Combatting bad information and promoting accurate education on transgender issues are the focuses at the Center for Applied Transgender Studies, which officially opened March 31 in Chicago.
The independent, nonprofit, research organization is run by trans people, specifically in academia, for trans people.
In line with their mission, that education should not only occur within classrooms, the center facilitates and promotes the study of transgender issues with the vision of informing policy-making and public discourse in ways that will improve the quality of life for the transgender community.
"The basic premise is trying to take the expertise on social cultural and political issues that trans people face, that weas trans scholars who do trans researchhave and orienting that toward actually having a positive impact in the world … actually trying to translate our research expertise into material improvements in the lives of trans people, not just in the United States," said Center for Applied Transgender Studies Executive Director TJ Billard, PhD.
"We're working with a global audience in mind," said Billard of the Center. "So in terms of how we aim to translate research to impact is primarily through influencing policy processes and public discourse. Things like working with media, working with journalists, getting various forms of correct information out because as political discourse about trans people has increased it has not necessarily, unfortunately, become more robust. More people are talking about trans people but that doesn't mean they're talking about trans people better. Also then in terms of trying to influence the policy process, one of the major things that we need in order to make good policy for trans people is good information and the Fellows in our center have already done a lot of work in that policy domain…"
While the center was incorporated in January 2021, its official public launch was March 31the International Transgender Day of Visibility.
"I think, for us, the launch around that [day] was important in the sense that there was a particular kind of visibility that happens for trans people frequently," said Billard.
The new organization is made up of 30 fellows. Billard described that all of the fellows are transgender and it is a diverse group, saying there is close to a 50/50 split between people of color and white people. In addition, there are people who range within the trans umbrella and people with different relationships to the medical establishment (people who seek medical transition and those who do not) as well as people who live in different countries and operate with different legal and health systems.
"We're deliberate in the recruitment of the fellows, that these are the people who do work on the issues that are most important to trans communities across the world and who do so in ways that represent the breadth of experience that trans people have so we can do our best work to actually address those needs correctly," said Billard, explaining the effort of having wide representation at the Center.
Speaking about the fellows and their research foci, Billard said, "It's about banding together and making a statement about what research on trans people is and what it should be, what it should do and who it should serve. Bringing those people who study all these different facets of it together around a shared interest in making interventions into the world, we're creating a new kind of space where new kinds of work can be done and where it can be led by trans people with trans interest in mind. We're mindful of representing the diversity of trans experience in setting up the center."
Billard, an assistant professor in the School of Communication at Northwestern University, said they were a trans activist before they came into the academia world. Academia, they said, was a way to contribute their skill set to the cause. Once they were in academia, Billard said, they thought about how to work in ways that actually matter, as opposed to just going through the motions. The center, they said, was a way for them to do that personally and with other people in a way where they could magnify that impact.
"I'm not interested in just writing down my ideas and then teaching them to students," said Billard. "As much as I love that. I want to make a difference in my community in the way that I know how. Beyond my life as an activist before becoming an academic, my research has also worked with activism, so for example a lot of my research is on how do activists navigate the media system in order to effectively make change."
Billard said the center was borne from conversations around what people in the trans community were seeing, not seeing and the community's needs. From those conversations and social experiences with groups of trans academics, Billard; Erique Zhang, MA, Center for Applied Transgender Studies' managing director; and Avery Rose Everhart, MA, Center for Applied Transgender Studies' director of finance created the plan to develop the Center.
The work done within the organization covers geography, demography and mobility; law, politics, and human rights; media, technology and popular culture; medicine, health and well-being; social attitudes, cultural norms and public opinion; and youth, family and higher education.
The center's website features the fellows' publications (also available for purchase) and upcoming events. The organization is also partnering with Northwestern University Libraries to publish an open access online journal titledBulletin of Applied Transgender Studies, which will make academic research on transgender issues freely available to the public.
Billard confirmed the intention of the entire effort is public education, so people do not have to be an academic to understand the research work presented.
"We are definitely reaching out to a trans audience generally, in the sense that that's the community that we are responsible to … but a lot of our audience is not trans people," Billard explained. "Our audience is people like policy makers, people in positions of institutional power, outside of politics, like corporate or the non-profit sphere. It might be in newsrooms and also dealing with media in general. The audience here, in some ways, is the people who are making the policy and the people who are participating most actively in public discourse. So, shifting what those conversations look like and helping to inform the policy making process so that policy is done so that it does right by trans people."
The importance, Billard said, is that the governance of trans lives be done in ways that have the interest, happiness and fulfillment of trans populations at the core.
"Our hopes right now are to have enough of an impact in the public and political spheres that it becomes unacceptable to make policy about regulating trans people without trans perspective being placed at the Center," Billard said. "This is not unique in many ways to the trans community. There are various communities that have the governance of their lives taken out of their hands."
For more information on Center for Applied Transgender Studies, visit appliedtransstudies.org .