Supporting the Trans Literacy Project
by Anne Esacove
The Trans Literacy Project (TLP) was a pioneering initiative to advance trans literacy across and beyond the University of Pennsylvania. Spearheaded by an extraordinary group of graduate students, the TLP aimed to support and extend campus conversations about gender inclusivity by creating opportunities to develop common language and practices, and by connecting campus efforts to trans inclusive work in the Philadelphia area. Organized with a degree of reflectivity and intentionality that is a model for campus programming, the TLP brought to the conversation the expertise and insights of many people who are rarely seen or heard on university campuses, including nonbinary, trans, and gender nonconforming activists, young people, academics, teachers, learners, and leaders.
My contribution to the project was to create a structure that leveraged the resources available to me through my position at the University of Pennsylvania and then to get out of the way of the group of scholars and activists who organized the TLP. I say this not to be flippant. Nor is it an abdication of my very real responsibility to work with other cis-identified people to address the individual and structural cis-sexism and transphobia that is the true root of the many issues (real and imagined) attributed to trans, nonbinary, and gender nonconforming people.
Rather, for those of us with access to formalized power and privilege, in many cases, the most productive use of our skills and resources is to act as a conduit to funnel those assets to groups and communities who are better situated to do the work. This often will mean adopting different matrices of rigor, effectiveness, and knowledge than those that privilege our academic credentials. In other words, we need to give over our control and power to people with expertise that is not usually legible in academic and other institutional hierarchies. Stepping aside opens possibilities for new insights and more expansive scholarship and programming, as well as opportunities to put into practice the theories of power that inform the scholarship of many of us. When we limit ourselves to narrow ideas of expertise we risk undermining our own efforts. For example, this was the case I found in my SSRC-funded research on US HIV prevention policy in sub-Saharan Africa, where local strategies for preventing HIV were undermined by policymakers’ cultural beliefs about monogamy, confidentiality, and gender conformity.“My support of the TLP also builds on my commitment to work in partnership with students and people who are not academics.”
While trans literacy at an Ivy League university may appear far afield from global HIV prevention policy, there are a number of threads that link these two projects. For example, both share an underlying intellectual project—exposing the construction and regulation of gender and pushing back on powerful institutions that attempt to limit gender(ed) identity and expression through problematization and erasure. My support of the TLP also builds on my commitment to work in partnership with students and people who are not academics. My professional experience in public health prepared me to work with communities to develop and implement programming. But it was the research I conducted through my SSRC Sexuality Research Fellowship Program (SRFP) fellowship and a Fulbright research grant that challenged the foundations of my disciplinary training and my (at the time) recently hard-won identity as an intellectually rigorous academic. In this construct of academic rigor, students can be research assistants and members of community can inform research, but the “real” intellectual/interpretive work is the exclusive domain of PhDs. My HIV prevention policy project provided hard-learned lessons of the folly and limitations of this professional stance. Those lessons, along with a number of reminders along the way, informed my commitment to create a funding opportunity that would support an effort like the TLP—a community-engaged, student-driven project that challenged the status quo at the Alice Paul Center, as well as at Penn more broadly. These lessons and the work of the TLP continue to push me to open myself to truly learn from and be (professionally and personally) challenged by people rarely acknowledged as experts in academia—an endeavor that is often humbling and uncomfortable.
The following reflections, written collaboratively by the six TLP conveners, share several of their key takeaways from organizing the series. They provide an important blueprint for those of us in positions of institutional power to not only reimagine, but also restructure, the ways in which we engage in the work that we do. I encourage you to read them as a model, not only for trans literacy programming, but for expanding efforts for inclusion more generally in university settings.
For details on the TLP programming, please visit: https://transliteracyproject.wordpress.com.
Honor trans community engagement as you would the labor of any other expert.
As organizers of the Trans Literacy Project (TLP), we recognize that marginalized and oppressed communities routinely engage in invisible and uncompensated acts of labor in spaces of higher education. Examples include dining hall workers who perform emotional labor to support students, students with disabilities who must adapt to inaccessible spaces and advocate for their rights, and community members who educate the university on their experiences as an act of volunteerism. Given the stark rates of poverty among trans communities and the indispensability of experiential expertise to trans literacy, we believe it is crucial to offer meaningful compensation for trans-community engagement in projects focused on trans equity. By trans-community engagement, we mean the sharing of lived, experiential insights that may or may not be accompanied by academic degrees or other institutional credentials. Meaningful compensation for community experts means material remuneration on par with that offered to academic experts invited to speak at the university. Initial invitations to community experts should include details about the availability and timeline of compensation.
As part of the TLP, we dedicated the majority of our funding to paying speakers. However, our university’s honorarium protocol stalled payment in a way that impacted several panelists’ personal budgets. University finance systems are structured around the assumption that an honorarium represents supplemental rather than primary income. This model can prove harmful for community experts who don’t have access to the same sorts of salaries or financial resources as tenured academics. Delaying payment, often for several months, can enhance precisely the forms of economic precarity that this project acknowledges as central to the lives of trans people.
Believe young people.
Our spring 2019 event, “Supporting Trans Youth,” featured four trans and nonbinary young people who shared their experiences doing antiracist and trans-advocacy work, as well as simply being present in the school system. Among the many thoughts they shared, something that came up again and again was their experience of not being taken seriously, simply because they are young. “Believe young people,” Tyunique Nelson and Hazel Edwards both said to us. Panelists indicated their wish that older allies take an intersectional approach addressing not only transphobia, but also racism, ableism, class bias, and the age bias that contributes to the dismissal of trans youth’s perspectives. We need to believe young people as authorities on their gendered experiences. We must listen and act in response to what they need from older allies in educational spaces.
Learn pedagogy from students.
