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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.
Last week, I participated on a panel, Transgender People in Criminal Justice and Law Enforcement Settings: Recent Research, hosted by the Virginia Anti-Violence Project (VAVP) at University of Richmond’s downtown campus. Dr. Eugene F. Simopoulos, a forensic psychiatrist, presented a thorough review of gender identity and expression, and the treatment of trans people in the criminal justice system and medical institution. Responses were offered by Edward Strickler (secretary of the Board of Directors of VAVP), Rebecca Glenberg (Legal Director, ACLU of VA), and me (in my capacity as a sociologist). Our collective goal was to educate local law enforcement about trans people, particularly their treatment within the criminal justice system, and hopefully offer recommendations for improvements. Below, I offer the notes from my response to Dr. Simopoulos. You can see media coverage of the event at GayRVA.
As a sociologist, I study discrimination, and its consequences for marginalized groups’ health and well-being. There are two features of my scholarship that I believe will be useful for today’s conversation about trans people generally and in the criminal justice system specifically. The first is to offer a critical sociological perspective for understanding discrimination. The way that most people understand discrimination in an everyday sense is fairly narrow. In particular, discrimination is thought to include specific, rare, and identifiable events of unfair treatment that are committed by specific, identifiable perpetrators who harbor prejudice toward a particular disadvantaged social group. Thus, the intent of one’s actions are crucial here, regardless of the impact on the victim.
However, as a sociologist, I recognize that discriminatory treatment is much more complex than this, and often occurs in the absence of explicit, conscious bias. The discriminatory acts perpetrated by a member of a dominant group against a member of a stigmatized group are merely the behavioral component of a system of oppression. And, these acts are justified by the ideological component of this system of oppression, or what we typically call prejudice. I suggest, then, that we think about transphobia as a system of oppression. The discrimination and harassment that transgender people face is neither rare nor random; rather, trans people repeatedly face discrimination, harassment, and violence across multiple contexts, and throughout their lives.
Transphobia Is A System Of Oppression
Transphobia, as a social system, includes the discriminatory acts perpetrated by cisgender (i.e., non-transgender) people against transgender people. It also operates through important institutions in society – the medical institution, the criminal justice system, education, the military, and so forth. It shapes the policies and practices of these institutions in ways that disadvantage, harm, and/or exclude transgender people. Finally, transphobia manifests as laws and policies, particularly at the federal and state levels, that disadvantage, harm, and/or exclude transgender people. This includes seemingly-neutral laws and policies that are harmful, nonetheless. One example would be the push for voter identification laws, which places additional burdens on trans people, particularly those whose legal documents do not reflect their current gender identity.
I offer this perspective of transphobia as a system for two reasons. First, I wish to highlight that the challenges to improve the treatment of transgender people are by no means unique to the criminal justice system. Second, I want to push our conversation about trans people’s interaction with and experiences in the criminal justice system into the broader context of transphobia. The challenges that transgender people face in the criminal justice system are both cause and consequence of the challenges they face in other domains of society. The National Transgender Discrimination Survey notes that trans people are more likely to interact with law enforcement and/or enter the criminal justice system because: 1) they are more likely than cisgender people to be a victim of a crime, particularly anti-trans hate crimes; 2) they are more likely to be homeless, kicked out of their homes by family or due to extreme poverty; and, 3) because of employment discrimination, many transgender people turn to sex work, selling as well as using drugs, or other parts of the underground economy.
Intersections With Racism And Classism
The second feature of my scholarship that I wish to share today is a framework that considers how other systems of oppression intersect with transphobia. Black feminist scholars have developed a concept called intersectionality to understand the interlocking and mutually reinforcing relationships among racism, sexism, classism, and heterosexism. We can add to this list transphobia. Relatedly, they argue that you cannot attend to one of an individual’s multiple social identities to fully capture that individual’s experiences, well-being, and status in society.
In today’s conversation, by thinking of trans people solely in terms of their gender identity and expression, we miss important ways in which transgender people’s experiences are shaped by their race and ethnicity, immigrant status, social class, and other identities. More specifically, we miss that certain segments of transgender communities – namely poor trans people, trans women, trans people of color, and especially trans women of color – are particularly vulnerable to violence, discrimination, harassment, sexual violence, poverty, homelessness, and poor health.
Findings from a few recent reports, including the NTDS Survey, and the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs report for 2013, suggest that these groups bear the greatest burden of the challenges that trans people face in the criminal justice system. And, these disparities exist in every context in the system, from interactions with police, to arrest, to treatment in prisons.
- While 60% of the transgender people in the NTDS survey report any interaction with law enforcement, the number jumps to 80% for Black and Latina trans women.
- Trans women of color are more likely to report being targeted, disrespected, and harassed, and assaulted by police than other trans people, and LGBT people in general. For example, under New York City’s practice of “stop-and-frisk,” wherein 90% of individuals who were stopped were Black or Latina/o, LGBT people, especially trans women, were disproportionately represented.
- Trans women, particularly trans women of color, are often stopped by police because they are assumed to be sex workers – a pattern that the ACLU and other groups has now referred to as “walking while trans,” akin to racial profiling or “driving while Black.”
- While only 3% of the general population has ever been incarcerated, 16% of trans people have ever been sent to jail or prison. And, that figure is 41% for Black and Latina trans women; almost all report that they were incarcerated due to transphobic bias.
- Among trans people who have been incarcerated, trans women of color serve longer sentences, and are more likely to be harassed, and physically and sexually assaulted by both fellow inmates and prison staff than other trans people.
