18. A Comfortable Teaching Situation

Discussing Trans Issues in a Business Ethics Course

In a previous post I discussed my coming-out experiences with my classes on the first day of the Spring 2012 semester. In my business ethics course, a weekly three-hour night class, I decided to spend one week on gender equity issues (where we watched most of Miss Representation, which is a fantastic documentary), and the following week on transgender rights, which included issues like the “bathroom question.”

metamorphosis_teacher_question.png This is important to me for many reasons. First, I care about trans* rights. Trans* persons are some of the most disadvantaged persons in our society. An Ontario study by TransPulse has shown us a lot of important data. In their first released bulletin, we have some picture of the demographics of Ontario trans* persons.

A few points are salient. First, contrary to public understanding, FtM trans* persons are roughly equally as common as MtF trans* persons. There are lots of bad statistics used by otherwise respectable researchers suggesting that the ratio of MtF:FtM persons is 3:1 (earlier estimates were much higher). However, actual studies like TransPulse’s show a different story. Anecdotally, trans* forums tend to have more FtM members than MtF members. Is this represented in media coverage? Of course not. Other than Chaz Bono’s appearance on Dancing With The Stars, FtM trans persons are nearly invisible in media coverage, and the public’s understanding of trans* people.

Second, trans* persons are more educated than the national average. This replicates a finding in a massive European study, as well as a 2008 California study. (There are other studies showing these results in the UK; I’ll provide a link if I can find one.)

Third, even given that trans* people are more highly educated than the average population, they are far more likely to be woefully underemployed. In the 2008 California study, while 11.7% of working age people make less than $10,400, roughly 25% of trans* people make less than that annually. Moreover, while trans* people tend to be better educated than the average person, the average income with someone with a Bachelor’s degree is $50,000, while the average income for a trans* person with a Bachelor’s degree is $30,000: that’s 40% less!

So trans* people have it pretty rough, and this isn’t yet to discuss all the forms of discrimination and harassment, whether explicit or implicit, that trans* people face. I want people to know this, and it’s a privilege to be a professor, because I get lots of opportunities to discuss these topics. And while I want my students to understand the demographics of trans* people, I also want them to know that it’s not all bad: being trans* isn’t always hardship. For some of us, at least some of the time, things are pretty fantastic: we’re finally able to live an authentic life, and that’s pretty cool. So I want students to see some of the positive sides of being trans*, which means showing them that trans* people can be successful, contributing, and inspiring members of the community.

I wanted this to be a comfortable lecture for both me and my students. I also wanted to make it as inclusive of a class as I could, where students felt free to raise questions without the fear of others’ disapproval. I use a variety of forms of technology in my teaching. I typically lecture with something like PowerPoint (though not always), and I combine this with the use of Twitter and iClickers (a form of audience response system). The latter allows for anonymous voting (only I can see who voted for what, and that requires some labour by going into the grading software…which I never do).

My principal method of creating an inclusive class, though, was to distribute 3×5″ cards at the beginning of the lecture. I asked students to write, anonymously, any questions they have about trans* issues, which included me. I gave them a few minutes, then collected the cards and gave them a quick look-through to see what sorts of questions they had. I had planned to present some background information on sex (including intersex), gender (including gender identity, role, attribution, performance/expression, and so on), terminology (particularly around trans* issues), and the legal, social, and medical aspects of a gender transition.

I wanted to have at least an hour of “Q+A” time to deal with what was on the cards. I didn’t just randomly want to answer questions, though: I wanted to pick and choose to make points that I wanted to make anyway. So when sorting through them at the beginning of class, I realized that there were enough good, relevant questions to let me do what I had planned. So I started with the introductory lecture and moved to the cards (I finished by covering “the bathroom issue.”)

I have since classified the questions into, roughly, six categories:

  1. Questions about my sexual orientation.
  2. Questions about when I decided or knew that I’m trans* and what the motivation is for transitioning.
  3. Questions about questions about my friends, family, and partner.
  4. Questions questions about things like bathroom use and shopping.
  5. Questions about the medical and financial aspects of transitioning (this was the most common).
  6. Questions about the legal aspects of transitioning and social aspects like discrimination.

