a few months ago, rachel mckinnon had a really nice article in the chronicle of higher education about her experiences coming out as a trans*woman to classes she was instructing. and at the end of august, she had another great article about what it’s been like for her as a young trans* academic on the job market.
both of the articles are awesome, you should definitely check them out if you haven’t. i’m incredibly impressed with rachel’s keeping a positive outlook through some pretty stressful situations for her. and her courage to write publicly about it is awesome. and friggen good on the chronicle for not only publishing the articles, but also having them on the front page [if even only for a day].
i think rachel touches on a lot of really important points about being trans* as a young academic [and in particular, trans*ing as a young academic]. for example, how pivotal of a role ones department can play in trans*-related stuff. i too am lucky enough to have an incredibly supportive department [from top to bottom] and it’s been AMAZING.
in reading both of her articles, however, i kept thinking “this is great…but shit, this totally is not me.” in some respects, our stories are quite similar, but in many important respects they differ substantially. so too do our perspectives. and i imagine many other young trans* academics have stories and viewpoints and other identities that are different from both of ours, which is fantastic! yay variable narratives and intersectionality! and i think it’s important to keep in mind that as a result of us having quite varied lives, no one trans* person speaks for all of us.
so, i thought i’d take this as an opportunity to open the discussion up to the variable experiences trans* academics face. rachel’s articles provide an awesome starting point, but the conversation is only beginning, and i think it’s good to highlight that there is no one path for all trans* folks to take, including within academia.
to that end, i thought a good step for me to take is to tell my story about how it’s been being me right now, in an academic setting.
so here goes.
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to set the stage, i think it’s helpful to give a bit of biopic info:
i am a 6th year grad student in an ecology and evolutionary biology department and am currently a teaching assistant [ta] for an intro evolution course [there’s a 400 person lecture which i don’t teach, but i do teach three sections of 20-25 students]. i’ll be defending my phd in november [my thesis is on spatial food-web dynamics] and am actively on the job market looking for research post-doc-type positions [keeping options and eyes open, not limited to academic settings].
and generally speaking, i’m pretty invisibly trans*.
that is, when most people see me, hear me, interact with me, etc. for the first time, the thought that i might be trans* most likely does not cross their mind.
trans* invisibility is something a lot of trans* people face for various reasons. perhaps the most commonly known reason for trans* invisibility is “passing” or being “stealth”…that is, being perceived as the gender to which you contemporarily identify, without any acknowledgement of trans*ness. for many people, this invisibility is a desired outcome of their transition.
but there is [at least] one other reason for trans* invisibility, which i’ve taken to calling being “reverse-stealth”…that is, being perceived as a gender to which you don’t identify, without any acknowledgement of trans*ness. this is my life, generally speaking. my personality, my gender expression, etc. render my trans*ness invisible to most people…so much so that i’ve often been asked “which way” upon revealing my trans* identity.
[note: i actually kinda like getting that response.]
and i haven’t changed my name at all [nor do i ever plan to], which strongly facilitates my trans* invisibility right now, in life in general, and in academia specifically [in my field, paper and grant reviews are not double blind, and certainly all application materials for jobs have my name all over them]. although, if i ever move into a more visibly trans* space with myself, my name will act to strongly reinforce that visibility. i mean, there aren’t that many people like lionel shriver around for me to point to. but this also means i haven’t had to deal with publication/grant history stuff on my cv, which is nice.
and so for me, rather than my trans*ness being “an elephant in the room”, which everyone can see and thus needs to be discussed and explained, it’s “an invisible elephant in the room”, which i can see, but most folks don’t have any clue exists at all. that is…until i go to the bathroom or someone who knows me refers to me as “she”. i recently went to a meeting of over 5,000 ecologists, and i’m pretty sure most people there had no idea i was trans* or a woman [for simplicity’s sake], until they saw me go to the bathroom, at which point, WHAM! that elephant is right-the-fuck in everyone’s view.
but here’s the other thing, i don’t feel like my elephant is something that i need to “deal with”. i don’t feel the need to address my trans*ness directly, to explain or justify it away. as long as folks are aware of my elephant, in all of her majestic fierceness, and treat her with respect and love, i don’t feel like it’s really necessary to discuss her existence in most situations.
in particular, my trans* identity is, for all intents and purposes, irrelevant to my work. certainly my trans*ness influences some interpersonal interactions in the work place, but it’s not like my being trans* influences my views on spatial food-web dynamics in rock pools or gives me any important personal insights into the topics i teach about. as a result, there’s no specific incentive for me to explicitly “come out” to folks as trans* in my work place.
generally speaking, i don’t “come out” as trans* in any space. for the simple reason that i don’t explicitly come out as anything, really. i’ve always had issues with labels and identity categories…to whatever degree that i actually identify as anything, i don’t like the prospect of enabling other people to assume things about me based on a word i use to describe myself. i’d much prefer to just be me and let that be what’s important.
given all that, how have i handled my “gender stuff right now” in the work place?
