51. Asking the Right People About Climate for Trans* People

If You Want to Know if A Department is Friendly to Trans* Students,
Ask Trans* Students

A recent thread on the fantastic blog, Feminist Philosophers, asks for people to weigh in about what a prospective trans* PhD student can do about her situation in applying to grad programs, and there are also questions about general climate for trans* people. Some people suggested, for example, that she write some current grad students or faculty and ask them about the climate for trans* people. In this post, I want to say what I think about asking about climate.

testimony.pngThis post is really about feminist epistemology. Who we ask matters for what sort of information they can give us. Frankly, I don't think there's much use asking cis faculty members about the climate for trans* students. They simply aren't in a position to know, or to give reliable information. They might think it's a great climate, but they've never had a trans* student. This person probably has never themselves had significant interactions with trans* people, and even if they have, that's just one faculty member: department climate involves the whole faculty, the staff, the graduate students, and the wider university atmosphere. So this person would have to know about all of that in order to have a chance at providing reliable information (i.e., testimony) to the person asking.

More importantly, though, a cis faculty member is just the wrong person to ask. Let's say that their department recently had (their first) trans* grad student–a successful grad student, but one who transitioned late in her studies and was only there out as a trans* person for barely a year. Let's say that from the faculty member's perspective, the transition was pretty smooth and there wasn't any outright harassment or discrimination. So it looks like the department was very respectful and accommodating.

But while all that the faculty saw may lend to this interpretation, it may have appeared very different from the trans* student's perspective. Maybe she noticed a large number of micro and macro inequities. Maybe she experienced lots of microaggressions like mispronouning and misnaming for months after her transition (where most faculty took over three months to start reliably getting things right, and there was still some mispronouning a year later–sound familiar?). Maybe she received some hate text messages and email from people she suspected were students; maybe some students mispronouned her or claimed that she was too "in your face" with her "sexuality" (by which they merely meant her being trans* and teaching some material about trans* issues). Most of these may not have come to the faculty member's attention, so given her position (as a cis faculty member), she's not in a good enough epistemic standing to be a reliable source of information on department climate for a trans* student.

So don't ask cis faculty members. And for similar reasons, don't ask cis people in general. While I'm not a strong standpoint epistemologist, I think that it sufficiently applies here: in order to get reliable information about department climate for trans* people, one has to ask trans* students. While trans* students won't be 100% reliable, they're generally the best positioned people to answer the question reliably. (They're not fully reliable, general testimony and epistemology issues aside, because they might have had forms of intersectional privilege that made their time in the department easier than trans* people with more oppressed intersectional identities might have.)

One might think that, surely, one could reliably ask a trans* professor, right? No, I don't think so. People, especially faculty, staff, students, etc. are going to afford professors more default respect and consideration than they will afford to students. So a trans* prof is likely to be more respected than a trans* student, and thus the prof is likely to be treated better. So while they can likely give better information than a cis prof, I think that the best information will come from a trans* student. While I flat-out wouldn't rely a cis person's assertion that the department is a good climate for trans* students, I would at least slightly rely on a trans* faculty member's judgment.

One commenter on the FemPhil post raised an important point: we also have to watch out for what it might have taken for a trans* student or faculty member to become part of the "in group" that might have produced their positive views of a particular climate. It's certainly the case in trans* communities that there are strong divisions and lots of in-fighting. And too many support groups are controlled by trans* people who think that there's only one way to be trans*, and they protect important information (like resources on who are good doctors and so on) from those who don't conform. So one might gain in-group status only by, for example, also excluding those who don't fit the mould. The same might be true of some trans* students or profs such that they may have had to adopt a sort of hegemony in order to gain in-group status, such that a requirement of this hegemony is to turn around and oppress out-group members (which might include other trans* people). I don't know how likely any of this is, but it should at least be a consideration.

With all this said, though, I think we can trust anyone's testimony on a bad climate. Anyone can reliably testify that somewhere is a particularly bad place for trans* people.

So if someone other than a trans* student says that a department is a good climate for trans* people, I wouldn't put much stock in what they say (although I'd put more in a trans* faculty member's than anyone else's). And if anyone says that a department is a bad climate for trans* people, I'd put stock in that. People who aren't trans* students can reliably testify to the latter, but not the former. Of course, one very unfortunate consequence of this, given that there are so few (out) trans* people, let alone trans* (grad) students in academe, and especially in philosophy, it's going to be exceptionally rare that one can get reliable information on any department's climate for trans* students.

I think this is a case where (moderate) standpoint epistemology effectively guides us in who we should ask, and whose testimony we should trust.

Yours truly,