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You may consider this rather long essay a follow-up to my earlier blog post, “A Response to My University President’s Essay on Free Speech.” In that essay, I responded to my university president’s essay in the Hechinger Report entitled, “Defending the ‘right to be here’ on campus.” In his essay, Dr. Ronald A. Crutcher expressed the following concern regarding limitations on free speech on college campuses:
[I]n a Gallup poll released and supported by the Knight Foundation, 92 percent of students said they believed that political liberals could “freely and openly” express their views on campus while only 69 percent of students said that conservatives enjoyed such freedoms…Overall, 61 percent of students, a sizable majority, said that their campus climate prevented some people from speaking freely. In the current climate, it appears that those most likely to be silenced are those who hold politically conservative viewpoints.
Following the bloody white nationalist riot in Charlottesville, VA just before Fall 2017 classes started at the University of Richmond (UR), President Crutcher sent a campus-wide email expressing a commitment to promoting diversity and protecting free speech. Nearly a year later, he is still citing free speech and diversity in the same breath. Historically, these values have been championed to undermine the censorship and exclusion of oppressed minority groups. Ironically, today, those who wish to roll-back protections for equal treatment (on campus and across the nation) pervert these values by calling for protections for conservative free speech and the promotion of political, intellectual, or viewpoint diversity.
In a way, I see Dr. Crutcher’s free speech campaign as opening the door for Tuesday’s talk by Ryan T. Anderson, invited by the UR law student group the Federalist Society. In the spirit of free speech, the university will be rolling out the metaphorical red carpet to a research fellow at The Heritage Foundation. (The Foundation promotes conservative public policy and “traditional American values. It’s essentially a hate group, in my opinion.)
Anderson’s talk is based on his book, When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Moment, which has been described as “junk science,” garbage peddled to demonize transgender people as mentally ill, delusional, and a threat to the nation. GLAAD (a national organization promoting positive inclusion of LGBTQ people in the media) has delineated Anderson’s campaign to undermine LGBTQ rights, including calling for the exclusion of trans people from the military on the basis of the aforementioned junk science, opposing same-sex marriage, and promoting conversion therapy for LGBTQ people (which is proven to be ineffective and dangerous).
Inviting “Both Sides” To Campus
When I raised alarm about the talk on an UR faculty listserv, I was surprised to hear one colleague suggest that transgender and non-binary students should attend the talk to learn from “the other side” — after all, they had better get used to facing disagreement from others. (Such indifference to transphobic rhetoric is a reflection of cisgender privilege, as my colleague is ignorant to the ways in which our trans students already endured 18+ years of transphobia before stepping foot on our campus. And, the added pain they feel in experiencing it on campus, too.) Dr. Crutcher’s essay also echoed this notion of disagreeing “sides”:
Anyone with a voice and an opinion can shout down a speaker. But listening requires patience, empathy and intellect — the building blocks of civility. If we hope to compromise, we need both sides of each argument to find common ground, and to respect the diversity of perspectives and backgrounds that color these opinions.
Following the Charlottesville white nationalist riots that resulted in one person’s death and multiple injuries, the US president blamed “both sides” (i.e., white nationalists and other bigots versus the Black Lives Matter movement and other anti-racist activists).
What is troubling here is that these sides are being treated as equal, potentially respectful parties. There are at least two major flaws in this mindset. First, there is the false equivalence of what is at stake for each “side.” On one side, you have privileged individuals (middle- or upper-class heterosexual cisgender men) promoting biblical passages, fake science, and other political rhetoric that not only questions the existence of queer and trans people, but also promotes violent methods of eliminating us. They characterize treating trans people with dignity and respect as an infringement on their civil liberties and religious values, ranging from recognizing one’s gender identity and referring to them by their pronouns to allowing trans people to use public restrooms that correspond with their gender identity and expression. On the other, you have oppressed individuals (i.e., LGBTQ people) who are crying out against discrimination, exclusion, violence, erasure, and censorship. What sort of compromise would appease the oppressor, whom is invested in the dehumanization of the oppressed?
Dr. Crutcher would have us patiently, empathically, and intellectually listen to those who are literally calling for our extermination. We know how they feel; they do not need to be invited onto our campus to let us know their views. And, it’s clear that the talk is for cisgender individuals who want “scientific evidence” to justify cissexist oppression. Meanwhile, it naively assumes that the “other side” simply hasn’t had the opportunity to listen to trans and non-binary people with “patience, empathy and intellect”; our stories are the very reason why they have set out to eliminate us or at least rob us of equal treatment under the law.
