TransyPods: Interview with Dr. Avery Tomkins

Griffin Cobb chats with Bingham Diversity Scholar, Dr. Avery Tompkins about his research on gender and how it relates to issues at TU.

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[MUSIC PLAYING] SPEAKER 1: Welcome to another Campus Conversation, discussions with Transylvania University faculty, highlighting their interests, passions, and pursuits. Here is Griffin Cobb. GRIFFIN COBB: I’m here with Dr. Avery Tompkins, who is the Bingham Diversity Scholar and an assistant professor of sociology here at Transylvania. And we’re going to talk about the role of gender at Transy as well as his research into gender in general. So the first thing I want to ask is, how do we define gender, and how should we? AVERY TOMPKINS: OK, so I think that this is a question that’s difficult to answer. So people in general would probably say that gender is social– there’s a social aspect to that– and that it encompasses things like how people see their own sense of self and then also how others perceive them. So people may choose their gender or feel that they are a gender that might be man, or woman, or trans, or genderqueer, or some other gender that probably people would loosely put under transgender, even if people do not necessarily use that word to describe themselves. But in general, gender’s just how people feel about themselves and then also how people perceive them. Usually, gender– like for cisgender people, non-transgender people– it’s like they were assigned a sex at birth and their gender coincides with that. So they were assigned male at birth and their gender is man. But for some people, that’s not necessarily the case. They may have been assigned male birth and they no longer identify as male or man. They may have another gender identity that could be one of many. So that person would then have that identity, but it’s also people are perceiving their gender in certain ways. So this is everything from masculinity and femininity and the intersections between those for a person, how somebody presents themselves in terms of their clothing, and body, and hair, and whatever else. But those things are coded in our society to be attached to man, woman, masculine, feminine, usually within the binary in some way. GRIFFIN COBB: So next up, I want to ask something that I think kind of dovetails into that a little bit. And that’s that for some people on Transy’s campus, and I guess in the world at large, gender’s something that they deal with and they think about every day, maybe because they have to because of how society treats their gender identity, or maybe because they’re a woman gender studies major, because they’re a soc major or a psych major. But should every single student at Transy think critically about gender even if they are not put in situations where they have to? AVERY TOMPKINS: Ideally, yeah. And the thing is, I think that every person at Transy and in general, they’re always in situations where their gender is in play. You can’t not be gendered. So even if you’re not consciously thinking about this because you may not be in a soc class where you’re talking about gender in that class, everybody’s always perceiving your gender while you’re walking around. So ideally, yes, people would be thinking about their gender because it is always in play in the social realm. Right? If you are somebody who is taking up a lot of space in the classroom, let’s say you’re a cis man who’s taking up a lot of the discussion space in a classroom, I would hope ideally you think about how gender is at play there. Like, why are some of the reasons that people might think that it’s OK to take up a lot of space? Societally, men have been afforded more social space, whereas women and folks of other genders tend to be interrupted, seen as less credible. So ideally, people would think about this all the time, even though it’s maybe– this could be a math class or something where maybe gender is not the topic of the day, but it’s still in play constantly. So ideally, people really would think about this on the regular. GRIFFIN COBB: I want to pivot a little bit from the academic side of being on a college campus to the social side, talking about Greek life. So sororities and frats are traditionally gendered institutions. And Transy has a very high percentage of students involved in Greek life compared with most other colleges and universities. So how do you think that affects the perception of gender on college campuses or Transy specifically, and then how should Greek organizations deal with trans, non-binary, and other gender-non-conforming students? AVERY TOMPKINS: I think that Greek life plays a pretty important role in terms of gender on campus. Like you said, those organizations are designed around the gender binary. And due to that, there are, I think, perhaps increased expectations in terms of conforming to more normative or stereotypical gender roles, for women in Greek organizations to present a certain kind of femininity or to be women in certain ways. And I think that for many men in Greek organizations, they also feel a pressure to perform and do masculinity in certain ways that are tied to the structure of the organization and how those things work. This is not inherently a bad thing, but it does create a structure on campus around that binary that may not be as structured in some other places, because it’s not an institutionalized structure in some other places as much as it is here. So you not only have the general social structure of gender as it exists in society, but you also have an organization that’s based on that structure, and you have an institution that’s endorsing that structure. So all of that is institutionally embedded at that point. I think that for trans or non-binary or gender queer students, I think Greek organizations can be difficult places to navigate. Ideally, organizations would accept members based on their gender identity. So a trans person who is assigned female at birth who no longer identifies as female and would like to join a men’s fraternity, ideally that person would be welcome in that fraternity. The same thing if somebody who was assigned male at birth maybe not identifies as a woman– ideally they would be welcomed into a sorority. And I would hope that any of the