The Academic Feminist: Sonny Nordmarken on building stronger movements through intent

Sonny NWelcome back, Academic Feminists! Bringing us into the end-of-semester home stretch is Sonny Nordmarken, graduate student in Sociology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Sonny’s explanation of microagressions and his work examining the intersections between feminist and transgender studies, as well as his personal story of coming to feminism through the comradery of sports, point to the ways that paying attention to everyday interactions can help bring us closer as activists, academics, and allies.

1. You were a women’s and gender studies minor as an undergraduate. Is this how you became interested in feminism? If not, what was the draw to feminism?

My first substantial memory of coming to feminism was in the community we created in my high school women’s cross-country team in the 1990s. Interestingly, my coach was a cis man. So, one of my first adult feminist role models was a man, and he really was a feminist. This experience running women’s cross-country and my foray into feminism took place when I was a woman. Probably few trans people would describe their gender history in this way. Although I experience my gender in a comparatively more complex way now, and I had my own gender complexity in high school too, I was a cisgender woman in high school and college. My experiences as a female athlete were important in developing my early feminist consciousness, politics, and identity that I still carry with me today.

Our team was feminist in so many ways. Most high school sports teams hold tryouts and coaches select athletes from the pool of candidates. Our coach and our team did not hold tryouts and therefore did not exclude anyone who wanted to participate and compete. This meant that anyone who wanted to join, did. I am convinced that this policy of inclusion fostered a unique kind of feminist consciousness of inclusion, community, and mutual support. Our team had athletes with disabilities, athletes with health conditions, athletes of size, and athletes who had bodies that looked different from most women’s bodies, in addition to athletes of color, immigrant athletes, and athletes with various socioeconomic backgrounds and sexualities. Our team was huge. One year, I think we had 71 athletes. And this was only the women’s cross-country team, exclusive of the men’s. In cross-country, only the first seven runners to cross the finish line score points for the team, so it really was unnecessary to have such a large team. However, our coach maintained that having so many runners encouraged a certain healthy competition among us, as whoever crossed the finish line first for our team was pushed forward by 70 teammates, who were all pushing each other forward and pulling each other along. He also didn’t believe in excluding people, and saw no benefit to having a small team. Our size was intimidating to other teams, especially when we did our cheer before setting at the start line of a race, 71 strong women’s voices ringing far and wide in unison. We created and taught each other norms that I see as very feminist and very disruptive to gender norms. It was our team’s practice to say “good job” whenever encountering a fellow runner on the street, or when passing anyone in a race, whether she was on our team or not. We had “secret pals,” where athletes were paired with a teammate (who did not know the identity of her secret pal); secret pals would write encouraging notes to and give gifts for luck in races and for their pals’ birthday and other important times. Our team captains (and I was one) did a lot of work to lead, motivate, mentor, and cohere the team. We prized hard work, determination, and toughness in each other and ourselves. We complimented each other on how strong, “buff,” and “studly” we were. We spit. We urinated while running races to alleviate cramping and to demonstrate how hard-core we were. We critiqued and made fun of men who honked at us when we were running. We made and wore team T-shirts that read, “La Jolla Women’s Cross-Country: We run fast, spit far, live large, and smile at pain.” In these ways, we collectively created subversive, mutually-empowering, feminist discourses and practices as high school athletes. 

2. You’ve written pretty extensively on microaggressions. For readers who may be unfamiliar with the term, can you describe how they operate and maybe say a little about how microaggressions, in their various forms, can be addressed?

