A Call For Flexible Name-Change Policies For Trans Students

Note: this blog post was originally published on our Inside Higher Ed column. Katriel Paige is a nonbinary professional in the field of web usability, having gone through a M.A. in intercultural communication in international business at the University of Surrey in Great Britain and a B.A. at the University of Delaware. They like Japanese animation and are interested in media studies and folklore.


Thanks to mainstream media, it seems that the sole concern for transgender individuals these days is navigating public restrooms and other public spaces. But far more issues impede upon trans people’s well-being and livelihood.

A major concern for trans people today is the process of legally changing one’s name, as well as one’s gender marker, on official records. People change their names for a multitude of reasons, no matter their gender identity. For transgender and genderqueer people, like anyone else, changing one’s name is an important part of their own recognition of their identity. But because names are often associated with being male- or female-sounding, changing a name to suit one’s gender identification is an important part of the person telling others how they wish to be treated and identified. A transgender woman may be named Lawrence at birth but go by Elle, Elly or Lisa — keeping the initial sound intact, but signaling to others that she is a woman and should be recognized as such.

Changing one’s name in the United States, however, requires money and time. If the change does not coincide with a new legal family status (such as a birth, marriage or divorce), then that means going through the courts for a name change order. That process can take months and cost $500 or even more between court fees, publication fees and associated costs. There are legal aid clinics expressly for LGBTQ people that help in the matter of filing a name change court order in several metropolitan areas, including Chicago and Baltimore. But those clinics often have waiting lists, and it can take a long time to get assistance even if a person qualifies for aid.

I’d like to address two issues in the essay regarding name changes for transgender and genderqueer students. Both come down to legal requirements and the availability of money.

First and most important, trans and genderqueer students may not have the financial means to afford the court order process to change their names legally. Students from poor or working-class families and students of color are probably disproportionately affected by this barrier to transitioning.

Also, depending on the court and locality, the student may have to appear in court in person. That requires taking time to make the court date and appointment, and it also poses the real threat of harassment. Even though the court system is supposed to be impartial, in some instances, clerks and judges have assumed that the person changing their name is doing so to defraud others. In the case of transgender and genderqueer students, that assumption can be unjustly magnified.

At many colleges and universities, students are supposed to be able to use a nickname, but that is not always the case for trans or genderqueer students. Again the assumption is that the student is attempting to trick others — the very motivation cited as the core of “trans panic” murder defenses. The skepticism trans and genderqueer students face is inherently dangerous. Cisgender students are often able to record a nickname at least during lectures, but different higher education institutions have different nickname/alternate name policies. Legal names are also often tied in with official student records, and that can create issues when it comes to recording grades as well as issuing graduation clearances and names on degrees.

The fact that different institutions have different policies regarding names and records is compounded if a student, for example, transfers between a community college and a university. They might be able to go by their nickname and change their records to their preferred name without having to go through a legal name change at the community college, but they may be forced to “deadname” themselves — going by their name assigned at birth — at the university, potentially outing themselves as a different gender than what they identify as.

Colleges and universities should recognize that trans and genderqueer students may not be able to legally change their names; they should respect the name a student goes by while in school, even if not recognized by law. Many universities do have name change procedures for chosen names in place, such as the City University of New York system, the University of Colorado Boulder and others, as seen via the Campus Pride Trans Policy Clearinghouse.

My second concern is that many students are assumed to have some amount of family contribution toward their university education. This is evidenced by the FAFSA process, in which undergraduates are assumed to have family support when calculating student aid eligibility, while postgraduates are assumed to be financially independent. Yet because of family rejection or family strain due to relatives’ transphobic bias, many undergraduate trans and genderqueer students may lack such family support. Some students perceive, or have explicitly been warned, that they will lose their family’s support if they come out as trans or begin transitioning.

Further, there may not even be a home to return to during school breaks or after graduation. This means that even if they do manage to go through the legal process of changing their name, the student may run into difficulties with continuing to pay for their education. Scholarships and financial aid might also be awarded to the name at birth and not the name the student goes by, causing financial difficulty and issues with records if nicknames and legal names are not recorded, or if a legal name change is still in process — and therefore in limbo.

Universities should recognize that while some trans and genderqueer students are financially able to attend college, it may be at great personal cost. They should not further punish trans students, especially those who are unable to afford a legal name change, by exclusively recognizing their legal name and gender. A trans student’s chosen name should be honored just as a cisgender student’s nickname is (Liz instead of Elizabeth). They should ensure that students are respected in academe and not force students to decide between wider recognition of their identity or their ability to receive an education in the first place.

Opposition To “Trigger Warnings” Reinforces The Status Quo


Source: Everyday Feminism

Please don’t be fooled by the surprisingly firm assertion made in this post’s title.  I prefer to pose it as a question because I do not actually know for certain.  You see, I decided to stay out of the debates over the use of “trigger warnings” in college classrooms since first reading an argument against them.  I know too little about the experience of being emotionally or physiologically triggered, as my training is not in psychology and I have very little personal experience with sexual violence; so, I have remained silent on the issue, assuming it was a fad to discuss it in academic circles that would ultimately pass.  (Aren’t there more pressing matters, like access to college, diversity, sexual violence on campuses, making curricula accessible, etc.?)

