Transgendering the Academy: Transforming the Relationship Between Theory and Praxis
Pauline Park, Ph.D.
New York Association for Gender Rights Advocacy (NYAGRA)
Expanding the Circle: Creating an Inclusive Environment in Higher Education for LGBTQ Students & Studies
28 February 2010
Introduction: Situating Myself (the Personal as Political)
Thank you, Dorotea, for that wonderful introduction. And thanks to Joe Subbiondo and the faculty, staff and students of the California Institute for Integral Studies (CIIS) and above all, Dustin Smith and the conference staff for organizing this important conference.
The stated purpose of the Expanding the Circle conference is “to advance pluralism, acknowledge a scholarly area of investigation, and deepen learning in higher education” by expanding “our circle of inclusion and broaden[ing] our definition of diversity by increasing lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) studies.” I would like to talk about how we can make the ‘T’ in that ‘LGBTQ’ real.
The oft-quoted slogan of the women’s movement in the 1960s and 1970s was that “the personal is political,” and so I would like to commence by situating myself in the context of my own activism and academic background. After describing my current advocacy work in New York, I will then attempt to articulate a program by which we could advance transgender inclusion in the academy — what I will call ‘transgendering’ the academy.
I was born in Korea, adopted by European American parents and raised in the Midwest. A German Lutheran upbringing on the south side of Milwaukee is an unlikely background for an Asian American transgender activist working in New York, you might think; but there’s nearly half a century between the flight from Seoul on what was then known as ‘Northwest Orient Airlines’ (insert sound of gong here) to Chicago via Tokyo and Anchorage and the flight from LaGuardia to San Francisco International that brought me to this conference a few days ago.
In between, there have been struggles to come to terms with gender identity and intercountry adoptee identity — I often think I was born to have an identity complex — as well as experiences living in four different Midwestern cities and five different European cities, and working in three different careers in two distinctly different gender presentations. All of which would make for either a crowded and potentially confusing memoir or a novel with a highly implausible plot.
A career in public relations in Chicago and a career in academic political science have been followed by my current vocation as an activist — I do not say ‘career,’ because I see activism not as a career but rather a commitment, or a set of commitments. And I would not say that I chose to pursue activism so much as I would say that activism chose me. But if my first career (in public relations) has actually been far more useful to me as an activist than my second, my academic background has helped shape my thinking about activism. And in turn, my experiences doing advocacy work on behalf of a very marginalized community have helped me think about how actual experience with activism can inform academic theory construction just as theoretical work can be used to better inform activism and advocacy.
My activism began in 1994, when I joined six others to co-found Gay Asians & Pacific Islanders of Chicago (GAPIC), but activism became a full-time pursuit in early 1997 when I co-founded Iban/Queer Koreans of New York (Iban/QKNY) — which I served as coordinator of from 1997-99 — and Queens Pride House, an LGBT community center in the borough of Queens. The organization with which I am most closely associated is the New York Association for Gender Rights Advocacy (NYAGRA), which I co-founded in 1998. But I also participated in co-founding two political clubs: the Out People of Color Political Acition Club (OutPOCPAC) (2001) and the Guillermo Vasquez Independent Democratic Club of Queens (2002).
The accomplishment in which I take the most pride was my role in leading the campaign for the transgender rights law enacted by the New York City Council in 2002. And I have to say that three years of leading a major legislative campaign taught me more about politics than five and-a-half years of studying academic political science theory ever did.
But leading the campaign for Int. No. 24 — enacted as Local Law 3 of 2002 — was only the most prominent public role that I have had the honor of playing as an activist. Following enactment of the transgender rights law, the New York City Commission on Human Rights convened a working group of activists that drafted guidelines for implementation of the statute; ironically enough, my own discrimination case — involving an incident of discrimination that took place in the midst of the process of getting the Human Rights Commission to adopt those guidelines — ended up playing a small but significant role in the process, as well as providing crucial language that helped resolve an impasse that we had reached with the Commission over the provisions of those implementation guidelines.
NYAGRA is a co-founding member of the coalition seeking enactment of the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act (GENDA), the transgender rights bill currently pending in the New York state legislature. But long before the introduction of GENDA, NYAGRA worked with the Empire State Pride Agenda — the statewide LGBT advocacy organization — to co-found the coalition seeking enactment of the Dignity for All Students Act (DASA), which would prohibit discrimination and bias-based harassment in public schools throughout the state of New York. Believe it or not, February 2010 marks the tenth anniversary of the founding of that coalition, and the bill is still pending in the state legislature ten full years after it was first introduced — evidence, if any were needed, that New York does indeed have the most dysfunctional legislature of any of the 50 states.
I also served on the steering committee seeking enactment of the Dignity in All Schools Act, the local ‘DASA’ bill introduced in the New York City Council in 2002 and enacted by the Council in 2004. Unfortunately, despite the pervasive bullying and bias-based harassment that takes place in New York City schools, the Department of Education — under the direction of the administration of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg — has refused to implement the DASA statute, substituting instead some weak teacher training efforts that seem to amount to little more than window dressing.
I would like to emphasize safe schools legislation in the context of this discussion because the New York State and City DASA legislation both include comprehensive lists of ‘protected categories,’ including race, religion, ethnicity, and disability as well as sexual orientation and gender, defined to include gender identity and gender expression. Safe schools legislation such as New York State and City DASA help move us out of a purely ‘identitarian’ conceptual framework, which can be limiting. Both the New York State and City DASA Coalitions are multiracial and multi-community, including a broad range of organizations; certainly, LGBT organizations are significantly represented in both coalitions — understandable, since LGBT students and those perceived to be queer are among those most frequently subjected to bullying and bias-based harassment in school.
