Dear Cis “Gender” Researchers: Stop Erasing Trans* People (Part 3)

The author of this post is a transgender person conducting research on higher education in the United States. In Part One, they explained problems that emerge when cis researchers approach gender and transgender experience without paying attention to their own cis standpoints, assumptions, and biases, and issues this may cause for trans and gender nonconforming populations. In Part Two, they shared the first part of some explanations from cisgender allies seeking to do transgender-inclusive work as an illustration for ways cis researchers may approach gender in more expansive, inclusive, and empirical ways beyond cisgender binaries and assumptions. Here, in Part Three, they share the rest of their informal interviews with these scholars picking up at question 3.

  1. How do you hold yourself accountable for gender-expansive praxis?

Scholar #1: I try to be honest with myself about … if I’m really asking those questions and pushing on those assumptions consistently.  I look for feedback from folks who are not cis, and who are knowledgeable about trans* sexual violence, and I welcome it.  I step back when I think I might be going down a scholarly road that isn’t my place.  I’ll always seek to amplify and center the voices of actual trans* scholars in these areas, because my contribution (as I see it) is really about challenging cis folk to do better, but not to speak for or in place of trans* scholars or survivors.  Lately, I’ve been focusing my energy on challenging the poor practices of national organizations, like ATIXA and ACPA, who continue to market “solutions” to sexual violence that either ignore or obscure the complexity of these issues.  Recently, for example, ACPA sent out several promotional emails about the Peter Lake seminars which focus entirely on “compliance” (the program is even called, problematically, Compliance U.) and which totally disregard the social and cultural complexities of prevention work.  This seems quite at odds with ACPA’s broader commitment to approaching change in higher education through an anti-oppression lens, and it’s concerning to me.

Scholar #2: I think that holding myself accountable starts with my inner work.  I’m the first to acknowledge that I’m a work in progress and don’t always get it right.  But when I have a situation where I perhaps misgendered someone or don’t adequately understand something, I work to take responsibility, apologize, and then get to work to learn more.  I read articles and seek to learn more about gender-expansive praxis, whether that’s staying current on the terminology, listening to discussions on issues that pertain to gender diverse individuals, or reading up on what issues need to be faced next.  As a cisgender queer man, I try to listen to understand and emphasize, and I engage in self-reflection about how to use my privilege to advocate and amplify with others.  I have critical conversations with friends, some who may be trans or gender non-conforming and others who aren’t, around issues pertaining to gender, and I find these play a central role in the advocacy work that I can help engage with.  A big part of my work is also to model to my students their need to do their own work.  I talk openly in the classroom about the ways that I might make mistakes and need to learn more, which is an important aspect of accountability.  Yet, I also want them to know that they’ll get things wrong too and that it’s important for us to learn together in community and work to get it right.  These are all important practice that come to mind around holding myself accountable.

  1. Why is gender-expansive research and practice important to you?  What about to the field of higher education?

Scholar #1: In my life, I’ve come to understand a few things about social change work.  One is that we’re stronger together, when we work across coalitions and join forces to address persistent social problems like sexual violence.  At the risk of sounding pollyannaish, I really believe this.  But I also think it’s imperative for each of us to figure out how we can get outside of only our own oppression and work actively to end another’s, lest we become a bit too myopic and self-serving in how we do the work.  I can’t only, always, ever think about cis women’s oppression, though it is real and ending it is important to me.  That can’t be the whole focus of my work, because then, I am only advancing myself and others like me.  And I will say, that I think that being white and affluent means I need to think hard about how to do this work honorably.  I need to be actively looking for ways to un-center myself and my concerns, because the culture at large constantly centers me.  Also, people (especially social justice people) who only center themselves and their own concerns are, to me, a bit boring!  I think we can all do more to end oppression for groups we don’t belong to, and I think we must, lest we become so deeply invested in our own identities and their shifting power terms that we lose sight of everything else.

