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. 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. 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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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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Creating Queer Kinship in “Straight” Spaces

In this post, Xan Nowakowski explores the importance of Queering Heterosexuality and “straight” as a heteroqueer (i.e., someone who identifies as primarily heterosexual and also Queer in other respects related to sexualities (i.e., kink, poly, mixed orientation relationships, etc.) and / or gender (i.e., trans, non-binary, genderqueer, agender, etc.) person existing between static notions of cisgender-monosexual-heterosexuality on the one hand and Queerness on the other.  Specifically, as an agender person primarily attracted to different sexes, they discuss using access to “straight” spaces to Queer such spaces and advocate for Queer Kinship and Justice in daily life.  

When I was in high school, my best friends and I were members of one of many “gay-straight alliance” groups formed throughout the US in the 1990s.  I always found the group’s name sort of odd, because it reduced sexuality to a binary and suggested that people of different sexualities supporting each other was a matter of formal “alliance” rather than basic human decency.  These days, I certainly feel glad to live in a society that is increasingly using inclusive language to craft and narrate queer spaces.  But I also realize the wisdom—if inadvertent at the time—in a name that illustrates the possibility of complex interplay between queer and straight identities.

Referring to myself as “straight” was also something I avoided before I could really give voice to why it made me so uncomfortable.  I was one of those kids who discovered at a pretty early age that they were interested in people with genitals different from their own.  But even though I never felt attracted to people with similar anatomy to my own, I never ruled out the possibility of that happening in the future either, nor did I feel any anxiety about that possibility.  I was fortunate to grow up in a home where my parents made clear that I would be loved equitably whether I were interested in males, females, intersex people, or all or none of the above.  Over time, the painful realization set in that many of my peers did not have that freedom.

I feel some of this pain now as I reflect on high school—a time I very much enjoyed that made me feel free to be myself both in the classroom and outside of it.  I did not realize at the time just how privileged I was.  I also had the wonderful privilege of a close friendship with an out gay male, and although I cringed at how he had been non-consensually outed by someone who was angry at him the previous year, I celebrated his self-assurance in enjoying an openly out life, as well as the degree to which the school community seemed to embrace him as a gay man.  It was only later, as my partners in more mature relationships gained a higher level of knowledge of their own sexuality and its social consequences, that I began to wonder if many of my peers had just ignored my friend, accepting him while at the same time erasing the core of who he was.

For reasons I have never really tried to unpack, I have generally felt most comfortable and happy in relationships with males who experience at least some degree of attraction to other male-looking people, even though I myself have never experienced attraction to a female-looking person.  And in terms of gender presentation, my partners have run the gamut from very rugged-looking to very delicate-looking, but all have embraced at least some degree of fluidity in relation to established gender norms.  Yet many did not understand what it meant to me to be agender, something I have known about myself with stunning clarity since long before I knew the technical term for it.  This growing sense of alienation made me reflect anew on my experiences in high school, and how differently I probably experienced the social environment surrounding my friend’s openness about his sexuality than he did.

I came to the uncomfortable and inexorable conclusion that although my high school was queer-friendly in many ways, it was fundamentally a straight space.  I would see this time and again in stories other friends told me about their own coming out—friends who had been so deeply closeted that not so much as a single rumor circulated about their sexuality when we were all in high school together.  These stories drove home just how much we were *not* “all in it together”, because togetherness and feelings of such were a privileged space for students whose sexuality did not deviate from those deeply entrenched norms.  Nobody questioned me for saying I did not feel threatened by the idea of one day being attracted to another female, because I was frequently seen in the company of males and it was well known that I had a history with several male students.  I rejected the term “straight” pretty vocally, but was that really enough?  Despite my openness about my gender identity, I also never considered the idea that I might myself be queer—that queer was more than just a double-edged term for “gay”.

In fact, the idea that I might be queer—and indeed, the very meaning of that term—did not register until I met my partner, the person I married just a few months ago.  In zer wedding vows, ze spoke softly about how I always *saw* who ze really was, in a world that often ignores zer entirely.  I could see my partner quite clearly—a bisexual, genderfluid person to whom I felt a pull like no other.  I celebrated zer sexuality and gender identity and thought about how nice it was to be with someone who really *got* it about my experience as an agender person, even though ze was not agender zerself.  But at the same time, I worried about not being “queer enough” to provide the kind of safe spaces that would truly nurture my partner.  This was a source of constant anxiety for me and frustration for my partner until one day, ze looked me in the eye and said, “Xan, this is what I’ve been trying to tell you all along.  You’re queer too.  You just don’t see it because you’ve always been embraced in straight spaces as well as queer ones.”

