March 24, 2006

Transgender at Harvard?

I thought I would share this statement from the Harvard Transgender Task Force. Please get involved, and I hope to see everyone at the rally!

Are you transgender at Harvard? Are you the partner or family member of a trans person?
The Transgender Task Force at Harvard has declared Wednesday, April 19 Transgender Awareness Day. That day we will be hosting a rally at 1 pm on the Science Center lawn to raise the visibility of trans people on campus and to call for policy changes necessary to improve the lives of trans and gender-variant people at Harvard.

At the rally we will be giving Harvard-affiliated trans people, their partners, and the family members of trans people the opportunity to make brief statements (from a few sentences up to 2 minutes). The statements will be read anonymously by someone from the Trans Task Force.

At our Trans 101 trainings, the number one question we receive is: "How many trans people are there at Harvard?" Even though most people know a trans person at Harvard, they are likely not aware that that person is trans. This project is designed to let people know that there are many trans people at Harvard and to highlight some of the difficulties they face.

We are hoping to collect as many statements as possible. Please help us by submitting a statement in the following format:
  1. I am a (staff member, alum, junior at the College, professor, etc. Optional: more identifying info such as major, department, etc.)
  2. I am (genderqueer, the daughter/mother/partner of a trans person, a transwoman, an FTM, etc. Optional: your race, class status, religion, or anything else that is important to your identity.
  3. I am not comfortable speaking out publicly because...
    (The more specific the better. If you have had a specific negative experience as a result of disclosing, please feel free to include it.)
  4. But I would like to say...(A comment on why a specific policy change is important to you, an experience you would like to share, or whatever you would like to convey. Again, please be specific.)
Please email your statement to by April 12 (or post them as a comment on this post), and indicate whether or not we may also post your anonymous statement on our website, which is being developed. If you would prefer to deliver the statement yourself and/or not be anonymous, just let us know. (If you would like to write a longer piece for the website, let us know that as well.)
Thank you for your help, and see you at the rally!
- The Transgender Task Force


The Mirrorball Man said...

In the spirit of trying to learn more about the issue, I would like to question the use of anonymous presentation of the experiences of trans people on campus.

You're right when you say a lot of people ask "How many trans people are there really at Harvard?" But to have it read out by a random member of the TTF does not really answer the question. Instead, it makes it look like trans people are still hiding behind a facade, as if perhaps it's really just one person or maybe even nobody (I'm not saying that's the case, I'm just saying it might seem that way.).

Also, it seems like one of the biggest statements for the gay rights movement was "Come out of the closet." By coming out to our friends and our family, we said "I'm queer. Still hate us?" And, in effect, it turned so many people around.

Why can't coming out as trans have the same effect?

I understand that by coming out as trans you risk a lot of discrimination, but that's no different than coming out as gay. Perhaps because trans seems to be even more stigmatized, it seems more difficult to come out. But would coming out help increase visibility and thus tolerance?

I ask these questions not to downplay the role of TTF, to question it's motives, or even to question directly it's tactics. Rather, I want to understand why this tactic is being used because it will help me understand the issue and engage people who ask "Why don't they just say something themselves?"


gromphus said...

hey you ttf wierdos, if you think it would be helpful, i'd say "i'm gromphus, i'm genderqueer, i'm comfortable speaking out publicly because i pass unambiguously as female and therefore don't anticipate a harassing response (or something), and GIE is important to me both for practical and philosophical reasons, which are blah blah blah (or something)"

icarus said...

Hi Mirrorball!

Thanks for your post!
I'm sure other people will respond too, but I am particularly interested in this issue because I spent a lot of last semester researching, interviewing, and writing a paper about trans visibility at Harvard. I'm emailing you a copy of it, since it's waay too long to post here, but I think it might clear up some of these questions.

I'll also post some [long-ish] excerpts from the paper below for those who wanna follow along in this convo.

"The institution of Harvard, including bureaucracy, housing and administration, can make it exhausting and almost impossible for trans students to be open about their gender identities. Harvard’s non-discrimination code does not include gender identity and expression, and thus does not explicitly protect transgender students from discrimination.

Harvard’s General Counsel, after several meetings with the Transgender Task force of Harvard students, staff and alums, has still taken no concrete steps towards adding gender identity and expression to the nondiscrimination code.

Harvard’s housing forms, lists of names given to professors and Teaching Fellows, and many other records, prominently display an “M” or “F” and also a legal name, which can be disastrous for trans students who are presenting differently from their gender assigned at birth. Harvard’s University Health Care does not provide coverage for transgender medical care, including surgery, and until recently, had no doctors who would prescribe hormones for transgender students wishing to transition at Harvard.

These, and many, many other institutional hurdles, prevent many students from being openly trans. Yet, during one of the meetings with the Harvard General Counsel, Robert Iuliano asked if any “incidents of harassment” of trans students had occurred in the past month on Harvard’s campus and said that if a trans student came to talk to him or his office about discrimination, that he would act on their behalf. Yet, he refused to commit to adding gender identity and expression to the non-discrimination code or even schedule a date for the next meeting. (Iuliano)

The burden of visibility and proof is thus placed on the very students who are silenced by Harvard’s institutional discrimination."

