Unmapping social work scholarship about gender self-designation: reconstructing the basis for engagement

Author: Rebecca Howe1
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  • 1 The University of Sydney, Australia
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For a half-century, transgender studies and theory have existed alongside but disconnected from social work scholarship on providing services to people with self-designated genders. This article utilises unmapping as a methodology for tracing connections between normalised assumptions and power/knowledge hierarchies across four journal articles that present theoretically focused recommendations for social work in this area. Unmapping the academic discipline of social work as a space organised in particular ways reveals practices that discount and place limits on accepted knowledges. I argue that social work scholarship brackets itself off from broader transgender studies scholarship and transgender theory, and, in doing so, perpetuates social relations of dominance experienced by people with self-designated genders. I suggest that a premise of becoming consciously responsive enables continuing reflexivity, accountability and anti-colonial social work scholarship and practice.

Abstract

For a half-century, transgender studies and theory have existed alongside but disconnected from social work scholarship on providing services to people with self-designated genders. This article utilises unmapping as a methodology for tracing connections between normalised assumptions and power/knowledge hierarchies across four journal articles that present theoretically focused recommendations for social work in this area. Unmapping the academic discipline of social work as a space organised in particular ways reveals practices that discount and place limits on accepted knowledges. I argue that social work scholarship brackets itself off from broader transgender studies scholarship and transgender theory, and, in doing so, perpetuates social relations of dominance experienced by people with self-designated genders. I suggest that a premise of becoming consciously responsive enables continuing reflexivity, accountability and anti-colonial social work scholarship and practice.

Introduction

Current research in Australia details adverse conditions spanning the full range of social determinants of health that undermine the potential for people with self-designated genders to flourish. Accordingly, this research identifies continuing, multi-layered interpersonal and structural experiences of marginalisation, discrimination, stigma, harm and distress (for example, Callander et al, 2019; Hill et al, 2020). Statements of social work’s commitment to grappling with these types of injustice appear in codes of ethics in the Australian context, where this article was written, and in the US, where the majority of the examples within this analysis originate (Australian Association of Social Workers, 2020; National Association of Social Workers, 2021). In this article, I use unmapping as a methodology to critically examine social work’s academic engagement with gender self-designation and present a claim that this engagement brackets itself off from what is needed to disrupt social relations of dominance. Central to this article’s analysis is an assertion by Lohana Berkins (2019 [1995]: 4), a Travesti activist of the Kolla nation:

Many things make a person and it’s not only the circumstantial reality of their genitals. To be transgender is to have the very intimate and profound sense of living in a gender that is different from that which society assigned to their genitals. This isn’t about clothes or makeup or the surgeries … it’s about ways of feeling, of thinking, of relating with and seeing things.

During her life, Berkins (2019 [1995]) struggled for reproductive health, self-determination, the freedom of diverse sexualities and land rights for Indigenous Bolivian women. Struggles for the return of land, self-determination, identity and expression are struggles against systems of interlocking oppression that cause harm to people and the environment – harm that is experienced most intensely by colonised peoples. In Decolonizing Solidarity: Dilemmas and Directions for Supporters of Indigenous Struggles, non-Indigenous activist and writer Clare Land (2015) discusses the responsibilities embedded in the political guidance she is given by Aboriginal people in South-East Australia. Land (2015: 226) credits Tony Birch, an author, historian and activist, for emphasising the importance of ‘the basis of the relationship with others who struggle’. It is the grounding for her argument that members of dominant groups must reconstruct the basis of the relationship to bear ‘the potential for different modes of relating: modes marked by a greater sense of mutuality’ (Land, 2015: 226). This article’s critical analysis is framed by what both Lohana Berkins and Tony Birch offer. It is driven by an ethical stance of accountability shaped through a decade of work with young people who are trans, non-binary and gender diverse, and who resist the privileging of so-called ‘expert knowledge’ over their own.

I present this analysis of four key articles to open the space for reconstructing the basis of the engagement. In this analysis, academic engagement refers to theorising critical perspectives to confront structural marginalisation and harm. I am urging an opening of space for mutuality in reflexive, accountable, anti-colonial social work scholarship for practice. This article first introduces unmapping as a methodology and method for analysing four key examples of scholarship concerned with theory for practice with people with self-designated genders. It presents this unmapping by offering a brief historicisation, tracing connecting features within the four articles and tracing normalised assumptions and power/knowledge hierarchies as connecting features across the four articles. Next, it discusses implications for social work by introducing the notion of becoming consciously responsive as the premise upon which the profession can reconstruct its modes of relating to people with self-designated genders. It concludes with a series of political and ethically driven reflexive questions to support such a reconstruction.

