If you’ve had to shelter in place or isolate during the COVID-19 pandemic, you can probably relate to the experience of learning a bit more about yourself.
Whether this means taking up old hobbies or pursuits that you put on hold during school or work, or exploring new ones, one silver lining to periods of isolation can be discovering new pieces of who you are.
And according to a group of Trinity researchers, this trend toward self-discovery just might be a literal one for transgender and non-binary individuals. Led by communication professor Althea Delwiche, Ph.D., sociology and anthropology professor Amy Stone, Ph.D. and library liaison and associate professor Alexandra Gallin-Parisi, MSLS, the team of Cutter Canada '24, Gwen McCrary '23, Megan McGuire '23, and Lauren Stevens '24 are examining the effects of shelter-in-place orders on people making discoveries about their gender.
“Anecdotally, we’ve heard of a lot of trans individuals saying ‘Hey, COVID (isolation) was very large for my gender exploration and identity,” McCrary says. “So, we're basically attempting to suss out the extent that COVID has impacted trans and non-binary individuals in terms of how their gender identity was formed, as well as taking a look at social media and how that's impacted where these people get resources and assistance, and who they talk to.”
This research has been conducted under Trinity’s unique Mellon Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship in the Arts and Humanities, known as the SURF program. This 10-week summer program gives students such as McCrary a chance to work directly on faculty mentors’ research. Students get $4,200 stipend and free housing during the summer, along with a travel and supplies budget.
McCrary says the stipend and housing were vital for their team, allowing them to avoid having to drive long distances or to rely on long-distance digital communication to work together. That meant more time devoted to conducting research.
And believe us, there was a lot of it. Each of the four students has actually posed a different and unique research question relating to a different social media aspect of the research: Stevens has worked to determine which YouTube content creators were popular and compelling for trans individuals; McCrary wants to know how trans individuals have rallied around other trans individuals on streaming platform Twitch; Canada has sought to get to the bottom of the disparity in TikTok views between trans men and trans women; and McGuire is exploring online support groups for trans and non-binary people, particularly on the website Reddit.
This research, McCrary says, falls into a sweet spot of plentiful data and unanswered (or even unasked) questions.
“Academically, there's a very big gap in research regarding trans individuals over COVID-related isolation. Other projects have all been very public health-oriented, and not, ‘How is this actually impacting individuals as a whole?’” says McCrary, who’s undergone a recent such discovery herself. “I hate to say ‘journey,’ because I personally had things ‘figured out’ before quarantine, but a lot of people have used that time to figure out their identity and move from there.”
As a group, the students have been conducting literary analysis, with their research taking the form of collecting journal articles and popular press articles through a service called Dotter, cross-referencing for different topics related to trans and non-binary topics. The team has also been completing annotations for this literary review and literary analysis, while additionally conducting interviews through a survey involving more than a thousand trans and non-binary participants.
Dealing with this workload can be tough for any undergraduate researcher. That’s why the team gratefully acknowledges the close support they’ve gotten from each of their faculty mentors. Canada credits Gallin-Parisi with helping the team through their annotations, Stone with assisting in preparing the team to conduct interviews, and Delwiche with helping to formulate individual research questions.
“Our faculty have been really awesome. They're just such a very organized group,” he says. “And they're also fun and easy to talk to. Our weekly Wednesday meetings have never been stressful or difficult, and it’s actually just fun to get to meet with them and talk about our experiences.”
That camaraderie isn’t just a nice-to-have: it’s an essential component to undergraduate research at Trinity, where faculty place just as much emphasis on teaching through research as they would with publishing or production.
“It also helps that our research group in particular is—I don't know if ambitious is the word, but we’re a driven group,” Canada continues. “And so when we actually enjoy meeting every day, it means you’re having a great experience working on stuff together.”
Adding to that positive experience is the fact that the group is starting to see results after a long summer of seemingly endless work.
Canada’s dive into the data of TikTok—a popular social media app dedicated almost exclusively to short form video content—has taken aim at the apparent billions of views worth of difference between hashtags (aggregated search phrases) focused on trans men vs. trans women. “So, one of these hashtags would be ‘#FTM’, which is ‘female to male’ and that has 13.1 billion views while ‘#MTF’, or ‘male to female’ only has 2.1 billion views,” Canada says. “So I look at that difference of 11 billion views and ask, ‘Are people just more interested in trans men?’ But that can be refuted by looking at the data from Google searches, specifically, around trans men and trans women, which doesn’t reinforce that.”
According to Canada, that means there’s a disconnect from reality on the TikTok platform, something he hypothesizes could indicate the presence of “some sort of algorithm that is pushing trans men out there, but not trans women,” he says.
While the students and faculty have accomplished just about all they can in their 10-week summer period, top-notch undergraduate research at Trinity doesn’t end just because the summer does. The group is happy to share that they’ll be continuing their work into the fall semester.
Even though the group has yet to dip into the travel stipend, Trinity’s SURF program actually allows the team to use these funds up to a year after the initial summer research period. So when the group has even more to share, they’ll have the ability to present their work at just about any conference of their choosing.
McGuire says that this research may be posing previously-unasked questions, but finding answers is more vital to the team than ever.
“The COVID-19 pandemic and other public health crises impact marginalized people in particular at a much bigger scale,” McGuire says. “We’re also seeing how these crises can affect trans and non-binary people, particularly when they don't have in-person support systems in the same way that cisgendered people would. So they might have to go home and isolate with people who don't support and validate their identity.”
And for Canada, there couldn’t be a more pivotal time for the group to share these findings with the world.
“Outside of just the pandemic, right now with the way the world and especially our country is going right now, having more awareness and more vocalized stories and spotlights on gender diverse people in a time when they are being ‘othered’ is also really important,” he says. “Especially because if you let them have a platform where they can speak, they can be heard in ways that may not have been available to them before.”