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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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 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Trans Peer Review: A Call for Submissions from Transgender Academics

Kale Edmiston, PhD is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Pittsburgh Department of Psychiatry. He is a transgender person and neuroscientist whose research focuses on visual system function in anxiety, as well as transgender healthcare.

What would a transgender peer review look like?  Where does knowledge about transgender people originate and how is it cited? This blog series will ask questions about what it means to publish on trans identities and trans bodies. For this series, transgender scholars will address these questions by providing critical, collegial review of the recent transgender literature in their discipline.  We are especially interested in pieces that address unexamined ciscentrism in the peer-reviewed literature, as well as pieces that offer alternative research questions, hypotheses, or interpretations that center transgender ways of knowing.

How does cisgender identity bias scholars? How would scholarship that engages with trans topics look if it were produced and funded by transgender scholars?  It likely would include fewer rehashes of Trans 101. It might emphasize the ways that racism, classism, ableism, ageism, mononormativity, and heteronormativity impact trans people. Such a literature would certainly be less concerned with why we exist or how best to categorize and describe us. Historically and continuing in the present day, much of the transgender literature wonders, “How can we correctly identify transgender people?” Transgender scholars may prioritize different questions. However, many transgender academics are often more junior due to legacies of exclusion from higher education, and struggle to build collaborations and access resources controlled by more established cisgender scholars and researchers.

We invite trans-identified scholars to contribute to a public peer-review series of the recent cross-disciplinary transgender literature.  This is an interdisciplinary project, and we invite submissions from trans-identified scholars in humanities, social sciences, and STEM disciplines who engage with transgender topics as a part of their scholarship.

If you’re interested in participating in the series, please direct any questions or submission ideas to wewritewhereithurts@gmail.com or edmistonk@upmc.edu.

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