But while the New York State DASA Coalition is led by the Empire State Pride Agenda, the Dignity in Action Coalition — which is the successor to the New York City DASA Coalition — is led by the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) and includes a number of prominent API organizations in its leadership, including the Asian American Legal Defense & Education Fund (AALDEF), the Coalition for Asian American Children & Families (CACF), and the Sikh Coalition. In fact, these three API organizations — AALDEF, CACF and the Sikh Coalition — have emerged as the most prominent and most visible member organizations in the coalition.
It should be obvious — but may not be to everyone — that making higher education more LGBT-inclusive must also mean tackling the problem of bullying and bias-based harassment in elementary and secondary schools, since so many LGBT students drop out of school because of such bullying and never make it to college; that is especially true of transgendered students, I would essay, based on anecdotal evidence (in the absence of any comprehensive study of the problem).
While I may be most closely associated with the work I do on behalf of NYAGRA in the legislative arena, one other important component of my work is training. Over the course of the last decade, I have conducted hundreds of transgender sensitivity training sessions for a wide range of social service providers and community-based organizations, ranging from one-hour workshops to full-day trainings. A small part of my training work has been with academic institutions, focused on issues related to transgender inclusion — including, for example, gender-neutral housing, which has become a major issue on many campuses.
A few years ago, my colleague, Michael Silverman (executive director of the Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund) and I conducted the first transgender sensitivity training sessions for any major hospital in New York City. And in fact, Michael and I started the Transgender Health Initiative of New York (THINY) with colleagues from TLDEF and the Gender Identity Project of the LGBT Community Center of New York City to enhance access to health care for transgendered and gender-variant people in New York City and the metropolitan area. Last July, NYAGRA published the first directory of transgender-sensitive health care providers in the New York metropolitican area; and while directories of this kind have been posted on-line for cities such as Los Angeles, Boston, and Minneapolis-St. Paul, the NYAGRA directory may well be the first such directory in the United States ever published in a print edition.
Transgender Inclusion: The Circles Diagram
So here is the question that I would like to address today: if our goal is to make higher education fully transgender-inclusive, how would we go about achieving that objective? The first step would have to be to gain a full understanding of just what ‘transgender’ means. Many in this audience will have a very good understanding of transgender identity, but for those for whom this is a relatively new topic, I would like to use a diagram to illustrate the complexity of the community of which I myself am a member. This is the NYAGRA circles diagram, which I first began using when we initiated the campaign for Int. No. 24, the transgender rights bill that passed the New York City Council in April 2002; the diagram came out of our first meeting with a Council Member who — though he himself was openly gay — told us that he did not have a clear idea of who or what we meant when we talked about protecting members of the transgender community from discrimination.
As you can see, this diagram represents the community as a series of concentric circles, beginning with transsexuals — those who seek or have obtained sex reassignment surgery (SRS) — often described as being either ‘pre-operative’ or ‘post-op,’ as the case may be. While the mainstream media until recently have tended to focus on those transitioning from male-to-female (MTF), there are, of course, many (possibly just as many) transsexuals who go from female-to-male (FTM). While transsexuals are the segment of the transgender community whom many think of first when they think of ‘transgender,’ the term ‘transgender’ is not simply a more politically correct or up-to-date synonym for ‘transsexual.’ In fact, most transgendered people do not want SRS, and most of those who do (viz., transsexuals) never get it — mainly because of the expense, but for other reasons as well.
Encompassing this first circle is a much larger circle, those I will call ‘the transgendered,’ including not only transsexuals but non-transsexual transgendered people as well. The most obvious identity labels in this category of non-transsexual transgendered people are those who identify as — or are identifed as — crossdressers (the old-fashioned term is ‘transvestite,’ though few today use that term to self-identify — except perhaps for Eddie Izzard — and it is now considered overly clinical or even pejorative) as well as drag queens and drag kings — terms best used with reference to performance, whether professional or informal. The ‘transgendered’ in the context of this circles diagram will be used to denote those who present fully in a gender identity not associated with their sex assigned at birth — at least part of the time.
But there are in fact hundreds of different terms which transgendered people use to self-identify, and conversely, many transgendered people do not identify with the term ‘transgender.’ Clearly, the almost bewildering diversity of the transgender community constitutes one of the biggest challenges in attempting to include and serve this population, whether in higher education, health care, or social services.
A still larger category encompassing both transsexual and non-transsexual transgendered people is that which I will label the ‘gender-variant,’ a term that actually has its origins in academic circles but which has come into vogue among activists as well. And just who would non-transgendered gender-variant people be? They would include relatively feminine males who nonetheless still identify as men or boys and relatively masculine females who still identify as women or girls. The term ‘gender-variant is particularly relevant on college campuses, as there are many who were born male and especially female who disdain the sex/gender binary and terms such as ‘man’ and ‘woman’ that they see as reflecting that binary; many such young people prefer to identify as ‘gender-queer’ and some prefer gender-neutral pronouns.
