Teach about trans people

In our current political climate, I think it’s important for teachers and academics in every discipline to take a stand in favour of diversity and inclusion. One important way we can do that is to highlight contributions in our field by members of minority groups. One way into this in any discipline is by including some history. So in computer science, teachers could mention that Alan Turing was gay and that Grace Hopper, inventor of the compiler (and, indeed of the idea of compiling), was a woman.

When teaching music and presenting a piece of music to students, I give a few biographical notes about the composer which are mostly related to their musical background and influences. This is also a good time to mention any minority status. This is important because students will otherwise tend to assume that everyone is a cis, straight, white man. It can seem a bit weird to mention that someone is gay, for example, without other context. There are a few ways to address this.

If a person’s minority status is known to effected their opportunities, then this is is a good way to bring it up. To take an example, Milton Babbit was going to be the first director of The Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center. When they realised he was Jewish, they rescinded the offer and hired someone else. After a year, they came back to Babbit and re-offered him the job. It’s good to tell students about this and condemn it, to let them know that discrimination was more recent and widespread than they may have imagined and to give the idea that it was wrong and should be opposed.

Another way to bring up somebody’s status as a minority applies if they were a member of a milieu at least partly defined by minority participation. So, for example, a lot of jazz musicians are black and, indeed, some American forms of free improvisation were called “black music”. In general, mentioning milieus is good because it gives students a sense of larger scenes and places they might do additional research. It also communicates that minority involvement was significant and larger than the few individuals discussed in class.

Otherwise, a way to bring up a person’s membership in minority groups is to just tell students you think it’s important to mention it so they know the field is diverse. This is also good because it demonstrates that inclusion is valuable.

It’s important not to make somebody’s status as a minority the defining thing about them. They’re a topic for the class because they relate to the subject the class is covering, not because they’re a minority. One must strike a balance so as to communicate that minorities have historically been part of a discipline and contributions are important and will continue. Over-emphasising their minority status can backfire and make it seem like they’re being highlighted for being weird and different. I try to bring minority community membership up just once and then not mention it again unless it’s relevant in their work.

With contested identities, such as trans people,talking about their background models how to speak respectfully. It’s important that if a student starts giggling or otherwise treating this as a joke, that they’re told to stop. Here is a guide for how to talk about trans people in the classroom.

  • If the person is not living, you should definitely mention that they were trans.
  • If the person is living, you can only say they were trans if the person has consented to this by being public about their trans status.
  • If a person has transitioned to being a woman, the term to use when talking about them being trans is “trans woman” and the pronoun to use is “she”. If they have transitioned to being a man, the term to use when talking about them being trans is “trans man” and the pronoun to use is “he”. If someone has transitioned to a non-binary gender identity, the term to use when talking about this is “enby” (which is a pronunciation of the initials N.B.) and the pronoun to use is “they”. In every case, if the person has expressed a different label or pronoun, you should follow their preferences.
  • Always use their current pronoun, no matter when in their life you are speaking about them.
  • Do not bring up somebody’s previous name without a good reason. Mention it as little as possible.
  • If any of this makes you feel awkward, practice this part of your classroom presentation on a friend until you feel normal about it.

To give an example of how I might talk about this:

Wendy Carlos has done a lot of work on spatialisation and has some good blog posts about it – I’ve put the links on Moodle. She is an American composer who started out at Columbia-Princeton, but then went in a less experimental/more popular direction. She’s best known for working with Moog synthesiser and worked directly with engineers there to design modules, which she used to do several film sound tracks, including Tron and A Clockwork Orange. She initially made her name with Switched on Bach which was a recording of Bach pieces done on synthesiser. This album was hugely popular, made her famous and made a lot of money. She used some of the proceeds of the album to fund her transition, which she kept secret for nearly a decade- dressing up as a man when she appeared publicly because she feared discrimination. Fortunately, when she finally did disclose in 1979, nothing much bad came of it, but it must have been miserable to spend so many years in (reasonable) fear of a backlash.

The popularity of her work shows a strong popular appetite for new timbres, but in a familiar context, like Bach. We’re going to listen to a piece by her …

When you’re talking about a member of any minority group, it’s best to assume that at least one of your students in a member of that community. the intent is to be respectful and to make that student feel included, while at the same time giving other students the idea that members of this minority groups belong in their field. Never be neutral about discrimination.

It’s impossible to get this right every time. Sometimes talking too much about discrimination can traumatise the students who also experience it, or glossing over it can fail to condemn it forcefully enough. The important thing is to keep trying to include this and to get a feel for the students you’re teaching, as every group and every institution will be different. You may find, for example, that student comments about works by women tend to be more negative than works by men. One way you might address this is to present the works first and ask for comments and only talk about biographies afterwards.

Keep trying things out. We can make a positive difference in our teaching, no matter what our subject it.

Published by

Charles Céleste Hutchins

Supercolliding since 2003

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