Scholar #2: To me, gender-expansive research and practice is a moral imperative.  It’s not political correctness or anything like that.  It’s a moral imperative.  We have an epidemic in this country of trans people, particularly trans women of color, being murdered at outrageous rates.  Yet, there is little coverage of this outside of the trans community.  Much of this is due to white supremacy and genderism.  The intersections of gender, race, sexuality, and other identities becomes a moral imperative that should move humanity to take action.  Research and practice is a part of that process.  We have lots of folks who are deemed “thought leaders” or experts that have done brilliant work on isolated aspects of identity yet have a lot more trouble advocating for other identity groups and seeing the intersectional connections.  I think that’s a problem.  And so that’s why I think gender-expansive research and practice is important to me, my family of friends and kin, and the field of higher education.  Gender-expansive research and practice asks and implores us to think intersectionally about the ways power, privilege, and oppression play out in particular ways.  Yes, this work centers gender, but I can’t help but also think about the ways that it connects to race, religion, sexuality, and other dimensions of identity.  Gender-expansive work helps us get to a larger place of understanding and avoids the erasure that often happens for individuals who often aren’t heard or seen.  As someone who cares about education, I don’t want to contribute to a system where trans and gender nonconforming folx are continually forced to endure marginalizations and micro- and macroaggressions.  Yet, I am aware that often they do.  Gender-expansive praxis has the ability to correct that though, and that’s the work that I am committed to doing.

  1. Why should all cisgender people be committed to gender-expansive research and practice?

Scholar #1: The simple answer is because it’s the right thing to do.  Because being cis, being a cis woman, means any fear we feel about our own safety and agency in the world is always mediated by our cisness, and that if we lose sight of that, we lose sight of what makes identities both so powerful and disempowering.  Gender is powerful, and beautiful, in all its multiplicity, but only if we truly allow people of all genders to flourish, thrive, and live safely.  And clearly, we have so much work to do to end sexual violence, but it’s only going to be meaningful if everyone is at the table, if everyone’s safety and agency is equally valued and honored.  That’s my cause, and as long as I have breath, I’m sticking to it!

Scholar #2: Because it’s the right thing to do.  Simply, it is.  Gender-expansive research and practice actually benefits all of us.  This is not a zero-sum game.  To engage in gender-expansive work, we are just allowing for a deeper, more rich understanding of what gender is and what it can be.  It also allows for a greater understanding of who we are, individually, as it relates to gender.  Gender-expansive work says that we don’t have to be restricted by boxes and labels unnecessarily if we don’t want.  It opens up new possibilities, and what’s wrong with that?  As a cisgender individual, I have learned over time the immense privileges I have because of that identity.  And there are choices to be made with that privilege.  I choose to amplify gender-expansive praxis because I think that a more equitable world and field of higher education is important.  We need more cisgender people using their privilege to think more critically about engaging in this line of work.  Little changes can lead to bigger changes.  If you feel scared or worried about making mistakes or saying the wrong thing, reach out to folks who you think are engaging in the work well.  They’re out there.  Don’t make our trans and gender nonconforming friends, colleagues, or students do the labor for you though.  There are things that you must do on your own.  You must do your own work.  But we need you to do that work and also other work in community with others too.  Don’t do this to rescue others or be the cisgender savior.  Do this work because it’s the right thing to do for our collective humanity.

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Dear Cis “Gender” Researchers: Stop Erasing Trans* People (Part 2)

The author of this post is a transgender person conducting research on higher education in the United States. In Part One, they explained problems that emerge when cis researchers approach gender and transgender experience without paying attention to their own cis standpoints, assumptions, and biases, and issues this may cause for trans and gender nonconforming populations. Here, in Part Two, they share explanations from cisgender allies seeking to do transgender-inclusive work as an illustration for ways cis researchers may approach gender in more expansive, inclusive, and empirical ways beyond cisgender binaries and assumptions. Next week, in Part Three, they share the rest of their informal interviews with these scholars.

In my last post, I wrote something that, depending on your positionality, may be quite controversial: I wrote that taking a gender-expansive approach to research wasn’t hard in the least.  Now, if you are a cis scholar and you think gender is a “natural” phenomenon, or if you think this whole trans* thing is an exciting new trend, you likely don’t agree with me.  You may think gender is incredibly hard, and you may be completely over the feedback you get from trans* journal reviewers like me who make you unpack all of your normative, gender-binary assumptions when you say things like, “the participants were all men,” or “the participant pool consisted of x number of females.”  In fact, you may even be one of the few people who have actually said in my presence that you are offended by the use of the word cisgender to define your existence.  If you are one of these folks, then you’re in luck – this post and part 3 next week are just for you.  And if you aren’t quite there, but you still are scratching your head on how to further gender-expansive research, then you may want to keep reading, too.