Trigger Warnings Are A Threat To Academic Freedom???

I am making an exception to my self-imposed silence about trigger warnings today.  Alice Dreger’s Aeon essay, “Without tenure, professors become terrified sheep,” caught my eye, with an obvious, yet bold claim in her title, and an associated picture of a University of Wisconsin building — subtly pointing to state’s decision to do away with tenure in the traditional sense.  Dreger makes important points, most significantly that academic freedom goes out the door when faculty lose job security — something of urgent concern, considering the adjunctification of the academy.  But, she mentioned examples of threats to academic freedom that not only surprised me, but also greatly concern me:

Meanwhile, on the left, identity-politics activists are using devices like ‘safe spaces’ and ‘trigger warnings’ to shut down speech they believe to be offensive and dangerous. In my campus visits around the US – aimed at emboldening the students, faculty, and administrators to push for academic freedom – I’ve been told time and time again about staff being reported by left-leaning students for teaching ‘uncomfortable’ ideas that have been taught for generations.

For example, one faculty member at a prestigious liberal arts college told me about a colleague who was reported for teaching the ancient Greek tale Leda and the Swan. The alleged discriminatory offence? Not first warning students that the story includes a symbolic rape. Others at public universities described being reported for stumbling over students’ preferred pronouns. Some historic women’s colleges have given up trying to produce The Vagina Monologues because of complaints that the 1996 play doesn’t reflect the breadth of transgender experiences. (It doesn’t; it wasn’t written for that purpose any more than The Federalist Papers were.)

I want to note that these examples seem out of line with Dreger’s argument about tenure.  Are tenured faculty freed from the pressures to create safe spaces for oppressed students?  From offering preemptive warnings that some content covered in their courses may be triggering?  Are tenured faculty no longer expected to make efforts to include transgender students in campus events, as well as their classes and curricula?

One could infer from these comments that Dreger’s version of tenure grants faculty freedom to practice discrimination, or at least to ignore oppressed student groups’ demands for equality, inclusion, and safety.  And, tenured faculty can stop being concerned about the well-being of survivors of sexual violence — as though there was an institutional mandate to care while they were pre-tenure.  It’s problematic to conceptualize these examples as mere politics (i.e., left-leaning versus right-leaning students); survivors demanding a safe classroom environment and trans students demanding inclusion is not the stuff of political games — it’s about their survival and well-being.

Faculty Are Clueless

I will grant Dreger and others who have taken the time to publicly oppose trigger warnings this.  The responsibility falls on faculty to appropriately warn students of potentially triggering material. And, the responsibility to articulate the need for such a warning falls on students.  Thus, I understand the concern about how far we should go to offer trigger warnings.

On a few occasions, I have had a student approach me to express concern about material that was triggering for them.  “Will the [research methods] textbook keep using examples of research on domestic violence?”  “Can we avoid talking about suicide today?  Today is the anniversary of my friend’s death.”  Initially, I was annoyed by these students’ comments, as they came just moments before class started; textbooks were already assigned, lectures were already prepped.  Besides the last-minute nature of the concerns, I wondered whether the students’ triggered reactions were enough to change my classes to accommodate them; indeed, I felt the implied or actual requests that I change my classes in a major way were imposing, if not inappropriate.  What I offered instead was that the students could continue to advocate for themselves — they could drop the class (since there were no alternative textbooks, and coming up with alternative material seemed too demanding of my time) or skip the classes they felt would be triggering.

In hindsight, offering for them to just leave feels insensitive; but, my limited teaching training left me with no other appropriate courses of action.  Rather than leaving it to faculty to decide whether and how to use trigger warnings, an ideal approach would be to teach graduate students how to handle these issues.  To me, accommodating the needs of survivors of sexual violence and other traumatic events fits within the broader initiative to make classrooms accessible.  Colleges and universities might expand their sexual violence prevention work and disability services to include resources for survivors to avoid or at least cope with triggering classroom material.  These offices, as well as teaching and learning centers and professional development centers could offer training for faculty to support survivors of sexual violence, and other students who have experienced trauma.  That is, one way to ease the burden on students to speak up for themselves (risking some ill-informed faculty member of dismissing them as overly sensitive), and the burden on faculty to devise proper warnings for triggering material, is to make it an institutional effort.  (And, by that, I don’t mean an institution-wide ban on trigger warnings, and a letter to students to toughen up.)

