If there’s one thing sociologists enjoy doing, its debating our relevance in academia and in society writ large. This focus isn’t completely surprising; after all, we study social institutions and think in terms of group outcomes. And like most academics, we want our work to matter. But as sociologists continue to wrestle with how we can make the significance of our work evident in an increasingly complex world, it’s worth thinking about which groups we include and who gets left out of our discussions.
Aldon Morris’s landmark study of the historical contributions W.E.B. DuBois made to sociology has changed the field. No longer can we uncritically assume that the University of Chicago housed the first American school of sociology. Rather, Morris’s painstaking research goes to show that “the first school of scientific sociology in the United States was founded by a black professor located in a historically black university in the south.” This is undoubtedly an important and critical contribution to understanding how our discipline emerged, its foundational roots, and perhaps more significantly, the sort of structural processes that served to marginalize black sociologists from the field’s origins. But it should also raise questions about whether those processes still persist, and which other sociologists might be missing from our dialogues and conversations.
While Morris’s work has been essential for changing our conversations about sociology’s roots, we have yet to produce the same type of rigorous, systematic study of black women like Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Zora Neale Hurston, and Anna Julia Cooper. Like DuBois, these women wrote during a time period where black scholarship, writing, and research was incredibly difficult to produce. Yet they developed sociological analyses that emphasized intersections of race, gender, and class; examined structural constraints within black communities that marginalized black women, rural blacks, and poor blacks; and assessed how violent tools of social control like lynching perpetuated gendered racism. These black women were also early originators of sociological arguments and knowledge. Yet systemic racism and patriarchal norms limited the extent to which their analyses were widely disseminated and/or taken seriously.
Where are black women sociologists today? The ASA reports that between 2007-2010, only 6% of doctorates awarded in sociology went to African Americans. In 2016, according to the Survey of Earned Doctorates, only 31 black women received theirs in sociology. A look at the representation of black women in tenure track and tenured academic positions reveals an ongoing trend of underrepresentation. Only 2% of full professors, 2% of associates, and 4% of assistant professors are black women. And these numbers represent academia overall. In sociology specifically, of the top 100 sociology departments, as of 2012 women (of all races) were 60% of assistant professors, 54% of associates, and 34% of fulls. I was unable to find data that took an intersectional approach to examine race and gender (which is itself a problem), but my sense is that black women are likely underrepresented among the top ranks of academic jobs in various universities, where they would have the most influence, reach, and impact.
Where we do see black women gaining traction in academia is, unfortunately, among contingent and adjunct faculty. As universities have increasingly conformed to a more neoliberal model of shifting academic work to low-paying workers who lack the benefits and security of tenure-track jobs, black women are becoming increasingly present among the ranks of the least secure academic positions.
What does this mean for the development of sociological thought? For one thing, it means that we are likely still missing out on important insights and knowledge. The reliance on adjunct and contingent faculty perpetuates economic insecurity and certainly does not establish conditions conducive to research and writing. When black women are primarily making inroads into the least secure positions in the university hierarchy, they are not in a safe or comfortable position to conduct research, much less inform sociological paradigms. They are not necessarily even in a position to do the most effective teaching, as at least some contingent faculty have argued that this work arrangement leaves them uncertain if their positions will be renewed, overburdened with too-heavy teaching loads, and without the (relative) security and academic freedom that tenure provides.
What about black women who do land tenure or at least tenure-track positions? The kinds of challenges that are omnipresent for black women workers in predominantly white environments are present for them too—marginalization, micro (or macro) aggressions, difficulties finding mentors and sponsors who can facilitate their career advancement. As academics, black women professors also must confront colleagues’ tendencies to denigrate or dismiss their research (this is particularly present in the inclination to label work that focuses on race and/or gender as “me”search). There are also the heavy service burdens that come with being underrepresented, ranging from mentoring students of color to helping universities resolve their issues with diversity and inclusion. And there is the particular irony of working in a profession where many colleagues study systemic patterns of inequality, but still rely on racial stereotypes and assumptions to justify their reluctance about hiring black faculty. What all of this means is that the barriers that sidelined sociological thinkers like Wells-Barnett, Hurston, and Cooper during their lives still persist today. While the barriers black women face in academia today are less overt than in the past, these hurdles still prevent sociology from being a discipline that encourages black women to vocalize their insights and to operate as fully active participants in shaping this field.
As President of Sociologists for Women in Society, I wrote my Presidential Address about the ways that black women are changing work, politics, and media in ways that other groups would do well to learn from and emulate. Sociology, as a discipline, is growing more diverse and is in a period of reexamining its historical roots and origins. We would do well to consider how and where black women sociologists fall in this process.
Adia Harvey Wingfield is Professor of Sociology at Washington University in St. Louis. Her research examines how and why racial and gender inequality persists in professional occupations. Dr. Wingfield has lectured internationally on her research in this area, and her work has been published in numerous peer-reviewed journals including Social Problems,Gender & Society, and American Behavioral Scientist. She recently completed a term as President of Sociologists for Women in Society, a national organization that encourages feminist research and social change, and is a regular contributor to Slate,The Atlantic, and Harvard Business Review. Professor Wingfield is the author of several books, most recently Flatlining: Race, Work, and Health Care in the New Economy, and is the recipient of the 2018 Public Understanding of Sociology award from the American Sociological Association.
Daniel Craig returned home from combat in the 1991 Gulf War “disillusioned, disenchanted and pissed off” that he had “killed people for these damned lies.” Two decades earlier, Gregory Ross had come home from the American War in Vietnam feeling “numb…completely unmoored.” And Wilson “Woody” Powell said he’d felt “out of sorts, that I didn’t fit anywhere,” following his 1953 deployment in the Korean War.
These three veterans fought in different wars, but there are stark similarities in their stories, and with others I interviewed for my book Guys Like Me. After returning from war, each kept his experiences to himself. And each turned to alcohol, and sometimes other substances, to deal with their emotional trauma. But, after many years of work, each sobered up, found his voice, and committed himself to personal healing, service to others, reconciliation with former enemies, and public activism with the multigenerational organization Veterans for Peace.
