Supporting LGBTQI Survivors Of Campus Sexual Violence & IPV, Pt. 2

Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed (here). Jackson Wright Shultz is an activist, educator and the author of Trans/Portraits: Voices From Transgender Communities. He is a current doctoral student at New England College, an administrator in TRiO Student Support Services at Everett Community College and an adjunct professor at Granite State College. Jackson is also a regular contributor to Conditionally Accepted.

In a previous essay, I discussed sexual assault and relationship violence in lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and intersex (LGBTQI) campus communities — specifically, how faculty and staff members could support such students systemically. In this article, I will provide suggestions on how to interpersonally support LGBTQI students who disclose experiences of sexual or intimate partner violence to faculty and staff members.

Understand why LGBTQI students may not report. It is highly likely that LGBTQI students may avoid reporting relationship or domestic violence to the police, campus officials or medical professionals for fear of discrimination or mistreatment. A report from Lambda Legal found that 14 percent of LGBT respondents reported being verbally assaulted by police, and 2 percent reported being physically assaulted by them. The National Transgender Discrimination Survey found that, of those trans people who had interacted with the police, 22 percent reported harassment, 6 percent were physically assaulted and 2 percent were raped or sexually assaulted by police. Additionally, for trans people who do not have identification that accurately matches their name or appearance, filing a police report can be remarkably difficult.

On college campuses, LGBTQI communities are likely to be strongly interconnected, and survivors may not disclose relationship violence within community spaces for fear of being shunned or isolated from those communities. That can likewise be a problem within many other marginalized and activist communities. LGBTQI students of color, for example, who live at the intersection of multiple marginalized communities, can feel even more pressure to ignore violence within those communities.

Be willing to listen to and support LGBTQI survivors. LGBTQI students may have few people to whom they feel they can disclose relationship violence or sexual assault. For that reason, they may turn to a trusted staff or faculty member on campus for help. If you suspect a student is going to report sexual or relationship violence to you, inform the student whether your position is bound by Title IX or the Clery Act to report this information to your institution so that the student can make an informed decision about whether (or not) they wish to disclose to you.

Do not underestimate the positive advocacy or support role that you can play for students. While it may be outside of your comfort zone, you do not need to be a counselor in order to assist a student who discloses relationship or sexual violence to you. You can encourage a student to seek counseling or call for culturally-competent support if they are in crisis.

If a student does disclose sexual or relationship violence to you, I encourage you to follow these steps:

  • Listen.
  • Thank them for trusting you with the information.
  • Empower them to make their own decisions with regard to reporting, seeking medical attention and/or pursuing mental health care.
  • Be willing to refer the student to campus or community supports.

However, in order to refer students to campus or community services, you need to not only be aware of what support systems are available, but you must also have knowledge of the extent to which these supports are LGBTQI inclusive and competent. Support systems that are not inclusive of LGBTQI students — or worse, hostile toward LGBTQI students — can do more harm than good. Students should not be revictimized by the very services that are supposed to help them, yet many LGBTQI people face discriminatory responses and biased service.

Further, in situations of bias-motivated sexual assault (i.e., “corrective” sexual assault, or assault on the basis of one’s LGBTQI identity), emotional trauma is typically heightened. Referring a student to unsupportive or hostile campus supports can make the student feel they are under attack, further exacerbating this trauma.

You can help by educating yourself about the resources available on your campus and in the community. If you find that the existing resources are woefully inadequate for responding to the needs of LGBTQI survivors, suggest updates to policies or practices. For example, ask your student health center to implement the use of this gender-neutral anatomical diagram skin-surface assessment for their forensic sexual assault exams.

Follow up after disclosure. Trans and intersex students, in particular, will often avoid seeking legal, medical or mental health care due to the documented fear of revictimization. Trans students may also neglect to discuss past or current sexual or relationship violence with a therapist due to the fear (perceived or real) that this will delay the therapist writing a letter in support of their transition or that the therapist will question a causal relationship between their gender dysphoria and survivor status. Men students may have little or no access to sexual violence peer-support groups, and lesbian and bisexual women may feel unwelcomed in existing sexual violence peer-support spaces.

Clinical research on supporting survivors of sexual violence suggests that establishing a reconnection with the broader community is vital for the recovery process. However, due to the relatively small size of LGBTQI campus communities, it may be difficult for students to reconnect, particularly if their assailant is also a member of that community. As students all over the country have demonstrated, continuing to see one’s attacker on the campus is incredibly distressing. Due to the fact that LGBTQI students are less likely to report, their attackers are less likely to face legal or disciplinary action — and therefore more likely to remain on the campus.

The increased risk of isolation for LGBTQI survivors can have detrimental effects on their mental and emotional well-being, which has marked ramifications for their academic pursuits. When possible and appropriate, I encourage faculty and staff members to check in with the student at regular intervals. Are they seeking ongoing counseling or mental health support? Have they connected with resources? Are they experiencing isolation or harassment as a result of reporting? Are they still in an abusive relationship? (If so, you should suggest that they develop a safety plan.) Is the quality of their schoolwork suffering?

Some people may not wish to continue engaging in discussions with you after initial disclosure, but if a student trusted you enough to disclose, they probably intend their relationship with you to be ongoing. As a campus practitioner, your role as an adviser or mentor to students is powerful. Checking in with students can let them know you care about their well-being, that you wish to see them persist with their education, and that you are willing to be a continual source of support to them.