Microaggressions are put-downs that people in marginalized groups encounter in everyday life. They frequently reflect negative prejudices and/or stereotypes. Often, people delivering and people witnessing the delivery of (and, at times, people receiving) these messages are unaware that they are insults, which can make them difficult to acknowledge and thus, address. A microaggression can be difficult to identify because the insult is often an underlying message contained within another statement or action, which may appear to be a common sentiment or even a compliment. One microaggression faced by many trans people is the use of their former names and gender pronouns, or references to their histories. For example, consider this statement: “This is my friend Sarah, who used to be ‘Peter.’ I’ve known him for 10 years.” There are several microaggressions operating here. The usage of her old name and mispronouning (usage of the incorrect pronoun) invalidates Sarah’s gender identity and experience as a woman, communicating an assumption that her self-knowledge is not valid and that she is mistaken about her own identity. Therefore, using others’ old names and pronouns can contribute to common misperceptions that trans people are “pretending” or “deceiving” others about their identities (which Talia Bettcher has discussed at length), and can cast trans people as deceitful people in general. Using Sarah’s old name and pronoun also “outs” her, disclosing to others that she is trans, which violates her privacy and communicates a message that her privacy is unimportant. This privacy violation reproduces the problematic notion that the audience deserves to know her old name, and anything else about her history, and invites them to ask intrusive questions. Finally, people claiming a relationship to a trans person by talking about how long they have known them or talking about a time they knew them before their transition does not sit well with me. When I hear this kind of statement, it seems to me that the speaker is mainly interested in shoring up their “ally” capital or “good personhood,” evident in their stated proximity to their “friend.” Claiming a relationship to someone in this way does not demonstrate support to them, in my view. If one really is “allied” (and I see allyship as a practice, not as an identity), they don’t need to demonstrate anything about themselves. Though it may make them feel good, good allyship focuses on the well-being and status of the person being supported, not the status of the allied person. In addition, trying to mobilize an association with a subjugated group for one’s own gain when one is in a position of privilege fails to challenge the structure of the privilege and, conversely, makes a grab at the power the subjugated group is fighting for. Thus, outing, disrespecting another’s identity, and focusing on one’s own “goodness” are forms of microaggression.

In addressing microaggressions when I observe them, I have found it useful to play the role of educator. People can be very intrigued by this phenomenon when they find that it has a name. To educate others, I explain the concept of microaggression and explain that there is always an underlying othering message in these behaviors. It can help to give an example of a time I realized I had enacted a microaggression, to model critical self-reflection, because the eventual goal is for others to do the same. Then we can identify the underlying message(s) in a statement one of us made or that we heard. As microaggressions are often invisible to deliverers, recipients, and witnesses, making this invisible quality visible helps to achieve legitimacy for the concept. Once a person recognizes a microaggression in their own behavior, remembering that its negative messages are often unintended and unconscious can alleviate possible defensiveness or shame and can foster compassion for oneself and others. At times, it can be unclear whether certain behaviors are microaggressions. I usually try to imagine how a recipient might feel uncomfortable receiving the behavior, and if I can do this, even if I can’t totally explain why it is a microaggression, I think that it “counts.” For example, when people who have not seen me in a while tell me, “You look good,” I feel uncomfortable because it seems like they are paying attention to and evaluating my appearance. This comment tells me that I look different from how I used to look; it makes my transness an issue, something notable, rather than a non-issue. Although this is an intended compliment, I count this as a microaggression because in the context of my gender transition, it tells me that I am different, other, not cisgender. Being aware and raising awareness that microaggressions are a “thing” can open doors for continued and further dialogue about how oppression manifests interpersonally and can encourage people in a nonjudgmental way to notice their own behavior that might be hurtful. As they are often unconscious, it is each individual’s responsibility to thoughtfully track, examine, and change their own behavior in order to prevent themselves from enacting microaggressions.

3. There is a long and well-documented tension between feminist activism and scholarship and trans activism and scholarship, and your work seeks to put these two bodies into conversation. What does that look like for you?

This question is so big that I think I will just offer some brief thoughts. I’d like to help create more coalitions both within and between feminist and trans communities and movements that are not yet connected with each other. Aside from working across them, there are many feminist, trans, and gender nonconforming communities. It takes a lot of intention and work for people in the same community to work coalitionally between each other, because each subgroup may face different issues and may have different concerns, not to mention the differences between individuals and between friend-circles. Although it has its problems, I find that elements of the consciousness-raising method that 1970s U.S. feminists used continues to be important in all of these endeavors. Sharing life stories about experiences of oppression is useful in building coalitions because it can get people to care about each other. Sharing stories can also help people to see their own privilege and it can get them to want to dismantle it because they feel the harm it causes to others. Engaging analytically is not enough. In my view, affective ties are necessary to maintaining relationships among activists and thus, movements. Coalitional work can happen online, but online relationships lose an embodied element of affectivity and emotional connectivity that I see as necessary in this work.

