As my dissertation has been my steady companion for the past two years, I have certainly learned a lot about the toil of writing and the ability to endure in one’s biggest moments of academic defeat. I freely admit that the writing process itself has been a struggle. None of it was easy or particularly enjoyable. It actually made me question more than ever whether I still believe that academia is the right place for me. Yet I am proud of how the project developed and I sincerely hope that it contributes to a better understanding of trans experiences and why trans people are so vulnerable in encounters with state agencies. Sitting down to write the project’s conclusion – and grasping after that long sought thin silver lining at the end of “dissertation writing hell” – forced me in particular to reflect on my own (research) positionality, the politics of allyship, and being accountable to the communities I engage with.
The nightmares caused at times by the lack of confidence in my own project mostly stemmed from an astute awareness of my own positionality as a privileged, white, cis-gendered, queer scholar researching and talking about disenfranchised trans-communities (of color), which I am clearly not a part of. While I was always cognizant of that fact and while immersing myself in feminist and critical sexuality studies has significantly altered the way I approach research and writing, questions of positionality and the insecurities related to them are the ones that have haunted me throughout and I continue to grapple with them. After all, I knew that “sourcing” my interviewees for knowledge and writing about these communities would help me to present my work at conferences, publish journal articles, and ultimately receive my PhD. Should “I” really be writing this project? What really “qualifies” me to do so?
Despite good intentions and the ability to be self-reflective of our own research practices, sometimes we do not always do justice to the communities we study and/or are in allyship with, whether intentional or not. I recall a particular call-out – or maybe phrased more kindly call-in – moment via social media in which I had shared one of Janet Mock’s recent blog entries, titled “A Note on Visibility in the Wake of 6 Trans Women’s Murders in 2015.” In her blog post, Mock powerfully addresses the epidemic of violence against trans women and juxtaposes it with the meteoric rise of transgender celebrity and visibility.
I had prefaced my post with, “Maybe Janet Mock should just finish writing my dissertation” to allude to the incredible poignancy of her words. One of my grad student peers, himself trans, commented how wrong my comment appeared and how alienated it made him feel because it seemed like I was just using Mock’s prose to serve “my end goal of finishing my dissertation.” My initial reaction to this public call-out on Facebook was one of defense and anger. Another cis-gendered feminist colleague of mine was quick to come to my help and assured me that she did not interpret the post in the same way. I spent the rest of that evening frustrated on my couch pondering over how to craft an apologetic reply, feeling personally attacked and the sincerity of my allyship questioned. When I look at the thread of replies that followed now, I kind of have to laugh because it’s pretty bad – me still clearly on defensive, trying to uphold my allyship as unsullied.
In hindsight, this encounter turned into a very “teachable moment” for me in completing this project. I realized how off-putting and selfish my post could appear to trans folks living and breathing these experiences everyday. No one is prone from avoiding mistakes like these. However, it is also not the job of those directly affected by marginalization, injustice, and state violence to educate and “enlighten” those protected by white, cisgender privilege. If one really cares about allyship and has a sincere investment in it, especially as a white ally in relation to marginalized queer communities of color, a key realization is to accept and acknowledge that allyship has its limits – it’s easily adulterated. Particularly, when allyship simply gets abused as another means to selfishly claim credit: the reminder of speaking with and not for or at the communities we are claiming to be in allyship with should be ever present. Sometimes it is better (and necessary) to shut-up and listen. As hard and as uncomfortable these conversations are – I’m ultimately glad that someone did call-in with me. To be continued.