I contrast these three groups — the transsexual, transgendered and gender-variant — with another group, the conventionally gendered — those who more or less conform to the gender norms of their time and place, and who (by definition) constitute a majority in every society, as every society constructs norms of gender and imposes those norms on its members. What is crucial to grasp is that this diagram is a map of the gender universe; it does not speak to sexual orientation. As most in this audience will already understand, transgendered people are as diverse in their sexual orientation as non-transgendered people and like them, may be heterosexual or bisexual as well as gay or lesbian. And I also need to emphasize that this diagram is simply my map of the gender universe; there are as many different definitions of transgender as there are transgendered people.
The main point is to avoid the narrowing of discourse around gender identity which is constantly rearticulated and reinforced by the mainstream media — the over-reliance on what I call the classic transsexual transition narrative — which focuses almost obsessively on a linear medical transition from male to female through hormone replacement therapy (HRT) towards the end point of sex reassignment surgery; while some do follow that path, most transgendered people do not. Any effort to establish fully-transgender inclusive programs and services on a college campus will falter unless it is based on a recognition of the full diversity of transgender identity, and the truth that there are as many ways to be transgendered as there are transgendered people.
Transgendering the Academy: Campus Policies, Curriculum, Student Services, and Faculty and Staff Development
Having situated myself as an activist and ex-academic, and having attempted to describe the diversity of the transgender community, I would now like to set out what I see as four crucial elements in what I call ‘transgendering the academy.’ These include: first, establishing campus policies and protocols that explicitly prohibit discrimination based on gender identity and expression; second, advancing transgender entry into faculty positions within academia; third, constructing curricula and building academic programs and departments that advance the study of transgender in the academy; fourth, establishing an institutional infrastructure of services for transgendered students, faculty and staff; and fifth, constructing theory that is relevant to activism, advocacy and public policy. I will touch on the first four but devote the bulk of my comments to the last — the task of transforming theory into praxis.
One of the tasks that must be undertaken in order to effect what I am calling the ‘transgendering’ of the academy is the adoption by colleges and universities of policies explicitly prohibiting discrimination based on gender identity and gender expression as well as sexual orientation. I am not currently aware of a comprehensive list of institutions of higher education in the United States or abroad that have adopted such policies, so perhaps the Consortium of Higher Education LGBT Resource Professionals (‘the Consortium’) could compile such a list.
There is a curious paradox here: where campuses are situated in jurisdictions that currently include gender identity and expression in non-discrimination law, explicit policies that do so are somewhat redundant, as such colleges and universities are then under legal mandate to enforce non-discrimination. But I would argue that campus policies are still useful even in cities, counties and states with gender identity and expression in human rights law, as they represent an explicit commitment on the part of the college or university to transgender inclusion, and they send a signal to transgendered students, faculty and staff that their presence and participation in campus life are valued, as well as sending an important signal to those who would discriminate against transgendered members of the campus community.
Of all the items in the project of transgendering the academy, this is, on the face of it, the easiest: simply adding either gender identity and expression to the college or university non-discrimination policy or — better still — adding a definition of gender that includes identity and expression — requires no elaborate word-smithing or lawyering, merely a commitment on the part of the administration to do so. The difficulty comes when applying such a non-discrimination policy to specific situations such as sex-segregated facilities, including those where there is the possibility of unavoidable nudity (to use a legal expression). Restrooms, dormitories, and gyms and locker rooms are the most significant ‘sites of contestation’ (to use a term beloved of post-structuralist theorists). Some institutions, such as New York University (NYU), have adopted policies that specifically require the construction of at least one gender-neutral restroom per new building; ironically enough, at the same time that NYU adopted this policy in 2005, the University Senate rejected the addition of a general policy prohibiting discrimination based on gender identity or expression, despite the university being under a legal mandate from the City of New York to avoid such discrimination since the enactment of the transgender rights law by the New York City Council in 2002.
Explicit campus-wide policies ensuring full access to campus facilities for transgendered students as well as faculty and staff are important but must be drafted in ways that address the potentially thorny issues that arise when it comes to sex-segregated facilities. The rule should be one of reasonable accommodation, backed by an aggressive effort by the administration to ensure full access to such facilities. The prohibition of discrimination based on gender identity and expression must be explicitly included in faculty, staff and student handbooks along with prohibition of discrimination based on other characteristics such as race, ethnicity, religion, national origin, disability, etc. Above all, the prohibition of discrimination based on gender identity or expression must be included in legal documents that ensure the right of the student or faculty or staff member to litigate a dispute if necessary; only then can the institution be held accountable, especially in jurisdictions which do not include gender identity or expression in state or local non-discrimination law.
Single-sex colleges must also address the issue of admissions policies, a particularly thorny issue for women’s colleges; but the inclusion of both transmen and transwomen in women’s spaces is an issue that will not go away, much as many administrators at women’s colleges may wish it to. Clearly, the principle of empowering women through education needs to be subjected to scrutiny, as does the very definition of what constitutes a woman, and what provisions must be made to accommodate and ideally to fully include in the life of the college those female-born individuals who transition to male over the course of their undergraduate careers at women’s colleges, as well as those male-born individuals who seek admission to a women’s college as women.
Colleges and universities should also mandate transgender sensitivity training for all faculty and staff — and where feasible — for students as well. Where mandatory diversity training already exists for race, ethnicity, religion and disability as well as sex or gender, that training should include sexual orientation and gender identity and expression as well. In other words, ‘diversity’ needs to be redefined campus-wide to include diversity of sexual orientation and gender identity and expression.
