Roman Historians: Unreliable Narrators? Part 1 of 2

Cheryl Morgan is a trans woman, a writer, publisher and broadcaster. She is co-chair of OutStories Bristol, an LGBT local history organisation. She has delivered papers on many aspects of trans history and trans characters in literature, and is a regular speaker at LGBT History Month events. She tweets from @CherylMorgan. In this two part entry, she examines Roman history through a trans inclusive lens presenting one case below and another in part two coming next week. 

The Roman period has a great deal of attraction for historians because we have so much written history. It was one of the more popular literary forms of the period. However, almost all of the history produced by Rome was written by well-to-do, middle-class men. That needs to be taken into account when evaluating what was written. Rome was a very patriarchal society. Indeed, words like patriarch and virile derive directly from Latin. Roman historians are therefore particularly unreliable when discussing matters of gender. How we, as modern historians, interpret what they wrote is critically important.

From a trans history point of view, one of the most important Roman figures is the boy emperor, Elagabalus, of whom it is said:

“He carried his lewdness to such a point that he asked the physicians to contrive a woman’s vagina in his body by means of an incision, promising them large sums for doing so.”

Was Elagabalus, therefore, an early trans woman, or is this simply a lie made up to discredit him?

Martijn Icks, author of the most recent biography of the emperor, The Crimes of Elagabalus[i], favours the latter explanation. The quote above comes from Cassius Dio (Dio 80:16), who was a contemporary writer. However, Dio’s work was not written during Elagabalus’s lifetime. It was, instead, written during the reign of Severus Alexander, a man who was probably responsible for ordering Elagabalus’s murder.

Icks argues that both Cassius Dio, and Herodian who wrote at the same time, would have been obliged to discredit Elagabalus in their work. Herodian makes no mention of the transgender story, whereas Cassius Dio goes all-in on the effeminacy theme, invoking the legendary Last King of Assyria, Sardanapalus.

The idea that people from the East were dissolute and effeminate was very popular in Rome. The fall of the Assyrian empire was put down to the degeneracy of its last monarch. This story was believed true at least as far as 1821 when Lord Byron published a play about Sardanapalus, and 1827 when Delacroix used the king as the subject for an oil painting. Thanks to modern archaeology we now know that the whole story was a nasty piece of Greek propaganda, and that Sardanapalus never existed, but the proudly virile Romans doubtless lapped it up.

Icks, then, concludes that Cassius Dio is using the fact that Elagabalus was born in Emessa – modern day Homs in Syria – to tar him with the suspicion of effeminacy. The whole transgender thing is just gossip. How could such a story be true?

What Icks doesn’t consider is that the East really wasn’t as misogynistic as Rome. It was home to the cult of Cybele and her castrated trans-feminine followers, the Galli. Many other similar cults existed, and there are suggestions that the practice can be traced all the way back to the worship of Inanna in Sumer.

In Emessa the equivalent goddess was Atargatis. Elagabalus was known for his devotion to the gods of his childhood home. As emperor he was known as Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus. The name Elagabalus was given to him after his death because of his fondness for the Syrian god, Elagabal. The idea of a man being transformed into a woman would have been more familiar and acceptable to Elagabalus than to most Romans.

So is Icks perhaps too suspicious of his source? It is impossible to say. What I can say is that, as a trans woman myself, I am rather more likely to believe that Elagabalus was questioning his (her?) gender. Icks, who is presumably a cisgender man, might be too willing to dismiss such a possibility.

While historians these days might be inclined to dismiss the lurid stories about Elagabalus as mere gossip intended to discredit, much less leeway is granted to Nero. He may not have done all of the terrible things attributed to him, but he was certainly a very strange man. Members of his court, understandably, get tarred by association. This, inevitably, allows historians from both Roman and modern times to vent their disgust of anyone who transgresses gender norms, as we shall see in Part 2.

[i] The title of the book comes from a line in the Major General’s song in The Pirates of Penzance by Gilbert & Sullivan

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Building the Literature on Aging Partners Managing Chronic Illness Together

In this post, Xan and J announce an upcoming and rolling special issue of Gerontology and Geriatric Medicine focused on managing illness in relationships over the life course, and invite scholars interested in health, aging, relationships of all times, caregiving, and chronic conditions to consider submitting works for this issue and emerging area of research in social, physical, and medical sciences. 

Hello readers!

