I’ve Never Met Anyone Like Me, But Anthropologists (Not Me) Study People Like Me, Or: What if we trans/non-binary people weren’t just your objects of study?

I’ve Never Met Anyone Like Me, But Anthropologists (Not Me) Study People Like Me, Or: What if we trans/non-binary people weren’t just your objects of study?

cw: transphobia, mention of suicide and murder

The image is of a grey cat, in profile, facing to the right. She is sitting on a dark blue sheet, which is wrinkled (she's been rolling on it). Her paws are together.
Willow, our cat.

I started writing this piece in June. It was during Pride month, amidst JK Rowling’s ongoing public transphobia, and the same time as I was getting occasional news alerts about Trumpian cuts to protections around trans healthcare. It was also amidst some discussion here in Canada about Prof. Kathleen Lowery, a professor whose workload was shifted after complaints about her transphobia. Prof. Sarah Shulist covered a fair amount of the news around Prof. Lowrey here on Anthrodendum, focusing on the words the media and Prof. Lowrey are using to talk about the situation, and Prof. Lowrey’s exceptionally transphobic and TERF-dogwhistle door. I am so grateful for Prof. Shulist’s writing. I’m so grateful for her vocal support. I’m so grateful someone sitting with the semiotics of Prof. Lowrey’s door, because that’s heavy work to do—it can feel Sisyphean, like trying to carry a pile of glass shards, your hands get cut and there’s always more to sift through.

But this isn’t just about Prof. Lowery. Or that being transphobic is far too often couched as “academic freedom” (which imagines “freedom” in unfortunate way and an academic community free of us trans folks, but I digress). I’m not even going to write about how Prof. Lowrey has a “Pro” account on a social network made for trans-exclusionary radical feminists (TERFs) (where she did ask if there were other anthropologists, so she could put together “a late-breaking session on radical feminism and academic freedom”). I’m not going to go in-depth into how “gender critical” is a nice way of saying “transphobic”— people like Natalie Wynn1 (known online as Contrapoints) have produced primers about the term “gender critical,” and others can do the work around the semiotics of TERFs. Others like Laurie Penny have written about how TERFs’ intellectual history is rooted in the UK. So, as much as I’d like to patiently explain how Graham Linehan—yes, the man who created or co-created Father Ted, Black Books, and The IT Crowd—is involved in all of this, I’m going to focus on something else.

I’m in part so grateful for Prof. Schulist’s work because of something that it took me a few years to realize: I’ve never met—let alone, to the best of my knowledge, been in the same room with—anyone with a PhD in Anthropology who is transgender or non-binary. (An aside: If you’re a trans or non-binary person with a PhD in Anthropology, I really would like to meet you!)  In the last few years, I’ve been to at least ten conferences on two continents, in more than five countries. I know several trans people who are currently graduate students, but still–I’ve never met a trans person who holds a PhD in Anthropology. I don’t know of someone who can be what Janet Mock and Laverne Cox call a “possibility model” for me.

I have never thought I was “the first” trans person to (fingers crossed) complete a PhD in Anthropology, but when I began to be more public with my decision to live authentically as myself, I realized how exhausting it can be to be out, but without a local trans anthro community. I am very aware that someone’s transness is more or less visible2, and many people do not come out for personal and/or safety-related reasons. (To be clear, no trans person “owes” it to anyone else to be out.) It just struck me as…odd. Sad. Lonely. So, after realizing that I had not ever met a trans person with a PhD in Anthropology, like a good researcher, I spent a few days trying to find the people I hoped were out there. I found someone: one trans person who holds a PhD in Anthropology.

One person.

Off the top of my head, I can come up with a fairly substantive list of anthropologists who do research “on” us trans people. (Their words, and yes, I flinch every time.) Part of CASCA/AAA last year was held on Transgender Day of Remembrance, and even though the lights outside the conference venue were blue, pink, and white for the day, there was no mention of this by anyone I encountered in the conference, nor did the constant misgendering stop–though I didn’t expect it to. I’ve been misgendered by most scholars I encounter, even if I wear multiple nametags with pronouns and correct them multiple times. Someone affiliated with my department hosted an event this past year for someone linked with trans conversion therapy3. It is also desperately important to point out how intersections of race and privilege affect trans experiences: trans women of color are at significantly higher risk of violence, and given academia’s track record with racism and sexism…it’s not great.

I understand why many trans people leave academia, and as someone who’s seen how research “on” trans people by cis scholars gets lauded, I’m also not surprised that trans people just don’t get hired in higher ed. Given that research keeps affirming what trans people have been saying for years—that using our names and pronouns means we face fewer mental health issues—there are many ways that are easy, simple, and free to make us trans people welcome in academic spaces. Yet, discrimination towards trans people continues, and trans people often have fewer or less explicit legal or university protections than cis people 4. I was a little surprised by Prof. Lowrey’s door, but given that I have been using they/them pronouns for years and am consistently misgendered (and there’s an emeritus prof in my department openly writing about “transgender privilege”)…am I really that surprised?

