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Please don’t be fooled by the surprisingly firm assertion made in this post’s title. I prefer to pose it as a question because I do not actually know for certain. You see, I decided to stay out of the debates over the use of “trigger warnings” in college classrooms since first reading an argument against them. I know too little about the experience of being emotionally or physiologically triggered, as my training is not in psychology and I have very little personal experience with sexual violence; so, I have remained silent on the issue, assuming it was a fad to discuss it in academic circles that would ultimately pass. (Aren’t there more pressing matters, like access to college, diversity, sexual violence on campuses, making curricula accessible, etc.?)
Trigger Warnings Are A Threat To Academic Freedom???
I am making an exception to my self-imposed silence about trigger warnings today. Alice Dreger’s Aeon essay, “Without tenure, professors become terrified sheep,” caught my eye, with an obvious, yet bold claim in her title, and an associated picture of a University of Wisconsin building — subtly pointing to state’s decision to do away with tenure in the traditional sense. Dreger makes important points, most significantly that academic freedom goes out the door when faculty lose job security — something of urgent concern, considering the adjunctification of the academy. But, she mentioned examples of threats to academic freedom that not only surprised me, but also greatly concern me:
Meanwhile, on the left, identity-politics activists are using devices like ‘safe spaces’ and ‘trigger warnings’ to shut down speech they believe to be offensive and dangerous. In my campus visits around the US – aimed at emboldening the students, faculty, and administrators to push for academic freedom – I’ve been told time and time again about staff being reported by left-leaning students for teaching ‘uncomfortable’ ideas that have been taught for generations.
For example, one faculty member at a prestigious liberal arts college told me about a colleague who was reported for teaching the ancient Greek tale Leda and the Swan. The alleged discriminatory offence? Not first warning students that the story includes a symbolic rape. Others at public universities described being reported for stumbling over students’ preferred pronouns. Some historic women’s colleges have given up trying to produce The Vagina Monologues because of complaints that the 1996 play doesn’t reflect the breadth of transgender experiences. (It doesn’t; it wasn’t written for that purpose any more than The Federalist Papers were.)
I want to note that these examples seem out of line with Dreger’s argument about tenure. Are tenured faculty freed from the pressures to create safe spaces for oppressed students? From offering preemptive warnings that some content covered in their courses may be triggering? Are tenured faculty no longer expected to make efforts to include transgender students in campus events, as well as their classes and curricula?
One could infer from these comments that Dreger’s version of tenure grants faculty freedom to practice discrimination, or at least to ignore oppressed student groups’ demands for equality, inclusion, and safety. And, tenured faculty can stop being concerned about the well-being of survivors of sexual violence — as though there was an institutional mandate to care while they were pre-tenure. It’s problematic to conceptualize these examples as mere politics (i.e., left-leaning versus right-leaning students); survivors demanding a safe classroom environment and trans students demanding inclusion is not the stuff of political games — it’s about their survival and well-being.
Faculty Are Clueless
I will grant Dreger and others who have taken the time to publicly oppose trigger warnings this. The responsibility falls on faculty to appropriately warn students of potentially triggering material. And, the responsibility to articulate the need for such a warning falls on students. Thus, I understand the concern about how far we should go to offer trigger warnings.
On a few occasions, I have had a student approach me to express concern about material that was triggering for them. “Will the [research methods] textbook keep using examples of research on domestic violence?” “Can we avoid talking about suicide today? Today is the anniversary of my friend’s death.” Initially, I was annoyed by these students’ comments, as they came just moments before class started; textbooks were already assigned, lectures were already prepped. Besides the last-minute nature of the concerns, I wondered whether the students’ triggered reactions were enough to change my classes to accommodate them; indeed, I felt the implied or actual requests that I change my classes in a major way were imposing, if not inappropriate. What I offered instead was that the students could continue to advocate for themselves — they could drop the class (since there were no alternative textbooks, and coming up with alternative material seemed too demanding of my time) or skip the classes they felt would be triggering.
