Dr. Cary Gabriel Costello, a sociologist, recently shared some of his experiences as an intersex trans man in academia on his blog, TransFusion. He candidly discusses how his colleagues, students, and institution have responded to his transition. And, beyond being intersex and trans in the academy, he highlights some of the constraints he faces in teaching on intersex, trans*, and queer issues in his classes. His post is below.
I am a white, middle-aged, intersex trans man. I teach sociology at a large Midwestern state university, and sociologically speaking, gender transitioning here has been fascinating. It’s a story of prejudice and of privilege.
On a personal level, it’s been weird.
I’m the first professor to have transitioned at my university, despite its huge size; while locals think of the university and surrounding area as very liberal, from a national perspective, they’re quite socially conservative. It’s a land of racial segregation, and of LGBT+ closeting. Many of the tenured white gay cis male professors I know here, for example, are not out at work, and communicate about sexual orientation in coded phrases straight out of the 1950s. (Having moved here from the San Francisco Bay area, the level of closeting is eye-popping.) As far as I can tell through my social networks, two people proceeded me in gender transitioning at my university, both trans* women staff members who soon left. In any case, my administration had little experience in dealing with gender transitions, and none with the issues raised by an instructor doing so, when I announced that I had begun the process.
My university has no official policies and procedures for dealing with gender transitioners, though it does formally include a ban on discrimination on the basis of gender identity or expression in its antidiscimination clause. Since it’s a huge institution, the lack of policies made transition a bureaucratic nightmare. I could write a long and very tedious post just about that, but suffice it to say that as I enter the fifth year of my transition, I am still finding my old female name being given out by yet another independent university software system. And I still have in my files, where I regularly now ignore it, a memo to all individuals with offices in my building stating which single male bathroom I will use on campus, so that they can avoid it if they wish.
(This very awkward memo was the only notice given by my university about my transition to others, and I was expressly forbidden to send emails myself to people outside my department to let people know. The administration’s reasoning was that if they let me announce my gender transition and name change, they’d have to let every woman who got married and changed her name to send a broadcast email, clogging up 40,000 mailboxes. When I pointed out the difference between getting married and gender transitioning, that was considered “political,” and sending political email on work computers a violation of state law. Thus, years into transition, I still find myself on committees with people I’ve worked with before who now have no idea who I am, and I have to come out endlessly. It’s just as socially awkward for stammering others as it is for me.)
The physical process of my early transition was made especially awkward because I got to go through it in front of my large introductory-level class of 350 Midwestern students. Most of them were 18 or 19 and on the tail ends of their own awkward adolescences, and few of them were aware of ever knowing a trans* person in real life. I did explain to them that I had changed my legal name and the gender on my ID, that I was beginning my medical transition, and what pronouns to use in referring to me (despite explicit instruction from administration not to discuss my transition, because it was my “personal” and “political” business that I should not “impose” on students). I had to give students some way to understand and address their instructor. But many students couldn’t process the information and didn’t know what to make of me. In hindsight, it’s sort of amusing, but at the time. . . ugh. My very androgynous body made students anxious, and they stood much farther away from me when speaking to me after class than students had in prior years. Every time my voice cracked, a little ripple or shudder moved across the lecture hall. I often caught students inappropriately staring at my chest or my groin, and both they and I would flush when I caught them.
That semester my student evaluations, while still generally positive, were much less enthusiastically so than in the past—and most were very awkwardly worded to avoid any use of pronouns (“The professor seemed to know what the professor was talking about.”). Of the modest number of students who did use pronouns in writing their evaluations, more used female pronouns than male (and none used gender-neutral pronouns). My gender—and students’ discomfort with my physical androgyny—were front and center in everyone’s classroom experience, both mine and that of the students.
But after a couple of years on testosterone I had grown a solid beard, and people by and large “read” me as male, including in my classes. The majority of my students called me “he” without hesitating, and the chest-and-groin-checking was much reduced. My student evaluations rebounded into the quite-positive zone. And my personal experience rebounded further yet. I found that I now received male privilege. Before my transition, students had regularly commented on my appearance, dress or hairstyle—now none of them did so, as men are judged by their minds much more than their bodies. Students now see me as more authoritative than in the past. Most defer to me more, challenge me less, and some even find me intimidating (at my mighty 5’2”).
And it’s not just male privilege that I now experience, but that most celebrated form, white male privilege. I have become The Man. And while this means that some students of color in my very racially-segregated setting, while still respectful of me, also react to me with greater distrust than students of color displayed before my transition, amidst the white majority I am treated as a person of dignity, trustworthiness, competence, and esteem. This happens in the classroom, in administrative meetings, and when I’m driving a car or visiting a store. As I’ve only experienced this for a few years out of my almost 50, it’s glaringly obvious to me, and I’m amazed that my fellow white men who are cis gender seem so often to feel disrespected and put-upon. Small reductions in deference to white male power prey on their minds, but believe me—our privilege is still very substantial.
