Trans Experience in Philosophy

by Perry Zurn

In our contemporary moment, there is a clash between the increased political and cultural legibility of trans people (signaled by the visibility of people such as Laverne Cox, Caitlyn Jenner, Chelsea Manning, Cece McDonald, and Janet Mock) and its backlash in a relentless series of anti-trans legislation (perhaps most infamous being recent “bathroom bills”). As such, trans* people today stand in the cross-hairs of visibility and vulnerability. This moment coincides with the legitimation of trans studies as an academic field—with the publication of the Transgender Studies Reader 1 & 2 (2006 and 2013), the inauguration of Transgender Studies Quarterly (2014), and the ongoing development of the first trans studies program, directed by Susan Stryker at the University of Arizona. Much like in the wider culture, however, support policies do not match this academic visibility. In particular, diversity initiatives in higher education (including programs, fellowships, professional development opportunities, and outreach strategies) by and large do not target trans students or junior faculty. At this point, it is incumbent to ask: what is the state and status of trans philosophers in the profession? Are there even trans people in philosophy? If so, what are their struggles? Where are their voices? What does it mean to be doing philosophy as a trans person and/or to be doing trans philosophy? And how can the discipline of philosophy (and the university generally) be responsive to this moment?

This past spring, Megan Burke (with the support of a Hypatia Diversity Project Grant) led a team of organizers in planning the Trans Experience in Philosophy conference. This was the first philosophy conference in the US devoted to trans issues and peopled predominantly by trans presenters and attendees. What makes an event like this possible? How do trans and gender non-conforming people get to the university, to an academic position within the university, and specifically to a position in philosophy? I suspect no one would say it’s been easy.

Many forces conspire to keep trans people from the university. According to the National Center for Transgender Equality’s most recent survey, 57% of trans people experience significant family rejection. Without family support, they report significantly higher rates of drug and alcohol use, homelessness, incarceration, and attempted suicide. When they enter grade school, 78% report being harassed, 35% physically assaulted, and 12% sexually assaulted. Roughly 15% drop out of school. Once out, 90% report experiencing harassment, mistreatment, or discrimination in their place of work; 26% report losing their job because of their gender identity. 53% report everyday harassment in public accommodations (stores, hotels, restaurants, taxis, hospitals, airplanes, shelters, crisis centers, and legal services).

Trans people who, against these odds, do matriculate into the university and aspire to the academic profession experience a continuity of discrimination. For them—as Erich Pitcher demonstrates in his full-length study of trans experience in the academic workplace (the first of its kind)—the university is quite often a place of isolation, alienation, precarity, and silence. Trans academics experience a breadth of micro and macro aggressions, which I can only gesture toward here. They are often denied necessary healthcare and lack access to public accommodations on campus. They are misgendered, misnamed, or slurred in professional settings. They go consciously unacknowledged and disrespected because they are not seen as ‘trans enough.’ They receive hate mail in their mailbox, on social media, or in student evaluations. They feel either expected or forbidden to write and/or teach about trans experience. And many have to choose between surviving in the profession through publishing and making the profession survivable through service. Finally, trans academics often have been or will be denied jobs because of their gender identity or expression.

Philosophy remains one of the least diverse disciplines in the university (although this is improving; thanks to grassroots and recent APA efforts). As such, the mentoring strategies relevant to gender non-conforming people are, by and large, undervalued and under-cultivated. In some cases, ‘gender parity’ initiatives can work against them. And, given the effects of intersectionality, trans women of color are particularly underrepresented in philosophy (and in academia more generally). As a result, philosophy loses some of the wealth of insight and acumen possible with a more diverse body of thinkers.

The Trans Experience in Philosophy conference was a celebration of trans scholarship and community, within and beyond philosophy. Speakers included undergraduates, graduate students, adjuncts, tenure track and tenured professors, as well as activists and artists. In this diverse setting, papers ranged across metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, and politics. Papers engaged conversations in feminist, queer, trans, critical race, and disability theory, critical prison studies and critical animal studies, and literature. And they addressed topics germane but not restricted to trans experience: e.g. pronouns, hormones, surgery, dysphoria, pain, privilege, intersectionality, visibility, vulnerability, care, temporality, and activism. All in all, the speakers worked in two directions: using philosophy to illuminate trans experience and using trans experience to challenge philosophy. This involved holding the field accountable to specific lives, as well as tackling the large scale social problems facing all of us today.

Looking forward, I want to take a moment to highlight some of the fantastic projects in which trans philosophers are engaged. Talia Bettcher, who has published widely in trans studies and feminist philosophy, is currently completing a monograph on trans feminism and the structures of personhood. Rachel McKinnon, author of Norms of Assertion, has written high impact articles on stereotype threat, gaslighting, and the limits of ally culture. Loren Cannon, whose work traverses ethics and social theory, just published a piece in Hypatia that explores a remarkable consonance between, as he titles it, “Firestonian Futures and Trans-Affirming Presents.” Working in the field of social ontology, Robin Dembroff recently published a critical essay on the nature of sexual orientation (and they continue to champion a genderqueer academic aesthetic). Finally, C. Riley Snorton is completing a book in which he traces a genealogy of black trans life in the 19th and 20th centuries, foregrounding the transitivity and transversality of blackness and transness in the founding of American gynecology, African American modernist literature, and the media narratives of Christine Jorgenson and Brandon Teena. The future of trans philosophy lies in doing, as much as in engaging with, work like this. It requires building new philosophical conversations.

In that spirit, what can be done to support trans life in academic philosophy? As trans people continue to build networks, mentoring relationships, friendships, and communities in philosophy and beyond, its important that those with privileged identities recognize the differential effects of power and make meaningful coalitions across marginalized identities. To supplement this work, university administrators need to implement trans-affirming policies. In turn, allies or accomplices need to continue the work of building gender-inclusive academic spaces, while at the same time richly engaging with trans peoples’ scholarship. Overall, it is crucial that trans people not be reduced to their trans identities or transitions (medical or otherwise).** Like other “diverse practitioners,” trans people are not a consumer commodity. They are co-creators of knowledge and conceptual insight.

This is a fledgling community. Its increasing visibility demands correlative support. And with that support comes the risk (and the promise) of revitalizing philosophy as well as the university.

 

 *By trans people, I refer to a broad array of people who move away from the gender they were assigned at birth. This includes transwomen, transmen, transfemmes, transbois, as well as people who identify as gender non-conforming, genderqueer, non-binary, and/or agender.

** By transition, I mean a variety of movements away from the norms associated with the gender one was assigned at birth. These may include hormonal and morphological norms, as well as social, linguistic, kinesthetic, relational, and otherwise performative norms.

Perry Zurn is a postdoctoral fellow in the Center for Curiosity at the University of Pennsylvania.

One thought on “Trans Experience in Philosophy

Comments are closed.