The Gender Moxie Project is a research group at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, studying the experiences and resilience of gender diverse children ages 4-13 years old and their families, schools and communities. This includes but is not limited to children who identify as non binary, genderqueer, agender, gender fluid and/or transgender. This arts-based ethnographic study, which has been following children and their families since late 2015, focuses on community, family and individual strength. As an anthropologist of childhood and an advocate for transgender and other gender creative people, Dr. Pirie believes that children are people now, human beings rather than human “becomings” (Qvortrup, 1994), and should be empowered to make their own decisions about gender. Indeed, the right to gender self-determination is a human right.
Dr. Pirie writes:
“This project has been among the most affecting of my career. I am a passionate advocate for transgender and gender nonconforming children, and I have developed close relationships with participant families over the duration of the project I am also the mother of a transgender child, which has both complicated and enriched this work. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, this ethnography has spanned an unusual historical moment: I began collecting data during the Obama presidency, at a moment flush with rapid, positive changes in visibility and acceptance for transgender people. However, like Abraham Zapruder, I was surprised with what I captured; when I embarked on this study I had no idea that I would be capturing the moment of political impact, when everything changed. And that change felt dramatic, swift and brutal. While the Obama administration had issued guidance for implementing robust protections in education and health for gender diverse children in early 2016, the Trump administration rolled back these protections within a matter of weeks of taking office, ignoring desperate pleas from families, educators and advocates. Instances of transphobic hate and violence increased dramatically within days of the election, and continue to rise as of this writing. Transgender children in particular took campaign rhetoric seriously, and reported decreased feelings of safety after the election, often with horribly poignancy: One study participant had been told by a 2nd grade classmate that “when Trump wins he is going to kill all the transgender people,” and the morning after the election that child asked his father what he needed to do in order to be ready to die. I wept on the phone with that father the day after the election. Being an ethnographer at this moment meant having my work transformed virtually overnight from the work of documenting liberation to the work of documenting terror, and now, slowly, hopefully, a struggle to get back to that better place.
This project is part of a new wave of descriptive social science research in childhood and gender diversity. Until very recently, much social science research on gender and childhood had focused on an automatic and unquestioned gender system that is both binary and absolute. The idea that children are able to determine their own gender, or know that they do not fit within the constraints of a gender binary, is a relatively new one that has generated both enthusiastic support as well as discomfort and even condemnation. It is no surprise that young transgender and gender nonconforming children have been largely left out of descriptive social science accounts. Further, while that body of research is increasing, it has been largely outpaced by an explosion of popular media on the subject. Such popular books, videos and other texts contribute to greater positive visibility, but they are also often simplistic and incomplete, and rely heavily on adult voices and interpretations. More complex, child-centered portraits are needed both in popular press and academic work. Such portraits must appeal to a wide variety of reading publics and be rooted in scientific inquiry. In this way such work might focus on principled study and documentation of transgender childhoods that go beyond casual accounts and glossy photographs of “passing” for a “real” boy or a girl. Similarly, such portraits must make space for a much wider range of gender diversity, acknowledging as well the complex ways in which gender intersects with racial, ethnic, socioeconomic and other identities. Finally they should focus on the complete child as an agentive, strategic, and resilient actor, not just a voiceless victim of social forces and political undulations beyond their control.”
You can read more about the research papers and other work that has come out of this project on the “Selected Publications” tab of this website, or Dr. Pirie’s Academia.edu page, here: https://umass.academia.edu/Sally
Finally, a full length graphic novel based on the first five years of the project is currently in production and under contract with University of Toronto Press.