27. Questions and Answers, Part 1

Another Round of Student Questions

This term, one of the courses that I'm teaching is an introduction to ethics, both theory and issues. I spent the first 1/4 to 1/3 of the course teaching the ins and outs of various central theories, and how to apply them to real-life cases like euthanasia, abortion, crime and punishment, and a variety of others. There are a few real-life issues, though, that I include in this course because they're both important, and important to me. I teach gender equity issues in academe and transgender issues. Regarding the latter, I take up gender identity, the bathroom/change room issue, and trans athletes. Now, one might think that I'm only doing this because they're important to me, but understanding how human rights work in the difficult cases allows us to see how they work more generally.

metamorphosis_questions.pngThis is the second time that I've taught these modules, but the first time teaching this specific course. Previously, I taught these topics in 6hrs of instruction (two nights on subsequent weeks) in a business ethics course. They went over well, generally. The majority thanked me for some riveting lectures, and a few even did so personally. A small minority, though, lashed back in their end-of-term reviews. Now, I've noted in a previous post that my course evaluations from that term were the highest ever, and highest even for that business ethics course, which was the third time I had taught it.

This term, I gave two lectures on gender equality. The first covered a lot of data on women in academe, both as students and faculty. I discussed how there's a gross underrepresentation of women generally, and in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) disciplines specifically. I should note that Philosophy is right near the top of the heap for gross underrepresentation of women. Then I presented some of my recent work on stereotype threat and attributional ambiguity, including how it can partly explain the previous lecture's data.

Then I gave two lectures on gender identity. I explained the difference between gender and sex and how it's all very, very complicated. The old, "Gender is in your mind, sex is in the body" is just false and misleading. I also explained how there's no such thing as "male" and "female" as discrete categories in nature: there's variability along every dimension of 'sex.' I also lectured on the many different aspects of gender that often get conflated, including an extended discussion of gender attribution (how we assign labels to people when we see them), along with a fun visual experiment. I'll do a separate post on this later, I think.

Then I have three lectures on transgender issues. First, I do a Q+A lecture where I have them write down their questions anonymously on 3×5" cards. I collect them and then go through them, putting aside all medical/surgery questions. That's so that, at the end, I can explain how they're inappropriate: "Would you go up to a woman you just met and ask, 'Hi, have you had a hysterectomy?'" or "Would you go up to a man you just met and ask, 'Hi, do you suffer from erectile dysfunction? Do you take Viagra?'" No, of course not, and nor should we ask trans people about their surgeries or medical procedures. Curiosity is no excuse.

Then I lecture on the bathroom issue, and on trans athletes. This post is about some of the questions I received, and how I answered. At this point, I welcome reader questions in the comments, or email. I'll do a series of these posts in the coming weeks.

1. Have you ever been picked on or insulted by students or colleagues for being transgender?

Short answer, "No, not to my face, at least." I have received a hate-text, I suspect from a student who left offensive written responses to the end-of-term course evaluation last term. I had to have a transphobic comment removed on my old Ratemyprofessor.com profile. I've received a hate email from some random guy in the USA based on one of my Chronicle of Higher Education articles earlier in the year.

I have definitely lost male privilege, though. I get treated like every other woman by students and colleagues. Students challenge me more, and even gang up on me to try to get their way (they never do, though), and I've started noticing how I get talked over or ignored in ways that never used to happen. It's been interesting.

2. How does your relationship with your girlfriend work? Is she a lesbian? Straight?

They're not assuming that I have a girlfriend because I used to be male and they're assuming a position of heteronormativity: I've told them that I have a girlfriend, and indeed that I'm lesbian. I even told them my views on the connection between gender identity and sexual orientation that no one seems to talk about. The student is really more concerned with the follow-up clarifications: does my girlfriend consider herself straight or lesbian? Well, it's the latter. She only sees me as a woman, and (although I sometimes find it hard to believe) often flat-out forgets that I'm trans. So when trans-related stuff pops up, she often goes, "Oh riiiight…you're trans."

3. Does being trans cause any religious problems?

No, I'm agnostic: I think that it's neither epistemically justified to believe in one of the options, nor to believe that any of the options are false (there are some qualifications on this latter part, though). So it hasn't caused any problems, because I don't have any beliefs on which it would bear.

4. Did you want to be female or transgender? Did you want to deny the fact you were what you were?

The tense of this question is interesting, but I'll ignore that. It's a good question. Starting in about the 1950's, trans people (women, mostly) were told to quit their jobs, change their name, cut all family and friends ties, and move cities. They were told to go "stealth" and never admit to being trans, for fear of discrimination. Pretty terrible advice. The thing is that it's still around, though it's not the 'official' advice from all doctors anymore (some still do!). It's around mostly because the people who have the power in the trans community advocate being stealth: they're the ones who argue for people who are "true transsexuals." True transsexuals don't admit to being trans, they only consider themselves women, not trans women. Since I've publicly written and owned being trans, they wouldn't consider me a "true transsexual," but that's stupid.

Look, I consider myself a woman. In all the ways that matter, I am. But does that therefore mean that I'm not trans? No, of course not! It's an apt description: I was born male-assigned at birth, and I transitioned. I don't run from that. However, I do want people to view me as a woman first…and possibly never trans.

5. Do you want to have kids?

Noooooooo! (They got a laugh out of that.) I have maternal instincts, sure, but I know that what I find cute in kids only represents about 1/8 of 1% of their existence. I can't handle the rest. I have a dog, and I'd like another. That's enough of an outlet for me. As I write this, he's curled up quietly (that's the key) next to me on the couch.

6. When did you officially make the transition?

Tough to answer because it's hard to pick a point where one officially transitions. I decided to transition in January 2012 and began taking steps such as seeking counselling. I made a plan to go "full time" in December 2012. I wanted to pick a period of time that was between semesters. August felt too soon, and April WAY too soon. I started building my wardrobe, first focusing on women's clothes that were slightly more feminine than my current dress (at that time), which means that I moved towards the androgynous part of the spectrum. I even started painting my nails around February/March. And as I moved along, and started coming out to people, I realized that I couldn't wait until December. I moved the plan up to August. Throughout March, though, I knew that even August was too far away. I moved the plan up again to just after my PhD defense March 30th.

The letter to all of my friends/family who didn't yet know was April 1st (April Fool's Day…yeah, brilliant "planning" I know), and all of my colleagues April 3rd. I was consistently moving away from the androgynous part of the spectrum to feminine presentation and expression. It's hard to say when I was consistently always presenting as a female: I didn't wear makeup or breastforms everyday, but in May, I started coming to work with a "full" presentation on non-teaching days. At the end of May, we had our big national conference. I picked that as my "100% full time" moment, and I haven't looked back. So it's hard to say! There are lots of different ones we could pick. The latest possible would be roughly May 29, though. I choose April 1.

OK, that's a good start. There are many more.

Until next time,