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being transgender in academia


uselesstheory

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The title is mostly self-explanatory: what is the general attitude among academics/in academia about trans colleagues and graduate students?

Obviously, this varies by department and discipline (I am assuming sociology is a safer atmosphere for trans people than others, but this is an assumption), but I am quite curious.

If anyone has personal experience, that would be even better, but I am hoping for any perspective. I do not want to generalize my overall positive experience with one department (mostly, with one exception) to all of academia.

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About a year ago, a transgender person joined the Tenure She Wrote blog team. You might be interested in reading some of her posts: https://tenureshewrote.wordpress.com/author/dualitea/ .

 

I know two transgender people in my field (both at other schools), but by know I mostly mean that we have mutual friends so I see them comment on my friends' facebook posts and on twitter. They seem accepted in their departments and productive in their work, but I don't think I have enough of a perspective to really say much more than that. For what it's worth, I think most Social Science and Humanities fields are pretty friendly and accepting of others. We (in linguistics) have a high proportion of LGBT people who are open and active in the field, including several very prominent researchers.

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Although it's kind of difficult to make generalizations about the attitudes of academics toward anything, I think the one thing that we CAN safely assume about academics is that they are all educated. I can further make the generalization that educated people are more likely to be aware, informed, and accepting of people identifying as LGBTQIA.

 

My field is different than yours, but I've always felt like fields within the physical sciences (and especially biology) are very accepting -- perhaps because we see our differences as ingrained/innate, and nobody has any "precious worldviews" that might be crushed by other people living their lives.

 

A prof at Oregon State underwent surgery for reassignment a couple years ago and the university went out of their way to protect this individual's identity during the change -- they deleted/changed old records showing the prof's old first name, replaced all pictures of this person with their new pictures, etc. This prof is a friend of my parents, so that's how I know. 

But I do know Oregon State is very accepting in general -- I had started applying to one of their programs and I remember being asked for both my gender and my "gender identity", with options to be put in contact with LGBT support.

Edited by pasteltomato
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I knew a transgender professor at a military university who was previously male. She was seriously respected for her past work in the field (boots on the ground), and in academia, among the hyper-testosteronic students, and among her professional colleagues. From what I knew, anyway.

 

If that woman can make it in that environment, I imagine it can't be too bad overall.

 

You will always find extremes though, no matter what characteristic you look at, or where you are, there will be extreme naysayers, and extreme supporters.

 

I am glad to hear you have had/witnessed a positive experience, too.

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I can't speak for all programs but I know in my SW program it is definitely a safe place, our school prides itself on being an ally and we have had guest speakers come (who were trans) into our class room to talk about their experiences.  For me, that was the most eye opening experience because I had never known anyone trans.. Sorry going off on my own personal experiences. I think that in most grad programs people are older and more mature and would not judge or create an unsafe environment for a transgendered person.  It should be based on the work that you do.  

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Thank you all so much for your replies. They helped me envision, to an extent, what a trans person can expect in the academic environment...I think it will be very important to carefully examine each department's atmosphere before I make any decision (obviously, I intended to do this before, but it is good to know specific things to keep in mind) if I am granted admission anywhere!

 

If a department isn't respectful, I would not want to be a part of it anyway, and that's a really good point you all made (directly or indirectly).

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https://escholarship.org/uc/item/6gz7q7tz#page-7

This study makes it seem that students in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences were most accepting (compared to other schools within the university). Also, older students were most accepting. So within academia, you seem to be choosing the area with the most promise.

I echo pasteltomato that academics seem to be more accepting, and you should be fine in Sociology.

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I was classmates with a transgendered woman as an undergrad. She was in several of my classes my senior year, and there was never an issue whatsoever, between her, the class, or the professors, at least that I saw. I never had a chance to talk to her, but she was one of the more outspoken students and always had a lot to say during class. 

