The American Historian

Teaching Trans: Lessons in Inclusion and Liberation

Sky Morgan, they/them/theirs, and Marjorie N. Feld, she/her/hers

Italics = co-written

Plain font = Marjorie Feld

Bold font = Sky Morgan

We teach and study at Babson College, a private business college in a suburb of Boston where students major only in business and must take liberal arts courses to graduate. Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer/Questioning, Intersex, and Asexual (LGBTQIA) students, faculty, and staff began to organize visibly about fifteen years ago, though of course there were courageous individuals working in less visible organizations long before that.

Marjorie: About a decade ago, I taught and got to know a student who was open about his experience as a transgender person, one whose gender identity differs from the sex he was assigned at birth. He taught me about the burdens placed on trans students in terms of campus administration. For example, students could not access or change their names or gender categories on our campus platforms, nor were they ever asked for their preferred pronouns or how they identified. It was an essential lesson for me, both as a cisgender person (one who identifies exclusively with the sex I was assigned at birth) and as a teacher. I remain ever grateful to that student for helping me understand the way members of our campus community, wittingly or unwittingly, imposed their gendered assumptions on students. He also alerted me to the need to integrate transgender sources/scholars/activists into our curriculum. Though I was then a strong ally of LBGTQIA students on campus, my courses only reflected the L and G.

In my advanced seminar in U.S. labor history, mainly taken by seniors, I found sources of transgender history in what I think of (perhaps arrogantly) as unexpected places. In Chained in Silence: Black Women and Convict Labor in the New South (2015), Talithia LeFlouria includes a study of Mattie Crawford, a person born female who wears men’s clothes and works as a blacksmith. LeFlouria writes that Crawford “contested the imposed heterosexual violence wielded against the Black female body.” While LeFlouria records Crawford’s successes in gaining occupational mobility and avoiding punishment and abuse, our class suggested that Crawford was better understood as a transgender person. Chained in Silence is a powerful text for studying the intersection of white supremacy and patriarchy; this semester, my class also used it to illuminate the long history of transgender people and to grant power and visibility to that narrative.

In Capitalist Family Values: Gender, Work, and Corporate Culture at Boeing (2015), Polly Myers includes a chapter on a Boeing engineer who transitioned from male to female while employed by the company in the early 1980s. She was fired by Boeing and sued them in a landmark case, Jane Doe v. Boeing Company. Myers documents the racist, sexist “family values” that marked Boeing’s “fraternalist” work culture from its founding. The hostile treatment of Jane Doe only enhances students’ understanding of this work culture. They come to see that transphobia emerges out of patriarchy—in this case, the carefully policed boundaries of the gender binary of male/female.

Sky: Marjorie’s class centered transgender history in a way that allowed for the humanization of queer identity, which can simultaneously represent the ‘Q’ in ‘LGBTQ,’ as well as the identities understood broadly as one or more of the other letters in the acronym. Mattie Crawford and Jane Doe’s stories allowed us to bring the concept of intersectionality into clearer focus so that we could look carefully at the dynamic relationships between identity categories and systems of oppression. This for me was the main take-away for the course. I often think of how fortunate I was to be a part of this class. My peers were engaged and attentive, especially when they discussed their own stake in the norms of white supremacy and patriarchy. We had well-measured and thoughtful discussions about what, elsewhere, may have been considered subaltern transgender narratives.

For me, intersectionality was more than the subject of the course. I was, simultaneously, the object onto which my peers projected their ideas of transgender history and the finance enthusiast who didn’t understand the appeal of professional sports (a unit in this course on labor history). This implied that, cis or not, people were multidimensional—a rather strange realization for my classmates as they reckoned with the political processes involved in trans (in)visibility. Thus, humor was a relief for the anxiety that inevitably accompanied my in-class contributions. I was nervous to contribute in an earnest manner, and my classmates felt the same about their contributions. Even so, these exchanges helped us collectively consider perspectives outside of our own.

Together we feel an urgent need to offer a corrective to our peers across all institutions who have at times expressed intense discomfort with trans students. They have spoken of their fear of using the wrong pronoun. They have expressed concern that having a trans student in class means additional work, with the absence of a familiar gender binary requiring difficult conversations that distract from broader course lessons. We see these suppositions as transphobia. While we cannot speak for all faculty/student exchanges in all classrooms, we also want to be clear that these anxieties directly contradict our own experiences. Our classroom has been the site of productive, valuable, and enjoyable learning for both the students and the teacher; the work we have done to create a safe space for talking about issues of transgender identity and history has been immensely rewarding.

Marjorie: Certainly I continue to make mistakes and show unintentional disrespect. Still, I am striving to make clear that transgender identity is no more politicized than my own—only that speech, institutions, and power relationships have accommodated my own identity categories longer than those of my transgender students, colleagues, and friends. Instead of simply working toward the inclusion of trans identities in the classroom—through the use of correct pronouns and the inclusion of trans history in the curriculum—we want to continue to destabilize gendered categories by teaching and learning about the interconnectedness of liberation struggles. For years I saw one of my key challenges as a teacher as finding ways to teach men and women that we all gain from feminism and anti-racism; the transgender rights movement has made me understand the urgency of these lessons more keenly. To use a phrase I hear more often in political circles, the work of trans individuals has helped to decolonize my mind, to encourage me to think about teaching decolonization and empathy alongside feminism and anti-racism.

Sky: In the past few months I have learned to listen more closely to my peers. Regardless of the fact that their identities were politicized, they had a genuine desire to further their knowledge about the biases that existed in the past and present of U.S. labor. My classmates and I saw that frank conversations about individual self-improvement were not far removed from shifts in broader, societal opinion on queer life. Their efforts renewed the hope I placed in LGBTQ education and socioeconomic mobility initiatives. As someone who is interested in grassroots activism, the developments in our class are certainly encouraging examples of what an intersectional labor movement could look like.

Applying a transgender lens to labor history helped us see clearly the parallels between historically hostile capitalist structures and contemporary institutions and movements. By silencing or marginalizing people from overlapping identity groups such as laborers, people of color, ciswomen, and the LGBTQIA community, the labor movement and higher education only reinforce their invisibility and create obstacles to their self-determination and socioeconomic mobility. Holding fast to faith in liberatory teaching, we focus on a vision of liberation of all groups. Within that vision, we imagine and work toward moving past the gender binary that works against self-determination for all of us.

Authors

Marjorie N. Feld is Professor of History at Babson College in Massachusetts where she teaches courses on U.S. social history. She is the author of Lillian Wald: A Biography and Nations Divided: American Jews and the Struggle Over Apartheid.

Sky Morgan is an undergraduate at Babson College where they read for gender theory alongside computational finance. They hope to write a book on the topics someday.