tim: Tim with short hair, smiling, wearing a black jacket over a white T-shirt (Default)
This is the second post in a 4-part series about impostor syndrome (Part 1). I'll be posting one installment per day.

Berkeley 2001-2003

"it's cool to discover someone
it's hard to support them
everyone is playing life
like it's some stupid sport"
-- Ani DiFranco

As for most new Ph.D students in the US, my first year at Berkeley consisted mostly of coursework, and that was what I was used to, so for the most part it went smoothly. At the end of the year, it should have been a warning sign when nobody wanted to be my advisor. One professor I talked to -- the one I'd mentioned in my statement of purpose as who I wanted to work with, and who encouraged me to come to Berkeley when I visited during prospective student day -- said "no" outright, saying he wasn't interested in what I wanted to study (functional programming languages). Another one didn't say no, but had a reputation of being someone who didn't answer email; I was hoping for someone who actually seemed interested in having a student. I ruled out two more professors who seemed close to retirement, and one more because she did scientific computing and that pushed my "I went to a liberal arts school and don't know anything" buttons too much. I ended up with an advisor who told me he was willing to advise me, but given what I was interested in doing, he wasn't going to be very involved and he would basically just be there to sign paperwork. At the time, I thought that was fine. Remember, I didn't like talking to people. I thought I would just work on my own, and that would be easy. Easier than getting up the courage to talk to somebody, anyway.

Later on, I saw it as a personal mistake to have chosen this advisor rather than looking harder for a more involved advisor, or even changing research areas. But part of why I made that decision was structural. I was socially shut out, as I'll discuss, which meant that I wasn't getting any tacit knowledge that would have helped me understand that I did need an advisor who was involved. I know this is a structural factor and not a personal issue because Barbara Lovitts talks about it in her book Leaving the Ivory Tower. That is, she discovered that a major component of grad students' success or failure is the extent to which they can use informal social networks to attain the tacit knowledge that's essential to completing almost any graduate program; faculty and staff rarely communicate this knowledge to students in any systematic way. Official lists of graduation requirements stick to course requirements and the specifications for what constitutes a dissertation -- they don't talk about the unofficial things, like having an advisor you can work with (and who has time for you) and which advisors are likely to be compatible with which kinds of people. Thus, people who find themselves misfits and outsiders in the (figurative) lunchroom in any particular department tend to get pushed out, even if they're just as able as the insiders to complete the academic requirements.

So here's where my impostor syndrome really began. Read more... )

tim: Tim with short hair, smiling, wearing a black jacket over a white T-shirt (Default)
This is the first post in a 4-part series about impostor syndrome. I'll be posting one installment per day.

"Compare the best of their days
With the worst of your days
You won't win..." -- Morrissey

I can't remember exactly when I first encountered the term "impostor syndrome", but I know I was less than ten years old at the time, and I know where I read about it: a book called The Gifted Kid's Survival Guide. I don't think it made much of a mark on me. And knowing what it was early on didn't stop me from developing it later.

This essay is about my experiences with impostor syndrome. One of the reasons why I want to talk about these experiences is that I had them while most people in the world were seeing me as female, though I'm not female. Sometimes people tell me that my experiences are un-representative (of, I guess, anyone except me), but I think they're wrong. My experiences represent those of one person who spent 26 years moving through the world while generally being perceived to be female, albeit (often) gender-non-conforming. I say this not to lay claim to any sort of female socialization, which I didn't have; or to deny that I have male privilege (and probably had some even before I knew I was male); but because if I can say something that helps people understand what cis and trans women, as well as many trans men and genderqueer people, face in trying to find a place for themselves in male-dominated spaces (which is to say, in the world), I want that message to be understood. At the same time, I'm speaking from my position as a white trans man who doesn't have visible disabilities, was raised lower-class, and has a graduate degree and works as a software engineer. I've had it harder than some people and easier than many others, if it even makes sense to compare.

Ideally, I would like to change how historically male-dominated institutions -- specifically in this essay, computer science graduate programs -- try to integrate and welcome women as full participants. While one little blog post can't change the world, it might show a few people that the situation isn't as simple as it may look, and that has ripple effects. So I'm simply going to recount my personal history as a non-traditional learner, then undergraduate, then graduate student at Berkeley, and wherever possible try to draw connections between my experiences and larger social structures. If you remember nothing else from this essay, I hope you remember that when grad programs admit more women as students, it's not enough: to do so without extra attention to structural inequalities sets these students up for failure and actually reinforces sexism. I'll elaborate on that point in the rest of this essay.

Read more... )

tim: "System Status: Degraded" (degraded)
I was working on a post about impostor syndrome, but it got long, and it's not going to get finished tonight. So instead, a quick look into the geekfeminism.org archives: back in August, Mary Gardiner (the other co-founder of the Ada Initiative, along with Valerie Aurora) pointed out: "people love to support geek girls, they are considerably more ambivalent about supporting geek women." It's a great post, and you should go read the whole thing.