 

Universities are typically safe havens for minorities, I think— even many religious schools— so I can't see discrimination being a major concern at most places. I went to an extremely liberal public university though, so that may give me some bias. 

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Universities are typically safe havens for minorities

 

Not really. I see plenty of discrimination on a daily basis, even on my friendly, liberal campus with all-gender restrooms.

 

I would be somewhat skeptical that any program will be all sunshine and unicorns. The idea that academia is a meritocracy where people are judged on their ideas is a legitimizing myth, and one which is not true. I mean, there's still an absurd gender pay gap among full professors.

 

None of the replies in this thread are from people who are actually trans*, or, as far as I can tell, minorities, although the blog above posted by fuzzy is a good start. I would seek out people with actual experiences before coming to a conclusion, else you might be in for a rude awakening.

 

If you'd like, PM me and I can ask some friends if they'd be willing to talk.

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Not all professors are sensitive or even understanding. I had a trans* student who prefers gender-neutral pronouns and openly says so. They told me that another professor had asked them, during class, who they had sex with and what they had in their pants. In class. The level of inappropriate there is something I can't even begin to describe. In other words, what telkanuru said.

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Well, I guess I am biased then. Like I said, I went to an ultra-liberal university in an ultra-liberal city, so I was kind of in a bubble. On the first days of class, I had professors ask each of us students individually which gender pronoun we identified with, and that was on more than one occasion. And for what it's worth, I'm not trans, but I am gay, and I never experienced any discrimination at school because of that, from anyone. Ever. That's just my experience though. I guess it all depends on the school and the confluence of people who work and attend there?

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Not all professors are sensitive or even understanding. I had a trans* student who prefers gender-neutral pronouns and openly says so. They told me that another professor had asked them, during class, who they had sex with and what they had in their pants. In class. The level of inappropriate there is something I can't even begin to describe. In other words, what telkanuru said.

 

Did the student report this professor? That is repulsive and totally out of line. They should have been fired for that.

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Did the student report this professor? That is repulsive and totally out of line. They should have been fired for that.

Yes, they did. And the professor is still employed by that institution. I believe the student was told they must have misinterpreted the question or something.

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Yes, they did. And the professor is still employed by that institution. I believe the student was told they must have misinterpreted the question or something.

 

That is absurd. Did the student push any further with it? Were there witnesses? Good God. That's not just discriminatory, that's sexual harassment.

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That is absurd. Did the student push any further with it? Were there witnesses? Good God. That's not just discriminatory, that's sexual harassment.

I don't know about witnesses as I didn't push the student for more details about the situation. 

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There has been some research into how academics in "liberal, tolerant" fields can actually be more discriminatory towards people of different races/genders. Essentially because they're thinking to themselves "Oh, I'm a professor of Gender Studies, I can't possibly be being sexist," which stops them from noticing that they are actually being sexist. 

 

I think that undergrad & grad experiences are very different when it comes to interacting with professors. There is the culture that undergrads are paying clients who have only a limited amount of personal contact with any given professor anyway. Once you become a grad student you are in much closer proximity to the faculty, and the PI will have a lot more control over you. 

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The more negative responses are what I was expecting, to be honest. Also, I'm not surprised about the outcome of the sexual harassment issue. In a lot of cases, it's the students (undergrads, grad students) who report such instances that face backlash, and my relative familiarity with these type of stories make me hesitate about being too optimistic about any level of acceptance.

 

What continues to stand out most is the variance of experiences and perceptions by institution, individual, and field of study. 

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When it comes to sensitivity issues like this, I think one consideration should be "time and place."

 

I have a friend who went to go teach in northern Canada on a First Nations reservation. He is both gay and Asian. Unfortunately for him, many of the people up there haven't ever come in contact with an Asian person and very likely not a gay person either. He had it in his head that he had to proclaim his identity wherever and whenever because it was an assertion of his agency, etc. and rashly proceeded to do so upon his arrival. I would say he "lost" his students and the administration right then and there and they've given him loads of trouble ever since. Obviously this scenario is different from being trans* in academia but there are some similarities.

