When Academic Organizations Fail To Fight Anti-LGBT Discrimination

LombardiDr. Emilia Lombardi (@elombardi_cleve) is a public health sociologist, who studies LGBT health (especially trans* health); she is also an advocate for trans* issues (see her full bio at the end of the post).  Below, Dr. Lombardi reflects on her frustration with the failure of her original disciplinary home — sociology — to effectively stand up against homophobia and transphobia — and the consequences it has had.

“Why You Haven’t Been Seeing Me At ASA Annual Meetings Lately” By Dr. Emilia Lombardi

I have been living as a Sociology expatriate in the field of Public Health for many years now.  I still consider myself a sociologist, and how I view health and social problems come from the sociological tradition.  At the same time, I feel truly alienated from the profession due to my experiences of a trans woman and as someone who research focus and expertise is in trans* (transgender, transsexual, gender nonconforming, etc.) issues.  There are many reasons to which I can point that led me to this feeling.

One notable experience came from the second to the last American Sociological Association (ASA) annual meeting that I ever attended, in 1997.  That year, ASA decided to give Charles Moskos the first ever Public Understanding of Sociology award.  The Award goes to “an ASA member, person or persons, who have made exemplary contributions to advance the public understanding of sociology, sociological research, and scholarship among the general public”.  Dr. Moskos was one of the primary people involved in establishing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” as the policy in how the US would handle gay men and lesbians in the military.  This led many LGBT members and allies to protest his award with letters written within the November 1997 issue of Footnotes, ASA’s newsletter.  Significantly, one of the issues that Dr. Moskos discussed as a reason for this policy was the fear heterosexuals would have in undressing in front of gay people.

A similar justification for creating this discriminatory policy was recently made by a group in California in their attempt to repeal a law protecting transgender students.  California’s School Success and Opportunity Act allow transgender students to fully participate in all school activities, sports teams, programs, and facilities that match their gender identity.  The act was signed into law in 2013 and came into effect this year.  This led to the creation of a coalition, called “Privacy for All Students,” that attempted to repeal the law through a referendum. Their primary message is similar to the reason Dr. Moskos gave for “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” that people fear transgender children sharing the same facilities as cisgender children.  Their attempt to place a referendum against the School Success and Opportunity Act has failed at this point in time, but they are planning on challenging the results and, if not now, may attempt to do so in the future.

I’m not saying that if ASA had not given Dr. Moskos an award that it would have prevented any of the above from happening.  I do want to say how leaving assumptions unquestioned can cause them to be perpetuated.  The fear that organizations and individuals are spreading about the existence of transgender individuals within many social spaces have led many transgender men and women to experience discrimination, harassment, and violence.  I once thought that Sociology as a discipline could have been a leader in stopping the fear and lies people are promoting against transgender people.  However, I’m a bit more pessimistic about it at this point in time.

Sociology as a discipline was very important to me and helped me through my transition by giving me tools to question society and its rules around gender.  However, it has been depressing to see the discipline lapse into irrelevancy as it fails to encompass transgender issues.  It’s not surprising that that the profession was caught by surprise by Mark Regnerus’s 2012 study of children of same-sex families.  The discipline has not show any leadership in the area of LGBT issues for many years and when someone used the discipline to promote an anti-gay/lesbian perspective, there was a scramble to respond out of fear of the entire profession being painted with the same anti-gay/lesbian brush.

I am not saying that there is any particular bias among sociologists or ASA, but I can say that people have given these issues very little thought.  I stopped going to ASA meetings largely because it has failed to provide any sessions of interest, whereas, the public health field has been providing very interesting information regarding trans people and health.  Unfortunately ASA and the profession have shown little change regarding trans issues since the 1990’s; they still refer to “transgendered persons” in their diversity statement and committee.  I haven’t seen anyone use that term for 20 years, and even the President of the United States uses transgender now.

I value Sociology’s history and effectiveness regarding its advocacy for social change protecting marginalized populations.  But I see a growing irrelevance for the profession when it comes to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and especially transgender topics. I was surprised that the theme for the 2015 meeting is “Sexualities in the Social World,” but part of me thinks that this is additional attempts to further distance themselves from the Regnerus’ of the world rather than attempting at becoming a leader in these issues.  I’m also disappointed that the theme is presented in an unquestioningly cisgender way.  As a sociologist who is strongly interested in transgender health and social problems, seeing the lack of support the profession is giving these issues is disappointing.  Some of the stories I hear from other trans sociologists is even more troubling when it comes to employment.  I was fortunate to have found a welcoming alternative and was able to continue the work I love, but it had to be outside of sociology.

Hopefully, the coming conferences in San Francisco (2014) and Chicago (2015) will provide opportunities for trans work to be presented.  I do want to see the Association organize a separate committee to discuss trans issues in the discipline.  Between their use of outdated terminology and limited understanding regarding the development and utilization of trans measures, the association needs a lot of help.

One step in that direction is to invite Masen Davis, Executive Director of the Transgender Law Center, to speak at the San Francisco meeting this August.  He can talk about the recent events concerning the School Success and Opportunity Act and the efforts to have it repealed.  His office is in SF so it would be convenient for him.


About Emilia Lombardi, Ph.D.: Dr. Lombardi is an Assistant Professor within Baldwin Wallace University’s Department of Public Health.  She has a PhD in sociology and has been examining health disparities among lesbian, gay, bisexual, and especially transgender populations since the mid-1990s.  She had served as the principal investigator of a study, funded by the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA R03DA12909), entitled “Substance Use and Treatment Experiences of Transgender/Transsexual Men and Women” that examined the problems those with non-normative gendered lives have in accessing and utilizing substance use treatment programs.  Dr. Lombardi is heavily involved in transgender related research and social activism.  She is currently working on a project examining the utility of various survey measures to identify transgender populations that can be used within population studies. She is currently organizing a LGBT Health Research Conference at Baldwin Wallace University August 7-9, just prior to the Gay Games.