For this post, I talked with two cisgender higher education scholars who are, in my estimation, doing amazing gender-based research.  I asked them a few questions, and have copied their answers below.  As I stated previously, this isn’t a #NotAllCisPeople sort of post, but one to amplify how doing gender-based research well isn’t as brain-busting or overly arduous as is often claimed.  It is also an effort to recognize that we as trans* scholars have some incredible accomplices who see us.  And, in a world that continues to loudly deny our humanity, these accomplices are really important.  So, without any further delay, below are the first two questions I asked my colleagues, along with their answers.  Next week, I will share the other three questions I asked, and their responses. While some of the answers are longer, I decided not to trim them down and instead put them into two posts, as I find them to be quite powerful and important in their entirety.  Plus, I’m fairly sure the cis people who need to read them can spare a few more minutes centering the lives and humanity of trans* folks.  Just sayin.

  1. Both of you do gender-based research; one of you does masculinities work and the other one of you does femininities work.  Can you tell me a story about one of the first times you started to realize you needed to approach your gender-based work through trans*-inclusive perspectives and frameworks?

Scholar #1: I hope it’s okay if I back up a bit to the larger question of “how does one develop an inclusive consciousness related to sexual violence?”  I would say that my sense that the universal narrative of “straight cis woman being assaulted by straight cis man” was inherently problematic and left a lot of people out of the picture of who is affected by sexual violence stemmed from my own experience.  I was sexually assaulted by my then-partner in college.  This person identifies as a cis gay man (at the time, he identified as bisexual).  His particular kind of sexual cruelty was a far cry from the “aggressive, drunken frat boy” trope that tends to dominate both the literature and our collective imaginary.  He didn’t embody any of the typical behaviors of those invested in hegemonic masculinity, and having reflected on our relationship and the assault itself extensively, I know that I viewed him as more “safe” due to his more feminine, in fact subversively queer, gender presentation/expression.

In my career as an advocate, I talked with many students of LGB and/or T identities who had similar experiences; trusting both the gender expression and politics of their partners as a safety signal, when in fact a very sinister if obscured kind of sexual aggression was present in their relationship.  In my work with queer students, I was always trying to get at the elusive why; why would members of our community embody sexual control and aggression, when they had eschewed other modes of oppressive behavior and expression?  Is it a power grab, born of a desire for power and “normalcy”?  Is it internalization of cismasculine behaviors and values, even when this wasn’t the case in other areas of perpetrator’s lives?   Was it in fact because one could hide behind the mantle of (safe) queerness that they were able to manipulate and harm?  As I became more aware of and conversant with the complexities of the relationship of gender to sexuality, I began to understand that missing from our ongoing sense of urgency about ending sexual violence was awareness of how trans* and non-binary identified individuals carry the shame and pain of sexual violence in a different way, and that their experiences (whether identifying as straight, gay, bi, poly, ace, etc.) defy the linear narrative as well.  Because it’s not only that trans* folks do not embody or embrace gender normativity, but also that when assaulted by trans* and non-binary partners, those relationships and their dynamics are not easily folded into our existing conceptions of how power operates in relationships, and in the sexual realm.  And when assaulted by cis perpetrators, the intensity of the post-traumatic oppression was even more pronounced, because it was often coupled with fear of being outed, shamed, killed, or all three.

I would often raise this in advocate circles and get puzzled looks.  Some of that, I think, was “why is this cis woman speculating about causes and conditions of sexual violence as it impacts trans* people?,” which is totally fair.  But the greater truth is, within the advocacy community, I think most people (who are mostly but not only cis women) simply want an easy, relatively uncomplicated way to frame sexual violence and power so that we can (erroneously) believe if we just end sexism, we can end sexual violence.  My evolving understanding of both my own experience and the larger experiences of trans* and non-binary survivors is that the equation is way more grey and muddled than we think.  Which is both good news—we can and must really look at the truth—and bad news, because the easy formula idea is rubbish.

Scholar #2: When I was doing my dissertation work in grad school, my professors would constantly reiterate to us that it was important to narrow down our focus.  Keep it simple, they would say.  I interpreted this to also mean (and this was affirmed by those same professors) that who we were studying should be kept narrowed as well.  For me, I was looking at understanding men and their experiences.  So I applied what I had been told and focused on cisgender men only, explaining in my rationale that the socialization of cisgender men and transgender men were different over the course of one’s life.  I believed my own constructed lie.

But that all changed after I had done the work and started to really consider the ways in which masculinity plays a role covertly and overtly in our lives.  That’s not to say that we all are socialized the same way or that we buy those messages wholeheartedly and internalize them.  But I do think that masculinity, particularly hegemonic masculinity, has often shaped individuals’ lives, regardless of one’s gender, and that really shifted the ways in which I looked at this work.

