From January 2018, I will be Principal Investigator on a collaborative project with my colleagues Louise Mullany (English, University of Nottingham), Alison Pilnick (Sociology, University of Nottingham), Walter Pierre Bouman (Nottingham Centre for Transgender Health), and Jon Arcelus (Medicine, University of Nottingham). We will be recruiting a research assistant, who will digitise autobiographical stories produced by patients at the Nottingham Centre for Transgender Health as part of their initial assessment process. We’re going to be using corpus linguistics to identify key patterns within the autobiographies, and hope to learn how patients present themselves in relation to broader ideologies surrounding gender and transgender experience.
We’re very excited to get started, because the findings will not only contribute to our sociolinguistic knowledge of transgender experience, but will be of use to clinical practitioners: transgender people currently face a very long wait to be assessed at transgender health services, and are particularly vulnerable during this time. We’ll work with clinicians at the Nottingham Centre for Transgender Health to help them get a better understanding of the typical challenges and experiences of patients prior to the start of their assessment, as well as the ways they overcome and manage their distress during this process. This will be helpful to them in developing techniques to improve the quality of patients’ waiting time and reduce the distress they feel during the process.
The project is funded by the University of Nottingham, via Development Funding for the Research Priority Areas of Languages, Texts & Societies and Health Humanities.
I’m interested in the discourses associated with transgender identity, and in particular the impact that these have on young people who are questioning their gender identity or who identify as trans*. In 2015, I conducted a focus group with members of a transgender youth group, who I worked with on the Applying Linguistics project; I asked them for their views on how transgender people are represented in the media and the impact these depictions have had on them. The young people talked about a relative lack of positive representation in the mainstream media, but spoke enthusiastically about other young people who independently chart their own gender transitions on YouTube. My first paper on this topic, forthcoming in the International Journal of the Sociology of Language, reveals key messages that are produced by some of these YouTubers; in particular, I have found that ideologies of heteronormative desire and binary gender are reproduced in these videos. I have referred to this discourse as ‘transnormativity’, and am keen to explore whether similar ideologies are salient in the construction of transgender identities elsewhere.
I have also been working on an article focused on data emerging from the focus group. This shows the young people erasing differences between them in terms of their gender, age, and experience, and instead constructing a joint identity whereby they foreground their relative expertise in, and experience of, transgender issues. I argue they do this in order to actively challenge and resist the transphobia and ignorance of others, which they present as an attempt to ‘other’ them; they ascribe themselves agency and legitimacy by subverting the heteronormative ideologies which inform these experiences of transphobia and ridiculing those who are ignorant and (explicitly or implicitly) produce transphobic discourse. The young people thus construct an active, resistant, and validated mutual identity rather than a victimised, submissive, or othered one. This paper is currently under review with the journal Applied Linguistics – the abstract is available here.
In November 2017, a number of initiatives and guidelines were announced, designed to challenge gender stereotypes in schools. The idea is, if young children are encouraged to think creatively about gender from a young age, transgender youths may ultimately be less likely to experience bullying. There was some very negative press coverage in response, so I wrote this article for The Conversation which shared the experiences and opinions of the young trans people I’ve worked with.
In 2012, I conducted an ethnographic research project with a youth group for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, based in the North of England. The young people involved were aged between 15 and 22, and it was truly humbling to work with them and spend time getting to know them.
The first paper to emerge from this has been published in Language in Society. This work analyses interviews that I’ve conducted with some of the group members, and argues that underlying assumptions about the links between ethnicity and sexuality are evident in the data. Specifically, the mostly white young people use language which positions Asian people as a homogenous, inherently homophobic group, and tend to position the LGBT experience as one which only white people share.
A second paper, currently in press with the Journal of Sociolinguistics, explores the ways in which the members of the LGBT youth group position themselves in line with discourses which draw on prevalent homonormative ideologies to construct their own sense of legitimate citizenship and downplay the significance of their non-heteronormativity. However, this identity work stands in opposition to the actual lived experiences of the young people outside of their youth group setting; they are frequently subjected to homophobia by members of their local community, and positioned as other by significant people in their lives. The abstract for this paper is here.
I recently submitted a third paper to Sexualities journal, exploring stories that the gay and lesbian members of the group told me about how they ‘came out’. In the paper, I show that the young people draw on essentialist ideologies associated with binary gender and innate sexual desire in order to construct a culturally ‘authentic’ sexual identity. The abstract for this paper is here.
In 2015, I was invited back to do some more work with the transgender members of the group – more information on that is here.
I’m part of a research group (discoursesofmarriage.blogspot.co.uk) looking at media discourses surrounding the recent introduction of same-sex marriage in the UK. To date, we’ve published a critical discourse analysis of speakers who are against same-sex marriage using language to take implicitly homophobic stances, taking our data from the Radio 4 programme ‘Moral Maze’. Information on this publication is here.
We have also written up our findings from a survey conducted into surname practices and strategies amongst same-sex couples who marry or have a civil partnership; this is forthcoming with Gender and Language journal.
A third study involves corpus analysis of responses to same-sex marriage published in newspaper articles over the past few years. We’ve looked at the discourses which emerged when the UK Government first announced its public consultation on the issue in 2012, when the Bill was debated in Government and then passed in 2013, and when the first same-sex marriages took place in May 2014. This is now in press with Discourse and Society – more information here.
Impact work with a trans youth group
In May 2014, I was awarded funds from the British Association of Applied Linguistics ‘Applying Linguistics Fund’ to work with a community group for transgender young people in the north of England. This funding enabled the development of training resources intended for adults working with young people. The resources were designed and produced by the young people involved in this project, with the help of local youth and community workers, and included a web and published resources as well as creative audio-visual pieces. The resources were informed, in part, by my research with the group.