Entanglement of the Borderland Positionality
“Lived experiences are shaped by intertwined identities and are too nuanced for a simple binary representation.…”
Robin C. Ladwig
University of Canberra
Robin Ladwig (they/them) is a PhD candidate at the Faculty of Business, Government & Law (University of Canberra), focusing on Queer Theory and Diversity Management. Robin takes pride in making a difference by combining academia, corporate influences, and activism.
The interconnectedness of the scholar and their researched phenomenon within gender, trans, and queer studies can be a fertile partnership. The partnership can support the identity narratives of transgender and gender-diverse in-betweenness including aspects of culture, sexuality, class, and nationality. Gloria Anzaldúa’s concept of “Borderlands” offers the critical framework for my positionality of in-betweenness as a genderqueer/non-binary researcher exploring a transdisciplinary real-world problem, a common experience among the transgender and gender-diverse community. My research forms the foundation of personal reflections on my borderland positionality and how it informs my methodology.
In-betweenness; positionality; Anzaldúa’s borderland theory; transgender and gender-diverse identities
Introduction: Gateway to the borderlands
The entanglement of the borderland between (a person is true to their queer aspects of personality, spirit, and values) and professionalism (representation of competencies and skills expected within a work context) is described by one of my transgender and gender-diverse (TGD) interviewees as follows:
I must be better at my job than a cishet [cisgender heterosexual] person has to be, to feel like I am secure in my job. You must understand the difference between being authentic and being professional, and that being professional implies to everyone in the workplace.
This particular interviewee’s comment resonated with me specifically as a genderqueer/non-binary, pansexual, international PhD-candidate in Australia who struggles to bring their whole self to the academic or the corporate world. The objective of this paper is to demonstrate the entanglement of my identity as a person and researcher with the research and its participants. Being professional demanded that I established a high-level of objectivity in my research to as my fellow researchers who do not identify with their research cohort. It leaves me in a space of in-betweenness; a borderland between the gender binary, insider-outsider researcher relation, as well as a cultural, ethnical, and national grey zone. Binaries structure our lives by forming false dichotomies. Most research enquiries aim to dissect these binaries to utilise them to reduce the scope of the investigation. This reduced scope yields a one-dimensional false representation of the investigation. This stands in stark contrast to the lived reality that embodies a vast area of intertwined presence of numerous binaries and their influences on individual identity narratives. Lived experiences are shaped by intertwined identities and are too nuanced for a simple binary representation. In the following, the TGD in-betweenness or boundaries between and beyond binaries is metaphorically symbolised as borderlands.
This paper will discuss Anzaldúa’s concept on Borderlands (1987) followed by outlining my research concerning TGD individuals’ work experiences. Throughout the paper, concepts like identity narratives, cis-normativity, gender binarism, and reflexivity are defined and discussed. Due to my borderland positionality and personal experiences relating to the entanglement of in-betweenness as a researcher, I will debate the significance of positionality and standpoint theory. Upon review of the consequences of inhabiting a borderland positionality, I examine the significant value of reflexivity to maintain trustworthiness and academic rigour as an interdisciplinary researcher who identifies as part of the “to-be-researched” community.
Gloria Anzaldúa’s concept on Borderlands (1987) acknowledges the in-betweenness of individuals relating to their intersectionality of gender, sexuality, culture, and nationality. Anzaldúa (1987) writes “I am a turtle, wherever I go I carry ‘home’ on my back.” (21) This quote touched me deeply and summarised beautifully how I and a lot of TGD people adjust to the complexity of our identity multiplicity. In this paper, I argue that Anzaldúa’s Borderland theory can support the maintenance of trustworthiness due to the acknowledgment of the researcher’s borderland positionality. Trustworthiness emphasises the reflexive process by problematising the researcher’s positionality (Cousin 2010). This reflective paper discusses my in-betweenness beyond being a researcher and community member by discovering relatability in the borderland position with my research participants.
Anzaldua’s Borderland Theory
The interdisciplinary field of borderland studies was influenced by Anzaldúa’s work Borderlands/La Frontera (1987) concerning the collision of gender, sexuality, culture, race, and class. The borderland is a metaphorical concept about borders and negotiations of contradictions or tensions found between diverse gender, sexuality, culture, class and other backgrounds (Naples 2010). The Chicana-American writer Gloria Anzaldúa explores in the book Borderlands/La Frontera (1987) the entanglement of her personal experiences growing up alongside the border between Mexico and the United States of America, and the history of the land (Anzaldúa 1987). In one of Anzaldúa’s later pieces (2009), borderland is described as “an unstable, unpredictable, precarious, always-in-transition space lacking clear boundaries.” (243)
This draws a lot of parallels to TGD identities corresponding with multiple other identity aspects. While Borderlands/La Frontera pioneered the scholarly tradition of feminism (Perales 2013), the accounts simultaneously focused on identity formation beyond theories of subjectivity (Yarbro-Bejarano 1994) by giving voice to individual identity narratives. Identity narratives consist of evolving and internalised stories of the self. These are constructed by an individual to make sense of their life and to give it meaning (McAdams 2011). Social norms and values of societies, institutions, communities, and identity groups become extended in identity narratives (Prokkola 2009). Whilst, individuals construct their identity narrative to the wider collective identity discourse, it does not consequently result in a homogenous narrative or border identity.