In sum, as educators and practitioners, the relationships we forge with students can have a profound impact on their college experience, persistence and overall academic success. Understanding our role in supporting the holistic well-being of our students, and taking steps to support students who are struggling with relationship and sexual violence, can help make a tough road a little easier for LGBTQI survivors.

No Erotics Of Professing For Me

Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed (here). Dr. Jeana Jorgensen is a folklorist, writer, dancer and sex educator. She is a regular contributor to Conditionally Accepted, Patheos and MySexProfessor.com. Be sure to follow Jeana on Twitter at @foxyfolklorist.

berkeley_faceI recognize the erotic as a powerful force. In “Uses of the Erotic,” black lesbian feminist scholar-activist Audre Lorde describes the erotic as a resource grounded in consensual sharing and exploration. And certainly, education at its best is a sharing of knowledge and skills, consensual and exploratory. The erotic also touches on pleasure and satisfaction, which I am in favor of incorporating in the learning process where possible and appropriate.

Yet as a divorced bisexual woman, I am not in a safe position to be seen as erotic in the classroom when I teach. As a sex-positive feminist, that makes me sad. But as an adjunct, I’m in favor of keeping my job. So there we go.

Bruce Fleming wrote an essay on “The Erotics of Professing” for Inside Higher Ed in which he compared professors to movie actors, stating that students will respond to our bodies the way theater audiences do to an actor, as bodies responding to bodies on a number of levels, including the erotic. And I agree that how we as teachers look and comport ourselves can impact the learning experience.

But I cannot get beyond framing it as “erotics.” Call it “theatrics.” Call it “kinesthetics.” Call it “embodiment.” Call it “metaperformativity” or any other made-up academic jargon-y name, but not “erotics.” Erotics implies sexual availability that is downright dangerous for people in certain (marginalized) identity categories. Being erotic in the classroom is of no interest to me because I am aware that, as a woman, I am already eroticized and objectified when I do not want to be — whether getting catcalled in public or getting hit on while serving on a convention panel. (Yes, that happened.)

Further, the persistence of dualism in Western culture ensures that mind and body remain mutually opposed conceptual categories. Sexuality is relegated to body, meaning that sexual beings are less likely to be thought of in elevated mental terms. This means that my students sometimes do not take me seriously or trivialize my areas of study. On a course evaluation, answering the question “What did you like least about this course?” a student once answered, “That I wasn’t dating the instructor.” No, thanks.

One can’t escape that pesky sexual connotation that the erotic has acquired. And it is here that I feel unsafe attaching it to anything that I do in the classroom. I am totally comfortable lecturing about sexual topics, bringing in my expertise as a sex educator and gender studies scholar. Those things are not about me, my body, my positioning or my sexuality.

Lorde sums up the problem when she reminds us that the erotic is transformed into a weapon and wielded in gendered ways: “The erotic has often been misnamed by men and used against women. It has been made into the confused, the trivial, the psychotic, the plasticized sensation.”

I contend that it is professionally risky for marginalized academics to profess too erotically, or even marginally so. Whether you are an adjunct, of an alternative sexuality, a woman — or, like me, all three — you are in danger of being interpreted through the lenses of stereotypes that haven’t died yet. Gay teachers seeking to seduce or convert students. Unmarried women with overheated uteruses. That sort of thing. Outdated, but still pernicious.

Again, I do not have a problem with being more aware of how one uses eye contact while teaching or whether one’s language is suited to the lesson plan. As a body art scholar, I agree, of course, that what we wear impacts how we’re perceived. Similarly, as a dancer and dance scholar, I could analyze someone’s posture, gestures and movement in order to describe the impressions they are imparting to their audience, however intentional.

I am not against professors intentionally shaping their image in order to have a certain impact on students and peers. How we look and sound and move is part of the whole package, and has a definite impact on how our material is received. There are always differing degrees of awareness when transmitting cultural information, on the part of the senders as well as receivers. For every stereotypically oblivious professor, there will be students too enmeshed in their own worlds (electronically aided or not) to really pick up on all the signals being thrown down. Such is life.

I see no problem in academics taking pleasure in how they look, either. I mean, it’s fun to come up with snappy conference outfits that both look professional and express who I am as an individual.

I am lucky to teach in a pretty liberal department; I do not think my colleagues would bat an eye if I brought a male or female partner with me to a campus event. But as an adjunct, I do not feel safe bringing my sexuality into the classroom in any more concrete sense than offhandedly mentioning that I am not straight and “yep, people like me exist.”

And, it’s a bummer for a lot of reasons. When I lecture about the cultural history of belly dance — a dance form I also practice — I know that students are curious about my involvement with it. The stigma and oversexualization of the dance seem too insurmountable for me to ever give in to requests to demonstrate more than a wrist floreo.

It is a shame that women instructors still struggle to get fairly evaluated in the classroom compared to their male peers, pointing at the pervasive sexism still influencing how competence is judged in the ivory tower in connection with gender (and, I’d argue, sexuality). It is a travesty that women professors receive rape threats, as Kristina M. W. Mitchell has recounted. She writes, “Gender bias in academe persists,” and it takes many forms, from misogynist evaluations to rape threats. Her experiences are coextensive with mine, rooted in (among other things) the sexualization of women’s bodies in Western culture.

In sum, I do not want to be seen as erotic (hence a sexual being or sexually available) to my students or colleagues for a couple of reasons: I want to act as appropriately as possible in light of the student-teacher sexual taboo, my contingent position and already being vulnerable to being interpreted as sexually available.

Maybe someday we can all profess as erotically as we wish because we will all be on even footing in terms of both subtle cultural judgments (like sexism and heterosexism) and job security. But I’m not holding my breath.