In hindsight, offering for them to just leave feels insensitive; but, my limited teaching training left me with no other appropriate courses of action. Rather than leaving it to faculty to decide whether and how to use trigger warnings, an ideal approach would be to teach graduate students how to handle these issues. To me, accommodating the needs of survivors of sexual violence and other traumatic events fits within the broader initiative to make classrooms accessible. Colleges and universities might expand their sexual violence prevention work and disability services to include resources for survivors to avoid or at least cope with triggering classroom material. These offices, as well as teaching and learning centers and professional development centers could offer training for faculty to support survivors of sexual violence, and other students who have experienced trauma. That is, one way to ease the burden on students to speak up for themselves (risking some ill-informed faculty member of dismissing them as overly sensitive), and the burden on faculty to devise proper warnings for triggering material, is to make it an institutional effort. (And, by that, I don’t mean an institution-wide ban on trigger warnings, and a letter to students to toughen up.)
Opposition To Trigger Warnings Is A Defense Of The Status Quo
But, I want to return to my title’s claim — that the opposition to trigger warnings reinforces the status quo in higher education. I believe the rise of trigger warnings reflects success of survivors and their allies to call attention to the ways in which college classrooms may be a part of the problem of rape culture in higher education. And, like Dreger’s dismissal of students’ demand for the use of correct pronouns, those in the mainstream — or specifically members of the dominant group — often react to change with anger. They dismiss the demands for change by saying things like Vagina Monologues need not include transgender people (not even trans women) because “it wasn’t written for that purpose any more than The Federalist Papers were.” In this case, trans people have no right to demand inclusion because it has always been that way. They resort to mocking the group demanding change — how silly these trans people, demanding that we use pronouns in an inclusive way. I suspect that is what we are seeing in the opposition against trigger warnings; there is a knee-jerk reaction to defend the way it has always been, to ignore that a sizeable minority of students have been raped, sexually assaulted, sexually harassed, or experienced other forms of violence. Generation after generation of students has been reading [X “classic” text that includes triggering material], so why should we eliminate it or assign it with a warning now?
I would argue that the opposition to trigger warnings is part of a larger trend of belittling college students, particularly their political efforts. The flip side of concerns about entitlement and helicopter parenting is critiques of students who challenge the status quo on their campuses. We now have the term “crybullies,” dismissing contemporary forms of protest as a mere demand to protect one’s feelings and presumably fragile ego. The following cartoon perfectly captures this patronizing sentiment:
The supposed consequences of these “crybullies” — that logic, reason, actual education, and academic freedom go up in flames — is captured in this more damning cartoon:
Wow. The underlying logic is that women, queer students, students of color, and others who have demanded safety, protection, and inclusion are the equivalent of overly sensitive babies — pampered babies, if you see the noticeably tan child holding the social justice sword and “racist!!” rattle. Clearly, these groups have no right to challenge the status quo because, well, these must not be serious problems.
Some of this strikes me as the tired “us vs. them” generational divide — in this case, a war waged against millennials by… well… every other generation. These babies are pierced, tattooed, and have colored hair. Eventually they’ll grow up and have real concerns! Maybe I haven’t resorted to this kind of finger wagging because, by some accounts, I am a millennial myself. I’m pierced and tattooed and have carried the sword of social justice and demanded safe spaces and leaned into my “special slowflake” identity. But, I haven’t chosen a side because it’s played out. The hippies pictured in the first cartoon were criticized in their day, too. Their political demands were mocked and criticized by older generations. Suddenly, their demands for peace and love seem reasonable compared to demands for safety from violence and triggering material, and for inclusion and equal treatment.
