In January, I will become a first in Canadian history: the first Francophone transgender person and expert in transgender studies to be hired as a professor to teach, in French, sexual and gender diversity. While I jumped for joy when the School of Social Work at the University of Ottawa notified me of this news, I cannot rejoice when I think of the many transgender persons in Canada who are unemployed.
Although I savour this historic gain for the Francophone transgender community, and I celebrate the fact that I now have a chance to focus on my intellectual passions, it is premature to cry victory – and callous not to seize this opportunity to raise awareness about the various forms of violence, exclusion, marginalization and discrimination faced by transgender individuals.
Transgender issues are increasingly front-and-centre in our cultural representations, in media and within activist, community and university networks. At universities, these issues are increasingly the focus of student interest and academic research, both by cisgender (non-transgender) students and professors studying sexual and gender diversity.
This trend could lead one to believe that the number of transgender academics specialized in transgender issues at Canadian universities has grown. But this is not the case. Despite the fact that there are now more transgender graduates who are experts in these studies, it seems that departments are not yet ready to hire them. According to my research, only eight such individuals hold tenured or tenure-track positions, in all departments combined. Among these eight, only two are women, only one is a visible minority and none is Francophone. Hence, I will be the ninth professor, and first transgender Francophone, to specialize in transgender issues in Canada.
The discrimination that transgender individuals face in universities reflects the discrimination they experience generally in the workforce.
My study of the under-representation of transgender individuals who are also academic experts on trans issues shows that this relative absence can be explained not only by direct gender discrimination, but also by indirect discrimination such as lack of institutional support mechanisms – including positive discrimination measures – systemic barriers such as transphobia/cisgenderism, as well as a lack of acknowledgement of the particular realities of trans people, such as the time required for surgeries or convalescence.
Indirect discrimination is also apparent in the type of knowledge that is considered legitimate within departments, which do not see the importance of hiring those who are experts in trans issues.
Another factor contributing to this under-representation is the invisible work contributed by transgender individuals that allows universities to conduct research on transgender individuals while excluding them from tenured positions. While transgender individuals are represented in a variety of university roles, including as lecturers, part-time professors and research assistants, these positions relegate them to the background, where they often carry a significant workload without proper recognition or remuneration. It is high time this glass ceiling was broken.
The discrimination that transgender individuals face in universities reflects the discrimination they experience generally in the workforce: only 37 per cent are employed full-time in Canada, making the transgender population among the marginalized groups most likely to experience unemployment and poverty, with an average annual income level of $15,000 or less (Trans Pulse Survey). Those transgender individuals who are employed experience significant violence, discrimination and exclusion in the workplace. Mockery, verbal abuse, incorrect pronoun usage, lack of medical leave for transition-related treatment, difficulty in accessing locker rooms and washrooms, and outing of their transgender status are just a few examples.
I am thrilled to have landed this position after searching actively for four years. Conversely, my heart goes out to my transgender peers who have not been so fortunate, and to all the other unemployed transgender individuals.
I call on all my academic and community colleagues, as well as employers, political leaders and others who, like me, have a platform from which to address the public, to join me in raising our voices to denounce the tokenism of transgender individuals, and to genuinely including the voices of transgender individuals in our actions, activism, policies, research, institutions and workplaces.