Supporting LGBTQI Survivors Of Campus Sexual Violence & IPV

Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed (here). Jackson Wright Shultz is an activist, educator and the author of Trans/Portraits: Voices From Transgender Communities. He is a current doctoral student at New England College, an administrator in TRiO Student Support Services at Everett Community College and an adjunct professor at Granite State College. Jackson is also a regular contributor to Conditionally Accepted.

Supporting LGBTQI Survivors, Part I

For the past five years, a trans colleague and I have facilitated one of the only transmasculine-specific sexual assault support groups in the United States that meets regularly. Working extensively with trans survivors of sexual abuse and intimate partner violence has provided us insight into the distinct needs and challenges facing trans survivors. While this community work is mostly separate from my life as an academic, I have gleaned a number of lessons from facilitating this group that are applicable to the college campus.

Most of us working in a college setting know that college students are at greater risk of experiencing sexual violence than are their similarly aged noncollege peers. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and intersex students face additional risks. While violence within these communities is likely underreported, we know that sexual minority individuals experience sexual violence at a significantly higher rate than their heterosexual peers and about one in two transgender individuals will experience sexual assault or abuse in their lifetimes. This data makes it abundantly clear that college campuses need to take measures to address issues of LGBTQI intimate partner and sexual violence.

While many well-intentioned faculty members and administrators seek ways to support survivors, few resources exist that specifically deal with relationship violence within LGBTQI college populations. Some of the bystander initiatives and consent campaigns that colleges have developed may address same-gender relationship violence, but they rarely tackle issues of particular concern to trans and intersex students.

In this first part of a two-part essay, I will describe how to provide general support for LGBTQI survivors on your campus, specifically ways that faculty and staff members can begin to lay the groundwork to support them. In part two, I will give recommendations on ways to provide one-on-one support to LGBTQI students who disclose issues of sexual or intimate partner violence to faculty or staff members.

Get educated. A crucial first step in supporting LGBTQI survivors is to understand that violence in LGBTQI relationships manifests differently than it does in heterosexual and cisgender ones. For that reason, many LGBTQI people do not recognize the signs of intimate partner violence in their relationships.

For example, tactics of power and control in LGBTQI relationships can include additional issues such as identity abuse, wherein abusers threaten public disclosure of the person’s LGBTQI identity or HIV status as a form of manipulation. Even physical and sexual abuse can go unrecognized, as LGBTQI people are not taught to identify relationship violence outside a heterosexual and cisgender paradigm.

LGBTQI people also face additional barriers when it comes to reporting sexual or intimate partner violence. The willingness to report same-gender violence is predicated on one’s comfort with being out as LGBTQI. Students who are not out, or who do not identify as LGBTQI but who are experiencing same-gender sexual violence, may be uncomfortable reporting relationship and sexual violence to campus authorities. Given the mistreatment that LGBTQI people often face in the prison and judicial system, many survivors are reluctant to report LGBTQI abusers to the police for fear of subjecting a community member to the violence inherent in the penal system. And, in fact, their abusers may capitalize on this hesitancy. What’s more, details of domestic disputes are often printed publicly in local newspapers and police blotters, which is cause for someone who has not publicly shared their LGBTQI identity to avoid reporting incidents to law enforcement.

These examples are just a few of many, but they underscore the need for increased education about relationship violence both within LGBTQI communities and for those who wish to support LGBTQI survivors. If campuses have already put in place bystander or consent initiatives, these programs should be vetted for LGBTQI inclusivity. If they are found only to address the realities of heterosexual and cisgender relationships, campuses should consider adopting an LGBTQI-inclusive bystander or consent campaign. They should also consider implementing additional education and training for both students and practitioners about relationship violence. Individuals who wish to be better advocates for survivors should take the initiative to learn about the resources available to LGBTQI students on their campus, particularly around issues of sexual assault and relationship violence prevention and support.

Some campuses will be more resistant than others to implementing LGBTQI-inclusive programs about relationship violence awareness. For campus constituents who feel comfortable agitating for these programs, leveraging your power to vocalize demand for such programs is an excellent way to show your support to LGBTQI students. For those who are in more precarious positions, such as contingent faculty and members of marginalized groups, pushing for changes at the campus level may be more difficult. However, do not underestimate the potential positive impact of offering your individual support to survivors.

Make your office a safe zone. The concept of the safe zone or safe space predates the long-standing debate about trigger warnings in the classroom. While the precise meaning and effectiveness of safe zone stickers on college campuses vary, safe zones usually apply to office spaces rather than classrooms and indicate that the office holder has undergone some form of ally or advocacy training, feels comfortable talking about LGBTQI identities and issues, and will not permit microaggressions or other forms of harassment of LGBTQI students within that space. My LGBTQI students frequently cite the importance of safe zones and campus signage that indicates supportive allyship. They feel more at ease to disclose issues — such as harassment or relationship violence — in areas they have identified as safe spaces.

I encourage you to seek out resources at your own institution or in your own community for safe zone training. If no such resources are available locally, consider an online version of the training. Having facilitated many dozens of safe zone trainings, I can state unequivocally that displaying a safe zone sticker or other safe space signage in your office is a simple way to indicate your allyship to LGBTQI students. However, this is an action that should not be taken lightly; calling your office a safe zone but failing to live up to all that the name indicates is an offense that students will not quickly forget. Recognize that your safe zone sticker is making a promise to students regarding that space and your role as an ally — and be willing to take responsibility for upholding that promise.