I covered the first in my preparatory lecture: gender identity and sexual orientation are separate. Trans* people can be gay, straight, bi, pansexual, asexual, and so on. This was not widely recognized within the health professional sphere for a long time. People like Ray Blanchard (who’s an otherwise horrible person viz. trans* issues) had long argued that all trans women are really gay males who can’t accept that they’re gay, so they transition to be sexually involved with men. This, of course, ignores the fact that gay males are attracted to men, not trans women: trans women are treated as women by gay males. Maybe this should have been a hint to Blanchard. He long ignored lesbian trans women. When the evidence became overwhelming, rather than change his tune, he introduced a new classification of trans women: those who are attracted to women are “autogynephilic”: they transition because they’re sexually aroused at the thought of themselves with a vagina. (And, of course, ALL of this conveniently ignores the existence of trans men.)

In discussing the second set of questions, this let me raise the “traditional trans narrative,” the one that most health professionals are looking to hear. In fact, not having the traditional narrative constitutes “red flags” for gatekeepers like psychologists and physicians: I had to educate my psychologist about this. People less educated, or who carry less privilege from having an education, are often at the mercy of ignorant health professionals questioning whether a patient is a “true transsexual.” I have a separate post to write on my proposed etiology of the narrative, but that’s for another time.

In short, the traditional narrative is that the trans person knew about hir trans status at an early age (usually 3 or 4), never enjoyed activities and hobbies typical for hir birth-assigned gender, is “straight” in that zie’s attracted to members of hir birth gender (e.g., someone on the MtF spectrum is attracted to men), and zie expresses the “trapped in the wrong body” trope.

I explained to my class that none of these apply to me. Interestingly, they didn’t form the inference about my sexual orientation. Later, when I explicitly said that I’m lesbian, there were lots of whispers, which tells me that they didn’t get the inference.

I inserted a lot of humour where I could.

When I came across the question, “Did you always know that you were different?” I said, “Yes. … I was smarter than everyone else.” [Laughter]

“Have you ever experienced any problems while shopping?” I said, “Yes. … Not having enough money!” [Laughter]

I wanted to keep things light-hearted as best I could. So I interspersed serious tellings with jokes like these.

Reading through the comments now, it’s interesting to see how many students struggled with how to word things. One, for example, wrote, “How/when did you decide you were a gir female? (my apologies if this question isn’t worded appropriately)” “Gir” was crossed out.

A friend of mine attended the lecture, and she overheard something funny before the lecture. I was wearing a nice polka dot dress, and a couple girls were wondering where I got it. They were debating whether it was appropriate for one to come up and ask me. Apparently one responded, “No, that’s totally inappropriate: she’s a professor!” Ha, that’s cute. I would’ve been glad to tell them where I got it.

This may have been the best question asked of me in my trans issues lecture, as it let me make some very important points:

“Why is it important for individuals to make public everything that pertains to transgender and homosexuals and gay rights, etc… Would it not be more productive to just get society to not concern themselves with what people do in their private lives? i.e. ‘What you do in the comfort of your home is your business.'”

Want to guess what I said in response?

In short, 1. Gender identity is NOT private: one can’t just do it in one’s bedroom. 2. Cis people get to “do” their gender publicly, so why can’t trans? Also, hetero people get to “flaunt” their sexuality, so why can’t LGBQ? 3. It has to be public because LGBT people are discriminated against: in order to gain human rights, we have to make it public.

It let me make nice points about privilege and why it’s so important. Moreover, fighting for the human rights of the disadvantaged helps EVERYONE. It’s not zero sum: the powerful don’t actually lose (except the ability to discriminate!) anything.

And so it was a wonderful lecture. One student anonymously wrote a note thanking me for the wonderful lecture. A few students came up to me afterwards to thank me; one even did so in the plaza near the university — where I went to get dinner after class — while driving by in his car (he stopped to say so: it wasn’t a drive-by, haha). A few more sent emails expressing the same thanks, and a couple other students came up to me in subsequent lectures.

One was particularly touching: he told me that he came from a religious, close-minded family, and he was very thankful for having the opportunity to be confronted with new views and experiences. He told me that he’s grown a lot as a person because of this. This is another big reason that I talk about these issues in my classes when I get the chance: this is EXACTLY what university is for. I was worried that some students would react very negatively to my teaching such a personal subject, and one that I care about; I was worried that they’d think that I have an agenda. Well, I do have an agenda, but so what? I’m presenting alternative views and new experiences: students can take them or leave them.

We’ll see what the course evaluations look like. I tried to preempt that worry by explicitly discussing it, and my reasons for covering these topics.

Yours truly,