When I began to do work around gender-based violence and masculinity, I knew that I needed to include both cisgender and transgender men’s perspectives and narratives.  Of course, there were nuanced differences that might come up in those conversations, but ultimately it was important, given the statistics out there, to illuminate the stories of these survivors and consider the ways in which these stories are often erased, not shared, or overlooked.  That work has allowed me to really engage in more gender-expansive perspectives and frameworks in my research.

  1. What are strategies you use to continually center gender-expansive perspectives, frameworks, and narratives throughout your research, scholarship, and teaching?

Scholar #1: In my teaching, research, and advocacy, I see myself as a bit of a “detective of cissexism” in the work.  When the “easy formula” rears up, I actively question its assumptions: To whom is power ascribed, and how do we understand it to function as the operative construct in sexual violence?   Who wields it, against whom, and how do we know that?  How should/must the reality of the wide diversity of genders folks embody change up our assumptions and operative beliefs?  I think part of my role, part of a way I can and must use my privilege for good, is to continuously call out those assumptions, and to raise those questions actively, and then not relent when they’re not answered.  I think there’s a fine line here, because the truth is, there are some “solutions” or at least approaches to reduce violence that truly do only focus on changing the culture of typical, hegemonic cismasculinity, like fraternities.  Do I think we shouldn’t make these efforts, enact these approaches?  Of course we should, but not at the expense of everything else.  We simply can’t afford to believe that’s the whole answer; too many people, too many lives, are left out of those interventions.

Scholar #2: In my classroom and in my scholarship, I try to disrupt genderism as much as possible, but admittedly I sometimes make mistakes.  For me, it’s about naming those mistakes and then trying to do better the next time.  For example, when I first started teaching, I would often discuss gender as a binary of men and women.  Then I realized that I was reifying genderism.  So I began to instead talk about gender beyond the binary and include conversations about cis men, cis women, transgender, and gender nonconforming individuals.  When I used pronouns in class, instead of focusing on him or her, I would also include hir or them to signal that there are multiple other pronouns in use today.  When creating case studies for class on topics beyond gender, I often would include details that the person identifies as transgender or gender non-conforming so that students are considering the role that other identities play into one’s holistic lived experience.  In my feedback to students on their papers and assignments, I’m often challenging their assumptions of sex and gender, trying to have them be clear in their writing and understanding of the differences between these two concepts and hold them accountable that articulating these differences may also play a keen role in their professional practice with students around these identities.

As I’ve already mentioned, my work is on masculinities, and the great joy of that work is understanding how complex and nuanced people’s definitions and perceptions of masculinities are.  In the discussions I’ve had through my research, I have folks who clearly buy into the most traditional views of hegemonic masculinity as well as others who say that they reject masculinity outright.  I’ve had transgender or transmasculine men talk about the ways in which they feel like an imposter when it comes to masculinity and others who abide by those traditional gender norms in order to pass.  I think that where I am right now in my work, I try not to judge the decisions people make around how they view masculinity, but do critique the larger constructs and how that can ultimately restrict behaviors and reinforce sexism, genderism, and homophobia.  As a result, I see that being a part of making a contribution that engages in gender-expansive frameworks just by showing the larger diversity of thought around issues of masculinity.

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Dear Cis “Gender” Researchers: Stop Erasing Trans* People (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 the erasure of transgender and gender nonconforming people in gender scholarship, and next week, in Part Two, they provide insights on ways cisgender scholars may do gender expansive research.

You know that feeling you get when you are pretty sure something is true, but you really hope you are wrong?  That twinge of remorse wrapped in hopeful misremembering was exactly what I was feeling when I decided to review two edited volumes about “gender” in higher education for what they said about trans* collegians.  I’m guessing my writing “gender” in quotations spells out what I thought I knew and feared, but if not, let me be clear: I figured there was almost no mention of trans* people in these two volumes that purported to discuss “gender” in higher education.  And, lest I be accused of burying the lead, I was right.  Out of 1,000+ pages, there were only two pages that had any form of substantive content about transgender people in college…and both were in one of the two books.  But I’m getting a bit ahead of myself here; let me back up a bit.

When I saw the Write Where It Hurts call for blogposts about Trans Peer Review, I knew I wanted to review Drs. Harper and Harris III’s (2010) edited volume, College Men and Masculinities: Theory, Research, and Implications for Practice.  Prior to coming into my own trans*ness, and doing trans* research, I had been interested in “masculinities work,” particularly work that engaged with what at the time was referred to as “alternative masculinities” (it had such a grunge rock feel to it that, as a child of the 90’s, I appreciated on multiple levels).  However, as I got more invested in research, my own educational praxis, and understanding my own gender, I got more and more upset at the field of “masculinities.”  Simply put, there was seemingly no room for trans* people in the scholarship of college “men” and “masculinities.”  Like, none.  Nada.  Zippo.  Zilch.  Harper and Harris III’s edited volume is a reminder of that apparent lack of space.