Believe in your impact. While this introduction is hardly exhaustive, taking these basic actions can go a long way toward supporting LGBTQI survivors on your campus. As faculty members and administrators — regardless of our area of focus or operations — we can play a profound role in making the campus climate one that is supportive of our LGBTQI students.

The actions above can lay the groundwork for students to recognize the ways in which relationship violence manifests in LGBTQI relationships, and they can provide safe spaces for students to consider disclosure of intimate partner and/or sexual violence.

Part two of this essay will offer suggestions on how to specifically support students who disclose LGBTQI intimate partner or sexual violence to faculty or staff members.

How College Administrators Can End Transphobia On Their Campuses

Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed. Stacy Jane Grover is a writer and translator. She writes from the perspective of a queer transfeminist and a pansexual, nonbinary trans* individual without disabilities. She is currently pursuing a M.A. in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, and lives in Ohio with her partner.

Eradicating Transphobia On Campuses

In a previous essay, I discussed ways in which college instructors can use gender-inclusive pedagogical techniques to create a trans* inclusive environment in their classrooms. In a second one, I offered additional advice for instructors to develop curricula that are inclusive of trans* individuals.

In this third piece, I offer advice to campus administrators on changing campus culture and institutional policies to better include and support transgender and non-binary students. I draw from personal experiences as a non-binary trans* person, as well the writing of others who challenge transphobia on college campuses.

Personal Experience

My college environment felt toxic, claustrophobic and, at times utterly suffocating. Every day, I felt pressured to hide my identity, and when I did dress affirmatively, other students harassed me, and faculty members did not acknowledge me. Most days I would contemplate skipping class to avoid the stress. Oftentimes, I would have to leave classes when they felt unendurable, when conversations led to probing questions about my body, gender or sexuality.

I attended the college that I did partly out of circumstance — location, price, transferability — and partly because it was home to a renowned program in my field. And my major professors were hearteningly supportive. I came out to them in my final year. We developed close ties, and they still inspire and propel me today.

However, the safety and comfort of one academic department only goes so far. A college’s culture permeates every facet of campus life. Every square inch of campus was a reminder that I, through my tuition dollars, inadvertently supported a negative, sport-centered, party-centered, oppressively traditional macho culture. I am not alone in this feeling.

The 2010 State of Higher Education for LGBT People report found that 31 percent of the respondents suffered from harassment on their campus, with over half of the respondents stating they did not disclose their LGBT identity at the institution. Other surveys found that trans* students reported more instances of harassment and discrimination and a lower sense of belonging on campus. In addition, the National Transgender Discrimination Survey (2011) revealed that 90 percent of two- and four-year institutions have implemented no programs towards trans* inclusion and remain inaccessible and inhospitable to trans* students. These studies show that transphobic campus culture is a real and widespread issue that effects trans* students’ ability to succeed in college. This has to change.

Statistics on the number of trans* students at university are low because reporting remains tricky. Higher education administrators may not want to use funds to support for what seems like a very small student population. But they are in the best position to change campus culture and institutional barriers to trans* student inclusion. They can tie this to their missions and values and make achieving diversity centered on promoting the self-efficacy and inclusion of their most marginalized students.

Social and Institutional Barriers to Higher Education

The first step in the process of making change at the administration level is to recognize the social obstacles trans* individuals face even in accessing higher education. Trans* people experience disproportionately high rates of homelessness, unemployment, lack of access to healthcare and transportation, and families that are often unsupportive and harassing. College often doesn’t seem like a possibility.

Because of this instability, trans* individuals are also more likely to engage in sex work and survival crimes to support themselves. This can lead to trans* individuals to become enmeshed in the prison industrial complex and with criminal charges that bar them from eligibility for federal financial aid. Furthermore, federal financial aid for dependents is reliant upon parental support that is often unavailable to trans* youth. This makes it difficult, if not impossible, for trans* students wanting to go to college to get in. These same disadvantages carry into the university setting, making it harder for trans* students enrolled in classes to thrive.

Trans* Oppression on Campuses

In hir book, Trans* in College, Z Nicolazzo has identified two main forms of trans* oppression on college campuses — what ze calls gender binary discourse and compulsory heterogenderism. The gender binary discourse refers to the ways in which what are considered appropriate gender identities and embodiments are regulated. Certain forms of gender expression are privileged above others. Heteronormative masculinity is prized highest, thus becoming the taken-for-granted norm or default while femininity is the most scrutinized. Thus, students who deviate from the gender binary (male or female, masculine or feminine) are punished. Compulsory heterogenderism is how non-trans* (i.e., cisgender) students misperceive trans* gender identities, recognizing them only through negative sexuality stereotypes that conflate gender identity and sexuality.

These two forces cause trans* students to feel invisible, invalidated and unwelcome on their campus. Students feel forced to cover and to hide their sexuality. Students have their gender identities erased and are often forced into sexuality categories to which they do not ascribe. The emotional toll this takes is high.

In light of these negative forces, however, trans* students practice resilience or pursue strategies to move toward a self-defined success. Campus administration needs to support these efforts, to recognize trans* students’ agency, and to draw from the myriad lived experiences and expertise on campus to uplift trans* lives.