We imagined that the audience for the “Teaching Feminist, Queer, and Trans Theory” panel would be primarily composed of instructors. However, most of the attendees were undergraduate and graduate students, which proved productive during the Q&A. Multiple graduate students chose to respond to the panel from their perspectives as students, even though they also teach courses at Penn. Several graduate students described feeling frustrated in ostensibly trans-inclusive courses when instructors asked for pronouns but failed to use them correctly. Similarly, when an audience member asked for student insights, one of the graduate student organizers suggested that trans-inclusive pedagogy should be flexible and responsive to trans students’ stated needs.
Other students explained that questions framed in binary terms were inherently exclusive of trans people. Questions framed this way might include feminist interventions that refer to disparities between “men” and “women,” or discussions of sexuality that identify only “gay” and “straight.” Other conversations that rely on a binary understanding of gender include interventions focused on “women in politics,” “women in media,” or “women’s reproductive health,” all of which are inadvertently exclusive, even as they seek to correct for work attentive only to “men.” These exchanges between students and instructors underscored the need to move beyond a woman-centered feminism and prioritize antiracist and antipatriarchal discourse to shape a more inclusive pedagogy of liberation. They also revealed that we can learn from our students to prioritize trans-affirming language from outside academic conversations, and to develop an adaptive and supportive classroom that makes room for the analysis of multiple trans experiences. Given that young people today understand trans identity and trans bodies very differently from those of earlier generations, students and instructors alike highlighted the need to overturn hierarchies in the classroom and establish a more lateral power structure that views these disparities in experience as a productive source of insight and dialogue.
Listen to trans people about trans issues.
Just as we should listen to students about pedagogy and to young people about their experiences as trans youth, we should listen to trans people about trans issues. In our session “Teaching Beyond the Gender Binary,” panelist Jama Shelton flagged the pedagogical importance of being visibly trans in the classroom. For example, they asked their students to practice using they/them pronouns for all authors unless the student knew otherwise from the author’s biography. Shelton explained that avoiding assumptions about pronouns matters to many people, “including your teacher.” (Both Shelton and Heath Fogg Davis discussed their experiences as trans-identified professors in podcasts recorded before their TLP panels, which are available on the Alice Paul Center website.)
We also appreciated the ways some of our non-trans-identified panelists marked their positionality. In the “Teaching Beyond the Gender Binary” session, French instructor Monica Kramer described how, after years of “correcting” students’ usage of masculine or feminine adjectives in the classroom, she realized that she was uncomfortable being an authority on the “right” way for students to gender themselves. Kramer said she did not have conclusive answers about how to treat gender in a Romance language classroom, but we felt that her doubts were themselves an opening for developing new pedagogies.
Make room for trans people to be experts on topics beyond being trans.
In organizing our four events, we asked both trans folks and allies to focus on how they support trans people in a range of institutional and noninstitutional spaces. We invited trans-identified advocates to participate based on our knowledge of their passion and aptitude for trans advocacy. If we were to put together another series of events, we would ask our trans participants about forms of knowledge that are not limited to their trans identities, or other topics that they wanted to cover.
In the press coverage of these events, we were repeatedly asked to speak about our own experiences as trans and nonbinary people, rather than about the content of the event series. This highlighted a focus on individual identity rather than structural change, whereas we hoped the event series would emphasize institutional accountability and transformation.
Consider what your work is accomplishing toward the redistribution of power.
Throughout the TLP, we worked to sustain panels that represented the breadth of people producing knowledge about trans experiences. For our “Teaching Beyond the Gender Binary” panel, we contacted a range of trans-of-color scholars, but many were unable to participate. We ended up hosting an all-white panel, and one of our attendees noted their perception that the panel was constituted of both white and masculine-of-center individuals. This was notably different from our other three panels, which featured trans-of-color and trans-feminine advocates. While inadvertent, this divide propagated the notion that white trans-masculine scholars hold authoritative academic knowledge on trans life, whereas people of color and trans-feminine people provide embodied or activist knowledges about trans experiences. Such a narrative is caused in part by the academy’s structural failure to support trans-of-color and trans-feminine scholars; however, we also saw a greater need to reframe what counts as “academic” knowledge, as well as the need to break down divides between disciplines like English and education.
Furthermore, we noted the tendency in academic spaces to acknowledge trans women of color—and often specifically Black trans women—solely for their experiences of violence, rather than centering a more holistic narrative that foregrounds their power beyond victimhood. Similar to our reframing of conversations built around the self-evident oppression of trans people, we sought to disrupt structures that contributed to these statistics in the first place, beginning a discussion about the desire for new models of trans life. In response to these concerns, we partnered with the Caucus of Working Educators during the Black Lives Matter at School Week of Action for our panel, “Supporting Trans Educators.” Panelists included organizers and community educators, and the audience ranged from graduate students to community members and K-12 teachers. To build interactivity, we asked participants to join two short breakout sessions with panelists after opening remarks. This approach created a spirit of collaboration and also redistributed intellectual power: the panelists were not seen as the only experts, as participants were encouraged to offer responses to questions posed by their groups.
In thinking about future trans-advocacy projects, we hope to orient ourselves toward alternative models of trans life and struggle. This includes not only trans-identified people themselves but also the people working in ecosystems of trans life—educators with trans students, youth engaged with domestic violence shelters, homelessness outreach coordinators, and anti-institutional abolitionists. At its core, trans advocacy must work to identify and dismantle structural violence against trans people, requiring a holistic outlook on the contributors to trans narratives. To achieve changes on this scale, trans advocates may need to shift what constitutes “trans,” both as an identity and as an analytic, and carefully reflect on what “trans” does and does not bring into view. Though the conversations are difficult, we believe that these commitments are necessary in order to move beyond trans “inclusion” and toward liberation.
Banner photo credit: Mira Shetty