Shutting Up: Cis Accountability in Trans Writing Studies Research

Shutting Up: Cis Accountability in Trans Writing Studies Research

Peitho Volume 22 Issue 4 Summer 2020

Author(s): Joshua Barsczewski

Joshua Barsczewski is an Assistant Professor of English and Director of the Academic Writing Program at Elmira College. He earned his PhD at University of Massachusetts Amherst in 2020. He has published in Composition Forum and has articles forthcoming in several edited collections.

Abstract: This paper argues for intentional silence as a form of accountability for cis scholars conducting Trans Writing Studies research. By tracing the publication process of a qualitative research article, I reflect on my own missteps in research design, methods, and interpretation. I use these reflections to suggest cis scholars consider the limits of their own knowledge and reflect on how their desire to be allies can mitigate the voices and needs of trans research study participants.

Tags: , , , ,

The context behind this essay is one of productive failure, I hope. In response to the CFP for this issue of Peitho, I submitted an article that pulled from an ongoing research project on how LGBTQ students write about their identities in academic writing assignments. After two rounds of revision, and in response to some trans friends’ and colleague’s suggestions, I pulled it from consideration as I realized my ideas were undercooked, at best, and potentially harmful to trans people, at worst. I assumed the article would be dead and buried, never to see the light of day, and was mourning my losses when the editors graciously offered me a chance to write about this process. I took their invitation for two major reasons. First, the field of Writing Studies could benefit from increased depictions of failed research and writing. Research is complicated, full of starts and stops, and disciplinary imperatives to make everything seem tidy and not “messy” miss an opportunity to allow others to learn from our mistakes (Rickley). As Driscoll et al. suggest, we need to “resist the narrative that good research is always successful research—rather, good research informs future studies” (Driscoll et al). My second reason builds off the first: to the extent that my messy research might inform future studies, I hope it will be by encouraging other cis researchers to hold themselves accountable, to know when to reconsider their own ideas, and to know when to shut up.

Accountability as a Cis Researcher

Trans students’ experiences in higher education have been examined in some depth (see Nicolazzo, Catalano, Jourian, Bilodeau, and Dugan, Kusel, and Simounet, among others), but to date there has been little work focused on how trans students navigate writing classrooms.1 While this gap should be filled, cis researchers should think deeply about whether we should be the ones to fill it. As M. Paz Galupo points out, there is already an overrepresentation of cis researchers writing about trans experiences, and cis people’s life experiences influence the directions their research takes. She states:

When conducting transgender-related research my experience as a cisgender woman shapes (a) the way I formulate research questions, (b) my evaluation and selection of measures, (c) the way I might phrase questions in an interview or survey, (d) the way potential participants regard my intentions as a researcher and their decision to participate or not, (e) the degree to which participants may share certain experiences or the language they use to communicate their experiences (Bender-Baird, 2008), (f) the way I interpret and frame my results, and (g) the way my research is regarded by others in the field based on my cis identity (as objective and relatively unbiased perhaps, or even as out of touch and insensitive). (1)

Some of these are problems that could be overcome with careful effort, and indeed Galupo’s solutions include deeply reading in trans studies and inviting input from trans collaborators and community members as part of the research process (2). The problem goes even deeper than that, however, as G Patterson’s writing on the problems of allyship in trans-related research points out.

Patterson says, “cisgender researchers stake their authority to speak on trans topics by deploying their identity as a trans ally,” which is a subject position enabled through the particular ways the “institutionalization of transgender studies has perhaps enabled allies to gain access to and personally (and unevenly) profit from trans spaces, people, and perspectives” (146-147). Patterson instead suggests cis researchers leave behind the concept of allyship to become “co-conspirators” (147) by “leveraging one’s privilege to call attention to (not only their own but also) readers’ complicity in intersectional forms of cissexist violence” (147) and “refusing to engage in any trans-related research that doesn’t materially benefit trans people” (148). They also describe co-conspirators as those who “actively seek opportunities to educate themselves and make themselves uncomfortable with what they think they know” (149), and “practice self-reflexivity to ensure they’re not engaging in scholarship that centers themselves while crowding out the voices of their trans colleagues and community members” (149). Beyond taking Patterson’s suggestions to be co-conspirators, I would also emphasize that cis researchers should: create research projects responsive to actual needs of trans people, rather than our assumptions; reconsider our ideas when trans people tell us to do so; and shut up, back off, and hold ourselves accountable without expecting credit.