Like Craig, Ross and Powell, veterans of wars are often plagued by what I call “manly silence.” The foundation for this emotional fortification rests on narrow definitions of masculinity, internalized at an early age and enforced and celebrated in masculinist institutions like the military. Such rigid masculinity is not confined to the military. Research shows that men routinely respond to stressful life experiences by avoiding emotional disclosure for fear of appearing vulnerable. Silence is a logical outcome of internalized rules of masculinity: a “real man” is admired and rewarded for staying strong and stoic during times of adversity.
During the American War in Vietnam, the cluster of trauma-induced physical and psychological symptoms commonly suffered by war veterans was given a formal diagnosis: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. What causes war veterans’ PTSD? A common view is that the sustained levels of fear create lasting psychological fears. Others point to physical wounds as causing PTSD. In my interviews, as I listened to narratives of shame and anger, I sensed something more. I got some hints from Dave Grossman’s, On Killing, in which he argues that the most powerful cause of PTSD is the shame and denial that follow the “burden of killing” other people in war.
This focus on the internalized shame one carries from having killed others led professionals who work with veterans to focus their interventions on what they began to call “moral injury.” Clinical psychologist Brett Litz and his colleagues argue that while PTSD results from internalized fear reaction to threat, moral injury results from negative emotions about oneself, one’s own character, grounded in shame, remorse, and self-condemnation over what one has done to others. It is characterized by having severely and irredeemably transgressed one’s own moral compass.
Gulf War veteran Daniel Craig
Several of the men I interviewed for Guys Like Me expressed this kind of shame and remorse—both for individual acts they committed and for the shared collective responsibility for killing enemy soldiers and civilians in what they came to believe were unjust wars. Some, like Woody Powell, strove to “become more honorable” through reconciliation with former enemies. Others, like Gregory Ross, sought to pay back his “karmic debt” by providing service to other vets and to people addicted to drugs. Similarly, Daniel Craig cares for homeless people in his community. All three also engage in collective projects, working for peace and social justice.
The emotional foundations of the work these men take on to heal themselves and their communities began with efforts to overcome crippling states of manly silence. None of them experienced what I would call a feminist transformation, though Gregory Ross did join a pro-feminist men’s antiviolence group in the late 1970s. But their stories reveal how in joining the military and deploying to war, each had been sold a narrowly destructive “manhood package” that was intended to make nonreflexive warriors of them. Each of the men profiled in my book eventually rejected this manhood package, and this meant accepting, talking about, and sharing their emotional vulnerability with others. It meant, in many cases, learning to respect women as colleagues and allies in collective efforts for justice. And it meant rejecting pop culture military heroes and finding flesh-and-blood heroes—women and men in their own lives, who have inspired their commitments to working for a more peaceful and just world.
Is pregnancy work? What if you’re a surrogate and carrying a pregnancy for someone else? Is it degrading or exploitative to pay women to carry and birth a child for someone else? These are some of the questions that policymakers around the world are grappling with as they decide how to legislate surrogacy.
Surrogacy is either illegal or unrecognized in most of the world[i] with only a few countries actually allowing surrogates to be paid.[ii] While some laws allow for limited forms of compensation (e.g. for lost wages, time, and maternity clothes), they ban direct payment for surrogacy. The overall message is that surrogacy is not a job.
India, once an international hotspot for paid surrogacy, recently joined the list of countries that only allows “altruistic” surrogacy whereby women cannot be paid for being a surrogate.[iii] At the same time, legislators in Canada are considering moving in the opposite direction. They are debating whether or not to amend the Assisted Human Reproduction Act to allow intended parents to pay surrogate mothers, which is prohibited under the current law.[iv]
But is the line between altruistic and commercial (paid) surrogacy really that clear-cut? Restrictions against paying surrogates are often premised on the idea that paying a woman to carry and birth a child is degrading, exploitative, or otherwise immoral. These allegations are especially strong when the women hired to be surrogate mothers live in countries that are more impoverished than the countries from which the intended parents come to hire them.
As a social scientist, I wanted to know how people involved in transnational commercial surrogacy arrangements deal with accusations that surrogacy is exploitative and how this narrative shapes the way they handle the financial aspects of surrogacy. I interviewed and observed more than 100 different participants in the Mexican surrogacy industry, including local surrogate mothers, the mostly foreign intended parents who hire them, and the staff at the surrogacy agencies that match surrogates with intended parents.
I found that people involved in the surrogacy industry were also reluctant to call surrogacy a job. For example, Katrina, a woman working at the Mexican branch of an international surrogacy agency, told me that surrogates should view surrogacy as “a voluntary contribution to help a couple create a family, not as a job.” Similarly, Hugo, the manager of the Mexico branch of another surrogacy agency, explained, “In the end what we want to do is to create families, we’re not encouraging people to make themselves rich by renting their wombs.”
These statements are examples of what I call an altruism/commercialism dichotomy, a framing of altruism as contradictory to and in tension with profit, market logics, and commodification. In my article, I show how this dichotomous thinking makes the surrogacy process seem morally acceptable while simultaneously leading surrogate mothers to earn less. I found that intended parents preferred to hire surrogates that they perceived as financially stable in order to avoid being accused of exploiting a poor woman. In turn, surrogacy agency staff either rejected or re-oriented potential surrogate mothers who indicated that they were interested in becoming surrogates for monetary reasons. For example, Carla told me that she was first interested in being a surrogate for the money but after talking to a surrogacy agency, she learned to see it as an altruistic act. I also found that surrogate mothers were discouraged from negotiating their wages because doing so was seen as a sign that a woman had chosen to be a surrogate for the “wrong reasons.”
Why does this matter? On a practical level, the assertion that surrogacy is not a job may lead surrogate mothers to be paid less than they would be paid if they were able to negotiate their wages. In a broader sense, this is an issue of gender inequality.
