You’re doing a PhD? Let me tell you how stupid that is!

In the past week, as I have wrapped up my nine-to-five job in Communications, I have had a lot of discussions about my next adventure. Namely, my embarcation on a PhD in Gender, Feminist and Women’s Studies at York University here in Toronto.

Now, as a feminist and queer woman who blogs about the troubles with the world and has generally engaged in queer activism, I am used to people saying stupid shit to me. However, I have been floored by the level of disrespect and pure ignorance I have met with this past week as I discuss this transition with former colleagues, neighbours and general acquaintances.

But why must you do this? But why musts you do this? Photo Credit: jmatthew3 via Compfight cc

Firstly, no one seems to know what a PhD is. “How long will that take, a year?” has been quite a common reaction. Most people have been insistent that having a PhD is just the same as having a Master’s degree (actually, no. It’s really, really not.), “and we all know Masters are worthless these days.” No one seems to understand this is vocational training, similar to training to be a lawyer or doctor, and certainly of a similar length to the latter.

People also seem to have selective amnesia about my decision. After a company-wide email congratulating me on my acceptance into a PhD program, plus several discussions in the kitchen, people at work still wanted to know more about my Masters program. In a culture that devalues being a student, women and especially – duh – feminism, I interpreted this as a semi-conscious attempt to undermine me and my achievements.

People also found the name of my program confusing. In fact, as soon as I started the phrase “Gender, Feminist and Women’s Studies” I could see their eyes begin to glaze over. The word that seemed to stick out from that title was, obviously, “feminist” and, instead of respectfully asking me what I was going to work on, most people took this word as an opportunity to rant about feminism. Whether they were telling me feminism is unnecessary, asking me if I believed in gender equality (what do you think?), or saying something surprisingly sensible about our obsession with masculinity as a culture, nobody actually wanted to engage with me about the topic. People were using my statement as an opportunity to sound off about whatever random opinion they had about feminism. Nobody was listening to me or wanted to hear what I had to say.

This is a pretty disrespectful attitude. Although I do imagine that many professionals are subjected to people’s rambling associations when discussing their vocation with people outside the field, I do think that the fact I mentioned the words “feminism” and “studying” spoke to a double-whammy of disrespect that we have as a culture, both for women and women’s rights (e.g. feminism), and for students. Please, do take my vocation as an excuse to tell me why you think what I’m doing is worthless. Please do. I can’t wait to hear all about it.

All this has left me wondering how to react. Although pursuing a PhD is very different to an undergraduate degree, I am loathe to try and distance myself from undergraduates in order to get more respect. Students should be respected no matter their level of study, and I don’t want to get into an ‘I’m-not-one-of-them’ structure of proving my worth.

Right now, I don’t know how I am going to deal with the bullshit people will say to me over the next six years. Maybe I need to come up with a few stock witty repartees, or work on developing a thick skin. How about you, dear readers? How would you prove the worth of your life choices in one simple sentence, or would you not bother and leave these idiots to fester in their own stupidity?

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Should trans men be allowed into women’s colleges?

It would be an understatement to say I was pretty bothered by some of the views expressed in The New York Times Magazine’s article “When Women Become Men at Wellesley”. Despite the sensationalist title, the article was a well-rounded read, discussing diverse attitudes towards the inclusion of trans men at women-only college Wellesley in the US. I’m not going to descontruct some of the opinions expressed by the trans men in the article, because that has been done so brilliantly elsewhere. However, I do want to examine why we, as women and/or queers, welcome trans men into women-only spaces. And why don’t we welcome trans women?

My knee jerk reaction to the article’s implied question ‘Should trans men be allowed to attend women’s only colleges’ is ‘no.’ I don’t think a women-only space should be coopted by men, no matter whether trans or cis. I have always found the common inclusion of trans men in women-only spaces highly problematic. In the left-wing dyke queer scene, this inclusion usually simultaneously excludes trans women, whether explicitly or by sheer numbers. I feel this dynamic is offensive to both trans men and trans women.

When we say trans men are welcome in women-only/dyke-only spaces, aren’t we effectively saying that we don’t see them as men? That their female-assigned-at-birth status trumps their identification as men? When trans men participate in this inclusion, I also wonder why. Maybe they don’t want to give up a space they were formerly a member of. Maybe they simply haven’t examined the problematic dynamic of men taking up women’s space.

I just didn't want the first pic to be Cathy Puke Brennan
I just didn’t want the first pic to be Cathy Brennan

Although it may be bittersweet, transitioning means you do have to give up some things. For a trans man, he may have to give up the openness of women around those they perceive as other women. He may have to give up access to a dyke club, to a sisterhood. But, this is part of being a man. Sad as it is, the sexism inherent in our world means that women are mistrustful of men. Whether or not it is sad, women-only spaces are necessary and demanding to inhabit that space, as a man, is ignorant at best and misogynist at worse. It is clear that having been female assigned at birth does not give trans men ‘special insight woman powers,’ otherwise trans men might realize how women are routinely pushed out of physical, financial, institutional space. They then might realize how they are participating in that exclusion and cede the space to women.

It is also tragic that the inclusion of trans men in many women-only spaces often goes hand-in-hand with the exclusion of trans women. It’s weird to me that trans men would want to participate in this dynamic because it so obviously stems from seeing trans men and women as the gender they were assigned at birth, rather than the gender they actually are. Trans men are allowed in women’s spaces because they are perceived to not really be men, and trans women aren’t allowed in because they are perceived to be men. That feminist spaces perpetuate this transphobic dynamic saddens me.

Are we being transphobic jerks like Cathy Brennan when we exclude trans women from women's spaces?
Are we being transphobic jerks like Cathy Brennan when we exclude trans women from women’s spaces?

However, the exclusion of trans men from women’s colleges isn’t as clear cut as we might like to think. Although trans men shouldn’t attend a women’s college, what about students who as FAB (female-assigned-at-birth) and gender queer? If gender is a spectrum, where should the cut off line be drawn? Although a butch woman should undeniably be allowed to attend a women’s college, what about a FAB trans gender queer person who takes testosterone but doesn’t identify as a trans man? As the New York Times article posits, you could say that, by challenging gender norms, gender queer folk and masculine women are being true to the spirit of women-only colleges.

I don’t have the answer to this last question, so I would appreciate any of your insights. What do you think about this debate? Should any lines be drawn?

Here’s some food for thought by the great thinker, Julia Serano: