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Being a Research Subject – Questions for people researching trans identity

Updated: Jan 18, 2021

I'm going back through pieces I published elsewhere and picking some to repost. This article was originally published on October 19, 2013, and has been lightly edited for this reposting.

Four young students, all wearing goggles, look on as someone outside the frame drops liquid into a beaker
All real science requires goggles and pipettes.

I regularly receive inquiries from cis students and researchers writing papers about trans identity and experience. Some of these inquiries come from friends-of-friends, some come from students at institutions where I’ve presented workshops or performances, and some come through my website. As long as the inquiries are polite and respectful, I don’t have a problem with it. I generally offer feedback or suggestions and, if it seems appropriate, share their request for subjects on Facebook or this blog. I’ve been interviewed for student newspapers, dissertations on Jewish trans women, artistic projects on non-normative gender expression, and more.

Obviously, not everyone is going to have the same comfort level I do. That’s totally fine; to me, these interviews and conversations are part of the artistic and educational work I’m doing as an activist. I want competent voices speaking on trans identities, and no one is more qualified to tell my story than I am. If my voice helps create a better body of research, then I’m happy to contribute.

However, I’m starting to rethink my informal policy of talking to just about anyone. Like much of my work, speaking with journalists and researchers wasn’t something I set out to do; it grew organically out of other projects. But a recent influx of interview requests have made me rethink this open-door policy. After a lot of reflection, I’ve come up with a new set of guidelines. From now on, I will be declining to speak with anyone conducting research who cannot first answer the following questions to my satisfaction:

  1. How were trans people involved in the creation of this research project?

  2. How will trans people be involved in reviewing your conclusions?

  3. How will you ensure this research accurately captures the racial and class diversity in the trans community?

  4. How do you imagine this research will improve the lives of trans people?

A lit lightbulb surrounded by dark lightbulbs
"Is this research study even a good idea?"

My hope is that the first question will provide a baseline of how this person has been thinking about their research topic. Are they asking questions that stem from a reasonable (and respectful!) foundation? Are they asking questions that need to be asked in the first place? Will any part of their process be based on flawed, bigoted, or transphobic assumptions? I also hope that the first question will not result in a huge amount of work on behalf of the researcher; chatting with a friend over coffee and picking their brain would be enough to satisfy the bare minimum of what I’m looking for. (If the project sounds interesting enough, I might even be willing to be that friend.)

The second question is going involve a little more work for the researcher. Good. Writing about a community should involve that community, and getting trans folks to comment on the results is an important way to make sure any flaws in logic or reasoning or data collection or population diversity or WHATEVER are weeded out.

The third question is pragmatic. The New York Times reported a while back that decades of psychological studies may be flawed because of their underlying assumptions that college students – used as convenient research subjects – represent the whole of human experience. I’m confident that the convenience of white, educated, middle-class trans women can and will similarly skew studies on trans identity unless researchers specifically choose to address the issue.

The final question is, admittedly, a little touchy-feely. To be clear, I think research for research’s sake is awesome. Lots of cool theories and technologies and science come out of intellectual inquiries that didn't have obvious applications at the time. But if it’s something I’m participating in, something I’m potentially posting about or telling friends and community members, I want to know what we’re gonna get out of it.

I’ve gotten feedback from some researcher friends of mine, most of whom expressed worry that these questions – especially #4 – might be difficult or impossible to answer. To clarify, I don’t expect long responses. Likewise, simply saying, “I don’t know, but here’s what I’m hoping to discover…” is totally acceptable. And – again – I am not opposed to research for the sake of research, or research that focuses on a specific sub-demographic of the trans community. And I’m aware of how difficult IRBs (institutional review boards) can make it to include the population you’re researching in the actual creation and development of a research project.

None of that changes my base goal, which is to get researchers thinking about these questions. I in no way expect ‘perfect’ answers. I just want to make sure that the researchers have considered a different point of view.

There are some who may disagree with this approach, saying it’s overly restrictive. I’m not preventing someone from doing research if they can’t answer these questions, I’ll just be very hesitant to offer my own participation. On the other hand, some may say it’s still too permissive; that the only people who should be writing about trans identity and trans topics are trans people. While I can understand and respect that viewpoint, I disagree. I think it is legitimate for members from outside a minority population to conduct research (or create art, or whatever) about a population of which they are not a member. But it is simply unacceptable to do work on a community without engaging that population throughout the process, and not simply as subjects to be studied from afar.

Hopefully these questions will help push against that trend.

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1 Comment

Jan 14, 2021

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