n. the pervasive and systemic belief in male/masculine and female/feminine as the only true, natural and correct gender identities and expressions

gender normativity n. the privileged state lived - whether momentarily or perpetually - by those whose genders perceptibly 'fit' with locally-derived and understood expressions of masculinity (for men) and femininity (for women)

gender non-normativity n. the oppressed state lived - whether momentarily or perpetually - by those whose genders do not perceptibly fit, as above

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Teaching on 'trans' without tokenism in the university classroom

These are notes from a panel presentation I gave last fall for university faculty and instructors that was organized by the McGill Centre for Research and Teaching on Women.

I have a lot to say about how we should teach on gender. My research in teacher education informs my pedagogical practice as a gender non-normative person who leads tutorials in women's studies, lectures in teacher education courses, and facilitates workshops on gender and sexuality issues. In my experience, a great deal of anxiety is generated by the constructivist insistence that gender is socially constructed; in fact, I often find that students interpret this as an assertion that their genders – and, by extension, their very lives – are not real. By the same token, constructivist pedagogies of gender tend to take as a starting point trans and intersex lives as ‘teachable exemplars’ of gender ‘gone wrong’. These lives are often objectified and Othered in such a way so as to preclude the possibility that students might be driven to consider their own positionality in relation to gender normativity. Given that gender is a palpable and thick experiential category, I have found it useful to abandon the discourse of constructivism when teaching on gender. Borrowing from my involvement in anti-racist spaces and actions, I am interested in further developing a repertoire of pedagogical tools and techniques for implementing the intersectional concept of genderism and gender non/normativity in teacher education. I continue to seek out opportunities to engage in conversations on how to develop and deliver integrated and multifaceted pedagogies of anti-oppression wherein genderism is but one component of a total approach to reckoning with power dynamics in the classroom.

These notes spell out my concerns with regard to tokenistic constructivist teaching 'on' trans lives and trans issues in greater detail. Any/all comments welcome!


On the Others of sex and gender: Teaching without tokenism

TITLE – The title comments on a trend that I see and does not name trans people as Others because of their trans-ness; there are many other aspects to trans peoples’ lives. It refers instead to the process of other-ing that takes place when trans people are imported into an academic context.

It is pivotal to ask yourself why you are choosing to include these issues in your class: "Why am I discussing trans people?" Sub-questions include:

Is it because I want to better understand the issues they face?

Am I being specific to a particular time and place or am I generalizing?

Am I placing lives lived in their context (i.e., class, race, geography, etc.)?

OR is it because I want to use an example to demonstrate a theory? Is it because I am using an intriguing, shocking or otherwise gripping example to pique the interest of my students?

Namaste reminds us that discussions of trans people particularly in women's studies classrooms are often used to broach the time honored question of identity categories and belonging with no consideration of intersections with race/class nor the material realities of those lives.

TWO THINGS TO KEEP IN MIND – Extreme and Spectacle

EXTREME - I often hear trans people brought up as extreme examples of nonconformity with gender norms. If we imagine that the average transman or transwoman identifies firmly as male and female respectively, then naming people who are living gender normative lives as examples of gender non-conformity places them firmly in the context they have left behind, namely, their sex of rearing. To do so ignores the lived reality of trans people, many of whom do not identify as transgressively outside of the sex/gender binary. But it seems as though when discussing gender as a social construction we require the existence of people who we can name as having experienced gender as being wrong, as though the wrongness exposes the social construction. Just as Mohanty and other postcolonial feminist theorists have reminded us, the language we construct our others shows us more about ourselves than anyone else. In the case of constructivism and trans people, if we can go to trans lives in order to talk about the social construction of gender we can allay student fears that their own genders are somehow not real. This is dishonest to our students and disrespectful to trans people.

This process of making trans people strange, freakish or outlandish only serves to create barriers between the gender theory students study in their own self understanding as gendered subjects. I believe this makes for very poor pedagogy, in addition to being transphobic and just plain inappropriate. Not only does this create trans lives as spectacle for non-trans people to take in from the comfort of their own seemingly solid gender identities, but it effectively disallows students from theorizing their gender. As such, when I must teach about trans politics or bring up trans lives in a lecture or workshop, I take a cue from postcolonial theory and do my very best to reverse their relationship of center and periphery, instead making normative gender expressions and identities the material under study.

SPECTACLE - In addition to the inappropriateness of rolling out trans lives as teachable examples of exactly what gender does when it goes wrong (as if to imply that it goes right for anyone), teaching about trans people as arm's-length exemplars of an otherwise abstract notion allows the discursive treatment of trans people as specimens. This allows the hyper surveillance of trans people's bodies so evident in the mass media to infiltrate the classroom. Trans activists have asked that when discussing trans people's lives in an academic context, we use our considerable capital and time (both of which are often not so considerable in the lives of trans people, particularly male to female transsexuals) to investigate the barriers faced by trans people in institutions and in securing the necessities of daily life. Unfortunately, most of the time we tend to give in to student curiosity fueled by the media; they want to know about surgery. This focus on the bodies and genitals of trans people often governs their access to the media. For example, well-known transgender antipoverty activist and lawyer Dean Spade recalls the following on his (old) blog:

“For the last month this guy from the major legal newspaper of Southern California has been working on a profile about me and my work at UCLA that keeps not being run by the paper. He told me the editor he works under refuses to run the story unless it includes whether or not I’ve had “the surgery.” I have told him I will not reveal my genital status to the readers of this paper, and that I don’t think any of the other lawyers and law scholars who get profiled do so, so I don’t see why its necessary to my profile. The reporter was understanding, and kept re-editing the piece, trying to make the editor satisfied without describing my privates.”

In the end the piece never ran. My pedagogy with respect to teaching on trans issues is grounded by the insistence that I will not discuss the status of anyone's genitalia prior to considering their identity and material conditions. This is a privilege afforded to non-trans people, and I do my best to afford this privilege to trans people when I lecture.


I’d like to encourage you to ask yourselves the why question, and if you can, choose other examples or encourage students to scrutinize themselves.

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