Fighting back in the precarious academy – FWSA address 2019

On 16 October I spoke at the 30th Anniversary event hosted by the Feminist and Women Studies Association UK and Northern Ireland (FWSA). This is the text of my short talk.

Thank you for having me, I am very honoured to be here today.

I was invited to speak about doing feminism in the academy through my research on trans experiences. I am a trans woman known for my research on trans health.

I am interested in how discourses of consent, autonomy, sex and gender circulate between patient communities, activists, and professionals, and how these are shaped by power relations. I also work on new approaches to healthcare that might centre patient knowledges, rather than patriarchal medical authority. At present, I am part of an international study of pregnancy and childbirth among trans men and non-binary people.

This research stems from my wider interest in gender, sexuality, and power relations within institutions. I have published empirical work on equality schemes in Higher Education, focusing specially on Athena SWAN. My research with Charoula Tzanakou shows how Athena SWAN places a burden on the very women it is supposed to help, through expecting them to participate in the extensive work of self-assessment.

I also have been involved in anti-casualisation campaigns, especially while working on hourly-paid contracts for six years at the University of Warwick. I feel it is important to recognise this as feminist academic work too, an argument I expand on shortly.

I am very often invited to speak about trans health. At least as often, I am invited to speak about being a trans woman.

I am very rarely been invited to speak about my wider feminist research or activism.

I know why this is. While our numbers are growing, there are very few trans people and especially trans women working in universities. I am used to being the only visible trans person in the room. I am painfully aware that I am frequently present as a token. I am also aware that if I am not present, often no trans voices are heard at all, let alone trans women’s voices.

I know it is important to talk about how a vast majority of trans staff and students face substantial barriers in Higher Education. These include rigid administrative procedures, plus high rates of verbal abuse, physical and sexual assault. I know it is important to talk about how transphobia is tied closely to misogyny, racialisation, ableism and class, and how the challenges we face are especially compounded for trans people who face intersecting forms of marginalisation, such as Black trans women and disabled trans people.

I know it is important to talk about how we currently face an unpreceded rise in open transphobia. Cis academics talk about stripping our legal rights in public lectures and newspaper columns. Trans studies scholars face constant abuse and harassment on social media, malicious freedom of information requests, and threats of legal action. I know it is important to talk about how anti-feminist talking points from the religious right, such as the supposed threat of ‘gender ideology’, are laundered through anti-trans groups.

Still, there are times I want to talk about other things.

There are times I want to talk about being a woman more than I want to talk about being trans. There are times when I want to talk about solutions as well as problems, about collectivity and solidarity rather than division.

New postgraduates frequently ask me for advice on surviving in departments where they are the only out trans person. My advice is always the same – build alliances across difference. You may be the only trans PhD student, but you will certainly not be the only student who faces marginalisation.

To quote Patricia Hill Collins: “Who has your back, and whose back do you have?

In 2015 the University of Warwick faced scrutiny over TeachHigher, a proposed wholly-owned subsidiary designed to facilitate the outsourcing of teaching at universities. These proposals were defeated by organised resistance within numerous academic departments, led primarily by casualised staff.

Our campaign relied on recognising how the economic precarity of casualization is also about the myriad ways in which many of us are additionally oppressed. As my comrade Christian Smith passionately argued, “TeachHigher is sexist, and TeachHigher is racist”. We knew that women and people of colour are disproportionately represented within the pool of casual labour on which our institutions rely. We knew that increased casualization only exacerbates conditions in which those who are already the most privileged are most likely to thrive. This was a feminist campaign, an anti-racist campaign, a campaign about class, a campaign against ableism, homophobia and transphobia.

In my department, where over 40% of teaching was undertaken by people on hourly-paid contracts, we organised a teaching boycott. None of us would sign up to teach the following year unless the department took an active stance against TeachHigher. This could only work if all of us agreed to openly sign a letter announcing the boycott – otherwise, we could be played off against one another. It took many careful meetings and discussions to organise. Many of us relied on this work to pay our bills, and in some cases, look after families.

In response to our letter, the Head of Department disparaged us in a departmental meeting, calling us “childish”. He proposed replacing our labour with PhD students from other universities. He said we would never win, that the university would never back down.

A week later, the university backed down.

So how do we claim space for feminism in the precarious academy?

By remaining aware of our differences, working with and across them to build alliances.

By campaigning through formal and informal unions as well as our research.

By speaking out and supporting our colleagues, especially if we are in a more secure position than them.

The university is not built for us. We know this in our hearts when we see the statues and paintings of worthy men around campus. We know this in our bones when we the climb steep steps to lecture theatres designed to centre a patriarchal pedagogy. We know this in the sharpness of our breath when men known for sexual abuse talk over us and claim responsibility for our work in departmental meetings.