I think the issue of why adults seem more willing to support young female (or, possibly, just CAFAB) geeks while (for example) criticizing programming events for teenage or adult women as being "exclusionary" also relates to the issue of ownership that I talked about yesterday. A five-year-old who wants to take a Star Wars water bottle to school isn't a threat to adult male geeks' turf. She's not competing with them for jobs, and she's also not doing the same work as them and (in their minds) lowering its status by making it work that a woman could do. She's just a cute kid. Talking about the structural factors that exclude young adults and adults from working in tech and being part of geek culture (where the latter is often necessary for the former) if they happen to be socially placed as female is harder. It's less comfortable; it's more threatening to the systems that reinforce some men's notions of their value and worth, as well as giving them unearned advantages, like getting paid more than women for doing the same work. It's also hard to talk about how endemic sexual harassment and sexual assault are in supposedly "professional" spaces in the tech industry -- an issue that (we'd at least like to think) is not so looming for kindergartners. It's hard because talking about it honestly means beginning to acknowledge that rape and abuse happen because all of us get taught to accept and sometimes even encourage them; not because a few aberrant individuals are monsters.

Changing minds -- even just creating a space where we don't stop encouraging everyone who's not cis and male the minute they turn 11 -- is long, hard work. The Ada Initiative is doing that work, and if you support them, you'll be helping with it. And if you let me know, you'll be helping me get 8 more people -- for a total of 20 -- to donate for my 0x20th birthday! By doing so, you can join the ranks of the fantastic [personal profile] miang, [personal profile] yam, [personal profile] cidney, [personal profile] nentuaby, [twitter.com profile] leilazilles, [personal profile] pseudomonas, [twitter.com profile] davidcarr_2001, and [personal profile] pastwatcher! (Just to name the people who donated non-anonymously, in the past 24 hours.)
tim: "System Status: Degraded" (degraded)
I promised I was going to post something related every day until I reached 20 donors for the Ada Initiative for my 32nd birthday. So far: 3 down, 17 to go!
I'm going to start with Valerie Aurora's absolutely brilliant post, 'Connecting the dots: "Everyday sexism" and the École Polytechnique massacre'. Valerie Aurora is a co-founder of and executive director of the Ada Initiative.

Really, I could just link to this post, tell you emphatically to read it, and leave it at that. But there's a little more I want to add, since the topic of Aurora's post is an incident that directly affected me: not the École Polytechnique massacre, that is, but the most recent events involving the the Planet Mozilla controversy and the harassment of my colleague Christie Koehler that resulted from it.

Aurora writes:
This anniversary is important for women in technology in part because it connects obvious, overt crimes against women in technology with the ugly root system of "everyday" sexism that feeds and sustains it. Lépine left a long note explaining why he targeted women: feminists had ruined his life ("les féministes qui m'ont toujours gaché la vie"). In particular, he told people that women in technology caused him to be unable to get a job or complete a university degree in technology.


It's pretty obvious that there is a parallel -- in intention if not in effect -- between the massacre and the death threat that Christie received from a person who had an interest in what goes on in the open-source community. In my opinion, these two examples of hostility -- from men in the tech community, aimed at women in the tech community -- clearly show the source of a lot of the more everyday, more insidious hostility towards women in the software industry and especially open source. The hostility comes from men defending what they believe to be their property. Lépine believed that he was entitled to have an engineering job -- to the point where he should not have to face competition from women who were as qualified as he was, or more qualified than him. To defend his turf, he literally murdered women who were potential rivals with him for jobs. As with any hate crime, his action also served as a warning to all women who might consider studying or working in engineering: that if you encroach on a man's turf, he might defend it by killing you, and that engineering is a man's turf.

While less harsh in its consequences, a death threat from someone who believes that the open-source community should be a heterosexual men's club serves the same purpose: to terrorize, to instill fear in any women who participate or might think about participating that if they question anything about how they're being treated, someone might hurt or kill them. Hans Reiser, who was at least formerly an accepted and influential member of the open-source community, made this less hypothetical by murdering his wife, Nina Reiser. While Nina Reiser was not a programmer herself, this incident shows that committing extreme violence against women is not incompatible with being in the open-source community -- that you can't assume that just because someone is your colleague, or works on the same project, that they're not capable of hating women enough to kill one.

So far, I don't expect what's been said to be too controversial. But, as Aurora did, I also want to problematize the incident that set off the Planet Mozilla controversy and gave rise to the discussions that made at least one person (whose identity is not known at this date) feel so passionate about defending the right of some other people to use a work space to say certain things that they were willing to threaten somebody's life over it. That is: a paid Mozilla contributor made a statement on his blog, which was syndicated on Mozilla's blog aggregator, encouraging readers to sign a petition that says: "I support the legal definition of marriage which is the voluntary union for life of one man and one woman."