Before proceeding, it is important to note that this article was written with consideration of a 70-year history of categorising gender self-designation as a mental disorder and opposition from the trans depathologisation movement – informed by and co-occurring alongside anti-psychiatry, disability and intersex movements – to the structural violence upheld by psychiatric classification (Withers, 2014; Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome Support Group Australia et al, 2017; Davy et al, 2018). It was also written in light of Hil Malatino’s (2020: 5) description of the exhaustion felt by trans people ‘in a culture that is alternatingly, depending on where you’re at and who you are, either thinly accommodating or devastatingly hostile’. These degrees of accommodation and hostility correspond to the familiar uneven distribution of resources and opportunities depending on a person’s social class and position within the complex mechanisms of colonisation and neoliberal globalisation. I am an outsider to the lived experiences at the core of this article. Further, the overlapping privileges and disadvantages that I accrue as a result of where I am at (white, settler, urban, university educated and socially mobile within the working class) and who I am (a cis, queer social worker and an adopted person living with a chronic illness) means that I am complicit in specific practices within the broader culture that Malatino (2020) describes. I adopt the language practice of psychotherapist Gávriel Ansara and social psychologist Peter Hegarty as part of the responsibilities inherent in this position of complicity (Ansara and Hegarty, 2012). Ansara and Hegarty (2012: 141) use the phrase ‘people with self-designated genders’ to denaturalise practices of external, binary gender assignment. I use this phrase in conjunction with existing terms and with respect for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages that always already recognised diverse gender identity and expression while resisting colonisation (Coleman, 2020).

Unmapping as a methodology and method for analysing social work’s academic engagement

Human geography scholar Richard Phillips (2013 [1996]) introduced the notion of unmapping as a critical project of denaturalising the world views upon which geography rests. Trinidadian postcolonial feminist scholar Sherene Razack (2002) uses unmapping to reveal how the organisation of spaces and places maintains unequal social relations through systems of domination, and how these social relations also give shape to spaces. Thus, unmapping is both a methodology and method situated within spatial theory and critical inquiry into the social constructions of space. The purpose of using spatial approaches from social geography and critical race studies is to analyse the academic discipline of social work as a space organised in particular ways. I unmap social work as a space in response to a call from social worker Chris Chapman and community organiser, artist and scholar A.J. Withers for the profession to grapple with its claims to be working for the benefit of marginalised people while also participating in their oppression (Chapman and Withers, 2019). Social work has long been committed to providing services to people with self-designated genders. I notice that its outward-facing work builds from a grounding in feminist theorising while increasingly mobilising the post-structural analyses and insights from queer and transgender theory (see, for example, McEwan, 2017). However, it lacks the inward-facing work of critically examining the assumptions underpinning many of the recommendations for the profession to make use of such theories. As Canadian-American philosopher Stephen Hicks and social work scholar Dharman Jeyasingham argue, much of social work theory and research neither mentions nor engages the field of queer theory; if it does, social work appears ‘merely to assimilate queer into otherwise unchanged perspectives’ (Hicks and Jeyasingham, 2016: 2362). I unmap social work’s theoretically focused academic engagement with gender self-designation because it appears as a paradox of seeking to address dominance while reproducing it. Social work scholarship on gender diversity has emerged separately from the field of transgender studies and transgender theory, which has, so far, undermined its efforts to address the subjugation experienced by people with self-designated genders. While the paradox appears in both academic and practice contexts, I unmap its theoretically focused contributions because these seem to lag behind the efforts undertaken in social work practice to address power differentials.

In this analysis, I draw upon Razack’s (2000) unmapping of gendered racial violence and the law in white settler Canadian society, as well as critical social work scholar Kristin Smith’s (2017) unmapping of a clinical social work setting and its enmeshment in neoliberal ideologies and corporate interests. Razack’s (2000) unmapping provides the method, while Smith’s (2017) unmapping provides a model for use in a social work context. Smith’s (2017) unmapping reveals how a Canadian community-based health clinic is entangled in ideologies and practices of domination through its use of a standardised client assessment tool copyrighted to the multinational pharmaceutical company Pfizer. Smith (2017) uses unmapping to connect a local space of work to the global reach of a company with a record of court appearances for unethical health research and drug-trial profiteering 20 years before developing its COVID-19 vaccine. For Smith (2017), unmapping generates a series of strategies to actively resist a market-driven logic of health and social work service provision. For Razack (2002: 7), ‘[t]o question how spaces come to be’ is to ‘trace what they produce as well as what produces them’, which, in turn, works ‘to unsettle familiar notions’. To question how an engagement with self-designated gender came to be a paradox, I trace four key social work articles published in the US and Australia between 2004 and 2013 in specialist journals on women’s issues and lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans (LGBT)-related issues, and prestigious journals for the social work profession. This analysis recognises that there are contemporary contributions with varying degrees of theoretical engagement. Such contributions include: academic and activist Laura Miles (2018), discussing the significance of the debates and moral panics surrounding amending UK legislation regarding gender designations on birth certificates; and Jama Shelton, Kel Kroehle and Maria Monica Andia (Shelton et al, 2019), offering a compelling response to foreclosures occurring in social work education for trans justice by proposing a pedagogical shift to responsiveness, accountability and structural (rather than cultural) competency. However, this article analyses articles in the period 2004–13 (historicised in the following) because they make explicit recommendations for incorporating specific theoretical frameworks into social work scholarship for practice with people with self-designated genders.

