As you could probably tell, I feel bad describing research like the Trans Mental Health Study in such strong negative terms. I know that the authors wanted to do something to help the trans community, and they thought that was what they were doing. I want to balance that out by highlighting examples of transgender research done right.
I recently had the pleasure of meeting Lal Zimman, a fellow linguist who studies transgender language. In 2009, Zimman published a paper (PDF) summarizing his research into the concept of “coming out” in transgender communities.
A.C. Liang (1997) and Kathleen Wood (1997) reported on “coming out” stories of gay men and lesbians. In these stories, the term “coming out” is used to refer to the sharing of a sexual orientation. Because this orientation may not be visible, Zimman says, “Liang argues that reference to the ‘processual’ nature of coming out – in other words, the fact that coming out is not a single event but is rather reenacted time and again throughout an individual’s lifetime – is a crucial component of the coming out narrative.”
Zimman interviewed nine individuals who had completed a gender transition and found a pattern that will probably be familiar to a lot of you. They used “coming out” to share a transgender identity, but in one of two specific ways that were very different from those reported for gay men and lesbians. Those who hadn’t transitioned to their target gender used “coming out” to mean a declaration (in Zimman’s terms) of their desire or plans to transition to a different gender. Those who had transitioned used “coming out” to mean a disclosure of their history of gender transition.
This is the right way to do research on an unrepresentative sample. Ask relatively open-ended questions and listen to the answers. Note common threads among the answers. Use the stories to make existential arguments – ones that highlight the existence of something that may not have been acknowledged by the academic community. This is particularly valuable to show exceptions to generalizations that others have made. In this case, Zimman identifies exceptions to the generalizations that Liang and Wood made about coming out narratives.
Even though I think Zimman’s research is exemplary here, I want to note that I have a verbal hygiene argument with what he found. I don’t like these uses of the term “coming out,” and I think they’re bad for both the trans community and the wider LGBT community. But that’s a topic for another post. In the meantime, keep studying trans communities!