Another mechanism for enhancing inclusion would be inclusion in a campus-wide census of students, faculty and staff — especially those in leadership positions — that includes self-identification by sexual orientation and gender identity. No doubt such a proposal could meet resistance even at more ostensibly more progressive colleges and universities. But at the very least, surveys of ‘campus climate’ should include questions about climate for LGBTQ students, faculty and staff.
The second element in the project of transgendering the academy is the inclusion of transgender-relevant courses in the curriculum of institutions of higher education. Inclusion of a course on transgender issues as a requirement for completion of a major or minor in LGBT studies would also represent a significant advance for transgender inclusion in the curriculum. On the curricular front, at least, there has been some progress over the course of the last few decades, as the number of courses offered at colleges and universities in the United States and Canada — and increasingly outside North America — that include a substantial component on transgender issues has grown exponentially, albeit from a small base. Once again, there seems to be no comprehensive list, which would be very useful for LGBT campus professionals as well as for students and faculty. And all too often, even where transgender-inclusive courses are included in a college course catalog, those courses are offered irregularly and by graduate students or adjunct professors who have little institutional influence and limited ability to ensure continuity in course content from semester to semester. But where such courses exist, they are primarily in the humanities and to a lesser extent in the social sciences. In other fields, significant transgender- or even LGBT-specific content in curricula is rare. In schools of medicine, transgender-specific content is sparse, and what little there is focuses almost exclusively on the medical aspects of transsexual transition, even though familiarizing physicians and other health care providers with what might be termed the ‘psychosocial’ aspects of health care provision may be as important in ensuring transgender access to quality health care as ‘cognate’ knowledge of the surgical and endocrinological aspects of gender transition. I would suggest that a minimum of two hours of transgender sensitivity training should be required at every school of medicine that offers an M.D.
Inextricably linked with the issue of curriculum development is that of faculty and staff development. Certainly, one of the biggest challenges in advancing a project of transgendering the academy will be that of transgendering the faculty of colleges and universities, few of whom have many openly transgendered members; even fewer transgender-identified faculty members obtain tenure after having been hired while openly transgendered; and still fewer obtain tenure primarily for research focused on transgender issues. And most theorists who focus substantially on transgender issues are in the humanities, with a scattering in the social sciences.
Indeed, one of the most remarkable facts about what might be termed ‘transgender studies’ is that many if not most tenured faculty members who are in the field are not themselves transgender-identified; and those who are for the most part are graduate students and adjunct faculty. What if the faculty of a program or department of women’s studies at a college or university was almost entirely male? Or consider for a moment a comparison with ethnic studies: imagine for a moment if a program or department of African American, Asian American, Native American or Latino studies on a given college campus were mostly or even entirely white; such a situation would be regarded as controversial if not unacceptable by many students, faculty and administrators alike. And yet, transgender studies — depending on how one defines the field — may be very close to that situation today. There are, of course, significant differences between race and ethnicity on the one hand and sexual orientation and gender identity or expression on the other, and it would be risky indeed to make to glib a comparison between them. And yet, entertaining the analogy for the moment may be useful in pointing out the striking asymmetry in power relations between the majority of those who participate in this nascent field called transgender studies who are students, untenured faculty and independent scholars as well as activists and the minority who as tenured faculty members who constitute the privileged elite of this small society of largely white and upper middle class academicians.
Even more problematic is the tendency of transgender studies as a field to mirror the larger academic society’s tendency to construct and rigidly enforce orthodoxies of thought as well as hierarchies of power, both within and outside the academy. The clinical literature is dominated by psychiatrists, psychoanalysts and psychotherapists, with some participation by social workers and other members of the ‘helping professions,’ but the transgendered people whose lives are profoundly affected by the determinations of those professionals are excluded from participation in the construction of that literature for lack of the professional credentials required for that participation.
If transgendered people have made little headway in attempting to secure tenure in traditional academic departments, they have made even less progress in schools of medicine where psychiatrists earn their MDs. The American Psychiatric Association (APA) is among professional associations in the ‘helping professions’ possibly the least open to participation by the transgendered and the least open to public or LGBT community input of any kind, despite the vast influence over the lives of transsexual, transgendered and gender-variant children, youth and adults wielded by the psychiatric profession.
Not unrelated to transgender faculty development is the issue of transgender-inclusive curricular development. Certainly, non-transgendered faculty members can and do participate in the development of transgender-inclusive curriculum; but for the reasons already stated, the asymmetry in institutional power between transgender-identified students and faculty who develop and teach so many transgender-inclusive courses and the tenured faculty who wield decision-making power over them as well as curriculum development poses a serious issue for academic institutions.
Another important issue is the institutional standing of transgender studies and LGBT studies more broadly speaking. First, there is the question of programs vs. departments. In most colleges and universities, departments have far greater autonomy than programs and are far better placed to defend faculty lines and budgets against cutbacks than programs; that is no doubt why the faculty members participating in the development of women’s studies in the United States have aimed towards the establishment of departments of women’s studies wherever possible. So, for example, while offering undergraduate majors as well as minors, the University of Chicago’s Center for Gender Studies has no faculty of its own, only ‘affiliated’ faculty drawn from throughout the university, and therefore no ability to offer tenure-track positions of its own entirely independent of other academic units.