While I am in Canada now, I am from the US—while I graduated years after she started, I went to the same high school as Leelah Alcorn, a trans teenage girl who killed herself after her parents subjected her to conversion therapy. I have heard too many stories that feel heavy to carry. I’m very privileged in that I am white and I was assigned female at birth (AFAB), so for me, misgendering is usually as bad as things get. I’m included in “womxn’s spaces,” while my assigned male at birth (AMAB) trans friends and colleagues are less warmly welcomed, leading to uneasy feelings about bio-essentialism (and second-wave feminism). But still, my heart hurts for all the trans people who have been harmed this year, when in August, the US surpassed the total number of trans people killed in all of 2019.5 So far this year in the US, we remember: Dustin Parker, Neulisa Luciano Ruiz, Yampi Méndez Arocho, Monika Diamond, Lexi “Ebony” Sutton, Johanna Metzger, Serena Angelique Velézquez Ramos, Layla Pelaez Sánchez, Penélope Díaz Ramírez, Nina Pop, Helle Jae O’Regan, Tony McDade, Dominique “Rem’mie” Fells, Riah Milton, Jayne Thompson, Selena Reyes-Hernandez, Brian “Egypt” Powers, Brayla Stone, Merci Mack, Shaki Peters, Bree Black, Summer Taylor, Marily Cazares, Dior H Ova, Queasha D Hardy, Aja Raquell Rhone-Spears, Kee Sam, Aerrion Burnett, Mia Green, Michelle Michellyn Ramos Vargas, Felycya Harris, and those whose names we don’t know—and those trans people who have been killed across the world.

Anyways, all of this is a digression. I was angry and frustrated about a tenured professor deliberately misleading people that she’s still getting money (and a course release) after aggressive transphobia. So, I made a small donation to Taking What We Need—a group in my community that provides financial support to transfeminine people, prioritizing BIPOC—and I felt a little bit better. When I saw academics sharing the Judith Butler New Statesman interview where she discusses TERFs, while not advocating for trans people in their own classrooms, I messaged a non-binary friend a particularly adorable photo of my cat, and remembered that my joy and my sense of self cannot be contingent on scholars waiting for an interview to come out featuring Judith Butler themself6.

So, as the pandemic goes on, and the academic job market gets worse and worse: lift up trans people, celebrate trans joy, build an academy that affirms the humanity of people of all genders. And, maybe I’ll meet that trans person with a PhD in Anthropology someday.

I just hope it’s before I become one myself.

  1. To provide the briefest of contexts as to why some might not like my reference, there are many critiques of Natalie Wynn that exist, and those that are not just outright transphobic stem from her inclusion of Buck Angel, a trans man who has been outspoken against non-binary people and some trans people who don’t medically transition to his satisfaction, in a video. I’m citing her work here because I think that this is a really good primer on “gender critical” from a trans woman, but adding this context because I think it demonstrates how different trans people do indeed have different ideas about gender. 
  2. I’m referring to “passing” here—that is, a transgender person’s ability to pass as cisgender, without notice. This is often an issue of safety, particularly for trans women. 
  3. Without going into too much detail here, the frequent arguments cited here are that Zucker settled with the clinic he was fired from. This is true, but is true only in so much as he settled because the report was released publicly without notifying him first, and one complaint was withdrawn. As far as I am aware, the settlement was not a statement of wrongful termination. For a longer discussion of the academic literature around trans youth and gender-affirmative care, see Florence Ashley, “Homophobia, conversion therapy, and care models for trans youth: defending the gender-affirmative approach,” Journal of LGBT Youth 17, issue 4 (2020): 361-383
  4. In particular, many universities—including my own—have refused to explicitly state that trans people have the right to be called by their names and have their pronouns used. In my experience and after hearing from other trans scholars who have issue at their own institutions, the most frequently-cited reason to not include pronoun protection is “academic freedom.” I believe that this is an unhelpful framing of the argument, but an academic freedom discussion is for another time—the point here is that other rights have to be mobilized (i.e. broad rules against harassment or “vexatious behavior”) in place of an explicit right to be called by one’s name and pronouns. 
  5. I say “harmed” here because I believe trans people should be able to thrive, not just survive. Measuring success in terms of fewer people murdered or violently harmed is a low bar. Let’s do better, and aim for lives full of joy. 
  6. Judith Butler uses singular “they” and “she” pronouns. Given how Butler is often described, I’m not sure if many more senior scholars know this. 

One Reply to “I’ve Never Met Anyone Like Me, But Anthropologists (Not Me) Study People Like Me, Or: What if we trans/non-binary people weren’t just your objects of study?”

  1. Thank you for speaking out about this. As a trans man going into my first quarter of college with the intent to pursue anthropology, its good to know the realities I’ll be facing. Thank you for blazing the way for those of us to follow you into the field.