Queerness in Linguistics (Who gets to study us? Part 2)

About one month ago, I wrote about some of the small frustrations that I encounter when I talk about my linguistics research. I described how it’s awkward at best (and demeaning at worst) when people make assumptions about my race after finding out that the Korean language and its speakers are my specialization. One of the weird premises that lies beneath this is the idea that it is most appropriate, or even only appropriate, for a researcher in the humanities or social sciences to study a certain minoritized subject if they themselves are a member of that community. There’s also an asymmetry here, because people with relative privilege in America (e.g., straight White men), are not subjected to this kind of scrutiny.

I concluded that I should neither feel inferior for being an Asian American who studies Asian Americans’ speech, nor cave into any pressure to study my specific ethnic community (which is Taiwanese American, not Korean). In an ideal future — one that I hope to help bring about — any researcher can study any group and do so fairly and without invalidation from others simply due to their own identity.

That said, society has a long, long way to go before full equity is achieved. And until then, some social asymmetries, it can be argued, should not go unchecked. There is, of course, the veritable cornucopia of White male scholars of Chinese history, White male experts in West African religion, White male chefs who “discover” South Asian cuisine and profit massively from it while the native people do not; the list goes on. The White Western Academy has dominated the scholarship on not-Europe for centuries, and among the many consequences of this are 1) the ironic exotification of cultures that were intended to be demystified, and 2) the lamentable lack of access to the academy for individuals from said cultures, since they are considered (often implicitly) to be objects of study, rather than experts. Naturally, we want to reverse this.

What I’ve been thinking through the past few months is somewhat related, and it was brought into sharp focus when I attended the Linguistic Society of America annual conference back in January. At the LSA, which is the largest and most well-known conference for American linguists, I presented some preliminary work I had done on the phonetic characteristics of two transgender women. I don’t know these women personally, but I got their data from their public YouTube channels, which they have been maintaining for many years.

Now, I’ve done the requisite training for ethical research, and I have years of experience working with human subjects in our lab. I am well aware that using data from YouTube does not constitute any kind of breach of confidentiality. Anything on YouTube is technically part of a corpus that is considered public domain, just like records of speeches made in Congress, newscasters’ daily reports, and Twitter. More and more linguists these days are mining online corpora for data to analyze, and the results1 coming in these days are truly fascinating.

Of course, what I’m doing with my data is a little bit different. I’ve focused on two individuals, rather than treating all of YouTube like a corpus of thousands of essentially anonymous speakers. Furthermore, I’m focusing on them because of their transgender identity, which, compared to the neutrality of being a news anchor, is a historically (and presently) marginalized identity. I hope that this last point is clear: trans and non-binary people are oppressed, erased, victimized, and misunderstood at disgracefully high rates both in the US and all over the world. I am a gay man and I know that my brothers around the world face extreme prejudice and homophobia, but the trans members of our queer community have to deal with worse.

So, back to the talk I gave at the LSA. I spent a lot of time in preparation; I made sure to provide some background on what it means to be transgender, as well as to use the proper pronouns and terminology. Unfortunately, I came down with the flu literally the day of my presentation, but I powered through it. I thought that, all things considered, it went fairly well, and it was also the best attended talk I’ve ever given.

Audience feedback was positive and helpful. But I also got… The Question. The question I had sort of expected somebody to ask, but secretly hoped nobody would. An attendee sitting in the very back row raised their hand and asked, “Considering that these two trans women whose data you used for your study are members of a marginalized community in the US, did you make sure to ask for their consent or provide them with any sort of compensation? Did you take steps to involve them, or any trans people in your research in any way?”

It was a tough question, and I knew it, and the audience knew it. There were murmurs in the crowd, as it dawned on everybody, probably, that I was just another arrogant cisgender interloper profiting from the labor of trans folks who weren’t even compensated…! (Slight exaggeration here.)

In response, well, I admit that I hedged at first. I gave my explanation of the use of material in the public domain. I also mentioned that I had contacted both of the YouTubers months ago to inform them that I was doing this research project and would present on it in a public forum, but neither had replied to my message. I ended by saying that I really would want to collaborate with phoneticians and sociolinguists who are trans, and that I would love for this work help their community, not just serve my own interests. The person who asked the question wasn’t really satisfied. We had a brief back-and-forth in front of everyone that touched upon concerns about trans invisibility in academia and the difference between research that is legally permissible and research that is morally right, which ended with them telling me, “Let’s talk afterward!”

