Many of my colleagues have been sharing their excitement at the creation of a new UK-based Disability Studies journal, the International Journal of Disability and Social Justice. Although I too was (and am) keen to see a new journal in Disability Studies, I haven’t shared in this excitement. After thinking about this for over a week – including contacting the journal co-chairs of the executive editorial board, Anna Lawson and Angharad Beckett, directly – I want to publicly outline some of my hesitations and disappointments, both with what I can understand of the journal from its webpage, and with the response I received to my email. I do this not to ‘call out’ but because journals are powerful, and I believe that the discussion should be public and accountable. I also want to make clear that I don’t think the journal is ‘bad’, but I think it could be better in its allyship to trans people, and that those of us within social justice fields, including disability studies, should hold each other to high standards. I’m therefore writing this to ask those that consider themselves allies to trans people within disability studies, to reflect on how this journal could do better.
I also do not want precariously employed and Early Career Researchers (ECRs) that are involved with the journal to feel attacked by my critique. As I understand it, this journal has promised mentorship to those ECRs that have been invited to be part of the editorial board (this is a good thing). The precarity of academia, alongside the ableism and other forms of oppression that many within Disability Studies face, makes joining an editorial board an opportunity that potentially means more security in employment. It also makes speaking out difficult and sometimes dangerous. I feel able to make this critique public because I am not precariously employed. Although I completely, explicitly and always welcome the thoughts of ECRs (who, in my experience, are often more willing to be critical in public spaces, despite the dangers), I am particularly asking senior academics and those with secure employment that have joined the editorial board to respond to this.
Finally, I am not writing this to suggest that I should have a place on the editorial board – there are plenty of trans people doing good disability studies work globally. I am also very aware of my place as a non-disabled person working within the field of disability studies – and feel no entitlement towards my place within the discipline. Nevertheless, as I outline below, I do think trans people, and particularly trans disabled people, should have significant influence within this journal (and indeed, should have been involved in discussions from a much earlier stage than this).
In outlining my thoughts below, some of the text is what I directly put in correspondence with the co-chairs, but for transparency I have included the full email correspondence below*.
I first heard about this new journal on Tuesday 26th May 2020, as people Tweeted celebrating the launch of its online presence. I wasn’t particularly surprised by its creation – since a number of people resigned from the Disability and Society editorial board** in early Summer 2019, there have been calls (on Twitter and elsewhere) for another Disability Studies journal. Indeed, although less public, I have witnessed conversations about a desire for another UK-based Disability Studies journal since starting my PhD 10 years ago.
However, I was surprised, given the context, that when I went on the journals website as there was no mention of being trans-inclusive. Looking at the list of editors, I didn’t, and still don’t, feel that the journal is explicitly transphobic. Neither do I think that it would have the same problems as Disability and Society if, for example, someone was to submit an article in the field of trans disability studies.
However, I was disappointed that nothing explicitly seemed to recognise that the ongoing problems of transphobia within Disability and Society have impacted most heavily on trans people working within Disability Studies (not least trans disabled people). As a trans person who has put considerable time, energy and effort into making others aware of the transphobia inherent to Disability and Society – with what has felt like risk to my own career and wellbeing – I would have really appreciated seeing a journal which: a) was explicit in its trans inclusive status; and b) acknowledged that the situation with Disability and Society had impacted most heavily on trans researchers, and worked towards mitigating these effects by, for example, giving trans people influential positions within the journal, such as on the executive editorial board. In their response to this point, the journal said:
‘This journal will be opposed to all forms of oppression, including that experienced by transgender people. It will be conscious of the pain caused by academic work that in any way perpetuates oppression. It will be sensitive to this in relation to the transgender population and all oppressed groups.
The journal’s ethics statement will be posted online once the journal opens for submissions and authors will be requested to read and conform to it.’
I was disappointed by this response partly because I would have hoped that a commitment to opposing multiple oppressions and marginalisations within Disability Studies would have featured prominently in the ‘Aspirations’ of the journal and should not be something that we should have to email to find out. Given the specific context of transphobia within the discipline, stated opposition to the oppression of trans people feels like the very rock bottom that we should expect from a social justice journal, and that meaningful action should also be taken to demonstrate solidarity. I didn’t feel like my points regarding giving trans people meaningful positions on the editorial board were engaged with. I understand that the journal hasn’t yet had its first editorial board meeting, so in writing this I’m asking explicitly for trans people’s influence and positions within the journal to be addressed in the editorial board meeting.
I was also particularly worried about this line which appears on the journals webpage:
‘IJDSJ will sit alongside existing publications in the field of Disability Studies in a productive manner’.
