Rutgers-Newark's Women's and Gender Studies Director Blazes Trail as Trans Woman

Catherine Fitzpatrick
Catherine Fitzpatrick was named director of Rutgers-Newark's Women's and Gender Studies program last fall.
Nick Romanenko/Rutgers University

Catherine Fitzpatrick Uses New Role to Represent Marginalized Communities

A small hour-glass sits atop Catherine Fitzpatrick’s desk in her sparsely decorated Conklin Hall office.

“I use that when a student comes in to talk,” said Fitzpatrick, who became director of Rutgers-Newark’s Women’s and Gender Studies program this fall. “I turn it over, give it two beats, then burst out laughing and say, ‘Don’t worry about it! Stay as long as you need.’”

That playful sense of humor imbues most of her exchanges – whether she’s being “a tyrant about tea,” reciting one of her poems or deftly breaking down gender politics – delivered in a lilting British accent.

An English literature professor at the university since 2014, Fitzpatrick believes she may be the first openly transgender woman in the country to lead a Women’s and Gender Studies program. 

On the face of it, there is nothing earth shattering about the appointment of a professor with Fitzpatrick’s experience and credentials to this position. Born in London to a family of Irish builders, the current Brooklyn resident is Oxford educated, with previous teaching positions at the University of Sheffield and The New School. Fitzpatrick is also an accomplished writer, poet and performer, with a lengthy list of published books, essays, poems, grants, awards and prizes.

There are openly transgender scholars who lead other programs and departments at the university level, according to Yale professor Susan Stryker, one of the country’s foremost scholars on gender issues. But when Fitzpatrick was asked to take the helm of a program dedicated to the study of women and gender – an appointment Stryker also thinks is a first for a transgender woman – it felt like the ultimate validation of her true self.

“I think I can now announce that I have accepted the position of director of Women's Studies at Rutgers University-Newark. Relatedly, we can finally answer the age-old question, ‘how do I know when my transition is over?’”  she wrote in a tweet this fall.

Though she was showered with congratulatory tweets from followers, Fitzpatrick’s happy moment also drew out trolls questioning her appointment. And she knows she will be hounded by some feminist groups that reject the role of trans women in the feminist movement once her story is shared on social media. It is not the first time she has been harassed, vilified or threatened in the 18 years since her transition. She knows it won’t be the last.  

“I think this is precisely the thing that certain feminists feel is a betrayal. The argument tends to recycle itself because there are always new transwomen coming out,” she said. “They come for people without any provocation, but if you avoid engaging them online, they get bored and go away.”

Long before Fitzpatrick came out as trans, she identified as a writer. Her earliest influence – both personally and professionally – was Gerard Manley Hopkins, a 19th century Jesuit priest, poet and closeted gay man – who, much like a younger Fitzpatrick, was at war with himself. 

“My plan was also to be a priest, because, if you think about it, they're kind of the third gender,” she said of her early confusion about her sexual identity. “They wear dresses. They don’t engage in sexual relationships with anybody, but engage in social relationships with everybody.”

But it was through writing that Fitzpatrick found she was able to exorcise the frustration, angst and heartbreak she was experiencing. Today she writes for transgender audiences; lovers of formal poetry and those looking for a laugh. Essays and poems by transgender writers for transgender audiences are still relegated to a small ecosystem of publishers and collectives, Fitzpatrick said, which included Topside Press, where she was poetry editor before it shuttered.

“We published stories about our relationships with each other – loving, being friends, being enemies and engaging,” she said. “Everyone is wounded. Everyone is damaged.”

However, Fitzpatrick is quick to point out that while a trans lady running a Women’s and Gender Studies program is “cool,” it has not escaped her that she is another white professor in a position of power at one of the most diverse universities in the nation. She said she is committed to using her new role to represent marginalized communities – especially those in Newark.

“I don’t want to think about trans-only issues,” she said. “I want courses that talk about a much broader bases of things, courses that focus on race, disability, the struggle for sex worker’s rights and Mad Pride (mental health) movements.”

Rutgers-Newark history professor Whitney Strub, who ran the Women’s and Gender Studies program prior to Fitzpatrick, said her greatest strengths as director are the way she connects with students and her ability to make cutting-edge work in culture, politics and traditional intellectual scholarship accessible to all. That her presence increases trans visibility on campus, he said, is a bonus.

“When I first got to Rutgers-Newark 10 years ago, trans students tended to be much more cautious. People like Cat are trailblazers fostering support and solidarity. It helps validate students to see themselves in authority figures they can relate to,” Strub said. “I love the way she makes trans issues visible but not isolated. They are part of the larger nexus of analytical lenses that we as faculty need to use.”

As the first professor to create and teach a transgender studies course at Rutgers-Newark, Fitzpatrick said it’s been exciting to see students embrace new material and perspectives.

“Rutgers-Newark has been a totally welcoming place,” she said. “The students are fantastic and not at all entitled. They are so thoughtful, so interested in learning and so nice to each other. Teaching here has definitely been an education for me.”