The Beginning of a Transgender Sociologist

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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.