Trans Education: Samantha Allen on Gender, Career, and Acceptance

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TransEthics: Being transgender and Trans Rights have been a huge media topic of late, along with the pushback of those who try to restrict gender to genitals and chromosomes. Having studied gender & sexuality, what response would you give to these people?

Samantha Allen: Great question! I still remember being completely surprised by the existence of intersex people when I took my first Women’s Studies class while an undergrad at Rutgers. At the time, I was still suppressing the idea that I might be transgender –in fact, I’m not even sure I know what that word meant– and my understanding of human sexual dimorphism hadn’t progressed beyond what I’d learned in an eighth grade biology class. Learning that biological sex is nowhere near as simple as XX and XY, that transgender people can take hormones to alter their secondary sex characteristics, and that the category of sex is itself culturally contingent in all sorts of ways – all that was brand new to me, and it opened my eyes. I understand now why The Matrix was made by two trans women: stepping outside the system of gender and seeing it for what it is feels a lot like waking up from a dream.

Even then, I didn’t transition myself until I started a PhD program in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Emory University. Having studied this stuff for almost a decade, I don’t really have time for people who argue against transgender people with these really reductive arguments about chromosomes or genitalia. Anyone whose understanding of human biology goes beyond what they learned in grade school knows that reasoning is hollow. I got a doctorate in gender studies because I was –and still am– fascinated by the diversity of our experience as gendered and sexual beings. But you don’t need a PhD to realize that chromosomes are not the be all and end all of gender.

So I guess my response to those people wouldn’t even be “Read a book.” It would be “Read an article.”

TE: When was it that you finally came out as transgender?

SA: Oh, God. Was it all the way back in 2012? [Insert Jamie Lee Curtis Freaky Friday “I’m old!” GIF here]. (laughter)

Like a lot of transgender women I’ve known, I used any word I could but “transgender” to describe myself up until the point when I realized I could no longer stop hiding. Words like “crossdresser” or “effeminate,” etc. By that point, a handful of close friends and partners in whom I’d confided had already asked me, “Hey, you seem so much happier as Samantha. Have you ever thought about just being Samantha?” And I always dismissed the notion: “Oh, no, I’m not one of those transgender people!” But the joke was on me.

This will be familiar territory for transgender readers, bordering on stereotypical, but partway through graduate school, I just hit an emotional wall. I had been running for so long, suppressing my understanding of who I was for decades, and I finally realized that, while I could always find some excuse to delay transitioning (a relationship, a vague notion that I might do it later in life), I couldn’t put it off forever. So one day, I decided to make like Nike and just do it. Coming out didn’t happen all at once –I wanted to spend some time doing therapy before shaking up my professional world– but it started with a simple determination one Summer day to be myself.

TE: How did coming out as trans effect your professional career?

SA: To be completely honest with you, coming out as transgender played a role in my decision to leave academia after I got my PhD and pursue a career in public writing. On one hand, I couldn’t ask for a better environment in which to come out than my cohort of fellow graduate students, all of whom were queer women themselves. I was bombarded with clothes, well wishes, and even closer friendship when they found out I was transgender. And although the professors at my school were largely accepting, there’s still an old and (surprisingly influential) guard in the Women’s Studies world that sees transgender womanhood as up for debate. I have so much respect for Susan Stryker (also an ex-Mormon, I believe) and part of me wishes I could have gone on to be [like] her. But I was sick of my identity either being seen as controversial or as a “hot topic” –an edge case– for cisgender people to use to construct abstract theories about gender.

I still enjoyed academia. I got published in Feminist Theory. I wrote a dissertation on sexual fetishism that I’m still pretty proud to have produced. But after transitioning, I became so much more interested in lived reality than I was in theory. And as I started to do more and more freelance writing –at first just to bring in some extra cash to supplement my tiny graduate student stipend– I realized how much more rewarding it is to have people actually, you know, read the things you create.

TE: In your writing for The Daily Beast, do you find it difficult to pitch articles and ideas that have nothing to do with trans issues?

SA:  In my current role as a senior reporter at The Daily Beast, my beat is currently laser-focused on LGBT issues. I enjoy writing about everything from reproductive rights to late-night comedy, and still manage to produce the occasional listicle about Jack Donaghy’s hair,  but my day job is all LGBT all the time. These days, as transgender stories become more and more salient, that means a lot of trans stuff. I like doing that. It’s important work. But honestly, I’m at my absolute happiest when I’m exploring stuff outside my own experience: things like the plight of bisexual men or the struggles that come with LGBT aging.