Advice to Administrators

I want to give basic guidelines to begin this work. I do not intend this list to be a best-practices framework or a one-time application. I offer it, and these three essays, not as an end goal but as a starting point — a place to inspire deeper conversations in hopes that others will expand and strengthen it. In that spirit, I recommend that administrators:

  • establish and enforce specific policies that protect trans* students from harassment and discrimination;
  • provide specific financial aid, food and housing assistance for trans* students;
  • allow students to change name and gender markers on all college forms without legal documentation. The legal name can be retained for records;
  • change gender-segregated co-curricular activities, intramural athletics and multi-gendered fraternities and sororities to include trans* students. Abolish all forms of student segregation;
  • offer specific spaces for trans* students to engage with one another;
  • create spaces on campus for trans* students. Students will be able to maximize their time in a safe environment to de-stress, meet other trans* students, and recover from both macro and micro-aggressions;
  • offer non-gendered health services and have insurance cover the cost of hormones and surgeries needed to medically transition;
  • center trans* students in sex education outreach and sexual violence prevention programs;
  • implement mandatory sex and gender education for incoming students, staff and faculty members;
  • make all campus housing and restrooms non-gendered;
  • partner with community organizations to keep trans* youth in high school and offer support to get them through the college admissions process; and
  • offer post-graduation support for trans* alumni to help them through discriminatory hiring practices.

Conclusion

This type of approach is not an arrival, but a journey — a constant practice. Hard work has to be done to get more trans* individuals into college and to support the efforts for which trans* college students have already been fighting. We deserve more than to be seen as problems to be solved or ignored until it goes away. Some work to challenge transphobia and cissexism on campuses is already under way. It is due time for university administrators use their positions of power to support us in creating wide-reaching changes in campus culture and climate.

Transphobic Microaggressions In Academia

Note: this blog post was originally published on our Inside Higher Ed career advice column (here). Francis Walker (a pseudonym) is a nonbinary Ph.D. candidate at a Canadian institution.

Not more than two weeks after I started my master’s degree in English literature, the department chair sent an email to everyone, including the other graduate students, detailing my gender transition. Noting his mistake, he apologized to me minutes later, explaining that he had accidentally sent the email to the department email list. At the time, my legal name was in the process of being changed, and he was explaining to an incoming professor why there was a discrepancy on the roster.

His intent in writing the email was not malicious. But, in reality, he outed me as trans to the entire department. And the way the chair interacted with me, the way my cohort interacted with me and the language the chair used to describe my transition couldn’t be undone. It affected me for the duration of my two-year master’s degree.

This event would become the reason why I dropped my original research topic of the British author Angela Carter and, instead, examined transgender representation in media. I had already completed a minor in gender studies as an undergraduate student, but the transition — so to speak — from learning about gender in an abstract way to suddenly learning about how it impacted me, as well as my then partner (a trans woman), on a personal and professional level was alarming. I had known the department chair since my undergrad years. He is world famous for his work, and so was my supervisor. Everyone in the department knew how language and the stories we told affected culture, and yet they had completely screwed up my story in a very visceral, real and potentially dangerous way.

In my young academic mind, the only way to “correct” what had been done was to learn as much as possible about the dynamics that led up to this event. But, of course, that is part of the problem of being trans in academe. No matter what field your degree is in, you end up becoming an expert on trans studies. For example, my partner was completing her M.A. in physics, but she still had to regularly explain the differences among sex, gender and gender identity to her lab. Rather than do all the work of educating others for free, I figured I might as well get my degree in it.

Most Conditionally Accepted readers are probably already familiar with microaggressions — those brief, commonplace exchanges that do not seem harmful on the surface but, in reality, express a power imbalance and suggest the inferiority of marginalized people. Transgender theorist Julia Serano describes the culture we live in as cissexist, meaning that in the spectrum of power of cis/trans, it is cisgender people (those who identify with their sex assigned at birth) who maintain power and control. That entails cis people’s regularly committing cissexist microaggressions against trans people, and those seemingly small slights lead to much larger consequences.

One of the most common examples of a cissexist microaggression is asking a transgender person if they have had “the surgery.” The question implies that there is only one surgery (not true), that the surgery is the only way the person can be recognized as a “real” woman or man (also not true) and that the individual asking the question has the right to ask and know about the transgender person’s genitals (obviously not true). The last connotation, at its core, is the one I want to focus on in more depth here, as it can be the most harmful in one-on-one relationships, including those in academe — like the connections we have with our department chairs or supervisors.

In the department chair’s email, he explained my name discrepancy to the incoming professor by telling her exactly what I looked like, down to my “closely cropped dark hair.” His impulse was to make sure that the incoming professor knew who I was since she could not depend on knowing my name. While seemingly helpful in intent, his description of me (including my trans-masculine body) is an example of a cissexist microaggression.

There is a longstanding fascination in academe with trans people, including decades’ worth of research that has made us objects of academic inquiry. Academics want to ask questions, especially about surgery, because it is assumed to be not only a right as a cis person but also part of the job of a researcher. My department head was used to examining English literature for queerness, so when I arrived and there was a moment of difference (between my legal name and chosen name), he analyzed and determined that “apparently transgendered [sic] does mean you have changed sex but that you reject strict boundaries between sexes, hence the androgynous name” and forwarded his discoveries to new professors.

His and others’ critical examination of my gender identity and expression continued throughout the duration of my M.A. After my name change went through, the examination turned to my clothing. Did wearing a woman’s cardigan mean something? What about whom I took to the department party? At any point of difference or disagreement, examination occurred. More questions were asked.

And in order to deal, I was forced to take on the role of being the trans educator. Due to the cissexist ideology, cis people — like doctors, researchers and others in academe — assume that they have the right to ask the questions and then to meditate the responses. Being a forced educator is more than just being asked — it is knowing what the “right” answer is for cisgender people to hear and still treat you with humanity.