That got my attention.  I was still living with DID at the time, and looking back I wonder if this discussion might have been one of the events that led to my reintegration a few months later.  I learned that I was something called “heteroqueer”—a person who is attracted only to members of other sex groups, but feels comfortable with the possibility they might one day feel attracted to members of their own sex group.  Many heteroqueer people also queer gender and sexuality norms in other ways.  For example, I have experienced attraction to transmasculine people after they have achieved their physical transition goals.  I also queer gender every moment of every day by reminding people that there is no empirical relationship between what my body looks like, how I dress, how I behave, and whom I choose to invite into the most intimate spaces of my world.

Yet this was the first time I had ever come close to an integrated concept of what it meant to be both a “heterosexual” person and an agender person, or to prioritize spending my time in and enriching spaces for openly queer people, or to feel more fulfilled in relationships with bisexual partners, or any of those other things my high school activism had not remotely prepared me to address.  I just knew that I was “doing me”, whatever that meant, and that I felt a constant sense of anger and frustration that was starting to boil over.  Every time someone would use “straight” language or norms to describe my relationship with my partner, I would cringe and then start to go on the offensive.  And when people asked me stupid questions about my relationship with J, I fought to hold on to my composure.

My favorite of these ridiculous questions was “So J is bi…does that mean you’re bi now too?”  Yes, and being with a person who has a penis means that I have also magically grown a penis.  No, I am not bi.  As far as I know—and I have a fair amount of data to back up my suspicions at this point—I will never be bi.  And that is incredibly important, because the very fact that I exist—and that in so doing I make people acknowledge the heretofore unexamined reality that people like my partner exist—is still, even in today’s world, an affront to heteronormative thinking about relationships.  I have learned, with progressively greater degrees of discomfort and anger, that “straight” people are not supposed to want to date bisexual people, let alone marry them.  We are supposed to feel threatened and overwhelmed by their rampant, teeming, uncontrollable sexuality.  We are supposed to expect them to fuck anything that moves.  We are supposed to expect them never to feel fully satisfied by us.

Of course, those of us who *do* have bisexual partners know none of that has anything to do with bisexuality.  Nymphomania, hypersexuality, infidelity, ennui…these things all exist as well, and are worthy of attention.  But what emerges from daring to love a bisexual person in a straight world is a deep and nuanced knowledge of what “queer kinship” really means—and the responsibility I have in creating it.  I probably did some of these things unconsciously back in high school by affirming my friend and never erasing parts of his experience that broader norms and narratives could not seem to find spaces for—an example being the little-known attractions he had also experienced toward females, but generally those who exhibited aggressive and traditionally masculine behavior.  I saw my friend back then the same way I see my partner now, but I could not give voice to that sight even with him, let alone with anyone else.

Those of us who identify as heteroqueer have a unique opportunity to create queer kinship in places where it is not usually found—and indeed, where such kinship can make a profound impact.  We have a privilege reserved for few in our society, one that simultaneously grants us affirmation in both straight and queer spaces.  We speak both languages, as it were, but often spend so long battling norms that suggest we need to “pick a side” that we become exhausted and tapped out.  It is only since building a life with my partner that I have realized how much more freedom I have now, as an openly heteroqueer person whose partner and other loved ones see me and embrace me exactly as I am.  I feel like a complete person for the first time in my life, and it makes me ache for all those who cannot experience that fulfillment because there are no safe spaces in which to do so outside of intentional ones that only other queer people can access.

For those of us who constantly straddle the boundaries between queer and straight spaces, queer kinship is a precious responsibility that too often goes unmet.  We need to be more than allies who demur with phrases like “I’m not *really* queer”.  We are absolutely queer, and we absolutely need to be here.  But we also need to be *there*.  We need to keep spending time in the straight spaces where we are privileged to be welcome, and we need to keep breaking down the walls that keep our fellow queer people out—or as is more often the case, electrocute them if they attempt to enter.  In having the ear of both queer and straight communities simultaneously, we can challenge destructive norms about sexuality and gender and still escape to fight another day.  The scars we receive in these battles are worth every knotted inch of flesh, every jagged piece of skin.  We drink deeply from the nourishing well of queer kinship every day while also enjoying the continued embrace of our straight peers.  We must now build those wells for others in places where they can be accessed safely, without navigating pit traps or minefields.

