The Cislation of Transness in Higher Education and Student Affairs Scholarship, Part 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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