By Zefyr Lisowski
As a white queer trans woman instructor, tutor, and working artist, I’m accustomed to being the only recognizably gender-nonconforming body in the room—particularly the academic room. The poet Ari Banias has a really smart essay about this, and most of my friends have stories of this kind of tokenization, one that so frequently slides along other lines of privilege, whether they be racial, classed, or abled. (So intense is the way institutions prop up the most privileged of us, my solidly middle-class upbringing itself feels at times subversive, like I’m weaseling into school below the wealth line.)
Here’s one of the paradoxes of being trans in the classroom. Frequently as an instructor, my body is a source of authority, albeit in highly conditional ways—I have control over the gradebook, can start or end class, can steer classroom conversations towards or away from subjects to some degree. But there’s also a pressure to model a kind of accessible gender, a Goldilocks sort of professional “futch”: not too femme to be discredited, yet not too butch to be misgendered.
At the same time, as a wage worker, I’m neglected by the systems ostensibly designed to run my school better: I have three different names in my school database, have had paychecks held up because of an “incongruent” name/gender with my bank account, and can’t even ask my students to complete a teacher evaluation without being misnamed and misgendered in the process by the automated system. Adding to this frustration, since the majority of my students are not trans (or not out as trans), I wind up introducing many of them to my own identity.
This pressure of representation is work I’m happy to do, but it’s lonely work, work that frequently isn’t recognized and points to the pockets of absence transness lives in within the institution. Here is an important thing to keep in mind regarding trans faculty: things are lonely, aren’t easy. While I’m loathe to invoke melancholy as the most salient issue facing gender-transgressive bodies in the workplace (it’s not), there’s still a lack of community within the academy that resonates.
Of course, there are constant small gestures that I’ve felt seen and recognized by: faculty members intervening when administrators deadname me; students telling me how important the readings and lessons I curate (which frequently focus on gender minorities) are to them; the incredible community I’ve built up in NYC and online of people who do see and support me. But the baseline of progress at the university is still scary. So rigged is the deck against trans instructors, that when white associate professor Grace Lavery commented on Twitter in January that she wasn’t misgendered once by students in her teaching evaluations, it was presented as a point of pride and triumph as opposed to the bare minimum.
While I’m focusing on instructors specifically, it’s worth noting that a lot of the issues that impact us impact our students as well—multiplying the importance for (trans)gender equity on campus. So what does accessibility mean in this context? I’d like to propose a couple of different frames.
At its most basic form, making the campus safe for trans bodies is an important step. Implementing wheelchair-accessible, centrally located gender-neutral restrooms for faculty, staff and students is certainly part of that, as many (although not enough) institutions have done already. Degendering and desegregating dorms on residential campuses is also an important gesture, if a bit bougie. And allowing students (and faculty) to determine the names they use on front-facing registries is also key.
But there are larger concepts of access that I’d like to invoke, as well. Relaxing attendance policies, a point other bloggers in this series have also made, is an important accommodation for all students, but also reflects the difficulties trans students frequently face in terms of mental health, economic precarity, and multiple commitments outside of school. In my own classes, I don’t take attendance—Hunter College is a non-attendance taking institution, so I’m not required to turn in a roll—and allow flexible deadlines on assignments. If I notice students missing multiple classes, I might ask them if everything’s alright, but I stress that I’m not censuring them for their behavior.
Recently, I’ve been experimenting with “ungrading,” an extension of my desire to move away from a disciplinary classroom setup that most frequently hurts those who are vulnerable already. Scholar Jesse Stommel talks about the advantages of ungrading extensively in his 2018 blog post “How to Ungrade,” but for me, allowing students opportunities for self-assessment—and to consider whether or not they even want to turn in certain assignments—foregrounds their consent and autonomy in the classroom in ways that I’m excited to see more critical attention on in the years to come.
Likewise, centering students’ subjectivities and not making assumptions about their identities or backgrounds should be a cornerstone of praxis, but frequently isn’t—allowing people to self-identify and self-disclose pronouns does a lot to foster a more supportive environment. I stress throughout all my classes that identity can change throughout the course of the semester, encourage self-disclosure for my students, and do my best to avoid making gendered statements in general.
There are other strategies I use as well—asking students to introduce themselves to me with names and pronouns on the first day of class as opposed to reading from a roll; teaching trans and gender-diverse writers holistically as opposed to fostering conversations about them only in relation to their gender identity; and engaging in a sort of progressive stack, seeing who talks the most/least in the classroom and paying attention to that, especially along gender lines, are all important interventions towards a more equitable classroom.
And for other instructors, engaging in trans-led competency training for faculty and staff—and hiring/paying trans instructors and educators—is essential. As activists have been urging for decades, paying attention to who’s allowed into the room, who can’t get to the room, and who is excluded from the room (and why) needs to be inseparable from our methodologies of accessibility.
The Conference & The (Disposable) Trans Body
I’d like to end with one anecdote.
In spring of 2018 I gave a presentation at a writing composition conference on trans-competent writing pedagogy that was incredibly well-received; the room was overflowing with people, and my co-presenter (series curator Jesse Rice-Evans) and I talked to a long line of people afterwards, passing out business cards and exchanging email addresses. (Some of the suggestions under “Access” were first workshopped there at the conference.) This event brought a lot of positive attention to the institution I worked for, NYU Tandon, which co-sponsored my presentation and for whom I was the only trans employee in my department.
However, after the conference—which was also the first space I publically connected transness with a more inclusive pedagogy—my coordinator quietly fired me after I asked for access needs to be met. While he never told me why I was let go, there are a number of potential explanations for his behavior; nonetheless, I bring it up because it also addresses the disposability of the trans body. Despite the work I did as an instructor and the way I helped the institution brand itself as a progressive place, my worth wasn’t enough to justify retaining me or even letting me know why I was ditched. So many of the trans scholars and artists I know have reported similar patterns of ignominy, and I suspect this is true for students as well.
Job security in academia is of course a proverbial joke. But when we think about visibility, I’d like to push us to consider who’s in the room, but also who’s still in the room in the future. So often, well-meaning calls for more inclusive faculty wind up resulting in white, transmasculine, able-bodied instructors being hired. While I’m excited that these people are securing jobs (albeit still in discriminatorily low numbers), race- and gender-oblivious trans hiring practices tend to reify existing male- and white-centric dominant orders, and ignore who is fired.
I’m not pushing my white self as a poster child for trans job insecurity; because of hiring prejudices, brilliant trans writers and scholars who are multiply minoritized in ways beyond me are more frequently pushed to the margins. But I’d like us to consider, across identity formation, who’s in the room, who’s out of the room, and who is asked to leave. How does anti-transness intersect with anti-Blackness, ableism, racism, or (trans)misogyny? And how can we grapple more transformatively with that?
Access means nothing if we aren’t even invited to the conference.