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When sources hurt: Researching anti-trans ideologies as a trans person, by Rebecca Hickman

My project delves into the political strategies and concepts that have powered the trans rights movement in the United Kingdom over the past half-century, particularly the concept of ‘recognition.’ The aim of my research is to understand what ‘recognition’ has meant to different trans communities over the past half-century, how the 2004 Gender Recognition Act (GRA) was formulated, how understandings of recognition have evolved since the GRA, and how trans conceptions of recognition have interacted with that of other social-political movements like antiracism and feminism.

As a non-binary trans woman, I wondered at first if it would be possible to write this story without prolonged reference to anti-trans ideologies. However, I realised that, given the deep discursive entanglements between trans-positive and anti-trans belief systems, such a history would be conspicuously incomplete. Thesis and antithesis are too tightly bound.

Having thus decided to research anti-trans ideologies, the next question was how to do so without putting undue strain on my mental wellbeing. I understood from the outset that reading thousands of pages of material that questions my right to exist, processing it, and then making scholarly sense of it would inevitably be an emotionally laborious endeavour, and not one to be taken lightly.

Prior trans scholars have remarked upon this very issue. Susan Stryker and Stephen Whittle, for example, have written that Janice Raymond’s The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male (1979), a quintessential anti-trans polemic, is ‘difficult to approach in a neutral manner’.[1] In their undisguised calls for the extermination of trans identity, such texts could be conceptualised as the ideological tip of a broader apparatus of physical, statutory, familial, and cultural violence that, in varying degrees, shapes the life experiences and worldviews of trans people today—a ‘calculus of pain’ that defies dispassionate description.[2]

In my case, some of the most emotionally challenging sources are to be found in newspaper archives. Over the past three decades, the British print media has carefully refined a set of representational tropes that cast trans people in the most negative, dehumanising light possible. The trans community emerges from the pages of major newspapers as a threat to decency; a threat to children’s safety; a threat to free speech; a threat to religion; a threat to sport as we know it; a threat to ‘science’; indeed, a threat to sanity itself.

I have long been aware that millions of readers are consuming a deeply hostile impression of trans people on a daily basis, but it is only as a researcher that I have come to comprehend the sheer extent and ubiquity of the problem. In unguarded moments, my mind is occupied less by my core research questions than by a consuming mix of fear and anger. This is the bile that tore my family to shreds. My research and my life seem momentarily to collapse into each other.

Trans contemporary historians whose work touches upon trans-resistant ideologies are thus highly likely to find themselves engaging with antagonistic material that, if approached in the wrong state of mind, has the potential to create lasting mental disruption. Overcoming this hurdle, to use sociologist Arlie Hochschild’s original 1983 definition of ‘emotional labour,’[3] is simply another integral part of the process one undertakes to do a job. The labour is internal, in this case, rather than externalised as in the case of a social care worker or salesperson, but it is nonetheless prerequisite to getting the job done. One must process the information, explore and understand its hold over one’s emotional state, and then redeploy it in a way that fulfils academic methodological standards.

This does not necessarily mean simulating absolute objectivity. Holocaust survivor and historian Saul Friedländer powerfully criticised the ‘exorcism’ of subjectivity from the historian’s mind, and argued that ‘ordinary history’ lacks the interpretive tools to properly represent historical trauma.[4] You may decide, as Friedländer did, that exploring your own subjectivity is part of your research methodology. Either way, the process of emotional unpacking can be hard. A researcher who at times feels overwhelmed by it is not defective or lacking, just as one who occasionally feels overwhelmed by the intellectual or organisational workload is not defective or lacking.

What, then, can the researcher do to manage their emotional labour? Styker and Whittle did not, sadly, offer specific guidance for dealing with such issues in their brief analysis of The Transsexual Empire. We can, however, learn from discussions of emotional labour arising in other academic contexts. In her exploration of the role of teachers in delivering university modules that cover subjects like rape and domestic violence, for example, Shirley Koster recommends a strict compartmentalisation to contain one’s engagement with the emotional demands of upset students to ‘office hours.’ Failure to do so, Koster argues, can rapidly contribute to ‘burnout.’[5] Michelle Newcombe, writing about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on emotional labour in the academy, recommends forming support structures in which to share experiences, find affirmation, and thereby lessen feelings of isolation.[6]

While researchers cannot, of course, park their own emotions at will when the work day is over, they can structure their work in such a way that emotionally laborious research is conducted in manageable chunks and regularly interspersed with less psychologically heavy tasks. Dedicating entire days and weeks to analysing trenchantly transphobic sources can prompt intrusive imposter syndrome and make the whole world seem irredeemably hostile, whereas staggering it out affords time to process and re-establish some emotional distance. It is vital, furthermore, to maintain contact with trans-affirming friends or colleagues as a reminder that there is more to the world than your primary sources, while it can also help to find informal outlets (I maintain a blog, for instance) to get any immediate emotional responses to the source material out of your system.

Time, self-reflection, and affirmative contact are, in summary, three of the most important tools in the cabinet of any historian examining potentially painful sources. Do not be ashamed to use these tools.

Photo credit info: Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

Rebecca Hickman (she/her) is a PhD History student at the University of Nottingham, funded by Midlands4Cities. Her research focuses on the role of ‘recognition’ in the history of the British trans rights movement from the 1970s to the present. She has previously specialised in maritime heritage. Her publications include ‘What is “trans history,” anyway?: Historiographical theory and practice in a flourishing field’ (Midlands Historical Review, 2021) and ‘Uses of maritime heritage: The twenty-first-century life of the Newport Medieval Ship’ (International Journal of Heritage Studies, 2020).

[1] Introductory commentary to Janice G. Raymond, ‘Sappho by Surgery, The Transsexually Constructed Lesbian-Feminist’ in Susan Stryker and Stephen Whittle [eds.], The transgender studies reader (New York: Routledge, 2006), p. 131.

[2] ‘Calculus of pain’ is a phrase used by a trans activist in conversation with the anthropologist David Valentine. See Valentine, Imagining transgender: an ethnography of a category (London: Duke University Press, 2007), p. 228.

[3] Arlie Hochschild, The managed heart: commercialization of human feeling (London: University of California Press, 1983), pp. 6-7.

[4] Quoted in Steven E. Aschleim, ‘On Saul Friedländer,’ History and Memory, 9 (1997), pp. 32-3.

[5] Shirley Koster, ‘The self‐managed heart: teaching gender and doing emotional labour in a higher education institution,’ Pedagogy, Culture & Society, 19 (2011), pp. 61-77.

[6] Michelle Newcomb, ‘The emotional labour of academia in the time of a pandemic: A feminist reflection,’ Qualitative Social Work, 20 (2021), 639-44.