Xan and J here with a teaser for our newest project. In our home communities of Orlando and Tampa, we’ve been spending some time recovering from Hurricane Irma and helping our fellow Floridians do the same, as well as supporting friends in Texas and Puerto Rico in their own recovery efforts. As things calm down more here in central Florida, we’re pleased to roll out our latest effort to amplify voices from lived experience in research.

Earlier this year, we pitched a special collection proposal to Gerontology and Geriatric Medicine. We suggested a content collection focusing on “Aging Partners Managing Chronic Illness Together”. The collection would highlight opportunities for inquiry, evidence-based perspectives, case studies, and new primary research on collaborative illness management among older intimate partners.

Right now there is very little literature on this topic—most published research on caregiving in intimate relationships uses a “sick partner/well partner” model. But our own lived experiences as well as what we have both seen in our work suggested that many people are living a very different reality! We also found no literature whatsoever in conducting our own preliminary review on collaborative illness management that delves deeply into the experiences of marginalized older adults and relationships between people occupying varied genders, sexualities, and relationship types. We very much want to change that!

Our introductory editorial for the content collection at GGM will be up soon (we’ll share on the blog and social media sites when it is), meaning we are ready to accept original submissions from other scholars doing work on this important topic. Unlike traditional “special issues”, this content collection will remain open indefinitely for new submissions. We intend to use the Aging Partners Managing Chronic Illness Together collection as a springboard for both highlighting inspiring innovative research on older adult health that champions people’s unique lives, biographies, and needs.

If your research includes a focus on chronic disease management, older adults, and intimate relationships, we hope that we’ll be able to showcase some of your work in our special collection in the future!

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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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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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My Latest Writing Adventure

In this post, J discusses the creation of a new series of independently published novels exploring Queerness in south, and the attempt to create the stories people in marginalized groups too often only get to wish we could have read about our own lives. 

I have been a devoted reader and fan of Toni Morrison for as long as I can remember. For me, the many ways she has found to capture the raw, passionate realities of the world, the good the bad and everything in between, and the complexities and nuances of racial, gendered, classed, sexual, and regional experiences are beyond comparison.  Her work is both an inspiration and a level I cannot even imagine myself or anyone else actually reaching.  I almost never write anything without thinking about one or another of her works, and I regularly re-read works of hers between my own fictional and non-fictional writing bursts.

After publishing my first novel about Queer coming of age in the south based on a combination of personal experiences and hundreds of informal and formal interviews with Queer people in the south over the past 20 years, I found myself continually thinking about one of the many brilliant things she has said and written in her life: “If there’s a book you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”

Without thinking about it consciously, I have been following this advice throughout my career.  As a researcher and teacher, most of my work to date involves incorporating Queer, Bi+, Trans, Non-binary, Poly, and Agnostic experiences and perspectives into existing scientific theory, research, and education as well as directing students to vibrant LGBTQIAP, Black, Hispanic, Asian, and Cisgender Women’s literatures, sciences, histories, and arts.  Though I never thought of it in such terms until reading this quote a couple years ago, in all such cases, I have sought to write and teach things missing from my own upbringing and education that, after finding them on my own and with the help of wonderful mentors, I think should be more well known, recognized, and represented in scientific and educational settings and contexts.  While I spent much time with these thoughts a couple years ago, they really came back to me in an even more personal way as I began to craft fiction for the first time since failed attempts in my twenties, and only intensified when I published my first novel.

I kept remembering the younger version of me searching for myself and the other Queer people I knew/found in the south in media, in literature, in music, hell anywhere.  I (much faster than I would have guessed) received a couple emails from other young people who felt the same way, and appreciated finding my novel.  I spoke with other Bi+, Trans, Non-binary, Poly, and otherwise Queer authors about the limited media, literature, and other representative options even now, and with people in these groups who wished for these stories though they themselves were not in the process of writing them as they felt called to other types of work.  I spoke with Lesbian, Gay, Black, Hispanic, Jewish, Muslim, and Cisgender Women friends and colleagues who experienced similar feelings growing up, who were seeking to create more representations of their lives in science and art, and who wanted such things whether or not they had any intention of creating them.  From the moment I delivered my manuscript to a couple months after its release, I kept having these conversations and thinking about my own feelings back then and now.

