Professor I.M. Sullivan’s Published Research Highlights the Queer, Transgender Experience in America
I.M. Sullivan, Ph.D., (she/her), assistant professor of Philosophy, has spent long hours, days, and years researching the trans and queer experience as contemporary philosophical practice. Drawing from her own experience as a member of the queer and transgender communities, Sullivan works to help people better understand themselves and better understand the challenges that queer and transgender people face while living in the United States today.
Sullivan has had two major research papers published in the last decade – Simone de Beauvoir and Confucian Role Ethics: Role-Relational Ambiguity and Confucian Mystification and The Need for More than Role Relations – and plans to take a sabbatical this fall to work on publishing more research that she’s been doing as part of a fellowship with Arcadia.
In celebration of Pride Month, Arcadia News sat down with Dr. Sullivan to discuss her published research, the effects of new state laws around the country on queer and transgender youth, and how boycotts and enormous blowback against the idea of Pride Month have changed the celebration this year.
Arcadia News: You have had two major papers published. Could you tell us what your conclusions from those papers are?
Sullivan: Role-Relational Ambiguity and Confucian Mystification was published in 2016. I was looking at classical Confucian philosophy and contemporary existentialism. It’s about different conceptions of what it means to be a person, namely how you are situated in your relationships and how those relationships can make you who you are. Depending on how we think about that, it can be very empowering – such as relationships that support you and let you be your authentic self – or debilitating – such as relationships that put you in a box. If we are not critically attentive to that distinction, we can end up supporting a philosophy of life that ends up preventing authentic life instead of supporting it.
So, this helps diagnose what’s going on with relationships – mostly family relationships – and how they can be helpful or hurtful for anyone.
The other paper, The Need for More, is a follow-up to the first paper. If we are looking at relationships such as parent-to-child, spouse-to-spouse, friend-to-friend… There is a major deficit in that structure when it comes to learning how to become a human and socially empowered. It’s really specific to the reproductive family unit.
I talk about horizontal vs. vertical relationships. If you are a racial or religious minority you tend to learn what it means to be that identity from your parents – it’s a vertical relationship. But if you are queer or trans or you have a disability, normally you don’t share that commonality with your parents. So, you can be marginalized in certain ways and be cut off from vertical support.
The way we think of persons and their relationships… We need to take into account the social and political landscape as well. It’s not just your interpersonal relationships, but also the larger social environment.
So, these two papers were a diagnostic project exploring what it means to be living in a social world where your identity is not fully accepted or supported or where you don’t have access to all the tools you need.
That’s kicked off the latest elements in my research program, where I look at classical Daoism. Confucianism says you live in a social world, and asks how well you live within that. Daoism says you are in a social world, but it’s hostile or not fully conducive to you flourishing… So how do you live in the face of that?
I have a fellowship with Arcadia and a sabbatical this fall to continue my work and publish more papers about how a classical Daoist could tell us how people who are trans and queer can live in the United States today.
Do schools, from elementary through high school, also play a role in this?
Sullivan: They certainly could. It’s about the proverbial village that’s raising the children and raising people to understand who they are and the tools they have for self-understanding.
One of the terms I talk about a lot in my research is hermeneutical injustice, which is just a big phrase meaning some people do not have the philosophical or conceptual resources to think through their own experiences. For example, we think of life in the closet for a queer person and gender dysphoria for a transgender person… these feelings of discomfort or fear… if you don’t have the terminology to understand it and think through it, you become stuck. There’s no bootstrapping your way out of that situation.
So anywhere where people are learning about themselves – whether that’s in a family setting, in friendships, or in a communal setting like sports teams or schooling – these are places where resources that support everyone’s self understanding become incredibly important.
There has been a ton of blowback when it comes to families… Parents sometimes are afraid of being kept out of the loop or not knowing what’s going on with their children. Does your research talk about how to deal with situations like this and how to work through it if they are not as accepting?
Sullivan: Every family is unique, and these are very emotionally charged relationships. Sometimes, a person can come out to their parents and they become their number one allies. Or it can be the worst… they get thrown out at the age of 13 and have to fend for themselves.
I want to shy away from prescribing something for all families because I don’t know the particulars of each relationship. However, that doesn’t stop me from raising awareness of what queerness and transness truly are.
One of the big issues right now are the anti-trans and anti-queer laws that we are seeing be implemented. I’ve workshopped with colleagues who have published papers about gender-affirming care. One thing they emphasize is that things like puberty blockers are 100 percent reversible. What it’s doing for young people who need them are offsetting gender dysphoria and depression and suicidality, which transgender youth face in enormously disproportionate levels compared to the general population or even other queer youth.
Pre-pandemic numbers showed that something like 4 percent of average citizens will wrestle with suicidality. For a transgender person, it’s close to 37 percent. It’s an enormous jump. So you can hit pause on puberty with something that is reversible if you change your mind, or they can battle suicidality which could be a final decision a person makes. I just don’t think any parent is going to sit there and say they’d rather have their child battle suicidality. So,I think there is a misunderstanding as to what queer and trans youth are facing right now. If parents did understand all of that, I think they would be supportive and helpful.
I understand it’s a very complex topic. There are also religious and secular contexts. My upbringing was secularly transphobic and queerphobic, and environments like that can affect parents too because they miss out on the resources and social connections that can help if their children are queer or trans.
Additionally, the active demonization of queer and especially trans people makes all of this a very difficult topic. But there is no doubt that a supportive parent is one of the most effective resources for queer and trans youth in preventing suicidality. It also helps them live productive, successful, and authentic lives.
Arcadia News: In the face of new laws, general blowback, and boycotts, this Pride Month seemed more muted than in previous years. Is this how you’ve felt as well?
Sullivan: Yes, that’s been my take on it. I want to qualify that I’m speaking just as a trans and queer citizen who’s watching it unfold in my community and on the news. But it did feel more muted, even in deeply supportive environments. I don’t have any specific data, but I just didn’t see as many pride flags as I did in previous years, and the tone around it was very different.
About seven years ago, if you went to a Pride event or a Pride parade, the main complaint from the queer and trans community were that there were banks and police celebrating Pride, when that’s what Pride is not really about. Now, when you go to a Pride event, you have your friends telling you to be careful and you are wondering if it’s going to get canceled because of a bomb threat or because an alt-right or neo-Nazi group plans to show up. And that’s if they even get approval to have the event in the first place. The number of canceled events and rollbacks has been incredibly disheartening. We’ve seen it with Target, where they pulled back merchandise in the Pride section, Bud Light has faced a huge boycott from the transphobic section of America because Dylan Mulvaney became a spokesperson for the beer, Starbucks is facing a unionized strike from workers because they aren’t letting them hang Pride month paraphernalia, and the NHL has banned warm-up jerseys over Pride-specific ones from last season… so we have major corporations sending a different message than they used to.
The idea that pride events now feel potentially dangerous is really sad. I didn’t go to any Pride events this year, and part of that was because of this and not wanting to have to deal with it. I’ll support my community through my interpersonal relationships, but I’m not sure I want to go to a public gathering and have to deal with all this right now.
Arcadia News: Is all of this part of a more natural back-and-forth that we’ve seen with other issues in the past? Or is this particular issue different?
Sullivan: I think the blowback is more of a short-lived flash in the pan. Unfortunately, every month it seems like it’s flashing brighter, and we’re still waiting for this to crest and get to the other side of it.
However, there was a lot of backlash to the queer community in the leadup to the Obergefell decision in the Supreme Court. It lasted several years, and the rhetoric got very heated. But then the ruling came through and legislative and rhetorical battles lost momentum.
Going into the late 2010s, surveys showed that the majority of Americans had no problem with equal civil rights for same-sex couples or same sex persons. That’s not to say it suddenly became a golden utopia, but it wasn’t so dire anymore. You weren’t as afraid of hate crimes as you were five years prior to that. Now, you have a strong focus on the transgender community going through the same thing. It’s a political climate and a culture war where trans people are attacked because they are easily identifiable and misunderstood in the general population and this attack might garner votes in the next election cycle.