Now let's talk about what this means. Opponents of universal marriage might say that they don't hate or fear gay, lesbian, bisexual, pansexual, intersex, genderqueer, transgender, or transsexual people -- just that they want to make sure that "marriage" "means what it's always meant". But clearly, this "always" statement is based on universalizing a very particular white, heterosexual, monogamous, middle- to upper-class, Protestant, Western European definition of "marriage" (and it might be something even more specific than that) in a way that denies history. So the concept of "not wanting to change what it's always meant" is a red herring, since there is no single thing that marriage has "always meant".

I think what's really going on is about ownership as well. The aforementioned privileged group (a subset of individuals who are white, heterosexual, Protestant, and so on) believe that they own the concept of marriage and have the right to exclude people from it as they choose. They think marriage belongs to them. Let's make a table. By the way: when I say "fundamentalists" in the heading, I'm not meaning to imply that all opponents of universal marriage are religious. I also don't mean to blame the abstraction of "religion" for the misguided beliefs of real, concrete human beings. They are responsible for their beliefs, which can't be blamed on an abstract concept. I'm religious myself, so I know that many religious people hold open and accepting views, and many non-religious people hold bigoted, narrow views. Rather, the group I mean to name is that group that uses obsessive, almost fetishistic attention to the literal meanings of words (always according to dictionaries they wrote) as a weapon. Many of these people identify as religious, but not all.

Violent, misogynist men in the tech industryFundamentalists
Believe themselves to be superior to womenBelieve their relationships to be more sacred than, more moral than, better for society than, better for children than, just all-around better than queer people's relationships with each other
Rely on their roles as hackers, programmers or engineers to reinforce their self-esteemRely on the concept of "traditional marriage" in order to feel good about themselves and their relationships
Feel that open-source belongs to them and they have the right to enforce who enters geek/nerd/hacker spacesFeel that marriage belongs to them and they have the exclusive right to decide whose marriages the government recognizes
Are sometimes willing to use outright violence, or at least threats thereof, to protect their turfUse legislative and rhetorical violence to protect their turf, diminishing the quality of queer people's lives in real and concrete ways

Some people might say that fundamentalists don't deserve to be compared to murderers. Honestly, I couldn't care less how fundamentalists feel about being compared to murderers. When fundamentalists start thinking about how it feels for me when they tell me their relationships are better than mine, maybe then I'll start thinking about how they feel about the comparison. My activism is not to "convince" or "persuade" fundamentalists that it's more rewarding and enriching to see oneself as equal in worth and dignity to others than to see oneself as others' master, anyway -- I don't think I'm clever enough to convince them of that. My activism is to convince people like me to not sit down and take it.

I'm not saying that fundamentalists' feelings don't matter. Everyone's feelings are real, everyone's feelings matter. But there's a difference between having a feeling, and compelling someone else to care about it. If a fundamentalist tells me it hurts their feelings to be grouped together with violent people, I'm sure that they really do feel that way. But I can't address their concern if, when I engage with the person, all that happens is that they:

  • tell me that their intentions ought to govern me (i.e., that I'm not allowed to have any feelings about their words or actions that they didn't intend to make me have)
  • tell me that I'm obligated to sacrifice my autonomy to protect their abstractions (e.g. "traditional marriage")
  • refuse to acknowledge that it hurts to be told that you're inferior
  • even, sometimes, refuse to acknowledge that their actions could make people feel inferior

I have seen this pattern from both fundamentalists and misogynists too many times. Were I to spend my compassion on such people, I'd be entering into an abusive relationship: one where I am asked to consider another person's feelings, but they don't consider mine. I can't afford to pay that price. And that's the long way of saying that yes, I've considered what it means to draw an analogy between people who advocate that the state should repress queer people and people who commit violent crimes, and no, I'm not going to censor myself for the sake of the feelings of people who already hold power and privilege.

And, of course, I am not saying that rhetoric and murder are literally the same. They are different. But we can all agree on that. Where I disagree with some is that I'm not satisfied being told "You should be grateful we're only suggesting to other people that you're disposable, rather than killing you directly." Saying that we're second-class -- by designating us as the one class of adults that isn't allowed the basic freedom of having our relationships recognized as serious and committed -- as adult -- does send the message that we're disposable.

So, I believe that when an open-source community like Mozilla tolerates anti-universal-marriage rhetoric in a form that lives under a Mozilla domain name, that is tacit endorsement of an entitlement, on the part of fundamentalists, to claim marriage as their own and to use rhetorical violence -- language that implicitly (through appeal to a host of cultural baggage about the relative value of heterosexuals' and queer people's relationships) proclaims people like me as less good and less deserving of fair treatment than heterosexuals are. The spirited defense, in terms of so-called "free speech", that quite a few members of the community mounted of their right to use the blog aggregator in this manner -- as well as the total failure of Mozilla leadership to condemn the anti-universal-marriage statements as contrary to Mozilla's philosophy of openness and inclusion -- connotes, to me, the way in which violence against women and subordination of queer people are intertwined. And if it wasn't clear, the fact that one of our colleagues, a person who works in the same office as I do, explicitly told Christie and me that we didn't belong at Mozilla and should go somewhere else, as well as the fact that this person faced no concrete consequences for what he did, drives that message home. And if that wasn't clear, the fact that somebody with a stake in it was so passionate about fundamentalists' right to use any platform to defend their turf that they were willing to make a death threat drives home -- tellingly, aimed only at Christie (not at me, though I've been equally vocal) and shot through with disgusting comments about her gender, sexuality, and body -- that it's all connected.