Heteroqueer identity is an important cornerstone of queer kinship because it dismantles the idea that queer kinship cannot exist and thrive within straight spaces.  Embracing this identity, and taking the time to educate others about how queerness and straightness can intersect without destroying one another, offers more than just a means of liberating ourselves.  Rather, this work is profoundly essential for the overall goal of queer liberation.  Cultivating and nurturing queer kinship in straight spaces is worth doing at every opportunity, and at any cost.  When we do so together, we build a world in which everyone can truly “do them” instead of parroting this empty mantra to avoid working for real change.  Queer kinship is the path to a world in which closets exist only to hold clothing—a world in which every space is a safe one.

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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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When the Personal Meets the Professional Meets the Personal: One Queer Trans Guy’s First Week of the Semester Processing Session

Jay Irwin, PhD, is an Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. He received his PhD in Medical Sociology from the University of Alabama at Birmingham in 2009. He is heavily involved in activism and advocacy both on campus and in the larger community. His research and teaching involve LGBT health, trans identities, and sexualities.

I have just completed what has to be the most bizarre and emotionally draining first week of a semester – potentially in my entire academic career, both past and future. I had a rough summer to start. I had an invasive back surgery in July and was recuperating while teaching an online class from a rented hospital bed in my living room. I had a lot of time to think this summer and was excited for the Fall term to begin. I had modified my courses and was ready to engage students in new and exciting ways. My body wasn’t fully ready to go to work, but regardless, I had to go back to work and was intellectually charged to go engage with students. And then I had one of the most exhausting, bizarre, and hurtful first weeks ever.

THE PERSONAL MEETS THE PROFESSIONAL

Actually, this all started the Saturday before classes began. I teach an Intro to LGBTQ Studies course. To be more specific, I created the course, and I am the ONLY faculty member teaching this course. In this class we are conducting oral histories of LGBTQ people in the local community, part of a larger archive project my University just began this summer (http://queeromahaarchives.omeka.net/). I was contacting people all summer to gather a list of people whose history NEEDS to be recorded, and in my class, I am specifically prioritizing people over 50 years old, QTPOC, and trans folx, as their histories get lost the quickest. One person in particular was very excited to participate, but was currently in hospice care. They[1] were an influential and important member of my University community as well, so the archivist and I conducted the interview ourselves, on a Saturday, in their home, while their daughter and granddaughter sat by their side, holding their hand and giving them emotional strength. It was both beautiful and heartbreaking at the same time. They spoke about things – aloud – to people they’d not met before, about topics they’d spoken to very few people about. I felt honored that they let me into their life. I met their generous and amazing children and partner, who fought back tears as we said our goodbyes after the interview. Two days later they passed away. I learned about their passing in an email 15 minutes before I was to go teach my Intro to LGBTQ Studies class, where I would detail the oral history project to the students. And their history was the first life story contributed to this project.

I completely broke down. Thankfully my partner was able to talk with me and get me ready to go to class. When going over the syllabus and the project, I was honest with my students about how important this project is both personally and to the community. Our history in the local community is LITERALLY disappearing and will be forgotten if it’s not captured soon, and my community is not unique in this respect. I managed to not cry in front of the students, but I did see a few students wipe away a tear for a person they had never met. In fact, I knew this person formally for all of an hour and a half, but I can’t begin to explain the impact they have had on my life. I have never been so committed to a project like I am now with this oral history project. I refuse to let my local LGBTQ history, and more specifically the people attached to that history, go unrecognized and unremembered. I have a small suspicion that the person we interviewed held on a bit longer to life to be able to tell their story. To tell us their life. To gift us with their experiences. And I am forever changed as both a person and an academic because of it.