"The transgender individual at Harvard is pressured to appear, to “come out” as a symbol, a representative entity, to the very institution of Harvard that discriminates against and oppresses so many trans students. This dialogue, I would argue, constructs transgender “outness” as a sort of performative, public act that must be done in a certain way and for a certain audience – that is, a non-trans community that desires to “know” and “be right” in order that their – very public - misunderstanding or lack of “smartness” may be rectified by “knowing” which of their peers identifies as transgender.

There is not room, in the pressure to be “smart” as a group, for the kinds of contradictions, complexities and realities that people must face when they ask the question “Why don’t they all just come out?” There is only the option of “knowing” trans students as a whole, when they “come out” in a way prescribed by those they are expected to come out to. This leads to a sense of entitlement, a right to know in order to serve a larger communal project – that of correcting the very public and “wrong” or “not smart” lack of knowledge about the presence of transgender students at Harvard."

"What kind of discourse facilitates this sense that trans people are there for “us” to learn from, to personally reveal or confess personal information about their identity, their bodies, their genitals?

I would answer that it is a discourse that says that coming out is not about trans people – it is about the people they come out to. “Coming out” (homogenized as public ritual, apart from the complex reality and many different levels of outness in both personal and interpersonal relations) is seen as a service in the common pursuit of “smartness” - the sort of understanding that “makes a university a university.”

"The student says “I would love to actually know transsexual individuals” but what they mean is “I would love to know that transsexual individuals are transsexual.” Thus, the writer’s interest lies, not in transsexual individuals as individuals, but rather in their common transsexuality, in knowing it.

At least one anonymous email responded to the stated desire to “know transsexual individuals.” The poster wrote: “…It really sucks to find people trying to cram my panoply of identity into a tiny little box. Especially a box that doesn't really mean that much to me personally. Yeah, I was born male. But that stopped being applicable years ago” (Trannys Talk Back, Post L) Here, the writer is questioning this need to “know” transsexual individuals just because they are transsexual, and rebuking the definition of transsexual individuals as transsexual, not as individuals.

The literal answer to the question “Where are all the trans students?” then, is “Right here at Harvard,” but the problem is that what the question is really asking is: “Where are all the trans students who I know are trans?”

wannatakethisoutside said...

I guess part of it that I see is not just an aspect of facing discrimination now, but for the rest of our lives. Speaking at a rally puts your name on the internet as "trans" for the rest of your life. Currently, that makes a lot of people virtually unemployable, especially many MTFs.

I know that some poeple who have submitted information to TTF are staff members, for example. It's one thing to be known as trans and have a Harvard degree. But that's a privilege.

Also, a lot of us are coming out to our friends on campus. A whole bunch of my trans friends consider themselves out on campus. I think that genderqueer identifying students on campus are particularly using a lot of the coming out tactics you described.

People are just going to ending hate in the ways that they feel comfortable. Not everyone has the energy to work on every issue. Some non-trans people are going to work on trans issues and some trans people aren't, just like sexuality issues or races issues or anything else I can think of.

I don't think that submitting an anonymous speech is incompatible with being out. For example, I know someone who is completely out to her friends who wants to submit a speech about what it's like to be completely rejected by a roommate, but doesn't want to create unnecessary drama in her blocking group by delivering it herself. I sympathize with that idea.

Many students consider themselves to be very out. Like icarus said, they may not run around yelling "i'm a transsexual," but they never say that they are not. And what does it mean to be "out?" One definition could be to be honest about the gender with which you identify. Well, if you pass as that gender, you may just identify with that, and not necessarily as "trans," so would being "out" as female, if you're a transwoman, make you "out?" It's not quite the same as sexuality, because when some people choose to be who they are, their identity may be best respected if they are more stealth about their trans history. I, personally, am way more out now that I am financially able to be, than I ever was before, but I never considered myself "hiding" or "closetted" - I just talked about it less. Every time someone asked me if I was trans or what my gender was, I always told them. I have never told someone at Harvard that I was female.

Here's an example of language that's designed to be sympathetic to trans students but that actually erases us further. Consider the second paragraph in this week's FM article. It referrs to trans students as "virtually invisible to students."

I don't want to sound like I am full of myself, but I don't think of myself as someone who is "virtually invisible" at Harvard. I know a ton of people, and am generally well known enough. Not "virtually invisible." A lot of my other trans friends are also well-known. Some others are more shy or do not focus their lives on campus (like some non-trans students), which is also okay. But just because we don't scream "I'm trans" doesn't mean we are "hiding." Personally, I've had a conversation about my gender with nearly anyone I spend time with regularly, and continue to be available to do so. I am not sure that it is a useful tactic, either for me personally, or for creating change, for me to have these kinds of conversations with people I don't know. For example, your statement "I'm queer. Still hate us?" only works for people you have gotten to know. So, while I'm comfortable saying that I am trans, and have never ever said that I am not, I am still not comfortable having the whole campus think of my name when they think of trans people.

Why? The main reason is that trans communities are extremely diverse and I don't like the idea of representing an entire group. I hate the idea that people think that because I have certain preferences, ideas or behaviors, that that's "what trans people do." For me, being out to just my friends is enough.

And frankly, I think a lot of us who can be out are out, even in the way that you specify. I mean, to be honest, I know a ton of people who I didn't know where trans until I asked their pronouns. And then I did. If dating never comes up, someone might not know that you're gay. If no one asks pronouns, then someone might not know your gender. So one thing that we can all do is be more careful to ask people's pronouns when we meet them, for example. And unless you talk about your childhood extensiely, assigned sex/gender may never come up.