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Imagine Otherwise: Heath Fogg Davis on Transgender Discrimination

Imagine Otherwise: Heath Fogg Davis on Transgender Discrimination

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July 26, 2017

Heath Fogg Davis wearing a navy blazer and blue button-down shirt

 

What if we got rid of gender or sex classification in public restrooms, sports, college admissions, and government IDs? How does transgender discrimination affect both trans* and cisgender people? How can gender studies scholars bring their expertise to bear in nonprofits, companies, and community organizations?

In episode 44  the Imagine Otherwise, podcast, host Cathy Hannabach and guest Heath Fogg Davis discuss why almost all sex classification is unnecessary, in everything from bathrooms and IDs to sports and education; how the city of Philadelphia is tackling racism and queer and trans justice, how scholars can put their expertise to use in consulting projects beyond the university, and why large-scale structural change is necessary for imagining and creating more just worlds.

Guest: Heath Fogg Davis

Heath is a scholar-activist whose work in classrooms, boardrooms, community centers, and media seeks to alleviate discrimination and inequality.

Heath is an associate professor of political science at Temple University, where he teaches courses on anti-discrimination law, democratic political theory, and the politics of race, gender, and sexuality.

He is the author of the new book Beyond Trans: Does Gender Matter?, published by NYU Press. Beyond Trans offers pragmatic guidance to individuals and organizations on how to develop trans-inclusive administrative policies that are institutionally smart.

Across his varied teaching, scholarship, and activism, Heath seeks institutional changes that can empower communities, alleviate structural violence, and build a more sustainable and just future.

We chatted about

  • The broad range of people that trans discrimination affects, including those who don’t identify as transgender (02:28)
  • Heath’s argument that almost all sex classification is unnecessary (06:40)
  • How Heath’s consulting work allows him to toggle between academic and more corporate spheres (10:25)
  • Advice for scholars looking to branch out beyond academia (11:50)
  • Heath’s work with the Philadelphia Mayor’s Commission on LGBT Affairs (16:30)
  • Imagining otherwise (20:15)

Heath Fogg Davis wearing a navy blazer and blue button-down shirt. Text reads: What is it that you love to do? What frustrates you? What are you good at? Those are really important questions that we often don't get asked in academia.

Takeaways

Trans discrimination affects everyone

What’s really at stake in trans discrimination is more about people who don’t fit stereotypical notions of masculinity and femininity. When I say “Beyond Trans,” I mean that the book is about trans experience and trans discrimination, but it’s also making the point that this kind of discrimination affects a much wider range of people. Everyone from masculine-appearing girls and women to feminine-appearing boys and men and androgynous people who may present to the world as androgynous for many reasons…experience this kind of discrimination.

Sex classification is unnecessary

Whenever you institute a gender policy at whatever level, you automatically have deputized somebody to make a decision about your, my, and everybody else’s sex identity—to be the judge of whether we measure up to that person’s standards of what it means to be a real man or a real woman.

How Heath’s consulting work benefits his classroom

This has been so meaningful to me in terms of my career and feeling useful. Now that I’ve done more consulting work outside of the classroom and outside of academia, I’m able to talk to my students about that work, and I think it makes for more interesting classes.

Advice for scholars looking to branch out beyond academia

Ask yourself some questions: what is it that you love to do? What is about academia that you love, and what don’t you love? What frustrates you? What are you good at? Those are really important questions that we often don’t get asked in academia.

The Philadelphia Mayor’s Commission on LGBT Affairs

We’re focusing on community outreach…where we invite everybody from the different parts of the LGBTQ community to come and give us their stories; we listen to what the concerns are….We want to be a body that’s responsive to the dynamic needs of the various parts of the community.

Imagining otherwise

When we ask the question “does gender matter?”—which is a question that I want us to think about more—and when we say yes to that question, I want us to always follow it up with evidence. The follow-up question should always be “when, why, and how?” That’s a world in which we’re not naive about the social importance of gender, but one in which we think it through instead of this automatic way that we’ve all been trained.

More from Heath

Projects and people discussed

About Imagine Otherwise

Imagine Otherwise is a podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism, and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in-depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice, and explore the nitty-gritty work of imagining and creating more just worlds. Check out full podcast episodes and show notes at ideasonfire.net/imagine-otherwise-podcast. Imagine Otherwise is produced by Ideas on Fire, an academic editing and consulting agency helping progressive, interdisciplinary scholars write and publish awesome texts, enliven public conversations, and create more just worlds.

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Episode transcript

Cathy Hannabach [00:03]: [upbeat music in background] Welcome to Imagine Otherwise, the podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism, and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in-depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice and explore the nitty-gritty work of imagining otherwise. I’m your host, Cathy Hannabach. [music fadeout]

This is episode 44, and my guest today is Heath Fogg Davis. Heath is a scholar-activist whose work in classrooms, boardrooms, community centers, and media seeks to alleviate discrimination and inequality.

