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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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