Although no one showed any overt physical violence toward me during my M.A., I know from my research that it is in those moments of difference — like a name not matching up or using sex-segregated bathrooms — when violence often occurs. When trans women, in particular, experience those moments, violence tends to occur more frequently, because they often experience misogyny on top of the transphobia (what Serano calls transmisogyny). The desire that inscribes those moments of bodily examination can soon turn to revulsion, and then violence, because of our culture’s already lingering disregard for feminine gender expression. The desire/revulsion dichotomy that surrounds the transgender body is not merely sexual. It is also a desire for knowledge and revulsion at potential “wrong” answers to questions that cis people ask.

Academics want to know so much, and exploring critically is good. But the way in which that curiosity is expressed in relation to trans people is fundamentally unbalanced. At best, it pushes trans people (including trans academics) into the forced educator role, answering questions that cis people could have Googled themselves. At worse, the desire for knowledge puts the trans person at risk for sexual and physical violence. Trans bodies are not texts to be examined in discourse; trans people are your colleagues, friends, loved ones and students.

I took on the role of a forced educator and now have it as my career. I do not regret this decision, obviously, but as I continue on in academe, and especially when we talk about sexual violence in trans communities, it makes me think of that email. My department chair meant absolutely no harm to me, but he could have started a chain reaction, opening me up to discrimination or violence from others. Even small interactions end up meaning a lot, especially when the space given in academe to marginalized folks already seems like it is borrowed.

Advice To Graduate Students Experiencing Sexual Violence

Note: the following was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed (here). Jen Dylan (a pseudonym) is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology. She stands in solidarity with all graduate student victims of sexual harassment.

7 Steps You Can Take

Sexual harassment comes in many forms, including physical misconduct and verbal and psychological abuse. My own experience with a tenured harasser consisted of an unsolicited kiss and thigh stroke. I eventually decided to confront him directly, stating that his behavior was completely inappropriate and must not happen again. It never did; he kept his distance from then on.

I was lucky. I am privileged in terms of my social location, I did not work in the same area as this faculty member and I had already forged strong relationships with other professors who supported me in all things. In other words, my choice to confront the perpetrator did not pose any harm to my career.

Other grad students in my department were not so lucky. One friend worked with the perpetrator and endured years of psychological abuse. Others in the department faced racist and homophobic verbal abuse or unwanted physical contact. Some endured a combination of all of the above. After a protracted battle on several fronts, our shared perpetrator, who had enjoyed a successful career and was well respected in his field, was asked to retire. Nothing more, nothing less. Those affected were disappointed that he did not face any real consequences for his actions, despite years of documented harassment.

I fear that my experiences and those of my colleagues are far too common. Over the past several years, professors have been accused or convicted of sexually harassing students at the University of California, Berkeley, the University of Chicago and Yale University, among other higher education institutions. However, it is impossible to know how many graduate students have to deal with predatory professors. I am sure many, if not most, victims do not come forward with complaints.

There are several reasons for this. For one, the burden of proof when filing a complaint is often unreasonably high. It can be difficult to collect supporting evidence when the harassment occurs in private contexts. Even if a student does decide to move forward with a grievance or lawsuit, doing so comes at a high cost. If the perpetrator is their supervisor, filing a grievance may put the student’s career in jeopardy. Finding a new supervisor could set them back months, if not years. And academe is a small world. Grad students may not come forward for fear of how it will affect their professional reputation. Finally, all too often, victims of sexual harassment are not even aware of their options for dealing with faculty perpetrators.

I fell into the latter category. It took me a while to figure out how I wanted to deal with the perpetrator. With time, I discovered a network of fellow students and faculty member who had either been victimized or who were willing to take action. Their support helped to clarify the steps that I wanted to take for myself, as well as ways that I could help others. I am not an expert on sexual harassment, and I strongly urge victims to seek out expert guidance that is tailored to their individual experience.

That said, below are some suggestions for action to take that helped some of my colleagues and me through our experiences.

  • Document everything. Write. It. All. Down. Write down times, locations and whether anyone else was present. If you have text or email correspondences, save them. Even if you do not think you that want to do anything about it, you might change your mind months down the road. There is a greater likelihood that your claim will be taken seriously if the harassment or abuse is documented in detail. Or your experience might even provide crucial supporting evidence to help move someone else’s claim forward.
  • If you are privileged along the lines of race, gender, sexuality, ability and/or cultural capital, speak up. For better or worse, your voice gives credence to the experiences of marginalized students in your department. Defend your peers, especially if their complaints are met with hostility. Provide corroborating evidence if you can.
  • Find your people: no matter how well respected the perpetrator is, there is, in all likelihood, a group of faculty members and fellow grad students who are disgusted by the person’s behavior. Seek them out. They may be able to provide comfort and solidarity.
  • Provide helpful advice to younger students as well as those in your own cohort about which faculty members are safe (or not). Doing so ensures that institutional knowledge about the perpetrator gets passed down.
  • Be open yet cautious about going through formal channels when filing a complaint. Administrations may be limited either by a daunting series of legal roadblocks or a lack of will to take action (especially if your perpetrator brings in grant money and is well established in their field). Either way, the burden of proof required to take action is immense, and you may end up mired in a multiyear battle. On a positive note, pursuing a lawsuit or grievance may help you find better social support, as more people become aware of your situation. It may also inspire other victims to come forward, providing more evidence and further helping your case. And while we still have a long ways to go, faculty members in recent years have become more vocal in supporting student victims who have experienced backlash for coming forward. It can be grueling to stay the course, but support is out there.
  • Don’t just blindly follow the guidance you receive from your institution’s sexual harassment or Title IX officers. They operate at the pleasure of the university administration, and while they may be ardent advocates for students, they nevertheless work in a wider organizational context that must contend with operational budgets and public relations optics. Cross-reference their advice with that from a nonprofit or student-run organization that supports victims of sexual harassment.
  • Take the issue to your union. Those grad students lucky enough to work as teaching or research assistants in unionized work settings may be able to file a grievance on the grounds that the perpetrator contributes to a hostile work environment. Unions have resources that make taking action far less burdensome. They have staff dedicated to handling cases of sexual harassment, and they can provide the costly legal support necessary to move lawsuits along.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution to dealing with perpetrators of sexual harassment in academe, and the above list is incomplete at best. LGBTQ and racialized student victims, in particular, confront additional barriers that make taking action all the more difficult. Unfortunately, while grossly unfair, any type of response on the part of victims usually comes at a cost — be it emotional, psychological or professional.

