You’ve probably heard us talk a lot about GenerationEdge, the post-millennial generation currently coming of age. We’re continually in pursuit of an understanding of the life experiences and preferences of this complex, dynamic and boundary-pushing generation. One of the themes we’re pursuing is gender fluidity and how it’s both shaping and being shaped by a generation.
This week, we met up with Sam Stiegler, an educator working towards his PHD whose research focuses on the everyday experiences of trans, queer and gender-queer youth.
Sam, tell me a little bit about yourself and what you do…
From an early age I wanted to work in education. I pursued a teaching degree and after I did my student teaching, I started working with an after school program with LGBT youth. From that experience I became interested in what is happening with young people outside of the school day.
I’m interested in what they’re doing after school, how they’re getting to and from school, and specifically, what happens to youth for whom school doesn’t work, i.e. when they can’t be there because of who they are and how they express themselves.
Now, I’m working on a doctorate in education where my research focuses on the everyday experiences of trans, queer, and genderqueer youth.
What are some of the differences for today’s youth than from when you were young?
When I think about how we’re connected to other people, obviously the Internet has played a huge role in how this experience has changed.
I was definitely accessing the Internet as a young person but there are many more opportunities today, for example with YouTube and Tumblr, for people to communicate, express themselves and in some ways, live a more authentic life online than they sometimes are allowed to live in person. This is not true across the board, but I definitely think that for some young people the online outlet is a safe space and a dangerous space all in one.
What are some examples of how the internet is helpful, specifically for LGBT youth to express themselves?
There are lots of young people, especially young trans people, to whom You Tube, Instagram, Tumblr or other blogging sites, have set up transition blogs to express themselves. They’re able to document their transition. So, a young trans male who is beginning his transformation will post his first/second week on ‘T’ with, ‘this is how my body is changing’… or a trans woman will do makeup tips, show to ‘gaf’… these tips often provide young people firsthand information about transitioning that can be hard to access otherwise.
The interesting thing is if you go and look at the comments, there are both positive and negative comments. It’s a space where these young people can go for encouragement, but they also know they’re in a public space where anyone can comment. It’s interesting how young people navigate these spaces, which they’re obviously using for comfort, solace, support, community and camaraderie. However, at the same time they are opening themselves up to negativity and attack.
Take cyberbullying for example. If they’re being cyberbullied by someone they know, it’s not like it stops when they get in the classroom; it’s still happening even if they’re not saying anything in person. There is that residual torment of seeing the person you know commented or is sending you threatening texts. The feeling is still present as they see them in chemistry class or in a passing period.
The idea that the Internet is somewhere far away from the lived experience at school is not a reality. I think it is important to understand the complexity and nuance of online spaces as simultaneously safe and dangerous, much like how the “offline” world functions.
What inspires you about the youth that you work with?
I see young people having the ability to push the boundaries of what we think identity should be, can be and ought to be.
We go through this life cycle as we grow older; our boundaries can become firmer and firmer, (through life experiences, we begin to know what we like and dislike, we know who we are) whereas young people sometimes move through the world with more fluidity.
What are some ways you see youth pushing boundaries? Perhaps focusing on transgender youth?
I’m not sure that a young person’s goal is trying to figure out how their identity will push boundaries. I don’t think they’re waking up and thinking, ‘How am I going to dismantle hetero and cisgender normativity today?’
It’s rather, ‘I’m presenting myself in a way that expresses who I am.’ And then there’s the realization that, ‘Oh, someone doesn’t like this.’
This generation are carefully navigating how they can move through the world. For example, I used to work with a young person who at first would only dress in gender-affirming clothes. And then one day they took the elevator down to the first floor and stood in the lobby. And then the next week they would stand in the door way, and then walk down the sidewalk. A few weeks later they would walk to the Starbucks. I think that decision making process and how they’re coming to know what’s safe and what’s unsafe is really interesting. I think it is evidence of the complex, sophisticated thinking that goes into a young person’s gender identity and expression.
How is life different for trans youth today than if they were living 15 years ago?
This idea of gendered and sexual identities as being terminal states is something that young people are pushing back against – they’re pushing back against ‘this is what men/women are supposed to do.
Specifically with trans and gender non-conforming young people, there has been a movement of increased representation, whether it’s TV shows or people in pop culture, more companies having trans-friendly policies – all of this has had tangible effects.
On one hand, you have Jaden Smith who is now going to be the model for the Louis Vuitton’s female clothing line. The example of Jaden is particularly important because he is challenging masculinity, manhood and gender norms in a certain way that is important to take heed of. This idea of gendered and sexual identities as being terminal states is something that young people are pushing back against – they’re pushing back against ‘this is what men/women are supposed to do.’ From what I understand, Jaden seems to be saying, ‘your gender identity shouldn’t come with such strict rules about how you are supposed to dress yourself.’
However, it is important not to conflate this example with people of trans experience. Too often, trans people are attacked for being ‘confused.’ Transwomen in particular are frequently mis-gendered and erroneously chided as being ‘just a man in a dress.’
You can see this sentiment in the backlash to recent trans-friend student policy. The State of California passed a trans friendly law in 2013 which was unsuccessfully challenged by an opposition group who tried to overturn it. In their campaign, the group used transphobic scare tactics by claiming the law would let ‘boys into girls’ locker rooms.’