The first article analysed is Beverly A. McPhail’s (2004) ‘Questioning gender and sexuality binaries: what queer theorists, transgendered individuals, and sex researchers can teach social work’; the second is Barb J. Burdge’s (2007) ‘Bending gender, ending gender: theoretical foundations for social work practice with the transgender community’; the third is Julie Nagoshi and Stephan/ie Brzuzy’s (2010) ‘Transgender theory: embodying research and practice’; and the fourth is Miff Trevor and Jennifer Boddy’s (2013) ‘Transgenderism and Australian social work: a literature review’. These articles are key because their proposals exemplify the paradox described earlier. I analyse the review by Trevor and Boddy (2013) because the broad range of material it covers is crucial for this unmapping to be relevant for social work in the Australian context in which I am situated. The method I use for this unmapping is a provisional tracing of connections. It is provisional in the post-structural usage of the term – it is a process that is also in process (Irving, 1999). I trace connected and contradictory features within each text. I then trace how those features connect across all four texts. I unmap by tracing connections that signal the maintenance of unequal social relations.

Historicisation of four key academic articles and their analysis

Razack (2000: 95) suggests that ‘[t]o unmap one must historicize’, emphasising the importance of asking what is being imagined about or projected onto specified spaces and bodies, while also asking what actions are taking place in those spaces and upon those bodies. For this historicisation, it is important to note that the four articles pre-date shifting representations of gender self-designation within Version 7 of the World Professional Association for Transgender Health’s (WPATH’s) ‘Standards of care’ (SOC-7) (Coleman et al, 2012), the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-5) (American Psychiatric Association, 2013) and the 11th revision of the World Health Organisation’s (2020) International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11). These articles were published between 2004 and 2013. This period is significant for unmapping social work’s theory-focused academic engagement because it spans the lead-up to and revision of these influential documents.

The four articles were published amid an intensification of local and transnational community coalition building for political activism, advocacy and knowledge production sparked by the potential for immense changes to documents that significantly influence the lives of people with self-designated genders. The SOC-7, DSM-5 and ICD-11 certainly garnered praise for moving towards depathologisation. However, activism continues because these documents continue representing formations of gender self-designation as an individual problem for which treatment exists. That is to say, access to ‘treatment’ hinges on processes of assessing (judging) that a person’s experience of distress meets the criteria for diagnosis of a mental disorder. The repercussions of a person’s geographic, social and class positions on such assessments, along with the impacts of colonisation, racialisation and criminalisation, are the focus of critical scholarship that contests its re-pathologising effects (see, for example, Snorton and Haritaworn, 2013; Diamond and Kirby, 2014; Aizura, 2018; O’Sullivan, 2019; Rifkin, 2019). Indeed, sociologist Raewyn Connell (2021: 92) argues that the adverse conditions that undermine the potential for people with self-designated genders to flourish on a global scale ‘are of a kind that requires a collective, public-health and political response, not an individual treatment response’. This practice of locating a problem within an individual is one that maintains a profound influence on social work service provision – an influence that is beyond the scope of this article to historicise.

The contemporary Australian context is also significant for unmapping social work’s academic engagement because these texts are unmapped amid racialisation and gendering processes central to the structures of settler colonialism. As Geonpul scholar Aileen Moreton-Robinson (2020: 2) points out, these structures impact the assertion of sovereignty by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, ‘demonstrating that colonisation is a living process’. These structures currently shape what is imagined about and projected onto people with self-designated genders by an increasingly conservative Australian government and within a vitriolic anti-trans public discourse (Madrigal-Borloz, 2019; Samios, 2021). Consequently, these four texts are also unmapped amid the legacy, turbulent history and continuation of wide-ranging associations, activist groups, service providers and organisations created by and for people with self-designated genders.

Tracing features within the four articles

This unmapping investigates proposals for what is necessary, foundational, instrumental and a way forward for social work with people with self-designated genders. It traces connecting and contradictory features within each of the four articles. In the first article under investigation, McPhail (2004) brings post-structuralist queer theory, contemporary sex research and the lived experiences of trans people – also bisexual people and people born with intersex variations – into the social work literature ‘to examine and debate the impact of such ideas on the theories and models we use, as well as the clients we serve’ (McPhail, 2004: 4). For McPhail (2004: 4), using these ideas to critique ‘gender and sexual binaries of male/female and heterosexuality/homosexuality’ offers a necessary paradigm shift for social work. This shift challenges the profession and its central theories, while also presenting opportunities to address the harm caused by the legitimisation, normalisation and policing of these binaries.

Significantly McPhail (2004: 14) asks: ‘How can social work benefit from these theories and perspectives and apply them to our clients and ourselves?’ This question is especially significant because ‘these perspectives are contradictory to many social work models and may present tensions and problems rather than insight and liberation’ (McPhail, 2004: 14). To address tensions and consolidate the potential benefits, McPhail (2004: 17–19) offers recommendations ‘that attempts to begin to incorporate a deconstruction of gender and sexuality binaries into social work’. For McPhail (2004: 19), shifting to a paradigm of post-structuralist queer theory, contemporary sex research and embodied expertise is a necessary challenge to social work, as well as a disruption of ‘the continued marginalization of women and GLBT populations’.

