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Home » Transgender and Performance Ethnography

Transgender and Performance Ethnography

Principal Investigator: Dr. Sheila L. Cavanagh

Partners: Supporting our Youth (SOY), EGALE Canada, Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, Dr. Greta Bauer (Western University) and Dr. Laura Levin (York University)

Funder: SSHRC Partnership Development Grant

Project Description:

Recent studies show that transgender (trans) individuals in Ontario suffer from gender discrimination, lack of state recognition, often live in poverty despite high education levels, and suffer widespread transphobic harassment (Cavanagh 2010; Irving and Raj 2014; Scruton 2014). There is, however, a dearth of in-depth research about the lived experiences of trans people necessary to engage key audiences in the need to effect substantive policy and legislative change.

The Ontario-based Trans PULSE project (launched by Dr. Greta Bauer, partner on this project) (sample: 433) found that: 1) 48% of trans people did not have government issued identification reflecting their lived gender identity; 2) 71% of trans people have at least some college or university education but half make $15,000 or less per year; 3) 66% of trans Ontarians avoid public places due to fear of transphobic harassment; and 4) 34% of participants experienced verbal harassment or threats because they are trans.

A recent study also found that 70% of trans people interviewed in Ontario avoid public toilets, especially at school, work, in malls, gymnasiums and community centers because they fear transphobic harassment and/or assault (Cavanagh, 2010). The Trans Needs Assessment Report issued by the Canadian AIDS Society reflects similar findings and ranked better “public education, understanding and acceptance of people who are trans” (Scruton, 2014) as one of their main priorities. This research partnership brings together a team of academic and community organizations in Ontario dedicated to trans advocacy, research, and theatre-based education. The overall objective of this partnership is to study the legal, social, educational and economic barriers to public participation and citizenship trans people face in Ontario, and to disseminate the findings through a one-week theatrical production at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre (BBTT). The project is grounded in semi-structured life-history interviews with twenty Ontario-based participants who identify as trans, a term which is broadly defined to include those who are transsexual, transgender, gender queer, two-spirit and non-binary gender.

The interviews will form the basis of a performed ethnography (PE). An emerging methodological innovation, PE combines critical ethnographic interviews and theatre to stage academic research in a public forum. It thus optimizes social impact and knowledge sharing. The specific objectives of this project are to: a) generate original sociological research pertinent to trans people in Ontario; b) use theatre to educate the public, the relevant professional sectors and government bodies about the needs of the trans community; and c) produce the first PE on trans experiences in Canada for use in colleges, universities, professional training and community-based social services.

The research will also be used to support the education, advocacy and legislative mandates of Supporting Our Youth (SOY) and EGALE Canada (both community partners), and the arts-based mandates of BBBT (community partner).

All members of this intersectoral partnership will contribute their respective expertise to the qualitative study, performance, and mobilization of research results central to the Ontario trans community. As such, the project is grounded in the community engagement of EGALE Canada and SOY, who are working closely with the academic partners (Cavanagh, Bauer, Levin and CFR) to ensure that all aspects of the research process are accountable and responsive to the needs of the trans community. BBTT will stage the PE, in collaboration with the PI (Cavanagh) and the Theatre Department at York University (Levin), who will also all work together in the play’s development, in dialogue with the other community partners.

A number of graduate students are actively participating in the research and theatrical components of this partnership, contributing to the enhancement of their academic abilities, professional skills, and community relationships.


Recent Publications:

(2017, Forthcoming in December) Transgender and Psychoanalysis. [Edited a special double-issue] Transgender Studies Quarterly, 4.4.

(2017) Antigone’s Legacy: A Feminist psychoanalytic of an Other Sexual Difference. Studies in the Maternal. 9(1), p.4.


(2016) “Tiresias and Psychoanalysis after Oedipus” European Journal of Psychoanalysis.

(2016) “Transsexuality as Sinthome: Bracha L. Ettinger and the Other (Feminine) Sexual Difference” Studies in Gender and Sexuality, 17(1): 27-44.