Opposition To Trigger Warnings Is A Defense Of The Status Quo

But, I want to return to my title’s claim — that the opposition to trigger warnings reinforces the status quo in higher education.  I believe the rise of trigger warnings reflects success of survivors and their allies to call attention to the ways in which college classrooms may be a part of the problem of rape culture in higher education.  And, like Dreger’s dismissal of students’ demand for the use of correct pronouns, those in the mainstream — or specifically members of the dominant group — often react to change with anger.  They dismiss the demands for change by saying things like Vagina Monologues need not include transgender people (not even trans women) because “it wasn’t written for that purpose any more than The Federalist Papers were.”  In this case, trans people have no right to demand inclusion because it has always been that way.  They resort to mocking the group demanding change — how silly these trans people, demanding that we use pronouns in an inclusive way.  I suspect that is what we are seeing in the opposition against trigger warnings; there is a knee-jerk reaction to defend the way it has always been, to ignore that a sizeable minority of students have been raped, sexually assaulted, sexually harassed, or experienced other forms of violence.  Generation after generation of students has been reading [X “classic” text that includes triggering material], so why should we eliminate it or assign it with a warning now?

I would argue that the opposition to trigger warnings is part of a larger trend of belittling college students, particularly their political efforts.  The flip side of concerns about entitlement and helicopter parenting is critiques of students who challenge the status quo on their campuses.  We now have the term “crybullies,” dismissing contemporary forms of protest as a mere demand to protect one’s feelings and presumably fragile ego.  The following cartoon perfectly captures this patronizing sentiment:


The supposed consequences of these “crybullies” — that logic, reason, actual education, and academic freedom go up in flames — is captured in this more damning cartoon:


Wow.  The underlying logic is that women, queer students, students of color, and others who have demanded safety, protection, and inclusion are the equivalent of overly sensitive babies — pampered babies, if you see the noticeably tan child holding the social justice sword and “racist!!” rattle.  Clearly, these groups have no right to challenge the status quo because, well, these must not be serious problems.

Some of this strikes me as the tired “us vs. them” generational divide — in this case, a war waged against millennials by… well… every other generation.  These babies are pierced, tattooed, and have colored hair.  Eventually they’ll grow up and have real concerns!  Maybe I haven’t resorted to this kind of finger wagging because, by some accounts, I am a millennial myself.  I’m pierced and tattooed and have carried the sword of social justice and demanded safe spaces and leaned into my “special slowflake” identity.  But, I haven’t chosen a side because it’s played out.  The hippies pictured in the first cartoon were criticized in their day, too.  Their political demands were mocked and criticized by older generations.  Suddenly, their demands for peace and love seem reasonable compared to demands for safety from violence and triggering material, and for inclusion and equal treatment.

Closing Thoughts

Can we pause for a moment on the trigger warning debates?  Even well-intentioned liberal professors who have taken issue with these warnings are merely echoing the larger conservative opposition to the Black Lives Matter movement, efforts to identify and eliminate microaggressions, to demands for justice survivors of sexual violence, to demands for safe spaces for queer students, to recognition of and access to facilities for trans students, and so on.

At this moment, we — as faculty — have a choice.  We can choose to be dinosaurs and old-farts who mock students who are advocating for themselves, who are following the tradition of protest on college campuses for greater inclusion.  Or, we can actually listen to what the students are saying, we can find ways to support them and navigate around (and dismantle) institutional constraints.  Too few of us understand trauma to adequately decide how to support traumatized students; so, we should be figuring out how to support them rather than dismissing or mocking their concerns.

Further Reading


Advice For Publishing Research On Marginalized Communities

SumerauNote: this essay was originally published on our Inside Higher Ed career advice column. Dr. J. Sumerau (@JSumerau) is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Tampa. J. is a regular contributor to Conditionally Accepted. Zir teaching, research and activism focuses on intersections of sexualities, gender, religion and health in the experiences of sexual, religious and gender minorities.

Research on the Margins

Lately, I have had some conversations with other scholars who study marginalized communities about a topic that I have yet to see receive much attention in the academy. That is, what happens when, as part of studying marginalized communities, you find yourself: (1) studying a population that is almost completely absent from existing literature, and (2) needing to situate your study within a literature that does not include the population in question? How do you resolve this dilemma?

Not surprisingly, the problem arises from the processes of scientific study, publishing and debate as they play out over time. Scientific work, like any other humanly created endeavor, is both shaped and limited by the perspectives, standpoints and biases of the people who do it at different times, in different contexts and in different ways. As a result, it is easy to look back in time and notice that some subjects that seem obvious today are missing from earlier theories, fact statements, truth claims and entire disciplines.

It is equally unsurprising that looking back tends to reveal that those previously missing subjects often initially found their way into disciplines when, for example, members of such groups achieved access in scientific careers and opportunities, members of such groups became more visible or recognized in the mainstream, and/or members of such groups found themselves under attack as a result of emerging legal and political campaigns. Although such previously missing subjects existed beforehand in the natural world we all share, it typically took some type of external catalyst or impetus from people who experienced them for science to notice and slowly incorporate the subject into existing theories, fact statements, truth claims and disciplines.

