Ruth Pearce at TRED 2011

My talk at the Trans* Education and Determination teach-in.

Part 1:
– Introduction to the teach-in
– My decision to undertake social research
– A brief history of trans academia
– Gender pluralism

Part 2:
– Introduction to my research on experiences of primary health
– Existing research on trans health in the UK
– The role of the internet in trans community
– Methodology and research ethics

Transcription available below.


Part 1

This event was originally organised as part of the protest against the Royal College of Psychiatrists’ event “Transgender: Time to Change”. A number of us decided “well, if we’re going to have an alternative event with our own speakers, we’re need some speakers”. We realised we didn’t have any so a number of us volunteered and then we ended up contributing to the organisation: which is partly why I’m here. The idea, incidentally, came from Kai Weston’s Facebook wall, I have no idea who originally suggested it but we’ll probably find out later, because Kai will be joining us.

So, before I start on my presentation, which is a bit about the research I’m planning and a bit about the history of trans academia, I just wanted to say a little bit about this idea of trans education and determination, because I think it’s about articulation: articulating ourselves. Because I had an interesting experience earlier this week.

I got a message on Facebook – Facebook is quite disturbingly powerful for such an impressive tool – I got a message from a friend saying “I really really need to talk to you personally, about something personal”. And given that they were saying this to me, I thought “oh, they’re going to come out to me”…which, as it turned out, they did. And as I sat there, listening and being a good friend they struggled to articulate their feelings, coming out as “I have gender issues”. And I remember saying a very similar thing because I couldn’t bring myself to say these words, it’s so hard to articulate your difference if you’re seen as different.

And it’s great, because I can now say this stuff. I can stand here and say: I’m a woman. I’m a girl. I’m transsexual, I’m a trans woman, I was assigned male at birth and now I’m female. And, you know, that’s just how I happen to describe myself, but I can say all of that and it took years, because in your head there’s so much…there’s so many messages, all around us, all the time, saying you’re different, you’re a freak, you’re strange, you’re funny, you’re not attractive, you deserve to be beaten up: all around us, all the time.

And it’s not just the people who fall into the trans umbrella – whatever that is – or the genderqueer umbrella, or the gender variant umbrella; it’s feminists, tomboys, cross-dressers, men who push prams with their children in, and it strikes me that it’s incredible that binary gender norms are still so incredibly powerful and it’s the power of those norms which I think makes it hard for us to articulate ourselves.

But here we are! Articulating ourselves. And the Royal College of Psychiatrists event was cancelled: there are different views on this, I happen to think it’s a wonderful thing that it was cancelled but that’s me, many Guardian readers disagree. But I think we should honour their original title. So my little presentation I’ve decided to call “Transgender: Time to Recognise Change”.

Because change has been happening, and it’s incredible. There’s so much of it, there’s so much our community has changed, and I meet people who have gone through a huge amount before I ever came out, before I came out to myself. And the changes they’ve made to the community, the changes my generation make to the community, and the changes all these teenagers I see – complaining about how they’re treated in school – are making to the community and how people can express themselves, are magnificent. And so I’m going to kinda draw upon that in my discussion of what I think trans research should do. I’m coming at this from a sociological perspective, because I’m a sociology person – I’m not going to call myself a sociologist because I think there’s all these things bound up in terms, language – maybe I will call myself a sociologist, but we’ll go from there.

So, I’m going to start with a brief discussion of: what am I talking about when I talk about “trans”, because in this presentation I’m going to discuss “trans” a fair bit. I’m going to start off with a working definition and then we’ll sort of take it apart leaving nothing but you’ll probably have a good idea of what I might be talking about. I think Stephen Whittle came up with a rather good definition. I like this one because it’s one that trans people can understand, but it’s also one that academics – who I talk to, and they say, “this is amazing, I’ve never heard about any of this” – they seem to understand this as well, which is great. And hopefully, others would understand it too.

So this reads: “[…] anyone who does not feel comfortable in the gender role they were attributed with at birth, or has a gender identity at odds with the labels “man” or “woman” credited to them by formal authorities.” Now, this is problematic in some sense because this quite could possibly be everyone. I like this. Other people might not. So I urge you to think about what “trans” means to you, regardless of whether or not you identify as trans.

