Transgender Justice Inside and Outside of the Classroom

Over the past several decades, transgender people have fought tirelessly for social justice. Indeed, they have been instrumental organizers and frontline activists for nearly all contemporary social movements. Although we have all benefited from trans activists’ unyielding commitment to a more just society, we have failed to return the favor.  

As a queer nonbinary scholar who studies gender inequality, I feel well-positioned to engage with lay audiences about trans justice. Further, as a white person who is typically gender-conforming in my expression and commonly perceived as a man, I enjoy social privileges that allow me to speak about trans justice without being questioned, dismissed, or having my legitimacy challenged. I take these privileges seriously—combined with my knowledge about trans justice, these privileges provide me with a unique toolkit from which I, as an individual, can chip away at the larger social structure that systematically oppresses trans people. But, as a sociologist, I also know that social problems are not solved by individuals; they require collective action. Unfortunately, when I pause to take stock of what my scholarly community has done for trans people, I feel that trans people have been, at best, forgotten and, at worst, purposefully ignored, excluded, and victimized.

Scholars maintain unique privileges that allow us to think about, talk about, and act against the injustices that trans people face. We carry with us the knowledge, research methods, and, most importantly, institutional authority to not just speak, but to speak and be taken seriously. And I’m not just talking about sociologists or gender scholars. I’m talking about scholars of all disciplinary stripes.

Despite this power to engender social change, I feel let down by my scholarly community. I regularly hear stories from trans colleagues—students and faculty—that reflect a hostile environment for trans people. I also see this hostility in my own experiences within the academy, ranging from total apathy, to interpersonal acts of transphobia, to institutional exclusion that renders invisible trans people and their work. As someone who has had hands in professional affairs across my university, discipline, and scholarly community, I sense little institutional urgency to seriously promote trans justice. Of course, there are exceptions, but the exceptions typically prove the rule—the scholars who are on the frontlines of trans justice are often trans and nonbinary scholars.

That most people reading this blog are probably oblivious to the daily social injustices that trans people face reinforces my grief. And admittedly, I sometimes feel guilty for my anger. I feel like I need to apologize on behalf of the scholars who “just don’t specialize in transgender studies.” I feel obliged to give scholars the benefit of the doubt, to write off ignorance as unintentional, a latent consequence of the broader cisnormative society that assumes and expects all people are or should be cisgender. Although our cisnormative society is certainly a material reality that we must confront, I am not so quick to dismiss the agency of a community of people who generally have so many resources at their fingertips.  

I feel compelled to provide “Trans & Nonbinary 101,” despite the fact I’d rather see my cisgender peers do it. I can talk about the concerns that circulate my trans and nonbinary community, both in and out of academia, and so I do it because people’s lives literally depend on it. A growing body of research shows that trans and nonbinary people are vulnerable to homelessness and poverty, experience discrimination and microaggressions that lead to health-harming behaviors, and face resistance in religious institutions as they seek theological recognition. We also know that trans people have alarmingly high rates of attempted suicide and endure similarly high levels of violence and harassment, especially trans women of color. In fact, the now seemingly routine murders of trans women of color have been described by trans activist Laverne Cox as a “state of emergency.”

Through my own research I try to highlight the everyday social dilemmas of nonbinary people, or individuals who do not exclusively or consistently identify with binary categories (i.e., woman and man). Nonbinary people, who are generally considered a subgroup within the broader trans community, endure unique challenges. Many of my nonbinary interviewees reported an ongoing sense of vulnerability and anxiety about being accosted by others in public places like restrooms. They worried about being harassed for their ambiguous or ungendered presentation of self, questioned about the legitimacy of their identity, or having to come out over, and over, and over again just to experience social visibility. A common theme that surfaced in my interviews, and one that is generally reflected in narratives across the trans spectrum, is misgendering, or referring to a person—intentionally or otherwise—with incorrect pronouns and nouns. Although most of my interviewees prefer ungendered pronouns like “they,” many of them said that they regularly allow people to misgender them in order to gain employment or promotions, avoid violence and confrontation, or just to smooth out what could otherwise turn into awkward social interactions. Imagine having to constantly defer to people who mis-identify you, just to make it through your day. Now imagine doing it day, after day, after day.