organizations on our campus would welcome trans members. GRIFFIN COBB: OK, well, I want to ask you something now about feminism. So feminism, it’s become a lot more prominent, at least in the popular consciousness. In the past few years, we start hearing the word “feminism” a lot more. Articles– you see articles on the internet written about it. And there have been feminist movements for over a century in the United States. But today there seems to be a lot of debate over what feminism means as much or more so compared to its merits, compared to whether feminism is useful, whether feminism is a good thing. So my question is, what do you think feminism means to society right now, and should we use it is to shape how we see gender? AVERY TOMPKINS: Man, that is a big question, also kind of loaded. GRIFFIN COBB: I’m sorry. I’m sorry. AVERY TOMPKINS: No, don’t be sorry. Today is International Women’s Day. And that, it’s been pretty widely publicized, particularly this year. It’s always pretty publicized, but I think this year has been particularly loud with the publicizing and discussions of that. I think currently people might be gravitating toward feminism maybe a little bit more than they have in recent past years, particularly due to some of the political legislation types of things that have been affecting women, reproductive rights being one of those things. And so the rhetoric of feminism allows people to have some kind of shared way of talking about some of these issues and coming together as some kind of critical mass around these issues. And the Women’s March was an example of how this worked. I think it’s also interesting because there are people who would say or would have, I guess, what I would call feminist values or feminist ways of thinking, and they adamantly are like, I’m not a feminist, nope. And I think part of that is due to– I had students say this– is due to the stereotypes of feminists. So they’re imagining radical feminists from the ’70s, and they can’t identify with that image that they have. And so they’re like, I’m not this. But I think that even if somebody is saying, I’m not a feminist, they are often using feminist discourse to discuss some of the issues around gender. So I think it’s currently playing a pretty big role in broader society. I’ll be interested to see how long the push for that continues, because the Women’s March was a huge deal, a very publicized discussion of feminism, women’s rights, the way that aspects of femininity were affecting people, because the Women’s March was not only open to women. It was open to everybody, but it sort of mainly focused on issues that primarily affect women. So how should feminism shape how we see gender? I think feminism helps us see gender in more open ways, because there are many kinds of feminism, but we’ll just go with a progressive intersectional feminism– would assume that issues of gender affect everybody– and they affect women and trans people in disproportionate ways, of course– but that there are ways that people of all gender are affected by these norms, particularly the norms of masculinity and femininity and binary gender roles in society and in households, for example, the ways that kids are socialized to fit those binary gender roles. I think feminism helps us see how those things are really arbitrary and can help people think about the ways that this binary actually doesn’t serve them. So one of the things that I’ve talked about in a few classes of mine is looking at how men do experience male privilege, of course, but in order to attain a certain level of that privilege, men have to embody a certain kind of masculinity. And so there’s a lot of pressure on men to do masculinity in the most hegemonic or acceptable way. And so what this can lead to is, first, men who do not do masculinity properly often experience social consequences, ranging anything like being not accepted into a certain community, to random teasing, to violence, because femininity is seen as negative for men to take on. But that’s also related to the fact that women are devalued in society, and women are tied to femininity. So femininity, yes, definitely affects women and the stereotypes of femininity do that. But the way that femininity is viewed also affects men and the ways that they’re expected to be masculine– GRIFFIN COBB: Because if they veer anywhere close to femininity, then that’s automatically a blot on their reputation. AVERY TOMPKINS: Yes, yeah. So the thing here is that the way that feminism thinks about issues of gender is actually really beneficial for everyone. But when we sort of reduce feminism to, this is only about women, people really don’t see the benefit of engaging in those social movements, those feminist social movements, in ways that also make it better for everyone. Yes, the focus is on women, but those issues are still going to need to be worked on, because the, I guess, progress around those issues actually makes society a better place for everyone to be in. GRIFFIN COBB: I want to shift to some of your research. I read through some of the examples that you sent me, and I want to just touch on how some of it has to do with examining romantic and sexual partnerships between trans and cisgender people. And you looked at the complicated question of how those cisgender people can be attracted to trans people or even have preferences specifically for dating trans people, but still without seeming to fetishize their transness, but at the same time not negating their transness as a potential source for attractiveness or attraction. So what drew you to that particular research question, and where did it take you? AVERY TOMPKINS: So that paper that you’re referencing actually came out of, I think, about three pages of my dissertation. It was something that while I was doing my dissertation research, I had a couple of participants and a couple of the YouTube videos that I used as data, which were cis women who had trans partners. They were talking about their experiences. So I had the YouTube video data and then I had the people I had actually interviewed, that data. And some people brought up the label of tranny chaser in that. And there’s just a couple pages, like seriously probably three pages of the dissertation that mentioned this. And then I was trying to think about