The second major flaw is that those who hold this “both sides” mindset are ignorant of the fact that there is a systematic disparity between these sides. Cisgender heterosexuals hold a great deal more power on college campuses and beyond than do LGBTQ people. These communities are the dominant focus of research and curricula taught in college classrooms. Meanwhile, LGBTQ studies research and classes remain marginal – in number, in resources, and in prestige. To my knowledge, I am the only trans or non-binary identified professor at UR, and one of just a few who do research on trans and non-binary individuals and even fewer who cover these communities in my classes.
The university is complicit in reinforcing the dominance of cisgender heterosexual viewpoints on campus, including those speakers who oppose LGBTQ rights (or even our existence). In my second month as faculty at UR, the PPEL program invited Princeton University philosophy professor Elizabeth Harman to pontificate on whether it is best if parents abort gay, Black, and/or deaf fetuses to spare them a lifetime of homophobia, racism, and/or disability and ableism. (Note that the PPEL program is partly supported financially by the Koch Foundation, which has funneled millions into colleges to promote socially and fiscally conservative ideology.) A year-and-a-half later, UR’s law school invited Ohio State University Professor of Law Joshua Dressler to advocate for the use of the “gay panic defense” to justify violence by straight men against gay and bisexual men whom they erroneously assume to be hitting on them. And, now, the university welcomes Anderson to peddle scientific transphobia, continuing a long tradition of using science to advance oppressive causes like eugenics and other forms of scientific racism.
And, the pattern extends beyond the practice of inviting bigoted cis heterosexual speakers to talk about LGBTQ rights but relatively few, if any, queer and trans experts on the subject. President Crutcher’s essay includes a brief self-congratulatory reference to inviting Karl Rove – a conservative US-born white man with a history of racially offensive commentary – to speak about immigration. That talk was one of last year’s Sharp Viewpoint Speaker Series that featured 5 highly visible/wealthy/powerful cisgender men, all but one of whom were non-Hispanic whites, who came to speak about free speech, immigration, and identity. The 2018-2019 line-up also includes one (token) person of color, as well as a conservative white man who will speak on fostering “viewpoint diversity” and a college president who pushed campus policy to ban the use of trigger warnings for material that may be upsetting for student survivors of sexual violence and oppressed students.
The privilege afforded to US-born wealthy heterosexual cisgender men without disabilities allows their views to be placed front and center in almost every context. The university doesn’t need to give them anymore of a platform than they already have. Rather, a genuine commitment to free speech would look like countering the systemic privileging of these men’s views by systematically centering the views of people of color, women, LGBTQ people, the poor and working-class, first-gen students and faculty, and people with disabilities.
In addition, our supposed commitment to diversity should drive us away from inviting speakers who peddle oppressive ideas. Calling to abort gay, Black, and/or deaf fetuses, legitimizing homophobic straight men’s weak attempts to justify homo- and biphobic violence, and promoting junk science to undermine trans rights and existence is not simply a matter difference of opinion. Such a mindset would have allowed for eugenicists to speak on campus about the biological inferiority of Black and Jewish people – ideology used to justify slavery, segregation, genocide, and forced sterilizations. How is today’s line-up of speakers any different?
The Constraints Of “Civility”
A third concern I have is that the seemingly competing values of diversity and free speech have tied our hands in how to respond to such speaking invitations. According to Dr. Crutcher’s essay, to “shout down” Anderson’s talk on Tuesday would lead the university to label student protestors uncivil. I imagine staff or faculty protests would be labeled as unprofessional, and could likely result in punishment, perhaps termination. Yet, civility and professionalism are social norms that force people of color, LGBTQ people, women, people with disabilities, and poor and working-class people to mimic the style of dress, interaction, and work ethic of wealthy white heterosexual cisgender men without disabilities as a condition of their inclusion in institutions dominated by these privileged men. We are demanded to respect a speaker who stubbornly refuses to respect our existence and actually calls for our elimination.
If the university were to cancel the talk, then it would naively step into the right-wing’s assault on higher education. We would be labeled yet another liberal campus that threatens the free speech of conservative students. Dr. Crutcher’s essay would be cited as evidence that this was clearly an ongoing problem at UR. Though we’re a private institution, there might be calls for government sanction for censoring conservatives. I can only imagine that this was the Federalist Society’s intention by announcing the talk just five days before it is scheduled – a talk featuring someone with no legal experience and a reputation for controversy.