Fertility doctors, surrogacy agencies, and family law attorneys are also in the business of creating families but no one is saying that they shouldn’t get paid. No one would argue that being a doctor isn’t a job; even if the doctor’s entire practice is based on helping infertile couples have children. But carrying a fetus to term and giving birth (which we call labor!) isn’t seen as a job.
Researchers have argued that traditionally female occupations, like caretaker, teacher, and nurse, are relatively low-paid because they are seen an extension of women’s “natural role” as mothers and caregivers.[v][vi] While there are many reasons to be concerned about the welfare of surrogate mothers and to regulate the surrogacy industry, we should be weary of couching critiques of surrogacy in terms of an altruism/ commercialism dichotomy. The narrative that surrogacy isn’t or shouldn’t be a job reinforces the idea women’s reproductive labor isn’t “real work.”
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.
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/.
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.
On Tuesday, February 20th, Karl Lagerfeld passed away at the age of 85, after a career spanning six decades in the fashion industry. Lagerfeld was one of the most prolific, influential, and celebrated fashion designers of all time. Most famous for his work as creative director of Chanel and Fendi, Lagerfeld also ran his own eponymous line, and has been credited with several industry innovations, including ushering in an era of high-end designer collaborations with fast-fashion retailers, such as H&M. Although close friends often referred to him as kind and funny, Lagerfeld was a controversial figure to say the least. He was known for public statements that many found offensive, even misogynistic. For instance, critics derided his statement that Adele was “a little too fat” and that Pippa Middleton shouldn’t show her face but “only her back.” Most recently, he came under fire for his comments regarding sexual harassment. In an interview with Numero magazine, Lagerfeld stated a lack of support for Me Too and argued that “If you don’t want your pants pulled down, don’t become a model.”
As a white man sitting atop an industry populated primarily by women workers, Lagerfeld in many ways was the quintessential example of the glass runway phenomenon, which I wrote about in my 2015 Gender & Society article entitled “The Glass Runway: How Gender and Sexuality Shape the Spotlight in Fashion Design.” In this article, I examined the following puzzle: In an occupation where women far outnumber men, why is it that men fashion designers tend to receive more symbolic rewards in the form of prestigious industry awards, media attention, and critical acclaim? Using descriptive statistics and a content analysis of 253 fashion media texts, I found that: (1) men receive more awards and are more likely to be canonized than women; and that (2) because the evaluation of culture is fraught with ambiguity and uncertainty, gender essentialism seeps into discourses of art and culture used to represent men and women designers in fashion media, helping construct a masculine image of the ideal fashion designer. These processes push men designers outward into the spotlight as though walking a glass runway.
It is, therefore, no small news, that Lagerfeld’s named successor at Chanel is to be a woman – Virginie Viard. Thought certainly not underprivileged or a vulnerable worker herself (she worked closely with Lagerfeld at Chanel for years), Viard’s appointment is an important one for an industry that has only recently begun to deal with its gender inequality problem.
Since The Glass Runway, I have been thrilled to see that my findings have garnered attention within the fashion industry itself. I have been interviewed about gender inequality in fashion for blogs, newsletters, and magazines with both national and international readership, sometime in the millions. In some ways, I was surprised by this uptake, having worried that the industry would instead take a defensive stance to academic critique. On the other hand, since 2015, the topic of gender inequality has “gone mainstream,” largely due to a renewed women’s movement spurred by the current political climate and Me Too.
Artist: Matt Maitland
Perhaps the best example of fashion’s emerging concern with inequality is that, last year, the Council of Fashion Designers of America partnered with Glamour Magazine on their own study about gender inequality in fashion, which they also called “The Glass Runway.” Working with consulting firm McKinsey & Company, the CFDA and Glamour conducted a survey of 535 fashion industry professionals about gender and fashion (no details on their sampling, recruitment, or other methodological strategies were reported). They found that while 100% of women surveyed claim gender inequality is a problem in fashion, only half of the men said the same. This is despite the fact that only half of womenswear brands are headed by women designers, and only 14% of major brands have a female executive. And while women are 17% more likely to aspire to top executive positions at the start of their career, by mid-career, men are 20% more likely than women to have these aspirations, suggesting a disillusionment over time on the part of women who face substantial barriers to career advancement. In fact, they found that 25% fewer women get promoted without asking than men, and 72% fewer get promoted without asking at the management level. Their survey respondents cite a lack of clarity in what it takes to be promoted, a lack of mentorship and support for women, and work-family barriers, as key reasons for this inequality.
Based on these results, the CFDA and Glamour recommended a series of “action items” for moving forward. These action items are all worthy and vital components of addressing gender inequality in fashion. However, there are certain concerns that remain unaddressed, which are critical in moving forward.
First, they recommend cultivating greater awareness how of gender diversity offers business advantages. This recommendation is supported by a great deal of empirical research showing that diverse teams and organizations are more productive, creative, innovative, and perform better financially. Yet, there is no concrete strategy outlined for how this recommendation can be rolled out. The industry must now ask itself how to build this understanding and increase buy-in for gender equity strategies. For example, will moving forward entail affirmative action practices? If so, what is the best to gain the support of those who perceive of these initiatives as quota systems not based on merit? There would need to be significant cultural / attitudinal change within and outside the industry to make this happen effectively.
Second, they recommend improved transparency and clarity in evaluations, promotions, and compensation. This recommendation closely aligns with my own findings – that ambitious evaluation criteria make it easier for gender and other biases to creep into evaluation processes. However, as I argue in my article, the key is not merely to better communicate evaluation criteria, but also to unpack how these criteria are themselves built upon gender stereotypes and assumptions. In addition, the rise of precarious and short-term employment may render this recommendation difficult to implement. In fashion, as across the labor market, jobs are becoming more short-term and project-based. Within-organization transparency is vital to achieving better equality, but we must also consider how to achieve this transparency and clarity when people are going from job to job, project to project, team to team.