In the second article, Burdge (2007: 243) claims that ‘insights available at the intersection of social constructionism and queer theory’ are the theoretical foundation upon which social work practice with ‘the’ transgender community should be built. According to Burdge (2007), insight is gained from social-constructionist analyses of the ubiquitous presence of binary gender, its operation as a powerful ideological system and the entrenched self- and social regulation of normative gender expression. Likewise, insight is gained from queer theory’s postmodern analytical framing and tactics. Burdge (2007: 246) proposes that social-constructionist and queer theory is a foundation from which social workers can ‘strike gender-based oppression at its heart by challenging the gender binary’. Burdge (2007) affirms McPhail (2004) in remarking that it seems radical to call for the incorporation of postmodern, and specifically queer, social-constructionist theorisations into social work practice. However, Burdge (2007) argues that in light of the values, ethics and commitments of the profession, these theorisations culminate in a responsibility for social work to undertake a deconstruction of the gender binary as an oppressive system.

In the third article, Nagoshi and Brzuzy (2010) argue that feminist and queer theory – specifically, essentialist feminist and social-constructivist queer theory – are incomplete for social work, as they cannot fully address transgender experience given its embodied challenges to essentialising cisheteronormative assumptions. Nagoshi and Brzuzy (2010: 432) introduce transgender theory as encompassing and transcending feminist and queer theory, with embodied expertise as a distinct component of its critical approach and with explicit attention to ‘fluidly embodied, socially constructed, and self-constructed aspects of social identity’. Transgender theory is presented as providing a framework, which Nagoshi and Brzuzy (2010) demonstrate by applying it to specific issues relating to social work with people with self-designated genders. Transgender theory is also presented as providing broader opportunities that benefit the social work profession. Opportunities include an ability to reconcile ‘feminist and queer theoretical scholarship with social work practice and advocacy’, settle long-standing conflicts within feminism, and shape ‘resistance to gender oppression’ (Nagoshi and Brzuzy, 2010: 431, 441). Consequently, Nagoshi and Brzuzy (2010) argue that transgender theory is instrumental in encouraging ‘social workers to think and practice’ in innovative ways that emphasise embodiment ‘for understanding and empowering individuals with multiple, intersectional oppressed identities’ (Nagoshi and Brzuzy, 2010: 440).

In the fourth article, Trevor and Boddy (2013) present a review of literature informing Australian social work with people with self-designated genders. In this review, Trevor and Boddy (2013) observe the dominance of pathologising accounts derived from medically focused research concerned with the diagnosis, treatment, incidence and regulation of people with self-designated genders. However, Trevor and Boddy (2013: 559) highlight counterpoints within this research that are significant ‘in unveiling’ the distress experienced because of harassment, rejection, discrimination, the denial of rights and violence. Trevor and Boddy (2013) also highlight additional influences informing Australian social work, such as ‘transgender-relevant’ interdisciplinary academic literature (including research by First Nations scholars), materials from Australian transgender organisations, the embodied expertise and experiences of people with self-designated genders in print and film, and transgender theory. The review culminates in an argument that drawing from these diverse, additional sources ‘requires a continuous process through which material must be filtered, critiqued, and tailored to fit the values and principles of social work practice’ (Trevor and Boddy, 2013: 560, emphasis added). It results in a proposal from Trevor and Boddy (2013) that the way forward is to use a critical social work approach in conjunction with collaborative relationship building with ‘the’ transgender community to build a theoretical and practical knowledge base.

The connecting features I trace within each article are calls for affirming the recognition of gender self-designation and the incorporation of critical theory into social work. The contrasting features I trace are proposals for: a particular paradigm shift; a critical, theoretically focused stance against oppression; an embodiment-centred innovation for empowerment; and a critical approach to formulating theory in collaboration with communities. This tracing is in no way a dismissal of the contributions made by each of the four articles. Rather, historicising and tracing what is within these articles lays the groundwork for the subsequent tracing of connections between normalised assumptions and power/knowledge hierarchies across the proposals in these four articles.

Tracing connections across the four articles

This unmapping investigates how social work’s academic engagement with gender self-designation appears to maintain the unequal social relations experienced by people with self-designated genders. It traces how features from within each article connect to normalised assumptions and power/knowledge hierarchies across the four articles. I trace normalised assumptions by identifying what is represented as naturally occurring, unmarked and outside the frame of critical analysis. I trace power/knowledge hierarchies by identifying ideologies and practices. This tracing is informed by feminist theorist and philosopher Naomi Scheman (2016: 217) and her attention to ‘typically unarticulated and unquestioned constraints on what makes an explanation (or an identity) intelligible and acceptable’.

Hierarchies of accepted knowledges within social work

Accepted knowledges represent a prominent connection between normalised assumptions and power/knowledge hierarchies across the four articles. There is considerable attention across the four articles to transgender-specific and transgender-related knowledges, some acknowledgement of transgender theory as a distinct theoretical approach, and no acknowledgement of transgender studies as a distinct academic discipline. While each recognises knowledges both produced and embodied by people with self-designated genders, Nagoshi and Brzuzy (2010) stand out in proposing that transgender theory provides critical principles, methods and practices relevant for social work. Nevertheless, this proposal is given without recognition of transgender studies as an academic field. This elision is significant when historicised alongside the 30-year existence of transgender studies. I suggest that leaving transgender studies unmarked, or even recognising transgender theory without recognising transgender studies, is an adherence to a hierarchisation of accepted knowledges that brings social work’s academic engagement into question.