While I could choose from any number of examples over time, an area I have worked in for years now provides a typical case. As revealed in narratives, archival documents and other materials, sexual minorities have been active within mainstream religious traditions and in the creation of their own religious traditions for at least a century. Yet scientific studies of religion, sexual minorities and sexualities in general did not really take any notice of them until the 1970s (with a couple of examples) and the 1990s (with a couple more examples). Further, the handful of studies in those decades did not really lead to an actual field of scholarship until the 2000s and the present decade. Before massive religious and sexual rights movements and events, and without the presence of many scientists who were open about being members of sexual minorities, this aspect of our world simply did not find voice in the scientific construction of it.

Some people will look at such patterns and argue that science is self-correcting, so no problem exists. Others will look at the same patterns and argue that science itself is problematic in a similar way to other mainstream institutions because it often serves as a self-sustaining vehicle of those in power. But I do not intend to get into those debates here. In fact, I can argue either side quite well, and I know others who can do the same. Rather, I return to the question at the beginning of this piece: What do scholars do when they find themselves in between existing scientific norms and attempts to study things that contradict or otherwise do not fit such norms?

I won’t pretend to have any absolute answer to this question, and I am not even sure whether one could fit all cases. At the same time, I have run into this dilemma at times studying transgender experience (in literatures built primarily upon cisgender assumptions and focus to date), bisexual experience (in literatures built primarily upon monosexual assumptions and focus to date) and nonreligious experience (in literatures built primarily upon religious assumptions and focus to date).

Here, I offer three ways in which I have managed this dilemma in those research areas, and I invite others to offer any additional strategies.

Use the absence of marginalized populations in science to demonstrate the importance of the study. In an article focused on transgender experience with religion, for example, I outlined the ways that religious, gendered and gendered-religious scholarship rest upon cisgender samples, assumptions, populations and findings. To accomplish that, my collaborators and I analyzed existing literatures in these areas for the ways they created a science of cisgender religion instead of a science of religion.

The bright side of this approach is that the existing literature bias provides the justification for studying an unconventional topic. The downside of it, however, is your chances of being published depend heavily upon journal reviewers’ and editors’ willingness to handle the bias you have just pointed out in a productive way or to consider pointing out such bias as a contribution to scholarship in your field. In fact, I have already experienced reviewers and editors who do accomplish these two things, and others who instead reacted in a much more negative way.

Bypass academic journals in favor of other publication options. Academic journals rely upon gaining acceptance from others who may have vested interests in the status quo, so it may be useful to seek other outlets. That is why it is common for members of marginalized groups and scholars studying marginalized communities to much more heavily cite and quote academic books from various presses, academic book chapters from various edited volumes and even academic and activist blogs and other informal writings. Since such spaces are not entirely dependent upon the perceptions of people already enmeshed within existing academic norms and assumptions, they often provide more room for new, challenging and critical ideas, data and arguments. In such cases, scholars may first publish, or find a citation in, scholarship outside the journal process and then use that publication or citation in later endeavors within it.

Focus the work on conceptual development rather than the population in question. Studies of members of dominant groups are often accepted on their own terms, but focusing on marginalized populations often draws negative reactions, accusations of “me-search” and questions about resonance or importance to the broader (read: dominant) world. As such, one way that studies of marginalized populations find publication involves framing them as conceptual.

For example, it is not a study of bisexual Black cisgender women, but rather a study of the ways some people manage emotions in relation to disparate racial, sexual and gender norms. When the population is not deemed mainstream enough to warrant observation or not often part of existing survey data or analyses, a conceptual angle (i.e., a way this “unusual” population relates to the mainstream) may be useful for demonstrating to outsiders the value of the case. Further, once a few of those pieces are published, researchers may draw upon a combination of them to argue for a (insert name of discipline here) field of study on this population — as has been done many times in the past with other marginalized populations.

While the aforementioned approaches are by no means exhaustive, and each one has its own benefits and drawbacks, they may serve as initial solutions for researchers who find themselves studying groups or phenomena currently missing — mostly or entirely — from the scientific literature or the specific assumptions and facts of their discipline. Based on existing scientific records, this dilemma is not new and not likely to go away. As such, it may be useful for scholars studying marginalized topics and communities to continue discussing, sharing and working on strategies for expanding the topics and populations recognized within and between varied scientific disciplines.

Jackson Wright Shultz On Truth and Subjectivity

This blog post was originally published on our Inside Higher Ed column.

JacksonI write my truth.

In fact, my entire goal as a writer and author is to open a bit of my world to others. Many written works about my communities have been distorted or fictionalized, even by sources claiming to provide honest exposés. So when I write about trans communities, I write exclusively nonfiction.

As a nonfiction writer, I attempt to balance the risk of being overly tedious in my writing with the rewards of painting accurate depictions of my communities. True, the rewards are subtle and often come in the form of quiet head nods from the communities that I try to represent. But in a world of sensationalized stories rooted in misconceptions of what it means to be transgender, even the slightest appreciation from other trans and nonbinary individuals is the highest praise.

I write the truths apparent to my communities.