THE PROFESSIONAL MEETS THE PERSONAL

In this same week, I’ve helped students navigate the typical starting back to school stresses – where are my classes, what classes are still open as I haven’t enrolled yet, where do I find parking? But, as the only out trans faculty member on my campus, and someone that our students know from the larger community, many LGBTQ students come to me for support and affirmation of their identities. For example, I had a student show up outside my classroom door as I came in to teach my Intro to LGBTQ Studies class that first day. This student, who uses they/them pronouns, said to me “I need to get into your class.” No problem I said, I can get you a permit code, come on in. They said, “No, I NEED your class. I just got out of a class that was terrible and I NEED your class to feel safe.” I again assured them, no problem, and let’s talk about that other class after our class. I met with them, and they told me their concerns, largely that they felt invisible as a queer non-binary trans person in a white, cis, heteronormative space, and that they felt they had to educate their classmates on their own identities in a class dedicated to gender studies. Later in the day, I met with the professor who had unintentionally excluded this student by not being purposeful in including non-binary or LGBT students. I had to be careful in this conversation as to not make the faculty member feel shamed, but also to advocate for my student and to educate the faculty member on topics I assumed they already knew based on their own disciplinary background. It was an incredibly draining conversation, navigating multiple political levels, on my first day back at work after months off due to surgery, and on a day that I would work 11 hours due to my teaching schedule.

Next, at the end of the first week of classes, I got a call from the director of our LGBTQ center on campus, telling me she may need my help. She had just received an email that a student was in a course where the professor used the word “fag” in reference to gay people. Just in passing. Not as in the historical context of the word or referring to cigarettes in the British usage of the term. Just calling gay people “fags.” I was livid, as was the student and the director. Thankfully, my institution has mechanisms in place to address these situations, and those wheels are turning. But I couldn’t fathom, in 2016, how anyone involved in teaching would think that was acceptable.

To top it all off, a social media flare-up happened during the weekend after my first week of classes, all having to do with they/them singular pronouns. Yes, we’ve come full circle. I had posted, on behalf of my research collaborative’s official Facebook page, a video about how they/them pronouns are not new, are appropriate, and should be used. A debate ensued in which I felt personally insulted and attacked as a trans person. But, being the perpetual educator, I tried to rationally and reasonably respond to rather childish behaviors on the part of other professors at other institutions. As Facebook threads go, the conversation was on-going for about 3 days before it all settled down, but I refuse to be silenced and marginalized by other academics, whose expertise does not fall in LGBTQ or trans studies. I refuse to allow them to tell me and others within my community that they are not valid. That their pronouns are not valid. This is not how academia should work, and I’m consistently saddened to see that this is still sometimes how academia works.

OUR BLURRY AREAS NEED SUPPORT STRUCTURES

Thankfully, I have a healthy community of queer and trans spectrum friends and chosen family, both locally and from all over the world. They have reached out to me when I, the eternal external processor on social media, have posted vulnerable and raw posts discussing each of these issues. With every post, I’ve received love, encouragement, and affirmation. On Sunday, the day when all of the events of the week were being personally processed, I posted regarding my absolute exhaustion, but also my refusal to give up. My continued commitment to fight for those who are invisible in our society – the queer man who “looks straight”, the non-binary student who uses they/them pronouns but “looks like a girl”. And because my LGBTQ friends and family are amazing, I got lots of love. And then, something amazing happened. An academic inspiration to my own career – Jennifer Finney Boylan, the first trans academic that I ever saw, who helped me know that I could be an out trans academic – commented on my post and gave me support and love. It was the first time I had cried happy tears all week, a week of lots of unhappy, sad, frustrated tears.

I’m also incredibly thankful to work at an institution that, while not perfect (nor ever claiming to be), is making real systemic steps to address issues of racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, and all forms of bias campus wide. I have received so much support from administrators regarding the work that I do, which is not always the norm in academia. Support from my colleagues, department chair, dean, and upper administration has allowed me to continue to do the work that I do both inside the academy and outside in the advocacy world. I am grateful and lucky to work at such a university, a privilege I do not take lightly.

SUGGESTIONS FOR NAVIGATING THESE MURKY WATERS

I want to end my own, selfish processing session with some suggestions.

1.) We talk about self-care so much in academia and advocacy circles, but from my own experience, we are terrible about putting self-care into action for ourselves. Do not neglect self-care. Yes, advocate when and where you can, but know when you have to take a step back when your body, brain, and heart can’t go any farther without burning out. There’s a saying in activism circles about self-care: it’s like the safety instructions you get on an airplane – put on your own oxygen mask before you put on anyone else’s. You can’t be an effective advocate for others if you have suffocated yourself by working yourself to exhaustion.