In her analysis of how divergent understandings and experiences of gender self-designation are produced, reified and legitimised through the discourses and practices of ‘transgender health’, sociologist and social researcher Ruth Pearce (Pearce, 2018) comments on the presence of epistemic hierarchies. Pearce (2018: 27, emphasis in original) contends that when such an imbalance of disciplinary citation is observed, it represents the delegitimisation of ‘accounts emerging from trans people working in the social sciences and humanities’. Similarly, Ansara and Hegarty (2012) suggest that disciplinary citation disparities within psychological research sustain cisgenderist ideology. Psychologists Erica Lennon and Brian J. Mistler (Lennon and Mistler, 2014: 63) describe this ideology as presuming that ‘cisgender identities and expression are to be valued more than transgender identities and expression’, thus creating ‘an inherent system of associated power and privilege’.

At first glance, McPhail’s (2004) positioning of post-structuralist queer theorising, contemporary sex research and embodied expertise in the article’s title for what they can ‘teach’ social work presents an opportunity to reconstruct what constitutes accepted social work knowledge. However, tracing from McPhail’s (2004) notion of teaching to Burdge’s (2007: 249) assertion that research practice needs to ‘establish alliances with the transgender community and create forums for transgender people to tell their own stories’ highlights a unidirectional power relation. This tracing suggests that when social work’s academic engagement is limited to a simple transfer of theorising, research and stories about gender self-designation, it brackets itself off from considering the multidirectional, mutual modes of relating needed to reconstruct what constitutes accepted social work knowledge.

The utility of tracing connections becomes apparent when tracing arrives at Trevor and Boddy’s (2013: 566) remark: ‘[t]he absence of a transgender voice to inform practice means social workers have to form attitudes about what it means to be transgender and make assumptions to anticipate the needs of the community’. Unmapping reveals that when cisgenderist ideology and unidirectional modes of relating are normalised and outside the frame of social work’s critical analysis, pre-existing disciplinary hierarchies can be maintained by foreclosing what constitutes ‘a transgender voice to inform practice’. As indicated by Trevor and Boddy’s (2013) remark, such an exclusion has significant consequences. This unmapping opens up space for both political and ethical reflection on social work’s academic engagement with gender self-designation bearing a close resemblance to the knowledge delegitimisation and cisgenderism identified by Pearce (2018) and Ansara and Hegarty (2012). Such reflection, in turn, opens space to interrogate how knowledge delegitimisation and cisgenderism (Pearce, 2018; Ansara and Hegarty 2012) operate as part of Australian social work’s position in the settler colonial project.

Prioritisation of empowerment

Disparate ideas about empowerment recur within the social work profession and its field of academic inquiry. Empowerment for people with self-designated genders is prioritised differently across the four articles, reflecting these disparate ideas. McPhail (2004: 19) situates empowerment among ‘liberation, celebrations of difference, self-definition’ as what social work can achieve with the proposed paradigm shift, whereas Nagoshi and Brzuzy (2010) present empowerment as the primary outcome of an application of their conceptualisation of transgender theory. In contrast, Burdge’s (2007) discussion of the concept is more specifically focused on an empowering practice. In addition to social workers’ responsibility to engage in political action for empowerment at a juridico-legal level, Burdge (2007: 244) emphasises affirming language practices at a relational level, both ‘[b]ecause it is empowering for oppressed groups to control the language representing them’ and because ‘social workers can honor the personal meaning of clients’ chosen words, even when no “official” definitions exist’. Burdge’s (2007) suggestions retrace the knowledge-delegitimisation practices and cisgenderism outlined earlier, while simultaneously presenting as naturally occurring a power/knowledge hierarchy where social workers deign themselves to affirm a person’s embodied gender because they choose political action and affirming practices.

Within Burdge’s (2007: 247) discussion of an empowering social work practice is an additional suggestion that empowerment at a ‘macrocultural level’ works to ‘alleviate the societal pressures’ of gender binarism. Burdge (2007: 247) presents this empowerment as ‘analogous to finding structural solutions to eliminate poverty, rather than trying to help individual poor people cope with their unfortunate plight in a hostile environment’. Burdge’s (2007) statement usefully works to denaturalise an assumption that social workers should help people cope with oppression, while simultaneously naturalising a practice of invisibilising the structures of Australian settler colonialism by separating oppressions into categories. In other words, Burdge’s (2007) statement naturalises the effects of gender binarism and neoliberal capitalism as mutually exclusive rather than interwoven within the settler colonial project.

Tracing finds similar connections in Trevor and Boddy’s (2013) theoretically informed prioritisation of empowerment – specifically, a suggestion that Judith Butler’s theorising on the installation and naturalisation of gender terms can be utilised ‘in working to change the systems that oppress trans people’ (Trevor and Boddy, 2013: 561). Despite its value, this suggestion is complicated by recommending research as a tool for Australian social work to ‘investigate the applicability of transgender theory’, while seeking ‘to expand upon the current theoretical knowledge base’ by merely ‘incorporating feminist, queer, and critical social work perspectives’ (Trevor and Boddy, 2013: 566, emphases added). It is complicated further when knowledge sharing – for empowerment, social change and awareness – is presented by Trevor and Boddy (2013) as the way forward for Australian social work with people with self-designated genders.