You might ask me at this point whether I'm engaging in mind-reading when I argue that fundamentalists are really defending their turf, rather than defending "traditional marriage". I don't have time for that question. I'm entitled to interpret what you say, just as you're entitled to interpret what I say. A basic measure of respect adults grant to each other is to recognize that other people won't automatically trust you, assume you're telling the truth, or believe you when you state your motivations. I'm happy to hear someone tell me that I'm wrong or that I'm right, but deflecting attention from the content of what I'm writing by questioning my right to have higher-order thoughts about my social superiors -- insinuating that I'm obligated to believe that cops never lie, teachers tell the truth, and authority figures are always open and honest -- is just a way of derailing the discussion from substance into vacuous meta-discussion.

So what does this all have to do with the Ada Initiative? Well, I think the problems we have in open source are not primarily due to the relatively small number of men who are willing to commit physical violence or threaten it in order to keep open source a boys' club. Rather, I think they're due to the large majority of men in the community who are sympathetic to women's issues, who want to change things but aren't sure how, or who stay silent at everyday sexism -- the remarks that, as Aurora showed quite well, create an environment where more serious acts of violence flourish. The work of the Ada Initiative is helping make it easier to do the right thing instead of staying silent. Their work on codes of conduct for tech conferences has already made it easier for a woman in the software industry to attend a professional conference without worrying she'll be sexually assaulted or harassed -- something that almost all men in the industry take for granted.

I support the Ada Initiative because I stand with cis women, with trans women, with trans men, with genderqueer people, with queer cis men, who don't want to own the world -- who don't want to control a community or an industry -- but who just want to govern their own lives. People who want to make a good living, do honest work, and collaborate with others to build tools that will make life easier and better for people. These are modest goals, but if enough of the industry remains complicit in misogyny, they won't be achieved. Likewise, as queer people, we don't want to define marriage for everybody else and exclude people who aren't like ourselves from deciding what it means. We just want to live our lives, too: paying our fair share in taxes, visiting our partners in the hospital, raising children if we choose to, transferring property when we die, and so on. And where these two threads come together is that I still work in an industry that doesn't recognize that opposition to universal marriage is both a mainstream political view and hate speech that makes people in a minority group feel unwelcome and unsafe.

If you agree with me that the Ada Initiative's work is important, please wish me a happy 32nd birthday and make a donation. And then let me know. By doing so, you can be as cool as [personal profile] juli, [personal profile] etb, and Henry!
tim: "System Status: Degraded" (degraded)
Tomorrow is Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR). I was debating whether I should write about TDOR, because erica, ascendant and Monica Maldonado have already spoken so much truth on the subject. If you haven't read what they wrote, you should go read it. I'll wait.

The only TDOR event I've attended was two years ago, at Portland State University. To the organizers' credit, Tobi Hill-Meyer was a featured speaker. But other than her speech and showing of her movie, there wasn't a whole lot in the program that was on-topic. What I remember most about the evening was the "genderqueer acrobatics" performance, featuring a number of mostly white youths in furry costumes, cavorting. It didn't seem appropriate for a memorial, any more than a dance party -- which is apparently happening tomorrow as part of more than one city's TDOR event -- is. Do white people jump for joy at the deaths of trans women of color? One might be left thinking so.

I think that part and parcel of this fundamental not getting it is the characterization of violence against trans women of color -- which makes up the overwhelming majority of reported violence against trans and gender-non-conforming people -- as "transphobic violence" or "violence against transgender people".

It's no such thing.

As people like Erica and Monica have already written about, violence against trans women of color is fundamentally violence against women -- specifically, those women who are most vulnerable due to the intersecting oppressions (such as race, poverty, and participation in sex work) they experience. Being trans makes a woman even more vulnerable to violence, because there is no place in the world where law enforcement has much, or any, motivation to investigate a violent crime against a trans woman, particularly a trans woman of color who's not wealthy. It's not that violence against trans women of color happens because of some special kind of violence that's different from run-of-the-mill violence against women because it's rooted in transphobia. It's more indirect: yes, trans women make easier targets, but to understand the real story you have to understand misogyny, racism, poverty -- in other words, the same issues that make cis women vulnerable to violence. Strangely enough, violence (to personify it) seems to be more respectful towards trans women's genders than are the trans men and cis women who often organize events like TDOR. While the latter group seems to need to construct a narrative of transphobia to explain violence against trans women -- so unable are they to see that men commit violence against trans women because they're women -- certain men show that they see trans women as women, by treating them in the same way they treat cis women: only more violent.

