November 27, 2017
Compulsory Heterogenderism: A Collective Case Study
By Z Nicolazzo
Ever since coming into my own transgender identity, I have noticed how people conflate gender and sexuality. For example, rather than understanding me as a transgender person, many people often think I am an effeminate gay man. As I began my dissertation research alongside transgender college students, I quickly realized this was a shared phenomenon, and was one that caused my participants and I significant turmoil. In particular, the misrecognition of who we were as transgender and gender nonconforming sometimes made us feel not “trans enough,” amplified our feelings of not fitting in on campus, and reminded us of our marginality. Contrary to the ways we individualized these comments from our cisgender peers, though, the misrecognition of our transgender identities was not an indication that we were somehow less than, or that we were not “trans enough.” Instead, it was a signal of the way transgender identities, expressions, and embodiments were culturally misunderstood, unrecognized, and disavowed on college campuses. In highlighting this cultural phenomenon, I began calling it compulsory heterogenderism, denoting how transgender identities were often erased and/or misunderstood through sexuality-based stereotypes (e.g., my being read as a cisgender effeminate gay man rather than a trans-feminine person). Exposing this phenomenon as a byproduct of collegiate culture not only allows transgender students to recognize they are not any less trans due to people not understanding them as such, or for explaining their genders via their sexualities, as Jackson did and you will read about in the full article. It also requires cisgender people to do the important work of interrogating their gender and sexuality-based stereotypes as a way to counter compulsory heterogenderism, and, as a result, create more liberatory campus environments for transgender collegians.
Using a collective case study approach, this study explored a phenomenon called compulsory heterogenderism, a neologism created to explain the ways in which gender identities and sexualities are consistently understood in and through each other. Put another way, although participants' sexualities (e.g., being gay, lesbian, bisexual, or queer) were distinct from their gender identities as trans*, the way cisgender (non-trans*) individuals made sense of participants' gender was through their sexuality. As a result of compulsory heterogenderism, participants’ gender identities often went unrecognized, rendering their trans* identities invisible. Specifically, this collective case study focused on four participants whose gender identities as trans* were erased by others’ insistence they were cisgender queer, lesbian, and/or heterosexual women.
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