I observed and experienced an empowering reclaim of in-betweenness and the metaphorical space of the borderlands within the TGD community throughout my research. Another interviewee mentioned that it needs to be emphasised: “that people not necessarily fit in one box or another, that there is also a kind of in-betweenness.” Such in-betweenness can be found regarding gender, sexuality, culture, nationality, class, and other identity aspects which may result in the relatedness of borderland identities. While each of the TGD participants’ experiences and journeys are individually shaped and unique, a shared understanding of in-betweenness including the entanglement of interwoven identities such as culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds united us. This made the space of the TGD borderland a safer space for us, which is quite distinct from Anzaldúa’s Borderland .
Some scholars have critiqued the application of the borderlands concept beyond creolisation, which have tended to read identities as fixed, or stable, rather than geographically and historically formed. Vila (2003) has levelled critiques of Anzaldúa’s work, claiming that border identities are discussed as a homogenous group, overlooking the diversity and heterogeneity of various interconnecting identity categories. Vila (2003) is also concerned with the generalisation of borderland theory, stating that “it is one thing to write about the metaphor, but quite another to cross it daily.” (313) I acknowledge these critiques and do not claim that my research participants or I have similar experiences of intertwined gender, sexuality, culture, race, nationality, and class. Nevertheless, I agree with Callis (2014), who recognised “the theoretical and metaphorical borderlands to be a productive space to understand identities that are complex, multiple, and existing both within and outside of a binary system.” (69) The metaphorical borderland is more than a space of transition or transit but creates a space of existence in which people of the TGD community can more freely express themselves and develop and nurture a feeling of belonging.
Entanglement of research
Limited research prompted me to investigate the TGD specific experiences with work engagement and career development including the barriers and enablers faced by TGD individuals in Australia today. My research was conducted using a qualitative multi-method enquiry, including semi-structured interviews with TGD individuals. The twenty-two semi-structured online interviews offered an insight into the interrelation between transgender and gender diversity as well as aspects of work, organisational structures, and culture, resulting in TGD specific enablers and barriers.
The gap in the literature about TGD work experiences justified the need for such research, whilst my own lived experiences yielded additional motivation. Throughout my time in Australia, I have gained diverse work experience through various occupations across several industries and sectors. My personal experiences and insights raised concern about others TGD work experiences as most organisations that I came across were entrenched in cis-normative gender binarism. Cis-normativity represents the assumption that a person’s gender identity aligns with their sex at birth (Schilt and Lagos 2017). For me, this was demonstrated by applying my sex marker presented in my passport as gender identification to my employee information. In addition, I experienced gender binarism, the social normalisation of a false dichotomy of only two gender identities (woman/man) existing (Cosgrove 2020). For example, when I had to choose between gender binary uniforms or restrooms only.
My genderqueer/non-binary identity alienated me further from interconnecting work experiences as a migrant. While the privilege of my whiteness and Western nationality protects me from racism and xenophobia, I regularly get “othered” (Visscher, Heusinkveld, and O’Mahoney 2018) by comments like “you are not Australian.” These experiences put me in a space of in-betweenness. It could have been discouraging, but I share the view of Tovar (2020), who states that feelings of alienation results in a skillset enabling us to navigate this . I observed my development of increasing reflexivity and consideration of multiplicity set in motion by the feeling of alienation. Consequently, the experiences of in-betweenness became an analytical tool to understand the interrelation of TGD work experiences with organisational structures and culture.
The feeling of alienation is fed by dualisms such as the cis-normative gender binary, migrant vs citizen, or heterosexual and homosexual identities. According to Keating (2005), those who inhabit these “in-between” spaces, “who live within and among multiple worlds, and develop what Anzaldúa describes … as a ‘perspective from the cracks’.” (1) Naples (2010) extends this idea by explaining that people with such diverse perspectives on borders between systems of difference and identities can engage in building bridges across knowledge and disciplines. Consequently, dualisms can be overcome by addressing the disparity insider vs outsider, transgender vs cisgender, gender binary vs gender diversity, as well as individual vs organisation. Dwyer and Buckle (2009) marked the significance of a reflective and transparent positionality of the researcher to their research participants and direction of enquiry as part of trustworthiness. Consequently, understanding the positionality of the in-betweenness is a vital part of the borderland identities.
Positionality of in-betweenness
Positionality is the reflection of a person’s socialisation, identities, and history that influences their thinking, doing, and placing. Sánchez (2010) defines positionality as
the notion that personal values, views, and location in time and space influence how one understands the world. […] Consequently, knowledge is the product of a specific position that reflects particular places and spaces. (2258)
Sánchez’s definition (2010) highlights the significance of spaces and places that goes beyond the inherent individual characteristics of a person. Thus, the spatial positionality along the borderlands influences the researchers’ engagement and production of knowledge including consequences on their research and participants.
