Kristen Schilt's research interests center on sociology of gender and sexualities, the sociology of culture, and the sociology of work and occupations. A central focus of her work is finding new ways to make visible the taken-for-granted cultural assumptions about gender and sexuality that serve to naturalize and reproduce social inequality. She has written extensively about the experiences of transgender people in the United States and about the development of transgender studies as a field in sociology. Her work also explores qualitative research methods in sociology, and feminist and queer cultural movements. In addition to her academic writing, she has co-directed a documentary short and feature film with Chase Joynt, titled “Framing Agnes,” about their archival research into the history of transgender research in 1950s sociology. From 2017-2023, Schilt served as the faculty director for the Center for the Study of Gender & Sexuality at the University of Chicago.
Schilt is the author of Just One of the Guys? Transgender Men and the Persistence of Gender Inequality (University of Chicago Press). Until the 2000s, transgender people met with legal, medical, and social opposition when they sought to transition on the job. As “blue states” such as California started to put transgender workplace protections into place, however, the demand for safe, supported workplace transitions became a central tenet of transgender rights movements and a touchstone for cultural anxieties about gender and sexuality – particularly in “red states” such as Texas. Drawing on in-depth interviews and observational data, Schilt brings empirical weight to social constructionist theories of gender by documenting the workplace experiences of transgender men in Southern California and in Central Texas. Most of the men she interviewed started their career trajectories when they were still living as women. As men at work, they often met with unexpected experiences. Some men faced resistance from employers and co-workers who had little prior knowledge about transgender identities, particularly men in blue collar jobs. Men of color found that they were racialized in new, dangerous ways. But, for many white trans men, they found they received greater recognition and more authority at work than they had previously – even when they stayed in the same job and worked with the same people.
One of the major theoretical contributions of the book is to explain this unanticipated outcome. Trans men have the same human capital, the same childhood gender socialization, and the same skills before and after they transition on the job. Schilt argues that their experiences at work illustrate the social processes that underlie workplace gender inequality more broadly – namely deeply held cultural beliefs that there is an innate male/female binary that determines men and women’s skills and abilities. While a workplace gender transition could theoretically “trouble” these beliefs, Schilt shows that co-workers and employers adopt strategies that allow them to ignore the potential challenge by framing this gender transition as the only solution to a biological error, an error that has trapped a man in a woman’s body. These experiences show that boundaries between men and women are flexible – co-workers can reposition one trans man in the gender structure at work – at the same time they are stable – notions about men and women’s inevitable differences remain unchanged. Just One of the Guys argues that workplace gender inequality persists in part because these boundaries can be renegotiated on an individual level with no accompanying structural change in relations of power.
With D’Lane Compton and Tey Meadow, Schilt co-edited Other, Please Specify: Queer Methods in Sociology (University of California Press). Located within the critical conversation about the possibilities and challenges of utilizing insights from humanistic queer epistemologies in social scientific research, Other, Please Specify presents to a new generation of researchers an array of experiences, insights, and approaches, revealing the power of investigations of the social world. With contributions from sociologists who have helped define queer studies and who use a range of interpretative and statistical methods, this volume offers methodological advice and practical strategies in research design and execution, all with the intent of getting queer research off the ground and building a collaborative community within this emerging subfield.
Schilt is currently working on two book projects. Conceptualizing Agnes: Exemplary Cases and the Disciplines of Gender is a historical sociology book about the history of transgender research in the social sciences in the 1950s. The book draws on the original archival research Schilt did with Chase Joynt in the Harold Garfinkel archive. It examines the back story behind Garfinkel’s canonical case study of “Agnes,” a 19-year old trans woman who came to UCLA in 1958 seeking gender-affirming care. The second project, tentatively titled New You or True Self: The Social Process of Major Life Change, examines the experiences of people making a major change to their identity or bodies that is unanticipated to those around them. She focuses on four case studies: people who experience rapid weight loss after a bariatric surgery, people who come out as gay or lesbian later in life, people who undergo a gender transition, and people who convert to Judaism. Drawing on in-depth interviews with “changers” and those in their social networks, as well as ethnographic observations of support groups, Schilt examines the ways in which people draw on understandings of what is innate (such as sexual identity) and what is changeable (such as weight) to support or challenge these major life changes.
Recent Research / Recent Publications
Changing Women in a Changing Society @ 50. A series of webinars I organized to revisit and update key themes from the 1973 special issue in the American Journal of Sociology about women’s experiences.
Peter Forberg and Kristen Schilt (equal authorship). 2023. “What’s Ethnographic about Digital Ethnography? A Sociological Perspective.” Frontiers in Sociology 8. https://doi.org/10.3389/fsoc.2023.1156776
Kristen Schilt. 2022. “Sex and the Sociological Dope: Garfinkel’s Intervention into the Disciplines of Sex/Gender.” The Ethnomethodology Program: Legacies and Prospects. Edited by John Heritage and Douglas Maynard. Oxford University Press: 214-226.
Kristen Schilt and Danya Lagos. 2017. “The Development of Transgender Studies in Sociology.” Annual Review of Sociology. 43: 425-443 https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-soc-060116-053348
Kristen Schilt. 2015. “Born this Way: Thinking Sociologically about Essentialism.” Emerging Trends in the Social and Behavior Sciences. (eds). Robert Scott and Stephen Kosslyn. Hoboken, N.J.: John Wiley and Sons, pp. 1-14 https://doi.org/10.1002/9781118900772.etrds0027
Kristen Schilt and Laurel Westbrook. 2015. “Bathroom Battleground and Penis Panics.” Contexts. Summer. http://contexts.org/articles/bathroom-battlegrounds-and-penis-panics/