When trans men organizing TDOR celebrations talk about the suffering of "transgender people", when academics like Dean Spade make their entire careers off talking about the litany of ways in which "transgender people" are oppressed, they're being wildly misleading. Perhaps not intentionally, in most cases. But it still comes off as self-aggrandizing when college-educated white trans men (like myself!) talk about how they could be killed for being trans, when the worst thing they've ever experienced was someone looking at them funny in the men's room, once.

I don't mean to say that even the most privileged white trans men never face oppression for being trans. Health insurance companies are allowed to deny us needed medical care because we're trans, which affects all but the very richest of us. Many of us can't get government-issued identification that reflects our sexes correctly, which is humiliating if nothing else. I've personally known trans men who had trouble getting employment due to being perceived as trans men. I could go on, but I won't. There are issues that affect all, or almost all, trans people, regardless of their privilege along other axes. And no one should feel that those issues aren't important to work on just because someone, somewhere is suffering more.

So I am totally not opposed to someone working on health insurance discrimination in the US, for example, because that's the issue that moves them, even though having health insurance at all is a privilege many trans people lack. What's wrong, though, is erasing and distracting from the experiences of trans women facing intersecting oppressions by blurring the boundaries with the phrase "transgender people". That phrase groups together trans people who, in fact, profit from white supremacy and unequal distribution of incomes (hello, like me) with trans people who are being profited off, and implies a common set of interest where there is none. The same set of forces that means trans women of color often get the rawest deal even within a particular underclass is the set of forces that allows me to earn a very comfortable living by pressing buttons on a computer all day.

Therefore, for me -- or someone who resembles me -- to go on a stage tomorrow and talk about all the violence that "transgender people" suffer would be wrong. It would be self-aggrandizing. For me to pretend that there is something significant that makes me more similar to a trans woman of color doing sex work and living in poverty than I am to a white cis man running a well-funded Silicon Valley startup would be dishonest. And it would be hard not to see that as a cynical attempt for me to use dead women as instruments to advance a political agenda that -- because it serves the most privileged rather than the least -- isn't really about much other than a self-perpetuating machine of publicity and fundraising.

The rhetorical sleight of hand in grouping all trans people's experience together with the phrase "transgender people" is not just inaccurate and imprecise. It's actively harmful in a way that's very much like the use of "die cis scum" as a rallying cry for some white trans people. The ability to prioritize cis people's oppression of trans people as the most piercing injustice is a reflection of privilege: the privilege of being someone who expects to be in a position to dominate others, but is blocked from being in that position solely by being placed as transsexual and/or transgender. Just as seeing cis people as the only threat is a luxury for those who can rely on white trans people to have their back, garnering sympathy because one could be "killed for being trans" is a privilege reserved for those who can identify a unitary threat to their rightful place of privilege, a single reason why they can't live life at the very lowest difficulty setting.

Clearly, we white trans people (and the cis people who love us) need a common enemy to rally against. But because there's so little violence against us that could reasonably be called "transphobic" (there's a movie called "Boys Don't Cry" because it is indeed so rare for a white trans man to be attacked; if there was a movie about every trans woman of color who met a violent death, there could be an entire category for them on Netflix), it's hard for us to make our movement seem vivid enough to get people interested. Health insurance exclusion clauses, medical gatekeeping, and state bureaus of vital records that refuse to change gender markers on birth certificates are not exactly the stuff of which an attention-getting crusade for justice is made. But the answer isn't to steal stories from people whose lives have inherent value because they were, or are, who they are, as opposed to because a more socially privileged person can use them as an instrument.

What's the harm in all of this? Isn't it always good to raise awareness? But when a group like the Transgender Law Center gives an "Ambassador Award" to Chaz Bono, a man who told the New York Times that testosterone made him feel bored when women were talking, you have to wonder whether ameliorating misogyny matters to self-styled trans activists. (The same group saw it as a priority to help Bono file a legal name change, something that many trans people of more modest means do on their own, without help from a nonprofit.) I think there's a connection between how many groups that claim to be concerned with "LGBT rights", or even with "trans rights", serve mainly the most privileged, and the treatment of trans people's experience as unitary that's exemplified by TDOR and its accompanying rhetoric of "violence against transgender people". The result is a fundamental misdirection of resources. It's been pretty rigorously shown that trickle-down economics doesn't work, and I don't believe that trickle-down social justice works, either.