While Dr. Crutcher seems to conceive of diversity and free speech as twin goals, the very Knight Foundation survey of over 3,000 US college students he cites demonstrates that students are aware that these values, as currently understood, sometimes clash. Though the majority value an “open environment” for expressing one’s ideas on campus, most students favor policies to ban hate speech and wearing offensive costumes. And, if forced to choose between inclusion and free speech, just over half think that it is okay to promote the former at the expense of the latter. I find it unsurprising that women and Black students are even more likely to choose inclusion over free speech because they are overwhelmingly targeted by offensive rhetoric and slurs, which, in turn, create a climate that normalizes violence against them, as well.
There Is No Threat To Free Speech At UR
We must recognize that the “what about free speech?” debate has been thrust upon college campuses as a means of derailing intensified efforts to eliminate white supremacy, rape culture, and anti-LGBTQ oppression in higher education. The supposed war on conservative free speech was manufactured by the right-wing just like the “war on Christmas.”
Look around UR’s campus – whites, men, cisgender and heterosexual individuals, the wealthy, and conservatives are not under threat at UR. Look at the line-up of speakers. Look at the dominance of the (overwhelmingly white, cis male) business school (home to a few white men colleagues who cited Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream Speech” to accuse me of being racist… for referring to them as white men), while Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies remains a program without full-time faculty and the campus lacks a Black or Racial and Ethnic Studies program or department. While the majority of UR students are US-born non-Hispanic whites, approximately 240 are Latina/o/x, 240 are Asian American or Asian, 180 are Black, and fewer than 4 are First Nation. If left to chance, a given student would encounter an Asian/Asian American or Latina/o/x peer once in every 12 students, a Black peer once in every 13 students, and a First Nation peer once per every 1,000 students. However, we know that the student body is highly racially segregated, which is reflected across the social life, student organizations, party scene, classes, public spaces like the dining hall, and possibly in residential halls if students choose to live with their friends (who are most likely of the same race).
Unfortunately, the faculty are even less diverse, with just 15% who are non-white. And, off of the top of my head, I can think of no more than one dozen professors who are LGBTQ. Again, this “diversity” varies across schools and departments, with relatively little in business and the STEM fields. Faculty from oppressed backgrounds are disproportionately represented among tenure-track and non-tenure-track positions, which only further disempowers us relative to our heterosexual white cisgender colleagues (who are overrepresented among tenured associate and full professors, department chairs, and administrators).
Look at whom the university has immortalized. Most or maybe even all of the campus buildings are named after wealthy white cisgender heterosexuals, particularly men. Ryland Hall is named after Robert Ryland – a slave owner who saw enslavement as the best way to convert Africans to Christianity. There is a statue of UR benefactor E. Claiborne Robins who headed a pharmaceutical group responsible for selling an intrauterine device that sterilized 13,000 women and killed nearly two dozen after using the device. At the time when UR Trustee Paul Queally became national news for his disparaging comments about women and gay men, there was already one building named for him with the Queally Center for Admissions and Career Services in the works. Since 2014, he was selected to lead the Board of Trustees (as Rector), and the university will soon build a third building with his name on it.
It doesn’t matter how we respond to Tuesday’s talk. The pattern of treating bigoted ideology as a valid, equal “side” to which we should listen with patience, empathy, and intellect has already been set. Anderson is not the first, nor will he be the last, speaker invited to campus to cite religious scripture, or science, or the law, or tradition to justify inequality and violence. I will be the lone trans or non-binary tenure-track faculty member for years to come – and, that’s if I even get tenure. The views of the privileged will continue to dominate while those of the rest of us will be treated as an afterthought, but noted as an equal “other side.”
I wish I could be more optimistic at the conclusion of this very long essay. But, I’m tired of fighting. I’m tired of being told that academic freedom, free speech, and “viewpoint diversity” are values that justify the debating of my very existence as a Black queer non-binary person. I am tired of the internal struggle between doing what will ensure my job security (i.e., tenure) and doing what will ensure my survival. I am tired of having to weigh between prioritizing my own well-being and speaking up for/with those who have even less power and protection than I do. I am tired of hiding in the closet of masculine suits, of toning down how much I challenge oppression in my classes, of fearing that my politics (a commitment to my survival) will cost me my job.