To tie this to the previous question, thinking critically about microaggressions and one’s own participation in them can be useful in building relatively more safety and community within and across groups. Educating oneself on how gender oppression manifests structurally in the complex ways it does for people of all genders is also important to understanding many sides of this complex phenomenon. This can help us to see that it is the same system that harms all of us, and that we would be well-served to learn as much as we can about the ways gender oppression harms those of us we do not typically include in “our group.” In terms of scholarship, feminist academe has had a head start on trans academe for a while (not that these categories can totally be separated). However, much work in critical trans studies as it is manifesting and proliferating in the current historical moment appears to build on feminist, queer, postcolonial, critical disability, and critical race scholarship. Feminist studies across disciplines would do well to integrate and centrally position insights from trans studies, to build both political coalitions and more robust directions of scholarship. As a feminist, trans sociologist, I am interested in investigating how poststructural critique can inform sociology – epistemologically, methodologically, and substantively – and how sociology can work to push forward the edges of feminist and trans critical thought.

4. And, finally, as trans studies becomes more established in the academy – with tenure lines, journals, and the like – do you think that there is a danger that institutionalization will make it less critical, less creative, or less able to make much-needed interventions in (and outside of) academia?

This is a fascinating, important question. I suppose we’ll see what happens. Trans studies has a unique opportunity and impetus, as does disability studies, to push against the usual problems that institutionalization engenders. There are only a few measures to examine at the moment in this field. One nascent transgender studies Ph.D. program is in formation. The first field-specific refereed journal, Transgender Studies Quarterly (TSQ), will release its first issue this year. Certain intentions and directions are visible to me in these field-building blocks. Transgender studies conferences I have seen advertised and that I have attended integrated activists and artists as well as scholars, and TSQ explicitly invites submissions from artists and activists as well as scholars. The Philadelphia Trans-Health Conference, a non-academic conference, encourages dialogue between traditional and holistic medical workers, families, scholars, writers, artists, and activists. There appears a strong commitment to politics in much art and critical trans studies scholarship I have seen. And yet, there are still ways we make these realms and these modes of dialogue inaccessible to many. We are excluding those who must focus their energies on survival, who we are not helping survive. We are excluding those who cannot access this particular kind of written English academese, who we are not communicating with in their terms, languages, and formats. We are excluding those who we have not networked in to our groups, those in isolated sites or who feel unwelcome who we have not reached out to, those who lack resources to participate who we have not offered resources, those who are confined by state apparatuses that we have not yet dismantled. Although there are efforts to work against these problems, these conversations may continue to remain limited primarily to those in particular, feminist, trans* Anglophone academic communities in the so-called “global north.” These communities are still structured by whiteness, education, cultural capital, and constraints of geographic, national, cultural, physical, intellectual, political, linguistic, socioeconomic, and technological access.

I notice as I write this that the measures of field-institutionalization I mention above are all located in the U.S., which may illustrate my lack of awareness of how this field is growing transnationally, and may also illustrate an ethnocentric direction I and we might do well to resist. Even with its troubles, the apparent intention and reflexivity of this emerging field gives me hope that its members will push against interrelated structures of power within and between academe, nation-states, social institutions and systems of oppression.

Extra Credit!

In addition to the above linked materials, you can find more information on the topics discussed below. As always, please send suggestions for future Academic Feminist interviewees here.

  • Bettcher, Talia Mae. “Evil Deceivers and Make-Believers: On Transphobic Violence and the Politics of Illusion,” Hypatia 22: 43-65.
  • Nadal, Kevin L., Avy Skolnik, and Yinglee Wong. 2012. “Interpersonal and Systemic Microaggressions Toward Transgender People: Implications for Counseling.” Journal of LBGT Issues in Counseling, 6: 55-82.
  • Nordmarken, Sonny. 2014. “Becoming Ever More Monstrous: Feeling Transgender In-Betweenness.” Qualitative Inquiry 20(1): 37-50.
  • Nordmarken, Sonny and Reese Kelly. 2014. “Limiting Transgender Health: Administrative Violence and Microaggressions in Health Care Systems” in Vickie Harvey and Teresa Housel (Eds.) Health Care Disparities and the LGBT Population. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.
  • Nordmarken, Sonny. Forthcoming 2014. “Microaggressions.” Transgender Studies Quarterly, 1(1): “Postposttransexual: Terms for a 21st Century Transgender Studies.”
  • Sue, Derald Wing. 2010. Microaggressions and Marginality: Manifestation, Dynamics, and Impact. New Jersey: John Wiley and Sons, Inc.

293148_10150356961987265_6089438_nGwendolyn Beetham curates this series for Feministing. When she’s not interviewing academic feminists, she’s working as a freelance researcher, teaching college students about feminism and practicing yoga.

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