And so do many other minoritized activists and scholars. Yet even when we write about our own lived experiences with discrimination, we are frequently told (even in academic spaces that imagine themselves as accepting) that we are wrong, mistaken, lying, attention seeking or otherwise overly subjective. Want proof? Read the comments section of just about any blog written by minoritized scholars or the types of email sent to women scholars who write about issues like gender and race. I guarantee you will find comments that attempt to correct our supposed misunderstandings of our own experiences, at best, and strip us of our very humanity, at worst.

This notion of subjectivity is the crux of the matter. By virtue of being LGBTQI activists, scholars of color, scholars with disabilities and so on, minority researchers embody a group that is viewed as inherently subjective. In theory, I have no problem with that: subjectivity is incredibly valuable. Acknowledging subjectivity allows researchers to recognize that no one is above bias, and rather than running from our prejudices and partialities, we can confront them head-on. Valuing subjectivity allows us to use methodologies like autoethnography that let us situate our experiences in a broader cultural context. Our subjectivity permits us to delve into a level of research within our communities and cultures that outsiders to our communities would find difficult or impossible to access.

But unfortunately, as a minoritized scholar, my presumed subjectivity has real-world consequences. It affects the types of research I am allowed to conduct. It affects whether my research will be considered empirical, useful and valid. It affects how hard I will have to fight to get approval to carry out my research by the Institutional Review Board. It means that to engage in qualitative methodologies, I have to risk the double jeopardy of conducting subjective research as a supposedly subjective scholar and dealing with the fallout should I attempt to publish research considered by many to be — as an adviser in my doctoral program put it –“wishy-washy.” It means that the work we do in our own communities may be appropriated by other scholars seen as more objective than ourselves.

Such issues are much more than minor inconveniences. Failing to value and respect the types of data that minoritized scholars are collecting — and the ways we are collecting them — is a form of silencing us. When we pioneer methodologies or bring to light cultural knowledge previously or currently rejected as subjective in academic spaces, we are adding our voices to the conversation in the most authentic ways we can. So when our courses are decried as racist toward white students, or when peer-review publications, IRBs and advisers scorn our efforts, or when we are told our writing style does not follow standard (read: white cis masculinist) convention, we are being silenced on a systemic level. Simultaneously, we are being stripped of our authenticity.

I write truths that outsiders to my communities do not see.

I do this in an effort to educate outsiders, yet my labors are often futile. Because outsiders have never witnessed our real-life experiences, they frequently believe that these realities simply cannot be factual. This is a trend I find frightening, as it is rooted in the devaluation of the other. It is rooted in a culture that does not believe survivors of rape and incest are telling the truth about being sexually assaulted. It is rooted in a culture that does not believe people of color when they say they experience violence at the hands of the police. It is rooted in a culture that does not believe trans people are who we say we are.

I write uncomfortable truths.

As academics, we encourage our students to think critically but have difficulty turning that lens upon ourselves. We do not want to consider that our systemic devaluation of subjective research may be rooted in something more than general preference. We don’t want to admit that we are comfortable judging the merit of p values but live in fear of what we cannot easily quantify. We have difficulty accepting that, however inadvertently, we have created an institutional culture that devalues the work of minoritized scholars when we dream ourselves and our colleges to be committed to diversity and pluralism.

If I am going to survive as a scholar activist, I have to believe that this culture is malleable. It’s a culture that we can change from both inside and outside academe. Within the academy, we have a responsibility to take a long and hard look at which bodies we value and which ones we don’t, and ask ourselves why that is. We have to ask ourselves what types of work are worthy of pay, of promotion and of tenure. We have to question what wonderful knowledge we are refusing to publish because it didn’t involve multiple linear regression. We have to ask if we are refusing to further knowledge simply because we don’t agree with how it was collected — even when that collection was ethical. If and when our responses do not align with the current structural realities of our institutions, we have to ask ourselves what we can do to change these patterns.

I take risks to write these truths.

I know that writing in such public forums could adversely impact my career. I have learned that I have many privileges that afford me the option of being out as a trans academic. I have accepted that, simply by virtue of who I am, writing about my own communities will always be considered subjective. I recognize that until we have massively reformed our valuation of methodological practices, my status as a researcher and the research that I conduct will be considered suspect and subject to additional scrutiny. I know that, on such a systemic level, rethinking which types of research matter and are worthy of publication will be a long, slow process.

But still, I write my truth.


Bio: Jackson Wright Shultz (@WriteRadically) is an activist, educator, and the author of Trans/Portraits: Voices From Transgender Communities. As the education director for the Trans Education, Activism, Community & Health (TEACH) Alliance, he has spoken throughout the country on contemporary issues in transgender communities. When not working with the TEACH Alliance, Shultz teaches composition and creative writing courses at New England College. He is an alumnus of Washington State University and Dartmouth College, and a current doctoral student at New England College. He is a regular contribute to Conditionally Accepted.

