I started graduate school with high hopes of myself and those around me. I was excited to study with the "best of the best." I was anxious but prepared for all the work that was in store for me. For the most part, I've met some pretty great people who I'm sure will do great things in life.
I study Anthropology. I study humans; I study all of our biological and cultural complexities. I absolutely love what I study and what I do. I love teaching undergraduates. I love researching about gender, sexuality, and health.
For me, professors were courageous people who held onto their passions whether that be political science, religious studies, biology, or the many other forms of study. I wanted, and still want, to become the professors I looked up to in college.
But something odd happened when I started graduate school. I was no longer allowed freedom to speak. More specifically, I was not allowed to speak about being transgender in academia. Something that previously made me a stand-out candidate in undergraduate was now being shut down. Even as I write this, I face the potential risk of being “punished” for speaking out.
If you notice, most opinion pieces and articles written by academics are ones that have progressed past the Masters and Doctoral stage. Why do you think that is? It could be due to their more developed writing skills, but most opinion pieces are based on personal narrative so it doesn’t necessarily take a trained academic to write it. The lack of personal stories about graduate students written by current graduate students could be due to being silenced.
The first time I was silenced in graduate school was my first week of lecture. In a biocultural health course, we were asked to go around the room and say what we study. Each person stated their field and subject of focus, and the professor made an effort to say how it connected to the course at hand. When it was my turn, I stated that I study LGBTQ+ health. And in that moment, the professor chose to ignore the calls from other academic fields to understand LGBTQ+ health and said, “Well we won’t talk about that in this class." And he was right, we didn’t talk about it. We had a course about supposedly contemporary human health issues without even discussing the existence of LGBTQ+ people.
Other students in my course thankfully noticed this response. When I’ve brought it up before, they have acknowledged how “weird” it was that happened.
This person is a prominent person in my field and in my department. How does a graduate student even begin to defend their personhood in that moment? He separated me from the other students, not because of anything wrong I did, but because simply he does not understand what I study.
The second experience I had with being silenced was when I chose to come out to a seminar class as an example of the complexities of gender. The professor, who is someone I still respect for other reasons, looked right at my chest to determine if I had breasts or not. I felt her eyes on my chest for what felt like hours. (I still wonder if she meant to do it, if she realized she was doing it, and I cannot escape that memory no matter how much I try).
The third time I was silenced was when I was grabbed by a professor without consent.
When I talked about it with others I trusted, there was a mix of reactions. My fellow graduate students supported me in any way that they could. However, the professors around me that I entrusted with this info responded with that it didn't make sense because that person is not attracted to men. It made me feel worse. It made me feel like I wasn't performing my masculinity well enough, with the thought creeping up that maybe I looked too feminine and "deserved" it. But physical violations of one's body are not about sexual or romantic attraction, but about power. My body is less than my peers, and he wanted to make that point. Whether consciously or unconsciously, he felt ownership to my body.
The fourth time I was silenced was when I consulted in friends of mine within LGBTQ+ circles on my campus about being silenced. Their reaction was mixed. Some encouraged me to leave academia, stating that my love for research and teaching could be pursued through other means. Some encouraged me to work on my responses to what I was facing and encouraged me to not share publicly what happened to me. They would state I would ruin my chances of being hired as a tenure track faculty member (those people are probably still rolling their eyes and saying I am ruining my chances).
The fifth time I was silenced was when I was told not to post on social media about what I was facing. Even if it was just general transphobia within the Western Massachusetts area, I couldn’t post about it publicly. Some encouraged me to speak privately with groups about it. Some graduate students just suggest I journal about it. Some asked why I responded that way. Some claimed I broke trust with other graduate students, and one graduate student even reported me.
But no one asked why I didn’t trust them to begin with. Instead, systems of power encouraged us graduate students to turn against each other. Systems of power allowed for focus to be on my response, and for many to think “well if only Eli responded differently to the situation”.
If it was simply a professional development reason to not publicly share the oppression you face in academia, academia would also follow normal work-place procedures for prejudice. But in my experience, they want the first but not the latter.
I considered, for some time, leaving academia all together. I thought about leaving to a different department or University. The months of my second semester of graduate school were very dark for me. I could feel all excitement leave my body. I didn’t want to wake up in the morning. I battled serious depression. I thought I was to blame for all that I faced. I could hear people say in the back of mind “if only he didn’t assume we were out to get him. If only he didn’t break our trust”.
Even though my undergraduate professors thought I was a brilliant person who could change the world, graduate school was the kind of political that didn’t allow for me to exist.
I sought solace in the words of others who are “minorities” in academia. I read their words and held onto them. I thought about how to talk about what I experienced and still experience in a way that would open up dialogue instead of allowing others to focus on my response to their hatred and ignorance.
At this point, I am frustrated with mentors of mine that would suggest that I am wasting my potential by being outspoken about what I face. They say, “oh Eli is so brilliant if he would just focus on school, and wasn’t so sensitive he could be so great”.
But they don’t “get it”. A person that really wanted to change to accommodate the new faces of academia would accept any criticisms and not focus on their form.
Are we not a stronger community when we engage in differences of dialogue?
I think there is an assumption that when a person who experiences oppression speaks out they do so out of malice. Many people think that they may just want attention or to “stir the pot”.
I speak up because I believe the best in people.
I believe people can change.
I use stories of certain people to illustrate a bigger system—it is not just one person that is “evil and ignorant”. It is not that I wish ill on any of the people who have silenced me or acted in violence towards me. It is more about opening space for others who might have similar experiences.
What further complicates this conversation is the growing presence of social media. In a system with limited jobs, professors-to-be are told that their words follow them. You are told people Google you and that you should not use social media for social change. If you do use social media for social change, you should follow criteria set out by the oppressors. This dialogue is so strong, even other members of LGBTQ+ communities engage in it. We cower into power systems and forget how strong we would be together if we just spoke up.
At the end of my depressive semester, I was awarded a National Science Foundation Fellowship. I was enthralled. I knew my career would change forever because of it. One system of academia thought my identity and research was valid. Not only valid, but funding worthy.
In my application, I wrote about activism, how I experienced homelessness in college, and many other complications around being transgender in the United States. I spoke of my love for biology and understanding people.
So while my department thought my methods of reaching people were invalid, others appreciated them. I realized then: academia often wants to pick and choose which part of their minority candidates they want. They want “diverse” graduate students but not accommodate or change for them. They want “diverse” faculty members but don’t want them to speak of their struggles within their department.
All the while, some just shrug and say “that is just how it is”.
But is that how it always has to be?
I would argue, perhaps beyond reason, that those who have hurt me and contributed to the systematic oppression of transgender people do not do so out of malice. That they can change. They will read this and realize they need to change.