But what’s interesting about it – if my clicky thing works, aha! – is, firstly, it doesn’t start reeling off a list of identities. There’s no transsexual, genderqueer, genderfluid, non-binary, cross-dresser, transvestite, drag king. It just says, you know, it incorporates all of that without saying anything. But nevertheless, it’s still the binary. It’s still working from “man” and “woman”, and for some of us that’s great – I’m a woman, fine – for others, not necessarily. So that’s something to think about.

So, before I move on, I’m going to explain where I’m coming from, briefly, as a researcher. Because I was originally a philosophy student, and I completed my degree, I went out into the world, I couldn’t find any work, I got terribly confused and I didn’t know what to do with my life, which I think is fairly normal. But one day, I went to a presentation in Birmingham, because I do lots of activism and there was a presentation about LGBT health. At this point I was involved in the National Union of Students, and I got them to pay my transport, which was great, and there was free lunch, which was also great.

And so I sat down and I learned all about a piece of research done into LGBT health in the West Midlands. And before they started looking into what was going on in the West Midlands, they looked at the wider literature of health treatment, health services and health experiences of LGBT people in the UK, so they could do a comparison. And what they found is that there were all kinds of specific issues that affected lesbians, and bisexual women, and gay men, and they found that – oh wait a minute, there’s nothing about trans people. Absolutely nothing. Zilch, nothing. And this is about general healthcare. They did find some statistics on transition-related healthcare, for those who wish to transition from female to male or male to female: I don’t think these pieces of research tended to look at people who transition to some kind of non-binary state because that’s terribly confusing for a lot of researchers.

So what we had left was transition-related research and nothing else; nothing about trans experiences at the doctor, nothing about trans people trying to deal with colds or broken legs, or maybe there’s all kinds of sexual health problems because in the United States there’s been research that demonstrates huge issues, particularly amongst trans women, massive HIV rates. In some areas half of all trans women have HIV. And the health system in the United States is different, so we don’t have a completely different situation, but we don’t know what it is, we don’t know anything about it at all.

And I thought: “This is incredible! How can the – you know, there’s less of us than we might want there to be, but there’s more of us than most people imagine – how can we not know anything about this?” I thought: “I’ve got a great idea. I can go and become a sociologist; and now I’m possibly a sociologist as we established earlier. Hence, I am planning some research.

So, to give an idea of the backdrop to where my research is kind of working from, I’m going to give you a brief history of how people have looked at gender variance. And this is stolen shamelessly from a woman called Sally Hines, who is a cis – and I’m going to define cis now because I imagine most people in this room have an idea of what it means, but as a working definition I’m going to say: someone who feels that their gender presentation, their gender identity and their gender they were assigned at birth are broadly aligned. And if you get really confused when I start spouting words like “cis”, please raise a hand and ask a question and I’ll stop.

Hines, who as far as I’m aware is a cis feminist, has done some wonderful research where she actually listens to trans people and works from there, which is great. And she recognised six strands of trans theory, and I think she’s kind of right.

The first off is medical discourses. These go right back to the 19th century, when there was this great idea called “inversion”, whereby anyone who didn’t quite fit into the normals of female or male – perhaps they were a man and they liked to sleep with men, which as we know isn’t what men do and hence is gender variance – they were inverts, same with people who undertook what we might call “lesbian” activities, and people who might have wanted to shift from one gender paradigm to another, personally.

And these medical discourses changed with time, and in the 1920s ideas of transsexualism started arising from transvestitism. And there’s lots of interesting discussions that can be had about this, and I’m sure someone who knows more about the history of trans academia could talk about this all day. I could maybe read strange things by people like Harry Benjamin, but I don’t.

Anyway, moving on from that, we have ethnomethodology. Oh no, gay and lesbian history appeared, but we’ll be fine. Ethnomethodology came along once the medical discourses of transsexualism were around, or being established. And something I think is interesting about this is that none of these different ideas of what gender variance is ever disappear once new ideas come along, so we’ve got more and more ideas co-existing. The medical discourses of what trans people are and how they should be treated still exist now.

