less poignant, which implication is less important? We are literally being erased, and being asked to collude in that erasure, in order to make room for cisplanations.

Ironically, even with these long terminology sections, I often have no idea who the actual participants in the studies are and how they describe their genders. In quantitative studies, too often the numbers are crunched up as “male,” “female,” and “other” or “trans,” if there are even more than two options. There are a number of issues here: (1) the use of the terms “male” and female” as gender descriptors; (2) do I have to explain why “other” is problematic?; (3) the separation of “trans” from “male” and “female” or “man” and “woman” (which is more easily resolved with a “choose all that apply”), as if no trans people identify as men or women; and (4) the aggregation of “trans” into one category.” I’m not much a quant person, but I know enough to understand that depending on the study topic and the participant recruitment methods, it can be difficult to achieve statistical significance (I’ll set aside my feefees about trans people not being significant in stats) if an already low number of trans participants as compared to cisgender men or cisgender women is further broken down. I just don’t think it would be that much more work to initially add more specific gender options (e.g. transman, transwoman, nonbinary, gender nonconforming, another, etc.) and then add folks up into one trans grouping for the purpose of analysis. The more specific gender options allow participants to self-identify more accurately and thus be more likely to actually fill out the rest of the survey (I’ve stopped filling out countless surveys because of this) and be less distracted by the effects of the microaggression they experienced.

Have I riled you up much yet? Don’t worry, or maybe be ready for more worries, there’s more. In part 2 next week, I’ll move into my disappointments with qualitative studies, say a bit more about the cis gaze and its impact, and respond to the inevitable question of whether cisgender researchers can/should do any trans research. And I promise, I’ll end it with some sunshine and rainbows for the scholarship in our field.

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Invalid measures invalidate us: ciscentrism and ableism in the trans autism literature

The author of this post is a transgender person conducting autism research at a major Midwestern university. Here they reflect on ways cisgender bias may impact neuroscience findings and theories and how transgender and autistic voices and insights could help alleviate these problems.


Two relatively recent* publications (see, here and here) address rates of autism among transgender people, finding that autistic people are over-represented in transgender samples relative to cisgender samples. Both of these studies are informed by the “extreme male brain” theory of autism, which posits that personality traits/cognitive styles are reliably sexually dimorphic, and that autism is associated with extremely “male typical” traits. The extreme male brain theory relies on the assumption that personality traits are gendered AND consistently associated with the brain, and that increased prenatal androgen exposure is a likely cause of these brain differences. There has been a great deal of excellent scholarship (see, for example, here, here, and here) in feminist science and technology studies that critiques and questions these assumptions that I will not rehash.

These trans/autism studies have similar experimental designs: researchers collected data from a sample of transgender individuals receiving care at a gender clinic. These participants completed an assessment form called the Autism Spectrum Quotient (AQ). This form is designed to assess for traits associated with autism, and is divided into social, attention switching, attention to detail, communication, and imagination subscales. Both of these studies used the same dataset of cisgender people as their comparison sample. This cisgender dataset is previously published and includes AQ norms for a large sample of (presumed) cisgender people.

There may be more trans autistic people than would be expected from the prevalence of each of those identities in the broader population. I want to be clear that this is not a “problem” for which we need to determine the “cause.” I do, however, want to problematize the way that assessment tools, designed and normed for cis populations, can lead to invalid claims about transgender people. Importantly, many autistic people, trans and cis, have already critiqued the ways in which representations of autistic people in the research literature and elsewhere do not consider autistic perspectives (see, for example, here and here). Others have emphasized the way that autistic ways of communicating are pathologized in a literature dominated by neurotypical perspectives (see here for example). Measuring social skills by assessing comfort and enjoyment with interacting with neurotypical people misses the point. My critiques of ciscentrism in this literature are greatly indebted to the work of cis and trans autistic activists, writers, and scholars.

Many of the individuals in the current study have reported that they did not fit in with others; indeed, both MtF and FtM cohorts showed more dysfunctional scores in the social skills subscale…supporting a reported sense of impairment.” (Pasterski et al., 2014, p 391).

I am not socially impaired when I have difficulty fitting in cisgender culture or with cisgender people. The AQ has captured trans people’s experiences with marginalization and transphobia. Many of us prefer routines and predictability, one of the traits measured by this scale. Routines become important for many of us as strategies to avoid transphobic violence: this is the restroom I can use safely at school, if I take the 5:30 bus home from work I am less likely to be harassed, I wear my hair this way every day so I am less likely to be misgendered, etc. We “prefer to do things the same way over and over again” because it keeps us safe.

Likewise, questions on the AQ about enjoying childhood play remind us of the way our imaginary play was policed and gendered. Many of us did not enjoy playing imaginary games with our childhood peers, because there was no room for us to imagine our trans selves in a story, or because our favorite toys were taken from us. The AQ also assesses attention to detail with items such as: “I often notice small sounds when others do not” and “I tend to notice details that others do not”. Attention to detail also keeps us safe. Particularly given the high rates of PTSD in trans populations, high could be due to sensory hyper arousal, which can also be present in some autistic people, but is a general construct not necessarily related to autism per se. Items like “I find social situations easy”, “I find it hard to make new friends”, “I enjoy meeting new people”, etc. are all attributable to the difficulty we can experience navigating a cis-dominated world. “Social chitchat” is not enjoyable for me because it so often devolves into invasive personal questions about my transition status or my relationship with my parents.

Personally, I have a complex relationship with “thinking of myself as a good diplomat” because, as the only transgender PhD at my institution, colleagues constantly demand that I represent trans people. On days when I gently correct a colleague for casually insisting that “pronouns aren’t important,” I think of myself as an excellent diplomat. By the third time I’ve been asked to give an uncompensated Trans 101 in a month, not so much. Likewise, I am certain that many of my colleagues and friends are tired of hearing me talk about the poor scientific quality of the transgender medical and biology literatures. “People often tell us that we go on and on about the same thing” because we are compelled to speak ourselves into being in a culture that would prefer we not exist.

I would venture that at least twenty of the fifty questions on the AQ are not valid for transgender people. Because of ciscentric bias, these researchers forgot the most famous maxim in science: “correlation is not causation.” The authors attribute differences they observed in transgender people to be causal rather than correlational; they did not consider the (obvious to any trans person) idea that being transgender mediates social experiences. Attribution of elevated scores on the AQ to an “extreme male brain” among trans people makes several logical leaps.

These leaps aren’t “caught” by cisgender researchers because of their unexamined ciscentrism, although Pasterski and colleagues do acknowledge that the extreme male brain theory doesn’t fit their findings in trans women. Regardless, inclusion of transgender autistic people in the research process (from hypothesis generation to data interpretation) would improve the scientific quality of this work and increase its relevance to trans and autistic people. Chillingly, Jones and colleagues end their paper with the following recommendation: “Clinically, even if only for a minority of individuals considering sex reassignment surgery (sic), the formulation of undiagnosed autism might be a helpful alternative to explore” (p 305).

*It’s 2017 and trans research in psychology and neuroscience still regularly uses the Blanchard typology. 

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