I’m tired of hearing my presence as a Black person, as a queer person, as a non-binary person on campus cited when it is convenient for the university, or even good for the business. (But, what about my safety, well-being, and inclusion?) I am tired of wondering when President Crutcher will deliver on the promises of being a fierce advocate for diversity he made early in his tenure as president. What happened to the Dr. Crutcher of 2015 who felt saddened “that students of color are still dealing with some of the same issues of alienation that I experienced 50 years ago.” What happened to the president who said, “once you recruit [students from diverse backgrounds], you’ve got to have an environment for them to thrive”? Why, beginning last year, did civility and free speech become equally as important to him as diversity?
These issues are highly complex, and are probably above my paygrade. But, because they have impact on my daily life, they exhaust me nonetheless.
Please UR – just do better.
Academics, raise your hand if you have trouble sitting down to write in the morning? Now, how many of you find that your procrastination stems from trying to figure out who you are in this world? I do — and, today is one of those days. In being a good little solider in NCFDD‘s Faculty Success Program bootcamp, I set aside this time to prepare my keynote speech — “Blogging for (a) change in higher education” — for next week’s Media Pre-Conference, ahead of the American Sociological Association annual meeting. Instead, I am blogging (for a change) because my head, heart, and spirit are stuck this morning in the question, “who am I?” — at least with regard to gender.
I acknowledge that I am a bit self-absorbed, less because of arrogance or egotism, but more because of fear, self-doubt, and anxiety about my survival and success. I am incredibly self-aware and reflexive, perhaps to a fault. I am constantly trying to find meaning in the world, and to make it a better place. My gender identity, though, is frequently up for internal debate because I lack a clear, static sense of who I am. Is certainty about one’s gender identity a privilege afforded exclusively to cisgender people — those people who wake each day knowing who they are, and who go to bed each night having had their identity affirmed through every interaction and by every institution they enter throughout the day? Once again, I canot get right to my work challenging patriarchy, cissexism, heterosexism, and racism out in the world because I’m consumed trying to figure out who I am in the world. So much for the unlimited supply of cisgender male privilege I was promised when assigned male at birth.
You see, I recall as early as age 5 that my sense of gender does not align with the sex I was assigned at birth. After openly writing about my gender as a journey, and my developing sense of being non-binary, my mom commented that she doesn’t recall me telling her (in my 5 year old voice) that I should have been born a girl. I found girls my age to be incredibly interesting in their depth, complexity, and compassion; boys seemed one-dimensional in their desire to connect purely on a detached, physical level through sports. In hindsight, perhaps being a girl in a boy’s body was the best I could come up with to name what I later realized was a queer sexuality.
In 2003 — the year I turned 18, and transitioned from high school to college — I passed the coming out test with flying colors. After years of hiding in the closet, I left it and never looked back. But, upon taking courses in sociology and gender studies, I began to realize my uniqueness was not limited to being a male-assigned-at-birth who is sexually and emotionally attracted to men. I found my attraction to masculinity extended beyond its expression in cis men, and that my attraction to maleness was not limited to those with a masculine gender expression. And, I began recognizing that the category of (cis) man was incredibly narrow for all of my queer fabulousness — or that it didn’t fit at all. So, I went off to graduate school proudly identifying as genderqueer to account for my queer gender identity.
I won’t once again rehash the role the traumatizing chapter of graduate school has played in my gender journey. Let’s just say mainstream sociology is not a place that welcomes playing with, fucking with, or transitioning gender. I have grad school to thank for putting me back in the closet, at least in terms of being genderqueer. I have slowly come out again quite publicly, now as non-binary in large part because I have begun to recover from that trauma.
But, if anything, I feel as if I have been hiding in plain sight. To the extent that people have internet access and actually give a damn, they can easily find that I am non-binary. I’ve written about it and I sign my emails with a note that I use they/them gender pronouns. There are even a few pictures of me in various states of drag. I have even gotten comfortable enough to share pictures of myself donning various gender expressions to personalize my lectures on gender identity and expression.
You know — but, the joke is on me, because you can easily forget. I dress like a dude — partly because of comfort and partly because of fear of violence and discrimination. I don’t want to admit that the slow genocide of Black trans women is perhaps one factor that has held me back from owning trans womanhood. Though I don’t quite feel comfortable in the category of cisgender man, I present as such on a daily basis, and am rewarded accordingly. When I put on a suit each day next week at the sociology conference, I’ll easily pass as a cis man, perhaps even white in a certain light, and maybe even straight if I’m not feeling particularly excited or chatty. I hesitate to fuck with gender at the conference for fear it will be seen as too political (somehow more political than is any other gender expression), for fear it will distract from my message, and for fear of harassment. But, I feel I remain complicit in misgendering myself by not being non-binary “enough.” What’s a non-binary unicorn to do?
