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Liberation on a House of Cards: Reflection of a Trans Woman in Academia

CW: Transphobia

It is well known that the sciences have a problem with inclusivity. Women are not particularly welcome in engineering and even social science departments remain a hotbed of transphobia. But there is a deeper conflict in how academia shapes your thinking that is not really talked about.

Be it the focus on empirical data, constant reliance on majority consensus or just an obsession with using numbers to solve problems, science has made me hyper aware of when my point of view appears ‘weak’.

It’s as cliché as it gets, but it’s true that we stand on the shoulders of giants. Not necessarily people, but gigantic traditions of work that we must cite to be believed. Part of why we have fields in the first place is so that we don’t have to reinvent the wheel for every paper. If you fail to fit your ideas in this bigger picture, then your work will rarely be acknowledged as worthwhile. So what happens when most of this tradition passively, or sometimes very actively, disagrees with your existence? 

I think it becomes inevitable to fall into nasty thought spirals, which I dealt with by philosophising myself with the same cold and distant language that we’re trained to use in the sciences. This works, for a time, but philosophising is tiring, and old habits are a comforting blanket when the world crumbles around us. Especially at a time when separating work and personal life is impossible, my engineering indoctrination has worked overtime bearing gift baskets of dysphoria. 

This became clear to me with LGBTQ+ history month approaching. At a time when I’m told to embrace that trans people have existed for as long as there have been people, my sociologist hat pops back on like an old friend. 

Can I really impose a trans identity on people who probably understood themselves in completely different ways? Should I really latch on to any gender non-conforming identity in history as a ‘we’? Does my need to see my experiences with gender reflected in history make my ideas ‘weak’?

Finally, what I’m left with are a lockdown induced reclusion and a spot in academia that requires me to sacrifice my emotional wellbeing.

However, transmisogyny and transphobia don’t have to come inbuilt into higher education. In fact, I think the solution can be found in the same campaigns that call for the decolonisation of academia. The core problem is not bad apples, but foundations that leave no room for marginalised people. The expectation shouldn’t be on queer academics to balance new inclusive theory on a house of cards, but for the new traditions to be rebuilt to include them. 

Attempts to do so can be seen occasionally, the latest example being an English studies department at the University of Leicester, which plans to remove underpopulated modules on medieval literature in favour of content discussing ethnicity, sexuality and diversity. Despite often being little more than baby steps, these suggestions still result in uproar from academics whose power is reliant on racist, homophobic and transphobic institutions. These aren’t separate battles but forms of justice that have to work together.

When the university claims to take inclusion seriously, we should expect them to do more than just parade pride flags and react to violence. Stop expecting queer academics to fix your broken ideas, give them a chance to work on solid foundations. Decolonise our curriculum.

Image: Via Pixabay

By Alice Spaccasassi

Science and technology editor at The Student.