Is activism important to the youth you work with?
There is youth activism, but we have to remember many of these young people are also focused on surviving their day-to-day. Activism can mean many things. Whether it is a more formal version where young people are organizing and engaging community leaders, politicians and stakeholders to enact change, or more everyday forms of activism where a young person corrects a teacher’s incorrect pronoun usage or works to get their legal documents to affirm their gender identity.
What would you say to someone who is trying to understand trans and gender non-conforming youth?
…if a trans-person asks a cis-person, ‘How is your penis doing today, sir?’ t would seem out of place, inappropriate and none of their business. Nonetheless, trans-people face a constant onslaught of gender policing by police, doctors, government agencies, schools and random passers-by.
I’ve done lectures with university students, teachers, student teachers… I write ‘transgender’ on the board and have everyone say all of the words that come to mind – could be good or bad. I get it all on the board and then I go through what all of the words mean and help them understand which ones are bad, good… but I never write down a definition. The goal is to show that words are complicated and a single definition of what to call people will never work.
I emphasize that being complicated is okay. There is no magic key to acceptance and understanding.
Society has to see something to believe it. It corresponds to how as a society we have assumptions about bodies and how they work, especially around genitalia, and it’s talked about in such coded ways. So when someone veers away from ‘normative’ behaviors, there is this feeling that ‘you have to show us so we can believe you.’ Take Janet Mock from MSNBC’s So Popular for example. I saw her on a panel once where she was discussing what it is like as a trans woman of color to have to fend off questions from strangers about her body, especially questions about surgery and her private parts. She explained that in order to point out the intense scrutiny trans-people often face about their bodies, she would flip the script. For instance, if a trans-person asked a cis-person, ‘How is your penis doing today, sir?’, it would seem out of place, inappropriate and none of their business. Nonetheless, trans-people face a constant onslaught of gender policing by police, doctors, government agencies, schools, and random passersby.
To combat this, I think cis-people need to be okay with the unknown, or to reconsider what we need to know, especially around gender. Why is it that we need to know what’s between someone’s legs to be able to give them a pronoun?
Can we figure out ways to get to know one another and to be in a community with one another that doesn’t necessitate me making assumptions about people’s body parts?
Normative understandings about gender and sexuality are so written into how society works that when you present something that veers from that normative path, the common reaction is, ‘why are you talking about sex?’ This has long been the tactic that critics of LGBT inclusion have used, especially around the principles of sex education in the classroom. They argue that schools are no place for discussion about gender, sex and sexuality.
But we’re always talking about sex. It’s so wrapped into the way things are supposed to work that we don’t notice it. For example, if a teacher is pregnant, chances are that teacher had sex (or had some medical procedure that involved sexual organs) to get pregnant. But it’s never been suggested that pregnant teachers shouldn’t come to school because students might learn what sex is.
So how do we go about doing this?
The work it takes to get to know any individual person’s personality – as you make a new friend, start a new relationship, meet a new coworker – there’s going to be this period of ‘getting to know you.’ We’re okay with that in terms of a general personality. But for some reason when it comes to getting to know someone’s gender, we think there’s only one way to know that. We can take the lessons we learn from just getting to know people in general and apply them to how we get to know someone’s gender, and the ways gender manifests itself.
So rather than, ‘I see that someone has short hair and seems to be wearing very masculine clothing, so then I’m going to make 17 other assumptions about them and their body and how they identify,’ it takes getting to know each person individually. And part of it is that it’s okay to not know someone’s gender identity.
I have to admit, in my attempt to be sensitive to this fluidity of how people gender-identify, I worry I’m going to mess up and say something wrong…?
Words are complicated – they can have negative and positive meanings, depending on the context.
My point around language is not to throw away language but to ask how can we come to terms with the fact that language can be violent – not that it cuts and bleeds and injures, but that it’s always limiting. It doesn’t mean that we don’t use it but it just means that we’re bound to make mistakes, however we learn to deal with it and move on. It’s important to have a conversation around pronouns. You’re never 100 percent of the time going to get everyone’s pronouns right but we need to recognize that we take pronouns for granted – that they are assumed. You’re ‘supposed’ to know someone’s pronouns without asking.
Asking people what pronouns they use is a start. I’m making more and more of an effort to do this, and not just when I am in a trans or queer space. It’s not just those moments when we think there’s going to be a trans body in the room, where we then say, ‘everyone’s got their pronouns.’ Limiting discussions about pronouns to only when trans people are in the room puts them on display in ways that perpetuate the violence they’re facing. The character ‘Unique’ is a trans character on the show hit show Glee. I was really impressed how the show never seemed to label the character. She didn’t have this stereotypical trans narrative where she had this coming out struggle and then it was over. She continued to present in different ways. I really thought that representation of Unique was great. It’s not to say she is representative of the entire trans experience, but I appreciated the ways the show seemed to let Unique dictate who Unique was, which allowed her to become whatever she wanted to be.
I’m less concerned with what people call themselves or how they get called by other people than how their gendered, sexual and racial presentations are affecting their ability to move through and experience the world.