Fear of others’ reaction aside, I cannot seem to get passed the heavy emphasis on proving my gender identity through my attire and appearance. My partner has the exclusive pass to see what’s in my pants, but the entire world will take me at my word that I am “biologically” male (with all of the required parts) because of the masculine attire I wear. But, I’m afraid no one believes I’m genuinely non-binary because I don’t look it. I don’t don a queer, colorful hairstyle (umm, thanks a lot early onset baldness). I don’t wear make-up or nail polish (meh, too lazy). I only seem to wear feminine clothing on special occasions (it’s fun for a night, but seems really impractical otherwise).
My preference for masculine attire has less to do with the gender I wish to express than simply being comfortable in loose-fitting clothes. Unlike other non-binary folks like Jacob Tobia and Alok Vaid-Menon (of Dark Matter Poetry) who frequently share fab pictures of themselves, I generally don’t feel compelled to express my non-binaryness through dress. For me, it’s about how I feel in my spirit, my mind, my politics, and how I relate to other people. Frankly, I’m non-binary in all of the ways you can’t readily see on the outside.
Maybe this is also connected to race and body size. (You have got to read this essay by Ashleigh Shackleford on the complex intersections among gender non-conformity from Blackness and fatness.) When I Google images of non-binary, I see dozens of images of thin white androgynous people; I don’t really see anyone who looks like me. And, of what I see, I am drawn to people I assume to be female-assigned-at-birth in masculine or butch attire; my eyes skip over the (thin white) likely male-assigned-at-birth individuals in feminine attire.
The best I can do to make sense of this complexity is a sense of agnosticism about gender. In my heart of hearts, I’d rather not constrain myself to a particular gender category or gender destiny. The two main options — woman and man — suck. I’ve thought, these days, it would almost be easier for me if I just identified as a trans woman; increasingly, Americans know at least something about trans people. (Like my father, the average person likely would respond, “non-binary? what the hell is BINARY?) But, I have realized I am not a trans woman because I am not interested in attempting to authentically perform the rather constraining category of woman. And, the category of man is pretty shortsighted, too. There’s always agender, but I can’t wrap my head around not identifying in gendered terms despite not being able to opt out of the gender system.
There is no escaping being gendered and doing gender!
How ridiculous this all seems when I am well aware that gender is a social construction. Drawing from the Thomas and Thomas theorem, to which many intro sociology students are exposed, if people define gender as real, it is real in its consequences. There is no physical or biological basis for gender. Yet, it is a fundamental organizing principle in society; gender shapes and constrains every social interaction, social institution, and every individuals’ sense of self. Even if I decide I simply don’t believe in gender, I can’t escape its influence in my life. And, pretending to be “gender-blind” would be just as dangerous as is trying to be “color-blind.”
So, I’m left with three options: 1) identify as a cis man (because I easily read as one), but queer the hell out of the category where possible; 2) identify as non-binary, and define for myself what that entails and what that looks like (if anything); or 3) do nothing, and just awkwardly move from gendered interaction to gendered interaction. I’ve gotta say though, I’m pretty lazy about getting dressed in the morning. I suppose I can live up to my declaration to keep playing with gender and to do gender boldly (to boldly go where no queer has gone before?), but, as a gender agnostic, I keep wondering whether there is more to gender than its expression in clothing, hair, and make-up. Can’t I be a woman today, even if I’m wearing a loose black t-shirt and bagging blue gym shorts? Can’t I be non-binary without dressing like a skinny white androgynous hipster? Can’t I be a man, even when I’m rocking a blonde bombshell wig, a sexy red dress, and knee-high boots?
More questions than answers, as usual when I’m reflecting on this gender journey of mine. But, at least I can get to work now. Thanks for reading.
I am transgender.
Mostly, but not really.
Since age 5, or even birth — but, really only recently.
Am I making any sense? If not, it is because I have yet to make sense of my gender identity and expression for myself. I was 5 years old when I first acknowledged that my own sense of self, interests, and experiences bear little resemblance to what we define as “man” and “masculinity.” Early on, I knew that I wasn’t like other boys, and later learned that I like other boys. So, adopting a bisexual, and then gay, sexual identity made sense. But, with exposure to LGBT and women’s studies in college, I knew my uniqueness transcends whom I find attractive. So, upon discovering genderqueerness, I adopted that as my own, and began identifying as queer more broadly. Queer as an identity reflects my attraction to masculinities (no matter the bodies that expresses them) and maleness (no matter the genders it expresses); it also reflects that I do not neatly fit into the category of “man” (nor “woman” for that matter).
