During this year’s William R. Johnson Intercultural Lecture, S. Simmons, who identifies as transgender, discussed the issues that trans professors endure in their lecture “Canaries in a Mine: Trans Educator’s Multiple Roles in Higher Education” on October 17 in the Founder’s Lounge.
In a sit-down interview with The Leader before the lecture, Simmons spoke of the discrimination, invisibility, and harassment, as well as community, solidarity, and resistance experienced by/with trans educators.
“For my dissertation I interviewed 14 trans educators and one of the educators in our interview actually brought up this analogy of canaries in a mine,” said Simmons. “They were referencing a book that was written by a scholar of color who was talking about people of color as being the canaries in a mine. It’s a similar experience for trans people and trans educators.”
Simmons discussed the dangers of identifying as a trans person.
“There have been so many murders of trans people, specifically trans women of color,” said Simmons. “They are literally dying because of this mine of gender. For me their deaths signal a problem with the social construction of gender with gender as an institution.”
Simmons has experienced this persecution first hand.
“In my time as a human, discrimination has become so covert that sometimes you don’t even know when you’re experiencing discrimination,” said Simmons. “There’s one moment that comes to mind. As a young person, maybe in first or second grade, living in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, it was an all white community, large amish community, and there was a time when I got off the bus and a white boy spit on me.”
Being surrounded by those who encourage them is important to Simmons.
“I’ve had these experiences, but I’ve also had such a rich community rally around me and gather around me and support me and step in the way.” Simmons said. “Feeling like you’re the only one can take a toll on you, and so once you do connect with people who share similar identities and experiences, you become like best friends and want to do something to change the experiences for the folks that will be coming after you.”
The trans community has been actively pushing for change.
“We’ve been really working hard in community to challenge, disrupt, dismantle genderism in higher education,” said Simmons. “But not just genderism. Racism, sexism, classism, all of these systems of oppressions that are embedded in not just higher ed. institutions but in our society.”
During Simmons’ actual lecture, about 80 people were in attendance, including students and faculty.
The annual William R. Johnson Intercultural Lecture is named in honor of Elmhurst College alumnus Reverend William R. Johnson (Class of 1968), the first openly gay person in modern history to gain ordination to the mainstream Christian ministry.
Simmons spoke about how more resources should be offered on campus for those who identify as trans.
“I think of resources as a couple things, like, there’s physical information and spaces, books and things like that, policies,” noted Simmons. “But there are also people resources, and I think that institutions need to be more strategic in hiring practices, in cultivating faculty and staff development, and creating mentoring opportunities.”
Simmons added that all institutions “still have a lot of work to do.”
Max Mocilan, EC junior and member of GSA, felt the lecture to be beneficial.
“I think that they were very good at educating everyone and talked about a lot of important things in relation to how faculty can improve on trans identities and also some things that students organizations can do too,” said Mocilan. “I liked how it was about what we can all do to be as a better person.”
Simmons remains optimistic about what the future will hold for trans educators and people.
“I want to have hope,” they said. “What I want to see is people being affirmed and valued for who they are. I don’t believe in this idea of being color blind, or color ignorance. I want all of us to be valued.”
They* also want the violence towards trans people to come to an end.
“I want trans women of color to stop being murdered. I don’t want people to have to worry about losing their lives for just trying to be who they are.”
*Editor’s note: Simmons uses they/them pronouns.