Can we pause for a moment on the trigger warning debates? Even well-intentioned liberal professors who have taken issue with these warnings are merely echoing the larger conservative opposition to the Black Lives Matter movement, efforts to identify and eliminate microaggressions, to demands for justice survivors of sexual violence, to demands for safe spaces for queer students, to recognition of and access to facilities for trans students, and so on.
At this moment, we — as faculty — have a choice. We can choose to be dinosaurs and old-farts who mock students who are advocating for themselves, who are following the tradition of protest on college campuses for greater inclusion. Or, we can actually listen to what the students are saying, we can find ways to support them and navigate around (and dismantle) institutional constraints. Too few of us understand trauma to adequately decide how to support traumatized students; so, we should be figuring out how to support them rather than dismissing or mocking their concerns.
- “A Quick Lesson On What Trigger Warnings Actually Do” at HuffingtonPost
- “What, Why, When, Where, and How?: 5 Common Questions About Trigger Warnings Answered” at Everyday Feminism
- “Warning: This course may cause emotional distress” at the American Psychological Association
- “10 Things Psychologists Want You To Know About Trigger Warnings” at Buzzfeed
- “Hey, University of Chicago: I am an academic. I am a survivor. I use trigger warnings in my classes. Here’s why.” by Erika D. Pricelet
- “Here Are 6 Reasons Why Trigger Warnings Aren’t Bullshit” at The Stranger
Note: this blog post was originally published on the “Conditionally Accepted” career advice column on Inside Higher Ed.
Now 31 years old, I am still struggling to figure out my gender identity. I knew by age 5 that I was unlike other boys, even declaring to my mother that I should have been born a girl. I came out as bisexual as a senior in high school, then gay in my freshman year of college. With exposure to feminist and queer theories and activism in college, I found a more fitting identity — queer — to reflect my own sense of gender and attraction to masculinity broadly defined (no matter others’ bodies or sex).
But I have graduate school to thank for my stepping back into the closet, at least in terms of my gender identity and expression — and for nine years of wrestling with the tension between my queer gender identity and the masculinist norms and expectations of academe.
Sociology became a woman-dominated discipline — at least in terms of degrees awarded — before I ever became a sociology major in college. In 2012, women were close to half or more of the faculty in two-thirds of sociology graduate programs in America, representing huge growth over the previous decade. (I imagine this number is much lower for women sociologists at the associate and full professor levels. And gender equity may have stalled, or even reversed, with the overrepresentation of women among adjunct professors.) But in 2012, only 22 percent of graduate departments had more than one-quarter of their faculty specializing in the sociology of gender — and the same number making a genuine commitment to women scholars and the sociological study of gender.
In my own graduate training, I found even some of the faculty members who specialized in gender did not encourage research in this area. The discouragement seemed strongest for those planning to use qualitative methods (too “touchy-feely”), feminist and queer lenses (too “activisty”), and feminist or gender studies approaches (too interdisciplinary). Despite commendable representation of (cis)women in my department and the discipline more generally, I learned that many (men) sociologists appear to hate women and see masculinity as central to good scholarship.
In reading A. W. Strouse’s essay criticizing the inherent heterosexism and queerphobia of American graduate education, I finally realized that I am not alone in struggling with the white heteromasculinist under- and overtones of my graduate training. As Strouse aptly points out, professional (re)socialization of graduate school is centrally a task of eliminating passion, love, creativity and originality from would-be scholars’ lives — or at least presenting ourselves as detached, subdued, conforming — that is, “professional.”
In our writing, we were discouraged from “flowery,” verbose and creative prose, instead getting to the point concisely and speaking with unwavering authority. In fact, it is best to avoid writing in the first person at all costs so as to present arguments as taken-for-granted truths, rather than offered by an individual scholar. There is a reason why the feminist scholarly practice of being transparent about one’s social location never caught on in mainstream sociology; seemingly objective research is the highest form of inquiry, and everything else is suspect.