But ethnomethodology came along and a bunch of very bright people such as feminists Kessler and McKenna, and also a rather disturbing fellow called Garfinkle, who had this idea that he could go around poking trans women and writing all about their lives and not quite telling them that he’s using them as a research subject, and then discovering that actually this person who told me they’re intersex isn’t intersex, they’re so dishonest, they’re cheating to get surgery. There’s all kinds of strange things happened in experimental psychology and sociology and science in the 50s and 60s.

But this great idea came that gender is actually socially constructed. It’s not innate: we might be brought up in a certain way, and that might influence our gender. And that influenced a lot of what came. But what’s interesting about ethnomethodology is it still existed in a binary. So if you raised a little child as a boy, they’ll be a boy, and if you raise a little child as a girl, they’ll be a girl. And I’m not quite sure how they figured trans people into this picture, it sort of depended on the researcher and there are various discussions about this, but no-one had any idea that you could possibly have an individual who didn’t want to be female or male, or couldn’t be read as female or male.

Then we had gay and lesbian history. And this sort of emerged with the gay liberation movement. And what happened was loads of historians went back and looked at history and went, “oh, there’s all these people who have been accounted for in history, perhaps they’re actually gay. What about that Joan of Arc woman, perhaps she fancied women, you know she dressed a bit like a dyke.”

And there was also, people went and looked at histories of American two-spirit people for example, and lots of other different groups around the world, and they found that there was lots of discussion in early books such as this fantastic one I found in my local library, which was called, it was something about “primitive peoples”, you get the general idea of what it was like. But it talks about, “oh there’s these fantastic people amongst the ‘Red Indians’” – and all kinds of other such outdated language – “called the berdache” – I still don’t know how it’s best pronounced – but what happened was there were some people who displayed various degrees of sexual orientation difference, gender diversity difference, and some such people we might today describe as gay and some such people that we might today describe as trans, and a lot of Native Americans like the term “two-spirit”, although – as is typical within wider LGBT stuff, communities – not everyone likes that.

But a bunch of bright but possibly misguided gay and lesbian academics went and said, “oh, look at all these berdache people, they might be gay”. And again, it was the idea that any kind of gender variance in history became “gay”. But that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, because it laid the groundwork for later ideas.

Unfortunately, not all later ideas were positive. Again this was emerging at the same time as ethnomethodology was still developing, medical discourses as we know were still developing, and again gay and lesbian histories were still developing. But a number of radical feminist writers such as the infamous Janice Raymond and later a woman called Bernice Hausman, who had a similar habit of going and speaking to lots of trans people, not listening to what we had to say and then writing all kinds of exciting things about us, came up with critiques. And these tended to be along the lines of saying trans people reinforce binary gender, trans people you know are – there’s all this kind of stuff about women’s spaces but I don’t think that’s particularly academically rigorous – but the point was that hey were breaking away from this idea of gender as binary, gender as female and male, which has been existing through all these previous discourses.

And I suppose what then happened was that we then had slightly friendly takes on this. Queer theorists came up with this idea that you can break down gender categories. And this became useful for some trans people who started saying… Before that, I think for people I’ve met, amazing people I’ve met, amazing things I’ve read, there’s always been trans people who don’t fit within the easy boundaries of female and male, but it started to creep into the academic literature, in part thanks to queer theory, which can be problematic in places but that arguably, in turn, led to transgender studies, which like “trans” immediately raises the question, “what’s that?”

But since the early 90s a number of academics have been trans or have actually listened to trans people and created all kinds of interesting theories about gender. Which can arguably be split again: (everything split down into three parts) people who wanted to wanted to kind of, move outside of the traditional gender binaries; people like Jay Prosser and more recently Julia Serano who’ve acted from within the idea of transsexualism but have sort of said “maybe we can be feminist”, “maybe we can be women” (for instance) “without having to conform to sexist ideas of what a woman is”, or in Prosser’s case a man; and gender pluralism, which I think is a fantastic idea which I’ll move onto.

