The Academic Feminist: Transgender studies & politics: A conversation with Jillian Weiss & Kyla Bender-Baird

Welcome back to the Academic Feminist. In a departure from the usual single-interview format, this edition of the series is presented as a conversation between two scholar activists working on transgender workplace issues: Dr. Jillian Weiss, Professor of Law and Society at Ramapo College and Kyla Bender-Baird, doctoral student in Sociology at the CUNY Graduate Center. In discussing their research on, and personal interest in, the topic of transgender workplace rights, the conversation touches on many of the key legal, political, and social implications of current research for transgender rights more broadly. 

Kyla Bender-Baird: In Transgender Workplace Diversity, you lay out the realities and implications of the various language current being written into trans-inclusive nondiscrimination laws and policies. The focus is on gender, gender identity, and gender expression.  Lately, I’ve been hearing a return to sex as the predominant response for trans protections: a political scientist is encouraging us to look at the state’s investment in sex, pointing out that the state is more concerned with what sex does than what sex is; a lawyer is using theories of brain sex to ground his legal advocacy for extending Title VII’s protections to trans folks; a non-profit organization is turning its advocacy attention to showing Congressional members that gender identity is a component of sex a la Schroer v. Billington.  What are your thoughts on this “return to sex” as a legal/political strategy for advancing protections for transgender folk?

Jillian Weiss: Sex is an important legal/political strategy. Without mentioning sex, we cannot provide proper legal protection for transgender and transsexual people. While I understand, of course, the need to make a clear distinction between gender and sex, we have gone too far in arguing that there is no relationship whatsoever between the two, as I argued in a 2009 law review article. My book that you referenced focused on gender and gender identity because it was a guide for human resources officers and corporate lawyers accommodating transgender people in the workplace. It was not intended to focus on academic theoretical considerations for that audience. From my point of view, gender is as much a part of sex as are biological attributes. It’s a complicated matter, and my comments here are necessarily truncated.

KBB: As scholar-activists, both the blogosphere and academic journals are tools – the blogosphere as a sphere for public conversation and academic journals as a vehicle for legitimation. You are prolific in both areas – how do you do it? And how do you choose what to write for journals and what to write for blogs?

JW: I write because I have no choice – the politics of transphobia as it plays out in law is endlessly irritating, and I feel as if I must come to an understanding of these events, which leads to thinking, and that leads to writing.  Mostly I didn’t choose the journals to write for – they chose me.  It might have been a call for papers that piqued my imagination, or an invitation to speak at a conference in a sunny place, and so I wrote an outline of what I might like to say, and the offer to publish came along, and there I was.  I also have a hard time saying no to things I find interesting, which is mostly everything. But you’re right that it was about legitimation – I wanted tenure and promotion, and blogging won’t get you there, so I looked for academic journals to write for, and took anything that came my way. My blogging, on the other hand, started more as a way to provide information to the public about my research in transgender employment issues, so it was a natural extension of my academic writing.  My first blog was kind of technical, about Human Resources (HR) stuff.  I was then asked to write for The Bilerico Project, to which I agreed because it had such an interesting group of radical clear-thinkers, but I didn’t write much at first. Then, when it looked like gender identity was going to be dropped from ENDA again in 2009, I was, like, “hell, no.”  I wrote 200 major posts that year, started a Facebook campaign with 5000 people, and got people calling and writing their legislators by every means I could think of. I blogged in the morning, and I blogged in the evening, and I blogged on the weekends. It was personal. But when ENDA died, my blogging rate slowed to a crawl. I’m not a journalist at heart. I’m a lawyer and a social scientist. I crave understanding, not news. But now that I have found the public, and see that there is a taste for the type of analysis I can provide, I blog when I think an issue can use that type of analysis.

KBB:  The concept of social locality is central in how I approach my work.  I am a white, upper-middle-class, queer, cisgender woman who can’t get enough of transgender studies and politics. How do you see social location impacting people’s work within transgender studies, especially as people are working to institutionalize it into an academic discipline?  What would you like to say to allies such as myself doing this work?

JW: A lot of academic work about trans issues that I see from non-trans allies appears to me to be, as the anthropologists would say, etic.  That is, it does not come from the lived experiences of transgender people, but is rather ideas imposed from outside, supposing what transgender people must be like and what they must want and how it must be to experience the things that they experience. That is, of course, inevitable, and it is a necessary part of academic study, that objectification of phenomena for purposes of understanding.  But the butterfly on the pinning table should not be expected to sing huzzah! for science.  There is no humility in much of the work about trans people. One of the things I liked about your book, Kyla, is that it highlighted the experience of the trans people you interviewed in a way that gave beauty to their understanding of their experiences, as well as analyzing it in your own way from a Social Science perspective.  We must recognize that, as important as our study may be to rectifying the problems of trans people, we are studying people who live under the yoke of prejudice and discrimination a thousand levels down, and as human beings we must extend the hand as well as the caliper.