Queer Methods Trans Methods

Queer theory’s uptake within Writing Studies has often focused on resisting the epistemologies and ideologies undergirding academic norms (Waite; Alexander and Rhodes; Banks). Building off this work, I was interested in how often students are encouraged to explore seemingly inappropriate topics like sex, sexuality, and desire in the academy. In my own experience as a gay student and scholar, I have often felt as though I couldn’t talk about my life in academic texts, or if I did I felt a need to filter my experiences through some theoretical perspective, like the time I presented a paper analyzing a Grindr hookup at a conference and the first audience question asked why I didn’t spend more time talking about Kenneth Burke instead. At the same time, I know some instructors do encourage their students to speak from personal experience in writing. I wanted to know: when do LGBTQ students feel empowered to discuss their identities and personal experiences in academic texts? When do they feel discouraged from doing so? And what do they write when given the opportunity?

Although I recruited many cis gay, lesbian, and bisexual students, the majority of interested participants I recruited described their gender in terms that fit under the larger “trans” umbrella, such as “trans,” “transgender, “assigned-female-at-birth genderqueer,” “non-binary,” “non-binary trans,” “transmasculine gender non-conforming,” and “unsure of my gender identity.” The responses they gave me in the initial interview suggested a flaw with my research questions. While the majority of the cis participants expressed a longing to write about their sexual identities, all of the trans participants expressed a greater deal of ambivalence or reluctance to explicitly write about either their sexualities or genders for class. Blair, for example, said he wouldn’t come out as transgender unless he knew for sure his instructor and classmates had “trans 101 basic knowledge.” Cass said they felt “fatigued” and “pressured” from constantly being the only person in class who critiques transphobia, and wanted professors to start doing that work instead. Oakley said they would be interested in writing about being nonbinary for their classes, but have felt too unsafe to do so, mentioning in depth how they were forced to peer review with a cis male student who routinely made transphobic comments. Another participant, Julian, talked about how he tries to gauge his classmates’ responses and body language when trans issues come up before deciding whether a class is safe for him to come out. My entire project, I realized, hinged on an assumption that students wanted to write about being LGBTQ in academic settings, but that academic norms or unhelpful instructors prevented them. What these participants suggested instead is that, even when given the opportunity by their instructors, trans students have good reason to be skeptical.

Had I been acting as a co-conspirator, I might have changed my focus to reflect my participants’ actual concerns: concerns about personal safety, and less about empowerment. I might have refocused my work to materially benefit trans people by reorienting my research toward helping teachers create safer classrooms. Instead, I chose focal participants who I thought might help me answer my original research questions. Aidan, a gay trans man and English major who describes himself as a “white, middle class atheist who was raised Catholic” interested me because he said during the interview that his trans identity comes out in subtle or implicit ways in his writing. He sent me 10 writing samples from different disciplines and I spent weeks reading, rereading, coding, and recoding his corpus. During our subsequent interviews, we discussed in depth the few times where he wrote about trans issues, such as a literature review he wrote about whether gender dysphoria should still be listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). He described his process of writing this piece by saying:

The class was abnormal psychology, so we were basically just studying different conditions that would be in the DSM. And I felt very comfortable with the teacher…but as for my other classmates, I wasn’t really as comfortable with them. I do remember when we were going over gender dysphoria as a condition, we did have a guest speaker come in who was a trans man. So we did talk at length about transgender people. I don’t really remember specifics exactly, but I just remember not really feeling comfortable enough to come out. Not like anyone was saying anything outright derogatory, just I guess insulting stuff in a way that people don’t really realize it just because they didn’t understand things—that kind of situation. So I didn’t want to then say to that class full of people, “Hey, I’m trans too.”

While Aidan did not feel enabled come out explicitly in that classroom, it does not feel entirely appropriate to say he felt silenced from writing about his experiences either. He did write about gender dysphoria and the DSM, and in our interview he said “It was kind of presented as something objective and abstract from myself, but it was actually a really, really personal essay.” Where I had presumed a clear dichotomy between students being silenced and students being enabled, Aidan’s experience resisted this assumption; this resistance was echoed, in some way, by nearly all of the trans participants in my study.