Masculinist authority was equally valued in how one presents one’s research in workshops, talks and conferences. As one grad school professor warned me, “none of this ‘shy guy’ stuff” — scholarly presentations were not actually spaces to present incomplete projects or uncertainty. (And don’t even think about attempting to shirk male privilege by rejecting an authoritative tone and presence!) Whatever it means to be a “shy guy” was seen as distracting at best, or antithetical to my scholarship at worse. I could not help but assume that this professor’s comment was a more polite way of telling me to “man up.” And, upon comparing notes with a cis gay man in the program, I learned that the professor had, indeed, a reputation for telling queer men students to “man up.” Perhaps I had been pegged as too sensitive for the harsher, more offensive version of this advice.
I have wrestled, more generally, with the demand to strip away all emotion. Well-meaning friends and colleagues have criticized me for becoming increasingly more angry as I present at conferences, that my own rage about oppression and the detriment it has on the health of oppressed individuals is inappropriate for an academic setting. I learned to stop pounding my fist on the podium, but I have not quite mastered the stiff upper lip. Showing emotion is weak; a true scholar would never be so personally invested in the plight of marginalized communities.
To my surprise, the devaluation of femininity is not limited to the erasure of feminine expressions in academics who were assigned male at birth. I have witnessed the policing of femininity in cisgender women academics, even those who are femme presenting.
For example, two weeks in a row in my Preparing Future Faculty course, the cis woman professor chastised cis women students for their “feminine” and “girly” behavior. I agree that beginning a presentation or conversation by apologizing in advance for subpar quality or ideas only serves to undermine what one has to say. But I found it quite troubling that a woman professor so openly, publicly and forcefully berated these women students for their feminine presentation of self, especially in a mixed-gender class. Perhaps a private conversation, wherein the professor could talk more at length about her concerns about the sexist ways in which women scholars are received in the academy, would have been better and less offensive. But, then again, this is the same professor who interrupted my own presentation to ask, “Oh, we haven’t beaten the activist out of you yet?” Clearly, academic training is about beating graduate students into submission and conformity.
I have heard women friends and colleagues note the related practice of rewarding masculinity in women in academe. Short hairstyles and masculine attire appeared to be much more common among my grad department’s most successful women faculty. The more assertive you could be, the better. The more you could do to reject your femaleness and femininity, the more successful you could be in the academy. Women who insisted on having children should calculate pregnancy just right so that they could “pop one out” during a break in the school year. I am often shocked by how openly academics and academic institutions attempt to regulate women scholars’ reproductive choices and sex lives. Some women academics are complicit, unapologetically giving advice to “keep your legs closed,” delay motherhood as long as possible or forgo it all together.
It has taken me three years post-Ph.D. to recognize the role my graduate education has played in stalling my gender journey. I entered the program beginning to embrace a genderqueer identity and reject the restrictive category of “man.” In a different life, I might be well on my way to rocking stylish, colorful outfits, being as fab as I want to be, or at least much more comfortable in my unique skin. But, in this life, I have to first recover from the damage of my graduate training to my sense of self.
I have only recently reclaimed a genderqueer identity, now finding “nonbinary” to better describe who I am as a gendered being. I have slowly dropped the suit and tie as a protective shield and begun to slowly come out publicly as kind of, sort of trans. Another path to my own liberation sadly entails rejecting the femmephobia, queerphobia and transphobia of the academy. Embracing an authentic gender identity and expression entails reconceptualizing what it means to be a scholar. (Why are the two intertwined in the first place!)
No advice to offer to others just yet — my apologies for that. But I hope that more of us will acknowledge, critique and resist the ways in which academe polices the gender presentation of scholars.
Note: this blog post was originally published on the “Conditionally Accepted” career advice column on Inside Higher Ed.
I am the only black LGBTQ professor on my campus (as far as I know). I am black, yet multiracial and multiethnic (black, white and Jewish). I am a queer man, yet genderqueer and nonbinary. I am an activist, yet working with and in the system of higher education to make a difference in society. And, I am pretenure … with no additional caveats.