On that note, what got you interested in transgender issues, Kyla, and why do you see it as significant?

KBB: I think transgender issues are significant because there are transgender people.

A healthy combination of ignorance and curiosity got me interested in transgender issues. Since college, I’ve had a love affair with gender.  It’s perhaps been the most fulfilling relationship of my life.  Gender never ceases to amaze me and I’m constantly learning from gender. Transgender issues have been a big part of that as they regularly challenge my assumptions and force me to shift my thinking.  The very first class I took in college was Gender Paradigms, which included some anthropological readings on societies with more than two genders.  Talk about a paradigm shift for little-ole-me!  Not only was there such thing as a gender system, but it didn’t have to be a binary! Whoa.  My next mind-splosion came when a friend lent me her issue of Bitch. I’d never heard of this magazine before but at the time was reading anything feminist I could get my hands on (let’s just say I had quite the political awakening in college).  Julia Serano had an article in that particular issue where she made the point later expanded in Whipping Girl that not all trans women are feminine and not all trans men are masculine.  I spent many nights in my dorm room mapping that one out.  The imagination-reducing force of our gender binary system is truly remarkable: it’s horrific that our gender binary system is so pervasively silencing that some people don’t know there are trans folks – that gender is more than man vs. woman determined by biological “fact.”   The real turning point for me, though, was when I watched Boys Don’t Cry.  Until that moment, thinking about gender was a purely intellectual enterprise. But watching that movie, I realized that not only was gender much more complex than I had been raised to believe, but people were actually being killed by this fucked up gender system! I was so upset by the hatred and pain I saw depicted in that film, I set out to understand this more fully.  Cynthia Enloe describes feminist curiosity as taking women seriously by “listening carefully, digging deep, challenging assumptions, and welcoming surprises.”  My own feminist curiosity means that whenever there is something that I don’t understand and that evokes an emotional response, especially when that response is discomfort, I must investigate it.

JW: Your book, Transgender Employment Experiences, is a study of 20 transgender people’s personal experiences in the workplace.  Why did you choose to use the case study method, and what do you think that method provided that other methods cannot provide?

KBB: For me, an exploratory study was the only option.  I read everything I could get my hands on and still didn’t understand what transgender employment discrimination looked like for those who experienced it.   The case study approach allowed me to go deep into conversation with each participant.  I approached every interviewer not as some “expert” researcher out to measure this social phenomenon but as a learner who wanted to understand where each participant was coming from and what being trans in the workplace meant to them. I listened, not only to record their experiences, but also to understand how they made sense of their experiences and how they conceptualized their identity.  There is so much in those interviews that never made it into the book but that richly informed my understanding of each person I spoke with.  That is the treat that is personal interviews, and I feel blessed that 20 strangers were willing to sit down and share themselves with me.  Other methods may have the advantage of larger sample sizes but a case study allowed me to present a more holistic picture of each participant (at least, that’s what I aimed for).

JW: What do you think it will take to pass ENDA — what type of education and of whom?

KBB: Oo, lordy, I’m the worst with political predictions.  The way our legislative process works is fairly confounding to me.  Part of me feels like I need to understand it better but the other part is afraid of what I will learn.  Kind of like when you feel compelled to look under the desk but are afraid of all the gross gum you’ll see.  I wonder if instead we might talk about what it will take to end employment discrimination against trans folks.  As I argued in my book, I believe that passing ENDA is certainly part of this larger project – I see it as a helpful educational tool for folks who do not realize the current state of trans protections.   It’s quite powerful to say, “Did you know that in 34 states it’s perfectly legal to fire someone for being trans?”  That really opens up the conversation for people who are completely unaware of these issues.  And that’s what I think we should really be focusing on – awareness-raising.  Within workplaces, making sure HR professionals are appropriately trained so that when a potential or new hire’s documents come through with conflicting gender markers, they know how to deal with it in a professional manner. Also, taking gender out of the picture when it’s truly not necessary (e.g. do job application forms need to ask about gender? Perhaps not.  When you have a single-stall bathroom, do you have to mark it “men’s” or “women’s”?  Definitely not). Also, the less people are shocked by the mere fact of trans people’s existence, the more discrimination will be attributed to bigotry and not the supposedly “freakishness” of the target of discrimination.  This means getting better representation in the media, telling trans people’s stories, and helping people realize the beauty of human diversity.

These are just a few examples of the many tactics we may deploy in working to end transgender employment discrimination.

Extra Credit
In addition to the links above, below is a list of resources taken from the above conversation, where those interested in some of the topics discussed here can go to find out more. Add relevant resources in comments.


Scholarly queer feminist working to bridge the academic/online divide.

Read more about Gwendolyn

Join the Conversation