So, gender pluralism. I think it’s an idea that’s probably been floating around within trans communities for a very, very, very long time, but Monro wrote a very nice article about it, and then drew it to wider academic attention. She noted that there are many different perspectives on trans, which might conflict. For example, some people who might describe themselves as trans might say that there’s no such thing as gender. Unfortunately that doesn’t work for people who think that they’re female or male. I have an issue personally with “there’s no such thing as gender” because I actually I kinda feel female, whatever that is. That’s rapidly becoming my catch phrase.

And there’s a possible third way which unites them, which is: there are many genders. And that doesn’t always work because the people who say there’s no such thing as gender say there can’t be many genders because there’s no such thing as gender. There’s some people who feel they’re female or male who are very invested in the idea of there just being female and there just being male. There are true men, true women.

Monro’s solution is to pretty much accept that there are all of these positions and work from that, and she called this gender pluralism. The idea is pretty much the same idea as the “safe space” thing that was posted earlier: we recognise that people identify differently, describe their genders differently. But it’s more radical than that, because within academia it places an onus on academics – not just sociologists, but psychiatrists, arguably counsellors, anyone dealing with trans people – to recognise that actually it’s not as straightforward as female-to-male, male-to-female, a transsexual woman who always wears dresses and wears make-up. But also accepting that there are people who want to do that, and that’s great. An acceptance of difference.

It also recognises intersectionality. The fact that the eternal ampersand, I think that Butler calls it that: age and disability and race and religion and sexual orientation and fat and anything else you might want to think of, you can reel these off. Everything that’s different about us impacts on our gender. For instance, Monro later did a study of trans communities in India, and pointed out that there was a lot about national identity and religious identity that impacted on gender descriptions and how people who weren’t female or male described their gender in various Indian communities. So gender pluralism also recognised that gender can be raced, and transgender can be raced, or disabled: all these things interact in exciting ways.

Part 2

However, you might be thinking: isn’t this stuff obvious? To some of us, it is. To academics, this blows people’s minds. And a long time since people came up with these ideas, everyone’s still struggling. There’s all these articles saying, “I held a talk on intersectionality and two hundred feminists turned up because they were so confused”. And I think it’s interesting because stuff that’s obvious within a community isn’t necessarily obvious beyond the community.

And hence the second part of this presentation, which I shamelessly culled from a PhD presentation I gave to show I knew what I was doing to some people in my department, is going to be a lot of other stuff that’s obvious to us perhaps.

The field of trans studies is very new, it’s only been around arguably for a couple of decades. The trans population is small and widely distributed. You can argue all day about how small it actually is, as Reed and some other people from GIRES did, but it is relatively small, at least in terms of those who consider themselves to be trans. There’s a lack of data and other evidence about the trans population: as found for instance in the presentation I went to in Birmingham, where nobody knew anything.

Trans people are likely to experience challenges in every part of life. Actually this – and I cite Whittle et al., which is a report called Engendered Penalties done back in 2007 – and that was great, because it was the first time there’d been a large scale study of I think any trans population, and for the first time we had some great statistics which we could then turn up to local councils, to government bodies, and say “look: we have a problem”. The one I always use to throw at academics and they all go [gasp] is: at least one in three people who participated in the survey had said they had attempted suicide at least once. And that’s really good for depressing the heck out of people who should be doing something about it. And that’s why academia is important. In my opinion.

So, my own research. I decided, I’m going to do some research on trans health. And I’m going to steer away from the transition stuff because I think that’s really important, but I think I should look at areas where nothing has been done. So I’m looking at: how do trans people interact with primary health services – that is, rather than specialist stuff. If you go to your GP and say “help, I have a problem”, they will hopefully direct you to some primary health services and they themselves are a primary health service.

And I’m going to look at this with qualitative methods, which means I’m not doing a large-scale survey, because I don’t have the resources: I’m going to look at some individual experiences and see what that might say about trans experiences of health. Because we’ve got a few statistics that came from Engendered Penalities, so about people having trouble with their doctor, but we don’t know a lot about what troubles people have.