If it makes you feel good to watch candles being lit and listen to people who look like me mispronounce the last names of people who, well, don't, then it's possible that nothing I've just said will change that. I'm mainly writing this to sort out my thoughts. I've been wanting for a long time to do more than just write about trans activism, to get involved, but I've never been able to see a place to start that clearly does more good than harm. So maybe that's a sign that it would be more effective to work for health care and fair working conditions for everyone, cis people and trans people.
tim: Tim with short hair, smiling, wearing a black jacket over a white T-shirt (Default)
I've mentioned obliquely that I've been dealing with some money issues this past year. I'm paying off a large amount of debt for health care (both emergency and planned care). Though I've been covered by health insurance the entire time, because as a trans person, I'm considered a second-class citizen, my insurers can arbitrarily decide not to cover my care. So a third of my net paycheck every month goes to paying off those debt. I'm about to move to a place without indoor plumbing just so I can pay back that debt faster and waste less money on interest.

Even so, I decided to donate to The Ada Initiative (TAI) this year, which is a non-profit organization that works to increase the representation of women in open-source software as well as other open culture projects (like Wikipedia). I've donated to TAI before, but this time I donated at the Ada's Angel level. Partly, the timing was because TAI just completed a successful fundraising drive and while I wasn't able to be part of helping them reach their goal, I wanted to get in on the tail end of that (and snag a totally sweet T-shirt); partly, it was because I just got my quarterly bonus at work. Given that I make my living writing open-source code, donating 10% of my net bonus to TAI seemed more than fair.

I donated to TAI because I benefit from sexism, and I donated to TAI because I benefit from having a more inclusive and more egalitarian work environment. Paradoxical? Not if you're familiar with intersectionality. Because I'm male, and have conditional cis privilege (that is, it's rare for people to question or invalidate my sex and gender unless I choose to mention that I have a transsexual body), unearned privilege accrues to me that makes my life and, particularly, my career easier. Other guys in my industry recognize me as "one of us". It wasn't always that way for me, so I know what the difference can be between being seen as a man and being seen as a woman. Maybe because I was never seen as a typical woman (whatever that means!), I avoided a lot of the worst of sexism and harassment. But I know that it's easier to work in software now that I'm being seen as who I am; fortunately, being seen as who I am also makes me happier than pretending to be someone I'm not. It's easier to interact with colleagues when they don't make joking comments about how they hope your spouse doesn't mind them going to lunch with you. It's easier to form social connections when you're not seen as useless because you're perceived as neither male nor available for sex. It's easier to work when people are willing to talk to you behind closed doors, because they don't see you as a sexual harassment lawsuit waiting to happen. I enjoy those benefits now not because I work harder than women, or because I'm smarter than they are, but simply because men recognize me as being like themselves. Donating money hardly makes up for having that unearned privilege, but it's a start towards leveling the playing field.

The other side of it is that I'm a queer man and a trans man, and a man who's not comfortable being in environments that subordinate women. I find homogeneous groups to be toxic. While TAI doesn't focus specifically on addressing homophobia and transphobia in open-source, what makes the environment safer for women is frequently also what makes the environment safer for queer men, trans men, and non-binary-identified people as well. The same kinds of "humor", "jokes", and political comments that get used to mark a space as unsafe for women are also used to marginalize those who are seen as men who aren't doing masculinity well enough: queer men. While some of the details are different, as a queer man I want the same thing that women in my industry do: to be seen as an equal partner and to be able to get through the day without hearing casual reminders that the people around me see me as inferior. So while it's easier for me to work in tech than it is for many women, I would still be more comfortable if it wasn't the case that my comfort comes at the expense of somebody else.

That's why, even though I didn't have a lot of money to spare right now, I donated to TAI as an investment in continuing to be able to work, continuing to be able to use the skills I've spent a lot of time developing. There's not much point in saving money if a month or a year or three years from now, I'm no longer able to work because the stress of being in a marginalized minority group gets to be too much for me. I trust Valerie Aurora and Mary Gardiner, who lead TAI, to choose the right priorities to change the culture. Already, TAI has had a significant effect in encouraging open/tech conferences to adopt anti-harassment policies. Making it possible for a woman to attend a technical conference without being afraid she'll get groped is hardly all that needs to be done to make the field open to everyone, but it's a necessary step along the way.

With that said, I think it's important for the voices of trans women, women with disabilities, and women of color to be heard more often and in greater numbers when determining our priorities. The movement to include women in tech shouldn't just be for white, abled, cis women. I think that there needs to be way more diversity even within the group of women interested in pushing for greater inclusion and equality. Women facing intersecting oppressions have issues that women whose only axis of oppression is gender either don't face, or don't face as severely, and only they can say what their own liberation would look like. And if "include women in tech" actually means "you have to be white, cis and abled to be a woman in tech", that isn't really inclusion at all, because it means there's a restrictive standard that women have to meet to get included that men aren't subject to. So I think there's change that needs to happen in this department, but that isn't a reason not to support organizations that exist right now.