TE: There are many media outlets which will say the barrage of so-called bathroom bills is “anti-LGBT” or “anti-Gay”, but they actually mean “anti-Trans”. How can trans people correct this kind of erasure?

SATo media outlets, many of whom still have trepidation about labeling a group “anti-LGBT,” I would say, “Let’s call a spade a spade.” It’s clear that these bills are motivated by anti-transgender animus. Ever since Obergefell, groups that mostly focused on anti-gay initiatives switched to anti-trans efforts in order to keep on fundraising. That’s just the reality of it. What can trans people do? Refuse, as we have always done, to be erased. When you see a bad headline, point it out. When you see an article that handles the bathroom bill subject poorly, point it out. I’m optimistic but realistic: I think we’re still in for another decade of bad reporting on transgender issues before things start to get better and, unfortunately, that means years of us owning our own stories and insisting that the media get them right. 

TE: There have been some arguments (from both Trans people and LGB people) that it may be time for the ‘T’ to stand on it’s own. Is this a good idea?

SA: Even if it made political sense, it would be impossible. According to one large survey, less than a quarter of transgender people identify as straight. You couldn’t get the LGB out of the T if you tried! By the same coin, anti-transgender efforts today (like North Carolina’s HB2) are designed to hurt cisgender gay men, lesbians, and bisexual people as well, so LGB folks have to stick by the T if not because it’s the right thing to do, then for their own sake. When you’re dealing with people who hate all of us to varying degrees, we can’t afford to be divided. In fact, we’re stronger when we’re building bridges between our various experiences. The one example I always point to the crucial and often overlapping relationship between bisexual people and transgender people in LGBT spaces: We’re at the bottom of the ladder in terms of the public’s negative attitudes toward us and we need each other.

TE: Why do you think it’s so difficult for cis people to simply accept trans people for who we are?

SA: That’s the $64,000 question isn’t it!

I’ve thought about this question for five years. I’ve vented about transphobia to my cisgender partner on a biweekly basis for four of those years. I have confronted the ugly reality of that bigotry firsthand. Here’s where I’m at with that question today: Unless you experience gender dysphoria firsthand, it’s very hard to understand it. So many cisgender people think, “I was a tomboy growing up but I didn’t want to transition!” or “I’m not completely masculine but that doesn’t mean I want to be a woman!” without understanding that what they’ve experienced is worlds apart from spending every day of your life dealing with the persistent and insistent knowledge that the gender you were assigned at birth is completely unacceptable to you, body and soul.

I was miserable for much of my life because I was grappling with, and refusing to accept that knowledge. When I realized I could transition, and finally found the courage to do so, everything changed. At the risk of trotting out some trans cliches, it was like I was living in grayscale before, and now I’m seeing the world in full color. So many transgender people can relate to that experience. Cisgender people can try. They can find analogues. But unless you’ve spent years with dysphoria rattling around in your brain, you’re never going to get it one hundred percent, and it’s always going to be tempting to reduce gender to gender expression, or to see transitioning as dress-up.

Of course, there are folks who don’t even try to understand –who just have a base dislike for transgender people that results from decades of seeing us presented as punchlines or as monstrous villains or as deceptive members of our birth-assigned genders. But when it comes to the cisgender people who do try to understand and fall short, that’s my answer. Ask me again in five years, though, and it might be different!

TE: One more question: If you could speak to the world, what would you say?

SA: Hello, World!
(laughter)
I guess I would say, “Make my job irrelevant!” Part of the reason why there’s still such a need to report on LGBT rights is because they continue to be under attack. Barring any apocalyptic events, and with enough concerted effort from LGBT people and allies, I still have hope that one day we’ll get to a point where someone being transgender is about as relevant as their ice cream preference. I think the media is fascinated with transgender people right now and as a transgender reporter, I try to do my best to blunt that fascination, to insist on telling stories about transgender people as people first while foiling the fixation on our bodies.

So to the public at large, if I could “sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world,” I’d say transgender people are just people, and the sooner we all accept that and move on, the sooner I can retire and go try to write mystery novels in the mountains and fail miserably at it.

TE: I wish you all the success in the world. Thank you for speaking with us today.

SA: This has been such a pleasure!

 

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