In an effort to be precise, yet brief, let me offer a few of the ways trans* people are erased in a book supposedly about gender…

(1) In the Preface, Harper and Harris III (2010) wrote, “The terms ‘male’ and man’ are used interchangeably throughout this volume.  However, we acknowledge that male is a biological concept, whereas man encompasses the social meanings that are culturally defined as masculine and associated with traditionally male sex roles” (p. xvii).

Okay, let me just say this right now: Nope. Not okay.  Even if sex were biological (which reading Butler would at least have you question deeply, if not reject outright), the simple fact is that no educational scholars are doing chromosomal testing on their participants.  In reviewing every single study in the edited volume, there is no mention of hormonal or chromosomal testing, anyway.  Which makes me wonder: how can the authors and editors use these two terms as interchangeable, despite their seemingly distinct differences?

(2) Harper and Harris III (2010) go on to write, “Also understood is that sex is determined biologically and gender is socially constructed” (p. xvii, emphasis added).

Now this sentence is basic on multiple levels.  First, there is nothing about sex that is “determined biologically.”  In fact, sex is only “determined” insofar as we as a society determine it.  In fact, our “determination” of sex-as-biology is rooted in phallocentrism and patriarchy, to say nothing of the anti-Black racism in which science was originally vaulted as the marker of Truth in the United States.  Moreover, Harper and Harris III don’t discuss what “social construction” means for them.  As a result, the sentence reads as a glib throwaway, something the editors don’t really mean, nor do they really seem to care about.  Of course, as two cis researchers, there is seemingly little in it for them to really care about, and they can seemingly get away with such glibness.  The same (gratuitous) leeway is not afforded to myself and other trans* scholars, who must define every. Single. Gender. Word. We. Use. Ever.

(3) Surprisingly, the edited volume had an advisory board.  Unsurprisingly, none of the advisory board members listed were trans*.

This one should be a gimme.  Like, really?  You didn’t need to create an advisory board to create an edited volume (there is literally no explanation of what the advisory board did, which makes the list so odd), but if you did, why wouldn’t you want to have people of all genders?  Oh right, I forgot – trans* erasure is why.

Lest I be critiqued for just dragging one edited volume, I also took a peek at Bank’s (2011) Gender & Higher Education.  This text was marginally better…which is both (a) generous of me to say, and (b) accurate in many senses, because literally any mention of trans* people would be better from the complete and utter erasure of us in Harper and Harris III’s volume on “men and masculinities.”  And when I say “marginally better,” what I mean is there were two pages where trans* student identity development were discussed specifically.  Beyond that, the acronyms “LGBT,” LGBTQIA,” and “LGBTQ” were used to conflate gender and sexuality.  This move is not only deeply problematic, but as Nicolazzo (2017) discussed in her text Trans* In College: Transgender Students’ Strategies for Navigating Campus Life and the Institutional Politics of Inclusion, it is also an example of compulsory heterogenderism, or the conflation and subsequent erasure of one’s trans* identity based on sexuality-based stereotypes.

In fact, in many of the places where “queerness” was discussed in both volumes, there may have seemed to be a glimmer of hope for an understanding of gender beyond a binary discourse.  However, that “queerness” was connected to—and as a result conflated with—sexuality (most notably, one’s being gay), and thus, was just another example of heterogenderism.

Now, I have often been (correctly) accused of being quite the trans* killjoy.  While I do adore being in the company of a lineage of similarly angry womxn, a collection of people led by our Queen Mother Killjoy Sara Ahmed, I am also wanting to offer a bit of critical hope here.  Specifically, in Part Two of this post, I want to discuss and amplify the work of two cis scholars who do gender-based research and scholarship exceedingly right.  I feel the desire to do this not to forward a “Not All Cis People” argument, because eff that noise.  However, I do want to reflect on the fact that it really isn’t that hard, nor should it be seen as overly taxing, to do gender-expansive research, scholarship, and practice.  Like, it really isn’t.  And yet…so many people who do “gender” work just completely muck it up.  And, in a moment when trans* erasure, violence, threat, harm, and antagonism is all the more real with each passing day, the last thing we need to do is promote this sort of bogus “gender” research in practice in any academic or social sphere.

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