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Eliza Steinbock: ‘My research is a kind of me-search’

My name is Eliza Steinbock, I’m 38 years old and I was born and raised in Louisville, Kentucky in the United States. I started teaching and researching at Leiden University in 2014. I research and teach gender representation, mostly of transgender people, in media and culture.

A study of real life

‘A lot of students that choose to study gender and sexuality sign up because it means something to them personally. It’s a study of real life and, in a way, it supports their personal development as a human being. It is exciting to see my students blossom and gain confidence because of what they’re learning. Sometimes I actually see a light-bulb moment happening where something suddenly clicks in place. As if something that was muddled for them before, now becomes clear. There are always students that feel comfortable, maybe for the first time, to come out during my courses or realise they’re pansexual or transgender.’

Research en me-search

‘I’m a trans person myself and in the preface of my most recent book Shimmering Images I describe the historical shift when announcing yourself as a non-binary person became more prominent in society [so not only: ‘he’/‘she’, but also ‘they’, edit.]. This was one of the factors, in my long research journey into transgender studies, that made me realise that that was the space where I felt most comfortable. Sometimes I joke that my research is a kind of me-search. A driving desire to get to know myself and people like me. Like Freud said: we’re all trying to figure ourselves out through our research investigations.

Changing the media

What I’m very interested in at the moment is how productions made by transgender people are infiltrating the mainstream and how their storytelling is able to rework the image of “transgender lives” that has so far been present in dominant culture. It shows that ideas about gender are shifting, a change that I think is very important. ‘Things are really shifting and changing. In 2002, when I first started researching images of trans people in the media, mainly what I could find were documentaries where doctors were interviewed about the ‘phenomenon’ of the transgender. There were very few transgender people that were given the authority to comment on their own experience. It was frustrating to me to see trans people silenced that way. ’

‘But it’s changing. When you look at the popular Amazon Prime series Transparent for example, it not only has transgender actors, but also directors and writers. The means of production is in the hands of transgender people. When a story is about a group rather than by it, the gaze on the group tends to be more paternalistic or colonialist.’

‘What I’m very interested in at the moment is how productions made by transgender people are infiltrating the mainstream and how their storytelling is able to rework the image of “transgender lives” that has so far been present in dominant culture. It shows that ideas about gender are shifting, a change that I think is very important.’

Miss Marple

‘I work a lot, but when I’m not working I spend a lot of time with Miss Marple, a horse that I lease with two others in my hometown of Amsterdam. We make sure to ride her twice a day; I ride about 2 to 4 times a week. What I like about horse riding is that it’s so meditative. After a long day of intensive contact with people and ideas, just riding and caring for the horse is a wonderful way to escape into a more carefree world.’

In the Humans of Humanities series, we will do a portrait of one of our researchers, staff members or students, every other week. Who are they, and what do they do? You can find more portraits and information on this page.

Julia Nolet
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