How a former law school graduate turned to sociological research on gender, sexuality and intimacy

More than a decade ago, long before the media and political frenzy surrounding the issue of transgender children, Tey Meadow (BC’99), associate professor of sociology, observed how young children began to live happy and healthy transgender lives. At the time, no one was researching or writing about them, so she decided to. His ethnographic and interview-based work eventually turned into his book, Trans children: being gendered in the 21st century.

Throughout his career, Meadow often found people and subjects to examine that scholars might avoid. How does she decide what research she will conduct? “The short answer? ” she says. “I’m just following my curiosity.”

Colombia News sat down with Meadow to learn more about what drives her research, why she chose sociology as a field, and how she currently studies BDSM relationships to understand power dynamics.

Tell me about your background. You have a law degree, but you’re a sociologist. How did it happen?

I went to law school after college, like a lot of people, because I didn’t know what else to do with my life. I knew I had a logical mind, so the law was attractive. As an undergraduate at Barnard, I had taken a course with Patricia Williams at Columbia Law School. It was entitled “Women and the notions of property”. We talked about the legacy of slavery, the intergenerational trauma, the emotional life of the blackletter. I thought, ‘This is so fascinating and it inspires me so much. I should definitely be a lawyer! However, when I went to law school, I really enjoyed the classes, but I couldn’t find a law job that embodied the same intellectual spirit. I came away thinking that while I liked the law in the books, I didn’t like the law *in* the books. I started thinking about teaching and writing, and applied for doctoral programs in my senior year of law school.

But why sociology?

I first considered the law and society programs, and most of these programs are joint between law schools and sociology or political science departments. I knew politics was not my main concern. For me, it was about interpersonal relationships, social identities and groups, and politics as they are driven by social movements. I read a lot of ethnographic books and the ones that seemed most alive to me were written by sociologists. I had discovered queer theory at Barnard and was delighted. And believe it or not, queer theory and sociology share an intellectual heritage. Everything started to fall into place.

Your book, Trans children: being gendered in the 21st century, documents the lives of transgender and gender non-conforming youth with supportive families. What led you to this research?

In 2007, I was writing a totally different thesis, when I met someone who worked in an organization that went to schools where children were in transition. I asked him, ‘You mean you do workshops in colleges?’ And he said, ‘No, I go to primary schools.’ I’ve been connected to trans communities in New York for years, but I always thought of trans as something you did once you got out of your parents’ house. I had no idea how often young people made the transition publicly and with the support of their parents. I asked him what I should read to get an idea of ​​what was going on, and he replied that there was little information about transgender children. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up. I thought, ‘This is what I have to write about.’

I booked a flight that day to observe the organization as a fifth grader transitions to a charter school on the outskirts of a major city. I thought I’d write an article about it, but ended up talking to over 150 parents, children, clinicians and activists and traveling all over the country to attend workshops, trainings, clinical conferences and schools. I didn’t stop writing about it until the book was finished. And as I wrote, media attention on trans youth exploded. It was total serendipity.

You started researching transgender children almost 15 years ago. What do you now see that is different, positive or negative, with trans children today?

I think visibility is a two-sided coin. With greater visibility comes greater acceptance. With more clinicians providing mental health services and physical health services, more children can access skilled care. At the same time, this visibility has created a perfect opportunity for political conservatives to use trans children to mobilize support from their constituents. So now we are witnessing this massive and violent reaction. It really is a scary time.

Moving on to your broader work, why do you think you’re focusing on gender, sexuality and intimacy?

That’s just what interests me. All my projects start the same way: I see a person or an object in the world, and I become curious about it. And it’s often linked to culturally charged issues. Most of my big projects have been met with great anxiety by mentors and peers. Someone called Trans children ‘career suicide.’ Someone else said something similar about the book I’m writing now. So now I think if people aren’t sure if it’s a good idea, I have to be on the right track. But, as someone who entered the queer world as a teenager and moved to New York to feel part of something, these topics have always interested me, and other people’s discomfort doesn’t matter. has ever been my North Star.

Describe your latest project.

I’m about halfway through my next book, which is an ethnographic and interview-based study of two different BDSM communities. One is mostly straight and pansexual and focused on master/slave relationships. The other is queer and focuses more on sexuality. But both include people who articulately negotiate unequal distributions of power in their relationships, which fascinates me. At a time when we are increasingly attuned to how power works – and in particular how sexualized power works – I think these communities have a lot to teach us.

How has your experience as a queer person in New York influenced (or perhaps not) your work?

I think being queer gives me a way to look at the world from outside the aquarium. And I’m also legally blind, which probably affected my research as much as it affected my sexuality. I’ve been an underdog in different ways. It makes me curious why normative things are the way they are and what it means to stand outside of normativity. There is the famous saying that sociology “makes the familiar strange”. When you’re queer, the familiar is already strange in some way, or you’re aware of its strangeness in it, which is really what good ethnographic research presupposes. I also think being queer is a joyful experience, and it has influenced not only what interests me, but how I think, feel, and relate to the world with a sense of openness, excitement, and of playing ability.

Jon J. Epps