On the Limits of “Trans Enough”: Authenticating Trans Identity Narratives  A Response to Risman et al.

By Spencer Garrison

*SAGE has agreed to open Garrison’s original article on the website so that anyone who wants to be able to read the original piece can do so now through April 13th.

Last summer, I published a piece about the narrative work that trans-identified teens and young adults take on in their efforts to account for (and to legitimate) their claims to trans identity.  In this article, I examine the identity narratives produced by two cohorts of trans-identified respondents — respondents that identified within the context of the existing gender binary, and respondents that did not — and assess the narrative strategies that these respondents employed in order to establish themselves as “authentically” trans.

Since the article’s release, I’ve been fortunate enough to receive commentary on it from peers around the country — some celebratory, and some critical.  Most recently, this commentary has come in the form of a critique that Barbara Risman and her colleagues have posted over at Psychology Today.  I appreciate that Dr. Risman and her colleagues have found the work’s contribution significant enough to merit this direct engagement, and am grateful for their feedback.  However, I believe that the core principle anchoring this critique — namely, the claim that this research defines and asserts ALL non-binary persons as transgender — rests upon a fundamental mischaracterization of the article’s argument and purpose.

This paper is, first and foremost, a paper about trans people — it is not a paper about gender non-conformity writ large.  As stated in the text:

This work [examines] how trans-identified respondents approach the process of composing (and revising) accounts of their gender experience.  I find that in order to claim public identities as trans, non-binary respondents are often motivated to present accounts that closely reflect prevailing understandings of trans experience…even when these accounts fail to capture the nuance of their experiences. (Garrison 2018, p. 615; emphasis in original)

Non-binary people that did not also identify themselves as trans were excluded from this study — and quite intentionally so, for this is a project about the social construction of trans identity, and it does not seek to make claims about the behavior or the accounts of non-binary people that do not identify as trans.  In no way does this methodological decision serve to refute or deny the existence of non-binary people that do not identify as trans; it simply acknowledges that the experiences of such respondents fall beyond the scope of this inquiry.  I made a similarly intentional decision to recruit only participants who had disclosed their identities to at least one other person, as those who have had to “convince” others of the change in their gender status are held accountable to prevailing cultural narratives about gender — both those about masculinity/femininity, and those about trans experience — in ways that those who have not disclosed their identities are not.  While expanding my recruitment criteria would surely have yielded a more diverse participant population, it would also have generated a sample whose experiences did not reflect or engage with my primary research question.  (Moreover, it wouldn’t have made effective use of the limited research funding available to me as a then-first-year grad student!)

Sample size:  Concerns regarding sample size are perennial in qualitative sociology, as many who conduct research on marginalized populations are uncomfortably aware.  One of the most enduring concerns spotlights the (legitimate) hazards inherent in constructing grandiose, generalizing claims about samples that are unable to support this kind of generalization.

This is a worthy concern, and one that has been attended to at length by other scholars (see Small 2009 for an excellent overview).  However, to suggest that this study purports to generalize about the experiences of all non-binary people once again conveys a fundamental mischaracterization of the study’s aims and conclusions.  Although I do identify some notable differences between the two cohorts of respondents under study (and suggest that these differences mark out generative avenues for future research), at no point do I contend that the differences identified are universal, or that they can be generalized to larger populations.

Moreover, to suggest that the absence of this generalizability undermines the potential utility of the research findings is also in error.  While small samples can’t always make big claims, they can and do generate important insights and highlight avenues for future research.  Many of the most influential pieces of scholarship on trans and gender non-conforming people to come out of G&S in recent years have featured similarly modest sample sizes:  for example, Elizabeth Rahilly’s excellent piece on parental framing of children’s gender variance (2015), which speaks to the cases of 16 gender-variant children, or Cati Connell’s germinal piece on the workplace experiences of trans people (2010), which features 19 cases.  Casting a broader lens to encompass cases that make inter-group comparisons between multiple populations of respondents, Baker Rogers’ exceptional recent piece on drag-kinging in the American Southeast incorporates the experiences of 10 non-binary respondents (some of whom identify as trans, and some of whom do not), fourteen respondents identifying as transmasculine, and eight men that have pursued social or medical transition, but for whom “trans” is not a relevant or personally fulfilling identity label.  While the claims made in each of these papers are unavoidably limited in scope by the size of their samples, it would be just as egregious to trivialize the significance of their findings as it would be to overstate them:  each of these studies makes an important contribution to our understanding of trans and/or non-binary lives, and each helps to illuminate the agenda for future research.

You can read the full text of my response to Risman et al on SocArXiv.

Spencer Garrison is a doctoral candidate in Sociology and LGBTQ Studies at the University of Michigan.  He studies the (re)production and management of gender and sexual identity narratives within (and across) digital worlds.  Learn more about Spencer’s work at http://spenceragarrison.com/.

References

Connell, Catherine. 2010. Doing, undoing, or redoing gender? Learning from the workplace experiences of transpeople. Gender & Society 24(1): 31-55.

Rahilly, Elizabeth P.  2015. The gender binary meets the gender-variant child: parents’ negotiations with childhood gender variance. Gender & Society 29(3): 338-361.

Rogers, Baker A. 2018. Drag as a resource: trans* and nonbinary individuals in the southeastern United States. Gender & Society 32(6): 889-910.

Small, Mario L. 2009.  ‘How many cases do I need?’: on science and the logic of case selection in field-based research. Ethnography 10(1): 5-38.

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