I have taken up the identity of a unicorn because my existence, both on the campus and in society in general, is nearly mythical. And I regularly live with the fear that it is easier for the institution to crush me, eliminate me or force me to assimilate than it is for me to actually change the institution to include me, respect me and value me. I have exhausted a great deal of energy navigating the tension between efforts to ensure my survival as a person and those to ensure my job security; what constitutes excellence in teaching and research tends to prioritize the very things that exclude me, erase me or silence me.
But now I am in therapy, working through the traumatizing experience of graduate school. I am properly medicated to minimize the symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder, from which I have suffered since my third year of grad school. I have found friends and colleagues who support me in pursuing my self-defined career as an intellectual activist. And, most importantly, I have ensured that those things that will most certainly grant me tenure — publications and good student evaluations — are taken care of before anything else, while also prioritizing self-care and personal fulfillment.
My own well-being and livelihood aside, the importance of being authentic and visible for others, especially my students, was the strongest impetus to take back control of my life and my career. Early on, despite hiding in fear behind suits and a guarded demeanor, I had students who sensed that a more radical, social justice-oriented and vulnerable person was lurking behind the mask — and that they sorely needed that unicorn to come out of from hiding.
As I have taken better care of myself, and, as such, found room to take more chances in being public, I have found even more students expressing their appreciation for my visibility. In two recent examples, I wrote opinion pieces for my university’s newspaper, The Collegian: one was a “love letter” to students of color who frequently feel miserable on our predominantly white campus, and the other was a coming out of sorts as a nonbinary-identified professor. I have attended more events related to social justice, often sharing my own experiences and viewpoint, rather than hiding behind the myth of objective scientific expertise. I am often rewarded with what feels like reciprocated love from many students of color, LGBTQ students and women students — especially those who belong to more than one of these groups.
My activism on the campus, thus far, has not felt incredibly radical. I have made myself visible as a fat black queer nonbinary feminist intellectual activist. With time, therapy, medication and support, I am now less afraid to be visible as a unicorn at this institution. I no longer hide behind a mask that unintentionally sent the message that success for marginalized people requires extensive compromise, hiding and/or “souling” out. The students’ reactions — ranging from a passing thank-you to heartfelt emails and Facebook friend requests (which are declined until they graduate) — demonstrate to me that there is something inherently radical about my visibility on campus. And that the campus is so lacking in diversity — particularly at the intersections among minority identities — that it seems the students are hungry to see something different, or even something like them in the case of marginalized students (fellow unicorns).
I have already griped about the additional labor I feel as a diversity token. Where the university is ill equipped to adequately support students of color, LGBTQ students and first-generation and working-class students, the slack is picked up by faculty and staff members (often of those very backgrounds). Or these students simply fall through the cracks. Sometimes both.
But I also appreciate the importance of my presence, my visibility, my authenticity and my advocacy. Without ever agreeing to serve on a committee related to diversity, I can be a face and a voice that contributes to the sense of diversity and inclusion on the campus. Without taking on honors thesis and internship students, and the more informal advising that is common in supporting marginalized students, I can be a source of support by addressing diversity and social justice in my classes. I sometimes have to turn away a marginalized student; this is incredibly heartbreaking, but I know that such additional emotional labor is not valued and might even take away from the tasks that actually “count” professionally — the very things that will help me keep this job for the long haul.
Lately, I have been thinking of the “visibility of one” that I offer to my campus as something akin to the personal hot spot feature of cellphones. This feature essentially allows your phone to provide internet access to multiple devices. It is great technology, though I have never actually used it myself. But it makes for an interesting analogy to the kind of energy I feel I send to others on campus.
