This article is reprinted from the 2011 CSWS Annual Review. Miriam Abelson, PhD, is now an assistant professor at Portland State University, College of Liberal Arts & Sciences; Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies
Complex Lives: Interviews with Transmen in the Southeastern United States
by Miriam Abelson, PhD candidate, Department of Sociology
When I told people of my proposed research project with transgender people in the Southeast I met with disbelief from many quarters. That disbelief stemmed from the idea that there were few, if any, transgender people in the Southeast and that those that lived there must live in such constant fear that they would never expose themselves by consenting to an interview. This was one of the many previously unexamined ideas held by colleagues, friends, family, and myself that I encountered when I started talking with others about the Southeast. When I actually traveled there I found many of the things I expected—a profusion of Confederate flags, delicious BBQ and country cooking, old oaks draped with Spanish moss, and revisionist Civil War history to name a few—but the reality of the place was far more complex than these simple images. Not only did I find a number of transgender people willing to speak with me, but I encountered queer politics, modern cities and hip small towns, and complicated relationships to historical and contemporary social inequality. The lives of the transmen I interviewed reflected this complexity and challenged my notions of southern masculinity.
Funds from a CSWS Graduate Research Grant and a grant from the UO Center on Diversity and Community (CODAC) allowed me to travel to the southeastern United States in summer 2010 to interview transmen, people whose bodies had been assigned as female at birth who transitioned to live as men. I traveled a total of 3,000 miles within the Southeast in three weeks to conduct interviews and field observations in Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky, North Carolina, and South Carolina. The sixteen men I interviewed were ages twenty-one to forty-nine, came from urban to rural backgrounds, and represented a range of socioeconomic backgrounds and incomes.
Through in-depth interviews I found that these men were able to survive and thrive in a sometimes hostile climate by accessing support through online transgender resources and communities, in-person transgender support groups, and family, friends, and neighbors. The men often needed medical and legal advice and resources during their transitions, as well as other forms of advice and support no matter their transition status. Online communities and transgender-related websites were the best means to access this information for most of the men. Those that had access found local in-person support groups or medical clinics valuable for this advice and other forms of support. Not all men had local access to in-person support and those that were able traveled to find it through groups in other areas and by attending national and regional conferences. Family, friends, neighbors, and others also provided key supports for the men in matters related to being transgender, but also in everyday circumstances. For example, one man spoke of how his neighbors in the small rural community where he lived would call him and help him round up his horses if they had gotten out of their pasture. He demonstrated that this kind of assistance is a necessary part of rural life and gave him a feeling of belonging that he did not think he could find in an urban setting. Nearly all of the men encountered barriers to support at some time, which involved lack of economic resources and medical access, religious-based transphobia, and conflicts over gender ideals. Nearly all the men said that other U.S. regions would likely be more hospitable to transpeople, yet nearly all of them desired to continue living in the Southeast or, due to family or other connections, did not view it as an option to leave. For many of them the desirable features of the region outweighed the fear of harassment or violence.
Their stories about their lives provided rich information about regional and more localized ideals of masculinity. This study is part of a larger project in which I seek to compare the lives of transmen and masculinities more generally between U.S. regions. In comparison to an earlier study in the San Francisco Bay Area, perhaps unsurprisingly, a majority of the men in the Southeast described more traditional expectations for the roles and behaviors of men and women. For example, one man described how men and women are expected to behave in his hometown. He said, “He takes care of the women, and they take care of the children, the woman takes care of the house and you, uh…the man brings home the bacon, hunts, fishes.” These traditional ideals were consistent when they discussed regional ideals and did match personal ideals for some men, but they also expressed a variety of actual gender practices in their relationships and communities and held alternative ideals. While the image of a poor, rural, white, “redneck” masculinity emerged in nearly all of the interviews the image was employed in diverse ways. For example, some men connected it to politically conservative and transphobic rural men, while others claimed it as a self-identity that had to do with self-sufficiency and independence. Overall, the interviews revealed that while these men expressed complex masculine identities and practices they all did so by interacting with fairly consistent regional ideals of southern masculinity. Further regional comparisons will allow a deeper understanding of how the lives of transmen and masculinity are unique to the southeastern United States. ■
Miriam Abelson is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Sociology in addition to working toward a graduate certificate in the Department of Women’s and Gender Studies.