The third action item is to provide skill-based training and mentorship programs for empowering women. As a key mechanism in the glass escalator, and a key component of the glass runway reported by women in fashion, mentorship and the support of leaders is key. Some important ways to implement this would be to host mentorship matching events at conferences, fashion weeks, and other industry events, and to include both women and men in these initiatives. Research shows that women’s only networks and mentorship programs have benefits but can sometimes further segregate women from powerful networks and are sometimes disregarded as opportunities for women to “bitch” and “complain.” To avoid this, leaders in the industry must: promote the work and accomplishments of women; build diverse and inclusive networks; and facilitate relationships based on support rather than competition.
Fourth, the CFDA and Glamour suggest offering unconscious bias training for those occupying leadership positions. They argue that one likely reason why all women surveyed, but only half the men, felt gender inequality was a problem in fashion, was due to the numerical over-representation of women in the field, making it seem like fashion is dominated by women. Unconscious bias training can go a long way toward improving day to day interactions and practices within organizations, and to improving hiring and review practices. It may also help with the buy-in issue noted above.
Finally, they recommend establishing work-flexibility policies and programs that will help workers balance work and family responsibilities. Again, this is a vitally important component of equitable working conditions. To implement these effectively, at least three things must be considered: 1) work-flexibility policies without cultural organizational change will not be effective; 2) policies must not become “women’s policies” either in name or practice, and must be inclusive; and 3) attention must be focused on how to achieve work-life integration for those workers without long-term stable jobs, since, as noted above, standard work forms are becoming less normative.
I am heartened by the emerging commitment to equality within the fashion industry. Moving forward, there are five main ingredients that I would recommend as vital in developing a recipe for effective and sustainable change.
1.) There should be more collaboration between scholars and industry members when it comes to developing knowledge and strategies for action.
2.) We must pay more attention to deconstructing the gender binary in relation to these issues so as not to leave trans and gender fluid fashion workers out of research, policy, and discourse.
3.) Attention must paid to the important relationship between policy and culture in order to ensure support for any recommended changes.
4.) Consideration of diverse work forms, including short-term and precarious jobs, is necessary in order to fully understand and address the processes through which inequality manifests in fashion.
5.) Finally, and perhaps most important, the report made no mention of how women’s experiences are not homogenous, or how an intersectional approach may be of benefit. My article engaged the intersection of gender and sexuality, but unfortunately did not considered race, class, disability, or age. I am now in the process of planning a new collaborative study about Indigenous fashion designers, which will examine the intersections of gender and race in shaping the glass runway. This research will be conducted with two other scholars and an Indigenous fashion designer. My hope is that this research will receive as much uptake from the fashion industry as my earlier research, and will promote a more intersectional approach to within-industry efforts toward change.
Allyson Stokes is an assistant professor of Sociology at Memorial University of Newfoundland. Her research interests include gender, inequality, work, and culture, with a particular focus on intersecting inequalities in creative industries and cultural production. Her work has appeared in publications such as Gender & Society, Social Currents, Canadian Review of Sociology, and the Oxford Handbook of Pierre Bourdieu.
Winner of a Golden Globe and recipient of several Academy Award nominations, including for Best Picture, Roma, directed by Alfonso Cuarón, follows a year in the life of a domestic worker and the Mexico City family that employs her. Although the film has spawned many conversations among critics and audiences, and even domestic worker advocates, the voices of expert researchers of domestic work in Latin America have often been absent. Spoilers abound!
Here is the second part of the blog that will offer critiques of film by members of RITHAL (a network of researchers who study domestic work in Latin America). If you are interested in learning more about RITHAL, please contact Erynn Masi de Casanova. Casanova also provided the translations from Spanish to English for some of these essays.
Silence and Oppression in Roma
By: Verónica Jaramillo Fonnegra
Cuarón’s contribution is aesthetically beautiful, and I think that is part of the work’s strength. This film approaches the topic of domestic work and labor exploitation of poor women’s bodies in a naïve way, but it does put this topic on the agenda in Mexico and the rest of the world. Domestic workers throughout Latin America are not treated in accordance with norms of human rights and labor law, and for this reason the mere existence of this film is positive.
Roma—albeit timidly—reflects the hypocrisy of employers (particularly women employers) who think that they treat their domestic workers as “part of the family.” One scene that illustrates this is when Cleo gets taken to the beach after losing her baby, and without being able to fight her pain—or her obligation to work—she has to devote herself to caring for her employer’s children. The act of caring for them, while taking a break from her cleaning tasks, is not something her employer sees as work. This caring requires Cleo to risk her own life, as she goes into the sea without knowing how to swim. The message (to borrow Judith Butler’s language): there are bodies that don’t matter.
Unlike Cutuli, I do think that in Roma the voice of the subaltern can be heard—through silences, through gestures, through solitude. The scarce use of oral language reminds us of the value of silence among the indigenous communities of Latin America, who have a distinct but powerful oral tradition. That not-voice, that prolonged, seemingly futile silence on the part of Cleo, ends up revealing the precise position of indigenous women and domestic workers in Latin American societies. These workers are often neither seen nor heard by the families they work for, by the state, or in the making of laws and justice. As I show in my research, it has been a long road from “servant” to “worker,” and changing labor laws is just the first step. This devaluation of domestic work and its minimal social recognition are lightly touched on in the film.
The film also evidences the mistreatment and long work days that are combined with bursts of intimacy and kindness on the part of the family. But it shows how workers are confined to the worst space in the house, aren’t allowed to turn on the lights at night, and have to eat separately. Pay is never mentioned—the woman employer is bankrupt because the husband does not provide money, and yet somehow they keep the household “help”—which hints at a slave-like work arrangement. Oppression is presented as so natural that the workers’ own concerns about their lives and futures are difficult to imagine, as when Cleo finds out that her mother lost her land and does not respond. Cuarón delicately downplays these signs of oppression while exposing the sins of the privileged classes. He implicitly shows the operation of colonialism, capitalism, and patriarchy and the clash of values that these systems cause in our societies by allowing these labor arrangements to continue.