So, I’ve got three questions: three questions are great, the number three, brilliant if you’re ever doing anything academic because it sounds like you’ve thought about it a lot but you’re not talking too long. What difficulties do trans people experience, how do different trans identities impact – and this is gender pluralism, because a lot of stuff deals just with transsexed people in the literature, on top of that there’s an issue with – much as I love Engendered Penalties, they went out and they classified everyone as “FtM” or “MtF” (female-to-male or male-to-female) despite the fact that’s not how some people identify – so for me I will be talking to my participants about how they identify themselves, and then looking if, say, the people who describe themselves as genderqueer seem to have different experiences to those who identify themselves as transsexed.

I’d like to point out that at this point technically you can go for lunch, however, I might try and steal an extra half hour. Up to you, you can disappear if you want, I’m not going to be insulted.

And finally: how are trans interactions with primary health services shaped by medical discourses. Am I a “secondary transsexual”? I don’t think I’m a primary transsexual, I wasn’t confused when I was three whereas some people are. Do we need these rigid classifications, and how do they even apply to us? (4:41)

This is all done against the backdrop of, as I said, nothing. Existing research concentrates upon the transition process, there is very little existing research on other aspects of trans health; I’ve quoted some people who say this, which was great, you do what you already know, and then find someone who says what you already know and quote them, because otherwise it’s plagiarism. So, Mitcheel and Howarth say “there is a considerable paucity of research in this field”: there’s nothing. And Meads et al., who were the people I went to see a presentation by, say in their paper: “no peer-reviewed and published UK-specific information was found on the general health of trans people”. It’s terribly depressing.

So, do we know anything about healthcare? We know from Engendered Penalties that GPs can be unhelpful and unknowledgeable. We knew that anyway but again academic knowing is slightly different because you need to publish it, peer review it and then people know: for instance, the government knows that there is no such thing as non-binary-identified people. Hopefully there will be more research and if you throw enough of it at the Government Equality Office they might listen. So, this is related to transition healthcare but it tells us a lot about general attitudes towards trans people.

21% of respondents’ GPs did not want to help with transition-related health care, 6% refused to help. There was a very small study in Scotland, which found out that GPs have little knowledge of trans issues: again, it’s triangulating the evidence, we’re finding more than one person who said the same thing. Patients may be treated inappropriately and patients may be placed on inappropriate hospital wards. That’s a fairly obvious issue for trans women and trans men, again I’m not sure what is an inappropriate hospital ward for someone who doesn’t fit within the binary, I’m not the one to answer that question.

Having considered all of that, I then planned my research; in fact, I’m currently in the long, complicated process of planning at the moment, which is pretty much what the first year, or first two years, or if you’re extremely unlucky the first three years of a PhD is all about. So, why primary health? I’ve explored that: that’s because no-one’s really done it. Also, it’s something everybody wants. This is somewhere where we can actually help people. Why the NHS? Because that’s where most people get their primary health in the UK. Fantastic. On top of that, lots of trans people appear – although the evidence isn’t much there – to not have a huge amount of money, hence the NHS is great. From a personal perspective, I’d probably be so screwed up right now if it wasn’t for the NHS. So much as it’s full of problems, I love it. Incidentally, oppose NHS health reforms.

So, I’m asking qualitative questions, rather than quantitative. And this means I’m going to talk to people, and end up with a number of case studies, rather than have loads of statistics. As previously mentioned, we know there’s wide scale problems, but we don’t know that much about how people are experiencing things individually on the ground. Moreover, it’s really difficult to get statistics on trans people because there’s not many of us and we’re widely spread out and all that. In addition, it’s hard enough to get a quantitative sample anyway: try doing that with a community who don’t really speak to each other that much except in occasional, wonderful events such as this, occasional festivals, internet forums. And the problem you get with that is if you do a quantitative sample and get some statistics from that, you get a sample of the kind of people who come to a teach-in, go to a festival, or go to an online forum. So it’s kind of limited on who you reach.

What part of the trans population? That’s leftover from my PhD presentation, the answer is: as many as I can get. There’s one way of doing this which I think will work which will itself be a limiting factor, and that would be: the internet. I feel this is the best place at the moment to do the kind of trans research I want to do, because the internet is the one place where you consistently have trans community, and I’m going to have to factor this into my results because not everyone can access the internet, often the younger population find it easier, and you might have different populations in different places.

