Trans Trouble: Structural and ‘Administrative En-gendering’ as the Academic-Corporate Complex

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Bobby Noble, York University
Guest Contributor This entry is part of the CFHSS’s VP Equity Issues series on issues related to LGBTQI2-S (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning, intersex and Two-Spirit) peoples.

As I sit down to draft this blog entry, Dean Spade’s important book Normal Life: Administrative Violence, Critical Trans Practice and the Limits of Law literally lands at my door. I’ve been thinking for a while now about the relationship between what Spade calls administrative violence and structures of binary genders as they emerge as a modality of the identification practices of the academic-corporate complex. I quickly skim Spade’s book for entry points into a description of two monumental “personal” problematics that preoccupy both my own institutional life and the way that such an institutional practice might possibly emerge both in and as a modality of a counterpublic – or more to the point, fail to productively materialize as such.

The first modality I reference is an impending trans human rights complaint I seek to launch against the federal government for their use of exclusively binarized sex categories on Canadian passport documents. The second is what I can only identify as a related and seemingly structural virus that seems to have afflicted the vast and decentralized computer network of my home university over the last five years which prevent such systems from successfully processing my transgender legal name change (now at least six years old). The latter has been an ongoing struggle for myself and for many skilled administrative personnel across the campus: To correct instances where my no-longer-legal-birth name pops up randomly.

The affliction is not mine alone; universities across Canada seem ill-equipped to cope with the trans-ing of much of its student, and in some cases, faculty cohort. But this particular truth-effect is yet another jarring structural impasse between the perceived new kid on the block – trans- scholarship as a seemingly new cousin of sexuality and gender studies – in conflict with our institutional deployment of rigid en-gendering practices (strict use binary sex categories and legal birth names) for our students.  In actuality these binary sex categories compromise the integrity of learning environments for the same students whose imaginary interest ‘equity’ policies are reiterated in the name of in the first place. The result is a violently performative refrain: ‘it isn’t our fault; we can’t change it’.

Both modalities – the legal grammars of a passport document and university admissions/registrant markers and their dependence upon the imagined transparency of sex categories – obviously reference each other. But such practices seem to be reaching critical mass at my institution right now. As I often pedagogically want to rush to explicate the complexities of trans-engendering, I find myself in this case coming face to face with a new and remarkable generation of trans-ing students for whom such complexity is, in the short term, a luxury too hastily accorded. As I prepare to do work across classrooms with this cohort, I realize that the context in which we do this work of ‘knowledge production’ instead renders such trans- embodiment quite distinct from and other to, the kinds of queering practices that, as Currah Paisley, Jamison Green and Susan Stryker note in “The State of Transgender Rights in the United States of America,” we might imagine we have become accustomed to inhabiting:

“[N]either ‘-gender’ nor any of the other suffixes of ‘trans-’ can be understood in isolation … transing … is a practice that takes place within, as well as across or between, gendered spaces … transing can function as a disciplinary tool when the stigma associated with the lack or loss of gender status threatens social unintelligibility, coercive normalization … a fundamental question we would like to pose is: What kinds of intellectual labour can we begin to perform through the critical deployment of ‘trans-’ operations and movements? Those of us schooled in the humanities and social sciences have become familiar, over the past twenty years or so, with queering things: how might we likewise begin to critically trans- our world?”

With such rethinkings of trans-, unmoored from the identitarian work of its suffixes but not from its potentials to articulate normativities of its own, I track the movement of trans-ing bodies as they transit across the rigidities of the academic-corporate complex. What emerges is an urgent need, in the imperative tense, to catalogue the disproportionate impact of normative en-genderings, thresholds we often imagine ourselves to be beyond: the assumptions that accommodating LGBQ student lives is the same as accommodating those identified with the complex modalities and mobilities of the ‘T’. This is not the right case.

As one course of such documentary action, then, I reproduce here the following letter addressed to my colleagues in a non-specific graduate program attempting to out the less than-obvious administrative en-gendering practices that do a structural and daily violence across trans bodies at my own institution.

 “I write to draw your attention to, and enlist your advocacy, on an issue that continues to not just damage access to educational infrastructures and safety for some of our incoming graduate students but which, as a structural issue inside the academic-corporate complex, continues to do violence to our numerous and committed feminisms at student, administrative and faculty levels. First, as we continue to accept trans and genderqueer graduate students into our numerous program, many of whom ask us to use chosen names (over legal birth names) and who use pronouns other than ‘she/her’, our institutional, disciplinary and department/program structures make no room for such variance and gender self-determination.

