so the other day Savannah asked me if i’d written about the nature of being out in academia, and though i’ve touched on a lot of the systems of oppression that keep trans women relegated to the sidelines in any discourse where academia is centered, i haven’t really given academia the full scourging it deserves, and given that academia is especially hostile to trans women, often using kyriarchical-patriarchical arguments as an element of defending its transphobia, it deserves specific scrutiny.
i will admit that i am pretty well-educated. i have undergraduate and graduate degrees, funded through a crushing heap of debt that i owe to the government and some targeted philanthropy that benefits underprivileged sorts like me who sell their souls to the government in exchange for education financing. i do have a an advantage that a lot of folks lack, but at a very, very large price…not just forced silence about my gender identity, but a whole heap of debt that i’m not sure i’ll ever be able to afford to pay back.
going past the obvious reality that academia itself is generally a cis white able-bodied boys’ club and the fact that there are very real economic, legal, and cultural barriers to college for most oppressed people, especially poor folks of color and first-generation immigrants…there are four specific things that keep the visibility and inclusion of trans women in academia low to nonexistent:
1. adminstrative hostility. i haven’t ever gone to a school where it would be safe to reveal my trans status at any point since i transitioned. depressing, but true…in multiple cases i have been told explicitly that i must not as a condition of remaining enrolled or remaining in the good graces of the administration. i know other trans women who have been told the exact same thing, from “we can’t protect you from the university’s administration if you’re outed or come out” to “it is unfortunate that the school is not ready yet, but we can’t promise you continued success at (school) if you discuss being a transsexual.” in 2 out of 3 of these cases discussed, as well as at my undergraduate school, no such limitation was imposed on any trans men/CAFAB genderqueers studying at the same school. this is apparently fairly commonplace as there are additional tales of this which i cannot personally vet that are strewn across the internet, and it is a very strong and loud reminder of the privilege gap between CAMAB trans women/genderqueers and CAFAB trans men/genderqueers in the academic world.
1a. academic elitism. of course, telling someone like me that “maybe you should have gone to another school” is a really counterproductive, victim-blaming/victim-shaming argument. despite what Good Will Hunting will have you believe, the stuffy high-end schools that seem to have more open and affirming environments are not looking for poor mixed disabled girls, or even poor white able-bodied math genius boys like Matt Damon played…we can’t all go to Harvard, in other words, and i’m not sure that i’d want to. when the “you should have gone somewhere else” card is played, it means that you’re saying that person’s academic choices and limitations are not worth considering and that you’d really rather they have made choices based on your terms, and at the risk of being repetitive, that kind of attitude is toxic and it establishes that you don’t see their reality. what if the school they chose was the only one they got in at? what if the school they chose gave them a significant scholarship? what if the school was close to home and they can’t afford a long commute or to move away from their parents or family-like structure?
1b. the “well you don’t have to tell them” defense …sure. unless you have high school records in a different name, or the school requires a copy of your proof of legal presence and all you have is a birth certificate with the wrong name, or your discipline (medicine, some social work arenas, law, early childhood education, etc) requires a background check where you are expected to disclose every name you’ve ever had. this defense is really tired because it comes with the reality that you’re stuck with compulsory invisibility either way and it’s just more victim-blaming/shaming…you can’t contribute to visibility like we’re being told we’re supposed to under this bargain, either, and it diminishes the importance of the lives and work of trans women just as much. by the way, here’s a great piece on the expectation of “coming out” and the cis/hetero-enforced idea that our identities never shift from Avory over at RadicallyQueer.
1c. the barney frank special: housing Barney Frank, a famously transmisogynist politician, once bleated something vague about penises in locker rooms being a reason to exclude trans people from ENDA. scholastic housing policies often sound something like this, from paranoia about surgical status (there’s nothing like being asked to provide “proof” you’re post-op as a condition of university housing) to taking measures which could easily compromise a trans student’s need to privacy so that they can choose how to identify on their own terms. many schools, including the undergrad school i went to, require most students who don’t live locally to live on campus, and housing is often much cheaper than living off campus if the area your school’s in is rather expensive. if your choices for housing are all bad or gender-hostile, it makes going to school that much harder, and it also makes it completely impossible to transition in housing…
2. transmisogyny from professors. yes, schools have hired some trans professors, but they’re overwhelmingly white and male. the idea that there could be a trans woman of color, despite the fact that it would satisfy the diversity bingo that we all know damn well many universities play, is beyond the pale…it simply hasn’t happened, because oppressive institutions don’t really understand intersectionality well. so when schools are claiming they hired the “first trans professor in (whatever)” they’re hiring white men. and, well, white CAFAB dudes have a history of doing shitty transmisogynist things…you know, the Gunner Scott/Dean $pade/Chaz Bono/Templeton Koala sorts who get power and run with it and make sure that they must control all dialogue about transness. obviously, not all CAFAB trans men and genderqueers are bad, but if you’re not speaking up when ugly transmisogynist shit happens and just letting people like Scott and $pade slide for their actions, you’re acquiescing. speak up and center the voices of all trans people and experiences (not just white CAFAB trans men/genderqueers)and i promise it won’t be at the cost of white men because very little ends up being at the cost of white men. stop using the “they mean well” excuse, because the result is still white men standing on our necks.