I have to note how much easier it is to transition to male, and to do so as a white person. My wife is an intersex gender transitioner like myself, and I see every day how much more difficult it is to be a trans* woman. Transphobia directed at trans* women is much more virulent, and is compounded by misogyny. Androgyny in trans* women is treated with much more negative social sanction than androgyny in trans* men. Trans* women of color are routinely treated by others as if they were sex workers, and subjected to extraordinary levels of discrimination, abuse, and violence. So I enjoy not only privilege as a white man, but in comparison to others in the trans* community.
I wanted to lay all of this out before raising a problem I face, relating to a modest number of students who now complain about my teaching. I want to make it clear that I recognize how privileged I now am as a white male tenured professor to be able to have such a job issue to worry about at all. Still, as a trans gender man, I have issues to worry about that my cis counterparts do not.
I teach hundreds of students every year, and every year a small number of them who are not doing well in my classes, perhaps a dozen, complain about my teaching. It’s rarely my teaching style that they object to; they usually complain about one of two content areas. One of these I don’t worry about: they object to my teaching about global climate change in my social problems class. Students who complain about this are usually cis white guys with right-leaning politics who argue that I am teaching “pseudoscience” concocted in a leftist conspiracy. Whatever. The empirical evidence for global climate change is great, and I am sure the political motivations of this group of students’ objections would be clear to my administration if the students were to file formal complaints.
The other group of students’ complaints I worry about regularly, however. These involve students who object to what I teach about intersex and trans gender issues (basically, that forcing cosmetic genital surgery on unconsenting infants is a bad social policy, and that transphobia is a form of bias akin to sexism, racism, and homophobia). Unlike those who object to my teaching about climate change, these students are usually (cis) women who take my gender class. Some are white women from rural areas of the state; some are African American women from urban locations; many of them explicitly self-identify themselves to me as Christian. They believe that sex must be binary, and that “corrective” surgery for intersex “disorders” in infancy is a medical imperative. Further, they believe that binary genitals (constructed or present at birth) must determine gender, and that a desire to gender transition is both a mental illness and immoral.
From my perspective, this group of complaining students is exactly like the first group: they hold to an ideology that is political in nature and in conflict with the literature in my field. As I point out at the start of my classes, there are many different perspectives that can be taken on any given issue—biological, psychological, religious, political, etc.–but that they are taking a sociology class, and in this class, are expected to learn and employ the sociological position in assignments and exams. I have no desire to be the thought police, and I tell them I support their right to use other perspectives in other contexts. But it is my job as a professor to teach them the subject matter they have signed up to learn. Most students have no problem with this—but there are some who are very resistant.
So, the two groups of complaining students may be analogous in being resistant to learning class content—but the students who object to the intersex and trans gender components of my classes pose much more of a problem for me.
One problem they present for me is that they often persistently misgender me. Now, I teach my Sociology of Sex and Gender course as an online summer class. This means that students don’t see me in front of them—instead I have a virtual presence for them, constructed mostly via text. During the first week of class, I do have students post pictures of themselves, and I post one myself. And our first exercise requires students to state their gender identity and list the pronoun they use—and again, I do the same myself. Further, each student receives at least four personal comments from me each week, and all are signed “Prof. Costello.” So, my gender, pronoun, and the form of address I expect are theoretically made clear to them. In the early days of my transition, I was more likely to be addressed as a male in this online setting, due to my clear masculine self-framing, than I was in my in-person classes, where my physical androgyny outweighed my self-presentation in students’ minds. But now, the reverse is true. Students in my in-person classes don’t often misgender me. Every summer, however, I have some students who persistently refer to me as “she,” or the eye-rolling “Mrs. Costello”–something students never called me before my transition. I correct them in a matter-of-fact manner, first addressing whatever their substantive point was in their post or email, but they often continue to mispronoun me. Rather than helping to correct any peers who misgender me in online discussions, other students often seem to become less sure of the “realness” of my male status, and some become uncomfortable, seeing me as “forcing my issue down other people’s throats” (an aggressively Freudian description one student gave me in an email intended to be sympathetic). This happens despite my constant efforts to be polite to people who refuse to recognize my gender identity and legal sex that trans* friends see as going well above and beyond the call of professional duty. The persistent misgendering makes me feel dysphoric, and the class atmosphere less comfortable for all.