2.) Surround yourself, as much as possible, with those that lift you up. You need those friends and family to keep going. Allow yourself to open up to them and be honest in those conversations. Tell them what you need. Ask for them to support you if they aren’t. And allow them to hug you (if you are one who’s into hugging, as I’m trying to become more comfortable with myself). Human contact can be so healing for us. If you are partnered, allow your partner(s) to comfort you. I can’t even begin to thank my partner for helping me so much this week, by holding me while I cried, by listening to me again complain and rage against injustice, and by just being an amazing human and loving me constantly. Find that one person you can tell anything to, who can be there to support you when you need it the most, whether it be a romantic partner or just a really close colleague.

3.) Find the balance that works for you. Not every academic who works with marginalized groups operates the same in terms of activism and rabble-rousing. I’m comfortable in that world (after slowly ramping up my work in advocacy over the last 10 years), but that’s not everyone’s sweet spot. Find how you are your best in regard to being a professionally engaged academic who is also fighting for social justice. There is no mold, and one size certainly does not fit all.

4.) To academics, just because we have a PhD does not make us experts in all of the human condition. Be open to learning more, and be willing to be challenged by your students. It is the height of academic elitism to assume we are the holders of all knowledge and that it is our job to impart it all to our students. My students teach me new things each and every day, and for that I am grateful. It does not make me less of an expert, but it does make me a better teacher.

In loving affirmation and solidarity, always.

Jay A. Irwin, PhD

Associate Professor of Sociology

University of Nebraska at Omaha

 

[1] I am using they/them pronouns to protect the anonymity of this person. These pronouns are not necessarily a direct reflection of their personal gender pronouns.

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Queer Bowls: On Mothering as Failure, Healing and Survival.

Simone Kolysh is a PhD Candidate in Sociology at the CUNY Graduate Center. They are also an adjunct professor at Brooklyn College and Lehman College, teaching in Women’s Studies and Sociology. Their work addresses intersections of gender, sexuality and race.  In this post, the second in our Queer Kinship Series, Simone reflects on experiences as a Queer parent. 

 

My mother, having caught me walking slowly by her couch, says ‘Can I ask you something?’ and I know that no good will come of it.

I hear ‘Why do you put a dress on him when he doesn’t know he shouldn’t wear it?’

I’m tired.

Rubbing my eyelids, I say, ‘Because he asks for it…because he’s happy in it.’

I leave.

Why does she even bother, I think, knowing full well that we won’t change each other’s minds? It is my three children, two marriages, and several gender and sexual developments in the ‘wrong direction’ too late for her to still attempt these conversations.

This time, the ‘he’ in question is my 2-year-old. He, and I use that pronoun tentatively, does not know gender for now or that most of the world will not understand that he should wear dresses just because. This child about whom my mother worries is not the one I want to talk about lately. I wish she’d talk to me about his sibling, the kid that’s 7 years old, the one using ‘she’ and ‘they’ pronouns as of last month. She wears dresses a lot more and says she’ll be a girl if my next child is not or that, you know, she is a girl but it’s complicated. I know that feeling. Gender is complicated for me too, as an agender lesbian person. Or, rather, it is very simple but the rest of the world makes it difficult.

She’s the daughter I was always scared to raise and a somewhat unexpected one at that, because while no one really thought this child would follow a straight path, pun intended, I did not know it would be now that she would say she’s trans. I whisper ‘I’m not ready’ and ‘But if anyone can raise her, it’ll be you’ back and forth in my head. My mother should ask me about what is going on but she won’t because she thinks of her as an already lost cause, the way she thinks of me. To her, there is still hope for my 2-year-old and maybe, if she starts her attacks on my parenting early enough, the way she did with my oldest, now 10, perhaps my youngest will grow up to be a boy.

So when I think of queer kinship, I think of my mother as its antithesis. My life will be forever marked by the enormous failure that is her lack of mothering. The space between her as a woman and me as a person is vast and monstrous-looking because of many traumas and I will always mourn the kind of acceptance and support that a mother should give her child. As part of the mourning process, I, like many others, have ripped out my roots and shred them swiftly and without regret. Yet, her actual physical being remains in my house and in my life and I just know that even when she dies, the many things she’s done and said will always haunt me until I die and perhaps bleed into my own parenting in ways unknown.