Cisgender Scholars Conduct “Me-Search,” Too

SumerauNote: this blog post was originally published on our Inside Higher Ed column. J. Sumerau is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Tampa. J. is a regular contributor to Conditionally Accepted. Zir teaching, research and activism focuses on intersections of sexualities, gender, religion and health in the experiences of sexual, religious and gender minorities.

Cisgender Me-Search

Earlier this year, I ran into a colleague at a conference who asked me an interesting question that I had not yet considered. This colleague had read my blog post about the exclusion of transgender people and their experience from the vast majority of nationally representative social scientific surveys, as well as two peer-reviewed articles of mine that have come out in the past year mentioning this topic.

After reading those pieces, thinking about them and discussing them with others, my colleague sought me out at the conference and asked, “Since transgender people are missing from most data sets, and most social scientists are not transgender that we know of, would most social scientific research today be considered me-search?”

Like most people I have met who study populations they are or were a part of in some way, shape or form, I have regularly heard the term “me-search” thrown around online, at conferences and otherwise throughout my time in the academy. Generally, people use the term as a kind of slur to attack the credibility or importance of research done concerning communities that the researcher has a connection to or is part of beyond their scholarly work. My colleague noted that many cisgender survey researchers spend their whole careers using surveys that only have cisgender respondents or have no way of measuring the possible existence of transgender or nonbinary people in the data set.

As the person spoke, I realized that I have seen the same thing myself. If me-search refers to people who study populations they are a part of outside of their scholarly work, then most survey work done by cisgender scholars — and thus most of social science — fits the definition of me-search.

In the conversations I have had and essays I have read on the subject over the years, however, I have only seen the use of the term “me-search” directed at scholars who study marginalized communities that they are part of or connected to in some way. This realization led me to wonder why this term is directed at members of marginalized communities and scholars studying marginalized populations even though, in many cases, members of dominant groups and scholars using mainstream surveys are doing the same thing. That might be a reflection of societal patterns whereby dominant norms and populations are constructed as more objective and free from questioning, while marginalized norms and communities are constructed as other and met with increased scrutiny. Whatever the source of the discrepancy, its existence suggests a number of important questions that practicing academics should ask themselves.

For example, if social scientists believe that studying one’s own community is problematic, then why do so many cisgender people use surveys that only contain other cis people, and thus only study other cis people? Further, why do they do so without talking about their own cisgender identity and experience as a potential limitation and bias of the study and its results? Is it only problematic if it does not fit their assumptions, lifestyle or background?

If, in contrast, social scientists do not believe studying one’s own community is problematic, then where did the term “me-search” come from, and why does it show up so often in conversations about only some contemporary research practice? Further, why is this term viewed as negative if the vast majority of social scientists are doing it throughout their careers? Is it only negative when it involves giving marginalized communities a voice in scientific traditions?

Finally, if the people who decry me-search believe studying one’s own community is in fact problematic, where are their passionate campaigns to do away with or change our existing survey designs? Put another way, why aren’t they decrying the cisgender me-search that makes up the bulk of contemporary survey work?

Whatever answers may arise from these questions, the point is that a fairly obvious double standard seems to be operating within scientific communities. If, for example, people study their own community but that community occupies a dominant social location, then their work tends to be considered mainstream or legitimate science. But if people study their own community but it occupies a marginalized social location, then their work may be decried or attacked as me-search or not as scientific.

What do we make of this double standard? What does it say about how our own assumptions shape what we do or do not define as legitimate science? And how might we move past this double standard in the future?

I am not going to pretend that I have answers to these questions, but they might be useful starting points for important discussions within the academy. I personally see no issue with me-search related to any social group. Following feminist, queer and critical race theory and other critical scholarly traditions, I think science depends on a mixture of perspectives, methods, lifestyles, experiences and backgrounds if it seeks to capture the world that we all share. Rather, the problem for me arises when some scholars who study groups to which they belong are celebrated while others are attacked or dismissed for doing the same thing.

Put simply, if me-search is a problem, it needs to be addressed when cisgender people or members of other dominant groups conduct it — instead of only when members of marginalized communities do so. If, however, it is not a problem when members of dominant groups study the populations they belong to outside their work, then the term “me-search” — like any other mechanism of inequality — should be done away with, for the betterment of us all.

Gender Policing In Academia

Note: this blog post was originally published on our Inside Higher Ed column.

DeniseNow 31 years old, I am still struggling to figure out my gender identity. I knew by age 5 that I was unlike other boys, even declaring to my mother that I should have been born a girl. I came out as bisexual as a senior in high school, then gay in my freshman year of college. With exposure to feminist and queer theories and activism in college, I found a more fitting identity — queer — to reflect my own sense of gender and attraction to masculinity broadly defined (no matter others’ bodies or sex).

But I have graduate school to thank for my stepping back into the closet, at least in terms of my gender identity and expression — and for nine years of wrestling with the tension between my queer gender identity and the masculinist norms and expectations of academe.