Verónica Jaramillo Fonnegra, Investigator, Center of Justice and Human Rights, Universidad Nacional de Lanús (Argentina). Verónica’s research focuses on domestic work legislation in Argentina.
 Valenzuela, María Elena and Claudia Mora (eds.). 2009. Trabajo doméstico: un largo camino hacia el trabajo decente. Santiago: Organización Internacional del Trabajo (International Labor Organization).
 Butler, Judith. 1993. Bodies that matter: on the discursive limits of ‘sex’. New York: Routledge.
 Jaramillo, Verónica. 2014. “En los papeles: De servidoras domésticas a trabajadoras. El caso argentino.” Estudios de Derecho 71(158): 197-217.
Roma’s Cleo as Third World Woman
By: Tallulah Lines
Cutuli perfectly expresses one of the principal reasons that I found Roma such a perplexing film when she observes that “Even in the act of recognition, the worker’s words are absent.” Roma is billed as a film inspired by the life of a domestic worker, but despite Cleo being the film’s protagonist, we really learn nothing about her personhood, her sense of self, or her individual identity. While we watch other key characters develop and change, including Sofía and even Fermín (the father of Cleo’s baby), Cleo occupies the consistent and unique identity of domestic worker throughout her interactions with all of the other characters.
This one-dimensional portrayal of a domestic worker is not unusual, but it is certainly problematic, and it is worth unpacking why we can so readily accept the claim that this film is about Cleo’s life when we really learn nothing about her. The historic invisibilization of domestic workers, devaluation of housework in general and paid domestic work in particular (largely because of prejudices regarding gender, race, and class) and domestic workers’ association with the ‘private’ sphere have all contributed to a fixed portrayal of domestic workers which denies them recognition as self-reflexive and complex individuals. To follow an argument first conceptualized by Mohanty in 1989, and still relevant today, domestic workers are the epitome of the “third world woman,” the intentionally racialized descriptor Mohanty argues encapsulates a Western conception of women typically from the Global South. Discussing academia, but relevant to popular culture too, Mohanty (2003) observed “that much of present-day scholarship tends to reproduce particular ‘globalized’ representations,” of women such as domestic workers, and that this is problematic because “although these representations of women correspond to real people, they also often stand in for the contradictions and complexities of women’s lives” (Mohanty, 2003: 247).
It is important to concern ourselves with questions about Cleo’s sense of self and her own perception of her identity because of the decolonizing value in doing so. Obscuring the contradictions and complexities of her personhood contributes to the dehumanization that makes it easier to deny fundamental rights to domestic workers and perpetuates the same race, class, and gender discrimination that has persisted in paid domestic work throughout centuries. For domestic workers themselves, “self-reflexive collective practice in the transformation of the self, reconceptualizations of identity, and political mobilization [are] necessary elements of the practice of decolonization” (Mohanty, 2003: 14). The reactions to Roma, both critical and popular, are testament to the fact that now is the right social and political juncture to deepen the discussion around paid domestic work. Reconceptualizing the identity of domestic workers must be a core part of this conversation.
Tallulah Lines ,Research Assistant, Centre for Applied Human Rights, University of York (UK). Tallulah’s research focuses on identity among domestic workers in Mexico.
 MOHANTY, C.T. (1991). Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses. In C.T. MOHANTY, A. RUSSO and L. TORRES (Eds.). Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism. Bloomington and Indiana: Indiana University Press, pp. 51 – 81. Mohanty’s essay was first published in 1989 and has been republished several times since then.
 MOHANTY, C.T. (2003). Feminism Without Borders; Decolonizing theory, practicing solidarity. Durham and London: Duke University Press.
Winner of a Golden Globe and recipient of several Academy Award nominations, including for Best Picture, Roma, directed by Alfonso Cuarón, follows a year in the life of a domestic worker and the Mexico City family that employs her. Although the film has spawned many conversations among critics and audiences, and even domestic worker advocates, the voices of expert researchers of domestic work in Latin America have often been absent. Spoilers abound!
Here is the first part of a blog that will offer critiques of the film by members of RITHAL (a network of researchers who study domestic work in Latin America). If you are interested in learning more about RITHAL, please contact Erynn Masi de Casanova. Casanova also provided the translations from Spanish to English for some of these essays.
“Labor” and Care in Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma
By Romina Cutuli
“Labor” is, in Hannah Arendt’s terms, that set of activities as trivial as they are necessary for sustaining life. In what seems to be an anthropological constant, we observe the delegation of a particular social group—because of class, race, and gender—to carry out these activities. This intersectionality is crystallized in the character of Cleo. Beyond the praise of film critics and the disappointment of some mainstream audiences, what does Roma tell us about domestic work? Among the critiques I’ve seen online, one is constant: the film’s slow pace. The cadence of Cleo’s labor, its ephemeral and thus repetitive character, is our first impression of the cinematographic experience. The tasks get repeated, as do the reasons for going back and doing them again. These are so many snapshots of the repetition, intensified by an ending that suggests a cycle. Here comes the spoiler alert: the labor will take place day after day, without any of the magic we see in other film genres, in which repetition can be undertaken through supernatural means.
It’s nature that imposes this labor on us, says Hannah Arendt. Nature reminds us of our animal-ness and keeps us from transcending death. As Arendt anticipated and Katrine Marçal gracefully put it, “work” and “action” need this “labor” to happen first. Care implies constant presence, as Gorz notes. Cleo is there to serve breakfast, to pick up clothes, to save a life by risking her own. Unlike the case of a firefighter or a doctor, the economic cost of her permanent presence is amortized over time and the true value of her labor is never calculated. To build a world of things, to leave our mark and make our aspirations reality, we have to avoid domestic work, either by living a simple, childless life, or perhaps, through the commodification of domestic work as gendered and low-cost.