With the gift of hindsight, I can see at least two mistakes I made in the research design: first, I assumed I could build a singular study that would make sense for all participants, uniting lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, and queer students under the acronym “LGBTQ.” Through my choice of questions and underlying assumptions, I was focused more on my interests and desires (for students to challenge academic norms through reference to personal experience) when trans participants were telling me their needs were different (the need to be safe in a potentially hostile classroom context). Second, I did not spend much time researching the best methods for working with trans participants. I did read extensively on queer research methods, but as Banks, Cox, and Dadas make abundantly clear in their collection Re/Orienting Writing Studies: Queer Methods, Queer Projects, queer methods are not necessarily or even preferably about working with LGBTQ participants. Rather, queer methods are about using queer theory as an epistemological orientation to counter a “fundamentally conservative strain in our field that has failed to recognize queer theories as important to our collective (and very broad) work with language and composition” (10). Nevertheless, I thought I would be able to be respectful and ethical when writing about LGBTQ students since I have been an active member of queer activist, academic, and social communities for the entirety of my adult life. It is more obvious to me now that, rather than queer methods of research, my project needed trans methods. At the very least, qualitative research oriented towards the larger LGBTQ community needs to be much more precise than I was in theorizing the connection that runs among the different identities in the acronym.

Allyship and Interpretation

Despite what seems now to be obvious flaws in my research design, I continued with the project and tried my best to position myself as an ally to Aidan, Blair, Julian, Oakley, Afs, Taylor, Bailey, Cass, and all of the other trans participants who agreed to be part of the study. I tried to build relationships with them, with reasonable expectations for their participation throughout, keeping in mind their positionality and vulnerability as students (see Kirsch). While case studies would not allow me to build a comprehensive theory of how LGBTQ students engage with academic writing, I could offer up close and inductive examinations of particular students to show the rhetorical choices they made in specific contexts. If nothing else, I felt reasonably sure I would be portraying my participants ethically.

The due date for this special issue was perfectly timed for my career: the summer before I went on the job market. I rushed to get the article on Aidan done, gave it a fancy title, submitted it, and put an “under review” line on my CV. Initially titled “Academic Normativities and the Possibility of Agency: Lessons from a Trans Student,” the piece used close readings of Aidan’s writing samples and interview transcripts to interrogate how Writing Studies has configured the relationship between rhetorical agency and academic discourse norms. The peer reviewers’ reports kindly suggested I eschew my larger argument about normativity, and instead focus on the real disciplinary contribution I could provide: an extensive study of one trans student’s experiences, with a focus on what trans students can teach us about the teaching of writing and about higher education more generally.

With an invitation to revise, and the reviewer’s suggestions in mind, I extensively changed the article, retitled it “Rhetorical Masking: A Case Study of a Trans Student’s Engagement with Academic Discourse,” and resubmitted. This version focused on how Aidan juggled his own personal goals as a writer with the separate but related pressures of academic genre and discourse norms, on the one hand, and transphobic or trans-ignorant classmates and instructors, on the other. Out of Aidan’s data, I developed a few rhetorical concepts I thought were pretty nifty to describe how he was able to achieve his own goals as a writer without exposing himself to potential harm. The central concept, which I called “rhetorical masking,” described ways Aidan used a seemingly distant voice to cover—or mask—his political commitments through invoking what he saw as generic and neutral features of academic discourse.

After a few weeks, I received the editors’ suggestions. The article, they claimed, was almost ready but still needed a few tweaks before publishing. The two major suggestions they asked me to reconsider were how I was describing my own accountability as a cis researcher, and whether my descriptions of Aidan’s rhetorical choices were positioning him negatively, as a duplicitous or somehow deceptive writer. This second point stumped me a bit. The editors were not asking me to change my concepts entirely, but to think about how I was packaging them and what connotations they suggested. In my desire to be an ally to Aidan, I focused on reading him agentively, instead of thinking more broadly and critically examining how my argument might circulate or be taken up. What might the larger implications for the trans community be? I sat with the editors’ suggestions for a few days, stuck and uncertain of what to do. On the one hand, I could change my description of Aidan’s rhetorical choices, to put them into more obviously positive terms, but the underlying idea would be the same, and so doing this would just be putting a sheen over a potentially problematic concept. Or, I could recreate the concept altogether and try to make something that couldn’t be interpreted negatively. It wouldn’t be the same article, but at least I’d have something, some publication to show for this process.

I am lucky to have a network of trans friends and colleagues—some of whom are scholars, but most of whom are not. I talked with a few of them about Aidan and whether I should try to argue back with the editors, find a new publication venue, or just give up entirely. They encouraged me to go back to my data, to see if I could come up with a new and better argument. They asked me to consider whether the world really needs a cis scholar writing about how a trans student masks himself. In other words: they supported the editors’ comments and were telling me to change my path. And when I went back to my data I realized, all of my interpretations were drenched throughout with assumptions born out of my own ignorance. The only way to hold myself accountable, then, was to shut up and move on.