The most important takeaway for victims is this: do you. If you have experienced sexual harassment, do whatever you need to do to get by.

Reflections On Failure In Academia

eric-anthony-grollmanNote: I recently contributed to Dr. Veronika Cheplygina‘s blog series, “How I Fail,” to offer my own reflections on failure in academia.  See the original blog post here.  And, be sure to check out Dr. Cheplygina’s earlier writing on failure in the academy (here and here).

How I Fail

Veronika Cheplygina [VC]: Thanks for joining the How I Fail series! Please introduce yourself and if you already have any “failure statistics” you would like to share.

Eric Anthony Grollman [EAG]: I am an Assistant Professor at the University of Richmond in Virginia. I am a scholar, broadly defined, placing importance on research, teaching, and service, as well as the connections among these domains of the academy.

I am currently on a yearlong research leave following a successful mid-course review. While remaining productive, submitting 4 papers to journals, I felt set back by the rejection of every manuscript by 1 if not 2 journals. Rejection after rejection set the stage for me to feel as though I was failing all around, and that I would have nothing to show for a year’s leave.

Though so much rejection at once is new for me, I am no stranger to journal rejections. One article was rejected five times before receiving a favorable revise and resubmit decisions from the journal in which it is now published. One of my forthcoming articles was previously rejected after an R&R at one journal, and desk-rejected from two other journals. I’d say I have an equal number of articles that were published in the first journals to which I sent them and that were rejected from multiple journals before they were finally accepted. Overall, it still feels like a crapshoot, not knowing whether a manuscript fits in an article, will be liked by reviewers, will pique the interest of the editor, will overlap too much with a recently accepted piece or fill a gap in the journal, and so forth.

VC: Do you keep track of your failures (rejected papers, grants, job applications…)? Why/why not?

EAG: I’m no different than the average academic here, at least until recently. That is, I try to avoid dwelling on my failures – because they feel exactly like that, rather than minor setbacks or growing pains or lessons in living. It’s much easier to see how failure fits into the larger narrative in hindsight. I do believe I differ from others, however, in intentionally celebrating my successes. Specifically, at each year’s end, I make a list of all that I have accomplished in both the personal and professional domains. For, just as I tend to numb myself to by losses, I also tend to overlook or downplay my wins. So, this end-of-year reflection helps to remind myself that I accomplish quite a bit – and probably can stand to recognize that more so I stop pursuing project after project and service opportunity after service opportunity to prove to myself that I am worthy.

This past year’s end, I experimented with reflecting on failures alongside my successes. I even shared it publicly, though I acknowledge I was more generous with my wins that my losses. (I’m only human, and an imperfect one at that.) I doubt this will occur outside of new year’s resolution and old year’s reflection activities, as reflecting on how I’ve failed isn’t something I’d like to do often. But, there is an overall sense of growth, overcoming, and hope that comes from directly engaging with lessons I’ve had to learn by screwing up.

VC: What do you think about sharing failures online? Are there disadvantages for researchers who do it?

EAG: I appreciate the failure-CV idea – it’s a rather brave and noble act. It helps to normalize failure in academia. The reality is rejection is the norm. If a journal touts a 8% acceptance rate, that means the overwhelming majority of papers will be rejected immediately, after the first review, or even after subsequent reviews. Grants, jobs, positions, and other milestones in academia likely carry similar odds of success. Being the best, beating out your competitors, is a bizarre feature of our profession. So, sharing those wounds publicly is pretty courageous.

But… I think it’s cute when privileged folks do something to prove a point, but ignore that the stakes are much higher and the rewards are much lower for those who are disadvantaged. I actually never read the failure-CV that went viral because I (correctly) assumed its author was a white man, probably senior level faculty at an ivy league school. (Well, apparently he’s an assistant professor, but even a tenure-track position is a pretty cushy gig considering the majority of PhDs are in exploited contingent faculty positions.) After it was first published, I began seeing critiques of his efforts as nothing more than an exercise of privilege, or that he’d only be able to get away with airing his failures because he was incredibly successful. So, that confirmed that I didn’t need to bother reading it. And, I didn’t until recently.