And here emerges another aspect of the intersectional inequalities expressed in Roma. These unequal relationships are necessary so that some people can transcend the everyday. So that Antonio, barely in the film, can run in the rain like a love-drunk teen, Sofía (his wife and Cleo’s employer) has to manage the daily life of the home and four children. So that Sofía can work full-time in publishing, have time let down her hair and time to herself, there must be a Cleo. A young, poor, indigenous woman, the last link in a chain of inequalities. The freedoms of some are possible only through the bondage of others, and material socioeconomic inequalities ensure that these types of social relations reproduce themselves.
Sofía’s freedoms are curtailed so that Antonio can be free. For Sofía to maintain some bit of freedom, there have to be poor, marginalized women whose only means of subsistence is selling their labor power round the clock in other people’s homes. When you put it like that, the injustice is inexcusable. We look for gentler ways to describe how some people are able to rise because of the invisible work of others. So we have the idea of an “ethic of care.” Women’s personal sacrifice becomes recognized and idolized, for example, in Cuarón’s “homage to the women in his life”—as people have described Roma. This recognition is the paltry recompense for women’s low-paid or unpaid work. Morever, this homage does not come from women who dedicate most or all of their lives working for others, with few employment alternatives, but is created and consumed by those who do have a choice. This essentialized view of the cost-free devotion of the poor woman worker, quiet and ever-present, is the sugary coating that helps us swallow the hard pill of inequality: inequality that benefits the subject who does have a voice. Gratitude covers over the inequality that never changes and is never questioned.
Inequality becomes silence. Cleo’s voice is literally absent, but Cuarón’s is not. He speaks to her, about her, and through her. Her silence leaves room for the powerful to speak. In Roma we hear once again the same voice already expressed in legislative debates, newspaper articles, and even academic research. Even in the act of recognition, the worker’s words are absent. The domestic worker is always someone we have, not someone who is, in our class-marked discourse. The romanticized view of this unconditional devotion, which asks little or nothing in return, is the voice of privilege. The end of the film suggests a trace of first-person experience, when Cleo dares to put into words an unconfessable feeling. They go home, the patio is full of excrement. She takes the clothes up to the roof to wash them. She gives up her life so that others can live, love, and suffer. And win Golden Globes. In Roma, once again, the subaltern could not speak.
Romina Cutuli, Assistant Investigator, CONICET, Work Studies Group, Center of Social and Economic and Social Research, Universidad Nacional de Mar del Plata (Argentina). Romina’s research focuses on labor markets and public policy in relation to domestic work in Argentina.
The Troubling of “We”: An Intersectional Perspective on Roma
By: Jaira J. Harrington
In one memorable scene from Roma, Sofía proclaims, “We are alone. No matter what they tell you, we women are always alone.” Yet this “we” is only conveniently explored by Sofía when she can sense herself losing the legitimacy, power, and stability that she has enjoyed as the woman of the house. The parallel lives that Sofía (employer) and Cleo (domestic worker) lead only intersect when Sofía brings up salient questions of women’s solidarity across difference. Using an intersectional lens to examine this gendered “we” can reveal both convergences and how race and class create distance.
Cleo is of indigenous descent. Despite the internal dramas of her work life in an affluent neighborhood of Mexico City, she is not immune to the larger political conflicts of the time. The land rights of her people and family are under constant threat, and at one point she hears her mother’s property has been seized. With little room to process her personal and communal grief, she is expected to quietly manage these issues and emotions along with her employer’s personal difficulties. She absorbs misdirected aggressions from Sofía as they both work through their problems.
I don’t mean to downplay the pain and trauma both women experience. They’re both emotionally, economically, and physically abandoned by their male partners whose personal visions for their futures did not include the women who were mothers to their children, born and unborn. Yet, the differences in their lived experience of pain and desertion are striking.
When Sofía accepts that her husband has moved on and will no longer financially support her and her children, she chooses to work at a publishing company. Cleo could not even conceive of such an option in her position of relative economic dependence. While Sofía has the support of her mother, Cleo relies on her fellow in-house domestic worker friend, Adela, but mainly takes this journey alone. Cleo’s closest kinships are in the remote rural towns from which she has been isolated due to her work. The family she works for becomes her own, but this intimacy has boundaries. These boundaries are most evident during a difficult childbirth, where Cleo is shown without the support of her employer-family and is truly left alone.
With an intersectional analysis that fully acknowledges the multiple identities that constitute the lived experience of both women, the gulf between them becomes clear. Though we have two narratives of enduring struggle, the options for a young, poor, rural, indigenous, unmarried domestic with an unplanned pregnancy are completely different than those of a financially established, educated, married, and wealthy elite white woman. The universal experience of “we” that Sofía invokes between herself and Cleo is a rhetorical lacuna that women of color experience with remarkable regularity.
Roma brings to light a broader feminist issue of solidarity across difference. The silencing of distinct oppressions among and between women is worth a critical re-imagining. An unexamined “we” undermines feminist politics when it ignores the power dynamics within the category “women.” An intersectional perspective can give us the tools to see the multiplicity of oppressions and the potential spaces for liberation for all women.
Jaira J. Harrington, Assistant Professor of Global Interdisciplinary Studies, Villanova University. Jaira’s research focuses on domestic workers’ movements in Brazil.
 Arendt, Hannah. 1998. The Human Condition. University of Chicago Press.
 Marçal, Katrine. 2017. Who cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner? A story of women and economics. Pegasus Books.
 Gorz, Andre. 1995. Metamorfosis del trabajo. Editorial Sistema.
People with disabilities face deeply entrenched normative and attitudinal barriers in the labor market, despite protections provided by the Americans with Disabilities Act. Yet, they remain a comparatively overlooked minority group in sociological studies, even those employing intersectional analyses of inequality. This has left empirical and theoretical gaps in our understanding of how race, gender, and class intersect with disability in shaping economic outcomes and perpetuating cumulative disadvantage. It has also inspired us to address these gaps with an intersectional perspective in our recent research.