The exchange left me uncomfortable, but overall I do understand the criticism, and I accept it. It’s essentially the same critique that I lobbed at White scholars of Asia just a few paragraphs above. Although I did my due diligence and covered my ass, so to speak, insofar as the ethics board of my institution would care, that’s just the bare minimum. The person who asked The Question talked with me a little bit afterward, and it became clear to me that they had a personal stake in the matter, as they were a trans linguist who routinely sees cisgender researchers publish papers on their specialization (e.g., the rising use of gender neutral pronouns) and will likely be competing for jobs with these same “experts”.

From this perspective, the whole issue with what I do is not just about the ethics of studying trans people when I’m not trans, but also (or moreso) about using my platform for the greater social good: equity and better representation for trans people. Or, as a matter of fact, not just using my platform, but ceding it so that trans people can gain access and power and thus direct their own academic future. In some cases it’s not just about the actions I take, but also the things I don’t do, or give up, so as not to be complicit in their marginalization. Is working on this project as a cisgender person an act of appropriation? Should I cease and desist?

(Side note: isn’t it interesting how we might need to make a distinction here between “ethical” and “moral”? This is definitely a question for the philosophers and rhetoricians… it’s not my area!)

Months after the LSA, I was (and am) still thinking about this question. I got another perspective from Lal Zimman, who is a well-known transgender linguist at UC Santa Barbara. (One of his students happened to present at the same session as I did at the LSA!) I’d been in contact with Lal via email since last summer, after I assigned some of his papers as readings for my students in a sociolinguistics course. I really, really admire his work. To be honest, I would collaborate with him on this project in a heartbeat (although the bulk of his research is on trans men, not trans women).

When Lal came to Berkeley a few weeks ago to give a talk, I took the opportunity to meet with him one on one, and although I wanted to get his advice on this project, I first had to ask for his counsel on this whole convoluted privilege/appropriation/ethical research quandary. I explained where I was coming from with the project and summarized the main conflict, which probably sounded like an embarrassing crisis of conscience from a desperate grad student… In my defense, the question had been brewing for months.

Well, talking with him definitely helped assuage some of my misgivings. He told me that stopping my research cold just because I wasn’t trans myself would not be a reasonable thing to do, partly because I should have academic freedom to study what I want, and partly because there really aren’t that many people doing this kind of research to begin with, and at this point, the more the merrier. But he did also stress that I would benefit from collaboration with trans people, whether they were linguists or not. I could ask my trans friends what kinds of things they’d like to learn from the research I do. I could partner with other educators or people connected with institutions to give them some insights that will improve the quality of speech training for people who are transitioning. These are among the things that Lal himself does in his position as a professor, and they are definitely good ways in which I can give back. Just because I haven’t done any of this yet doesn’t mean I’m a lost cause.

And overall, this is a good reminder that my career as a linguist shouldn’t be limited to what I am able to publish or what I do in the classroom. Many linguists who work with endangered languages, for example, spend a good chunk of their time working on educational materials or advocating politically for their language community. In this way, they can truly repay the good that they have received (i.e., “compensate”), which is especially pertinent if the linguist possesses greater privilege than the speakers they consult.

So this is where I fall on the issue now. By no means is it a perfect solution. I understand that it is easy for me to say I’ll do anything without being held accountable for following through, and I know that as long as I am cisgender (and male), my words can fairly be interpreted as coming from a place of privilege, blind to the realities of the trans (and female) experience. But I hope that the trans people who become familiar with my research will benefit from it, and that there can be a two-way exchange of ideas and resources. Part of why I wanted to study these trans women’s speech in the first place was to shed more light on trans identity and help dispel myths or stereotypes about how trans people speak. I’ve learned a lot so far, I keep learning every day, and I want to pass that on to other people. I hope that’s okay.


“Belonging”. Limerick, Ireland

1 Not linguistics research, but I found this fascinating nonetheless: researchers have found that fake news travels faster than real news on Twitter, no matter who is spreading it.


Word of the Day: ceteris paribus is Latin for “all else being equal”. Closing the gender pay gap in this country by raising women’s wages will, ceteris paribus, give women more economic freedom and boost their well-being. I actually don’t know anything about economics, but my gut intuition tells me that this is true. My gut also tells me that, unfortunately, “all else” is never really equal in this society. We’ve got to work to make the ceteris truly paribus.


About Andrew C.

I'm a grad student at UC Berkeley.
This entry was posted in conference, school, what even is linguistics and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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