I say all of this not to suggest that scholars are somehow solely responsible for trans injustice. Instead, I want scholars to see themselves as implicated within the larger social system that oppresses trans people. Of course, all people are implicated in all systems of oppression. Importantly, however, it is critical that we all examine the varying degrees of power and privilege we have to challenge those systems. And, broadly speaking, scholars have a lot of power to do just that. I also recognize that not all scholars enjoy the same degree of power and privilege within our institutions. Women, scholars of color, undocumented scholars, scholars with disabilities, non-tenured faculty, and those who lie at the intersection of multiple marginalized categories, face their own unique injustices that limit their resources and opportunities to challenge systems of inequality. Although I am speaking to all scholars, I speak to you with the recognition that we all have a different role to play in restructuring our institutions, and that’s OK. By character of our different social positions, some of us need to take on a larger proportion of the heavy-lifting than others.

Moving forward, I want to devote some space to outline a few ways that scholars can use their privilege in three primary realms of their profession—teaching, research, and service—to become better allies to trans people. The list below is not exhaustive by any stretch, but it is a start.  

Trans Justice and Teaching

Set the tone for gender inclusion in the classroom. As instructors, we must acknowledge the tremendous amount of diversity that now characterizes colleges and universities. Trans students exist, and they are in our classrooms. On the first day of class, I like to pass out index cards where students have the option to list their pronouns. I prefer index cards, rather than going around the classroom and asking, because some students may feel uncomfortable or unsafe sharing about themselves in this new and unfamiliar space. I like this method because it helps me correctly identity students how they wish to be identified and, in turn, provides me with an opportunity to get to know them better. I realize that many instructors teach large classes where it can be difficult to memorize over one hundred names and pronouns. Here’s the thing: I’m not asking for perfection. I’m asking you to try.

Teach about real trans people. Trans people have always existed, and for as long as they have existed they have made remarkable contributions to science, culture, politics, art, history, and justice. Teach about their real contributions—our students deserve to know about them. They are artists, actors, writers, film makers, producers, scientists, historians, doctors, lawyers, scholars, soldiers, and politicians. Stop rendering their lives and work invisible. Celebrate them and their contributions.

Assign course material and use examples that engage transgender issues. There is an overwhelming body of scholarship and literature that details, analyzes, and explores issues that transgender people navigate in everyday life. To be sure, this work exists across virtually all disciplines. When you assign course readings that only highlight the experiences of cisgender people you render trans lives invisible. One fantastic resource (that can be used across academic disciplines) is the #TransJusticeSyllabus, which was developed by the organization Sociologists for Trans Justice. This thorough document not only includes trans-, nonbinary-, and intersex-centered literature, it also provides useful recommendations for how to use the syllabus. I have provided a link below.

Educate yourself about trans issues and trans terminology. The terminology within the [trans] gender lexicon has rapidly evolved. As our understanding of gender has evolved, it seems reasonable that an evolution of the language we use to discuss gender has followed. It is not appropriate to joke about or mock someone’s gender identity, expression, or gender transition. If you are going to engage with trans issues in your class you need to take it seriously. This means understanding the difference between gender and sex assigned at birth. It means disallowing epithets like “tranny” or “transvestite” to be used as jokes at trans people’s expense. It means recognizing that most trans people no longer use the term “transsexual,” as it emphasizes a person’s sex assigned at birth rather than their gender identity or expression. Although this should all go without saying, my experience in academia suggests that this is still an issue that must be put on the table. Below, I’ve offered a citation to a book by Susan Stryker, Transgender History, that provides a gentle introduction to terminology used in the trans community.

Trans Justice and Research

Incorporate trans people into your sampling. When I look through so-called “nationally representative” samples, I often find zero trans, nonbinary, or intersex people. I realize trans people may be a small proportion of the population, but they are certainly not a trivial proportion. According to a 2016 report by the Williams Institute, approximately 700,000 adults in the United States identify as transgender.  I realize that sampling is sometimes out of our control—the surveys we use are often ones we did not create. But I wonder, have you talked to anyone about the lack of trans, nonbinary, intersex, and queer representation in surveys? Have you ever emailed the primary investigators who run these large data collection efforts? What actions have you taken to engender better representation? For more on this, see articles below by Sumerau et al. (2017) and Nowakowski et al. (2016).

