So a couple of weeks ago, I was in a room with a group of about 20 trans guys at a weekend away. And someone suggested playing “I have never”. (For those not in the know, it’s a drinking game. Someone says “I have never done x”, e.g. “I have never gone skinny dipping” and everyone who has done it takes a drink.) And as these things go, everyone gets a bit drunk and asks daft questions and you learn things about each other.
A few days later, I was back in the office, and confronted with my PhD thesis, in which I need to provide a proper academic reference for everything I write, preferably from a peer-reviewed journal. And for a lot of trans stuff, especially trans masculine stuff, especially stuff that isn’t about the mechanics of transition there just isn’t that much written. Some of the questions which got asked during that game of “I have never” are questions which have rarely been officially investigated with trans communities – to what extent are trans men attracted to other trans men, for example?
Now, plainly a drinking game between me and some mates is not a proper academic reference (though I suppose could write it up as participant-led research among a convenience sample, and frankly there are worse designed studies out there). So I can’t refer to it in my thesis, and even if I could, I wouldn’t, because it would be wrong to take private information outside that space without consent. But it means that I know something that I don’t officially “know” for research purposes.
In fact, it happens quite a lot. I belong to Facebook groups where thousands of trans people post comments, queries, discussions. Those are secret or closed Facebook groups: not publicly accessible. I belong to a trans Yahoo group (I know, prehistoric!) and while no-one posts in it any more, there are ten or fifteen years worth of trans queries about surgery, or changing names, or the passing of the Gender Recognition Bill (which I was reminded recently used to be known as the GerBil, since obviously major pieces of equality legislation should be equated to rodents). Again, for ethical reasons I would never, ever lift out those private comments from private groups and use them for my academic research. But when I’m writing on trans health, and I know I’ve seen dozens of threads and posts and comments on something that isn’t in the academic literature at all, it’s hard to know quite what to do.
There’s a sort of principle in academia that you don’t have to reference stuff that is general common knowledge. I don’t have to reference that the sky is blue, or that chickens lay eggs. But there is a lot of stuff that is common knowledge to me as a member of a trans community that other people don’t know. Most days I hear the same complaints about health services on trans discussion groups. I hear about the same problems with getting details switched over, or GPs refusing referrals to gender clinics for stupid reasons, or confusion over pathways. As far as I’m concerned, those things are common knowledge. But they aren’t common knowledge to people who aren’t embedded in trans communities. And half the time, I can’t find a proper reference for them.
This kind of imbalance is something that has, of course, been pointed out by feminist scholars and black scholars and queer scholars and all sorts of others. And of course, there needs to be research to fill these gaps, not just personal anecdote: it would be entirely wrong to assume that the issues I discuss with people I socialise with are representative of trans people as a whole. But if the best knowledge available to me on a subject is conversations I’ve had on Facebook, or getting pissed with mates in a youth hostel, then surely it’s more honest to acknowledge that I have that knowledge than to pretend I know nothing.