Heath is an associate professor of political science at Temple University, where he teaches courses on anti-discrimination law, democratic political theory, and the politics of race, gender, and sexuality.

He is the author of the new book Beyond Trans: Does Gender Matter?, published just a few months ago by NYU Press. Beyond Trans offers pragmatic guidance to individuals and organizations on how to develop trans-inclusive administrative policies that are institutionally smart.

Across his varied teaching, scholarship, and activism, Heath seeks institutional changes that can empower communities, alleviate structural violence, and build a more sustainable and just future.

In our interview we discuss why almost all sex classification is unnecessary, in everything from bathrooms and IDs to sports and education; how the city of Philadelphia is tackling racism and queer and trans justice, how scholars can put their expertise to use in consulting projects beyond the university, and why large-scale structural change is necessary for imagining and creating more just worlds.

[To Heath] Thank you so much for being with us. Heath.

Heath Fogg Davis: Thank you for having me on the podcast. I’m excited about our conversation.

Cathy [1:57]: So you’re the author of a really fantastic book that just came out called Beyond Trans: Does Gender Matter? and we really loved getting to work with you on that at Ideas on Fire with editing and indexing. It’s been a really fun journey to see that book developed. So I’d love for you to tell our listeners what that book covers.

Heath: Yeah, sure. I’d be happy to. It was a fabulous experience working with you through all the different stages. That was great.

The argument of the book is kind of summed up in the title of Beyond Trans: Does Gender Matter? The term transgender discrimination is a bit of a misnomer because not all people who identify as trans experience this kind of discrimination.

[03:13] For example, in my own life, as a transgender man who is pretty gender conforming, I don’t get a lot of—really any—commentary. in the public sphere and nobody gives me a hard time when I go to use the men’s bathroom. So what’s really at stake in trans discrimination is more about people who don’t fit stereotypical notions of masculinity and femininity. So when I say beyond trans, the book is about trans experience and trans discrimination, but it’s also making the point that this kind of discrimination affects a much wider range of people: everyone from masculine-appearing girls and women to feminine-appearing boys and men to androgynous people who may present to the world as androgynous for any number of reasons, regardless of their sexual orientation, experience this kind of discrimination.

We’re at a point in our culture right now where we’re talking about transgender identity and grappling with terminology. But the next step I think is to really understand the content and the form of this discrimination, which in the book I talk about as a form of sex identity discrimination. This involves sex stereotyping, but it goes further to deny people the right to say who they are in relation to the categories of male and female.

[04:15] The second part of the title is Does Gender Matter? Like a good academic, I say it depends on what we’re talking about. So if we’re talking about socially, than I think that there’s no question that gender matters and it matters to us in different ways, for a variety of reasons. But then if we’re talking about policies and the administration of sex, when we’re talking about whether we should have sex markers on our driver’s licenses or birth certificates, whether bathrooms in the public sphere should be sex segregated, and whether sports should be segregated according to gender, then my response is different.

I think that the default should be that [gender] shouldn’t matter when it comes to policymaking. The reason for this is because whenever you institute a gender policy at whatever level, you automatically have deputized somebody to make a decision about your, my, everybody else’s sex identity—to be the judge of whether we measure up to that person’s standards of what it means to be a “real man” or a “real woman.”

[05:23] One thing that I discovered in my research that was really interesting is that very few employee handbooks define what they mean by gender, but you have this sort of gender inspection given out to administrative agents to do their job and to enforce the policies without any clear guidance about what the definitions are.

Cathy: One of the things that’s so striking about this book, and that already has certainly garnered conversation and will continue to do so, is that you make a very clear and very compelling argument that almost all sex classification is completely unnecessary from, as you put it, bathrooms and ID documents to sports and education. As you point out, there are actually very few contexts in which sex classification has any kind of rational basis or has any kind of necessary basis to provide whatever service it is that we’re talking about. But of course that as simple and as straightforward an argument that is, it’s also considered by some to be quite controversial. So I’m curious how the reaction to this argument has been. What kind of responses have you gotten?

Heath [06:30]: A lot of people are intrigued by the concept. It’s an attention grabber. But of course there’s also a lot of resistance to the argument and often there’s an assumption that what I’m arguing is to get rid of gender completely. My argument is not that.

I’m really looking at the specific realm of the administration of sex. When I do my consulting work with businesses and organizations and even when I teach about these topics in my classes, I ask people to really think about the places where gender comes up in a policy. Often people are surprised and say, “Yeah, okay, why are we asking people to check a male or female box on an application for this particular job or a program?”

[07:26] So it seems like a radical proposition at first but then when I start talking with people about it, there’s often a moment at which people say, “Oh yeah, maybe we need to rethink that. And maybe there are other ways to get to legitimate policy goals like privacy and safety.”

In the case of public restrooms, for example, which I talk about as an architectural problem, I think we need to conceive of and build public restrooms radically differently than we do right now. We have some examples of really good bathroom design that can solve some of these problems without invoking sex distinctions because, as I mentioned before, whenever you do that, you automatically institute a gender test where some people qualify and others don’t. When I talk to people about it on that level, a lot of times people come around to it.

Cathy [08:21]: One of the things that you do quite differently in this book then a lot of scholarly books do is toggle back and forth between traditional scholarly research [and practical advice]. So you’re asking, How did this specific phenomenon—in this case, policies around sex classification—emerge, when were they invented, what interests and ideologies do they serve, how could they be differently, etc.? This kind of scholarly inquiry is coupled with very practical concrete, actionable changes that you’re advocating. This is something that a lot of scholarly books don’t tend to do. What made you go that route?

Heath: Like a lot of people in academia, I came into academia because I was interested in ideas and also because of my own social activism. I wanted to explore issues of race and sexual orientation and gender in a scholarly way. As anybody in academia knows, there’s an ironic thing where there’s a lot of liberalism in academia but it’s also a very conservative structure that can take away some of that being in touch with the so-called “real world.

[09:39] And more specifically than that, I think there’s almost a learned helplessness that impacts a lot of us where you sort of feel like you spent so many years in academia that you can’t really be relevant to the outside world, let alone something as practical as a social services organization.

You and I had a conversation several years ago now where we talked about what I wanted to do and what I thought I was good at. And I think that one of the skills that I have is that I can translate some of these complex ideas about gender theory and make them readable to people working outside of academia. So, so that’s one thought about that.

But also, honestly, my own gender transition, which happened later in life at the age of 38 in 2008, I think my own experience in my workplace with that—the set of steps, the bureaucratic challenges that that presented—made me very interested in helping other people navigate their own transitions.

[10:50] A lot of that has to do with practical stuff. So I started consulting with organizations and helping people with the practical issues of, “Yes we want to be inclusive of trans people, but we don’t really know what to do so let’s figure it out.” That kind of pragmatic series of steps is really interesting to me.

Cathy: This actually brings up something I was hoping we’d get a chance to talk about, which is your consulting work. In addition to your work as a professor teaching and doing research through the university, you also have a consultancy portfolio helping nonprofit organizations, companies of various sizes, and institutions write better antidiscrimination policies and put together institutional practices that reflect the kind of inclusivity that they’re wanting to. Do you have any advice for other faculty, other scholars, who are interested in exploring how they can put the skills that they’ve built over the years to work in these nonacademic spaces?

Heath [11:52]: Yes. This has been so meaningful to me in terms of my career and, as I pointed out before, feeling useful. I feel useful in the classroom and an interesting thing has happened now that I’ve done more consulting work outside of the classroom, outside of academia. I’m able to talk to my students about that work and I think it makes for more interesting classes. I see that they are interested. I can talk to them about, for example, who here has had a diversity training at their job or had a sensitivity or cultural competence [training]? What did you like and what didn’t you like about that experience, what made it boring and so on. And we can actually talk about how we would change those things.

[12:44] I think [the first thing is] asking yourself some questions: What is it that you love to do? What is it about academia that you love and what don’t you love so much about academia? What frustrates you? What are you good at? That’s a really, really important question that we don’t get asked ever in academia. We all know that when you ask people to do stuff that they don’t feel skilled at, there’s frustration. It doesn’t make for happy people or good work.

So it was really important to figure out what my skill set was. For example, and I think we talked about this at an earlier point, I feel like my skills are really conducive to a seminar setting where I have a smaller group of students and I’m not lecturing the whole time, where I can structure the conversation so that I can do these sort of pop-up mini lectures from time to time and work in a different way that feels good to me.

[13:50] So that would be my recommendation. Think about what are you good at, what you like to do, what you don’t want to do. And figure out what your academic career can satisfy in terms of what you like to do and what you’re good at and where are the points at which you might feel a little bit hemmed in and want to move outside of that and do other things.

Cathy: I remember that conversation. We had coffee. I remember this conversation because you were figuring this stuff out. You were at the very beginning of figuring this stuff out.

Heath [14:30]: Absolutely. I felt sort of nervous and put on the spot when you started asking me these questions because as I mentioned before, nobody’s ever asked me these things before. There’s an assumption in the academic conveyor belt that we’re all good at everything and we are supposed to not admit our weaknesses. So when we had that conversation, it just was kind of this Eureka! moment when I was like, “What I would really love to do is go to talk to companies, to keep my academic day job but be able to dip in and out of these settings.”

