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We Must Respect Trans People's Expertise Beyond Their Personal Experience

Trans people have a wealth of scholarly and community knowledge which deserves to be recognized
Jasmin Merdan via Getty Images

As a visible transfeminine scholar, I am often invited to speak at events or to journalists on trans issues. When those invitations come from outside LGBT communities, they almost invariably come framed as an opportunity to share my personal experience as a trans person. It's one of the great clichés of representation; despite an expertise in law and bioethics as they relate to trans communities, I get asked to spread not my knowledge, but my personal story.

A few months ago, I was invited on a television show. The invitation was marked by a desire to introduce an unfamiliar viewership to trans realities. I appeared besides a sexologist who was asked to provide clinical insight into the difficulties which trans people face during transition. At airing, many people around me voiced annoyance at the sexologist's inclusion; she didn't have a particular expertise with trans clients whereas my work focuses on mental health care for trans communities and I would have been more than happy to provide my perspective. We can speculate why she was included, but I do notice that it is exceedingly common for therapists to be included regardless of whether trans health care is at the heart of the discussion.

These invitations are part of a larger script we see a lot in the media. To paint an emotionally loaded picture and get the audience invested in the topic, the testimony of a trans person is put on display. Often, though far from always, this is a person early in their transition, a most difficult and vulnerable moment where we rarely benefit from distance and perspective as to how our own experiences fit within broader community and social narratives.

After the testimony is presented, an expert is invited to flesh out and analyze the topic of choice. Expertise is generally cast through a hierarchical magnifying glass: members of therapeutic professions asked to talk about trans mental health care, university diversity officers asked to talk about the available anti-discrimination protections, or gender studies professors who spent one summer researching trans equality law talking about the landscape of trans equality. Oftentimes, that expert is cisgender — that is, not transgender.

Although representation are slowly diversifying — thanks to relentless trans activists and a handful of allies who redirect requests to a more appropriate choice of trans experts — the cliché of cisgender expertise and transgender testimony lingers.

Trans people have a wealth of scholarly and community knowledge which deserves to be recognized.

This dichotomous cliché, setting up cis people as experts while trans people are relegated to the role of testimony-machines is not without consequences. It is intimately linked to the discrediting of trans people as bearers of knowledge, positioning us instead objects of curiosity.

Seeing cis people as possessors of expertise and trans people as possessors of experience reproduces a voyeuristic subject/object dynamic long criticized in anthropology. Trans people, they, are the objects of knowledge whereas cis people, we, are subjects of knowledge. This structure, which I previously called the "National Geographic Effect," seems more interested in entertaining and satiating the curiosity of cis people than in benefitting trans people. Some might call it performative allyship.

The recognition of people's knowledge is a mark of humanization. By failing to recognize the full authority of trans people as experts, academia and the media not only wrong individual trans experts but adds inertial weight to a society which, at best, shows fascination and, at worst, hostility towards trans communities. Trans people have a wealth of scholarly and community knowledge which deserves to be recognized.

I am not here attempting to indict the intention of those who invite me. Some of them are individuals I think of highly and who do not doubt had the best of intentions. Others were condescending and had no interest in seeing trans people as equal partners in the knowledge enterprise — let's call those the jerks.

Even when people's intentions are good, our collective conceptions of expertise tend to favour cis people because trans people have historically been and continue to be excluded from spheres of power, including in the academic world. I live in Quebec, a rare bastion of French in an otherwise predominantly anglophone country. Currently, there is only one francophone and trans professor who specializes in trans issues in Canada, for 17 French-speaking universities and a handful of bilingual ones. A well-meaning organizer who isn't attuned to the inequities produced by the structures of academic authority can easily inadvertently reproduce the dichotomy cis expertise, trans testimony. Active intervention is necessary to disrupt this pattern.

The shift from a culture of trans testimony to a culture of trans expertise is an ongoing discussion in trans communities. For many of us, this necessary shift would not only signal growing respect for trans people, but also hold the promise of better quality policy-making and media representation.

However competent they may be, in my experience, cis experts rarely have the depth and wealth of knowledge which trans experts masterfully manipulate. This is so for multiple reasons. Firstly, self-knowledge is a crucial form of learning and can aid in critically evaluating the information conveyed as knowledge. I would never make the mortifying mistake of voicing doubt as to whether hormone replacement therapy can alter fat distribution — and yes, I chuckled when I read that. Secondly, information about trans people comes from trans people, and trans experts quite simply have an easier access to trans communities. Much of the insight found in my articles is a translation and synthesis of information and perspectives I collected from the trans friends and colleagues with whom I interact daily.

Moving forward, scholars, organizers, and journalists should be careful in how they approach trans individuals, seeking to actively resist the scheme of cisgender expertise and trans testimony. In these dire times for trans people of many countries, it is crucial to respect the expertise that trans scholars and community activists have developed on trans issues.

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