Joining the cult of academia, beginning with my graduate studies, proved to be a hard-right turn in my intellectual, professional, and personal development. There were blips of authenticity, resistance, and fierceness. I had a tongue ring for a month. Had both ears (re)pierced for a few months. Did a little drag. But, as I attempted to advance professionally, I caved to the pressures to be gender-conforming — both in my appearance and in my scholarship. As a researcher, I write with unwavering authority. When I present at academic conferences, I no longer bang on the podium, despite my internal anger about the issues of my research — discrimination, violence, oppression. Slowly, I have moved away from the full suit and tie look to teach, but that really just means no tie.
As a fat Black/multiracial genderqueer person, the implicit and explicit pressures to sever ties with my own identities, politics, and communities for the sake of professional success proved traumatizing. My own parents’ hesitation to accept my queer sexuality when I came out at 17 pales in comparison to the misery of graduate school. I am closer with my parents today than ever in my life — even after recently coming out as non-binary to them. (Mom: “Hmm, I saw this coming.” Dad: “Non-binary? What the hell is binary?!”) My grad school advisors… not so much, despite their supposed life-long investment in my career. And, I imagine the more I veer away from my training, the less likely they’ll care what becomes of me. In their eyes, it was my career to throw away, anyhow.
Late in my first year of college, I stopped taking calls from my parents. I made clear that they either accepted all of me or none of me. I was tired of lecturing them in public spaces about why I was taking classes in queer studies and “insisted” on being publicly out. My Dad eventually drove the 45 minutes to see me. (I wouldn’t have agreed to see him, but my dorm’s front desk called my room and said, “there is a cop here to see you!”) Refusing to look him in the eyes, I told him I was on full scholarship and could figure out summers, so I didn’t need them anymore. I didn’t see his heart break a little every time I said that. Eventually, he got through to me, we had a nice heart-to-heart over lackluster pizza, and have been close since.
I wish I had been as cavalier with my grad school advisors. Sure, I pushed back, and eventually took my current position despite their opposition. But, I only rarely stood up for myself, and regularly caved or at least tried to compromise. Their voices, with their goals for my career, remain in my brain. By design, grad school is about professional socialization — that is, a systematic program of teaching new values and ways of viewing and behaving in the world. And, the program was somewhat successful in re-programming me. But, not enough to do so completely. I am like Seven of Nine on Star Trek: Voyager; my scars are reminders that I once was Borg, and occasionally the Borg way of thinking trumps an independent perspective. (No, I’m not a Trekkie. Well, you can say I’m a second-generation Trekkie. I’m fairly fluent, but only talk Star Trek with my father.) So, even in deciding to write this essay after much back-and-forth, I feel I have a mini fierce queer activist on my left shoulder who is constantly reading the mini R1 minion on my right shoulder for filth. On my right, I hear, “but you’re a professor! Professors don’t write personal blog posts like this! Professors don’t blog! Professors aren’t trans…” And, there it is. The transphobic roots of my academic training.
Then, why write this essay? Wouldn’t my time be better spent working on a manuscript about transphobia than publicly agonizing over whether I am, indeed, transgender? I can’t right now. Aside from the fact that I am exhausted on so many levels after a difficult semester, I can’t sit down to do research on other people yet because I need work. Yesterday, when I sat down to make a list of research projects I wish to pursue over the next five years, it morphed into journaling about whether I am truly trans. There is internal work that cries for my attention when I sit down to do research that I tell myself is detached from me as a person. I need to write this. I allowed my personal journey and development to be interrupted during my academic training; I internalized (at least partially) the view that my scholarship is divorced from the scholar — the myth of “objectivity.”
But, why publicly? Why risk the potential consequences of transphobic and queerphobic discrimination in my profession? I won’t try to convince others of the benefits of baring your soul on the internet. But, for me, I feel a sense of release when I push back on the social forces that are constraining me, erasing me, killing me. Why should I privately struggle through the transphobia and cissexism that I have internalized when these are forces that affect us all? I know that I am not alone. I write because there may be others out there struggling, too. And, I know I’ll likely hear more hostility or at least crickets than any sort of appreciation. And, it’s not about feeling appreciated. It’s about sharing my journey with others — perhaps even those who will simply read and learn. To ignore the critics, and haters, and trolls, and bigots, and nay-sayers, I now just write for me — the me of the past who wishes he had stumble upon a professor who spoke so openly about their gender journey. I write for the future me — the me of 10 years from now who has no regrets, and sees sharing such vulnerability and uncertainty as just what you do.
