Comparing tenure to marriage

On the day the US same sex marriage decision came down in June, I posted a short comment on Facebook comparing the privileges of marriage to the privileges of tenure.  Given that many of those who see the quest for same-sex marriage as a project oriented around status and property that reproduces inequality are tenured academics, I thought it be pertinent to suggest out that the same could be said of the tenure system.

Here is the original post:

(Warning–polemic alert, and only half tongue in cheek at that.) I agree with the critique of marriage. It certainly reproduces privilege. It’s a status the state uses to distribute resources inequitably. It’s enmeshed with property rights. It replaces the radical political imagination of the outsider with the comfortable and limited horizon of respectable society. But here’s the thing–in all these ways, marriage is lot like tenure for academics. So why are we not also calling for the abolition of tenure? ‪#‎tenureismoredomesticatingthanmarriage‬.

The point I was trying to make is that those of us in privileged positions in the university who rightly critique the distributive injustice of marriage are probably working down the hall from adjuncts who make 20% of what we do, often teach more, often lack benefits, and don’t have a guarantee of lifetime employment.  A few people got what I was saying and really liked the point, but what was most fascinating was that many of the tenured academics who commented were just not able to fathom the analogy at all.  They tended to focus on the importance of academic freedom–which I hadn’t mentioned–but not on the material things that really make tenure so much better than adjunct teaching: much better pay, less teaching, benefits, an office, a reasonable teaching schedule.  In this case, it’s much easier to unpack–or even see–others privilege than your own.

 

How not to stop the transrace/transgender comparison

Meredith Talusan in the Guardian explains why Rachel Dolezal’s identification as black should not be compared to Caitlin Jenner’s gender identity: “the fundamental difference between Dolezal’s actions and trans people’s is that her decision to identify as black was an active choice, whereas transgender people’s decision to transition is almost always involuntary.” Dolezal is getting trashed for her assertion of blackness, while, with the exception of Elinor Burkett in the Times, Jenner is only getting trashed for what some take to be her excessive femininity–most seem accepting of her decision to live openly as a woman. Talusan, like some other activists, are trying very hard to ensure that all the opinion about Dolezal doesn’t contaminate Jenner’s media moment.  But facile explanations like Talusan’s are doing more much harm than good. Case in point–Adolph Reed rightly makes mincemeat of her argument and then concludes: “the transrace/transgender comparison makes clear the conceptual emptiness of the essentializing discourses, and the opportunist politics, that undergird identitarian ideologies.” It’s too bad that Reed, such a brilliant thinker, assumes trans politics and claims to identity are always/only based the most simple minded versions of trans essentialism. But he’s getting that not just from Burkett, but from representatives of the trans community like Talusan. Newsflash–social theory in general and trans theory in particular didn’t end in 1980. We can do better than serve up these sad little cliches from the 1970s like the one that says that natural characteristics are involuntary, cultural ones a matter of choice.  But this tendency has (at least) two progenitors–the medical model of transsexuality and second wave feminism.

What’s the wedge issue?

Last month I was talking with the amazing Amaya Perez-Brumer and other graduate students at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health. Someone asked me, “If same-sex marriage is the wedge issue for the gay rights movement, what’s the most divisive issue in transgender politics?”  A good question, and certainly there are real divisions about what should be prioritized, just as there has been in the LGB rights movement.

There are a number of  priorities, but what should top the list? If we want to make trans lives better, where should our resources be directed? In fact, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the National Center for Transgender Equality  asked that question on page 178 of their enormous 2011 survey project, “Injustice at Every Turn.” The policy areas most frequently by the survey’s 6450 respondents were:

Protecting transgender/gender non-conforming people from discrimination in hiring and at work: 70%

Getting transgender-related health care covered by insurance: 64%

Passing laws that address hate crimes against transgender/gender non-conforming people: 47%

Access to transgender-sensitive health care: 43%

Better policies on gender and identity documents and other records: 40%

Protecting transgender/gender non-conforming people from discrimination in housing: 26%

The right to equal recognition of marriages involving transgender partners: 25%

Passing anti-bullying laws that make schools safer: 21%

Transgender/gender non-conforming prisoners’ rights: 15%

The right of transgender/gender non-conforming people to parent, including adoption: 14%

HIV prevention, education and treatment:11%

Allowing transgender/gender non-conforming people to serve in the military: 7%

Immigration policy reform (such as asylum or partner recognition): 5%

This list gives some sense of the popularity of particular policy areas.  But the numbers fail to reveal a wedge issue, just significantly less interest in immigration, military service, parenting rights, incarceration. bullying. Even these least popular issues represent very different political positions–for example, prisoners’ rights versus the right to serve in the military.

I’m still thinking this through, but my first stab at an answer to this question was that there really isn’t a wedge issue. It’s not trans employment discrimination versus the plight of trans HIV positive people, prisoners, parents or immigrants.   The wedge is transgender itself. In that sense, it’s sort of an inverse wedge, if there can be such a thing.  So really not a wedge, but a wrong cramming together of people whose only commonality is that one way or another their gender didn’t turn out as expected, based on the sex they were assigned at birth. That “trans” or “transgender” purports to describe people who are so very  differently situated in relation to their vulnerability to violence, to incarceration, to illness, to homelessness seems like one of the more miraculous feats of identity politics.

More on this to come as I work these ideas out in the chapter I’m writing on incarceration, trans economicus and the freeze frame policy in the book.