My initial reaction to this was that I did not want to work with a journal that positions itself in this way in relation to Disability and Society. I pointed out in my email that trans people may not feel reassured by, or safe to work with a journal that make such a statement. Lots of trans research involves vetting individuals and publications (Ruth Pearce has written more about that here, and recently stated on Twitter that the context has got worse, not better since the time of writing). Personally, I have disengaged from most media work because of the inevitable abuse that follows. As a discipline that has taught me so much, I would have once assumed that Disability Studies would be a place that this vetting wasn’t needed – however, the situation in Disability and Society has proven that this isn’t the case, so opposition to transphobia needs to be explicit. However, the response sent on behalf of the journal was that:
‘‘productive’ can be understood in many ways, including engaging in dialogue and critique.’
I was also ‘gently reminded’ that other journals exist with Disability Studies.
This was particularly unsatisfying (and if I’m honest, felt patronising). I do not and will not “sit productively” alongside transphobes, in the same way that I do not and will not sit alongside disablist, racist, sexist and other queerphobic people and publications. I am sure that I – like everyone – mess up in my attempts at allyship. However, sitting productively alongside those oppressing colleagues and those that you claim to represent through your work can never to be act of allyship – particularly when it is pointed out that this is a problem. Despite the journal’s justification, this sentence still feels like an explicit effort to distance itself from campaigns to boycott Disability and Society, which for many of us are ongoing and still requiring considerable time and energy because problem of transphobia within Disability and Society – and therefore Disability Studies more widely – still remains.
To give an example of the continued transphobia: there is a recent article in Disability and Society which focuses on ‘detransition’ and autism. This article is a life story, and isn’t explicitly transphobic, indeed, the authors have Tweeted saying that they were worried that it would be read as such. However, the article is deeply flawed. It neutrally cites the book that Disability and Society editor, Michele Moore, has published with Brunskill-Evans (which has been widely critiqued as transphobic, and contributed to the resignations) as offering ‘more perspectives and stories concerning detransition’. Having spoken to the authors they were unaware of the context of and campaigns around Disability and Society, and were told to include the reference through the peer review process. I feel able to say with a fair amount of certainty, that the article in question would not have got through a peer-review process in a journal that was trans-inclusive and aware of the scholarship of trans people and trans studies. As it is, it is published in what continues to be a highly influential journal in the field of Disability Studies – which, for many not completely embedded in the discipline, will still be a go-to journal. The point of this story in relation to the International Journal of Disability Studies and Social Justice is that:
unless you’re already an ‘insider’ there’s very little to tell you about this significance difference between Disability and Society and the International Journal of Disability Studies and Social Justice (in fact, you’d assume from the text that they are ‘sitting productively’ alongside one-another), so how would you know to pick the trans-inclusive one?
in order to deal with the complexity of issues such as ‘detransition’ an editorial board needs to be well-versed and understand the context of the debates. I don’t know everybody on the editorial board – perhaps some of them are trans and perhaps some of them can do this work. However, there is nothing about the website which clearly indicates to me that effort has been put in to consider and work against the situation that trans people have faced within Disability Studies. Nor was I told how this had been considered in the response from the journal’s co-chairs. Furthermore, given that the situation is so complex and transphobia so integrated into UK academia broadly, having significant trans presence within the editorial board would help to gain the trust of trans people in the discipline generally, and the journal particularly.
Finally, the co-chairs were keen to point out to me that this journal is not a response to the situation in Disability and Society, and the website states that it has been in the making for two years. Although I have no reason to not believe this, it doesn’t take away from my points: my original contact with Disability and Society – alongside Kirsty Liddiard – regarding transphobia was in June 2016. This was four years ago. It then took two years to get published an article which played a part in exposing the transphobia in Disability and Society – this was published in July 2018, according to their website, around the time that conversations of the new journal were going on. At this point there was considerable talk about the journal and the article online and, as I understand (although I was not in attendance), offline at the Lancaster Disability Studies Conference. There has since been an open letter started by Professor Melanie Yergeau, University of Michigan, and signed by over 900 scholars in the field and a statement from the School of Disability Studies at Ryerson University calling out transphobia within Disability and Society. Therefore, whether or not this journal was intended as a response to Disability and Society is irrelevant: this is the context in which it sits, has been formed, and is being taken up in. Transphobia within Disability Studies, and specifically Disability and Society, has created a very obvious space for a new journal. Therefore, this context – and how it affects trans people lives, including trans disabled people, trans academics and those falling into a multitude of these groups – needs to be considered.
I welcome a public response.
2nd June 2020
**for more context on the boycott of Disability and Society see: 1) this Tweet thread I posted in July 2018; 2) this open letter started by Professor Melanie Yergeau, University of Michigan; 3) this statement on and information on the boycott from The School of Disability Studies at Ryerson University in September 2019.