From my own visibility as a unicorn, it seems that I am able to allow others to feel seen, to feel they are not alone, to feel their struggles and experiences are valid and recognized, and to feel loved and in community. I would like to think that my writing, my approach to teaching and, at a basic level, my presence at the university is helping to boost others like me. While students — especially those who are of color and/or LGBTQ — lack support from the institution, they can find some virtual support from me.
But like cellphone hot spots, this kind of visibility of one has a huge drawback: it is draining work. My battery life depletes much more quickly. So I must also be intentional about equipping students to find support from multiple places, to advocate for themselves, to prioritize their own self-care and perhaps to become their own personal hot spot of visibility to help others. I have gotten better about leaving work behind every weekday at 5 p.m. and giving myself a true break over the weekends. I have had to turn down service requests that do not yield long-term opportunities (especially potential leadership roles).
In the long term, I want to push the institution to further diversify its faculty, focusing on both recruitment and retention, and to put resources in place that prioritize marginalized students’ success and well-being. Since I am more emotionally healthy today, I can afford to be a visibility hot spot for fellow unicorns on the campus. But it cannot be an alternative to real institutional change. Ideally, the university will provide “visibility Wi-Fi” throughout the campus (e.g., diversity in every office and department, diversity-promoting policies) so that individuals no longer need to serve as visibility hot spots.
Note: this essay was originally published in my university’s student newspaper, The Collegian.
“On Being Trans And Non-Binary At UR: One (Sort Of Closeted) Professor’s Perspective”
Unfortunately, I cannot bring myself to write a love letter to transgender and non-binary identified students at UR, as I recently did for students of color.
Don’t get me wrong – I would much rather write that op-ed than this one. The difference here is not that I don’t care about the success, well-being, visibility, and future of trans and non-binary students – because I certainly do. Rather, I cannot speak with the same kind of experience and wisdom about being trans/non-binary as I can about race and racism. I can’t effectively love the beauty, creativity, brilliance, kindness, and bravery of you – my fellow trans and non-binary folk – because I’m still wrestling with loving myself.
I am in the closet as a non-binary identified person. A glass closet. With the door wide open. On paper and especially online, I am unapologetically genderqueer. I left my college years (2003-2007) beginning to tell others I identified as such, and first noted it in a blog post in 2009. I participated in two national surveys for transgender and gender non-conforming people in the US. I’ve even begun toying with the idea of exclusively using the pronouns they/them/theirs, for he/him/his reflect my identity and experiences as little as do she/her/hers.
But, in person, particularly at work here at Richmond, I hide behind suits. I note my pronouns at the beginning of the year (though it still has been “he or they”), but would never gently remind others to use “they,” especially given my masculine presentation. In fact, I was so fearful of upsetting potentially transphobic cisgender (i.e., non-transgender) students in asking them which pronouns they use as a standard introduction for my classes. I’m already so far “out there” as a Black queer tenure-track professor, who does research on and teaches about controversial subjects (e.g., intersectionality, feminisms, queer theory, discrimination), and who is public in being an intellectual activist. So, I fear my little unicorn self cannot handle the backlash of yet another marginalized status – in this case, being non-binary.
To be fair to Richmond, the fear I carry is compounded by the fear of discrimination, violence, and exclusion in society generally. I hesitate to more intentionally play with my gender expression because we still live in a time where Black and Latina trans women are murdered at alarming rates. I know from my own research that the more visible one is as a trans or gender non-conforming person, the more discrimination one faces – and, in turn, the more likely one is to develop the health consequences of discriminatory treatment. Ironically, trans people experience discrimination and cultural incompetence in health care, as well. We are victimized at high rates, but are disproportionately incarcerated – not to mention frequently ignored or even harassed by law enforcement. Somehow, I’ve gotten comfortable with being out “in theory,” but, I tend to hide my non-binaryness in everyday interactions.