When I refer to “shutting up” as a way of being accountable, I mean an intentional silence after realizing one’s own mistakes. Intentional silence is neither an act of allyship nor is it co-conspiratorial, although it has shades of both. It should instead be an expectation all cis researchers anticipate as a potential outcome of the research process. Obviously, it’s better to not make mistakes like I did in the first place by engaging deeply with trans scholarship, by only doing projects that materially benefit trans people, and by collaborating with trans scholars and participants. But as mistakes do and will happen, cis researchers need to be prepared to shut up. I am not saying that cis researchers should not write about trans issues. In some circumstances, we should. In some circumstances, our silence is harmful. But, I would encourage all cis researchers to deeply consider whether they need to speak on trans experiences and to ask themselves why. How is our speaking helping trans people?  And how are we holding ourselves accountable if we have the potential to cause harm—intentional or not?

At the same time, I do not want to position intentional silence as some sort of noble sacrifice. It’s not, and cis researchers should not see it as such. In my case, I risked very little by pulling my article from consideration when I did. I pulled the article a few weeks after signing a contract for a tenure-track position, at a time when I no longer needed a CV line to apply for jobs. Had the timing been a little different, would I have been so willing to shut up and move on?

I hope so, but cis researchers with a lot to lose by shutting up need to be prepared to do so. Even if our silence does pose a risk, the risk for the trans community of us getting it wrong is higher.


  1. Kimberly Drake’s “Genderqueering Language at a ‘Women’s’ College” is an exception.

Works Cited

  • Alexander, Jonathan and Jacqueline Rhodes. “Queer: An Impossible Subject for Composition.” JAC, vol. 23, no. 1/2, 2011, pp. 177-206.
  • Banks, William P. “Written through the Body: Disruptions and ‘Personal’ Writing.” College English, vol. 66, no. 1, 2003, pp. 21-40.
  • Banks, William P., Matthew B. Cox, and Caroline Dadas. “Re/Orienting Writing Studies: Thoughts on In(queer)y.” Reorienting Writing Studies: Queer Methods, Queer Projects, edited by William P. Banks, Matthew B. Cox, and Caroline Dadas, Utah State UP, 2019, pp. 3-21.
  • Bilodeau, Brent. “Beyond the Gender Binary: A Case Study of Two Transgender Students at a Midwestern Research University.” Journal of Gay and Lesbian Issues in Education, vol. 3, Nov. 2004, pp. 29-44.
  • Catalano, D. Chase J. “’Trans Enough?’: The Pressures Trans Men Negotiate in Higher Education.” TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly, vol. 2, no. 3, Aug. 2015, pp. 411-430.
  • Drake, Kimberly. “Genderqueering Language at a ‘Women’s’ College.” The Writing Instructor, 2015.
  • Driscoll, Dana Lynn, Gwen Gorzelsky, Jennifer Wells, Carol Hayes, Ed Jones, and Steve Salchak. “Down the Rabbit Hole: Challenges and Methodological Recommendations in Researching Writing-Related Student Dispositions.” Composition Forum, vol. 30, 2017.
  • Dugan, John P., Michelle L. Kusel, and Dawn M. Simounet. “Transgender College Students: An Exploratory Study of Perceptions, Engagement, and Educational Outcomes.” Journal of College Student Development, vol. 53, no. 5, Sept./Oct. 2012, pp. 719-736.
  • Galupo, M. Paz. “Researching While Cisgender: Identity Considerations for Transgender Research.” International Journal of Transgenderism, 2017, pp. 1-2.
  • Jourian, T.J. “Trans*forming College Masculinities: Carving Out Trans*Masculine Pathways through the Threshold of Dominance.” International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, vol. 30, 2017, pp. 245-265.
  • Kirsch, Gesa. Ethical Dilemmas in Feminist Research: The Politics of Location, Interpretation, and Publication. SUNY P, 1999.
  • Nicolazzo, Z. Trans* in College: Transgender Students’ Strategies for Navigating Campus Life and the Institutional Politics of Inclusion. Stylus, 2017.
  • Patterson, G. “Entertaining a Healthy Cispicion of the Ally Industrial Complex in Transgender Studies.” Women & Language, vol. 41, no. 1, 2018, pp. 146-151.
  • Rickly, Rebecca. “Messy Contexts: Research as a Rhetorical Situation.” Digital Writing Research: Technologies, Methodologies, and Ethical Issues, edited by Heidi A. Mckee and Dànielle Nicole DeVoss, pp. 377-397. Hampton, 2007.
  • Waite, Stacey. Teaching Queer: Radical Possibilities for Writing and Knowing. U of Pittsburgh P, 2017.