for the most part, i’ve taken a relevance-based, limited approach: i only bring up my trans*ness in situations where i feel like it’s directly relevant, which mostly just comes to when other folks are going to be referring to me verbally. and even in those cases, i don’t explicitly state that i’m trans*, because i don’t feel like that’s the important thing. i just make it clear that folks should use “woman-typical” language [like “she pronouns”] when referencing me. i don’t preface it with a justification based on my trans*ness, i just make clear how others should refer to me.
the classroom setting is a situation where this comes up for me, in that i want to make sure students and other instructors are clear of the language they should use when talking about me.
as i mentioned before, the class i’m a ta for this semester has a long roster of instructors [5 faculty, 1 coordinator, 7 ta’s]. and so, on the second day of the course, the lead instructor introduced all of us to the class. he had each of us stand up, put up a powerpoint slide with pictures of our research, and said something quick about who we are/what we work on. we each made our own slide and told him what to say about us, so it was a good opportunity for me to be clear about how i wanted to be addressed in class. and so this is what i sent him:
“Joe Simonis is a sixth-year grad student in EEB who will be defending her thesis this fall. She uses theoretical and empirical approaches to study how dispersal and predator-prey interactions combine to influence the dynamics of populations and food-webs.”
and that’s what he read. although he also added a bit about how the fact that i’m a 6th year meant that i started grad school when most of the students were still in junior high [yowza]. but that’s it. there was no need to draw attention to his using “she”…why he did it or what it meant…he just did it and then moved on to the next ta. [and that made me melt with content. seriously, i’m surrounded by awesome people who sometimes don’t even know how awesome they are.]
the next week in section, i took advantage of first-meeting ice-breaker time to, as i like to put it, “play names and pronouns”, which is really just making sure that folks feel free to say how they want to be referenced, including their names and their pronouns. so, before we go around the room, i say explicitly “introduce yourself how you’d like to be referred to, names- and pronouns-wise, say where you’re from…”. so i start off, and say “my name is joe and i use she pronouns, i’m from northern illinois, …” and then pass it around the room.
interestingly, none of the students in any of my sections said their pronouns, but that’s fine. i don’t force people to declare their pronouns, but i want people to feel welcome to mention them if they’d like. i mean, i try not to assume people’s pronouns as much as possible, so i like to give others the opportunity to explicitly declare theirs.
i also play names and pronouns whenever i’m introducing people i don’t know, for example, at the sessions i moderated at society meetings this summer. people typically have their full name listed in the program, so when they check in for their talk, i ask them what name and pronoun they’d like me to use when introducing them, extending the opportunity to others that i wish others would extend to me more often.
but i don’t generally expect people to ask me for my pronouns, and so i realize i need to speak up about it in certain situations when it’s relevant [despite my ambivalence], as in the case of this paragraph i included in an e-mail i recently sent to my references:
“And just as a reminder, I do use “she” for pronouns now, so if W ends up calling you or requesting a letter, please do use she, etc. when referencing me. I know X and Y both know this already, but Z hasn’t written any letters for me yet, so this hasn’t directly come up.”
the next day, person Z stopped me in the hall to say thanks for the heads-up/clarification, and the conversation instantly shifted to how awesome that job sounded. after we were done chatting, i headed to the women’s room, ‘cause that’s what i use, and no one gives me shit about it at work. because the people i work with rock. srsly.
and this approach to job applications seems to be working. i have an interview lined up for a post-doc soon, and just got an e-mail from my potential boss asking how they should refer to me when they introduce me to others/share my documents with them. they noticed that all of my documents say “joe” or “joseph”, yet my letters of rec [and website!] use “she”, and so they were being considerate and asking. YAAAAAAAY!
oh yeah, right, and obviously i write pretty openly and freely about many things on this blog, including trans*-related stuff. and i try to publicize my posts pretty widely…to co-workers, colleagues, friends, and family…as a means to communicate about my life with people that i don’t see all that often…and to facilitate being out without coming out. i’ve taken advantage of various social media to publicize m’blog. and from a work perspective, my research page has an explicit link [on the front page] to m’blog. and since my research page is in every work e-mail i send, is on my business cards, and is now the top page that shows up when i google myself [screw you, joseph P simonis!], it’s a nice vehicle to facilitate my being out.
that’s pretty much how i’ve handled it at work. i didn’t send out any big e-mails to the department or have any major sit down meetings with people. i had very brief [separate] chats with my advisor and the director of graduate studies for my department, in which i told each of them i was “dealing with some gender identity stuff” and just wanted to give them a heads-up. both of them responded “cool, i’m totally behind you on this, you lead the way”. omg, can we talk about how supportively laissez faire the faculty in my department are??? i realize i am very lucky to have a great group of people around me in the work place, it’s not something i take for granted, but it is something i take advantage of [in a positive way] to help facilitate my being openly trans* without needing to declare it.
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so yeah, i’d love to hear how other trans* academics have navigated things. have other people written about this [on personal blogs or openly in publications]? we can all learn from each other, for sure, and i think it’d be great to have an open and frank discussion about the varied experiences of trans* folks [of all ages, actually] in academia.