Intersectionality has since become a buzzword both in academia and in popular culture. This should not lessen its importance as a mechanism revealing the multiple and layered aspects of social stratification. Intersectionality shows us how overlapping systems of oppression structure social interactions across organizations and institutions. When socially constructed statuses interact, they can contribute to the accumulation of disadvantage where certain minority groups continually experience the worst outcomes and the greatest levels of disadvantage. Viewing unequal labor market outcomes through an intersectional lens, for example, highlights how women with different types of disabilities distinctly experience economic disadvantage evident in their much lower employment rates and earnings.
And, while intersectional studies of employment outcomes have revealed much about how disability and gender interact to keep women with disabilities at the bottom of a hierarchy of disadvantage, economic inequality expands far beyond the labor market. Thus, a key objective of our work has been to widen our gaze upon the effects of intersecting statuses on economic insecurity. We do this by taking into consideration the consequences of risks and shocks within stratification systems, which often depend on the amount and nature of economic resources — beyond employment wages and earnings — available to weather financial hardship.
Applying a feminist disability perspective, our recent study uncovered hierarchies of disadvantage present across three measures of economic insecurity — poverty levels, total income, and income sources. We analyzed 2015 American Community Survey data and found that less-educated minority women with disabilities had the highest rates of poverty, earned the least income, and relied more on government sources, as opposed to savings or wages, for most of their already limited income. Disadvantage was particularly apparent among persons identifying as non-Hispanic American Indians or Alaska Natives. We see that disadvantage, therefore, accumulates across social categories, which further demonstrates a need account for the particular experiences of individuals with overlapping group memberships.
Our findings also reveal important dimensions of inequality that can only be adequately explained through an intersectional framework. As the figure shows, the relative effects of disability on poverty were strongest for women, racial minorities, and individuals with less education. Disability’s effects on poverty were 40 percent larger for non-Hispanic white women than for non-Hispanic white men across education categories, and disability’s effects on poverty were approximately 55 percent larger for non-Hispanic black women than for non-Hispanic white men.
These findings, although depressing, were largely expected. We were, however, more surprised when it came to explaining total income, which includes income from employment, savings, social assistance, and other sources. In the case of total income, disability presented some of the strongest effects on total income among more advantaged, not disadvantaged groups. This was especially true for non-Hispanic white men with higher levels of education who experienced large disability-related income losses of 20-26 percent. We believe that this in part can be explained by how dominant notions of masculinity can make disability more limiting for men who are seen as less able to inhabit masculine roles in economic and financial arenas. It may very well be that white highly educated men have more to lose by being disabled.
By examining income sources in addition to total income, we also show how privilege works to maintain inequalities between groups. We found that more advantaged groups primarily relied on wages for their income and livelihood. But when wages were low, women and men with higher levels of education, regardless of disability status, were better able to take advantage of savings to make up for limited income. Less advantaged groups, however, needed much more help from the government in order to survive. This was especially true for people with disabilities.
Taken together, these results point to important class distinctions that compound inequality by race, gender, and disability. Employment is the primary way for individuals to earn income, but savings are critical when weathering economic downturns, especially in a context of declining social safety net. Pushed out of the labor market and with limited wealth, people with disabilities had few options, making public assistance a valuable source of income. Without assistance, poverty rates would be much higher for people with disabilities. Cutbacks to social assistance at the federal and state levels will only exacerbate the problem.
Bringing a feminist disability perspective to bare on our analyses helped us underscore the ways in which disadvantage is reproduced in all social organizations within a “disability/ability system” that associates disabled bodies, much like female bodies, with inadequacy and weakness. An explicitly gendered analysis of disability sheds light on how categorical disadvantage contributes to inequality’s durability in linked areas such as income, health, wealth, and education, where members of already historically marginalized groups continue to face economic insecurity. It also reminds us of the importance of the particular experiences of individuals with overlapping group memberships in understanding cumulative (dis)advantage.
Michelle Maroto is an associate professor of Sociology at the University of Alberta. Her research focuses on inequality and economic insecurity across credit and labor markets with an emphasis on the accumulation of disadvantage across households and time.
David Pettinicchio is assistant professor of Sociology and affiliated faculty in the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the University of Toronto. His forthcoming book Politics of Empowerment: Disability Rights and the Cycle of American Policy Reform (Stanford University Press, 2019) investigates how and why seemingly entrenched policies like the ADA succumb to retrenchment efforts and the important role of both political elites and everyday citizens in mobilizing against these political threats.
Barbara J. Risman, a College of Liberal Arts & Sciences Distinguished Professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, will become the next Editor of Gender & Society, the official journal of Sociologists for Women in Society, in August 2019. Risman will follow the journal’s Current Editor, Jo Reger, Professor and Chair of Sociology at Oakland University. Risman says this editorship feels as if she is coming full circle, back to her original intellectual home. Her first article in a sociology journal was the first article in the first issue of Gender & Society, under the editorship of Judith Lorber.
Risman is very excited to become the next Editor of Gender & Society and to be working with an amazing team of Deputy Editors that includes Silke Aisenbrey, Mignon Moore, Kristen Myers, Smitha Radhakrishnan and Sheryl Skaggs. The Editorial Team’s composition insures broad coverage both substantively (e.g. from family to sexuality to workplaces and from culture to economic inequality) and methodologically (including expertise in both quantitative and qualitative techniques).
Risman intends to continue many of the current practices of Gender & Society, which has a history of strong and effective editorial teams. They will continue to strive for a short turnaround time for submissions, only awarding a revise and resubmit to manuscripts that have a strong possibility of publication after revision, continuing the work to create a high digital visibility, and the production of high quality teaching related materials. As has been the case with their predecessors, the editorial team is committed to providing reviews that provide feminist mentorship for manuscripts whether or not they are accepted for publication. They also remain strongly committed to intersectional feminist scholarship and intend to continue the tradition of welcoming integrative “thought” pieces in the journal.