The influence of Judith Butler’s extensive post-structuralist analyses of gender and sexuality cannot be overstated. Her work sees feminist, queer and transgender theories operating at close quarters, creating profound divisions and generating significant relational reconfigurations (Stryker, 2004; Whittle, 2006). Questioning the applicability of transgender theory within a trifold form of liberatory social work knowledge production/dissemination in support of people with self-designated genders becomes deeply concerning. Reading these statements alongside one another traces an assumption that theoretically informed social work is somehow outside the systems that oppress trans people. Unmapping reveals a theoretical engagement that is again bracketed off, though this time by naturalised assumptions about what empowerment can achieve and by naturalising an accepted knowledge hierarchy of feminist, queer, critical social work and maybe trans theory.

Regardless of the importance placed on empowerment, its use across these four articles traces connections between service provider–service user hierarchies, the normalisation of settler colonial structures and knowledge hierarchies that are both unmarked and accepted. The academic field of transgender studies is historicised by transgender scholar and advocate Ben Singer (2013: para 2) as following the critical turn in the 1990s ‘from the objectifying study of transgender people and their bodies to a view of transgender individuals as knowledge-producing subjects’. By centring ‘transgender scholarship, trans-identified scholars, trans people’s lives and related social phenomena as the subjects of inquiry’, the field is able ‘to look at how all phenomena, objects, social relations, and social worlds might be analyzable through a transgender optic’ (Singer, 2013: para 2). Likewise, artist and scholar Micha Cárdenas (Boellstorff et al, 2014) reflects on Viviane Namaste’s (2000) theoretical and empirical research visibilising the erasure – thus disempowerment – of trans people across a range of institutional and cultural settings. Cárdenas (Boellstorff et al, 2014: 426) reflects on the importance of Namaste’s detailed description of the ways in which ‘scholarship can be “reflexive” – that is, ways that scholarship can be accountable to transgender communities instead of merely talking about us without improving our lives’. I contend that this reconfiguration by transgender scholars and transgender studies offers an expansive frame for critical analysis within social work and the potential to increase reflexive, accountable scholarship. Rather than simply circumventing hierarchical conceptualisations of theory, these forms of analysis widen the space within social work for a political and ethically driven challenge to oppressive modes of relating, as well as for the possibility of liberatory transformation to occur.

Becoming consciously responsive and reconstructing modes of relating

Chapman and Withers (2019: 363) unflinchingly declare that we must all grapple with social work’s active participation in oppression, ‘not as an unfortunate history but as an unacceptable present’. This tracing of connections between knowledge delegitimisation practices, pervasively normalised assumptions and the maintenance of extensive power/knowledge hierarchies affirms this statement. The implication of understanding these provisionally traced connections as a process of bracketing off is that it opens up space for political and ethical reflection, interrogation and challenge. I put forward the notion of becoming consciously responsive to describe what can happen in this space and how it can contribute to reconstructing social work’s modes of relating (for more on these efforts in a different context, see Bennett, 2015).

The notion that I introduce emerges from Trevor and Boddy’s (2013: 555) proposal ‘for the development of an approach to practice that is responsive to gender diversity’. Trevor and Boddy’s (2013: 566) review revealed concerns about a lack of trans-specific social work-related research, the dominance of medical and psychiatric literature, and the absence of ‘a transgender voice’. There is an ever-broadening contemporary Australian literature that is already becoming responsive and working to address these as ongoing concerns. For example, there exists a considerable amount of influential trans-focused research on health and well-being issues (Smith et al, 2014; Hill et al, 2020; Strauss et al, 2017). Of particular significance is ‘The 2018 Australian trans and gender diverse sexual health survey’ (Callander et al, 2019), as it is the first study that openly declares to have been developed and guided by trans and gender-diverse community members, and where the majority of the paid research team were people with self-designated genders. In addition to scholarship on practice concerns for social workers (see, for example, McEwan, 2017; McNair et al, 2017; Howe et al, 2019), there has been the formal institutionalisation of Indigenous queer and trans studies (with its attendant literature) at an Australian university (Day, 2020) and a proliferation of theorisation (see, for example, Povinelli, 2015; Latham, 2017; Nicholas, 2020). Although not all of the contemporary literature takes an explicitly critical approach, it offers a uniquely Australian contribution to existing knowledges. Moreover, it offers an Australian context for the further application of Razack’s (2000) historicisation that questions what is being imagined, projected and enacted both in spaces and on the bodies of those with self-designated genders.

In response to what is revealed in this unmapping, I draw on Trevor and Boddy’s (2013: 563) words to advocate for social work to premise itself on ‘becoming consciously responsive to gender diversity’. In other words, a premise for social work that is becoming (a continual process) consciously (deliberately recognising embodied knowledges and practices) responsive (through reflexive, accountable practice) to gender diversity for direct service provision, policy work, research and theorising. Scholar and community organiser T. Garner (2014) argues that becoming – particularly bodily becoming – is a generative concept in both transgender studies and more general theoretical perspectives on the body. Given this generativity, I suggest that when becoming consciously responsive to gender diversity is taken as a premise for the profession, it reconstructs social work’s modes of relating. It does this by reconstructing questions of how social work might learn from or use transgender theory towards questioning what it would mean for social work to be counted as one of the interdisciplinary fields contributing to transgender theory and transgender studies. The implication of this reconstructing is that it supports the formulation of further political and ethical questions, such as regarding what it would mean for social work – as both a profession and a field of study – to: demonstrate accountability to people with self-designated genders; maintain mutual rather than hierarchical relationships; and take up its responsibilities alongside the collective efforts of those already in struggle against systems of interlocking oppression.