I did a pilot study just on gender variance and more generally on a blog called, which you may have heard of – if you haven’t, it’s wonderful. I did the study on there and I found out I had huge amounts of data, which I did loads of wonderful things with, and I’m currently writing lots of papers which are all getting rejected and everyone says “this is brilliant – submit it to a different journal”. But I’ll get there in the end.

And so I haven’t decided whether I’m going to do my health research on a message board or a blog, but my plan is to find a community – based on various complicated sociological factors – and then decide to study it – there’s all kinds of complex ethical issues which I’ll get onto – but the idea is to say what people are saying about themselves, to see what people are saying about the treatment they’re receiving, to see how they’re treated by their doctor.

And the idea is: the internet is great because it’s interactive but also because also it allows people- rather than an artificial environment where I sit people down and give them a sort of inquisition: “so tell me about your life!” – people are already talking about their lives. And that’s why the internet is wonderful for sociological research. And there again there can be a million presentations on wonderful things and bad things and issues with internet research. Which I don’t have time for!

I also want to do a focus group. A focus group, for those who aren’t in the know, is pretty much, it’s like a sociological interview, except you get loads of people, you sit them in a room together and get them chatting. And then you kind of chat with them and see how they feel about stuff. So in a sense, analysing a message board is like having a gigantic focus group, but I want to have a specific focus group simply because having been to a message board and found some things out and got some data and got some ideas, “oh, I think this seems to be happening to people,” I want to say to people: “I’ve found this: what do you think?” You know, does this relate to your experiences, how does this relate to your experiences.

The idea is to make triangulation, which I mentioned before, which basically means: check your data against some other data and see whether it all seems to work. Participants might raise issues I’ve missed, it’s reflexive, which basically means you’re looking at yourself and going “am I doing the right thing?” which is a wonderful idea which has come from feminism. Each time you go and research something, you go “well, I’d better be aware of who I am, where I’m coming from”, how, for instance, in my case I’m white, I’m middle-class: how does that affect my perspective, how does that affect where I’m coming from. And it’s an opportunity to share some initial results with people, and say “I’m kind of talking about you – is that okay? What do you think about it?”

The idea of the focus group online or offline – I haven’t yet worked that out. I kind of like the idea of having everyone in a room – it’s kind of nice.

So: the role of the internet itself. Why the internet? The internet is massively important for trans community, and there’s all these publications talking about it in the 1990s and there hasn’t been much since, which is strange because I read all of that, and I think “oh, all these amazing things have happened since”. But so many people come out online, meet people online, meet other trans people online, and chat about events.

We pretty much organised this conference on the internet, it was incredible. Some people posted angry blogs, some other people started saying “let’s have a protest,” the next thing we knew there was a Facebook group, there was a blog, it was incredible. The internet: wonderful.

But in addition to that, the internet has changed the nature of trans community. Whittle has a hilariously titled paper called “The Trans-Cyberian Mail Way”, which I quote at every possible opportunity just because I think it’s really really funny. And that’s about trans message groups from the 1990s, the kind that don’t really exist anymore. But in the exciting sociological law language, Whittle talks about “new modes” and “different codes”, by which as far as I’m aware what he means by that is that there were new ways of expressing yourself, everything became a bit more fluid, people became more comfortable with the idea of not fitting into easy categories, because everyone who didn’t fit into easy categories got to talk to other people who didn’t and go “oh it’s not just me – I don’t have to be constantly wandering around thinking I have to be a stereotype”, which was fantastic.

Stone has a somewhat more wordy book. Sandy Stone, interestingly, was the person who was attacked by Janice Raymond in “The Transsexual Empire” at length, and wrote another fantastic paper, which was called “The Empire Strikes Back: A Posttranssexual Manifesto”. And it’s really wordy and quite complicated but I recommend digging it up, it’s quite a good laugh. But Stone’s in for making really wild statements with dramatic language, and Stone said “in cyberspace, the transgender body is the natural body”. And I think what she means by that was that the trans body in offline space is often seen as strange and deviant. On the internet, it really doesn’t matter. And I think that’s had an impact on how we see ourselves outside of the internet. Which is great!

