A first in trans academia
An aerial view of the University of British Columbia campus. (photo by justiceatlast via Wikimedia Commons)
Aaron Devor, a leader in British Columbia’s Jewish community, has been appointed to the world’s first academic chair in transgender studies.
Devor, a professor of sociology who is also the president of the Jewish Federation of Victoria and sits on the board of Hillel BC, assumed his new duties Jan. 1. Devor is also the founder and academic director of the Transgender Archives, which was launched in 2011 and already comprises the world’s largest collections of documents recording transgender activism and research.
Devor defines the term transgender as including a diversity of people.
“Anyone who feels that the gender that was assigned to them on the basis of their genitals is not the correct one, that it’s not the proper fit,” said Devor, who is himself a transgender person. This includes, he said, people who want to present as or become the opposite gender but also many people who reflect “something more creative or original or different, or some combination of what we think of as the two standard genders.”
Devor has encountered surprise that Victoria, perceived by some as a parochial provincial capital, has become a global centre for transgender research and study. In his experience, he said, Victoria has always been a progressive community and the University of Victoria ranks high among the educational institutions in the world.
That Victoria would become a centre for transgender academia is due in part to Devor’s ongoing involvement in the subject as an academic and as an activist, but also through the support of the university for his endeavors, he said. Individuals who have been collecting relevant materials know Devor and contact him when they want to contribute them to a legitimate archive, and the imprimatur of the University of Victoria adds to their confidence, he said.
“I know the people who have been collecting and I have approached many of them and many of them have approached me after they started to understand what we have here,” he explained. “It’s all donated by people who have been amassing their own collections and want a safe place to put it.”
Popular culture, he said, has helped bring transgender awareness to a tipping point. In 2014, Laverne Cox, a star of the TV program Orange is the New Black, was on the cover of Time magazine. The program Transparent, in which a family addresses the gender transition of the father, began the same year. The openness of Chaz Bono, who North Americans have known since doing walk-ons on the Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour in the 1970s, also helped increase consciousness.
“There are huge limitations, in a way, to communicating effectively through popular culture,” said Devor, but “one of the things that happens through popular culture is people tend to feel like they know the stars, know the personalities that they see on television and in the movies and that they follow on the internet and so on. Even if they’ve never met them, they start to feel like they know them. So, when public figures in popular culture say and do things, it becomes real for a lot of people. One of the things that we know helps to undermine prejudice is when you feel like you know someone of that particular type, whatever that type is that you’ve been prejudiced about.”
Many people still don’t understand it, he added, but are willing to keep an open mind.
“My sense of the public attitude that we’ve reached just very, very recently is that, by and large, the public takes the attitude of, ‘I don’t really get this but I guess it’s OK and I’m willing to go along with it,’” he said. “I haven’t done a survey on this but I’m a keen observer, a well-placed observer … that’s my take on it.
“I think we’ve reached a tipping point in terms of people holding goodwill toward trans people, and I don’t want to overstate that,” he continued. “We’ve just reached a tipping point, but I think in terms of knowing what to do to actualize that goodwill, I think people have very little idea what to do, which is why we need more research and more translation of that research into the real world.”
As the world’s first chair in transgender studies, Devor hopes to be a part of advancing understanding. He hopes that the research being developed will aid in the creation of better laws and policies, while also “changing hearts and minds.”
“There is law and there’s policy and there’s practice,” he said. “Individual members of societies put all of this into practice. You can have good laws on the books but it doesn’t necessarily mean that what’s going to happen in everyday life will very well reflect what those laws are.”
Legally, most provinces have some protections against discrimination on the basis of gender identity and gender expression.
“The province of British Columbia is not one of those, which is surprising,” he said. Some people contend that the word gender in the human rights code is sufficient, but most of the provinces, he said, have enacted legislation that specifies gender identity as a prohibited grounds for discrimination. Still, he prefers the term “gender expression.”
“Discrimination is based on what you look and sound like more often than on how you actually feel about yourself,” he explained. In other words, heterosexual people may experience bullying or violence if they exhibit what are perceived as traits of homosexuals.
In the Jewish realm, Devor said, religious organizations are addressing trans inclusion. Just last November, the Union for Reform Judaism passed a resolution on the rights of transgender and gender non-conforming people. The resolution affirms the Reform movement’s commitment to the full equality, inclusion and acceptance of people of all gender identities and gender expressions.
The Conservative movement has a responsum from 2003, which Devor consulted on, and may address the matter in future.