And, I kept returning to Morrison’s words: “If there’s a book you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”

I looked at the novels I had completed, edited, and put together.  I kept digging through them as I prepared the novel for release without even thinking about it, and kept doing so after the release wondering what to do (if anything) with them.  Some of them were already in various stages of review and consideration at traditional publishing outlets, but others were unconventional in some way – in length, style, or other facets – and I wasn’t sure what to do with them.  I remembered the many paperbacks and zines I read when I was younger by Lesbian Women and Black people that self-published their work to get it out to others.  I thought about the number of people I’d met of various backgrounds who were self-publishing novels, comics, video series, music, and other things even more easily due to the available platforms today.  I collected every bit of information I could on all the platforms and options, and gathered incredibly useful positive, negative, and everywhere in between advice from colleagues and friends.  After thinking through every possible positive and negative, I decided to create a series of self-published works alongside my more traditional scholarly and fictional publishing.

This series of events led to the announcement on my social media accounts last week that I will be launching my own self-published series of fictional works entitled the Queering Dixie Series.  Each of these novels will explore some aspect of Bi+, Trans, Non-binary, Lesbian, Gay, Intersex, Asexual, Poly, Aromantic, or otherwise Queer experience that I have seen, experienced or learned about from others in the south over the past 20 years.  Each work will focus on different characters and stories, but there will often be overlap between the stories as they all take place within the same fictional world that I created based on my experiences growing up, working, and living in the south throughout my life to date.  While they will all be entirely fictional stories, each one will offer snapshots of real experiences various types of Queer people have had in the south over time, and issues Queer people in the south faced and / or still face in the process.

Like Cigarettes & Wine, these stories and all my other novels seek to shed light on the diversity and complexity of southern Queer experience by exploring the good, the bad, and everything in between as well as the multiple ways people create and sustain Queer lives in a regional context often at the forefront of opposition to Queer existence, rights, and well-being.  In so doing, I hope that I’ll join with so many other artists and scientists to do my small part in increasing the chance that when others go looking for our stories and our lives, they may have a better chance of finding them.

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Creating Cigarettes & Wine – a southern bisexual and non-binary coming of age story

In this post, J. Sumerau reflects on the process of outlining, composing, and publishing Cigarettes & Wine, a southern bisexual and non-binary coming of age story set in the 1990’s and based on zir experiences as a bisexual non-binary person and researcher collecting stories of other sexual and gender minorities over the past couple decades. 

Yesterday, my first novel – Cigarettes & Wine – was officially released.  The novel is a southern bisexual and non-binary coming of age story set in the 1990’s based on hundreds of formal and informal interviews with sexual and gender minorities throughout the southeast I’ve collected over the past couple decades as, first, a curious bisexual and non-binary kid and later, as a researcher focused on sexualities, gender, religion, and health in the lives of sexual, gender, and religious minorities.  In this post, I elaborate on the background and creation of the novel after many colleagues and friends have asked about its origins over the past few months.  For more information about the novel or to purchase it, see here.

Background

I was sitting in a hotel lobby with a colleague I deeply admire and appreciate.  We were talking about all kinds of things related to life, relationships, research, activism, teaching, and the world, and my colleague asked a question about the novels I completed in the preceding months.  The topic was especially relevant at the time since I had just submitted my first novel – Cigarettes & Wine – for consideration for the Social Fictions book series, and since my colleague had done me the favor of being the first person outside my little chosen family / inner circle to read the drafts of the first two novels I had composed.  My colleague’s interest and support and feedback on Cigarettes & Wine at the time was and remains invaluable, but I also enjoyed just how hard I laughed when my colleague asked, “So, this was so real, I gotta know, is this you, your life, it is, isn’t it?”

I laughed because though I had not thought much about it at the time, I understood the question.  The narrator of the novel is a non-binary, bisexual raised in a small town in South Carolina.  So am I.  The novel is set in the same geographic area where I grew up, and in a fictional town similar to the one that I grew up in.  The events in the novel are all things that – both from my personal experiences, from interviews I’ve done over the years, and from a lot of the people who read drafts along the way – have happened to people and / or are familiar to people, and thus, they are real events.  The novel is also written in first person more like a diary of sorts.  I laughed because it was a reasonable conclusion that I could understand, but not one I thought much about while writing the book.  I laughed because my colleague was incorrect, but not entirely incorrect.

