…About One’s Lived Experience as a Trans* Academic?
A recent email exchange with a colleague prompted this question. I’ve been writing this blog for a little under a year now (just shy of 11 months, actually). I was prompted to start the blog by a collague’s blog post that included a short wishlist of blogs that she wished people would write. This blog was on that list. I’d heard the suggestion to start a blog about my experiences about transitioning, and life as a trans* woman academic, before, but that blog post was the final impetus to my starting metamorpho-sis.
It’s a semi-anonymous blog: roughly half of my 100 or so regular readers know who I am, but people outside of that circle will find it essentially impossible to identify me *or* anyone I write about, since I never name names of friends, family, or colleagues. But what’s fair game for writing about in a blog like this? Part of writing about my lived experience, and what it’s like both transitioning and then simply living as a trans* woman academic, is writing about the awful shit that people do to me, about me, or around me. I’m sorry, but that occupies a lot of my time, and my mental and emotional energy. I know that some might hope that I would want to write about all the new and shiny experiences I’m having: but it’s not all cupcakes and sprinkles, dear reader.
I received an email from a colleague recently that insinuated that they don’t want to discuss something with me because they fear that it may make its way into the blog. Well of course anything they say, if it’s good or bad, may make its way into the blog: that’s what this blog is about, at least in part. In a move of irony (i.e., my posting it), here’s what they wrote: “However, I do not feel comfortable having a conversation like this by email and risk having it migrate into the blogosphere.”
OK, except that this email exchange is coming on the heels of my “unfavourably” describing their behaviour — anonymized! — in some recent, troubling events. However, I always anonymize details — to a point — and I never name names. There’s some debate in the feminist sphere about the benefits and ethics of public shaming: maybe it’s time to start naming names. Here’s an example of a story and thread on a blog that I participate in, and follow quite closely. I don’t have well-developed thoughts on the matter, but I’ve defaulted to lightly anonymizing details and removing all names. In some cases, I even use gender neutral pronouns as a way of accomplishing both, as I did in this case.
But this is *never* enough for the people about whom I’m writing. They tend to think that it’s a betrayal, at least of confidentiality, for me to air the dirty laundry. They read the post, know that it’s about them, and then reason that other people clearly know that it’s about them, too. Therefore, I’ve done something wrong in writing the post.
Putting aside what I take to be a false conclusion, the inference is usually false. At best, a small handful of people will know it’s about that particular person. That’s very rare, though. More likely, a small handful of people may make an educated guess — though with considerable uncertainty — about who the post is about. But in nearly every case, the discussion is sufficiently anonymized. Just because you, dear reader, may recognize yourself in a story or post, it’s very unlikely that anyone else realizes it’s you.
Get over it.
But here’s the thing: there’s something more subtle in that email statement, isn’t there? It seems that this person is saying that since I’m liable to post about bad behaviour either in deed, email, or conversation towards me, then this person may simply choose to stop engaging with me about anything substantive, for fear that I’ll report on it (albeit anonymously). Does that seem fair? Moreover, does that seem fair from someone I know is very glad that I’m writing this blog? I suppose that they’re fine when I’m writing about my bad experiences, when it’s not someone they know personally or professionally, but apparently something shifts when it’s about them, or about someone they know personally or, especially, professionally.
Maybe they’re insinuating that it’s unprofessional for me to write about these events. Or, at least, that I should be surprised if people stop wanting to interact with me, for fear of my writing about their bad behaviour.
Isn’t that odd? They’re not worried about having done something really horrible — they’re never apologizing to me about it, by the way. Rather, they’re just worried that I might write about it (anonymously, no less!). What the fuck? Something bad happens to or towards me, I write about it (anonymized), and that means that *I’m* the one who has done something wrong?
I’m sorry, but that’s pretty fucked up.
If I’m burning bridges, maybe you should ask yourself who really lit the match.
Postscript: I was discussing this with a feminist friend and colleague of mine, and we were discussing the topic of this post. Here’s what she had to say about people having negative reactions about my posting about them (even anonymously):
I can understand that. I’ve occasionally seen posts about me, or that I thought might be about me but wasn’t sure (because I resembled that remark!), and resented that I was not told to my face and left to find out about the problem with my behavior via watching other people talk about it. Some of whom knew who I really was.
BUT that is separate from whether the criticism is justified, and whether the criticizer might have justifiably felt they couldn’t do it to my face. And I think most people can’t see them as separate.
It takes awhile to develop enough humility to see something like that and say “yeah, that was a shitty thing to do. And I’m glad I realize that, even this way.”
I think she’s entirely right: people seem to forget that my occupying the sociopolitical position that I do means that I don’t have much social capital with which to engage these people face-to-face and confront them about how they’ve wronged me. Moreover, I often have to fear reprisal. So sometimes I write these posts months after the fact, when any reprisal will be minimized by my having gained more social capital. In this case, I’m no longer a member of that department, so I can finally air a grievance I’ve had to keep relatively silent on for over 4 months.
I’m sorry if you’d rather I confront you to your face, but put aside your privilege, maybe, and understand why I often can’t.