In my class on sex and gender, I assign one exercise about intersex issues, and one with an optional trans gender focus. It’s in this context where I most often encounter active student resistance to course content, though it does arise elsewhere. Now, to be clear, the way I grade all course exercises is according to the quality of the essays submitted. Students are expected to cite course readings or lecture points in analyzing a hypothetical situation. So long as they do that, and write a coherent essay, their conclusions can be whatever they like. For example, this summer a student wrote her essay on the abortion unit of the course about how she believed doctors should universally screen fetuses for intersex conditions and abort those found to have them. I personally strongly disagree, but so long as the student cited course materials sensibly and wrote a cogent analysis, she’d receive full credit. I don’t let the fact that I perceive writing such an essay to a professor whose intersex birth status was clearly revealed earlier as microaggressive impact my grading. But if students fail to try to engage in any way with the course materials, and simply assert their opinions, citing no class readings (or sometimes citing instead their Christian status, which is no more a source of sociological authority than is my being Jewish), then they do quite poorly on an exercise.
The problem is that such students often perceive their poor grade as due to my “pushing an agenda.” More: they frame me as an abuser. They often present themselves as trying to protect innocent children from sexual radicals who seek to damage them. Complex and inchoate ideas often come up relating to permissive versus authoritarian parenting, or eugenic ideology (from white students), or the imposition of purportedly white preoccupations onto struggling African American families (from Black students), or about the decline of American civilization. But central to most student complaints about poor grades on intersex and trans* exercises is the framing of me as lacking any authority to teach on these matters, because I am “biased.”
The idea that only the privileged have the right to speak about the marginalized because the privileged are objective and the marginalized are not has been critiqued by many. Before my transition, cis male students in my gender class often complained that as “a woman,” I was biased while they were not, and that the statistics I cited were not credible. I didn’t worry about this at the time, because if any of them ever made a formal complaint to the administration, I expected the administration to be suspicious of such a claim. (It turned out I was probably wrong. I almost didn’t get tenure because an outside reviewer claimed that my research on race/class/gender in the professions was a mere voicing of personal bias against white men. He bolstered this claim by attacking my very large qualitative research project (almost 100 in-depth interviews plus 18 months of participant observation) as not meeting the significance standard for a quantitative study, which was just silly, but it gave his critique the veneer of “objectivity” that led my tenure case to be voted down. I did finally get tenure on appeal, after a long and exhausting battle, but it was a very close thing.)
Now, my university, like most, is generally staffed by people who believe that gender discrimination is a bad thing, not to be tolerated. Even so, male professors earn more than female ones, are more likely to get tenure, and are less likely to be accused of bias in their work. But what about trans* gender discrimination? While my university does have a formal policy banning discrimination on the basis of gender identity or expression, in my experience, many of the faculty, students and staff are uncomfortable with gender transition and hold private or public cissexist views. And so I am rationally worried about what would happen if one of my students who do poorly on a trans* or intersex assignment in my class were to take their complaints beyond exchanges with me and up the administrative hierarchy. Supposedly I have job security in the form of tenure, meant to protect professors’ ability to teach and engage in research with full academic freedom. But tenure is not “forever” if a professor commits an offense, such as criminal activity, dereliction of duty—or harassment. And I have no doubt that students who persistently misgender me and who refuse to engage in course materials dealing with intersex and trans* materials feel that I am “harassing” them, rather than vice versa. And remember, some frame me as advocating child abuse, which is a criminal offense. One of my recent students who watched an optional video link I posted to a mainstream TV news story about a young trans* girl wrote a post accusing me and the media of assisting the girl’s parents in “abusing” her by “allowing” a “confused boy” to wear dresses. And while contemporary social science literature supports the recognition of trans gender identification in children, it’s plausible that there are administrators at my university who share my complaining student’s perspective: that I am pushing a disturbing agenda and harassing students who fail to parrot it back at me.
Given that I was explicitly instructed by administrators not to use my teaching podium as a soapbox for advocating my “personal agenda,” I worry that including segments on trans* and intersex issues in my courses on gender, sexuality, and on social problems might somehow be framed as a breach of duty on my part. But to avoid teaching on these topics where they are obviously relevant is something I see as the real breach of pedagogical duty. Should I as a Jew not be able to address religion in my courses, because as a religious minority I am not “objective”? Should my colleagues who are people of color not be able to teach about race in their classes? Taken to its logical extreme, are the only suitable sociology professors cis, straight, white, middle-aged, middle-class, Christian men without disabilities? (Of course, the opposite is in fact true: a person who has experienced something has a better understanding of what is involved than someone who has no such first-hand experience. You won’t find me taking a SCUBA diving class from someone with only academic book-knowledge of diving. . .)
Many, many instructors have faced this issue of being members of a marginalized group and being accused of bias when teaching about that group. As a white man, I enjoy a privilege many of these instructors have not enjoyed, that of being presumed competent as a professor by virtue of my race and gender. At the same time, privilege is always context-dependent. As an intersex trans* person, I’m a member of a small minority that is currently considered quite outré , in the Midwestern city where I live.
And thus, in teaching on the topics on which I have the greatest expertise, I always feel at risk, my job security subject to challenge from people who refuse even to do class readings. And that. . . is sad.