It’s time for change on our campuses. Let’s make that change together.

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Interview on Acadames podcast

webfront8Earlier this year I took part in an interview for Acadames, a super-cool podcast “that explores whether being a woman in academia is a dream, game, or scam”. The episode is now available! I really enjoyed speaking with Whitney  Robinson about my work, and hope you will enjoy our conversation just as much.

Today Whitney speaks with Dr. Ruth Pearce, a social researcher and feminist scholar based at the University of Leeds in the United Kingdom. Ruth discusses her current work with the Trans Pregnancy project, why gender equity schemes are so important in academia, and offers tips for resiliency when facing online harassment and political backlash. Along the way, she shares stories of her life as a trans woman, how academic institutions in the UK differ from those in the US, and the similarities between organizing a concert and organizing a conference.

Click here to listen.

Seahorse screening and live Q&A in Leeds

Hyde Park Picture House are hosting a screening of the documentary film Seahorse tomorrow evening (Tuesday 27 August), in association with Leeds Queer Film Festival. I will be participating in a live Q&A session afterwards, representing the Trans Pregnancy project.

The film follows the experiences of Freddy as he becomes a father:

Freddy is 30 and yearns to start a family but this poses unique challenges. He is a gay transgender man. Deciding to carry his own baby took years of soul searching, but he was unprepared for the reality of pregnancy, both physically and challenging society’s fundamental understanding of gender and family. To him what feels pragmatic, to others feels confronting; this was not part of his plan.

Against a backdrop of increasing hostility towards trans people the world over, Freddy is forced to confront his own naivety, mine unknown depths of courage and lean on every friend and family member who will stand by him.

For the Q&A, I will be joining Freddy, director Jeanie Finlay, and Yuval Topper-Erez, a member of the Trans Pregnancy project Advisory Board who became famous in Israel following his own experience of giving birth. The discussion will be chaired by BAFTA-nominated producer Mia Bays.

You can reserve a ticket for the event here.

Trans pregnancy study – new article and podcast

Over the last year I have been working on the largest international study of conception, pregnancy and childbirth among trans men and non-binary people: the Trans Pregnancy project. We have now undertaken fifty interviews with trans and non-binary people about their experiences in Australia, Bulgaria, Canada, Germany, the UK and US, plus further interviews and focus groups with young people and healthcare professionals.

In this post, I share a new peer-reviewed commentary and podcast from the project.


Article: Beyond the pregnant man: trans pregnancy in A Deal With The Universe

Our first published academic article is now available in the journal Feminist Media Studies, authored by myself with my colleague Francis Ray White. This is a short commentary on the representation of trans pregnancy in the media, centring on a review of Jason Barker’s autobiographical film A Deal With The Universe.

Click here to read the article in Feminist Media Studies.

If you do not have access to this journal through an institutional login (e.g. through a library) or personal subscription, I have uploaded an “open access” version of the article to this website. Click here to read the article for free.


Podcast: Making Space for Trans Pregnancy

In November 2018, Francis and I presented initial findings from the project at the Gendered Intelligence Transforming Spaces conference in London, UK.

This presentation was recorded, and is now available as part of the Transforming Spaces podcast series.

Topics under discussion include:

  • cultural amnesia around trans pregnancy
  • contradictions in UK law and policy
  • the importance of trans “possibility models”
  • the myth of testosterone and infertility
  • gendering in pregnancy
  • trans birth parents in international guidelines


Looking forward

There is a lot more to come! Over the next few months, we will be undertaking our final interviews and focus groups, conducting an in-depth analysis of these, and publishing a law and policy report focusing on the European Union.

Early next year we will discuss our research findings in a report and free conference. We are also planning to write many more academic articles on a range of topics, which will be published gradually over the next few years.

We are hugely grateful for everyone who has shared their story with us so far – thanks to your contributions, we have an enormous amount of material to work with. We very much look forward to sharing more of our work with you.

This post is based on material originally written for the Trans Pregnancy website.

You can also follow our research through the Trans Pregnancy Twitter account.

 

Rockefeller Fellowship – visit to Aotearoa New Zealand

University of Leeds logo

I am very grateful to have been awarded a Rockefeller Foundation Travelling Fellowship by the School of Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Leeds. This will be used to fund a research trip to Aotearoa New Zealand.

The object of the Rockefeller Fellowship is to enable early career researchers working in the Social Sciences to make personal contacts and/or visit universities overseas. My aim is to build networks with trans health activists, researchers and practitioners, plus share research findings from the Understanding Trans Health and Trans Pregnancy projects.