Beyond the fear of transphobic discrimination and violence, and perhaps the biggest challenge of all, I simply don’t know who I am in terms of gender. I announced at the age of 5 to my mother that I should have been born a girl. At 30, I’m still wrestling with a sense of being born in the wrong body. So, I’ve seriously questioned whether I am transgender. The problem is, the issues I have with my body do not pertain to the sex I was assigned at birth (i.e., male). In fact, my body isn’t the problem; rather, it is with those stubborn gendered meanings that are associated with my sex. I typically feel as though I have little in common with other men; in masculine spaces, I feel like an outsider. But, I also don’t feel at home in spaces for women, either. Still yet, I feel like an outsider in the few spaces carved out for transgender people. Despite the growing visibility of trans people, I still see few people like myself in the world. (Miley Cyrus might be the only non-binary celebrity I can think of… for better or for worse.)
I’ve considered saying “fuck it,” and letting my spirit and heart, rather than society and my fears of being denied tenure, dictate how I present myself to the world. As a good sociologist, I know that man, woman, transgender, and cisgender are all socially constructed categories; but that kind of gender-agnosticism (or atheism, if you prefer) doesn’t help me to navigate the real consequences of presenting myself in the world in certain gendered ways. I’d love to occasionally present myself as what some call “genderfuck,” wherein you intentionally defy rigid gendered norms, almost as parody – something along the lines of Jacob Tobia’s look. But, that critical, perhaps internalized-transphobic voice in my head says don’t do it because it may be seen as a “distraction” from my classes and my research. I fear showing up in my sassy red wig, sleek red dress, and masculine combat boots might be considered making a mockery of the classroom – or, worse, distracting from the “real” experiences of trans students (and staff and faculty). I want to be seen as a serious academic, so I’ve decided that now isn’t a good time to “play dress up.”
Oops… I did it again. Once again, I am talking openly about being non-binary – hiding in plain sight, really. Why take the time to ponder about these matters – and so publicly? I’m doing so because I know that I am not alone. I am a close friend of two staff members who are trans/non-binary. (Sadly, I don’t know of any other out trans or non-binary faculty). I know of a handful of students who are trans or non-binary. And, there are likely others who are struggling to navigate the rigid gender binary, the sex-assigned-at-birth-as-gender-destiny force, and the assumptions others make and the values they hold about specific gender categories. I know that realizing that one is not alone – particularly when oppressed students see themselves reflected at the front of the classroom – can be incredibly affirming. So, I’m sharing myself, with all of my hang-ups and confusions, with you in hopes of being a little trans island on a cisgender-dominant campus.
It’s not easy for any of us – students, staff, faculty, or administrators – to be authentic and visible in categories that are not reflected in the majority or in the institution’s policies, practices, and mission. We are increasingly recognizing that trans and non-binary students exist at UR, but treat them as special cases, while we leave in place the sex-segregation of the coordinate college system. We defend that system because of the benefits for women students (e.g., resources and support for leadership among women), but offer no parallel program that would benefit trans and non-binary students. Only in LGBTQ spaces have I heard introductions request to know one’s pronouns; otherwise, we typically make assumptions based on one’s perceived sex assigned at birth. The university prides itself on racial and ethnic diversity, but LGBTQ inclusion rarely comes up in conversations about diversifying the faculty and student body. Gender-inclusive bathrooms remain few and far between (literally). I could go on… I’ve seen real progress on this campus toward LGBTQ inclusion, so I’m aware some of these very issues are discussed and real change is coming.
To clarify, I raise the above points not to label the university transphobic (though, by design, almost every social institution is), but rather to highlight the structural and cultural barriers to being out and authentic as a non-binary or transgender person on this campus. It is hard to love yourself when you don’t see yourself, when you aren’t encouraged to be your true self, and, at times, when you experience actual hostility because of who you are. I dream of a future in which I, and other trans and non-binary folk on this campus, am braver in being visible, being vocal, and being authentic. I see you, fellow unicorns; I hope you see me, too, even when I hide in plain sight.
This essay was originally posted on my personal site, egrollman.com.
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.