My inner concern troll, which is harder to ignore than any real-life concern troll on the Internet, says, "With so many bad things in the world, why support women in tech, who are already privileged enough to have gotten the training required to even consider entering the field?" But that's a false choice: it falsely frames an unjust distribution of resources as genuine and inevitable scarcity. Justice for one group of people doesn't inherently come at the cost of justice for another group. Really, a better question is "when privileged men in tech enjoy so much status, why shouldn't women have the same opportunities?" It's awful to use the suffering of some "other" (whether that's people in another country, in another social class, or whatever) as a distraction because you're terrified that you might lose your privilege if more people have access to it. It's also awful to suggest that women should be satisfied with having enough food, where white, cis, hetero men in developed nations consider themselves entitled to far more than that.

The fact is that almost every issue in the world is less important than something else. Perhaps every issue, because how can you come up with a total order that ranks all problems by importance? Such an ordering would inevitably be biased to one person's, or one group's, priorities. I believe that no one is going to look out for my survival as a queer trans man if I don't, and by investing in my own ability to continue to make a living as a queer trans man in the world, I'm just doing what anyone who is obligated to be responsible for their own survival would do.

You can derail with "many bad things in the world" all you want -- deciding on the most important thing is a great way to stop people from doing anything -- but the fact remains that a world in which the best jobs are unavailable to women is not a just world. And a world where women can only have these jobs if they're ten times better than the average man and willing to undergo humiliation is not a just world either. Saying I should support "starving people" (othering!) instead is saying that everyone should settle for less. It's deflecting attention from what the most privileged people have in order to urge us to accept whatever standard of living is slightly higher than the lowest possible one. All we're asking, after all, is for people to have the same opportunities regardless of the gender they're socially placed in.

If you're someone who has enjoyed the privilege of working in the tech industry, particularly in open source, and particular if you haven't had to fight exclusion because of your social placement, I encourage you to give back just a little bit of what you've reaped by donating to the Ada Initiative. That is, at least, if you think everybody should have the same opportunities that you had.
tim: "System Status: Degraded" (degraded)
It's usually a good thing when people talk about ways to increase women's participation in programming communities. I used to be active in the Haskell community, so normally, that the subject came up during the annual "Future of Haskell" discussion at this year's Haskell Symposium would be something for me to cheer about.

Sometimes, men talk about the gender disparity in tech communities as if there's some big mystery. I have to conclude that these guys haven't talked to women who currently work in computer science academia and the tech industry, or who did and then left. As someone who was perceived as a girl or woman doing computer science for 12 years, my solution to the lack of women in tech is:

Stop telling women that they aren't welcome and don't belong.



During the "Future of Haskell" discussion, Doaitse Swierstra (a professor of computer science at the University of Utrecht), suggested that a good way to increase the number of Haskell programmers would be to recruit one woman for every man in the room and that this would be a good thing because it would "make the meetings more attractive".

In other words: he followed a call for more participation by women with exactly the kind of comment that tells women that a space is unsafe for them.

Suggesting that more women would be welcomed at a conference because they would make it "more attractive" is saying that women are valued for how they look, not for what they do. If you've ever heard the words "objectification" or "hypersexualization" and not known what they meant, well, look no further than this comment for an example. And because many women see spaces where they are targets for the male gaze as spaces where they will be targets for more than just men's gazes, it's a comment that carries the underlying message that the computer science conference under discussion is not, in fact, a place where a self-protecting woman ought to be. It's not that Prof. Swierstra said any of this outright, of course. He didn't have to. English-speaking academicians are part of that subset of the world in which everyone comes pre-installed with the cultural programming that means a few words about the "attractiveness" that more women participants would bring to the Haskell Symposium evoke a whole world of stereotypes -- ones that limit women's choices, careers, and lives.

Swierstra's remarks were also potentially alienating to any non-heterosexual men who were present, as they reflected an assumption that he was speaking to an audience of people who found women, and only women, "attractive". Finally, there is a tacit understanding when one talks about "attractive" women that one is talking about women who have cissexual bodies, are thin, aren't disabled, and are in a particular, narrow age range. So apparently, if you're a woman and not all of those descriptors apply to you, maybe you shouldn't think about learning Haskell, as your presence wouldn't make the Haskell Symposium more attractive (to heterosexual men).

So while Prof. Swierstra may have meant no harm -- may indeed have meant to do good by encouraging efforts to increase women's participation in the Haskell community -- what matters is not his intent, but the effect of his words. (Everyone who's ever written code knows that the compiler doesn't care about your intent; extend that to your interactions with other people, and you might find yourself behaving more fairly.) Any women who were in the room for the meeting (and when I have attended it in the past, there have always been at least a few) got the message that if they weren't there to be pretty, why were they there? And any women who watched the video of the discussion (relevant part begins around 32 minutes in) got the message that the Haskell community is a community that tolerates sexism.

When I watched the video, what I heard after Prof. Swierstra's comment about attractiveness was laughter. No one called him out; the discussion moved on. I might be wrong here, but the laughter didn't sound like the nervous laughter of people who have recognized that they've just heard something terrible, but don't know quite what to do about it, either (though I'm sure that was the reaction of some attendees). It sounded like the laughter of people who were amused by something funny.