Then, too, there is the question as to whether this field that I am calling ‘transgender studies’ is better thought of as a subset of LGBT studies or of ‘gender studies’ and therefore better housed in a program or department of sexuality studies or one of women’s or gender studies. There are, of course, universities that have combined the two: the aforementioned Center for Gender Studies at the University of Chicago, for example, houses the Lesbian & Gay Studies Project and, according to its mission statement, “consolidates work on gender and sexuality, and in feminist, gay and lesbian, and queer studies.”
Then there is the question of institutional infrastructure, especially of student services. Here, the Consortium of Higher Education Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Resource Professionals (‘the Consortium’) and its members have played a leading role in developing LGBT student services offices at campuses around the United States. There is much to say about services specifically needed by transgendered and gender-variant students, but given that the primary focus of my talk is on public policy and advocacy, I will touch on only a few programmatic elements that I think are important to the development of infrastructure serving undergraduate and graduate students on campus.
Obviously, a fully funded LGBT student services office with at least one or more full-time staff members is the minimum needed to effectively serve transgendered and gender-variant students. Support groups for those coming out and transitioning are also crucial. Support and guidance in navigating the physical infrastructure of a campus are especially important, including access to restrooms and locker rooms in gyms. Housing is also an important issue, and single-sex institutions — especially women’s colleges are increasingly confronted with issues of access. Health care is a particularly important and sensitive issue for transgendered students, and the same issues that have come up in the Transgender Health Initiative of New York (THINY) face transgendered students as they attempt to access procedures and care both related to gender transition and not directly gender-related. Offices of LGBT student services can also play a role in assisting transgendered and gender-variant students navigate what might be called the ‘semiotics of campus life,’ including negotiating classroom etiquette related to names and pronouns and even posting transgender-affirming signage around campus.
One of the challenges facing offices of LGBT student services is the ‘silo-ing’ that often results from the construction of offices of multicultural affairs along identitarian lines, such that the office of LGBT students primarily serves white queers, with little engagement with the offices of African American, Latino, or Asian American students, which in turn are inadvertently relieved of the obligation to serve LGBT students of color within their constituencies. Housing the LGBT student services office within the same complex as those serving students of color — such as is done at the University of Connecticut — can help foster collaboration and collaborative programming, as the Rainbow Center at UConn — not coincidentally under the direction of an African American lesbian — regularly engages in. Colleges and universities must work to ensure that LGBT students of color and especially transgendered students of color do not fall between the cracks. ‘Intersectionality’ must not be simply a slogan; it must be a principle upon which the work of student service professionals at colleges and universities operate.
Finally, let me mention something of particular interest to me as the alumna of three different academic institutions, and that is the role of alumni in the lives of their alma maters. As anyone working on staff at a college or university will know, alumni wield enormous influence with administrators, above all because of their financial contributions to the institutions they once attended. In that regard, it seems to me that the development of LGBT alumni associations represents one of the most promising recent developments in higher education.
The University of Wisconsin-Madison — which I attended as an undergraduate decades before there were any such LGBT alumni associations or LGBT student services offices of any kind — was the first Big Ten school to confer its official recognition of such an alumni association, the GLBT Alumni Council (GLBTAC), established in 1992. I attended the first reunion brunch that summer, hosted by the alumni association known at that time as the Lavender Badgers. By 1999, the association added the ‘T’ to its name and mission. I might add parenthetically that U.S. Representative Tammy Baldwin (JD ’89) — the first openly LGBT person elected to Congress — is a Wisconsin alumna and a recipient of a Distinguished Alumni Award from GLBTAC.
I would encourage us as a community to think in terms of LGBT alumni associations that are able to exercise some degree of autonomy from the general alumni associations and the college and university administrators who run them. Such LGBT alumni associations may be positioned to undertake initiatives that would enhance transgender inclusion in the academic institutions with which they are associated. Just to suggest a few such ideas, an LGBT alumni association should consider creating a transgender-specific scholarship fund and perhaps at some point even funding an endowed chair dedicated to transgender-related research.
Activism & the Academy: Turning Theory Into Praxis
Let me conclude with the component of this effort that is the most fraught with difficulty. If this project of transgendering the academy is to succeed, the field of what may be termed ‘transgender studies’ must demonstrate its relevance to the community which is the ostensible object of its study. Within the academy, the central justification for that enterprise which we may term ‘theory construction’ is that it creates new knowledge, illuminating the human condition, or — in social science terms — describing, explaining, and predicting the phenomena which are the objects of its study. What might be called ‘transgender studies’ is in fact a kind of intersection of two overlapping fields — LGBT studies and gender studies (still known as women’s studies in many colleges and universities).
There are in fact three distinct literatures concerning transgender identity, none of which communicate with each other. There is, first of all, what might be called the clinical literature of psychiatry, psychotherapy and social work. Second, there is the literature of gender studies influenced by feminist theory and especially the stream of queer theory that has its origins in the work of post-structuralist theoreticians, above all, that of Michel Foucault (The History of Sexuality being the Ursprung of this literature). and finally, there is a small theoretical literature in the social sciences of a more positivist and empirical nature.
The problem with the clinical literature — especially that developed by psychiatrists — is that it articulates a pathologizing discourse in which all forms of gender variance are viewed as deviant aberration from a heteronormative standard. At the heart of this literature is the diagnosis of gender identity disorder (GID), listed in the Diagnostic & Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), published by the American Psychiatric Association (APA) and currently in the process of revision. Even those psychiatrists, psychotherapists and social workers who are sympathetic to transsexual and transgendered people seeking some sort of gender transition are compelled by the logic of the medicalization of transgender identity to view transsexualism as a condition to be treated through interventions such as psychotherapy, psychiatry, HRT and SRS. No matter how helpful in practical terms to those seeking to transition in facilitating access to desired medical interventions, the discourse of GID is one which subjects the transgendered individual to treatment for a medicalized condition rather than viewing transgender identity as simply a naturally occurring variant in gender identity and expression.