My colleague was incorrect because the novel is entirely fictional – none of the characters in the novel are actual people and none of them are me.  Each one of them are composites of many people I have met, observed, interviewed, had relationships with, and otherwise encountered throughout my life.  Desperate for information on and experiences of bisexual (across the spectrum), transgender (across the spectrum), and poly (across the spectrum) people like me, and for even more information on lesbian, gay, asexual, intersex, kink, aromantic, and otherwise Queer people I admired, I began collecting the stories of everyone I could meet when I was a teenager.  Like the narrator, I would fill up journals with fictional versions of my own life (i.e., how it might be in other contexts) and fill journals up even further with all these stories of sexual and gender diverse experience, lives, and realities that were hidden just out of sight all around me.  Later in life, this actually ended up being incredibly useful training for life as an ethnographic, autoethnographic, content analysis, and interview-based researcher, and to this day, twenty years later, I still collect these stories every chance I get though now I do it both professionally and in my personal time.  My colleague was incorrect because the novel is not a retelling of my own story on its own, but rather, it’s more like a mix tape created by integrating the stories of hundreds of sexual and gender diverse / Queer people I have been lucky enough to meet, learn from, and become inspired by over the years.

At the same time, my colleague was not entirely incorrect.  While I do not exist in full in any of the characters or events, some of the events in the book are ones that I experienced as well.  Similarly, I remember very well living two distinct, separate lives as a younger person wherein almost all my straight friends and most of my family had no clue (to my knowledge, though I learned last year I was wrong in at least one case) about half of my life, and wherein my Queer friends knew more about the rest of my life but were never part of interactions I had with the straight, cis, mono world at the time (except secretly on rare occasions).  Further, there are little pieces of my personality, experience, and feelings as a teenager scattered throughout the book (i.e., a joke I like here, a place I hung out there, a conversation I had with someone here, emotions I felt in a tough or wonderful moment there, etc.), and in each of the main characters in the novel.  As someone very close to me put it after reading an early draft of the novel, “You’re everywhere and nowhere in this story.”  Put another way, the story is a mix tape of so many people’s stories, lives, experiences, and emotions, but I show up along the way as the curator of the collection hidden or embedded in this or that character or moment.

All these thoughts went running through my head as I sat in the hotel lobby with my colleague.  When I finished laughing, I simply said, “No, it’s not my story or the story of me, but it is one of what are likely millions of possible stories of people like me or like us.”  My colleague smiled, and asked what I meant.  I said, “Well, I basically took all the stories of people like us – mine and yours included – and put them together the best I could into a collective narrative illustrated through the lives of a group of kids in the 1990’s.”  My colleague laughed, and simply said, “How did you do that?”

Data and Methods

Integrating a wide variety of experiences is not easy, but luckily, it is what I do for a living as a researcher collecting and analyzing data sets of various sizes.  I began writing the stories that would become Cigarettes & Wine in my twenties, but I failed over and over again to accomplish whatever I wanted at the time (I’m still not sure).  I tried to write my own story, but I was never as good at that since I found other people more fascinating.  I tried to write it as a mix tape like I finally did last year, but I don’t think I had the skill set for that kind of writing before years of doing research for a living.  I tried to write it as a collection of disconnected journal entries from various people across the south, but it never seemed to work or flow well.  I gave up on it and pushed it aside when I got the chance to go to graduate school and try to develop a career as a scholar, researcher, activist, and teacher.  For eight years, while I published research, it sat there, a forgotten dream in the back of my mind.

When I decided to try it again last year with the support and encouragement of my life partner and best friend and after so many students suggested I should write a novel about all the stories I’d collected over the years, I approached the book as a research study and the stories I collected over the years – as well as my own experiences – as data for analysis.  Though I was only beginning to learn about it at the time, this approach is actually a rather common one in arts based research movements and traditions.  Despite the fact that, like the narrator in the story, I generally destroy my journals when I’m done with them because for some reason that feels good to me and they’re all made up fictional versions of life anyhow, I kept so many of the stories I collected from other people over the years and so I began to start reading back through them and thinking about remembering other ones and thinking about and making notes on my own experiences and those of other people.  Like I do with research papers, I began looking for patterns in the stories, and setting aside things that multiple people had experienced, dealt with, witnessed, or otherwise felt or known as part of their lives.  From this approach, I came up with a list of common events and experiences that appeared repeatedly in stories from people of varied sexualities, genders, locations in the south, religious backgrounds, family backgrounds, races, and other social characteristics.