The Editorial Team will emphasize the inclusion of multi-methodological research, as well as research from every methodological tradition, qualitative, quantitative, experimental, and social historical. They will further build on the internationalization efforts of the journal. One of their ideas for doing this is to create a space on the website for international colleagues to give a “state of feminist sociology” in their countries, to be published on the website concurrently in their own language and English. This should encourage more international conversations, and hopefully eventually submissions.
The team has two plans for increasing the use of research published by Gender & Society for feminist social change. First, they will actively seek scholarship that highlights how scholarship can support the creation and implementation of effective feminist social policy and inform movement efforts, as well as to study such things. The team hopes this will inspire and inform intersectional feminist policy conversations.
Second, the editorial team will build on the current editor’s work to translate appropriate articles for a public audience. Such dissemination will include press releases, online symposia on topics of interest to the public, blog posts, and the development of relationships with key journalists. Risman will work closely with graduate students to help them develop these skills.
Professor Risman is a public intellectual whose editorials have appeared in the Chicago Tribune, The Seattle Times, CNN.com, and the Huffington Post. She is frequently quoted in the press including in the Economist, LA Times, New York Times, and the Atlantic. Risman has been awarded the SWS Mentorship Award and the SWS Distinguished Lecturer Award, and has served as President of Sociologists for Women in Society. She is a former President of the Southern Sociological Society and former Vice-President of the American Sociological Association. Awardsinclude the 2011 American Sociological Association’s Award for the Public Understanding of Sociology and the 2005 Katherine Jocher Belle Boone Award from the Southern Sociological Society for lifetime contributions to the study of gender. In her new book, Where The Millennials Will Take us: A New Generation Wrestles with the Gender Structure? (Oxford University Press, 2018), Risman revises her theory of gender as a social structure explicitly addressing how cultural meanings can be differentiated from the material dimension at each level of the gender structure.
It’s drag king night at the queer bar in Columbia, SC. This is primarily a gay men’s bar, but since the lesbian bars closed it is the only queer bar left in the city. The bar is long and narrow and you have to climb up 35 steps to reach the door, it is hidden away in the back of a tall brick building. Locals refer to it as the “trailer in the sky.” There is a wooden bar down the left side stocked with cheap liquor, dancing blocks (for scantily clad men) on the right, and a small stage directly in front. The atmosphere is dark; everything is black with red accent lights. To lighten the cave-like space, there are strobe lights, a disco ball, a rainbow painted on the wall, and lots of mirrors.
Drag kings—who perform masculinity in the context of a show or contest—dress in masculine attire and attempt to hide any aspects of femininity that may disrupt their performance. For some this means, binding or taping down breasts, applying facial hair, and maybe wearing a packer to give the appearance of having a penis. The drag king show is scheduled to start at 10:30pm and there are about 25 people in the bar. They signal the start of the show with the song “Drag King Bar” by Bitch and Animal. I recommend listening to it online, it’s pretty funny!
Lady Gaga in Drag – Google Free Use Photo
This is a typical scene for drag king shows in the South. A small, dark bar tucked away from major areas. Contrary to what many believe, there is a thriving, though mostly underground, queer culture in the South. I have been a part of this culture in various locations around the region and even performed drag in South Carolina and Mississippi. By performing drag, I was able to try on a different gender identity than I was allowed in my everyday life. At this time, I had already starting wearing mostly men’s clothing, but I still had long hair and appeared fairly feminine. Being able to experience what it felt like to be a man, even if just for a couple hours really opened my eyes more to my own gender identity and how gender is largely a performance. With these new experiences and my own changing identity, I began graduate school at Mississippi State University eager to explore gender and sexuality in the South. This is when I began my examination of drag.
My research about drag kings, trans* men, and non-binary people has led me to some interesting findings about gender and sexuality in the South. In my article, “Drag as a Resource: Trans* and Non-Binary Individuals in the Southeastern United States,” published in Gender & Society’s December 2018 edition, I discuss some of my findings about how drag can be a beneficial resource in the South for trans* and non-binary people. For this study, I interviewed 32 trans* and non-binary drag kings in the South to examine how they use drag as a resource to explore gender identity and find resources for gender transition. I highlight the importance of geographic location on attitudes about gender and resources available to trans* men and non-binary people. In contrast to other areas of the country, trans* and non-binary drag kings in the Southeast use drag as a place to explore a “felt” identity that is stifled in the broader culture.
While other areas of the country, such as the Northeast and Pacific Northwest in particular, are expanding rights and resources for trans* and non-binary people, the Southeast continues to be an often-hostile environment for anyone who is gender non-conforming. The increased transphobia and homophobia in the South mean that there are less rights and resources for trans* and non-binary people. To make matters even worse, some Southern states are actively trying to reverse the rights provided to trans* and non-binary people.
Drag is a safe haven for many trans* and non-binary people trying to navigate the Southeast. By playing with gender, drag kings are able to explore an identity that is often silenced by their families, schools, churches, and communities. Most of the drag kings in this study felt they were always a gender other than what they were assigned at birth, but they were able to discover that identity through drag. Additionally, through networking with other drag kings, trans* and non-binary individuals are able to locate appropriate resources to meet their needs. Drag kings act as mentors to one another, recommend healthcare providers who are knowledgeable about trans* issues, and provide much needed support. As one drag king, Skyler D. Light, a 29-year-old trans male, put it, “I knew I wanted to transition before I even started drag, but I needed guidance and a slow/steady path to explore my identity.” While drag is an excellent resource and a fun way to play with gender, it should not be the only place to explore gender and find resources for gender transition in the South.
If you live in the South and identify as transgender or non-binary, or are just in need of more information about gender, here are a few places you can start if you’re not into drag:
Baker A. Rogers (formerly Ashley A. Baker) is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Georgia Southern University. Their research and teaching focuses on inequality, specifically examining the intersections of gender, sexuality, and religion. Their work is published in Sexualities, Review of Religious Research, and Feminist Teacher.