AERA screws up (again) on gender inclusivity

By | April 30, 2016

“In addition to using gender demographics for membership and research purposes, the expanded and enhanced gender categories send a message of inclusion to individuals of all gender identities within the Association,” said AERA Executive Director Felice J. Levine.

Let’s look at what AERA, the American Educational Research Association, thinks will send a message of inclusion to individuals of all gender identities within the Association. Now when you become a member of AERA or renew your membership, you’ll be met with this question:

Which best describes your gender identity?

  • Female/Woman
  • Male/Man
  • Transgender Female/Transgender Woman
  • Transgender Male/Transgender Man
  • Another gender identity (please specify): ____________________


First, listing “female” and “woman,” and “male” and “man” as if they’re the same thing is just weird. There’s a general consensus that female and male aren’t gender identities–they’re biological markers. But ok, I could understand if they’d picked “female” and “male” as gender categories, because it’s just easier for people to understand. But smooshing those terms up against “woman” and “man” suggests they haven’t been following the cultural conversation about the difference between sex designations and gender identity.

I don’t know, maybe they have been following the cultural conversation about this. But you wouldn’t know it based on the way they’ve handled gender inclusive restrooms. Here’s what they’ve done: For the last several years at their Annual Meeting, AERA has made available gender neutral restrooms, marked with signs that look like this:

Photo of a sign denoting a gender neutral restroom. Sign reads: "Gender Neutral Restroom / All Genders Welcome / #AERA15"

Photo of a sign denoting a gender neutral restroom. Sign reads: “Gender Neutral Restroom / All Genders Welcome / #AERA15”

This is fantastic, in theory. In practice, there are three major problems. First, these gender neutral restrooms are nearly always off in some distant corner of the conference. Which actually is sort of great because the second problem is that in my experience, the folks at AERA just smack a “gender neutral” sign on a men’s restroom which means that it’s not necessarily all that safe for a gender nonconforming individual to just stroll on in. It’s not at all a gender neutral bathroom–it’s a men’s bathroom that they’ve explicitly said trans people are allowed to enter. So if you’re me, you do what you’ve always done: Hover near the bathroom and wait until it seems like the coast is clear, and then walk in with your head down and get your business done as fast as you possibly can.

A third problem with the restrooms is that in my experience, there have always only been one or two gender neutral restrooms available for the entire conference, which boasts way more than 10,000 attendees every year. I imagine AERA rationalizes this based on their assumption that there aren’t that many trans folks who attend AERA–another indicator that AERA is at least a little oblivious to this issue.

I could go on. There’s no system for announcing preferred pronouns. There’s no accepted practice for stating pronoun use during sessions. There’s very little emphasis on gender variance in sessions not sponsored by the Queer Studies Special Interest Group–this, by the way, demonstrates how widespread the issue is in educational research. Sure, AERA gets this stuff very, very wrong. But it also seems like the executive committees and reviewers of the divisions and SIGs are also ignoring this stuff.

The weirdest part of all of this is that there are so many queers who would be happy to help AERA get this right. I would be happy to help! So would many members of the Queer Studies SIG. So would many other queer and trans-identified folks. For goodness sake, many of us actually study this. Many of us actually live this.

So come on, AERA. Ask us. For real, ask us.

And if you’re a member of AERA but not part of the executive board, you’re not off the hook. Here are some things you can do to stand in solidarity with transgender and gender nonconforming members of your community.

  1. If you attend the Annual Meeting, ask where the gender neutral restrooms are. It doesn’t matter whether you intend to use the gender neutral restroom yourself–what matters is that you’re asking about it. Ask lots of people. If they don’t know the answer, ask them who does know. If they point you to restrooms that are really far away from the main conference, make it known that you’re not happy with that. (Make sure to direct this energy toward people who could change things–the Annual Meeting commonly includes staff members who are not at all affiliated with AERA, and this isn’t about them.)
  2. If you attend the Annual Meeting, consider adding your preferred pronouns to your name badge. Consider introducing yourself, especially when presenting, by stating the pronouns you use.
  3. If you’re on the executive committee for an AERA Division or SIG, think about whether you’re inviting to transgender and gender nonconforming folks. Do you have members who identify as LGBTQ? If not, why not? Take a look at the sessions you offered at the recent few Annual Meetings. Are LGBTQ issues addressed in these sessions? If not, why not? Think about being more explicit in your commitment to advancing these concerns, in your sessions and business meeting.
  4. If you’re a member of AERA, get ready to see a letter of response, written by members of the Queer Studies SIG, to AERA’s new gender options. You’ll have a chance to sign on to this letter. You should sign on to it.

AERA has consistently been disappointing, to say the least, in its approach to LGBTQ concerns and to supporting its LGBTQ members. It should be noted, by the way, that this isn’t just AERA’s problem–it’s in line with many of my experiences in education-focused organizations and in academia in general. It’s high time AERA, and academia, got its shit together in this respect.