Where Academia Fails: Trans Inclusion/Education

“Transgender people are usually men.” This is how my Crisis Intervention text book started it’s only paragraph on trans* people. Despite the constant use of LGBT or just gay as a general term, they denote one definition and one paragraph to trans* people and perpetuate constant myths and stereotypes. In reality, the number of binary trans* people (thus, the stereotypical MtF and FtM) are equal.  Non-binary trans* people are almost never mentioned and are often referred to as pre-op transgender (or transsexual) people because many texts uphold the idea that all trans* people medically transition.

The paragraph continues to go on referring to trans women with male pronouns and even has scare quotes. “He may then choose to identify himself as a ‘she’ in society and even on legal documents”, is a prime example of this. This plays into the idea that trans* people and their identities are fake, constructed, and for the purpose of deceiving others. The scare quotes denote the fact that this is the incorrect gender of this person. The tone of the sentence is also problematic as it holds an air of holding trans* people as freaks, mentally ill, and so on. Did I mention that this was the textbook for my crisis intervention class?

Also, according to this author, “the process of becoming a trangender may take years”.  She uses a transgender and transgenders repeatedly throughout the paragraph as well. She describes being transgender as a process (as opposed to transitioning as a process) and proceeds to put “sex-change” in just that, more scare quotes. Kanel’s tone in a paragraph trying to describe trans* people is dripping with cissexism and trans*phobia, in a college textbook. By using scare quotes, she is putting in a personal bias about her belief that sex cannot be altered. She is also continue to show that “sex-change” (her quotes) surgeries are just as fake and constructed as the gender of trans* people. Just like a trans woman’s pronouns are not real, nor is her new vagina, as previously asserted by Kanel.

“Some may be gay (attracted to men after sex-change surgery), and others may be attracted to women.” Despite earlier in the chapter labeling gay as “a man that is sexually attracted to men”, Kanel proceeds to call trans women gay men. The sentences before this were asserting how there are stereotypes about trans women saying they are drag queens and freaks, yet Kanel is perpetuating the biggest one of them all; that trans women are really men. Have I mentioned that all of this is in one paragraph of a school textbook? A textbook that was most recently updated and published in 2012? This is not an older textbook with out of date information. This is a textbook that was updated just last year.

This is an issue that is not contained in this one book (in which there was even more problematic things that the few I just picked as examples). For example, my Intro to Communications class defined sex as male or female, and that gender was masculine, feminine, or androgynous. Instead of describing gender, they described gender presentation and asserted that sex was dominant over gender, that people are defined by their sex. This was addressing the differences in communication between men and women. While mentioning that it is unknown how much of the difference is inborn or societal, it was discussing gender in an entirely incorrect way.

More examples come from my Human Behavior in the Social Environment class. When discussing identity development, the authors of this book used words like transgenderist and transgendered. While the book positively mentioned that not all trans* people medically transition, they interlinked sexual orientation with gender identity and suggested that trans* people must always disclose their transgender status to potential partners. The suggestion was made that trans* people’s sexualities and sexual orientations are different from those of cisgender people (because they are trans*) and that people dating trans* people must reconsider their sexual orientation. Once again, this is a recent book with the copy we received having been published in 2011.

Sadly, this is not just me getting a college that has a tendency to provide textbooks that are poorly written on trans* issues and trans* people. This is something that spans from coast to coast in the United States and even overseas when it comes to education.  Psychology books tend to discuss trans* people as being mentally ill, often discussing how homosexuality was removed from the DSM in the same breath. This serves to set an example that unlike sexuality, trans* people are truly mentally ill and there is something wrong with them that they still need to be classified as a mental illness. While this is changed in the more recent DSM-V, most textbooks are not up-to-date and still classify Gender Dysphoria as a mental problem (gender dysphoria is caused by being trans*).

Many of these problems seem to stem from basic and entry level books. These are classes that are meant to be a stepping stone into more advanced classes for similar courses. These are typically referred to as 101 classes (since they are 100-level in US colleges).  Sociology, Psychology, and other similar courses at their most basic levels, seem to have the most issues. This is because they must be general and explain things on basic and simple terms. Generalizations, especially those that need to be simple, easy to understand, and the most general are usually the ones that have the most problems.

Sadly, that is not the case. Even in courses such as Queer Theory, Intro to Social Justice, Intro to LGBTQ studies, and Sociology of Gender, textbooks and course materials are lacking. Some of these courses do not even cover trans* people, despite being inclusive of them in their name (like queer, LGBTQ and gender) and even if they do, most of the texts and resources about trans* people are not written by trans* people at all, but by cis people talking about trans* people. For example, in the Sociology of Gender class a text has the line, “so-called gender normals – biological, sexual, and gender ‘straights’”, to describe cisgender people, along with using words such as transgendering and transgendered.