Armed with these events as an outline for a narrative, I began creating characters based on integrating aspects of real people (say five or ten different people) into one whole character with thoughts, hopes, loves, fears, dreams, and personality quirks.  Although they changed a lot by the end of the composition process, these character profiles allowed me to start narrating the events that were common in the stories.  I initially tried telling the story from two other characters’ points of view before I finally got it to work with the narrator in the published version.  I also initially started telling a story that spanned from the 1990’s to now, but this proved to be way too much ground to cover so instead I broke it up into two and then three outlined novels (the second is now composed and the third is in progress of composition at present).  Once I had these raw materials (as I call them when I write research papers), I was ready to write the first rough draft of the story.

In the end, I wanted to accomplish three things with Cigarettes & Wine.  First, I wanted a bisexual and non-binary focused story after spending so many years wishing I could find one – much less one set in the world I grew up in – as a kid.  Second, I wanted a story where almost all of the character were Queer in one way or another and in different ways to illustrate the diversity of the amazing people I’ve met over the years who identify and live in so many different ways within the various umbrella terms we use.  Third and finally, I wanted a real story that captured experiences of Queerness in the south, and as a result, I only used events in the novel that showed up in multiple people’s lives over the years and explicitly sought to capture beautiful and ugly, wonderful and terrible things that Queer people experience in our world.

Results

Whether I’m thinking about my journalism, my blogging, my research publications, my short stories, or any other kinds of writing I have done over the years, I tend to agree with the perspective that only audiences can judge the results of a given work.  Personally, I feel like I accomplished the three things I set out to do with this novel, but now that it’s out, I believe that it will be up to readers to figure such things out.

Thinking about the responses and feedback of the people who were kind enough to do me the priceless favor of reading drafts of this work before now, I feel happy with the novel and I look forward to whatever comes next.  There were some that fully praised the work, and others who did not like it much at all.  There were some who thought it was too positive considering LGBTQIAP politics in America at present, and others who thought it was too negative in relation to the same.  There were some who thought the novel should have ended five chapters or so earlier, and others who thought it should have gone on for a few more chapters to offer more detail, resolution, or other bits of wrapping up.  For me, the fact that the reactions have spanned a diversity of opinions even among the relatively small pool of readers thus far suggests I may have got what I wanted – a real, complex portrait of the good, bad, and everywhere in between Queer people in the south experience.  I don’t know if this is correct or how others will interpret the work, but I’m happy with it and that counts for something in my mind.

Instead of trying to ascertain any concrete result or metric, when I think about Cigarettes & Wine as a now published work available for purchase by anyone, I think about the stories that have and continue to inspire me, that others have kindly shared with me so many times over the past couple decades, that resonate with me in cases of both similarity and difference, and that speak to a much wider, more complex, and more varied Queer existence then I can usually find in academic or mainstream media portraits and publications.

I think about talking with people in different states about things like burner phones, secret notes and mixtapes, and stolen kisses in the shadows where no one would see alongside so many other ways people found / find to live their Queerness in spaces that try to erase it from possible options.  I think about laughing with people of different races, ages, sexualities, and genders about awkward and sweet and sometimes scary moments when we first learned this term, that sexual practice, this type of toy or other material, or that type of intimacy.  I think about listening to stories about first loves who are still together – sometimes openly now and sometimes still secretive for many reasons – 30 years later, first loves that died way too soon, first loves that fizzled for any of a million reasons, first loves who were “such a mistake” and others who were “exactly what I needed.”  I think about violence that was explicitly directed at people for being sexual or gender diverse / Queer, violence that was simply tied to living in the south where guns and fights and poverty are often so visible and normal, violence that people heard about that shifted the ways they lived or felt in the moment, and violence that people were grateful for avoiding even when some felt guilty that they avoided it when others could not.  I think about discussions of accidents related to coming out or being outed by others, related to four wheelers, related to the friend who died when a gun went off or when the three wheeler flipped in the field, related to cars on highways and alcohol from plastic cups, related to lack of sexual education, and all kinds of other accidents that occurred as people tried to figure out who they were and tried to figure out how to manage rural and small town cultures.  I think about the conversations about the beauty of religion alongside the horror of religion alongside the fear and shame of religion alongside the liberation of religion depending on what religion, what location, and whether or not one’s Queerness was known to the religious.  I think about the conversations about hateful families alongside the conversations about supportive families alongside the conversations about chosen families.  I think about the conversations with so many more people who are out and open and relatively safe nowadays alongside the conversations with so many more who are still in hiding for one of a million understandable reasons who may or may not ever want to or be able to come out and live openly.