I don’t want to live in corporate America. But I’m fascinated by certain aspects of it and I’m also fascinated by nonprofits doing social activism. I have a wide range of interests and this kind of consulting is ideal for me because I get to do exactly that. I get to go and spend a day or a meeting with somebody in an organization or a few people and really get a sense of what their goals are, what are they trying to achieve.

[15:32] I’ve discovered that I’m very good at coming up with a game plan and different options based on those goals. That’s been enormously satisfying.

Cathy: One of the things that you also do quite a lot of is social justice activism and it’s interwoven through your teaching, your scholarship, and through your consulting. You sit on the boards of several local social justice organizations. You and I actually met through the Leeway Foundation, which, for those listeners who are not familiar with it, is in Philadelphia and is a fantastic organization that you should Google immediately.

Heath: I second that!

Cathy: One really exciting opportunity that’s still fairly new for you is you’ve been appointed to the city of Philadelphia’s Mayor’s Commission on LGBT Affairs, which is a brand new commission and is doing some really exciting work. What is on the plate for the commission in in the next couple months or so?

Heath [16:25]: It’s a fantastic thing that is going on. This is a brand new commission. In the city of Philadelphia, we’ve never had an LGBT affairs commission.

The whole process of even putting the commission together I think was really great. It was an open application to anybody in the community. My partner actually saw it on social media and was like, “You should apply for this. It sounds like exactly the kind of thing that you’re doing with your consulting work and your book.” I got picked and I feel really honored to be there.

[17:25] We’re 24 people who live in the city of Philadelphia from all different walks of life. It’s [a really] diverse group of people in terms of race, religion, gender, sexuality, and gender identity. We had our first meeting in March and we’ve had a couple of meetings since. We meet monthly to some extent. We’re still getting a sense of our different subcommittees and figuring out what exactly what exact steps we’re going to take in the different areas, but there are two things that I can just speak to that are definitely in the works.

One is the community outreach that we’re doing. By the time this podcast airs, we will have already had at least one of these events where we invite everybody from the different parts of the LGBTQ community to come in and we listen to what their concerns are. We know what a lot of those concerns are, but we also want to be a body that’s responsive to the dynamic needs of the various parts of the community.

[18:25] The other thing that I’m really excited about that’s in the works is a website that will be a hub for resources and information for community members that doesn’t exist right now. We’re really excited about bringing that stuff together and putting it in one place that’s legible.

A lot of us as individuals have gone out to the various communities that we’re involved with and talked to people about what their needs are. I’ve been a member of TMAN, which is the Trans Masculine Advocacy Network in the city of Philadelphia, a great organization dedicated to supporting transmasculine people of color within the city, with mostly Latino and African American membership. I went and talked to my friends in that organization and got some important feedback about what the needs are for our community.

[19:24] Another thing that was part of the feedback that I got from community members was a lot of people were looking for more guidance about city resources. I think that this website will serve that purpose of giving people a sense of how things connect and work together.

Cathy: This is certainly something that I think a lot of cities would look to as a good model.

Heath: I agree.

Cathy: So this brings me to my favorite question that I get to ask guests, which really gets at the heart of why we do this podcast. What kind of world are you building? How are you imagining otherwise when you step in front of your classroom, when you do your consulting work, when you produce your scholarship, when you do whatever it is that you do in the universe. I’ll ask you this big, scary, but super fun question. What kind of world do you want?

Heath [20:14]: It’s a great question. I think the macro answer to that is a world in which our default presumption is against administrating gender, where we think about using the rational relationship test not just in the courtroom legalistically but also in our everyday lives and our decision making around gender. [I want a world in which] we think about gender in a very, very different way. When we asked the question, does gender matter? (which is a question that I want us to ask more) and when we say yes to that question, that we always follow it up with evidence. The follow-up question I think should always be, when, why, and how?

So that’s a world in which we’re not naive about the importance of gender, but [one in which] we think it through instead of this automatic way that we’ve all been trained to just include gender on a form, to ask about so that we have a different set of defaults when it comes to the question of, does gender matter?

Cathy: Thank you so much for being with us.

Heath: Thank you, Cathy. This has been great.

Cathy [21:37]: [upbeat music in background] Thanks for listening to another episode of Imagine Otherwise. Imagine Otherwise is produced by Ideas on Fire, and this episode was created by Priyanka Kaura, Alexandra Sastre, and myself, Cathy Hannabach. You can check out the show notes for this episode on our website at ideasonfire.net where you can also read about our fabulous guest as well as find links to the people and projects we discuss on the show. [music fadeout]


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