Sometimes, I wonder if my own fervent commitment to mothering my children and other people in my life is an act of rebellion against such haunting. I did not enter motherhood to rebel, quite the opposite, but I recommit to it time and again because, to me, it is now a clear political act. After all, mothers are treated like replaceable trinkets that are not worth much while others pay lip service to their important social location. In reality, many of us are sentenced to parenthood and find ourselves utterly full of despair and without support. Amazingly, we persevere and rarely abandon our young or each other. We thrive and make it work, despite many hardships and experiences of oppression. Further, the kind of mothering queer and trans folks are intimately involved in is a genuinely healing process without which there would be a lot more broken people.

Which is why my second thought regarding queer kinship goes to the Japanese art called Kintsugi, in which broken bowls are repaired with gold and other precious metals, so as to mark the history of the broken object instead of hiding that it’s been broken. Many of us that are queer and trans carry around deep mother wounds, even as if we see our own mothers broken before us. Many of us are now parents ourselves, trying to preserve our children and minimize their own shattering. All of us are queer bowls that have been repaired, sometimes carefully and sometimes without anyone noticing, by the numerous experiences, friendships and relationships we’ve had with others that are ‘deviants like us.’

What are the ways in which we are connected? In some ways, the making and sustaining of a queer kinship network defies a clear articulation. Sometimes, they are my friends from way back when; sometimes they are my students. Other times, they are strangers in the traditional sense but they are writing and living and surviving and providing all of us with models of being, of building families and of queer survival. In turn, they look to me for inspiration, for the kind of adult and parent they’d like to be, for ways to talk about sex, gender, and sexuality with kids or anyone else. Each of us thinks the other is brave and strong but each of us feels uncertain and precarious. We are the next generation or activists, scholars and elders. Our children, just like us, are growing up in an alternate dimension, a dimension that imagines a different future, while the general sense of reality is still a mainstay of a white hetero-patriarchy.

I find the constant fight to make a different future happen in my house and inside myself to be exhausting in profound ways but my final thought about queer kinship is that it is worth fighting for, because we cannot live a different life, a life without authenticity, and we must try to stick around so that others can do the same. Nevertheless, we must also speak to the wounds we bear on a daily basis because they build on our childhood wounds. As much as we mother each other, we cannot escape the fact that we have been failed by those who were supposed to do that work instead. When I think of my mother, I do not understand her bowl. She has not healed through me. Instead, she took the jagged pieces of her broken self and cut me constantly without hesitation, as if my tears and my pain are good enough results. When I think of my bowl, its earliest cracks have been the biggest and the gold with which they are now filled is very queer, the kind of queer people say is radical, as if that word has any definition. As for my trans daughter’s bowl, her childhood cracks will never be as bad as mine because the gold that is my queer kinship network is the kind of gold that alchemists chased through the ages, rare and powerful. That is the gold that will now coarse through her veins untamed and for that I will be eternally grateful to the many people that, by their existence alone, have made it easier for me to be this strong a mother, to be this strong a queer warrior.

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Have you seen me lately? A reflection on Queer Kinship

In this week’s post, the first in our Queer Kinship series, J reflects on the meaning of Queer Kinship in their life.

Earlier this year, a student of mine interested in content analysis and the structure of science sought to do an independent research study. I had recently been asked an interesting question at a conference, and so I selected twenty-five years of publications by five prominent sociology journals and had my student use these journals to try to answer the question. The question was simple – how often does sociology include the study of Bi and Trans people? While there are more details in the work in progress stemming from the analysis, the simple answer to the question was that between the late 1980’s and 2013 sociology, rather than the study of society as a whole, was almost entirely monosexual and cisgender based in these five prominent publication outlets. Even counting articles that only mentioned BT existence, there was only about 1 piece per year on average throughout the time period and within the vast majority of pieces published focused on mostly heterosexual and cisgender populations.

As I’ve written elsewhere, the aforementioned project fits in well with my experiences as a bisexual (on the pansexual end of the spectrum) and transgender (formerly transsexual, currently genderqueer/non-binary/crossdresser identified as I continue considering transition) person in sociology as well as academia more broadly. Even though I have been lucky enough to land a stable position in a department full of (often impressively) supportive, accepting, and accountable colleagues, and to develop a network of fellow BTLG scholars at other places over the years, I generally experience an occupational world wherein people like me don’t exist in the assumptions of the monosexual (mostly on the heterosexual side of this binary) and cisgender people who dominate the field or in their published works. Most surveys, as colleagues and I have noted elsewhere, provide the bulk of generalized information from the field, and yet they rarely have any way to admit the existence – much less capture the experiences – of people like me. As noted by other BT writers, this is part of long term patterns of BT erasure within and beyond academic settings.