Ask research questions that foster trans justice. As a scholar activist, I see it as my mission to create social change within and through my discipline of sociology. Like being a feminist scholar, my identity as a scholar activist means asking research questions that orient me toward identifying, analyzing, and challenging systems of inequality. When it comes to transgender research, cisgender scholars have a notorious history of objectifying, exploiting, and pathologizing their trans participants. Let’s correct this history by asking research questions that allow us to uplift the stories of trans people and generate interventions to combat the injustices they experience in everyday life.

Cite trans scholars.  Citations matter. Part of supporting trans people means supporting the work they are doing within academia. I know I don’t just speak for my own discipline of sociology when I say that trans people are engaging in important and interesting work that we should recognize. If you know trans scholars who are producing scholarship in your area of expertise, take some initiative to read and cite their work.

Organize trans-focused paper sessions at conferences. Conferences are an important way that scholars publicize their research. However, when scholars submit their research to conferences, they may be limited by the specific themes of paper sessions. Historically, this has been a barrier for trans scholarship. In fact, just this past year, I participated in the American Sociological Association’s first ever regular paper session on Transgender Studies, and it was well-attended and wildly successful. We need more of these sessions! If you are interested in organizing a paper session, consider organizing one that focuses on transgender studies.   

Trans Justice, Service, and Professional Behavior

Recruit and hire trans faculty. Trans people are underrepresented in our departments, especially trans women and nonbinary people of color. Representation matters. Recruitment and search committees should actively seek out trans scholars. In my own discipline, I know of many trans scholars who are doing interesting and important work. These scholars deserve our attention. Importantly, however, it is critical that we also create welcoming and safe environments for trans scholars whom we invite to our departments for job talks. It is not uncommon for trans job candidates to report misgendering, microaggressions, or having jokes made about their gender identity or expression.

Assume your department has trans people, even if you are not certain. Many trans people in the work place do not disclose their trans identity for fear of harassment or retribution. Consequently, you may be unaware that there are trans people in your department. This should not preclude you from working to create an environment that is safe and welcoming. How do you accomplish this? Seek out inclusivity training at your institution, and bring a colleague with you—many universities provide some kind of voluntary inclusion training that is often under-utilized; talk to your department chair about ways that you can make the department more inclusive; hold colleagues accountable when they make transphobic remarks; invite trans scholars from other institutions to present their work at colloquia; figure out if your department has gender neutral restrooms, and petition your dean if it does not have them. There are many seemingly small things we can do that make a big difference.

Take mentorship seriously—it really matters. Research shows that strong mentorship within institutions is a useful mechanism to support marginalized groups. Mentorship does not always require extensive supervision or hand-holding—it an take a variety of forms. Some ways that senior faculty can provide mentorship include regularly checking in with junior trans faculty and trans graduate students, asking them to collaborate on research projects or writing articles, offering them teaching materials, taking them for coffee, introducing them to other scholars at conferences, or just knocking on their office door to say “hello.” Many of the most successful scholars made it to where they are now because they were fortunate enough to receive outstanding mentorship. Trans scholars deserve mentorship, too.

Additional Reading and Resources:

Trans Justice Syllabus (website): http://www.transjusticesyllabus.com/

Trans Student Educational Resources (website): http://www.transstudent.org/

Gardner, Lee. 2017. “Why Trans* Students Matter.” Chronicle of Higher Education. https://www.chronicle.com/article/Why-Trans-Students-Matter/239305

Hanna, Alex. 2016. “Being Transgender on the Job Market.” Inside Higher Ed. https://www.insidehighered.com/advice/2016/07/15/challenge-being-transgender-academic-job-market-essay

Nowakowski, Alexandra C.H., J.E. Sumerau, and Lain A.B. Mathers. 2016. “None of the above: Strategies for Inclusive Teaching with “Representative” Data.” Teaching Sociology 44(2): 96-105.

Schilt, Kristen and Danya Lagos. 2017. “The Development of Transgender Studies in Sociology.” Annual Review of Sociology 43:425-443.

Stryker, Susan. 2017. Transgender History. 2nd edition.

Sumerau, J.E., Lain A.B. Mathers, Alexandra C.H. Nowakowski, and Ryan T. Cragun. 2017. “Helping Quantitative Sociology Come out of the Closet.” Sexualities 20(5-6): 644-656

Harry Barbee is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Sociology at Florida State University. Harry’s research examines the resistance, reproduction, and management of inequality, particularly within the realms of gender, sexuality, and health/medicine.

The featured image is from Talent Economy.

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