The Controversy surrounding Rebecca Tuvel’s article in the pages of Hypatia brings to my mind the activity involving the publication of the Man Who Would Be Queen (MWWBQ) by J Michael Bailey. I’ve discussed this book with others in a podcast available here, and is also discussed in Alice Dreger’s Book Galileo’s’ Middle Finger so I won’t be discussing it further except to highlight an issue that both brings to mind. What role do community members and community members who are themselves academics) have in in the production and discussion of academic work.
Those supporting Dr. Tuvel’s and Bailey’s works view the critiques as being unwarranted and unwanted with some equating their actions with that of a Witch Hunt and the Catholic Church during the dark ages. As if people of color and trans people have the kind of institutional power as either Puritan leaders of Salem or the Catholic Church. Both these reactions are dismissive and do little to minimize the tension between groups. Rather than these examples I would point people to another example, that of AIDS activists and biomedical researchers.
ACT-UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) arose to confront the discrimination and stigma people with HIV/AIDS were experiencing. Their actions put them against politicians (especially the Reagan Administrations and Senator Jesse Helms), but also pharmaceutical companies, hospitals, and researchers. They spent much energy protesting and advocating for community representation and involvement in how new drugs are tested and made available to those in need. The results of their actions led to the inclusion of those affected by HIV/AIDS in having a say in how HIV/AIDS work is done. This is not to say that the actions of ACT-UP were always constructive. I don’t think placing a giant condom over Senator Helm’s house helped change some people’s mind. What did help was that there were officials and researchers who did listen and helped ACT-UP bring about changes to support both HIV/AIDS activists and the conduct of research to the betterment of both communities.
This is where my perspective begins. My work in trans health research was greatly influenced by this and career involved working with community members in the conduct of health research and programs. So I wonder why other fields are so hesitant in hearing critiques from others. Yes, some critiques are harsh and there are poor responses from people on multiple sides, but that doesn’t negate the need to respond to the criticism. I’ve had my share of harsh criticisms that upset me. I had moments that I was so angry at people’s reactions and wanted to respond in kind. This is why people stress the need for cultural humility when doing work that involves other communities. To focus on the needs of others rather than my own needs, which is easier said than done, is still important to strive for.
I empathize with Rebecca Tuvel’s plight as an assistant professor who is just beginning her career. I wish to advise her to take this experience and rather than build a wall between herself and her critics, to reach out, listen, and to work with them. To develop the humility that one’s perspective isn’t always correct. To take the example of Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, an HIV researcher and NIH official who many activists at the time called a murderer. Rather than be defensive and ignore them he chose to work with many of the people who called him names.
And for the editors of Hypatia and others, if you were concerned for the plight of junior academics I would focus your actions more broadly and include those academics of color, trans academics, and other academics from marginalized communities and to improve your competency when it comes to issues and works involving those communities. If Dr. Tuvel received better guidance from editors and reviewers she wouldn’t have had to go through these experiences in the first place.
Yesterday was the Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR). Its purpose is to highlight the violence experienced by transgender people this past year. There has been 238 transgender, transsexual, and gender nonconforming (trans) people on this years TDOR list, but we will never know the exact number of people killed. What is crucial is to acknowledge that most of the people on this list (and of every list since the Day of Remembrance first started) are trans women of color, many also poor, and many very young (the youngest being 13 years of age). What is also significant is the amount of violence these young people experienced: Multiple gunshots, multiple stabbings, multiple physical blows, and even beheadings. There perpetrators doing vast amounts of damage as if to literally remove any trace of these people from this world. Can you imagine hating someone that much? Can you imagine being on the receiving end of that hate.
One of the first activities I was involved with once I came out as transgender in 1994 was volunteer to help with GenderPAC’s transgender violence study. At the time no one was interested in doing transgender related research. This was also before people noticed that many trans people (especially young trans women of color) were being infected with HIV and dying. I volunteered to do data entry, analysis, and to write up the results of the many surveys sent to me. Over 400 surveys were delivered to my door roughly from 1995 to 1996. Many were pretty easy to deal with if not aggravating (experiences of discrimination, verbal harassment), but there were always a few that talked about the extreme violence they’ve experienced by strangers or by supposed loved ones as well. I never knew about the one’s who were never given the chance to fill out one of our surveys.