The sciences are also plagued with issues regarding trans* people and their inclusion, however on a different level. For the sciences, namely biology, the emphasis is on biological essentialism. Often this issues are not discussed in a gray manner, but in a black and white way. The typical XX is female and XY is male is pushed throughout these types of courses, from the most basic to the most advanced. When trans* people are covered, it is often as to how people try to change their sex, but are ultimately still what they are assigned at birth because biology triumphs over all. Intersex people are often discussed, but in the most insensitive ways.

For example, someone shared with me some things that their professor has written about sex and gender formation. This professor often used gender as opposed to sex when talking about genetics as well as genitals and other bodily organs (such as ovaries and testes). Intersex people were called pseudohermaphrodites throughout the text. Phrases like “ultimately, our gender is laid down by our genes” and “There is more to a man than testes alone, however. A penis is one of the other obvious necessities” show his belief in biological essentialism as well as cissexism. This professor believes that people with penises are men and that for someone to be a man, a penis is a requirement (sorry those who have lost them to cancer, traumatic life events, or never had one, you’re not a man). He also proclaims it helps if a woman has a vagina for her to really be a woman. Normal male and normal female are also used in the passages to describe cisgender and non-intersex people, placing trans* and intersex people between these two polarities.

This isn’t just an issue with textbooks and other texts. As touched on in the previous paragraph, educators are also at fault. When a student asked to use more recent gender books in their Women’s Studies class (in 2003), including books written by trans* people, they were met with hostility from their teacher who went as far as to tell the student that the class wasn’t for them. This was a class where students had to teach the lessons, but only with the materials the teacher provided, even if they were incorrect. The text provided only spoke of trans women in extreme stereotypes (thus explaining that trans women were hyper-femme and reinforcing the gender binary).

Another person, who was going through their discrimination and harassment training to be a teaching assistant (TA), experienced gender identity and gender dysphoria being explained as a sexual orientation. This means at this school employees were being taught, at the most basic level, incorrect information about trans* people. Another student is studying diversity psychology on gender and has yet to experience any trans* inclusion at all.

This highlights another issue. Even in areas of queer/gender/feminist theory, trans* inclusion and minimal. As previously mentioned, when trans* people are mentioned, it is often through texts and sources written by cisgender people about trans* people. Rarely are books like Julia Serano’s Whipping Girl ever made to be required reading for classes, even if they are classes that would benefit from such books (like a Gender Studies class). Often when students bring up the lack of inclusion or problematic material, they are shot down by instructors since the idea that teacher’s are all-knowing and fully educated is something that many hold to, even if they are wrong.

Academia is partially to blame for the perpetuation of stereotypes and misinformation. Textbooks and classes like the ones I’ve previously mentioned are being used in colleges (and maybe some high schools) all across the United States and possibly even the globe. These books paint trans* people as being mentally ill, fakes, imposters, reinforcing the gender binary, overly femme (since trans men almost are never mentioned, and non-binary people? Forget it.), as well as various other problems. These statements are made and taken to be factual, despite the contrary. Since these are presented as scholarly texts and articles, students never find themselves questioning the books they are reading unless they were previously educated on trans* people. The media takes up these stories and continues to spin them, often over the voices of trans* people and their outcries against them.

Books need to be called into question, especially in classes that proclaim to be the basis for education (like intro and 101 classes). If trans* people are being talked about, the voices of trans* people on their own lives and issues need to be taken into account and pushed ahead before those of cis people. One way we fight inequality and stereotypes is through knowledge and it is difficult to do this when the world’s largest educational institutions are still pushing myths, stereotypes, and downright incorrect information in regards to trans*people.  Knowledge truly is power and knowledge needs to be correct for it to work.

Textbooks referenced:

A Guide to Crisis Intervention by Kristi Kanel (ISBN: 978-0-8400-3429-8)

Communicating for Success by Cheryl Hamilton and Bonnie Creel (ISBN: 978-0-205-52475-4)

Human Behavior and the Social Environment: Theory and Practice by Joan Granucci Lesser and Donna Saia Pope (ISBN: 978-0-205-79274-0)

Essentials of Biology 102: An Introduction to Biological Systems by Arnold J. Karpoff (ISBN: 978-9-2600-6372-7)

Breaking the Bowls: Degendering and Feminist Change by Judith Lorber (ISBN: 978-0-3939-7325-9)


One thought on “Where Academia Fails: Trans Inclusion/Education”

  1. when you wrote -“The tone of the sentence is also problematic as it holds an air of holding trans* people as freaks, mentally ill, and so on. Did I mention that this was the textbook for my crisis intervention class?” I thought “Just whose crisis needs intervening in? Perhaps the transphobic author who hasn’t done adequate research? Bias Crisis.”

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