Meeting the Minds—Professor Tobias Wiggins

Transgender Studies Salon at Athabasca University

The Voice Magazine recently had the chance to chat with AU’s Women’s and Gender Studies Professor Tobias Wiggins in the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences (FHSS) about his recent initiative, the Transgender Studies Salon at Athabasca University (AU), along with some of his current and past research.

Background and Current Work

Professor Wiggins obtained his PhD in Women’s and Gender Studies at Toronto’s York University with a focus on transgender mental health and psychoanalysis.  His work concentrated on “the history of the ways perversion was spoken about in relation to gender variance in psychiatry.”  Specifically, he was interested in the conflation of sexual deviance with gender non-conformance throughout Western medical histories.

He initially came to AU when the Women’s and Gender Studies program “was looking for someone to work within their faculty and specifically to coordinate the undergraduate [University] Certificate in Counselling Women.”  AU had originally wanted someone to address issues “in transgender mental health because the discipline, as it stands, has a strong focus on cisgender women.”  He is now “working within the faculty to make the certificate more contemporary, intersectional, [and] reflective of transgender experience.”  In addition to coordinating this certificate, Professor Wiggins is in the process of developing a Transgender Health course here at AU and is continuing his research into transgender mental health, specifically in the context of COVID-19.

Transgender Studies Salon

As stated on Professor Wiggins’ website, the Transgender Studies Salon “is a recurring, carefully curated reading group, meant to inspire collegial discussion of recent intersectional texts in the field of Transgender Studies.”

When asked about the Salon, Professor Wiggins stated that when he first came to AU, he “knew there wasn’t yet a lot of transgender scholarship at the university.”  He explained that the Transgender Studies Salon was a way to bring Transgender Studies to interested faculty, staff, and students.  Specifically, he wanted “to create community around Trans Studies,” including inviting “more faculty and staff to read within the field if they hadn’t otherwise had the opportunity.”  When speaking to terminology, Professor Wiggins mentioned that trans is often used as “an umbrella term for transgender, non-binary, Two-Spirit, [and] gender non-conforming people.”

During this initiative, he selected a series of recent works in Transgender Studies, integrating “poetry, biography, [and] theoretical texts,” and incorporating a variety of styles of writing, which would provide an “opportunity to have conversations about Transgender Studies with .  .  .  colleagues.”

Struggles Currently Facing the Trans Community

I asked about the most pressing struggle facing the trans community, and Professor Wiggins responded that he “would have a lot of trouble picking one thing,” noting that this “unfortunate truth reveals the difficulty that the community faces.”

However, since his research focuses on transgender mental health, he would say that this could be considered one of the most pressing issues, especially during this pandemic.  He stated, “Communities that already face disproportionate amounts of violence,” including overt attacks and structural violence, such as “restricted access to health care, restricted access to community, [and] being invisibilized, are going to have disproportionate struggles with mental health.”  He continued, “transgender people face job insecurity and houselessness.”

Professor Wiggins also stressed the importance of viewing issues through an intersectional lens, mentioning that, for example, in cases of violence, “trans women of colour, [including] Black trans women [and] Indigenous trans women are even more likely to experience those types of attacks.”  During this pandemic, these issues have been heightened, as individuals are increasingly isolated and resources are being restricted.  For the trans community in particular, additional problems include cancellations of long-awaited gender-affirming surgeries and hormone shortages.  He identified that “all of these issues really impact mental health.”

Resilience and Strength within the Trans Community

Despite these difficulties, Professor Wiggins emphasizes that the trans community has “incredible skills for dealing with the kinds of issues that are arising from the pandemic.”  He stated, “We have a community that is already really accustomed to having their resources restricted, they’re already accustomed to being isolated, [and] they’re also accustomed to unexpected trauma and uncertainty.”

He continued, “Whenever I talk about a struggle that the community faces, I want to really highlight that there is also an incredible amount of resilience, community knowledge, strength, and power.  Often with a marginalized community, there’s a tendency to focus on adversity, and I think that writing and thinking with that community means focusing on the ways that we’re brilliant and know how to survive in the face of incredible odds.”

Current Texts in the Field of Transgender Studies

As an introduction to Transgender Studies, Professor Wiggins recommends the Transgender Studies Quarterly, the Transgender Studies Reader 1 edited by Susan Stryker and Stephen Whittle, the Transgender Studies Reader 2 edited by Susan Stryker and Aren Aizura, as well as Stryker’s Transgender History.

Some texts that currently have Professor Wiggins’ attention, include T. Fleischmann’s Time is the Thing a Body Moves Through, “a beautiful book,” which uses Felix Gonzáles-Torres’ artworks to consider “trans lives in the ways that …  trans people love and deal with violence and mourn and come together and tell their stories.”

He also recommends all the readings in the Transgender Studies Salon, which are all more recent texts in Transgender Studies.  This week’s text is Black on Both Sides: A Racial History of Trans Identity by C.  Riley Snorton, which “decentre[s] whiteness as the cannon of Transgender Studies,” and focuses on Black trans lives.

Professor Wiggins’ Current Research

Returning to the topic of transgender mental health, Professor Wiggins elaborated on his current research, which he altered once the COVID-19 pandemic began.  Although interested in transgender sexuality, he has also been looking at “how COVID was specifically impacting trans communities.   I knew (and know) that there will be a lot of research that underscores the negative impacts of COVID-19 on the community, and I really wanted to give people an opportunity to talk through how they’re surviving and thriving and building community during this time.”

Professor Wiggins mentioned the importance of digital spaces, considering “how trans people are using technology to build community and build worlds.”  He stated, “You see this incredible emergence of panels and different peer support groups that maybe wouldn’t be available otherwise.  I’ve seen [online] queer dance parties, [and] I’ve seen art shows.  I think that queer and trans people use social media platforms in really ingenious ways.”  He continued, “There are so many ways that we connect and tell each other that we’re here.”

Further Learning and Resources

For more information about the Transgender Studies Salon, AU students are encouraged to visit Professor Wiggins’ website.  To register for an upcoming event, which will take place on December 3, 2020, followed by February 4, 2021, contact cwest@athabascau.ca.  No previous background in Transgender Studies is required.  In addition, be sure to check out The Hub’s recent Q&A with Professor Wiggins, in which he details the Salon, his research, and his activism.

AU’s University Certificate in Counselling Women will provide students with more information about Professor Wiggins’ program, and students are reminded to stay tuned for AU’s Transgender Health class currently in the works.

In the spirit of community building, LGBTQ2S+ AU students are encouraged to reach out to both Professor Wiggins and myself.

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