Even as we attempt to correct for an overdetermination of ‘she’ in some programs, we still are nowhere near best practices working against administrative en-gendering where we can control these; and we remain under-utilized as knowledge producers advising this institution/administration on where we cannot. For instance, I recently completed a non-OHIP [Ontario Health Insurance Program] health form at a Toronto based and trans-literate community-based health facility that progressively, and in response to need, listed 6 different choices of pronouns; at least 3 different options to the question what is/was your sex?; an additional question of  ‘what is your chosen gender?’  AND ‘what name would you prefer we use?’. The institutional, epistemological and methodological “best” practices of the academic-corporate complex lag damagingly far behind.

Moreover, some of our transed and genderqueer graduate students also use names different from those that appear on their legal documents. While this is also a structural issue across universities in concert with other governmentalities, for those graduate students employed as our teaching assistants in classrooms, this creates a very dangerous, pedagogically confusing, inequitable and compromising situation across the board, a situation to which our less-than best practices actively contribute. In these cases, rather than sending trans- graduate students to talk to trans- faculty members (an individualizing solution at best), it seems imperative that those of us committed to social justice practices work with our students in an institution that makes no structural effort whatsoever to remedy this situation, one admittedly mired in provincial and federal legal structures.

Some of these legal structures trans- activists are attempting to change. I am about to launch with a legal team a human rights complaint against the federal government for their use of binary sex categories on passports as discriminatory. As evidenced from the above health form, other community based service providers are already far ahead of us in their practices. As such, it behooves me to ask this but aren’t names also a political issue? Whether it be a feminist practice of choosing to keep maiden names and not take a husband’s name upon marriage; using gender neutral names for children; changing names to reflect maternal lineages; insisting that names be pronounced and spelled correctly and with attention to linguistic precision; the right to be addressed as Ms and not the archaic Mr’s unless one chooses this – the right to self-name has always been an issue of extreme political importance.

I can assure you that this is an issue of structural violence as well across stations and differentially precarious positionings inside the academic-corporate complex. I am a full-time tenured faculty member who has, years ago, both legally and socially chosen a name and sex different from that ascribed to me at birth, and the only place where that birth name and sex continue to appear is at my ‘home’ institution. Yearly, with the exception of my sabbatical year, I have visited many offices and capacities across our campus to discern the source of and then attempt to correct this structural and en-gendering virus.

Some examples remain pedagogically useful as illustrations of how this refusal to press systems to name and gender correctly has for me (one of the ‘privileged’ of our industry), actually worked: I have had benefits withheld because of a perceived discrepancy in naming. I fear thinking about what is happening re: names and my pension. And I have had SSHRC [Social Science and Humanities Research Council] funds frozen. The remedies offered to me by some of these administrative offices have been ridiculous (our benefits provider asked me for proof of a marriage license between my previous name and my current name before they would extend me my benefits; for two years, this occurred with each and every claim, even after I notified them in writing that this was not a marriage but a legal sex change). In other cases, when the registrar’s office at my school has listed my birth name as Course Director I was placed in very difficult circumstances that required complicated explanations before I even began my teaching work with the students. This did not bode well for our pedagogical process and it created a very confusing situation for most students who were utterly befuddled and nowhere near ready to think through this issue with me as part of our curriculum. Yet, thankfully, many of them did.

If you have a student working for you as a teaching assistant who queries how a different name might be used (for example, on Moodle or other virtual classroom technologies), sending them to trans- faculty members as remedy is not helpful. Asking the student if something has worked elsewhere and then calling tech and support administrators to see what can be done could facilitate the accommodation of our trans students within structures and systems that remain intransigent around the complexity of trans- embodiment – this is far more useful.

I ask that we do what the best of our social justice movements have taught us: to not individualize these situations as anomalies but instead to deal with them as current manifestations of the kinds of historical and structural problems doing a kind of violence that so many of our social movements and theoretical paradigms have seen fit to address. Either we engage in the dismantling of such practices or – and I go on record – we need to stop exposing our students to such daily violences in the name of reified systems and structures that supposedly ‘cannot be helped’.

I have now been at my university for six years, which have been arduous around these and other related trans- issues despite my best efforts and those of a few of my cisgendered colleagues. Year after year, I find I have the same conversations with my students – only this year they grow en masse – individually to marshal them through administrative engendering to which they are left without many allies or, seemingly, much widespread faculty support and action. The only reason why my legal name appears the way it does is because our astute and committed program assistants have each personally insisted that it appear no less than accurate. I ask each of us to make the same commitment.

At the very least, I ask each of us to begin to rethink how we might trans-conceptualize this complex terrain issue of regulatory and administrative en-gendering which is not remedied by the practices providing accommodation of LGBQ bodies. Instead, we return to Trans 101 and think in far more complex ways about the proximities we erroneously deploy when we neatly imagine that we successfully LGBTQIQ our teaching and learning environments in the name of ‘equity’. The reality couldn’t be further from the truth.”  

Bobby Noble is an associate professor of Sexuality and Gender Studies in the School of Women’s Studies at York University in Toronto, and author of Masculinities without Men?: Female Masculinity in Twentieth-Century Fictions.


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