I think about all these stories and so many more, and for me, that’s what the book is about.  For me, Cigarettes & Wine is simply the first of a series of novels I am writing seeking to honor, celebrate, mourn, and embrace all the different forms and experiences of sexual and gender Queerness I’ve seen in my travels throughout the south.  For me, it is an attempt to share the good, the bad, the beautiful, the ugly, and in short, the complex wonder of the many different ways sexual and gender diversity play out and survive and even thrive even in places – like the Deep South – where we don’t often expect it or see it as openly displayed.  For me, it is also an attempt to say to Queer people in the south – and especially the bi and trans and poly folk like me who rarely see ourselves in even LGBT academic and mainstream media coverage – that you are not alone, that there is at least as much beauty as however much pain you might be facing, that the pain you may face is real and not your fault, that the beauty and wonder you find in you and your friends and lovers is also real and worth celebrating and fighting for, and that in the both the best and worst moments of your life you are part of a much larger population, story, and tradition that has and will continue to survive and fight with and for you.

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Why and how I started writing social science based novels

In this post, J Sumerau reflects on the processes and experiences that led zir to begin writing sociological based novels alongside their academic research and blogging endeavors (more information about the novel will be posted as it nears release).

The other day I posted about a dream come true on my Facebook page.  As far back as I can remember, I always dreamed of writing and publishing a novel, and earlier this week I signed the contract for my first novel to be published as part of the Social Fictions Series edited by Dr. Patricia Leavy.  Built upon the combination of my own experiences as a bisexual, genderqueer person and my research into the intersection of sexualities, gender, religion, and health in the historical and interpersonal lives of sexual, gender, and religious minorities, the novel is a bisexual and transgender coming of age story set in the southeastern United States in the 1990’s.  Since my hope is that the work will aid ongoing efforts to educate people about bi and trans experiences and we often use this blog as a way to reflect on academic, teaching, and activist experiences with writing, publishing, and teaching about personal and emotional elements of scholarship, I thought I would use this post to reflect on the experiences that led to the creation of the novel from ongoing academic and creative efforts to write where it hurts.

Like much of my work, the novel began accidentally in an inductive fashion.  I was driving through Georgia on my way back home one day when I found myself playing the same song over and over again on repeat in my car.  Every time the song played, I basically screamed – rather than singing – along to the words and felt a bit overwhelmed in the process.  These actions surprised me both because I had listened to the song many times – it was already one of my favorites – and I didn’t understand why I was having such an emotional reaction to the song at the time.  Seeking to figure it out, I stopped at a truck stop in a rural area, and spent about an hour pacing the mostly empty parking lot thinking about the song, what I was feeling, and my life in general.

When I was younger, I used to write letters to my past and future selves in some of the journals I kept as an exercise in self reflection.  Something about imagining a future and comparing the current me at a given time to the past versions of me that once existed was comforting, and often helped me process emotions, challenges, and writing ideas in productive ways.  As I paced the parking lot, I realized two things.  First, I had not written one of those letters to myself in a long time.  Second, the song I kept playing on repeat and screaming along to felt like one of those letters.  Somehow, when I sung / screamed along to the song I felt like I was singing to an earlier version of myself, and in so doing, I felt very emotional and kept thinking about the things that change and the things that stay the same over time.  I got back in the car, turned the song back on again, and restarted my drive home.

As I drove that day, I kept returning to the ways things change and the ways they stay the same over time.  It seemed like a powerful theme in my own life at the time, and I had been feeling caught between these two poles all year at that point.  On the one hand, I had somehow established a life partnership, close friendships, and a professional career that all were far more positive, satisfying, and fulfilling than I’d ever allowed myself to expect to obtain.  I felt more excited about my own life than I ever had, and I actually looked forward to (still do) time with my life partner, a close network of supportive friends and colleagues, my research and other writing, and my students.  I didn’t know what to make of this because I kept waiting on something to go wrong like it always had in the past.  These aspects of my life were so different from previous experience that I was constantly trying to make sense of my newfound luck.