Conclusion

This article unmaps social work’s academic engagement with gender self-designation by offering a historicised critical analysis of four academic articles as exemplars of a paradox of seeking to address dominance while reproducing it. This analysis pivots upon epistemologies enriched by First Nations scholars, work in the field of transgender studies and the possibilities offered by transgender theory. From this position, the theoretically informed social work scholarship appears to be a unidirectional evaluation of how it might use feminist, queer or transgender theory in ways that improve practice with or ‘empower’ people with self-designated genders. It does not appear to consider how these theories might reconfigure the perspectives of the profession itself and how this might, in turn, improve practice. This unmapping therefore reveals an academic engagement that brackets off – that is, eliminates from consideration – modes of relating needed to disrupt the social relations of dominance experienced by people with self-designated genders. It is not that the presentation and analysis of these four articles creates a new premise for social work; rather, it opens up space for both political and ethical investigation of the alternative modes of relating – such as becoming consciously responsive – needed for reflexive, accountable, anti-oppressive and anti-colonial social work scholarship and practice. When it comes to highlighting structural marginalisation and harm, the response can be the measure of accountability and the possibility of repair. Thus, becoming consciously responsive can be understood as the already-existing underpinning of multiple critical projects across disciplines that are reconfiguring power differentials for different kinds of relationships.

Acknowledgements

My thanks to Emma Tseris and Margot Rawsthorne for their encouragement and support. My thanks to the reviewers, both anonymous and known, for their thoughtful consideration and feedback. Finally, my thanks to the trans, gender-diverse and non-binary people who accessed services where I worked, as well as my colleagues, my beloveds and the communities to which I belong.

Conflict of interests

The author declares that there is no conflict of interest.

References

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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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    • Export Citation
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    • Export Citation
  • Australian Association of Social Workers (2020) Code of ethics, www.aasw.asn.au/practitioner-resources/code-of-ethics.

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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Boellstorff, T., Cabral, M., Cárdenas, M., Cotten, T., Stanley, E.A., Young, K. and Aizura, A.Z. (2014) Decolonizing transgender: a roundtable discussion, Transgender Studies Quarterly, 1(3): 41939. doi: 10.1215/23289252-2685669

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Callander, D. et al. (2019) The 2018 Australian Trans and Gender Diverse Sexual Health Survey: Report of Findings, Sydney: The Kirby Institute, https://kirby.unsw.edu.au/report/2018-australian-trans-and-gender-diverse-sexual-health-survey-report-findings.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Coleman, C.G. (2020) Aboriginal feminism and gender, National Gallery of Victoria, www.ngv.vic.gov.au/essay/aboriginal-feminism-and-gender/.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Coleman, E. et al. (2012) Standards of care for the health of transsexual, transgender, and gender-nonconforming people, version 7, International Journal of Transgenderism, 13(4): 165232. doi: 10.1080/15532739.2011.700873

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Connell, R. (2021) Transgender health: on a world scale, Health Sociology Review, 30(1): 8794. doi: 10.1080/14461242.2020.1868899

  • Davy, Z., Sørlie, A. and Schwend, A.S. (2018) Democratising diagnoses? The role of the depathologisation perspective in constructing corporeal trans citizenship, Critical Social Policy, 38(1): 1334. doi: 10.1177/0261018317731716

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Day, M. (2020) Indigenist origins: institutionalizing indigenous queer and trans studies in Australia, TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly, 7(3): 36773. doi: 10.1215/23289252-8553006

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Diamond, S.L. and Kirby, A. (2014) Trans jeopardy/trans resistance: Shaindl Diamond (SD) interviews Ambrose Kirby (AK), in B. Burstow, B.A. LeFrançois and S. Diamond (eds) Psychiatry Disrupted: Theorizing Resistance and Crafting the (R)Evolution, Ontario: McGill-Queen’s University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Garner, T. (2014) Becoming, Transgender Studies Quarterly, 1(1–2): 302. doi: 10.1215/23289252-2399515

  • Hicks, S. and Jeyasingham, D. (2016) Social work, queer theory and after: a genealogy of sexuality theory in neo-liberal times, British Journal of Social Work, 46(8): 235773. doi: 10.1093/bjsw/bcw103

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Hill, A.O., Bourne, A., McNair, R., Carman, M. and Lyons, A. (2020) Private Lives 3: A National Survey of the Health and Wellbeing of LGBTIQ People in Australia, Melbourne: Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health & Society (ARCSHS), La Trobe University.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Howe, R., Harper, A. and Hammoud-Beckett, S. (2019) Uncovering games of truth: a collaborative exploration of the ways transgender and non-binary young people access health care and support, in D. Baines, B. Bennett, S. Goodwin and M. Rawsthorne (eds) Working across Difference: Social Work, Social Policy and Social Justice, London: Red Globe Press, pp 13752, https://openjournals.library.sydney.edu.au/index.php/SWPS/index.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Irving, A. (1999) Waiting for Foucault: social work and the multitudinous truths of life, in A.S. Chambon, A. Irving and L. Epstein (eds) Reading Foucault for Social Work, New York: Columbia University Press, pp 2750.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Land, C. (2015) Decolonizing Solidarity: Dilemmas and Directions for Supporters of Indigenous Struggles, London: Zed Books Ltd.