The current deliberations over the revision of the Diagnostic & Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) are a case in point: the American Psychiatric Association (APA) which publishes the DSM is what the British would call a QUANGO — a ‘quasi-non-governmental organization’ — whose determinations as reflected in the DSM have implications for law and public policy. The ability to secure insurance coverage and payment for gender transition-related surgeries and procedures such as HRT and SRS is determined to a considerable extent by the findings of the clinical literature, shaped by a medicalized discourse of transsexualism rooted in a pathologization of transgender identity and gender variance.
A committee appointed by the APA is currently considering possible revision of the diagnosis of gender identity disorder (GID) introduced in the fourth edition of the DSM (DSM-IV) published in 1974. That committee is led by Dr. Kenneth Zucker, a psychiatrist who advocates ‘reparative therapy’ — up to and including forced electroshock therapy — for transgendered and gender-variant children and youth. The National Association for Research & Therapy of Homosexuality is a notorious purveyor of homophobic pseudoscience, and NARTH has applauded Zucker for his advocacy of coercive psychotherapy used to enforce rigid heteronormative gender norms on gender-queer children and youth. Among Zucker’s confederates in advancing a transgenderphobic agenda within the academy as well as within the public policy arena is J. Michael Bailey, a tenured professor of psychology at Northwestern University and the author of “The Man Who Would Be Queen,” a book based on shoddy second-hand pseudo-science. Bailey has nonetheless been influential in reinforcing the discourse of pathology in the public mind through interviews on television shows such as 60 Minutes (CBS) and through other mainstream media outlets. Even relatively ‘sympathetic’ portrayals of transgender youth such as “Born with the Wrong Body” — a Barbara Walters special on transgendered children that aired on ABC in April 2007 — are informed (or perhaps we should say ‘misinformed’) by the pathologizing clinical literature of medicalized transsexualism proffered by Zucker, Bailey and their ilk.
In a speech I gave at the Trans-Health Conference in Philadelphia in April 2007, I called for the removal of GID from the DSM, contingent on the establishment of mechanisms to ensure continued access to and payment for procedures and surgeries related to gender transition. As I like to say, I do not have a gender identity disorder; it is society that has a gender identity disorder. But I have no access to the DSM-V working group chaired by Ken Zucker, and that committee is not open to input from the transgendered people whose lives will be profoundly affected by its decisions. If a transgendered woman with a Ph.D. in political science who is actively involved in the public policy arena is excluded from the deliberations of the APA and the DSM-V working group on gender identity, one can imagine how minimal the ability of other members of the transgender community to participate in the discussions that will determine the clinical definitions of gender norms both here in the United States and around the world will be.
The clinical literature is profoundly compromised by the profound transgenderphobia of the clinicians who dominate that literature and who are largely white, upper middle class, conventionally gendered, heterosexual men. But the queer-theoretic literature that is its leading competition in the field of transgender studies, while ostensibly more sympathetic to the transgendered and gender-variant people who are the subjects of its study, is also characterized by limited community participation and problematic discourse.
While the literature of transgender studies influenced by feminist and queer theory is more sympathetic to transgender community members and generally far less pathologizing than the clinical literature of psychiatry, it is nonetheless marred by a similar tendency to objectify and exoticize transgender identities. The dominant figure in this queer-theoretic literature is Judith Butler, and her work is a case in point: accused by some of being abstruse to the point of indecipherability, her work is not based in any lived experience of being transgendered but instead exemplifies an observer’s ‘gaze’ that is problematic even if ostensibly more ‘progressive’ and ‘feminist’ than that of the psychiatrists who regard the DSM as a kind of clinical Bible. If there is any insight into gender and transgender in Butler’s work or that of her followers, it is not of the sort to be useful to either activists or policy-makers. Discussion of notions of ‘performativity’ in the context of legislative and policy debates will do little if anything for the transgendered and gender-variant people engaged in life-and-death struggles for survival on the streets of New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, not to mention Mexico City, Mumbai and Marrakesh.
It is one of the most obvious defects of much of the queer-theoretic literature on gender identity and expression that so much of it is inaccessible to so many members of the community that are the subject of the theorist’s gaze. Not all, certainly, but much of the literature of transgender studies is written in a style so abstruse if not deliberately obscurantist that it is inaccessible to anyone outside the field, including activists, advocacy organizations and policy-makers. None of this is to suggest, of course, that all theoretical literature must be written at a sixth-grade level or in a language that completely excludes all specialized terminology; such a demand would render difficult if not impossible the kind of nuanced and sophisticated discussions of important problems in theory construction that are an appropriate part of academic discourse. And one must resist the anti-intellectualism endemic in American society that is also all too apparent in certain LGBT activist circles.