On the other hand, however, many other things remained the same.  I still heard at least a handful of students every semester repeat the same questions I asked about a decade ago in college (for example, “why don’t scientists seem to know about, write about, or ever mention bi and trans people” or “how can I take these surveys seriously if they only include cis and mono people”).  I still got randomly accosted in bathrooms – the latest time being earlier in the drive through Georgia – because my embodiment in a given moment terrified some cis person.  I had just had my latest dust up with a colleague who was unfamiliar with bi and trans (and to an extent lesbian and gay) histories, terminology, experience, etc because cis, mono and hetero people are not required to learn about us in this world they control.  I had just met with another college student – this one from the area where I was raised who found me through my online blogging – who felt isolated and terrified living in a small southern town.  I still spent everyday in scientific and broader public settings where cis and mono normativities operate as dominant religions most Americans seek to enforce on everyone else, and met people – even many scientists and other well educated folks – who were unfamiliar with and / or actively denied the existence of bi, trans, poly, and some other types of people in our world.  These aspects of my life were so similar to decades past that I wondered if they would ever change.

With these things in mind, I finished my trip back home without ever changing the song playing from the speakers.  I’ve often come up with some of my best ideas – as a writer, a teacher, an activist, a researcher and a person – as a result of this or that song leading me to consider certain feelings, thoughts, or memories.  Aware of this pattern, I began randomly listening to the song and journaling about whatever thoughts and feelings arose over the next few weeks.  At the same time, I began digging through currently in use and old data sets I have of interviews, field notes and historical documents as well as old journal entries, memories, informal interviews I do with people for fun and to learn more about things for my own interests, and notes I kept about research and creative projects that never came to fruition.  In so doing, I found myself looking over notes I had for two novels I tried and failed to write while I was in college.  Back then, I never planned on being a college professor, a researcher, or a teacher, but rather, I had no clue what I would do for a living while dreaming of someday writing and publishing a novel (a dream I carried with me from my earliest memories).  Not for the first time, I realized that my mind was again leading me back to this original dream, and spent some time thinking about how the current version of me might tell the stories I began years ago.

I also spent some time with my life partner talking about all these issues over the next couple weeks.  My life partner pointed out that (a) I’d already accomplished the writing goal I set for myself after graduate school (i.e., I wanted 30 academic publications by the time I retired and I was past that arbitrary number now) in my four years post PhD, and (b) the security I managed to acquire with them and other aspects of my life gave me more flexibility about what I did with my time.  With these things in mind, they suggested maybe it was time to chase the original dream, and that even if I – as I hypothesized I would – failed it wouldn’t matter because I already had a career I loved and did well at so this could just be a hobby on the side.  Finally, my life partner asked me what novels about bi, trans, and poly experience might have meant to me as a kid, and what it might be like to have that resource for kids now, for colleagues still trying to make sense of these aspects of society, and for use in classrooms.  We kept talking about these things for a few weeks, and I kept going over all my notes, data sources, collections of published research, and story ideas.  In the end, I decided to give it a try almost entirely because they believed I could do it, and they convinced me that such stories might be at least half as useful to others now as they would have been for younger versions of me.

Fairly certain it would become yet another unfinished attempt (sometimes its nice to be wrong I guess), I began digging through all the research, narratives, interviews, and other materials I had as well as many of my own experiences over the years the same way I do with my non-fiction, research and advocacy writing projects.  As if I was outlining another analysis for a journal article, I looked for common experiences, feelings, and events throughout the sources to develop a cohesive plot for the novel.  Once I had this outline in hand, I began writing a bisexual and transgender coming of age story that – to my surprise – will be published as my first sociological novel as part of the Social Fictions Series in the near future.  I will post more in the coming times as the release nears, and in the end, my hope is that the novel may be useful both for bi and trans people looking for examples of the complexity and multiple forms of our lives in the world today, and for educators seeking to make sense of and teach about the rest of the world that exists beyond mono and cis normative assumptions.  While I’m still surprised I actually finished (much less found a way to publish) a novel after all the years of thinking “someday I’ll do that,” I look forward to what may come from incorporating my artistic interests into my existing scientific writing endeavors, and hope the work will be useful in a world where constantly explaining bi and trans existence (much less experience) remains a daily requirement for so many people who don’t fit the binary expectations of the broader society.

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