I want to talk about something I, as a trans person engaged in gender studies, am confronted with again and again: well-meaning non-intersex cis people using trans and intersex identities and experiences as examples or arguments for their academic explorations of gender. The combination of this with the already complicated relation between academia and trans people, historically as well as momentarily, leads to continued othering and exclusion of trans and intersex people and the reproduction of gender based oppression inside as well as outside our classrooms.

Because this practice is so common, not only amongst the students of gender studies, but also the people leading our courses and writing the texts we read, you might not even recognise the problem I am talking about. Mostly it goes as follows: “I agree that gender is performative and not essential, because you know… trans people exist”. The basis of such an argument is the assumption that trans people can navigate society as another sex than the one they were assigned at birth because they can change their performance.

Sometimes though, exactly the same reasoning is used to question gender as performance. Then the argument is: “gender is inherent as trans people exist; they change their gender (performance) as they experience a certain gender as being essential”. This is often part of a “born this way” narrative, and in my experience, more common outside of academic circles.

One of the consequences of using trans experiences as an example in the ways I have described above, is reproducing the cis and non-intersex body as natural and normal and thereby not questioning how normalcy is produced in the first place. This practice relies on the othering of trans and intersex experiences. Othering is an act of distancing and objectifying the other – a way of creating an identity (and hereby also normalising and naturalising one’s own experience) through a distancing from what is deemed as ’other’.



Normalising the cisgender experience

Othering is a continuing relational process, and even when the goal is to destabilise the binary gender system the act of using trans experiences in an argument often reproduces an othering that is part of the way this gender system is kept in power in the first place.

Using trans experiences as an example is easy because trans people are already set up to be Others through spectacle and medical gatekeeping. As our bodies have been pathologised, we are not seen as able to recognise our own needs and we must therefore take part in a medical system wherein our narratives, experiences and wishes are only recognisable if they fit a specific narrative confessed to and validated by a cis medical professional. The ultimate consequence is that we only exist if we make ourselves recognisable through a binary and cissexist discourse on gender. We are already set up to be consumed as our experiences are continually being scrutinised by our healthcare providers, the media, as well as our cis families and friends.

As trans and intersex experiences mark the borders of normalcy, they function as other than cis and non-intersex bodies, and are thus ascribed sameness in this othering. This means that trans narratives are already framed so as not to raise suspicion when someone generalises our gendered experiences to underline an argument. We are not granted the privilege of having complex relations to gender in the way cis people are. If you say stuff like “gender is performative just look at cis people” it would not be accepted as easily as fact. Everyone would agree that cis people have a complex understanding of their gender that differentiates fundamentally between all individuals – a luxury we are not afforded.



Missed Opportunities

Cisgender academics, scientists, psychologists and sexologists as well as the media have historically created a pathological picture of trans people - a cissexist practice continually reproduced in the university. But the use of trans experiences as a casual way of underlining one’s own theory of gender is not only lazy as it forgets to question the already established power dynamic in the knowledge production around trans lives, it is also a missed opportunity. An opportunity to question the ways in which cissexism and traditional sexism reproduce one another and how the concepts of objective knowledge and knowledge production around gender happen inside a discourse of the exact same gender based oppression we as feminist academics generally want to undermine.

Using trans or intersex people as an example in this way exempts the cis and non-intersex reader and student from questioning their own gendered experience which ultimately leads not only to the questioning of the normalisation of a non-intersex and cis gendered perspective in academia, but further naturalises this view of the world.

My point here is not to promote one theory of gender over another, but rather to question the use of trans people as an example in arguing for one’s own view on gender no matter which purpose it serves. I also want to make it clear that I am deeply invested in queer theory as a basis for the deconstruction of a binary and oppressive gender system. This is not an argument against this kind of work. Rather it’s a loving critique directed towards those who wish to engage in these explorations, expressing a hope that we continually do better by questioning some of the tropes of argumentation that have become settled even in a part of academia that works to undermine the cementation of specific world views. I am interested in sharpening the way we talk about gender and gender-based oppression to heighten the way academic explorations can help to dismantle exactly these structures - and being aware of how trans people are excluded from this kind of knowledge production is essential to such a project.



Navigating a cissexist classroom

Because of the trans antagonistic and cissexist nature of the university, this trope is not only put forth in rooms where the majority is non-intersex and cis, but is always reproducing the classroom as a space where trans and intersex people have to work extra hard to be in the first place. It grows out of a trans antagonistic presumption of the non-existence of trans people as part of the student body and is part of the cissexist structure that keeps these rooms of knowledge production inaccessible to us.

In the classroom, the utilisation of trans experiences by cis and non-intersex students, academics, and activists has several consequences that make my position as a transgender academic precarious. One of these is the reproduction of hypervisibility. As only my lived experience – not the cis person’s – is framed as an object for study the burden of questioning and denaturalising gender norms and the binary gender system once again pushed over to me.  In this way trans experiences are singled out as inherently subversive and performative while cis experiences are not recognised as experiences at all. My individual and bodily experience of the binary gender system is negated in this act, as it is only framed as subversion or confirmation, but never as complex and individual.

As a lot of other trans people I feel highly visible falling outside a binary gender system in my everyday life. A strain that is often reproduced in the classroom as the onus of fighting the battle against the gender binary is put on a body that already does not have the privilege to blend in and go through the world without my gender being questioned.

This history and system of oppression affects the way in which I must navigate my life at the university. Even when this argument is set forth by the most well-meaning of my cisgender peers (and sadly also often by my professors) it takes my agency as an academic away. It reproduces this history of the trans person as an object and leaves me with only two options – either I can point out this problem every time I experience it or I can let it slide by. Even though I see the reasoning as inherently flawed as I have described above I normally choose the second option. An option that does not further the classroom discussion and hinders a thorough understanding of the methodologies and theories we are trying to understand, because the consequences of the first option mostly are even bleaker.

If I choose to point out this flawed and problematic argumentation, I would firstly be seen not as just another person in the discussion but as a subjective part having to cast myself in the role of the object. And at the same time, I would be in danger of being forced to submit to a narrative of trans experiences as a valid topic to disagree on in the classroom as any other.

By experience I know how uncomfortable it is to be the object of scrutiny in this kind of setting but it is not only that I often value my own comfort over conflict. By calling out those who use trans and intersex experiences I risk not only being dehumanised as an object of study,  I also risk that my own gender is being questioned as real or valid in an academic discussion because of the way gender entitlement is not questioned generally.

The way this practice reproduces the ascribed role as the object of study rather than the subject means transgender academics and activist are easily dismissed as valid participants in knowledge production. And if we dare to express our views on other topics than gender we cannot be taken serious as anything else then our trans status.

Knowledge production surrounding gender cannot be valid or powerful if we do not start by questioning the ways in which our rooms for learning and discussion are accessible to as broad a spectrum of experiences as possible. We should always remember that the way different experiences are utilized in academic arguments as well as activist spaces is affecting the bodies that encounter this wall of objectification and oppression countless times. It is an integrated part of a system that already works to keep us out of the discussion around gender.



Artwork © Sophia Demitriou

Emma SapersteinComment