31 May 2014

How Many Stereotypes Can You Maintain With $200,000?

Sometimes you can tell that someone just had to get a grant--whether to secure tenure or some other kind of promotion, justify his or her (or his or her organization's) existence--or get another grant.

Actually, sometimes it seems as if at least half the grants in this world fall into that category.  Perhaps I'm cynical from having spent so much time in the academic world, but I have heard of more than a few studies or projects and wondered, "The world needs this...how?"

I found myself asking that question when I read that the National Institutes of Health are  spending nearly $200,000 ostensibly to study how transgender women use social networking sites like Facebook, and how said use affects their chances of getting HIV.

What have the folks at NIH learned?  Well, they say, transwomen use Facebook and the like to "develop social support structures, connect with members of their community, receive positive and re-affirming perspectives on their gender identity and inform behavioral norms."

No!  Really?

I mean, couldn't the same be said of any member of an isolated, discriminated-against community...or any number of teenagers?  Or Goths? Or anyone with a hobby, a fetish or any interest, whether or not it's in the mainstream? Isn't that one of the reasons why people--especially the young--use Facebook:  to engage with people they can't meet in person or to enter worlds they're too shy to encroach upon?

The study also says trans women use social media to find illegal hormones and sex-work partners.  I mean, really:  This reinforces stereotypes about us that, really, are just exaggerations of the worst characteristics of the most deviant members of any group of people-- the ones who want to use engage in illegal or un-approved behavior.

Plus, as Kelli Busey of Planetransgender, points out, plenty of trans people have no access to the Net because they're homeless or simply too poor to afford a device or connection, or even time in an Internet cafe. We are disproportionately poor and homeless, and many spaces are off-limits to us, especially if we are, or are perceived as, poor, homeless or sex workers.

So what, exactly, is the NIH trying to accomplish with the study?  Kelli and others have suggested that it might be a way the government is spying on us.  I wouldn't discount that idea.  But I stick to my theory about needing a grant for the reasons I mentioned.  When people and organizations get and use grants for those reasons, they've already made up their minds about their subjects and the conclusions they will reach about them.