throw in the transphobic old guard like Janice Raymond or Jean Grossholz and the smaller tinpot dictators that populate academia (all you need is tenure and a grudge!) who have nasty things to say about trans women and you’ve got a real problem on your hands: professors reinforce the reality that unless your documentation is all in order and you’re blessed with passing privilege, you’re pretty much at their mercy if they have some sort of issue with your transness. these folks go from the cis gay man who thinks we’re running from our gayness to the cis white political lesbian who thinks we’re really men, but any way you slice it, transmisogyny is an obstacle to our access to the commons and the fact that it can be so casually wielded by someone like a professor can be really terrifying.
3. isolation, aka “you’re the only one, so why bother?” this is a one-two punch with #2: at most schools, if you’re a trans woman, you’re all alone. it’s possible there’s someone else pre-transition or something, but even the most basic attempts to ask the people in charge why they were scared of my attempting any visibility were met with the statement that my existence was some sort of isolated freak incident. there’s nothing quite like a cis straight white able-bodied man telling you that you’re probably the only trans woman the school’s ever going to enroll and that he has a difference of opinion with your presence but is willing to let it slide because he’s such a nice person. it’s a friendly reminder that you aren’t really a person and that your existence is conditional and that even though you’re handing this school a whopping heap of money, you still live with the pass-or-die reality that many of us who are trans women live with.
throw in that the queer group on campus is pretty much all white cis LGB sorts and that there is a trans group…but it’s all CAFAB men and/or genderqueers. when i asked nicely (and admittedly anonymously) if i would be welcome, i was told that they “weren’t comfortable answering that without taking a vote.” a vote, as you can probably guess, was apparently never taken. so not only did i have to wonder if you’d be seen as an invader in their space but also you know you’d be the only one. it’s a lovely double-bind…not only does it end up enforcing cisnormativity, but it also reinforces by proxy that some people deserve trans space and some people don’t. needless to say, i never went, since they were still hemming and hawing about if a theoretical trans woman would be welcome years later…
3a. trans women can’t afford to be tokens. the differential nature of privilege means that we have different consequences for visibility, and we often end up in situations like the one i did at my most recent school, where a scholarship was on offer to “LGBTQ” students, but the catch was that you had to be out because they expect to be able to throw a blurb in the school newspaper about you. now, since i’m out as being gay, i could go into that, but i didn’t have the ability to express myself completely and point out the reason that represent a truly disadvantaged group, and the school is already in denial that it has working poor students, so i don’t really even want to know how that would work out with a trans woman, especially given that this is the same school telling me not to talk about being trans. i probably could have used that $2500, you know…
4. the only way we can tell our stories is through autobiography but academia marginalizes autobiography…Vivienne Namaste, one of the scant few openly trans women in academia, once said that autobiography is the only discourse in which transsexuals are permitted to speak. because of this, there’s a lot of first-person storytelling in any discussion of trans issues; this has been a criticism of this blog, but the reality is that it’s necessary because for all my formal education, it’s mostly been about dead white people and lots of theory and very little about the real lives of real living people. in this way, academia fails all marginalized groups and i understand this. i probably, in hindsight, should never have gone to college, simply because the amount of debt involved in relation to the minimal advantages afforded to me is a pretty unpleasant thing to ponder on a good day. on a bad day, it’s just despair. i feel like i’m being punished for being too uppity and not knowing my role and staying in my place.
and yet, my autobiographical statements will never be properly peer-reviewed, they’ll never be in some cis white man’s textbook, they’ll never matter to the tokens that get hired, and thus, like the autobiographical statements of all of us, they’ll never matter to academia. by shutting autobiography off from any consideration, our voices are kept out of academia. autobiography is part of reality, and it’s how we express our own realities…to say that autobiography is invalid is silencing, pure and simple.
…and when you add up hostility, transmisogyny, isolation, and exclusion of narrative, you’ve got a recipe for why we’re massively underrepresented in academia, a place where it’s supposedly safe to be trans if you ask some people. if i had one wish about all this, it’s that i could have been forthright about being trans in college the same way i could have been honest about being gay, and it bothers me that i had to accept forced silence because by keeping me silent, my classmates missed a chance to know that one of the very “transsexual fake women” one of my professors obsessively railed against was sitting right next to them doing none of the horrible things said professor promised “those men in dresses, those pantomime dames, those woman-hating decievers” do. in fact, one of those very “transsexual fake women” was trying to get through a required class for her Women’s Studies minor and take notes without just bursting into tears and screaming her guts out. instead, i just got ripped apart from the inside, because the comfort of many cis people is conditional on our complete silence, and that sounds like something academia should never stand for…