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Research Tea: Amy Hillier on Transgender Youth

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Next Tuesday, February 4, Amy Hillier will present at Penn Libraries’ first Research Tea of the spring semester.

Hillier — an Associate Professor in both the School of Social Policy & Practice and in the Weitzman School of Design’s Department of City and Regional Planning — will give a talk titled “Incorporating Youth and Trans Voices in Academic Research.”

“The talk will focus on research I've conducted in collaboration with staff and youth from the Attic, Philadelphia's LGBTQ Youth Center, focused on the experience of transgender students in Philadelphia public schools,” Hillier explains. “Specifically, I'll talk about Critical Participatory Action Research — why it's valuable and why it's so hard to do in a place like Penn.”

Read more about Hillier’s work in the Q&A below and register for her Research Tea here.

Your research interests — Du Bois, housing, food access, outdoor advertising, and youth gender identity — are diverse. How would you define or describe the through-line?

I can make an argument that distinct themes run through my research, and I’ll need to develop a clear narrative about that when I come up for review to my faculty colleagues. In reality, I’m the common denominator. 

My own journey — personal and professional — has pulled me in different and interesting directions. Much of my research is spatial, looking at geographic disparities that are visible on a map. Something in my brain just lit up the first time I used GIS to make maps with 1990 census data, so I kept doing it. Then, when I realized my child was transgender, I reoriented my research to align with the learning and growing I was doing in my personal life. 

I feel extremely lucky to be at an institution like Penn that allows someone like me to keep growing and trying new things.

One of your recent papers makes the argument that research which places “an overemphasis on trans youth victimization risks confirming the adultist, cisgender perspective that trans youthhood is a pathological phenotype to be repaired or assimilated.” When did it become clear to you that future research needed to conceptually pivot?

It's not just future research that needs to conceptually pivot: it's most of our institutions, from schools and prisons to families and congregations. The more I've listened to trans kids (including my own), the more I've understood this. 

My biggest growth moment happened when I visited the Attic for the first time. The LGBTQ youth of color there were quick to let me know that my privilege as a white, cisgender professor at Penn meant I had very different life experiences and expectations than they did.

How does an emphasis on trans youth resilience tie to transformative justice’s focus on institutional, rather than individual, interventions?

We have to understand the behavior of trans youth in the context of the institutions they have to navigate. Too often we look at individual behavior and attitudes as the problem rather than the institutions and practices that put people in difficult situations every day.

Du Bois explains in The Philadelphia Negro how the patronizing white social workers who invited him to conduct his research in Philadelphia wanted to know about the “Negro problem,” as though Black residents of the Seventh Ward were the problem. He reframed the issue to be the problems that Blacks face, such as employment, educational, and housing discrimination. 

Institutionally, how might libraries support trans youth? 

What a brilliant question. I tend to think of libraries as very queer places, both because of what they do and because of who works in them. Libraries are queer and trans-affirming by making available resources that allow scholars, teachers, and students to challenge conventional ways of thinking — such as the gender binary. 

More specifically, making queer and trans literature — particularly graphic novels — highly visible and letting youth know that they are welcome is critical. Hiring queer and trans youth for summer internships and part-time jobs, allowing them to be mentored by queer and trans librarians, is another strategy.