As the most diverse big city in the nation, tourists and locals alike enjoy Houston’s unending options for food, art, entertainment, museums, cultural celebrations, and much more, so it is no surprise that Houston houses the largest LGBTQ community in Texas. With Trans Remembrance Day just behind us, University of Houston professor Dr. Jess Waggoner spoke about their experience launching the university’s first Trans and Non-Binary Studies course.
Born and raised in Alabama, Jess is a self-proclaimed Southern queer, and recounts the difficulties of growing up in an atmosphere that was “predictably oppressive” with “zero access to resources about queer existence, and certainly no resources about transit or non-binary existence,” an experience shared by many Southern queer youths. As the oldest of 11 children, Jess was a first-generation college student, often faced with financial difficulties such as “having to choose between paying for [their] GRE to apply for graduate school and being able to afford groceries that week.” However, these lived experiences, coupled with a passion for visibility and representation for queer and disabled folks, made Jess the perfect candidate to begin their career at the University of Houston teaching courses in disability studies, “especially the way that disabled experience and identity interact with other identities such as race, class, gender, and sexuality.” Houston and Jess were an apparent match made in heaven, considering they fell in love with the city during their first trip for a one-day interview!
When asked about how they began teaching the first Trans and Non-Binary Studies course at UH after focusing on disability and non-specific queer studies, Jess emphasized the fact that “trans, non-binary and gender nonconforming students at UH had a great need for more community and more spaces for inquiry into their own identities and experiences,” and that despite the limited work on trans experiences in their queer studies courses, “they were craving more.” Jess certainly provides these spaces in their courses by “incorporating blog posts, film, local resources, memoirs, as well as hands-on activist projects.”
Jess encourages a direct connection between the course material and the queer culture of Houston with assignments that involve students researching “community resources that purport to serve trans people, and see if they live up to their mission,” and dispatching students in groups “to examine the gender and disability accessibility of campus bathrooms.” The course also focuses heavily on transfeminisms, to which Jess quotes activist-scholar Emi Koyama’s definition of the term as “primarily a movement by and for trans women who view their liberations to be intrinsically linked to the liberation of all women and beyond.” Using Koyama’s work “to understand the ways that trans women have been excluded from feminist visions,” as well as heavily discussing “the intersections of trans experience and disabled ill experiences, especially in the ways that these groups have to intersect with abusive medical structures,” Jess offers an inclusive and exciting curriculum to their students.
Apart from providing a space for trans, non-binary, and gender nonconforming students to explore their own identities, the course addresses some of the misconceptions surrounding transgender and non-binary folks and their lived experiences. According to Jess, “some of the takeaways from the course included that we need to center the experiences of trans people of color, we need to stop examining trans people for how well they “pass,” and stop marginalizing those who do not have access to medical transition or choose not to access any aspect of medical transition.” Furthermore, the course celebrates trans existence through recognizing trans people for their “resilience and…long, deep histories,” as well as caring “for trans people once trans awareness week and trans day of remembrance is over,” obeying B. Parker’s command to “Give us our roses while we’re still here.” Jess uses this opportunity to bring light to the issues with Pride season, “where corporations and non-LGBTQ people care most about LGBTQ people when they can make money off of our images” stating that “this is already on the horizon for trans people as well, but this monetization does not actually improve trans quality of life and existence on the ground.”
When asked about their personal connection with the course, Jess emphasized the devastating lack of resources about queer existence in the South: “I don’t feel like I even had the kind of access that I wanted until my mid-twenties. As a fat femme non-binary person, I have struggled with assumptions and harassment about my gender identity based on the way I dress and the shape and size of my body. Because of my experiences with lack of access, it is very important for me to create a community space for my students to share knowledge. Not just to understand our lives and histories, but to also do the work of sharing resources in Houston for healthcare, tips for thrifting as a gender nonconforming person, figuring out the steps for bringing an activist project to fruition.”
Providing these resources and spaces, as well as focusing the attention of cisgender people on the lack of safe and comfortable spaces trans and non-binary folks have been allowed to occupy, is imperative in creating a culture that eradicates heteronormativity to make way for those living in the intersection of queerness and disability. And with more access and representation, every type of body will benefit. However, Jess adds they are “wary of mining the lives of trans people for academic gain and the production of scholarship and courses, without a deep sustained investment in the well-being of trans people both inside and outside of academia.”
We need to create spaces where trans and non-binary people feel safe before we require them to identify themselves.
Jess remarks that the “queer South is vibrant and tenacious,” and believes “the queer culture within Houston in itself creates fertile ground for this kind of work.” This is important considering the fact that “over 35% percent of LGBTQ people live in the southeast and Appalachia—not counting the southwest!” However, when asked about the future of these studies, Jess states “the question is one of funding and sustained university and community support on trans lives.”
Unfortunately, Dr. Waggoner will not be instructing the course next semester, as they have accepted a position at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. However, they leave us with this powerful statement:
“It is very important to me that others know that there is no one particular way to look trans or non-binary. We need to stop using visual cues as the sole way of determining someone’s gender. I also strongly believe that asking for pronouns and disclosing pronouns isn’t enough, we need to create spaces where trans and non-binary people feel safe before we require them to identify themselves. The stakes are much higher for trans and non-binary people to disclose their pronouns then they are for cisgender allies.
The humanization of trans and non-binary people is imperative. It is important for cisgender people to recognize our automatically-granted safety and comfort in most public spaces in terms of gender identity and representation, and to advocate for the same rights for our transgender, non-binary, and gender nonconforming brothers, sisters, and every person in between.