Sociology became a woman-dominated discipline — at least in terms of degrees awarded — before I ever became a sociology major in college. In 2012, women were close to half or more of the faculty in two-thirds of sociology graduate programs in America, representing huge growth over the previous decade. (I imagine this number is much lower for women sociologists at the associate and full professor levels. And gender equity may have stalled, or even reversed, with the overrepresentation of women among adjunct professors.) But in 2012, only 22 percent of graduate departments had more than one-quarter of their faculty specializing in the sociology of gender — and the same number making a genuine commitment to women scholars and the sociological study of gender.

In my own graduate training, I found even some of the faculty members who specialized in gender did not encourage research in this area. The discouragement seemed strongest for those planning to use qualitative methods (too “touchy-feely”), feminist and queer lenses (too “activisty”), and feminist or gender studies approaches (too interdisciplinary). Despite commendable representation of (cis)women in my department and the discipline more generally, I learned that many (men) sociologists appear to hate women and see masculinity as central to good scholarship.

In reading A. W. Strouse’s essay criticizing the inherent heterosexism and queerphobia of American graduate education, I finally realized that I am not alone in struggling with the white heteromasculinist under- and overtones of my graduate training. As Strouse aptly points out, professional (re)socialization of graduate school is centrally a task of eliminating passion, love, creativity and originality from would-be scholars’ lives — or at least presenting ourselves as detached, subdued, conforming — that is, “professional.”

In our writing, we were discouraged from “flowery,” verbose and creative prose, instead getting to the point concisely and speaking with unwavering authority. In fact, it is best to avoid writing in the first person at all costs so as to present arguments as taken-for-granted truths, rather than offered by an individual scholar. There is a reason why the feminist scholarly practice of being transparent about one’s social location never caught on in mainstream sociology; seemingly objective research is the highest form of inquiry, and everything else is suspect.

Masculinist authority was equally valued in how one presents one’s research in workshops, talks and conferences. As one grad school professor warned me, “none of this ‘shy guy’ stuff” — scholarly presentations were not actually spaces to present incomplete projects or uncertainty. (And don’t even think about attempting to shirk male privilege by rejecting an authoritative tone and presence!) Whatever it means to be a “shy guy” was seen as distracting at best, or antithetical to my scholarship at worse. I could not help but assume that this professor’s comment was a more polite way of telling me to “man up.” And, upon comparing notes with a cis gay man in the program, I learned that the professor had, indeed, a reputation for telling queer men students to “man up.” Perhaps I had been pegged as too sensitive for the harsher, more offensive version of this advice.

I have wrestled, more generally, with the demand to strip away all emotion. Well-meaning friends and colleagues have criticized me for becoming increasingly more angry as I present at conferences, that my own rage about oppression and the detriment it has on the health of oppressed individuals is inappropriate for an academic setting. I learned to stop pounding my fist on the podium, but I have not quite mastered the stiff upper lip. Showing emotion is weak; a true scholar would never be so personally invested in the plight of marginalized communities.

To my surprise, the devaluation of femininity is not limited to the erasure of feminine expressions in academics who were assigned male at birth. I have witnessed the policing of femininity in cisgender women academics, even those who are femme presenting.

For example, two weeks in a row in my Preparing Future Faculty course, the cis woman professor chastised cis women students for their “feminine” and “girly” behavior. I agree that beginning a presentation or conversation by apologizing in advance for subpar quality or ideas only serves to undermine what one has to say. But I found it quite troubling that a woman professor so openly, publicly and forcefully berated these women students for their feminine presentation of self, especially in a mixed-gender class. Perhaps a private conversation, wherein the professor could talk more at length about her concerns about the sexist ways in which women scholars are received in the academy, would have been better and less offensive. But, then again, this is the same professor who interrupted my own presentation to ask, “Oh, we haven’t beaten the activist out of you yet?” Clearly, academic training is about beating graduate students into submission and conformity.

I have heard women friends and colleagues note the related practice of rewarding masculinity in women in academe. Short hairstyles and masculine attire appeared to be much more common among my grad department’s most successful women faculty. The more assertive you could be, the better. The more you could do to reject your femaleness and femininity, the more successful you could be in the academy. Women who insisted on having children should calculate pregnancy just right so that they could “pop one out” during a break in the school year. I am often shocked by how openly academics and academic institutions attempt to regulate women scholars’ reproductive choices and sex lives. Some women academics are complicit, unapologetically giving advice to “keep your legs closed,” delay motherhood as long as possible or forgo it all together.

It has taken me three years post-Ph.D. to recognize the role my graduate education has played in stalling my gender journey. I entered the program beginning to embrace a genderqueer identity and reject the restrictive category of “man.” In a different life, I might be well on my way to rocking stylish, colorful outfits, being as fab as I want to be, or at least much more comfortable in my unique skin. But, in this life, I have to first recover from the damage of my graduate training to my sense of self.

I have only recently reclaimed a genderqueer identity, now finding “nonbinary” to better describe who I am as a gendered being. I have slowly dropped the suit and tie as a protective shield and begun to slowly come out publicly as kind of, sort of trans. Another path to my own liberation sadly entails rejecting the femmephobia, queerphobia and transphobia of the academy. Embracing an authentic gender identity and expression entails reconceptualizing what it means to be a scholar. (Why are the two intertwined in the first place!)

