Last month, Dr. Aaron Devor, a trans professor at the University of Victoria, was named the first Chair in Transgender studies in the world. Michel Ghanem sat down with Devor to discuss trans visibility in pop culture, as well as his exciting new position.
Last month, a professor at the University of Victoria in Canada (which I currently attend) was named Chair in Transgender Studies—the first of its kind of the world. For Dr. Aaron Devor, who is trans himself, the position has been more than 30 years in the making.
Devor’s first book and the product of his master’s research, Gender Blending: Confronting the Limits of Duality (1989), examines the social construction of gender in society, written before transgender studies existed as we know it today. His second book, FTM: Female-to-Male Transsexuals in Society (1997), provides the detailed experiences of 45 trans men and a theoretical framework to understanding gender and sexuality. Both are still in print and repeatedly used in classrooms across North America.
In 2007, Devor began collecting historical documents of all mediums relating to transgender and gender nonconforming people in the world. Today, if you line up every box and book acquired for UVic’s Transgender Archives (which is open to the public), you could fill the length of a football field—320 feet, to be precise. And talks of having a virtually accessible archive are already underway.
Needless to say, Devor has dedicated his life’s work to studying gender identity. He is also an award-winning Sociology professor, an elected member of the elite International Academy of Sex Research, and a fellow of the Society of the Scientific Study of Sexuality.
I spoke with Devor about his new position, his research, what he hopes to accomplish, and trans visibility in popular culture.
Dr. Aaron Devor
Michel: In the last few years, trans issues have reached the forefront of pop culture through celebrities like Janet Mock, Laverne Cox, and Caitlyn Jenner. How important is this contribution to trans visibility?
Dr. Aaron Devor: The fact that we have trans celebrities today has an upside and a downside. The upside is that celebrities are part of popular culture, and popular culture is called that because people like it. It’s popular. Your average person feels a personal connection to celebrities—they take an interest in their lives. That works out to the advantage of the trans community, in the sense that there are more people in the world that feel like they know someone who is trans. In fact, they don’t know Janet Mock, Laverne Cox, Caitlyn Jenner, and Chaz Bono—but because they’re part of the popular imagination, people feel like they know them. One of the things we know from social science research is that when you feel like you know somebody that is representative of a “type,” it’s much harder to stereotype, discriminate, be mean, small-minded, and unfair.
The downside is that celebrities are celebrities. They are not common people. They are not typical of trans people. The popular imagination has then quite a distorted view of what trans people are actually like. They’re not all gorgeous, wealthy, powerful—in fact, that’s quite the opposite of what the reality is for most trans lives. Most trans people live below the average income level, have trouble getting stable housing, good jobs—that’s the downside. If you think Caitlyn Jenner is typical, or even Janet Mock, of trans people’s realities, that’s not true.
Tell us about your newly appointed position as Chair in Transgender Studies, and how it came about.
The purpose of the chair is to support the further development of research in transgender studies, to translate that into real world policies, practices, and to influence people’s hearts and minds. We might have policies, we might have laws, but we also want people to do things from the right motivation, and to do things well—to benefit transgender people.
When you started your research in the field 30 years ago, did you receive any pushback on your ideas?
No, actually, there was plenty of support for it. This was back at a time when we didn’t have the term “transgender,” and we didn’t really have much in the way of organizations—there was some, but very little, and quite isolated. Generally, we have a term for people who push back against things like this; we call them reactionaries. That’s because they’re reacting against change they feel is threatening to their values or their way of life. At the time I started, [trans studies] was so small that people didn’t really react against it; they didn’t feel threatened by it. The people around whom I was working found it fascinating and were very interested.
Was there a sense of isolation that came with doing so much of this research by yourself?
I certainly felt that I was the only person who was doing this. I did, after a while, find other people, but at the very beginning of my time in the field, I didn’t know anybody else doing this work. The first piece of work (Gender Blending: Confronting the Limits of Duality, 1989) was about women who identified as women, but had an “androgynous” appearance (people still use that word a little bit today but not so much), who other people thought were men. That was my experience at the time—that’s what motivated me to research it.
The feminist movement has thrived and progressed in academia since the 1960s, but has only recently become trendy in pop culture—I feel similarly about trans issues. Why does it take so long for these progressive ideas to trickle down from academia and settle into a pop cultural landscape?
I’m not sure I would completely agree with you. The academic world develops theory, and ways of thinking about things, and ways of talking about things, that sometimes, over time, find their way back into everyday life. We often see academic researchers setting out to verify something, or to get more information [about a community]—whereas if you ask an average person who lives in that community, they’ll shrug their shoulders and say “well, everybody knows that already.” In some ways, the academic world is restating the obvious, with good packaging. But that good packaging is absolutely essential. If you want to change a law, policy, hearts and minds, you have to give people convincing information, and good research is convincing information that people can rely upon. So, why do we need the chair [in trans studies]? To do the kind of research that will precipitate those changes.
How much work is left for Canada to fully integrate trans rights into the legal system?
If you look internationally, Canada is very progressive. There’s lots left to be done, but just to put it in perspective—if we look even to our closest neighbour in the United States, our laws are better than they are there. We’re among the forefront. What needs to be done? Some of our provinces have pretty good protection for trans rights, but not all of them. Federally, the current Liberal government has made a commitment that they will initiate a version of the [NDP] bill that has been rejected over the last decade by previous governments. That hasn’t happened yet, I’d like to see that happen, and I hope they will come through on that commitment.
The law is just the start, then we have to apply it, change what actually happens on the ground—that’s the hearts and minds aspect. We need to change hospital policies, inheritance laws, tax laws…
Where does the obsession with gendering things and binaries come from?
Most societies have some way of distinguishing genders—not everywhere has only two. There seems to be some need in human nature to understand gender. And of course we do, because it’s part of human reproduction—there’s a relationship between those. But does it need to be part of all of our identity documents? When I was a kid, in the newspapers, the job ads were all listed under men’s jobs and women’s jobs. We’ve abandoned that.
A case that’s making its way through the courts now is the question of where it’s appropriate to have a gender marker on your documentation. Many people say that there’s very few places where that needs to be; that’s private information and should be treated as such. If we’re talking about your student card, drivers license, passport—what does it tell us that we can’t tell by looking at you? If I want to know what gender you want to be, I look at your gender presentation, and if it’s unclear, I ask you a question. What does having an M or an F on your driver’s license tell me that I can’t tell by looking at you?
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Moving Trans History Forward 2016, a conference with select events open to the public, will occur at the University of Victoria on March 17-20, 2016. The conference includes keynote speakers Martine Rothblatt and Jamison Green, as well as a panel of veteran trans activists.
Michel Ghanem is a fashion-obsessed Canadian student and journalist. You can keep up with him on Tumblr here.