How a Law School Graduate Shifted Her Focus to Sociological Research on Gender, Sexuality, and Intimacy

A sociologist describes how being an outsider on various levels has positively influenced her research. An insatiable curiosity has helped too.

Caroline Harting
June 17, 2022

Over a decade ago, far before the media and political frenzy surrounding the issue of transgender children, Tey Meadow (BC’99), associate professor of sociology, observed how younger children were beginning to live happy and healthy transgender lives. At the time, no one was researching or writing about them, so she decided to do so. Her ethnographic and interview-based work eventually turned into her book, Trans Kids: Being Gendered in the Twenty-First Century.

Throughout her career, Meadow has often found people and topics to examine that academics might avoid. How does she decide on what research she will conduct? “The short answer?” she said. “I just follow my curiosity.”

Columbia News sat down with Meadow to learn more about what motivates her research, why she chose sociology as a field, and how she is currently looking at BDSM relationships to understand power dynamics.

Tell me about your background. You have a law degree, but you’re a sociologist. How did that happen?

I went to law school after college, like many people do, because I didn't know what else to do with my life. I knew that I had a logical mind, so law was appealing. As an undergraduate at Barnard, I had taken a class with Patricia Williams at Columbia Law School. It was called “Women and Notions of Property.” We talked about the legacy of slavery, intergenerational trauma, the emotional life of black letter law. I thought, "This is so fascinating and I'm so inspired by this. I should clearly be a lawyer!" However, when I went to law school, I really enjoyed the coursework, but couldn't find a law job that embodied that same intellectual spirit. I came away thinking that as much as I loved the law in the books, I didn't like the law *on* the books. I began thinking about teaching and writing, and I applied to PhD programs during my last year of law school.

Why sociology?

I first considered law and society programs, and most of these programs are joint ones between law schools and either sociology or political science departments. I knew that politics wasn't my driving interest. For me, it was about interpersonal relationships, identities and social groups, and politics to the extent that they are driven by social movements. I read a bunch of ethnographic books and the ones that felt the most alive to me were written by sociologists. I had discovered queer theory at Barnard and was thrilled by it. And believe it or not, queer theory and sociology share an intellectual heritage. It all began coming together.

Your book, Trans Kids, documents the lives of transgender and gender nonconforming young people with supportive families. What led you to that research?

In 2007, I was writing a totally different dissertation, when I met someone who worked at an organization that went into schools where children were transitioning. I asked him, "You mean you do workshops in colleges?" And he said, "No, I go into primary schools." I had been connected to trans communities in New York City for years, but I still thought of trans as a thing you did once you got out of your parents’ house. I had no idea just how often young people were transitioning publicly and with parent support. I asked him what I should read to get a sense of what was happening, and he replied that there was little information out there on transgender kids. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up. I thought, "This is what I need to be writing about."

I booked a flight that day to shadow the organization through the transition of a fifth grader at a charter school on the outskirts of a major city. I thought I would write an article about it, but I ended up talking to more than 150 parents, kids, clinicians, and activists and traveling all over the country to workshops, trainings, clinical conferences, and schools. I just didn't stop writing about it until the book was done. And as I was writing, the media attention to trans youth exploded. It was total serendipity.

You started researching transgender children almost 15 years ago. What do you see now that is different, positively or negatively, happening with trans kids today?

I think visibility is a double-sided coin. With greater visibility, there's greater acceptance. With greater numbers of clinicians providing mental health services and physical health services, more kids are able to access competent care. At the same time, this visibility has created a perfect opportunity for political conservatives to use trans kids to mobilize support from their constituents. So, now we are seeing this massive, violent backlash. It’s really a scary time.

Moving on to your broader work, why do you think you focus on gender, sexuality, and intimacy?

It's just what's interesting to me. All my projects begin the same way: I see a person or an object in the world, and I become curious about it. And it’s often related to issues that are culturally fraught. Most of my major projects have been met with a lot of anxiety by mentors and peers. Somebody called Trans Kids "career suicide." Somebody else said something similar about the book that I'm writing now. So now, I think that if people aren't sure it's a good idea, I must be on the right track. But, as somebody that came out into the queer world in my teens and moved to New York City to feel like a part of something, these topics have always been interesting to me, and the discomfort of others has never been my North Star.

Describe your latest project.

I'm about halfway through my next book, which is an ethnographic and interview-based study of two different BDSM communities. One is mostly hetero and pansexual and focused around master/slave relationships. The other is queer and focused more around sexuality. But both include people that articulately negotiate unequal distributions of power in their relationships, which is fascinating to me. In this moment when we are tuning in, more and more acutely, to how power works—and particularly how sexualized power works—I think these communities have much to teach us.

How has (or perhaps it hasn’t) your experience as a queer person in New York City had an impact on your work?

I think that being queer gives me a way of looking at the world from outside the fishbowl. And I'm also legally blind, which has probably affected my research as much as my sexuality. I've been an outsider in a lot of different ways. It makes me curious about why normative things are the way they are, and what it means to stand outside normativity. There's this famous saying that sociology "makes the familiar strange." When one is queer, the familiar is already strange in a certain way, or one is aware of one’s strangeness within it, which is really what good ethnographic research entails. I also think that being queer is a joyful experience, and that has influenced not only what I'm interested in, but also how I think and feel and relate to the world with a sense of openness, excitement, and capacity for play.