I have a reputation for being outspoken and sharing potentially professionally damaging information online. But, I would probably never make a concise list of all of the ways in which I have failed in my career. In a year, I will be applying for tenure; as an assistant professor, I do not want to make it easier for my colleagues to pinpoint my failures. Academics are hypercritical people; while airing my failures would be a noble act, it opens me up to be further judged and criticized. “Oh, they only published that in that journal because it was rejected from four other journals.” “Wow, they applied for that three times before they got it? I got it on the first try.” I suffer from playing the same comparison game. So, as someone who currently lacks job security, and is additionally vulnerable by virtue of being Black, queer, and outspoken, I’d rather not play with fire (or failure) anymore than I need to. Sharing my failures won’t help me professionally (and actually could hurt me) and it does nothing to liberate fellow marginalized people.

VC: What do you do when you receive a rejection? Do you have some process/ritual of dealing with failure? Has this process changed throughout your career?

EAG: When I receive rejections from journals, I read the reviews immediately. I curse the reviewers for being idiots, for not realizing I couldn’t do the things they wanted to see in the paper. I curse the editor(s) for not giving the paper a second chance with a perhaps harsh R&R. I make an impulsive plan to submit the paper elsewhere without changing a thing, because those reviewers didn’t know what they were talking about. Then, I put the reviews away for at least a week, or perhaps more if I was in the middle of working on another manuscript. Rejection stings, but over time I have come to see them as just part of the long process of peer-review and publishing. While it is never my plan to get rejected, reviewers typically offer advice that will increase the likelihood of success at the next journal. It still frustrates me that over half of the comments are useless (anger may be exaggerating my estimate here…), but I recognize that the reviewers have identified one or more fatal flaws – at least for publishing in that journal. And even that sentiment – it’s just a rejection from this journal – reflects an evolving, more balanced reaction to failure; often they have nothing to do with the content or quality of my paper and, instead, may be any number of other factors that I cannot control.

VC: What about when you receive good news? Who do you share the news with, do you have some rewards for yourself?

EAG: Good news is immediately shared online, with my partner, and with anyone who supported me in achieving that win. Successful outcomes require a lot of work and patience, so they indeed warrant celebration when they happen. And, then I update my CV – personal copy, on my website, and on Academia.edu. And, I stare at the new line on my vita for a minute or two to let it sink in. Then, the critical voice in my head gets louder and I go on to do something else.

VC: Can you share some examples of failures which hurt the most, and why that was?

EAG: As I reflect, no specific rejection comes to mind as particularly hurtful. Some have temporarily made me mad because they felt unfair, and rejection closes the line of communication so I am unable to defend or explain myself. But, I just improve what I can and submit elsewhere. One journal’s rejection is another journal’s acceptance.

But, thinking of failure on a broader sense, not simply as concrete outcomes, failing myself by not being authentic has hurt the most. In getting swept up in the elitist, competitive, impact-factor-obsessed game of academia, I am embarrassed to admit that I have made many decisions to excel that went against my sense of self, my identities, my politics, my values, and my goals as a scholar-activist. I have failed myself (and my communities) by conforming or “souling out” because the normative or mainstream path in academia demands it. This has left me doubting every decision that I have made (like working at a liberal arts college) and feeling disconnected from my work. I am making strides toward getting back on the path of authenticity in my career, but only after years of struggling and distress. Conforming was the worst thing I’ve done in my career.

VC: Can you think of something you accomplished that felt like a success, but you wouldn’t normally add to a CV?

EAG: Breaking ties with my grad school mentors was a hard, yet inevitable step in pursuing a self-defined career as a scholar-activist. I was literally traumatized by my graduate training. The constant microaggressions, efforts to “beat the activist out” of me, and the questioning of my career choices left me weepy and filled with doubt in my first year on the tenure-track. I had to suck the poison out of my life in order to define this new chapter of my life for myself. This was a huge success for me; but, of course, I’d never list “broke up with my grad school advisors” on my CV!

VC: Is there something we can all do to improve how failure affects others in academia?

EAG: Given that failure is as common, if not more so, in academia, it should be normalized. A positive first step would be to openly share the ways in which we fail, and not only when we are successful enough to “compensate” for those failures or when we are privileged enough to weather the risks of such vulnerability. Rather than regularly celebrating our long lists of achievements, we could talk about our careers as journeys with wins and losses. We only fuel perfectionism-induced anxiety in others when we introduce invited speakers by reading an obnoxiously long bio that is just their CV disguised as prose. (Though, I’m sure that is the point.) Sharing failures tells others how you overcame them and finally became successful; failures are a part of the story of success. It is much more inspiring, in my opinion, to hear how you got knocked down over and over but kept getting back up. I can learn something from the person who had to cope with and overcome failure, not much from those who (supposedly) succeeded on the first try.

But, we can’t ask academics to become vulnerable if the risks of doing so remain high. We can’t ask others to share how they screwed up if we’re only going to judge them and, worse, allow those judgments to influence formal evaluations of them. I suppose one way to change the hypercritical, competitive, judgmental climate would be to celebrate scholars’ journeys rather than just their wins. Maybe we could celebrate that it took 5 years to publish an article because it kept getting desk-rejected and not just the impact factor of the journal in which it is published. Or, celebrate the personal backstory of an article, like persevering despite a neglectful, abusive former co-author, and not just that it was published and will be widely cited. What I’m suggesting here is a fundamental shift from celebrating our journeys, perhaps in a qualitative sense, and not just quantifying success, contribution, and impact. Indeed, these quantitative assessments fail to acknowledge stark disparities in academia.

VC: What is the best piece of advice you could give to your past self?

EAG: To my past self, I think that one piece of advice would have spared me a lot of stress and heartache: live your truth, tell your truth. Success by someone else’s terms is not nearly as satisfying as failure on my own terms.