I will be in Aotearoa from 18 April to 12 May, visiting Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Hamilton. In addition to strengthening existing relationships, I hope to spend time meeting new people and learning more about trans health services and community advocacy. While the UK and Aotearoa differ in many ways, we are both island nations with public health systems that face various forms of privatisation; we are both seeing a rapid growth in the visible trans population; and we are both currently seeing proposals for reform within trans healthcare. I am very much interested in exploring how activists, researchers and practitioners in both countries might be able to exchange ideas and information.

I am excited to been invited to present my work at the University of Waikato, Hamilton during the visit.

On Friday 3 May I will be speaking about my PhD research in the Department of Psychology at the University of Waikato. My talk, The “Gender Experts”: Clinical Discourses and Becoming Trans, will explore how expertise is contested within and between trans communities and clinical settings, reflecting on what this might mean for patient experience and differing understandings of trans possibility.

On Saturday 4 May I will be describing initial findings from the international Trans Pregnancy project at the Aotearoa New Zealand Trans Health Symposium. In this talk I will look at how and why some trans men and non-binary people choose to conceive and bear children. I shall explore some of the challenges and opportunities that arise for trans birth parents, and explain what kind of support research participants want to see from healthcare providers.

If you are a trans activist, trans health researcher or healthcare provider in Aotearoa and would like to meet during my visit, please do be in contact – I would love to hear from you!

Clinical research with trans patients: a critique

WPATH_BuenoAr_Logo_reverseIn November I participated in a panel on research ethics at the 2018 WPATH Symposium in Buenos Aires, “Ethical Considerations in Transgender Health Research Practice”.

I presented a talk based on work I have undertaken with Dr Michael Toze (who sadly could not join us at the conference). Entitled Trans Health Research at a Gender Identity Clinic, the talk critiqued clinical research methods employed at a UK gender clinic, using the example of published research on video gaming.

I argued that clinical researchers should be mindful of the power dynamic that exists between them and their patient/participants. I also presented evidence that methodological and ethical issues have resulted in harm to participants, and undermined the validity of empirical claims.

This talk was kindly recorded by Ellen Murray, and you can listen to it below.

 

I have also uploaded produced a transcript of the talk:

Trans Health Research at a Gender Identity Clinic

And you can download the slides here.

Please do feel free to download and share this talk with anyone you think might find it interesting or useful, as long as myself and Dr Toze are credited.

The talk followed a remote presentation by Ali Harris, and preceded a talk by Noah Adams, who discussed the paper we wrote in collaboration with Jaimie Veale, Asa Radix, Danielle Castro, Amrita Sarkar and Kai Cheng Thom: Guidance and Ethical Considerations for Undertaking Transgender Health Research and Institutional Review Boards Adjudicating this Research.

LGBTIQA+ research seminar at Åbo Akademi: 11-12 January 2019

In January I will be travelling to Turku, Finland to speak about my trans health research for a seminar at the Åbo Akademi university. Details of the event can be found below.

 

Image shows the grand two storey building main building at Åbo Akademi. It is built in a neo-classical style with fix pillars above the central entrance,and faces onto a cobbled road.

© Samuli Lintula / Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0

Future research on sexual and gender minorities in Finland?
Friday and Saturday, 11-12 January 2019
Åbo Akademi university

At this seminar, keynotes from across Europe will tap into the issue ‘what are relevant and urgent questions for future research on LGBTiQA+ from their respective perspectives and horizons, and hopefully the discussions will nurture thoughts and ideas on new research projects. This seminar is part of the Åbo Akademi University profile on minority research.

Our main keynote contributions are:

“Towards sustainable scholarships on trans and intersex: critical studies of cisnormativity”
Dr Erika Alm, from University of Gothenburg (Sweden)

“Enhancing sexual health, self-Identity and wellbeing among men who have sex with men”
Dr Rusi Jaspal from De Montfort University (UK)

“A brief history of the Finnish closet”
Dr Tuula Juvonen from University of Turku (Finland)

“The politics of trans health: condition or movement?”
Dr Ruth Pearce from University of Leeds (UK)

“The mobilizations of LGBT organisations in Europe between homo-normativity and homonationalism: challenges and opportunities”
Dr Luca Trappolin from University of Padova (Italy)

In addition, some ongoing research projects at Åbo Akademi University will be presented by Panda Eriksson and Minna Laukkanen. Finally, actor Boodi Kabbani, known from the film “A moment in the Reeds”, Dr Julian Honkasalo from University of Helsinki, Dr Jukka Lehtonen from University of Helsinki, and Secretary General Kerttu Tarjamo from Seta, will together provide input and critical comments in a panel discussion.

The seminar is open to students, researchers, activists and people engaged in NGO:s. Coffee, lunch and dinner are included in the registration fee of €50.

Please register no later than the 3rd of January at: https://survey.abo.fi/lomakkeet/10813/lomake.html