Do Ask Because We’ll Tell
Dr. Jen Jack Gieseking, a scholar of queer geographies who is also a lesbian trans butch working in academia, has experienced the isolation and near invisibility of trans, non-binary, and gender non-conforming academics, especially those employed as junior faculty. This isolation is exacerbated by the fact that there are only a handful of openly trans scholars in his home discipline of geography.
To remedy this isolation, he has sought out potential trans mentees and mentors at conferences and workshops. He explains that he approaches people and breaks the ice with genuine enthusiasm for their work which usually translates into a deeper relationship once the connection has been made. “Many trans and gender non-conforming folks would say that didn’t think to reach out and try to connect because they didn’t want to bother other people or they didn’t even realize other people were having a similar experience.” But once the relationship has been formed there is a wealth of support to be offered, often through text messages or email exchanges. “Sometimes they’re in situations they don’t realize are harmful to them. I’ll encourage them to avoid that advisor making backhanded comments ‘in jest’ and suggest putting someone else on their committee. Once you convince them their work really means a lot to other people they realize they don’t have to put up with microagressions.”
Dr. Gieseking has also sought out mentors for himself to ensure he is supported in his work and on his campus community. If a mentor doesn’t have the language or understanding to be an effective trans ally, he often recommends some reading. “And because they’re academics they love that!”
He emphasizes that our understanding of trans and gender non-conforming people is constantly changing. Over the years he has been approached by colleagues and friends with questions about their own gender non-conforming and non-binary children. He finds their children’s experience to be vastly different from his own. “When I was a little butch girl there wasn’t a Facebook group, or a Times article, or even a word for it. I was just a ‘tomboy.’ Kids today come out in a world that names them trans and sets them on a variety of paths.” He adds that it is important to offer support and advises people to approach trans and gender non-conforming folks with respect and a genuine desire to be an ally.
He explains that it is especially important to ask students what pronoun they use because many academics report they don’t refer to students with pronouns and therefore don’t ask the question, but a majority of gender non-conforming students report their instructors misgender them. His department recently circulated a handout prior to interviewing a job candidate explaining that you DO ask what pronouns a person uses but DO NOT ask their gender. This simple distinction can go a long way towards building a community of trans allies and helping to make a previously isolated community visible.
For Dr. Gieseking’s further suggested reading on using pronouns and becoming a trans ally see https://fyp.washington.edu/downloads/TransAllyWorkbook.pdf and Trans*: A Quick and Quirky Account of Gender Variability by Jack Halberstam.
Jen Jack Gieseking is Assistant Professor of Geography at the University of Kentucky, where he teaches courses on digital studies and queer geographies. He is also conducting research on trans people’s use of Tumblr as a site of cultural production, and a hub for co-produced medical knowledge. He is the author of the forthcoming A Queer New York: Geographies of Lesbians, Dykes, and Queers, 1983-2008, which is under contract with NYU Press. To learn more about Dr. Gieseking visit his website jgieseking.org/ or follow him on Twitter @jgieseking.