And, see, now I feel better. The R1 minion stormed off. The mini queer activist is doing her victory dance, muttering “why y’all gagging so? She bring it to you every ball!”
Thank you for tuning into my journey.
Over a year ago, I wrote a short essay to reflect on the dynamic and fluid (rather than fixed and static) nature of my gender identity. Similar to Dr. Betsy Lucal’s essay, “What it Means to be Gendered Me” in Gender & Society, I drew on personal experiences to demonstrate academic conceptualizations of gender and, in turn, used these conceptualizations to make sense of my own gender identity. But, the essay lacked one critical thing: the bravery to share it publicly, as I had initially intended.
Recently, an opinion piece in Out magazine, “Snoopy and Me” by Michael Narkunski, caught my eye. Narkunski reflects on being distressed by feeling that his sense of gender does not fit with the narrow (heterosexist and cissexist) definition of a “man.” He sought the care of a therapist, whom he assumed would finally “diagnose” him as transgender. Instead, she offered him this:
“Being gay is hard,” my therapist said. “You have a dearth of role models, and you’re constantly subjected to gender norms that don’t apply. You have to work more on learning to be happy and creating an identity to be pleased with, not transferring yourself over to a whole new one.”
I see myself in Narkunski’s essay. And, I admire his bravery for sharing such a painful and personal story. In fact, his bravery has inspired me to finally share my own below.
My Gender Is A Journey
I do not see gender as destiny anymore than I see sex-assigned-at-birth as destiny. These are crude categories and identities to distinguish one set of characteristics, experiences, expectations, and opportunities from others. While they do include predictions about what one’s life will be like, they are not sophisticated enough to determine how one’s life will transpire. Gender norms change, both because of changing expressions of one’s gender identity and changing how one can express one’s gender identity. And, gender norms, identities, and expressions are deeply tied to other axes of oppression: racism, heterosexism, classism, ableism, fatphobia, and xenophobia. So, in addition to changing gender norms over time, there is variation in who we are as gendered people by virtue of our other identities and statuses – and these, too, change over time.
For me, my gender identity and how I express it are both cause and consequence of my body, my experiences in this world, my ideology and values, and my relationships with other people. Let me describe each in greater detail.
Gender As Cause And Consequence Of My Body
I became a fat child around age 8. Since then, my body has never been one that reflects hegemonic masculinity. Even after losing an extreme amount of weight before my senior year of high school, I was still flabby and unmasculine in the normative sense. The greatest struggle of all regarding my body has been my breasts. I rarely go swimming and, when I do, I tend to wear a black t-shirt. (There is a reason wet t-shirt contests feature white shirts. I learned that lesson first-hand, unfortunately.) I was teased as a child because I had breasts as large as, if not larger, than girls my age. Though I have a hairy chest, I still have a part of my body that is a visible betrayal of my maleness.
At one point, I seriously considered surgery to have my breasts removed. Throughout my adolescence, my primary physician repeatedly offered to have “those” removed – never explicitly naming that I had breasts. The first time I visited Richmond, VA was to meet with a cosmetic surgeon. The cost was prohibitive, and there was no guarantee that I would keep fat off of that part of my body, or that the scars would not prevent me from going shirtless in public. So, I decided against it. Funny, before my then-HMO agreed to pay for some of the mastectomy, they had to verify that I did not develop breasts due to intersexuality (or Disorders of Sex Development [DSD]). They provided an ultrasound examination on my testicles, and a hormone test to assess levels of estrogen and testosterone via my urine. Thankfully (by their standards), I was not intersex – just fat. Looking back, it was an interesting moment: fatness or intersexuality were two possible causes of my non-normative male body.
Ironically, having breasts as a male-bodied individual is a benefit when I wear drag. I do not need to stuff a bra, nor don a breast plate, because I am naturally endowed in that area. Still, my body image issues as a fat person limit how far I go with my drag. Too fat to fit the ideal image of a man translates into way too fat for the woman I would like to portray in drag. So, I do not shave. I have embraced my genderfuck self – high heel boots, a revealing top, and a blonde bombshell wig.
