Publication Date

June 29, 2022

Perspectives Section

Perspectives Daily, The Graduate

Among transgender people, no two stories are the same. We transition at different points in our lives; take different approaches to the social, legal, and medical processes; and have different timelines for when transition “begins” and “ends.” But for some trans grad students, our transition process and time in grad school—both commonly, though not exclusively, undertaken in early adulthood—overlap.

Stack of journals fanned out in the trans flag colors, blue, pink, and white.

As he nears the end of his PhD program, a transgender historian shares his experiences and offers advice to other trans students. Base image: utroja0/Pixabay; modified: Mohammed Ali

Unfortunately, transition and graduate school—each life-changing and stressful experiences in any context—become even more so when they coincide. The social aspects in particular can be jarring. Based on my experience with undergraduate mentors, I saw historians as fierce allies to marginalized communities rooted in their expertise of how marginalization has operated in the past. I felt relief that I would be transitioning while part of a community that was too smart to perpetuate the kind of bigotry I faced in other facets of my life. With my guard down in this way, I was wholly unprepared to handle transphobia from faculty, administrators, and peers.

I often mourn what my grad school experience could have been without transphobia. At the same time, I now see that there were things I could have done differently. I believed people who made me feel less valuable and capable than my cisgender peers. I did not try to explain my circumstances to those who saw me as flaky or unmotivated. I kept myself in the double-bind of trusting few people within my department and not seeking outside support. As I near the end of my PhD program, I hope to offer some perspective that may help other trans people in or considering grad school.

Transition Takes Time and Energy

During my first year, I asked a classmate about her middle-school students’ opinions on a topic. The professor interjected that middle schoolers are only thinking about puberty and figuring themselves out. I’ve often reflected on that comment while trying to forgive myself for not producing the quality of work I believe I’m capable of, and not producing it fast enough, while experiencing a second puberty. In addition to the time I spent taking care of the logistics of legal and medical transition—for example, driving two hours each way to the nearest endocrinologist that treats trans people, or spending hours filling out paperwork and waiting in line to get documents changed—I was more preoccupied with figuring myself out and how I relate to the world than my cisgender peers. Internally, coming out to myself, so to speak, had a domino effect, prompting me to reconsider the authenticity of other aspects of my personality. Externally, it took time to become accustomed to how differently other people see me and relate to me. This is necessarily a somewhat adolescent process.

Uncharitably, these demands on my time and energy may have made me seem to both peers and faculty as immature, self-absorbed, and lacking dedication to my work. It’s worth considering being forthcoming with professors about these demands. While true that a professor is neither your therapist nor your friend, we shouldn’t consider it unprofessional to share how the effort needed to maintain health and well-being—without necessarily disclosing any of the details of that effort—makes working at the same pace as your peers difficult. Absent of that, faculty may make unfair assumptions about your work ethic and character, which will impact how they evaluate your work, mentor you, and recommend you for opportunities. This will not change a transphobic professor’s opinion of you, but others might appreciate the clarification.

It took time to become accustomed to how differently other people see me and relate to me.

Faced with the reality that both transition and grad school are demanding, some trans people decide to delay one to take care of the other first. That decision is a valid choice but should be entirely up to you. As academia becomes more diverse, the expectation that the ideal graduate student is a white, abled, middle-class, cisgender, heterosexual male who has no outside concerns or responsibilities, or has other people to take care of them for him, is thankfully receding. Do not let someone who would tell any prospective grad student that their needs and responsibilities outside of graduate school are unwelcome influence your decision.

The Specifics of Academic Transphobia

As distinct from religiously or politically conservative transphobia, the secular, liberal transphobia common in academia hinges on the principle that trans people hold less sophisticated ideas about gender than the average educated person. This idea, introduced nearly 50 years ago in scholarship such as The Transsexual Empire (1979), continues to influence prejudices regarding trans people’s capabilities and intelligence. In speaking with transphobic historians, several have begun explanations of their transphobia to me with, “As a historian . . .”—implying that their transphobic beliefs are supported by their historical expertise and that anyone with historical expertise would come to transphobic conclusions. Ergo, by being transgender, I must necessarily be a lesser historian, because if I were as good of a historian are they are, I, too, would hold transphobic beliefs. I’ll never forget how betrayed I felt when a cisgender male peer who dresses and presents himself almost identically to the way that I do accused trans people of enforcing restrictive parameters around gender, and when a historian in my field that I admired supported him in that assertion. Someone who sees you as categorically less intelligent than your cisgender peers, someone who sees your gender presentation and identity as inherently less valid, cannot fairly evaluate your work, teach you in the classroom, or offer the mentorship that they offer other students. You may have to go out of your way to get fair and meaningful feedback on your work from people you can trust or in more anonymized settings.

The Pros and Cons of Institutional Safeguards

Faced with both academic transphobia as described above and much more basic forms, I decided that I needed to seek help. There are pros and cons to coming forward about transphobia to a professor, an administrator, an ombudsperson, a Title IX coordinator, or another professional tasked with addressing discrimination. The individuals in these offices may not be helpful and they may be hostile to trans people themselves. Discrimination against trans students is a violation of Title IX, as clarified by both the Obama and Biden administrations, but most marginalized students know that discrimination complaints often go nowhere. The ombudsperson that I spoke with told me I would garner more respect if I spoke and behaved in a more stereotypically masculine manner. I also raised a concern with the Title IX coordinator, who promised to get back to me—and didn’t. Of the few faculty I spoke to about my concerns, only one responded with open hostility, but the others, though sympathetic, felt that there was little they could do.

Write everything down.

Although these offices might not meaningfully address what happened, reporting your concerns creates a critical body of evidence. Write everything down. Note instances of transphobia and the dates when you met with someone to discuss transphobia. This evidence keeps your options open for taking further action in the future should you decide to do so.

Seek Community

Many, though not all, graduate programs foster a culture of isolation that encourages students to shrink their world and only seek social support within the department. This is extremely unhealthy for all students, but especially for marginalized students outnumbered by peers who do not share their marginalization. I had to find community outside of grad school, especially with other trans people.

At the same time, experiencing discrimination may encourage you to become wary and distrustful of your fellow students. A general distrust of other people is a common side effect of negative experiences with discrimination, as experiencing discrimination encourages you to see the world as fundamentally unsafe. Unfortunately, this distrust might also include those that you should be building community with—fellow LGBTQ+ grad students, those that share other forms of marginalization, and those facing forms of marginalization that you do not. It’s important that you resist isolation and be there for each other. You will all be stronger for it.

New graduate students and newly out trans people often feel raw or frightened—doubly so if you are both. The greatest gift of coming out as trans is self-determination, stating definitively that you have the right to exert agency over your own life. Do not let anyone convince you otherwise as a graduate student.

Mark Mulligan is a PhD candidate at William & Mary. He tweets @mdpmulligan.

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