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.