And finally, Leslie Feinberg. Wonderful, read everything you can by Leslie Feinberg. You might not agree with it all, but it’s good at what it does. Wasn’t writing from a terribly academic perspective and this is therefore far more easy to read. They said some very interesting things about trans community online in the 1990s, such as: Feinberg argued that gender-neutral pronouns, using pronouns such as “zie” and “hir” and the gender-neutral form of “they” developed to a great degree online, in that suddenly there was an environment in which people could regularly refer to themselves in different ways. And so what you see here is a shift not just towards a more individual focus/form of understanding, but also a shift towards acknowledging that we don’t have to fit within binary categories if we don’t want to.

I think this is also illustrated in a quote from Whittle’s piece, “The Trans-Cyberian Mail Way”. And it’s quite lengthy, but I think it’s great. Whittle said, “look, isn’t it really exciting that there’s these trans groups, and they’re finding new ways of encompassing huge amounts of people”. I’m gonna read this out because it’s rather big. It’s from – I’ve forgotten what it stands for, TMTF – it was trans male something something. But they were an online group. And they had a mission statement, which was quoted to prove his point.

“Some political action and education groups are promoting [transgender] as an umbrella term to include transsexuals, transgenderists, cross-dressers (transvestites) and other groups of ‘gender variant’ people such as drag queens and kings, butch lesbians, and ‘mannish’ or ‘passing’ women […] Some transgender people consider themselves a third sex, neither male nor female but combining characteristics of both (also called an epicene or ‘third’). Most
commonly, transgender people live as, identify as, and prefer to be treated as, belonging to the ‘opposite’ sex, but do not wish to change their bodies through surgery.”

I think I can see what was happening, but I think it’s interesting that things have changed. There’s a lot of groups that use this kind of statement, there’s a lot of groups that such you’re either a “true transsexual” or you’re a man in a dress and FtM spectrum don’t exist, but I find it interesting that a lot of groups have moved beyond this.

So for my research for my master’s degree on Genderfork, I found a slightly different mission statement, and statement of inclusion. You’ll notice it’s somewhat shorter.

“Genderfork is a supportive community for the expression of identities across the gender spectrum.”

And with this short sentence, you pretty much say everything the previous statement wants to say, and more. There’s no mention of female, there’s no mention of male, it’s just – gender. Everywhere. It’s great. And I love it. You know, I think this shows that there has been discursive evolution, or, as you might just say, change, on the internet. And it’s happened outside the internet but the internet has played a huge rule in facilitating it.

Something else from Genderfork: a few people seemed confused about this so they had something else in the “Frequently Asked Questions”. The question was: “I’m still learning all this new gender lingo. Can you create a glossary to help me out so I don’t say the wrong thing?”

The answer was: “no”. But their point was: no-one really knows where the language is going, it’s still evolving, we don’t know what we’re talking about, everyone describes themselves differently. It’s all these comments about gender pluralism and intersectionality, it’s right here when people recognise it. Which obviously makes it very hard to study. But, I think it’s worth giving it a go because this is what exists, this is what we have to work with.

So back to my research: that’s why I’m doing it on the internet, in short: the internet is where everything is happening. Not everything, but a lot of stuff. And I think it’s a place to research which is useful, if not the place to research.

However, there’s some ethical considerations that come with that. Language! Trans people like language which is nice. I like language which is nice, I like people to be nice about me and to listen, and not to call me all kinds of strange things people have called me on an NHS video which is up on the internet. “He looks very pretty as a girl,” that kind of comment, not too fun. People who think they’re being supportive but they’re not. And unlike people making mistakes, and listening, and that’s great but the important thing is the listening. And much as I’m a trans woman I can’t even begin to understand every trans experience and hence as a researcher I should listen to people, and respect where people are coming from, even if it’s not where I’m coming from. In addition to that, use the right pronouns. People usually tell you what pronouns you want to use, and we can use that. Great.

