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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