Arcadia News: There have always been transgender people, but for a lot of people in the general population, this all seems new and scary to them. Is this what you’ve seen, and how do we get to the other side of that?
Sullivan: Yeah, there are a lot of people who are suddenly saying, ‘Where did all you people come from?’ We’ve always been here. A lot of the rhetoric around children with these anti-trans youth bills is similar, where they say your children are being brainwashed by a fad that’s spreading on social media.
I think it’s something that many people haven’t thought about much. Now these issues are being brought to the center of attention and are being vilified as something that is evil, sick, or dangerous.
I’m speculating that people now don’t run away before coming out as trans. So people who may have never seen a transgender person are suddenly seeing them because people are coming out where they are. Before, people would run away to New York or Los Angeles or San Francisco before coming out. Now, people feel a little more comfortable coming out because it’s more accepted in the younger generations.
Younger generations have grown up seeing queerness as something normal. And now the same thing is happening with the transgender community. So I do think we will get through it; my question is whether this is generational or more about an election cycle. I’m hoping that, at the very least, the violent rhetoric stops after the next election is over.
Overall social norms and ideas don’t change super quickly, but we need to get rid of the violent part of it as soon as possible.
I see progress on the horizon, but that’s because violent backlash tends to burn itself out. It comes with a huge cost, but then society moves on to the next thing.
Arcadia News: Did you start this research based on your own experience?
Sullivan: Yes, I got into philosophy in general because I was looking for answers about better understanding myself, the world around me, and how to live as myself in the world around me.
As I mentioned, I grew up in a secular but very queerphobic and transphobic environment in both the family and immediate community. The damage done by that kind of upbringing, as well as the regular everyday heteronormative and cisnormative realities of living in the United States in my 20s… I wasn’t able to live remotely authentically until I was 30. I wondered why it took so long, but it was because there were particular relationships putting pressure on me and because I didn’t have a way to think through the inner experiences I was having, what they meant and what was possible.
I got better answers about my trans and queer identity and I learned more about the lack of support and neglect of the queer and trans experience in both certain religious contexts and secular philosophies. Those are the two places people look to understand themselves, so my professional research tries to open that secular philosophical space in a way that is queer- and trans- supportive and has these voices speaking at a professional level.
I love having this work public and I’d love to turn this to public-facing general audience material so that people don’t have to struggle through a Ph.D. in philosophy to figure themselves out. Instead they can read it in an online post or in a paperback book.
Arcadia News: Could you give us a sneak peek of what your next paper will cover?
Sullivan: I’m halfway through a two-year fellowship with Arcadia right now, which gave me extra time and support to do research. So I’ve got a few things going right now. They all look at the classical text the Zhuangzi. The author writes from outside the Confucian, family-centered social order. He talks about how to live in relationship to those dominant norms and institutions.
One of the things I really like is that he tries to get rid of the idea of fixed categories of identity – the idea that you are one thing and you have to become that. It’s all about transformation and fluidity of identity. It’s very helpful when trying to understand genderqueer existence or pansexuality or bisexuality.
Even if we think about the more fixed forms of LGBTIA+ identities like lesbian and gay, even then there is a period before and after coming out both to themselves and in public of understanding yourself in one way and then changing to something else. That notion of transformation and evolution of self is not something we think about a lot in the Western philosophical context. There’s no true essential self, there’s an authenticity that flows through context. So when you think of yourself in that way, it makes it easier to manage the disruption that is identity crises.
Another paper looks at the concept of queer failure, which talks about the recoding of what success and productivity look like and revalues those from a queer and trans perspective.
Zhuangzi has a great story about the “useless tree.” Other people look at this tree with its twisted branches and knotted wood, and it’s seen as something that can’t be used for anything – not for furniture, bowls, whatever you make wood out of. Zhuangzi flips that and says that this tree is the only one that lives out its full life. The other trees had the ‘correct’ wood that you wanted, and you cut them all down. In being ‘useless’ to others, that tree lived its full life. There is something empowering about not wanting to define oneself or make the foundation of one’s own meaning in life about how useful you are to the world or society. That’s likely a different set of values than what is going to bring you your own flourishing, authentic existence.