presenting and outing myself in academia

At this year’s AAG annual meeting, I finally decided that my both my general exam and my dissertation will be oriented in a trans direction. For a while, I was perhaps worried that I was embarking down the road to typecasting myself as the trans scholar doing trans research. I’m not sure why I was worried, actually, since if there is a place in academia for me after this is done, I should be able to chart most any course I want. In the meantime, I need to focus on a manageable and engaging topic. And, really, the greater concerns are

  • a) that cis researchers, if even mindful of them, approach trans lives poorly,
  • b) work that affects the perception and experience of trans everyday lives should be done by trans academics,
  • c) meaningful research needs to be connected to meaningful everyday practice,
  • d) better that somebody who is trans does it,
  • e) maybe I should be one person who does it.

It was also in no small part that Rae Rosenberg’s AAG presentation, “Expression Repression: Experiences of Incarceration by Trans* Feminine Spectrum Individuals in U.S. Prisons”, swayed me. Rae’s abstract does not do his presentation justice. The thing about his work is that it could have dwelled entirely on the soul-crushing reality of trans women in prisons, which comprised the first half. What made the presentation, in the second half, amazing was Rae’s direct amplification of the words and hopeful practices of resistance and survival enacted by incarcerated trans women.

(I should not have to remind anyone but given the popularity of Laverne Cox’s character, Sophia Burset, in a women’s prison in Orange is the New Black, most trans women are sent to men’s prisons.)

In any case, given the relatively small amount of work being done on trans-related topics anyway, talking about my research focus potentially outs me over and over again. Although I’m generally read as a woman 99% of the time these days (it seems), my internalized sense of self-doubt can’t help but think that I am fairly “visibly and audibly trans”. Especially when I mention transgenderstuff, I can’t help but think that this causes people to start second guessing my status, only because nobody talks about trans people other than trans people (cuz there are only 34 of us in the world). I have no qualms about this; however, I still can’t shake the feeling that this turns me into “a woman with an asterisk”.

With this in mind–with this always in mind–I spoke to a class of senior undergraduates the other day. I had been invited to speak to them about being flexible and thoughtful while doing qualitative and/or field research. Of course, I don’t mention my status unnecessarily because there’s no need to do it if it has no bearing on anything. Such was the case here, though I knew of the potential. I even relayed a research story–which at the time had everything to do with my pre-transition genderqueer expression–without disclosing being trans. Sometimes it’s really refreshing to not talk transtranstranstrans. It was a great visit, the students were thoroughly engaged, and we had a great discussion. It was the way that a 15-ish-person seminar class should ideally be. It made me very happy.

I’ve made presentations since transition, so I feel completely confident speaking, participating, and engaging in this type of discussion as a woman. The same confidence pre-transition seems to have carried over without a blip. Although I’m still shaky about the sound of my voice, the imagined ridiculous scenario of people laughing me out of the room has not happened.

I never go out of my way to overly “femme myself up”, either, for things like this. Rather, I just present myself the femme way that I do every other day. Yet, for this class–I had no idea why, actually, except that it was a bit of a whim–I wanted to make sure that I was visibly boob-ly, though certainly not to any inappropriate level, of course. I have realized over the last 18 months of HRT that my boobs are among the most prominent visual markers of my physical feminine expression. Consciously, I accentuate them (and my décolletage) more than anything else. Maybe I had some ridiculous, preconceived notion of how I was going to be perceived by undergrads. Or maybe I wanted to feel myself as casually but visually femme as possible in my first speaking engagement with undergrads. Whatever. I choose a simple, purple scoop-neck top.

I’ve always been animated, even described as “theatrical”, in my talks and presentations. This time, though, I sat at the big table with everybody else instead of standing and walking around like I usually do. I’ve been getting to like this mode just as much as the Energizer bunny standing and moving mode. Either way, I’ve found that I can command and work a room with aplomb. Additionally, there is something about the way I carry myself as a woman that is personally amazing, fulfilling, and affirming these days. Perhaps my overt choice of clothing, then, was just a way to make sure that I definitely felt that. Vain? I don’t know; I don’t care. Maybe it was a security blanket consisting ironically of bared décolletage.

And I did feel it, completely, that I owned that room as a woman and scholar. It was a great class, reminding me that I loved working with this age group of students. I gained a bunch of confidence speaking post-transition in front of undergrads. I also gained a bunch of confidence in running a seminar-style discussion, as my department’s general lack of such teaching opportunities has prevented me from feeling capable of doing this. All in all, this was an amazing hour for many reasons. Not the least among these was a complete aside: others’ constant reference to me in the feminine by name and especially by pronouns, all in a context that had absolutely nothing to do with me being either a woman or trans. It was mundanely beautiful. Years of male references, which were always little barbs in my brain, have melted away entirely. I cannot overstate how amazing and joyful this feels to me.

At the very end, though, came the potentially outing moment. By way of wrap-up, the instructor asked me to talk about my current research in one sentence. I managed to squawk out:

Transgender political reality and the ways by which transgender people carve out their own niches and offer mutual aid, outside of the dominant social structures.

Not bad for improv, especially since I cannot say anything in one sentence these days. It’s a good exercise for developing the elevator-ride description of what you do. After some thought, I would only change it slightly:

Transgender political autonomy and the ways by which transgender people carve out their own realities and offer mutual aid, outside of the dominant social structures.

Anyway, it’s the mention of transgenderbusiness that potentially causes people to wonder about my status. And I’m pretty OK with that, with indirectly outing myself, with outing myself incidentally after my general, having-nothing-to-do-with-trans awesomeness has already been established and demonstrated. It’s in situations like these when a compelling case can be made for disclosing status at some time for the important reason that students need to see successful trans people doing things that have nothing to do with them being trans. With it just being a thing without being a thing.

…a little intellectual Molotov cocktail, thrown at the very end, serving as an implied “by the way…” But the mic is dropped before this can overshadow the schooling that had just preceded it.

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