 

While, I don't think it is right that minority folks should curtail expressions of their own identity for the sake of their institutional surroundings, I also think that being mindful of the context one is entering can also make any transition or acclimation period much less traumatic and more successful in the long run. Just my 2c.

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I think you might consider, also, trans studies as a discipline- places with strong gender studies and with trans scholars might create a more relevant intellectual community, though that doesn't always create the most hospitable work environment. In terms of living and breathing while a student or faculty, I know it certainly makes a differnece where your community is. Young gender variant people I have worked with have gone to graduate school elsewhere and really missed their community here, struggled with being misgendered more often, more offensively, etc- side effect from moving from a major city to a smaller, more southern one. So. But clearly trans* folks out there can speak best on their own experiences!

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There has been some research into how academics in "liberal, tolerant" fields can actually be more discriminatory towards people of different races/genders. Essentially because they're thinking to themselves "Oh, I'm a professor of Gender Studies, I can't possibly be being sexist," which stops them from noticing that they are actually being sexist. 

 

I think that undergrad & grad experiences are very different when it comes to interacting with professors. There is the culture that undergrads are paying clients who have only a limited amount of personal contact with any given professor anyway. Once you become a grad student you are in much closer proximity to the faculty, and the PI will have a lot more control over you. 

 

I've seen a lot more covert forms of oppression among my sociology / women's studies professors due to what you're saying. Some of them talk a lot about how accepting they are, how open minded they are, how horrible oppression is, etc. but don't seem to take the next step to learning how to actually be an ally. I've heard professors say extremely, extremely problematic and hurtful things during conversations and lectures about how oppression is wrong. I think part of this is also because they study the topic, so they're trying to fit an individual into this academic narrative. "No, you can't use gender neutral pronouns. It's not grammatically correct. And 'genderqueer' isn't a real identity because I haven't read an article about it yet."

 

The best experiences I have had are with professors and other students who are also LGBTQ. The school where I got my undergraduate degree had a number of LGBTQ professors who were absolutely wonderful to work with, because they understood who I was without having to read about it in a book or preach about it to be seen as inclusive. So I tried to look for schools that had both the rhetoric of inclusivity and an actual population of LGBTQ students and professors.

 

I know it's problematic to judge someone's gender/sexuality based on appearances, but when I was picking where to apply, I tried to see if any of the professors and students within the department "looked" queer. Which, obviously, I know someone can't really look queer. But if a school is only hiring and accepting folks who adhere to mainstream gender presentations, I think that says something about their culture (and I would stick out like a sore thumb). I also looked up if schools have a lavender graduation (a special graduation for LGBTQ students), and tried to see how many students and professors go each year. Finally, I looked up how large their LGBTQ resource center is (if they have one), and what sorts of things they have on their website. Are there resources available to report professors who are being oppressive? Do they have regular trainings that professors and students might attend? How active are they on campus?

 

I think with any individual professor, it'll be hard to predict whether or not they'll be accepting. But I've definitely seen a culture of inclusivity within my department (sociology), and even if professors are messing up, they are at least trying.

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There has been some research into how academics in "liberal, tolerant" fields can actually be more discriminatory towards people of different races/genders. Essentially because they're thinking to themselves "Oh, I'm a professor of Gender Studies, I can't possibly be being sexist," which stops them from noticing that they are actually being sexist. 

 

I think that undergrad & grad experiences are very different when it comes to interacting with professors. There is the culture that undergrads are paying clients who have only a limited amount of personal contact with any given professor anyway. Once you become a grad student you are in much closer proximity to the faculty, and the PI will have a lot more control over you. 

 

The most sexist person I have ever met (in terms of frequency of sexist comments and actions: daily, really hourly), was a women's studies PhD student.  

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