But any honest academic would have to admit that a goodly portion of scholarly activity is really devoted primarily to the attainment of tenure and promotion; were that set of institutional incentives removed, one suspects that quite a few university presses and even whole journals might go out of publication in short order. One of the problems here is the system of peer review that is central to the adjudication of quality and merit in academi writing and publishing. As we hafe seen from the scandal that broke in December 2009 with the public dissemination of e-mail messages from scientists at the University of East Anglia regarding global warming and climate change, the system of peer review can be manipulated and undermined by cunning academics such as those caught up in the affair dubbed ‘Climategate’ (see, for example, Jonathan Leake, “The great climate change science scandal,” The Sunday Times of London, November 29, 2009). If peer review is the gold standard of academic discourse, that gold standard has been tarnished.
Imagine just for the moment if the system entailed the requirtement that at least one participant in the peer review of a potential article or book bhe a member of the community under study and another participant be a member of a relevant policy-making body; would scholars whose writings were under review within such a system be in a position to so blithely ignore the question of ‘relevance’?
I am not in fact proposing such an innovation; the definitional issues alone would make it difficult to determine qualifications for participation on the part of community members and policy-makers; and I am sure that many academics would find such a suggestion to be radical and even outlandish, were it to be made; but such a reaction would simply confirm the suspicion of most- non-academics in the LGBT community that queer theory is removed from the realities and concerns of everyday life for most members of that community.
I am also not suggesting that policy relevance is the primary criterion by which the value of academic research and writing should be evaluated. There is much in the literature of (trans)gender and LGBT studies that is valuable because it contributes to our understanding of transgender identities as well as the relationship between gender variance and sexual orientation. “Three Sexes and Four Sexualities: Redressing the Discourses on Gender and Sexuality in Contemporary Thailand” an article by Rosalind C. Morris published in the journal Positions (Vol. 2, No. 1, pp. 15-43, 1994), just to cite one such example, may have no direct relevance to policy — whether in the United States or Thailand — but it is useful in shedding light on the complexities of transgenderal identities in pre-modern and contemporary Thai society. Likewise, Martin Manalansan’s book, “Global Divas: Filipino Gay Men in the Diaspora” (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003) makes a useful contribution to the literature by examining the complexities of ‘bakla’ identity in the Philippines and the differences with contemporary American society in the way in which transgressive identities are constructed in that culture. Such writings, whether or not they have immediate application to public policy in Europe, North America or elsewhere, certainly have relevance for activism and advocacy work as well as for HIV/AIDS education and prevent and the provision of health care to transgendered and gender-variant people.
The writing of transgender and queer history is an important component of the project of transgendering the academy, but it is one fraught with peril, conceptual and otherwise. The peril is particularly apparent when activists engage in the writing of that history, as so much of activist discourse is theoretically uninformed and burdened with an overly concretized identitarian politics that lacks conceptual sophistication, to the detriment of the work of the activists and organizations who engage in such discursive practices. Many activists treat LGBT identities as if they are eternal essences with no significant variance across time and place, claiming ‘famous homosexuals in history’ as if Leonardo da Vinci were just another Chelsea Boy or Castro Street Clone.
The transgender variant of this essentializing of identity and identity politics is exemplified by the characterization of Joan of Arc as just one in a long line of ‘Transgender Warriors’ (to cite the title of Leslie Feinberg’s 1996 book), as if there were no significant differences in the social construction of (trans)gender identity in France in 1430 or in New York City in 1969 or 2010, for that matter. To describe Joan of Arc as “an inspirtational role model — a brilliant transgender peasant teenager leading an armhy of laborers into battle” (p. 36) who was “burned at the stake by the Inquisition of the Catholic Church because she refused to stop dressing in garb traditionally worn by men” (p. 31) is to use history for contemporary political purposes. Not only does the “Transgender Warriors” approach to history take an individual historical figure such as Joan of Arc entirely out of historical context — failing to acknowledge that the central reason for her execution by the English was her military leadership of the enemy French forces — that approach produces rather bizarrely ironic discursive practices, constructing a transgender hero out of a woman who in contemporary France is beloved by the far right as the very epitome of French nationalism. But such is the danger of writing transgender history to advance a contemporary political agenda.
In the introduction to “Monsieur d’Eon is a Woman: A Tale of Political Intrigue and Sexual Masquerade,” the biography of the Chevalier d’Eon by Gary Kates, he writes in describing Feinberg’s approach to transgender history, “…such theorists have little historical sensibility” (preface, p. xiii). Those transgendered individuals who know of d’Eon, “think of d’Eon as an early pioneer who somehow lived centuries ahead of his time. But what makes d’Eon fascinating is that he was no such thing. Neither sick nor ahead of his time, d’Eon’s gender bending was lionized in his day and even made emblematic of his generation,” Kates writes. An example of historically informed transgender history a profile of the first public transgender figure in Western European history, the Kates biography of d’Eon avoids engaging in the kind of essentializing discourse in which a good deal of transgender history and a great deal of trransgender activism engages.
One does not need to endorse the notion that all history is reducible to biography to see that biography is an important component of the project of transgender history. Nor does one need to be transgendered oneself to write transgender biography or history, but the non-transgendered biographer and historian need to be aware of and sensitive to the self-understanding of the subjects that they write about. To call Billy Tipton “the producer of the illusion of masculinity, both onstage and off” — as Diane Wood Middlebook does in her biography of the twentieth century jazz artist (“Suits Me: The Double Life of Billy Tipton,” Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1998) comes close to imposing a misunderstanding of a subject whom contemporary transgendered people would doubtless wish to call a ‘transman.’
But the danger with autobiography as history is the risk that transgendered authors may project their own individual self-construction on the community as a whole, generalizing from direct personal experience in a universalizing discourse that actually undermines those activists and academic theorists who are attempting to communicate the full diversity and complexity of the universe of gender and transgender identity to a largely uncomprehending society.
