URI professor explores transgender movements in research and the classroom

Joy Ellison is an expert on LGBTQ+ issues and transgender history

KINGSTON, R.I. – Oct. 4, 2023 – Growing up in Portland, Oregon, in a Quaker family, Joy Ellison got their first taste of protest rallies when they were 6 years old.

Ellison, who joined the University of Rhode Island last fall as an assistant professor of gender and women’s studies, has been involved in social movements ever since.

“I really became interested in history because to me that’s the only place that we really ask how do you change the world,” they said. “Well, you have to look at how everyone has tried to.”

Ellison does that. Influenced by their childhood and status as a queer and non-binary trans person, Ellison explores such research topics as LGBTQ+ history and activist movements, transgender and disability studies.

“It’s difficult when you don’t know your own history,” said Ellison, who earned their Ph.D. in Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies from Ohio State University. “And there are so many forces right now that are very interested in portraying trans people as new and as a trend. We’ve been here for a very long time, and we’ve dealt with the kind of problems we’re dealing with now before. Trans history is personally important to me and I think it’s important to a lot of my students.”

Ellison primarily focuses their research on trans movements in the Midwest, partly because of the lack of scholarly work on the region. They covered that ground in a recent paper about the first formal transgender organization in Chicago, Transvestite/Transsexual Legal Committee, which formed in 1971 after the police killings of Black transvestites. It created a regional movement that is important to trans history, Ellison said.

The paper, published this fall in the journal Feminist Studies, is drawn from a chapter of their book in progress, currently titled “Forgotten Feminists: Trans Movements in the Midwest, 1945 to 2000” (Duke University Press). 

“Trans people have been intentionally erased from feminist movements,” they said. “When we look at a place like the Midwest, we see all sorts of feminist and feminist-allied activism [by trans people] that deserves to be part of the cannon of feminist thought.”

In December, Ellison has a paper coming out in Women’s Studies Quarterly on Leslie Feinberg and “hir” “screened-in” photography series that explores nonbinary and disability issues. Feinberg, known for the landmark 1993 novel “Stone Butch Blues,” was a forebear of the modern transgender movement, Ellison says, and one of the first to champion gender-neutral pronouns, like zie/hir as a replacement for he/his or she/her.

“Leslie is a tremendous hero of mine,” they said. “I discovered that Leslie had this archive of photographs that no one had written about. … Looking at the photos that Leslie was making that were showing how you could be part of the world as a disabled person was tremendously meaningful for me.”

Along with their research, Ellison writes children’s books in their spare time. Their first is a picture book, “Sylvia and Marsha Start a Revolution,” about trans activists Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson and the 1969 Stonewall riots. Ellison is also working on a series of LGBTQ biographies for children.

Ellison’s research focus extends to the classroom, where they are creating innovative classes such as Queer and Trans Disability Studies, which will open next spring, and a class this fall on trans activism in which students study strategies and tactics trans movements have used and take part in their own activist project.

“It’s very exciting to see students involved in the movements that I study and that are important to me,” they said. “With trans activism in particular, it’s a really timely course because trans communities are so under attack at the moment.”

Ellison has seen that onslaught extended across the country. The American Civil Liberties Union has been tracking nearly 500 bills in U.S. state legislatures that target LGBTQ rights. Overwhelmingly, they say, the legislatures are looking to create anti-drag laws, laws preventing trans youth from competing in youth sports, and anti-trans health care laws that are having a significant impact on trans children and their families. “Some of these laws are written so broadly that they criminalize talking about transgender identity and providing gender-affirming health care to trans young people,” Ellison said.

Drag has a long tradition in the U.S. as a mainstream artform, which was sometimes deemed acceptable for young audiences. And it got a boost by the U.S. Army during World War II. The Army had started screening soldiers for homosexuality and putting gay soldiers in “homosocial environments,” Ellison said. The “Soldier Shows,” which included drag performances, were used to entertain them.

“Those soldiers who were putting on drag shows were also being arrested and put in the stockade and dishonorably discharged,” they said. “We’re in another moment when drag has more popular appeal. We love all drag performers on stage, but as soon as they come off the stage, we’re terrified and the repression increases.”

Ellison is a subject-matter expert on numerous topics, including anti-LGBTQ legislation and laws; LGBTQ and transgender history in the U.S.; contemporary and historic transgender movements; disability studies; and Arab feminism and transnational queer movements.