This post seeks feedback on transgender experience in the academy and sociology specifically, and comes from the Sociologists for Trans Justice subcommittee regarding the creation of interdisciplinary best practices for departments, chairs, faculty, and staff.
As an undergraduate student, I sat down in my sociology department’s Deviance & Society class, exhausted from a rough semester. This wasn’t my first sociology course, and I had grown tired of the ubiquitous cissexism in class after class – be it theory, gender, or any other topic. I always expected the worst, but did not anticipate what would happen this fall morning. The professor began excited and full of energy, ready to discuss rape, sexual violence, and sexual harassment. To begin, she stated that one in three women in Utah (the state we were in) experienced sexual assault. “I want us to realize how many people in this room this affects,” she remarked, and began counting those she assumed to be women in the room. “One, two, three; okay, you raise your hand.” She went around the hundred-seat auditorium repeating this until she reached the final seat. I felt my body clench, and my legs began shaking anxiously. I didn’t know what to do. Would she count me? Would she ignore me?
I know that people rarely see me as a woman. As a nonbinary trans femme, even when I am presenting in a stereotypical feminine manner, people too often only see me as a very flamboyant gay man, but she knew, from prior conversation, that I wasn’t; yet she still ignored my presence in the count. Trans people experience high levels of sexual assault, with 47% of respondents in the most recent National Transgender Discrimination Survey (2015)[i] reporting sexual assault at least once in their life. These rates are even higher for nonbinary folks (55%) and people of color (65% American Indian, 53% Black, 48% Latinx, 58% Middle Eastern, and 59% multiracial), and even higher for nonbinary people of color (74% American Indian, 65% Black, 55% Latinx, 62% Middle Eastern, 67% multiracial). I have never been assaulted, but I have experienced sexual harassment and unwanted touching that I had little recourse to escape. When my experience and the experience of people like me was ignored in class, I had no idea how to feel other than to realize that violence against trans/nonbinary people would continue to go unnoticed.
Experiences like these, as I already stated, are not isolated to one sociology professor or one class or even sociology as a field. Cissexism pervades academic discourse, pedagogy, and methodology, and it is critical that academics begin to tackle it. Sociologists for Trans Justice (S4TJ) officially formed in 2016 with a mission “to support trans, non-binary, and intersex scholars in sociology; to advance trans and intersex studies; [and] to increase public understanding.”[ii] As part of this group, two other scholars and I comprise a sub-committee regarding the creation of an interdisciplinary best practices guide for departments, chairs, faculty, and staff.
Part of this work has involved pouring over the literature regarding the experiences of trans/nonbinary students, staff, and faculty, as well as recommendations for change. This expanding literature includes whether to ask pronouns or not; whether professor’s should state their own pronouns; altering syllabi to include trans/nonbinary scholars and scholarship; reframing analyses and discussions outside of a cissexist frame; the need for mentorship of students, staff, and faculty; the transformation of institutional policies regarding name/gender marker changes, bathrooms, and housing; and the role of faculty in facilitating justice. Despite the growth of this literature, it remains limited in topic, scope, and focus.
Thus, as members of S4TJ, we are seeking feedback from sociologists. We seek comments and responses from trans/nonbinary and intersex scholars regarding your experiences in sociology and academia, and recommendations you have for transforming the field and higher education. We also seek comments and responses from cisgender scholars, department chairs, and other administrators. In what ways does your department facilitate cissexism, and what information do you need to challenge this?
It is critical as scholars that we work to ensure not merely the inclusion of trans/nonbinary and intersex folks in higher education, but to foster a critical trans politics. Critical trans politics “demands more than…recognition and inclusion, seeking instead to transform current logics of state, civil society security, and social equality” (Spade 2011: 19)[iii]. Inclusion remains limited in ensuring that students have access to an equitable and representative education and that faculty and staff are ensured equity, agency, and legitimacy within their respective departments. Individuals can be included into any space without its actual transformation. However, trans/nonbinary and intersex scholars deserve more than entrance into a bed of thorns. We deserve programs in which we can collaborate, connect, and think, bringing our whole selves into our work in order to facilitate critical knowledge production.
Additionally, the harm and violence produced within academia must recognize the stolen land we occupy, the Indigenous lives lost in the settlement of these so-called United States (and elsewhere), and the ways in which inclusionary politics and “multiculturalist” politics often delink sexual and gender violence from racism and white supremacy. “The protection of sexual orientation [and gender]…is narrated as racially neutral” (Ellison 2015: 332)[iv] although the actual harm never is. Thus, our work must ensure that the lived experiences of trans/nonbinary and intersex individuals of color are centered, that trans/nonbinary and intersex people are afforded agency, leadership, and power within academia, and that our work remains vigilantly intersectional.
Justice work and its production is never an isolated event or an individual project. It is a collaborative and coalitional process, and we need your help to ensure that the information we are providing actually meets the needs of trans/nonbinary and intersex scholars. Please, comment on this article and tell us what you need as a trans/nonbinary and/or intersex student, staff, or faculty member to see trans justice manifest within academia. Cisgender staff and faculty, please, comment and let us know what information you are lacking and what challenges you need assistance in facing. If you wish to provide feedback, you can send an email response to email@example.com (these will be forwarded to the committee and trans justice organization), titling the subject, “Best Practices.”
[i] James, Sandy E., Jody L. Herman, Susan Rankin, Mara Keisling, Lisa Mottet, and Ma’ayan Anafi. (2016). “The Report of the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey.” National Center for Transgender Equality. Retrieved December 3, 2016 from http://www.transequality.org/sites/default/files/docs/usts/USTS%20Full%20Report%20-%20FINAL%201.6.17.pdf.
[ii] Sociologists for Trans Justice. 2017. “Our Mission.” Retrieved December 3, 2016 from http://www.transjusticesyllabus.com/s4tj/.
[iii] Spade, Dean. 2011. Normal Life: Administrative Violence, Critical Trans Politics, and the Limits of the Law. New York City: South End Press.
[iv] Ellison, Treva. 2016. “The strangeness of progress.” In E. Patrick Johnson (ed.) No Tea, No Shade: New Writings in Black Queer Studies (pp. 323-345). Durham, NC: Duke University Press.