Much of what may be termed as ‘transgender studies’ — including that written in a queer-theoretic vein — is written from a white, upper-middle-class, US-centric perspective. Transgender studies as a field needs to take into account not only perspectives of transgendered people of color, but the full complexity of intersectionality, examining class, disability, and citizenship and nationality issues as well as race and ethnicity; and transgender studies must also incorporate the wide world outside the United States in its perspectives and concerns. At the same time, if it is to be valuable, transgender studies must do more than simply preach to the choir. Research and writing that does nothing than enable the author to strike a pose does nothing to advance our understanding of the complexities of gender identity and expression, much less the marginalized communities that are the ostensible object of the author’s screed. Participants in the enterprise of transgender studies must avoid sanctimonious moralizing and instead attempt to engage meaningfully with those inside the academy and out in order to attempt to enlist them as allies.
What post-structuralist theory at its best can do is help deconstruct problematic discursive practices prevalent in public policy discussions as well as in much of LGBT activism and advocacy work. One of the most problematic such tendencies in transgender activism and LGBT activism more generally is the conjuncture of biological essentialism with liberal rights discourse, as in the formulation, “I was born gay/lesbian/bisexual/ transgendered; my sexual orientation and/or gender identity is an immutable characteristic; therefore, I deserve legal rights.” Such a formulation cries out for deconstruction, but attempts to bring academicians informed by post-structuralist theory together with activists advocating on behalf of marginalized communities within a political system characterized by a strongly concretized constituency politics do not always bear fruit. The Center for Lesbian & Gay Studies (CLAGS) at the City University of New York (CUNY) often tries to bring academicians together with activists in order to engage in an exchange of insights and perspectives; but such encounters frequently resemble a dialogue of the deaf, with academics speaking a language indecipherable to activists and activists inevitably frustrating their academic brethren and sistren in the queer theory coven as well.
What I would like to suggest, therefore, is that activists and academic theorists do have something to learn from each other. Transgender and LGBT activists would benefit by subjecting their discursive practices to interrogation and deconstruction of a reflective and productive sort; and academics would profit by examining the relevance of their theory construction by talking with activists and policy-makers to — in a post-positivist but nonetheless meaningfully ’empirical’ sense — ‘testing’ their ideas in the ‘real’ world and striving for policy relevance where appropriate. Some direct involvement with activism and advocacy work ‘on the ground’ might also help inform theory construction. Not all theory construction need be ‘relevant’ in a direct way, and not all activism need be conceptually sophisticated. But the gulf between theory and praxis in transgender studies resembles a yawning chasm, a veritable Grand Canyon without the scenic beauty.
And that brings me to the third literature of transgender studies, which is the conventional social scientific sort found in scattered bits and pieces in social science journals as well as in publications of LGBT organizations such as the Policy Institute of the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force or units of academic institutions such as the Williams Institute at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA). This is a relatively small literature compared with the clinical literature and the queer theory literature, but some of this empirical literature is genuinely policy relevant, even if it is not always as theoretically groundbreaking as the best of the queer theoretic writing. An example of what I mean is a 2007 Policy Institute report entitled, “LGBT Youth: An Epidemic of Homelessness,” by Nicholas Ray, which examines the serious problem of homelessness among queer youth in the United States.
Another example of policy-relevant research is a study on “LGBT Health and Human Services Needs in New York State,” a report by Somjen Frazer for the by the Empire State Pride Agenda Foundation and the New York State LGBT Health & Human Services Network. The report, published in 2009, includes sections on specific populations — the transgender community, people of color, youth, seniors, and LGBT families — as well as on policy areas such as mental health care, substance abuse, housing, social support, and violence. Frazer and her colleagues concluded that “Transgender and gender non-conforming people are more likely to experience barriers to healthcare, homelessness, violence and other negative health outcomes.” That conclusion will have come as a surprise to no one in the transgender community, much less to transgender activists and advocacy organizations, but a report that makes such findings available to legislators and other policy-makers in New York state government is useful in a way that countless peer-reviewed journal articles in Social Text never will be. Indeed, the hoax perpetrated by Alan Sokal would not have been possible had the peer-reviewed articles in Social Text not made so easy a target for parody.
The stakes here are far higher than the reputation of an academic journal that few outside of academia will have heard of. Law and public policy have a profound impact on all our lives, but because the transgender community is among the most marginalized in this or any society, it is imperative that the deliberations of public policy makers be informed by research and scholarship that is in turn informed by the lived experiences of transgendered and gender-variant people. And it is equally important that the activists and advocacy organizations pursuing an equality agenda both in the United States and abroad engage the public in a way that does not rely on problematic and even counter-productive notions such as are found at the intersection of biological essentialism and liberal rights discourse.
I would like to see us engage the project of transgendering the academy in earnest, and success of that project can only be premised on a transformation of the relationship between theory and praxis. Only when the academy begins to foster public policy and activism in the United States and abroad that is a informed by feminist consciousness and that takes into account the insights of post-structuralist theory without being overly encumbered by institutional imperatives of publication for tenure and promotion can it make a significant contribution to the pursuit of a progressive vision of social justice and social change. As the Mahatma Gandhi would say, we must be the change that we seek to make in the world, and that vision of change is what must guide us as we engage in the project that I have called the transgendering of the academy. Thank you.