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11/20/2015 11:01 am ET Updated Nov 20, 2015

The Time For The World’s First Transgender Studies Program Is Now

How one school is working to educate students about the "increasingly visible minority."
The University of Arizona will soon be home to what is thought to be the world's first transgender studies degree program.
Credit: UGArdener/Flickr
The University of Arizona will soon be home to what is thought to be the world's first transgender studies degree program.

It would be hard to deny that 2015 has been a historic year for transgender Americans.

The year has seen the first recognition of transgender individuals by a president during a State of the Union address, critical acclaim for the Amazon series “Transparent” and, of course, you’ve probably heard of a certain Caitlyn.

But the year has also seen many trans Americans continuing to struggle with persistent poverty, harassment, discrimination and violence -- as evidenced by a rise in the number of transgender homicide victims, most of them trans women of color. The victims are the subject of nationwide vigils commemorating Transgender Day of Remembrance on Friday.

It is against this backdrop of visibility and vulnerability that scholars at the University of Arizona are developing an initiative without precedent: a transgender studies degree program.

First announced in 2013, the program is set to begin its rollout next year. The Huffington Post recently interviewed one of its principal creators, University of Arizona Institute for LGBT Studies director Susan Stryker, about its progress amid what’s been dubbed the transgender “tipping point.”

HuffPost: There was a lot of buzz surrounding the trans studies program when this was first announced and I imagine that hasn’t gone away. Is the interest level still high?

Stryker: I hear from people all over the world saying that they'd love to be able to get an MA in transgender studies from a U.S. university. Interest levels indeed remain high. More and more trans people and allies are seeking degrees that will empower and enable them to do justice-oriented work, or social services, or to go into higher education. 

Why do you think interest remains so high, at this time and in this place?

Why Arizona, why now? The now part is easy -- trans is suddenly ubiquitous in the media, and is one of the topics of the times. Asking how we got here, what it means, and where we go from this point is a really legitimate, and really important, social-scientific question. Arizona was a fluke. I was already working at the U of A when I got recruited by another university. Arizona asked how they could retain me. I said I wanted to start a trans studies program. Fortunately, the university saw this as an opportunity to develop an innovative program with an international profile and an ability to attract research dollars and top-notch students. And here we are.

How is the program coming along? 

It's slow going. There are multiple parts to the initiative -- faculty hiring, research support, certificate and degree programs -- and some parts are moving ahead faster than others.

We've hired three of four faculty positions in the transgender studies faculty cluster hire -- one in anthropology, one in religious studies and one in gender and women's studies. Another faculty member was hired last year in family studies and we are doing a final search this year in public health. There were already two trans faculty on campus (me, and another faculty member working in trans latin@/chican@ studies), and an adjunct instructor who teaches creative writing. Altogether, there are six tenured or tenure-track trans faculty with another on the way, plus the non-tenure-track adjunct. That's a pretty good concentration of faculty resources.

We've also been successful in securing funding for trans-oriented research, about $150,000 from an outside funder. That money goes to support the work of the faculty members in the initiative, an international conference we're planning for September 2016, and a staff position that helps coordinate all the work.

We hope to have a graduate certificate up and running next year. A master's level program is still really a work in progress at this point -- but there will be an undergraduate minor track in Sexuality, Trans, and Queer Studies in the Gender and Women's Studies Department as of the fall of 2016. 

Susan Stryker is the director of the University of Arizona's Institute of LGBT Studies. She is also working to build the
Credit: Steve Rhodes/Flickr
Susan Stryker is the director of the University of Arizona's Institute of LGBT Studies. She is also working to build the school's new transgender studies program.

What do you say to people, perhaps most of all those unfamiliar with trans issues, who question the value of this program? Why is this needed?

For trans people at college, it's an opportunity to see themselves reflected back in the curriculum. For others, a chance to learn about an increasingly visible minority. For people who want to work with trans populations or on trans issues, it's a chance to develop greater depth and breadth of knowledge, and to prepare meaningfully for a future job.

But at the level of basic research, it's simply interesting that trans phenomena are increasingly visible -- what's up with that? Understanding why there's so much trans visibility these days, and why it's such a hot topic, allows us to address longer term shifts in our cultural, political, economic and social understanding of gender as part of the human experience.

What do you think, from your vantage point, this increased level of trans visibility says about where we are at today as a country? What is up with that?

I think the new level of visibility around transgender issues is due in part to nearly 25 years of constant activism and organizing and advocacy and protest and educational efforts by trans people, which has resulted in higher levels of awareness and sympathy in the general population.

I think it's due as well, as is the case with same-sex marriage, to changing generational attitudes -- younger folks seem to regard trans as no big deal. And then I think there lots of intangibles -- like, more people spending more time online, and in RPGs, who get it that your persona and your body might not line up in meat-space. Or more people using assisted reproductive technologies who understand that reproductive capacity and embodiment are not the same thing. Or simply more people doing cosmetic surgery, who think how you feel best in your body is a personal decision. 

What do you think of the idea of us reaching a trans tipping point over the last year or two? What does that narrative mean for your work?

Well, I think the idea certainly helps create a window of opportunity for paying greater attention to transgender issues -- in the classroom, as well as outside it. It helps with marketing the idea of a trans studies program as being somehow timely. And it helps by creating a narrative in which it becomes more possible to understand the conditions of trans life as improving through the collective efforts of many people, rather than being intractable, marginal, obscure or irrelevant.

The important thing to keep in mind is that life is better only for some trans folk, and that the biggest challenges for trans lives remain poverty and racism. It doesn't matter quite so much if you can change your name on your drivers license if you don't have a car in the first place, or still get pulled over for driving while black. 

Do you think the mainstream is getting better at acknowledging what you pointed out -- that poverty and racism remain such huge challenges for so many members of the community? That Caitlyn Jenner, for example, is such an outlier?

I hope so, but I'm honestly not sure. The people who get the media exposure -- including, for example, me being interviewed by you -- tend to be white, and middle class or better off, and educated. I think the jury is still out on this point.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Joseph Erbentraut covers promising innovations and challenges in the areas of food and water. In addition, Erbentraut explores the evolving ways Americans are identifying and defining themselves. Tips? Email joseph.erbentraut@huffingtonpost.com.

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