Clothes, too, have a way of reminding me that my body does not fit (sometimes literally) into society’s ideal image of a man. The most common gripe I have when clothing shopping is the unflattering fit on my chest. Men’s shirts and dress clothes are not designed with breasts in mind. The clothing-related body image issues have been heightened lately because dress clothes demand a tighter fit. You will never, ever, ever find me in a dress shirt without a suit jacket or a vest (or both). The breasts must be hidden, and a necktie will not cut it. In casual clothes, loose button down shirts are a staple in my wardrobe. If men were socially “allowed” to have breasts, maybe I would be showing them off with pride, rather than hiding them in shame.
Gender As Cause And Consequence Of My Experiences
From age 5, I knew I was not like other boys. Girls and their worlds always seemed more fun, interesting, and evolved. The only close male friend whom I had only wanted to wrestle. I did occasionally, but it seemed boring to me. How were we to discuss current events (albeit through a child’s eyes) and get to know one another at a deep level if every time we played I ended up in a headlock? In elementary school, I hung with the less popular girls at recess. We discussed plans for a play with an anti-violence message, but the plans never came to fruition. Boys remained of little interest to me (not even romantically) because they seemed incapable of meaningful interpersonal relationships.
I should not have been surprised that my parents kept pushing sports, especially football. I attended basketball camp a few summers, just until I complained enough to get them to let me attend the regular day camp. Yes, I chose arts and crafts over yet another game of “shirts and skins.” In their final ultimatum, while I was in high school – football or JROTC – I chose the latter. Interestingly, I loved it. There was an academic component with emphasis on citizenship and character-building. And, I loved having the opportunity to take on leadership positions. I even served as president of the Kitty Hawk JROTC Honor Society. (No, I did not name it that. I would have been subtler than “kitty.”)
But, at a younger age, they bought me gender-neutral toys, and even a dollhouse. My action figures, including X-men and Power Rangers, would go on dangerous missions, but not without steamy romances and personal struggles. While there were elements of boy, girl, and gender-neutrality, they all blended together in ways that made sense to me – an emphasis on people and relationships. I suppose that is the ticket to raising a sociologist.
Gender As Cause And Consequence Of My Values
My gender identity has evolved alongside my gender ideology. In college, exposed to new ideas about gender, sexuality, feminism, and queer politics, my understanding of my own gender and sexuality changed. I began to accept that “man” reflects too little of my own experiences, interests, and values. So, I adopted a genderqueer identity. And, I better understood my attraction to masculinity as an expression, rather than male bodies. So, identifying as gay no longer made sense because I do not see myself as a man who desires other men; “man” and “men” are deceptively simplistic. Queer as an identity better reflects my own gender identity and the gender expression of those whom I find attractive. Also, queer reflects my intersectional, radical politics about gender and sexuality in ways that “gay” does not.
However, I have wavered somewhat from my queer and genderqueer identities in recent years. I have become more aware of the infinite ways in which I am privileged as a (presumably) cisgender man. So long as I dress, act, and relate to others as a man, I am privileged as a man by society. So, it has felt disingenuous to identify as genderqueer in absence of a genderqueer expression.
Admittedly, I desperately cling to what little masculinity I wield for safety reasons. In everyday interactions, I would fear the violence, harassment, and discrimination that would come if I were more visibly queer. I fear that I would take a major hit to my status at work. Being a man feels like the only resource that I have available to overcome the oppressed statuses of being queer and Black. The other challenge is not knowing what expressing a genderqueer identity would entail. I am balding, so I cannot adopt a queer hairstyle short of wearing a wig. I have moved away from piercings and tattoos to keep my professional (i.e., middle-class) credibility. Frankly, many things that come to mind simply express femininity atop masculinity (e.g., earrings, nail polish, women’s clothing).
The Journey Continues
To be completely honest, I have wondered whether I am trans. The question has been raised in my mind, but then dismissed because I realize I have no interest in changing my body. My issue is with how I adorn and use it. Once, riding a train home from a night out with friends, my brain screamed, “shit I’m transgender!” I woke up the next day hung-over, laughing at the idea. But, I really cannot say with confidence that being trans is outside of the realm of possibility. I do not say this to make a mockery of trans people’s experiences, identities, and struggles. Nor do I mean to suggest that my dilemma is anything like that of a trans person. I just cannot say for certain who I will be in the future, especially in feeling disconnected from the rigid categories of man and woman.
Maybe the time has come when I should begin playing with gender with more bravery and intentionality. Rather than going along for the ride and trying to make sense of who I am, I should start defining and expressing my gender for myself. I imagine that will be the only way to carve out a space for me to exist outside of the rigid gender binary.