- And, a greater percentage of trans women of color report that either other inmates or prison staff block their access to hormones or regular medical care.
To conclude, I want to reiterate the importance of recognizing the roles that race, ethnicity, immigrant status, and social class play – or, more specifically, how racism and classism intersect with transphobia. We must avoid thinking of and treating trans communities as a monolithic group, as there is a great deal of diversity within these communities.
References And Additional Information
- Simopoulos, Eugene F. and Khin Khin. 2014. “Fundamental principles inherent in the comprehensive care of transgender inmates.” Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law 42: 26-36.
- Summary of findings [pdf] and full report [pdf] of National Transgender Discrimination Survey. (And, see my summary here.)
- Supplementary report [pdf] of Black respondents in the NTDS survey. (And, see my summary here.)
- Supplementary report Hispanic and Latina/o respondents [pdf] and Asian and Asian American respondents [pdf] in the NTDS survey.
- Summary of findings [pdf] and full report [pdf] of the 2013 National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs report.
- It’s A War In Here: A Report on Transgender People in Men’s Prisons [pdf] by Sylvia Rivera Law Project.
- The Williams Institute report on Latina trans women’s experiences with law enforcement [pdf].
- “The Unfair Criminalization of Gay and Transgender Youth,” Center for American Progress, June 29, 2012.
- A Roadmap for Change: Federal Policy Recommendations for Addressing the Criminalization of LGBT People and People with HIV [pdf].
- Queer (In)Justice book
- “Dealing with Transgender Subjects,” Police Magazine, January 4, 2013.
- Resources from the Transgender Law Center
When news first broke about the murder of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman, some lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) organizations spoke out about the injustice. Some even signed onto calls demanding that Zimmerman be tried for the murder. Now, after the not-guilty verdict, which has freed Zimmerman of any responsibility and thus punishment for taking Martin’s life, even more LGBT organizations have voiced their outrage. Indeed, advocating for justice is the right thing to do.
Trayvon’s Murder As An LGBT Issue
But, is this really something that we should expect of organizations that advocate for equality on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity and expression? Or, as the Queerty article asked of its readers, “Should the LGBT community care about the George Zimmerman trial verdict?“
When I first saw the headline, I thought the answer was obvious — yes! And, other LGBT media were focusing on the organizations that were demanding justice; so, it seemed the question did not even need to be posed. I skimmed the article and then the comments to see if the obvious “yes” and the reasons for it were articulated by others. Fortunately, most of the readers at least said yes, though largely because they could empathize with the injustice in this case as LGBT people.
Admittedly, I was underwhelmed by this response. It felt as though LGBT people — at least the few people answering Queerty’s inquiry — cared about the unjust murder of Trayvon Martin to the extent that they were able to envision fearing such violence because of their sexual orientation or gender identity/expression. I had hoped to see some recognition that this racial injustice affects the lives of LGBT people of color — that that was enough for the entire LGBT community to be concerned that some of its members’ rights have been threatened.
However, I read an op-ed in The Advocate this morning, which help me understand this sort of empathy (which I would better understand outside of this very divisive case). Michelle Garcia, the magazine’s commentary editor, wrote a piece that connects the so-called gay panic defense to the not-guilty verdict Zimmerman received. In the former, there have been cases of anti-LGBT murders wherein the heterosexual murderer argues that he (typically) was momentarily insane because of a sexual advance made by the gay or transgender victim. In a way, they feared for their safety (in line with the stereotype of gay rapists), and thus defended themselves. Zimmerman’s defense for pursuing and killing Martin was that he feared for his and others’ safety. Because the stereotype of young Black men as violent criminals exists, eliciting real fear in whites, it seemed to be enough to justify taking Martin’s life, and letting Zimmerman (and his racial biases) walk free.
I find this take (and this one) convincing. The very laws (i.e., Stand Your Ground) that let white murderers of innocent Black people walk free could let heterosexual or cisgender murderers of innocent lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender walk free. In fact, prior to such broad self-defense laws, and without drawing directly upon them now that they exist, there are several of such murderers who do walk free because of the “gay panic” or “trans panic” defense. Courts and juries have sympathized with privileged people who momentarily felt unsafe (often because they stereotyped an LGBT person as a sexual predator), while offering no justice for their victims — people who live in daily fear of anti-LGBT discrimination and violence their entire lives.
A(nother) Call For Coalition-Building
As such, the unjust murder of Trayvon Martin is an LGBT issue… is a feminist issue… is a human rights issue. In the past few weeks, LGBT people have celebrated major advancements toward sexual and gender equality. In that same time frame, the hard-fought rights of people of color and women have been attacked and, in some cases, successfully eliminated. These setbacks hurt lesbian, bisexual, and transwomen, and LGBT people of color. Thus, they are setbacks for all LGBT people, and all people of color, and all women. And, pessimistically speaking, they are a signal to the LGBT movement that bigots never retire, even as discrimination and violence are outlawed. The very rights we finally secure today may be undermined in a few decades.
This is yet another reminder that single-issue politics are less effective, at least in the long-run. We cannot afford to have white feminists focusing exclusively on the slow reversal of Roe v. Wade, while white gay men continue to blindly celebrate marriage equality, while heterosexual, cisgender people of color exclusively mourn the recent string of racial injustices (Voting Rights Act, Affirmative Action, Baby Veronica, Zimmerman’s acquittal, etc.). That is, while women of color, LBT and queer women, and LGBT people of color are exhausted by trying to keep up with all of these issues, and trying to explain to others how they are fundamentally linked. Simply put, we are overdue for successful coalition-building. For, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” (Dr. King).