No advice to offer to others just yet — my apologies for that. But I hope that more of us will acknowledge, critique and resist the ways in which academe polices the gender presentation of scholars.

Fostering Trans Inclusion In The Classroom

Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed. Stacy Jane Grover is an able-bodied, sex-positive, queer intersectional feminist and a pansexual, nonbinary trans* person. She holds a B.A. in Chinese language and literature with a focus in folklore. She is a freelance writer and translator focusing on issues of gender and sexuality. She lives in Ohio with her partner and two cats.


As a college student, I never directly met another transgender or nonbinary student at my university — a major research institution with a student population of more than 40,000. I am sure that I may have seen some around the campus and in my classes. But none of my close trans and nonbinary friends and acquaintances are from my alma mater. I did not have the time to seek out extracurricular activities while juggling 15 to 18 credit hours each semester — at least not while also working a full-time job and engaging in independent research to prepare for graduate school.

I was a nontraditional student in many ways. I was a community college transfer student, lived off campus and commuted half of my time there. And there was the more visible fact that I was a nonbinary transgender student with no intention on hiding it. I also come from a working-class background. I grew up in the country, where the idea of college did not exist and gender variant visibility was unheard of. So it was disappointing that the experience that I thought would connect me with other trans and nonbinary folk turned out to do the opposite. Being so invested in course work and research meant that I was home by myself most of the time outside of class. I lost out on the opportunity to connect with the greater transgender and nonbinary community outside of campus. I was isolated.

Life on the campus as a nonbinary trans student was difficult, too. I felt frustrated with the general environment of exclusiveness on the campus, as well as the administration’s lack of services and engagement with the gender and sexually nonconforming population. I was even more frustrated when this exclusion, lack of support and silence permeated the classroom. I saw little material on gender nonconformity on my syllabi and had only a few instructors who maintained trans-inclusive classrooms. I felt invisible and was often chastised in classes for having “too narrow” a focus by including queerness and transness into all my class assignments.

Even if I had the time to be involved in LGBTQ life on campus, the university was not supportive and, at times, was hostile to queer and trans issues. I was forced to develop many strategies to cope with my instructors’ ignorance. It was distracting; I spent a great deal of time educating the people who were trained and paid to teach me about the basic issue of who I am as a person in this world.

This must change. No other trans and nonbinary college student should feel invisible, unsafe, silenced or ignored at their university.

Campus culture and student engagement are the largest issues and require the most attention. Thus, an important first step is for faculty members to strive to create inclusive classroom environments through specific pedagogical techniques. Working from the individual classroom to the curriculum and then to the larger culture will delineate a manageable path to inclusiveness — and ultimately address university-wide transphobia and cissexism. From my own experiences and a lot of trial and error, as well as through conversations with professors, I have formulated ideas for change that I will share with you in this essay.

Creating Inclusive Classrooms

To create inclusive classrooms, faculty members should first identify gaps in their knowledge about gender and become equipped with the necessary vocabulary and concepts. Knowing the difference between sex assigned at birth and gender identity, between gender identity and gender expression, and between sexual identity and gender identity (as well as the intersections between the two) is a good place to start. You can find a lot of great lists of vocabulary online.

Second, professors should take some time to learn about the plight of transgender and nonbinary folks. Being familiar with our historical and contemporary oppression allows you to better recognize the micro- and macroaggressions that we face, and therefore be better equipped to help protect us in the classroom.

After becoming familiar with the terminology and social aspects of transgender and nonbinary life, faculty members should then implement inclusive pedagogical practices. For the faculty members who are reading this, here are some suggestions:

  • Correct yourself when you have improperly gendered (or misgendered) someone, even if the misgendered person is not present.
  • Do not talk about a student’s gender identity unless they have given you their permission.
  • Do not ask inappropriate questions! I’ve been asked all sorts. “What is your ‘real’ name?” “So what do you have ‘down there’?” and “So are you gay?” are some of the questions I get asked most often. I’ve never heard such questions posed to cisgender folks. Asking questions like those trivializes trans issues, conflates gender identity with sexuality and ultimately further dehumanizes trans folk.
  • Offer your name and pronouns and include them in your email signature. Even as a cisgender person, offering your pronouns helps to create a welcoming, shame-free environment that normalizes gender inclusivity.

Make a sustained conscious effort to use nonbinary language and foster mutual respect.

Above all, a faculty member should set the tone of respect that a classroom must abide by and act as moderator of discussion and defender of civility and inclusion. It is imperative that professors defend marginalized students by recognizing microaggression, eradicating shame and creating spaces where their voices can be elevated.

In a future essay, I plan to provide tips for creating a trans/nonbinary-inclusive curriculum, paying particular attention to incorporating gender nonconforming voices without exoticizing or tokenizing individuals’ experiences.