Bentz and Shapiro (1998) call for researchers to be mindful of the research process and to reflect on the personal and professional embeddedness in their research context. To achieve this, I am going to express my positionality as fence-sitting borderlander throughout this paper. I reflect how the in-betweenness experienced through gender and sexual identity, the identity of home country and language, research fields and disciplines, but even being a researcher and the “to-be-researched”; leaving me in-between spaces. Other queer scholars such as Callis (2014) and Henningham (2021) express their shared experience of sitting “on the fence”. An experience that nurtures the queer borderlands and creates a feeling of belonging.
The TGD borderlands are subjugated by the powers of cis-normativity and gender binarism which builds on the existing complexity of multiple identities central to the Borderland theory. Identity multiplicity refers to individual negotiation and complexity of various identity aspects. Throughout my research, indigenous identities, culturally and linguistically diverse identity aspects, and religious or spiritual belief systems highlighted the complexity of multiple-intertwined identities experienced by various participants. Nevertheless, the feeling of in-betweenness was common ground.
My entanglement of the borderland positionality required extensive reflexivity to avoid harm to the research participants and myself. Reflexivity can, according to Macbeth (2001) be distinguished in textual and positional reflexivity. Positional reflexivity is defined as the examination of “place, biography, self and others to understand how they shape the analytic exercise” (Macbeth 2001, 3535). Consequently, positional reflexivity is concerned with ethnicity, race, disability, class, gender, and sexuality. Textual reflexivity is the interpretation of the language that should be considered through the discussion of knowledge production. My reflection should go beyond a limited biographical reflection (Finlay 2002) on my positionality as a researcher to achieve trustworthiness. One example of language and the development of a blind spot through to the relation of insider knowledge (Hurst 2008) was the consideration of the research question that was primarily concerned with barriers for TGD people.
While it is true that TGD individuals experience a high level of discrimination, exclusion, and stigmatisation (Cinicola 2020), it is simply one truth. Exposing my research to the broader research community informed me to overcome this limited perspective, who creates a positive lived reality through their in-betweenness. It highlighted the influence of personal experiences on the research subject resulting in further entanglement of the in-betweenness requesting a deeper understanding of the researchers’ standpoint.
Standpoint theory, a feminist theoretical perspective that argues that knowledge stems from a social position, is closely related to positionality. Campbell (2016) argues that “if the standpoint is under-theorized and overlooked, a researcher’s (good) intentions are rendered untrustworthy.” (258) Subsequently, it is a necessity to come forward about the researcher’s entanglement of the borderlands to the participants as well as the audience (Secules et al. 2021). Disclosing the researchers’ identities, experiences, and relation to the researched phenomenon accommodates transparency and trust between participants and the researcher. For me, it also made me reflect on the relation to the borderlands I crossed metaphorically in my life and how it connected me with the research participants.
Ghabrial (2019) encourages individuals to embrace the borderlands which reflect in the “ability to derive empowerment from a unique intersection of (in)visible identity categories.” (176) Individuals who empower their borderland identity can gain a feeling of belonging and self. A prerequisite to reaching the feeling of empowerment and belonging is the reflection of one’s dichotomy and invisibility concerning various identity aspects. Furthermore, the reflection includes an inner discussion about oppression and privilege, visibility and invisibility, and the expression of different dichotomies through various roles and forms. The identity narrative results in the transition between identities and the transition through different communities.
Conclusion: Consequences of taking a stand
The entanglement with the borderland shapes the knowledge and perception of the research such as other influences concerning the identity narrative. Nevertheless, it can be crucial to position oneself within the borderlands due to the expression of a unique perspective. Borderland positionalities should be characterised as heterogenic, which requires an explicit explanation of a researcher’s standpoint to avoid the reinforcement of existing power dynamics.
The understanding and identification of power dynamics were vital to the Borderland theory by Anzaldúa (1987) and relate to the contextualisation of the positionality of the researcher (Secules et al. 2021). Borderland identities are defined by power structures due to the social norms associated with gender, sexuality, culture, nationality, and class, among others. Consequently, these power dynamics can be controlled by gatekeepers who force TGD people to find refuge in the borderlands. As a researcher, it is vital to be aware of one’s privileges and power when representing and communicating the matters and identities of the research participants. Subsequentially, it could result in a power imbalance between researcher and participants with tremendous consequences for the overall trustworthiness of the research. The clarification of the research’s positionality and standpoint, especially concerning borderland identities, results in transparency about power dynamics and entanglements supporting the prevention of negative consequences for the participants or researcher.
The entanglement of the borderland positionality is not limited to inherent risks but likewise provides benefits to the research and communities of borderland identities. Keating (2005) raised the aspect of the perspectives “from the cracks” which refers to borderland identities. The perspectives “from the cracks” helped me to build bridges between disciplines and schools of thought. Existing within the in-betweenness of spaces, it benefitted the knowledge translation from one discipline or epistemology to another. It enabled me to create space for borderland knowledge that allowed an in-betweenness perspective to thrive and aimed to enrichen the academic landscape by simultaneously maintaining trustworthiness.
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