At the same time my student was analyzing sociological literature, I was analyzing daily life – my own especially but other BT peoples as well – as part of another project. In so doing, I was cataloguing the multitude of times and ways people like me – wholly or in part – are cisgendered or monosexualized by others in their everyday lives (i.e., assumed to fit binary notions of gender and sexuality predicated upon binary notions of biological sex as a determining force in the composition of human desire and self identification). I catalogued disparities in public when I did or did not wear skirts with a visible beard, the vastly different ways people acted in monosexual minority (i.e., lesbian and gay) spaces when I said ‘I like men’ versus when I said ‘I’m bi’ and when I said ‘I’m into drag’ versus when I said ‘I’m trans,” and the countless ways monosexual and cisgender people misgender and missexualize myself and others based on their own assumptions and stereotypes both when they expressed support for BT others and when they did not. Similar to the analysis of sociological literature and previous observations about academic life, the message was the same – the existence of people like me was at best problematic or confusing for most monosexual and cisgender people I encountered regardless of their personal positions within these binaries.

I could give many more examples like the ones above from my own life, from interviews – formal and personal – with other BT people, and from our-storical records related to BT existence and experience. Instead of seeking to catalogue such a list, I use the aforementioned examples to explain what Queer Kinship means to me.

In its simplest formulation, I see Queer Kinship as the relationships wherein I am allowed and even encouraged to exist and be seen by others. For me, Queer Kinship means places and groups and relationships where people like me are not unexpected or problematic. Queer Kinship, for me, refers to the very few spaces, relationships, and situations wherein people move past monosexist and cissexist assumptions and norms to not only accept or tolerate BT people of varied types, forms and experiences, but actively embrace, expect, and look for us in their daily engagement with the world. Queer Kinship, again for me, refers to the efforts some people make to learn about and support BT people of varied types and experiences before they are forced to by activism, tragedies that actually get some news coverage, or an awkward encounter demonstrating our existence in their world. Queer Kinship refers to the interactions with others where I don’t have to wonder if they see me or if they will cause me harm because they actually see me. In my own experience, and that of many other BT people (as well as many of our lesbian, gay, asexual, and otherwise Queer cousins), such spaces and audiences are incredibly rare, precious, and necessary for well being in a monosexist (as well as heterosexist), cissexist (as well as patriarchal) society.

For me, Queer Kinship and the visibility and break from the rest of society it gives me shows itself in differential reactions to the same stimuli. I think about the store clerk who spots me in the makeup aisle and proceeds to stare at me, follow me, and even ask if I’m in the right place as a result versus my life partner seeing me in the same place on another night and offering to get me some new eyeliner. I think about people looking at the fact that I’m in a committed relationship and asking if I’m heterosexual, monogamous or done with the “gender stuff” now versus my life partner and I talking about men we both find cute over drinks; about the ways we decide as a unit how monogamous, polyamorous or anywhere in between we decide to be at a given time; and about plans and details we would need to work out together if I do transition later in life. I think about people awkwardly shifting between cisgender pronouns and terms depending on how I appear in a given moment versus my best friends and life partner treating me equally well no matter how I’m dressed or appearing in a given moment. Because I’m lucky enough to have a kinship group that I can rely on and be there for every day, I can actually come up with far more examples of such discrepancies than I have room for here. In fact, I was actually saddened when I was working on this piece by how easy it was to make a list of such examples that was far too long for comfort.

In the end, for me, Queer Kinship matters because the people closest to me provide me with most of (and some weeks the only) times when I know I’m seen without it hurting in some way. In my profession, the literature my profession creates, and my daily life, I get by like so many others worried about any time my differences are noticed while also wishing I could be seen in a safe manner by the rest of the world. But in the eyes, arms, and moments spent with my own little Queer family and network, I get to be seen and I get to experience this without the fear of danger that accompanies such visibility in other spaces. That, for me, is the importance of Queer Kinship in the forms that show up in my own life, and the forms that show up in other ways for many other people I have come across over the years.

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