things that I really hadn’t explored very much in the dissertation because it didn’t really fit with the longer trajectory of the dissertation as a whole. It was just something that came up. And so I thought, nobody’s written on this. I should just take these three pages and kind of run with it at this point. So I kind of felt that this was an important thing to engage with. Given my position, I was going to engage with that academically, like write a journal article for publication and do that, though I do make kind of a call in there to engage with this outside of the academy. But I guess what drew me into it was the idea that if people fear being viewed as fetishizing trans people because they’re attracted to them, then what it essentially does is erase trans people from relationship imaginary or the sexual imaginary in our society. It leaves trans people out of the rhetoric, and it makes it so that trans people are not seen as valid or viable partners for people. So if you can’t say who you’re attracted to– not because you don’t know– that’s totally valid– but if you can’t say it because you fear some kind of social repercussion, being labeled a tranny chaser or people telling you you’re fetishizing folks, then yes, that cisgender person is going to experience a negative social consequence, being called a name. But in the long run, it’s actually trans people who are experiencing the vast majority of that, which is people may not partner with them out of fear of being called a tranny chaser. So what I found in that particular paper, just kind of drawing on that data, was that none of the cis women who were partnered with trans folks felt that they were fetishizing their partner, but they really did fear that people viewed them as doing that. So I think that part of that is due to some really problematic stuff that has happened in particular with trans women being fetishized by the porn industry, for example. And so there is a discourse around fetishizing trans people in an industry, basically exploiting people for a particular endeavor to make porn. But in individual people’s relationships, that’s not– GRIFFIN COBB: It’s a different thing, yeah. AVERY TOMPKINS: –hopefully not what’s happening. GRIFFIN COBB: Hopefully not, yeah. AVERY TOMPKINS: But the fear there, that rhetoric, that narrative of exploitation and fetishizing, is a circulating narrative. And so the women, the cis women, I think that their fears about this were really valid. The other part of this that kind of invalidates that desire or has the attraction to trans people being questioned or illegitimate or problematic or whatever is that we don’t have any language for saying that we are attracted to trans people. There’s no word. GRIFFIN COBB: So there’s no way to say that somebody has a preference for trans people and that’s OK. The only way is to say that they are fetishizing trans people. AVERY TOMPKINS: Right. Or to use one of the available acceptable terms for sexuality like straight, or gay, or lesbian, or queer, but that still does not have a trans specificity to it. So it’s still, I think, difficult for people who want to partner with trans folks to really make that desire clear, I think, in any real way. I think that transness is always being erased by the language that we have to talk about sexuality and sexual identity and sexual desire, because if you specify it in terms of desire, it’s seen as fetishizing and negative. You can’t specify it in terms of sexual identity. We don’t have a word for that, so then it gets erased. And so there’s not only this issue of, we don’t have language for that, but we then can’t speak about desire in and of itself, because that is seen as oppressive and problematic, which essentially both of these issues, when they come together, effectively erase trans folks from that realm, the realm of relationships and sexuality. GRIFFIN COBB: Well, I know we’ve kind of bounced around on a lot of different gender-related issues. But I want to end by asking, what is something that you wish everybody knew or considered about gender? AVERY TOMPKINS: I wish that everybody would consider that they have a gender, which I know sounds really simple. But for cisgender people, there often is not a very conscious thinking about how gender impacts their life. And many cisgender people do not consciously have a gender identity in a clear way. Like, it’s default, kind of. So because cisgender people fit within the norm of the binary, they are often not really forced to think about their gender very often. And men, cisgender men in particular, will often say, I don’t have a gender. So if I assign a paper and I’m like, think about your social locations, like your race, and your class, and your gender, cisgender men are way more likely to not write about their gender, just like white folks are less likely to think about themselves as having a race. GRIFFIN COBB: Yeah, normativity. AVERY TOMPKINS: Right. So when you are the dominant group or you are the norm, you are less likely to think about your relationship to some of those categories, like gender, for example. So I think the thing I would say is, I just want everybody to recognize that they have a gender, and think about how that’s playing a role in their life. How is their gender affecting them? But how’s their gender affecting other people? What are they doing with that gender in the social world– when they walk around campus, when they’re in a classroom, when they’re at a restaurant and somebody’s waiting on their table? How’s that working? Because I think being conscious about one’s gender actually would solve a lot of things. It’s not going solve structural things, necessarily. Like, sexism is embedded in so many institutions, like in the fabric of society. But I think it would allow, if people were thinking more critically about their gender and how gender relates to them, that sort of our everyday interactions with each other would likely be a lot more positive and mindful. GRIFFIN COBB: All right. AVERY TOMPKINS: All right. GRIFFIN COBB: Well, thank you so much for sitting down with me. AVERY TOMPKINS: Sure. GRIFFIN COBB: I really appreciate it. [MUSIC PLAYING] SPEAKER 1: You’ve been listening to another in our series Campus Conversations, one-on-one discussions with Transylvania University faculty.