1998 was important in that people decided that the trans people who had their lives taken needed to be honored. That was the start of the Transgender Day of Remembrance. I think I’ve been to a ceremony every year (mostly), I’ve even organized a few. Many things have changed. More jurisdictions have established anti-discrimination and hate crimes legislation, even at the federal level there have been some changes that is beneficial to many transgender people. But there are still too many names added to the Day of Remembrance list. There are also those who after failing to turn the tide against same-gender marriage are now turning on the most vulnerable group within the trans community; young trans people. Cristan Williams from the Transadvocate has been very busy detailing the lies and the harassment being done to young trans people (especially young trans women). The issue is whether young trans people will be given the social space to express their identities safely.
This Day of Remembrance I want to remember those who were taken away through such horrendous violence because somebody (or somebodies) did not believe that they deserved to live. I also want to remember those who are still with us but also facing hate and ignorance that may make life unbearable. To both groups, you are in my thoughts.
1994 was the start of two of the most significant things to happen in my life. One was the start of my PhD program, and the other was coming out as transgender. In a way, both were tied very closely to each other. I began to use what I was learning in my PhD program to help me learn more about what it means to be transgender, so using my new skills searching for information at my University’s library. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much sociological literature on the subject.
Psychology and psychiatry had a long history of writings on the subject, but they were focused on transsexualism as an illness and there was very little I found useful. I had classes on the sociology of mental illness and read the literature on stigma and saw what was written as being representative of the way society seeks to control and minimize any form of gender nonconformity. This was not the way I was viewing myself and trans issues; I was hoping more for a critical perspective.
Fortunately 1994 was the year of two significant (for me) publications. The first was Kate Bornstein’s book “Gender Outlaw” (I still have it and managed to get her to autograph later), and the other was an essay by Susan Stryker called “My Words to Victor Frankenstein Above the Village of Chamounix: Performing Transgender Rage”. Both articulated a critical response to the experiences faced by transgender people. These, along with Sandy Stone’s Essay “The Empire Strikes Back: a Posttranssexual Manifesto”, were very important in that they were other woman who are thinking the same things I was thinking. That being trans wasn’t an illness and that trans people face numerous problems in their daily lives. I would think that sociology would be very interested in investigating the inequities faced by trans people, but that’s not what I found.
One of the few articles I found at the time was “The process of deviance designation: The case of the homosexual transvestite” (Authors: LM Fournet, CJ Forsyth, CT Schramm) that was published in the Free Inquiry in Creative Sociology in 1988. A very hard to find article, but one that represents the general view within sociology, that trans people represents a form of deviancy. However, another article surprised me the most. “The socio-medical construction of transsexualism: An interpretation and critique” (Authors: D. B. Billings and T. Urban) Published in the journal Social Problems. In this case the social problem in question was being a transsexual, and individuals such as myself are just confused. I wasn’t finding anything within the discipline that I felt that was actually dealt with the actual lives of transgender people. So I felt it was important that I work to change that.
In 1996 I began to be more active as trans professionally. I even chaired a session at the American Sociological Association meeting in New York City inviting local activists to talk about transgender issues. I also recall a presentation on an HIV program in Rio de Janeiro targeting transgender women involved in sex work. The topic of HIV and Transgender issues being very important to me and I was hoping to get some valuable information. Unfortunately the talk was peppered with photos of topless trans women. When this was brought up the answer that was given was that they consented and this is what they did to find clients. Still a graduate student, I didn’t know how to react to the actions of a senior sociologist. Unfortunately this also the beginning of my disenchantment with discipline of sociology, I eventually finished my program and started a post-doc in Los Angeles. Shortly after that I legally and medically transitioned (thanks to the resources and support available in LA), but what I didn’t know at the time was that it also was the beginning of my transition from sociology to public health.