  • Latham, J. (2017) Making and treating trans problems: the ontological politics of clinical practices, Studies in Gender and Sexuality, 18(1): 4061. doi: 10.1080/15240657.2016.1238682

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Lennon, E. and Mistler, B.J. (2014) ‘Cisgenderism’, Transgender Studies Quarterly, 1(1-2): 6364. doi: 10.1215/23289252-2399623

  • Madrigal-Borloz, V. (2019) The Australian media’s portrayal of trans people is a betrayal of their human rights, The Guardian. 11 November, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/nov/10/the-australian-medias-portrayal-of-trans-people-is-a-betrayal-of-their-human-rights

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Malatino, H. (2020) Trans Care, University of Minnesota Press.

  • McEwan, J. (2017) The momentary hap of bother, International Journal of Narrative Therapy & Community Work, 3: 4659.

  • McNair, R., Andrews, C., Parkinson, S. and Dempsey, D. (2017) GALFA LGBTQ Homelessness Research Project. Final report: LGBTQ homelessness: risks, resilience, and access to services in Victoria, https://apo.org.au/node/106146.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • McPhail, B.A. (2004) Questioning gender and sexuality binaries: what queer theorists, transgendered individuals, and sex researchers can teach social work, Journal of Gay & Lesbian Social Services, 17(1): 321.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Miles, L. (2018) Updating the gender recognition act: trans oppression, moral panics and implications for social work, Critical and Radical Social Work, 6(1): 93106.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Moreton-Robinson, A. (ed) (2020) Sovereign Subjects: Indigenous Sovereignty Matters, London and New York: Routledge.

  • Nagoshi, J. and Brzuzy, S. (2010) Transgender theory: embodying research and practice, Affilia, 25(4): 431. doi: 10.1177/0886109910384068

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Namaste, V. (2000) Invisible Lives: The Erasure of Transsexual and Transgendered People, Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • National Association of Social Workers (2021) Code of ethics of the National Association of Social Workers, www.socialworkers.org/About/Ethics/Code-of-Ethics/Code-of-Ethics-English.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Nicholas, L. (2020) Whiteness, heteropaternalism, and the gendered politics of settler colonial populist backlash culture in Australia, Social Politics: International Studies in Gender, State & Society. 27(2): 237257. doi:10.1093/sp/jxz009

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • O’Sullivan, S. (2019) A lived experience of aboriginal knowledges and perspectives: how cultural wisdom saved my life, in Practice Wisdom, J. Higgs (ed), Practice Wisdom: Values and Interpretations, Leiden and Boston: Brill Sense, pp 10712.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Pearce, R. (2018) Understanding trans health: discourse, power and possibility, Bristol, UK: Policy Press.

  • Phillips, R. (2013 [1996]) Mapping Men and Empire: Geographies of Adventure, Routledge.

  • Povinelli, E.A. (2015) Transgender creeks and the three figures of power in late liberalism, Differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies, 26(1): 16887.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Razack, S. (2000) Gendered racial violence and spatialized justice: the murder of Pamela George, Canadian Journal of Law and Society, 15(2): 91130. doi: 10.1017/S0829320100006384

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Razack, S. (2002) When place becomes race, in S. Razack (ed) Race, Space, and the Law: Unmapping a White Settler Society, Toronto: Between the Lines, pp 120.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Rifkin, M. (2019) Unweaving colonial frames, restorying indigenous potentialities, TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly, 6(1): 13740. doi: 10.1215/23289252-7253622

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Samios, Z. (2021) ‘Substantial distress’: press watchdog rebukes The Australian for reporting on gender issues, The Sydney Morning Herald, 3 September www.smh.com.au/business/companies/substantial-distress-press-watchdog-rebukes-the-australian-for-reporting-on-gender-issues-20210903-p58oi7.html.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Scheman, N. (2016) Looking back on ‘Queering the center’, Transgender Studies Quarterly, 3(1–2): 21219. doi: 10.1215/23289252-3334403

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Shelton, J., Kroehle, K. and Andia, M.M. (2019) The trans person is not the problem: brave spaces and structural competence as educative tools for trans justice in social work, Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare, 46: 97.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Singer, B. (2013) Primer: What is Transgender Studies for the Twenty-First Century?, in S. Stryker and A. Aizura (eds) The Transgender Studies Reader 2 Companion Website, Taylor and Francis, https://routledgetextbooks.com/textbooks/_author/stryker-9780415517737/primer.php.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Smith, E., Jones, T., Ward, R., Dixon, J., Mitchell, A. and Hillier, L. (2014) From Blues to Rainbows: The Mental Health and Well-Being of Gender Diverse and Transgender Young People in Australia, Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society (ARCSHS), Melbourne: La Trobe University.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Smith, K. (2017) Occupied spaces: unmapping standardized assessments in health and social service organizations, in D. Baines (ed) Doing Anti-oppressive Practice: Social Justice Social Work, 3rd edn, Nova Scotia: Fernwood Publishers, pp 27288.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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  • 1 The University of Sydney, Australia

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