But there’s some more important problems with the internet, in that people don’t necessarily expect a researcher to turn up and read everything they have to say, then write about it and publish it in a journal somewhere. The first point I’d like to make is that anything I get published I will make no money from, because unfortunately that’s how academia works. If you ever read a journal article, the writer has not been paid for it. If they’re in China, they have to pay for the privilege of having it published, which is great; I was talking with a fellow student about that. But there’s this fantastic system in place where you need to be published if you want an academic career, so there are all these companies that say: “Please, publish in my journal. I’m not going to pay you but if you want to get published you can get a job.” And then they sell the journal for vast amount of money to universities. Anyway, the point is I’m not planning to make money off people’s experiences, I think that would be bad. I’m still, possibly, using what people have said.

Which is why I think it’s important, if you’re going to study an online community, to do one of two things. Either: if it’s a private community, that you have to log into to get into and speak to people, you tell people what you’re doing. You let people know, you give people the opportunity to opt out. The other potential approach is that used on places like Genderfork. Genderfork has a huge amount of people contributing, you’re never going to find them all, if you make a statement in 2010 you’re never going to know what people in 2009 think about you looking at their comments. However, there’s a great advantage in that people have already anonymized themselves, and acknowledging them as authors of their material. It’s not necessarily going to be outing people: if someone’s posting as “gendergirl33”, you’re not telling anything about them. If they’re posting as “Juho Green from Finland”, you probably want to think about not publishing that as such and anonymising it. But I think it’s about sensitivity to whatever medium that you’re researching in.

Finally, with focus groups I’ll take a completely different approach. If I’m getting a bunch of people in a room and talking to them, I believe it’s really important to anonymise everything about their name, because they’re their actual names, and I don’t want someone reading my paper and then going out and finding everyone who’s been in my research and going “ooh, I know all about you”.

Because the important difference with things like Genderfork is that if I quote anyone for the research all that anyone needs to do is copy what they’ve written and plug it into a search engine and they’ve found them. Anything that’s on the internet, you can see as long as it’s in an open area, and it’s kind of a problem with things – something people need to bear in mind,.

And so, that pretty much draws to a conclusion. Finally, there might be time for questions and lunch…there is, this is fantastic. So I want to share with you some final thoughts.

One is that, something I hope ran through this whole thing, that a lot of academics like talking about trans people without necessarily talking to us, or listening to what we have to say when they do talk to us. I think it’s quite important to hold academics to account and say, “well, actually you’ve said x or y, but have you considered z?” Or “did you listen to the fact they were actually saying a or b?” I think this is fairly important and I think we can do it by writing angry letters, by saying “hold on, this conference is offensive, maybe we should hold a protest”, and by, for that matter, having our own events and saying: “Hey! This is how it goes.”

I think academics should account for gender pluralism, I think it’s really, really important. Not everyone fits into easy categories, and that’s something we should hold people to account for as well. And academics need to respect trans identities.

More importantly, trans academia needs trans academics. The real difference came when people like Sandy Stone, Kate Bornstein, Namaste – I don’t know her first name, I’ve forgotten, I do that about everyone – [attendee responds: Viviane!] Yeah! Thank you! Wonderful people – I think about everyone now in terms of names, and the date which they published under. This is what academia does to you. And Leslie Feinberg. All these wonderful people who published wonderful things pretty much kick-started feminists such as Sally Hines and – I don’t know Monro’s first name again – actually looking at stuff from a trans perspective. [attendee calls out Monro’s first name: Surya]. Yes! Thank you!

So, more trans academics. People who know the community, people who understand what’s going on. And cis academics who have been involved in trans community or are prepared to involve themselves in trans community. We need people who know what they’re talking about. But also, this doesn’t have to be people within the official academic structures. I happen to have done a master’s degree in social research and now I’m doing a PhD, and that’s all very well and good for me, but it is possible to be an independent research. It’s not easy, but if you spend huge amounts of time reading about the literature of the field, reading about research techniques, talking to academics, trying to sneak your way into conferences and events, it is possible to do independent research. And I think we need more of that.

So those are my thoughts. It is not quite twenty-five past twelve, and our next official session is at one, meaning if you want to get lunch, please get lunch. If you want to stay and ask any questions, and I will stop by twenty-to so we all actually get a chance to eat something, please ask any questions. Or, talk to each other!

One thought on “Ruth Pearce at TRED 2011

  1. Pingback: ‘RadFem 2012: a uniting force against transphobia’ by Orlando « Resist RadFem12

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