It would have taken just one person to stand up at that moment and say, "That was sexist and it's not acceptable here." (That person would probably have to be a senior faculty member or researcher, someone of equal rank to Prof. Swierstra; challenging a male, senior researcher is not something a female grad student (or even maybe a male grad student) should be expected to do.) But nobody did. And that's what really disappoints me. Structural sexism persists not because of the few people who do and say blatantly bad things, but because of the majority who tolerate them. People say things like the things Prof. Swierstra said because they are socially rewarded for it: they can get a few laughs. Also, they can display their membership in a high-status group (heterosexual men). Take the reward away, and the comments and actions that exclude go away too.

I expected more from the people who attend the Haskell Symposium. I expected more because for years, I attended ICFP and the Haskell Symposium, and even in the days when I didn't identify as male and didn't usually challenge others' perception of me as a woman, I felt like I was in a community where I belonged when I was there. For the most part, I didn't feel like my perceived gender was called attention to, and I felt like I would be judged based on what I could contribute to a conversation rather than on whether a man would find my appearance pleasing. If my first Haskell Symposium as a twenty-year-old had been in 2012 instead of 2000, I wouldn't have come away with the same impression. And I don't know if I would have gone back.

I'm no longer in the community of people who attend ICFP, and I no longer work on Haskell projects. My academic career ended a year ago when I was told that I couldn't be a grad student if I didn't want to interact with another student I'd witnessed joking about raping a fellow student. I have a job that doesn't involve Haskell, and lack the privilege of having spare time and energy left to do programming projects when I'm done with paying work. There have been days when I've had regrets. Today is not one of them. If I'd continued doing functional programming research, I could have been an agent for change; sexism no longer affects me directly now that folks have to have it spelled out for them that I'm not a cis man. Still, I don't feel like a community that makes somebody feel like it's acceptable to say that women would add "attractiveness" to a professional meeting is a community that I belong in.

If you are a man in this community, please don't feel like you have no power. You actually have a lot of power: you can let people who make these comments know that sexism isn't okay. The Geek Feminism Wiki's "Resources for allies" page is one resource that can help; the wiki also has a page of good sexism comebacks. Some comebacks that might have helped in this situation are: "I don't think that sounds as funny as you want it to sound"; "Who let you think it would be okay to say something like that?"; "Excuse me? / "I'm sorry, I don't quite understand what you're trying to say. Could you state it more plainly?"; "It sounds like you are implying <sexist thing>. I'm sure you don't really think that. <change subject>"; "That was sexist"; and (if used by the moderator) "We're done" and "That was sexist, and that is not acceptable here." Of course, there are others. The most important thing you can do to be an ally is to listen to women, and people who are perceived as women, in your community. Don't lecture people about how to respond to difficulties you haven't faced; simply learn from their own self-reporting of their experiences. Of course, don't demand that others educate you without establishing trust, either.

Countering sexism requires courage and (in Samuel Delany's words) moral stamina. It is work that largely needs to be done by men, since men who tacitly believe that women aren't quite human are hardly going to listen to women's opinions on the subject. For men to do this work, of course, they have to believe that women belong in their communities, that women are more than just attractive bodies, and that their communities will benefit from the inclusion of women -- benefit in ways that are not about aesthetics. Whether from within or without, I hope that the Haskell community will include more men who have this courage and who believe these principles -- whether or not the presence of those men makes the community more attractive.


Addendum: If you're coming here from Reddit, please take the time to read four background pieces that are part of my earlier series of essays "A Problem With Equality": "Power and privilege", "Systems and individuals", "What oppression is", and "Emotional invalidation". Most criticisms of the piece you're reading have already been answered in one of these essays.
tim: "System Status: Degraded" (degraded)
I'm taking time off during a workday to write this, but damn it, if I don't, I'm just going to explode here.

About midway through 2011, when it looked like there was a good chance I was staying in California for a while, I went to get a California's driver's license. I had had a CA license before, using my former legal name. This time, I checked off male as my gender, since I had my passport with me (which I'd already had corrected) and nobody was likely to question that I was male. The worker at the DMV looked up my old records when I said I'd previously had a driver's license in CA (I didn't mention that my name was different, since he didn't ask) but he didn't find anything. A week later or so I got a new CA license in the mail.

An entire year later, I got a letter in the mail from the DMV asking me to submit a DL-329 form to change my gender, with a threat that my driver's license would be invalidated three weeks from the date of the letter if I didn't do this. (They took a year to figure out they'd made a mistake, but gave me three weeks to address the issue.) I called the number on the letter, and talked to a person who works for the Records and Security Division. She explained that because there were two entries for people with the same Social Security number but different names and genders (my old name and my new name), that looked as if there were two people using the same Social Security number. To prove that these were the same person, I sent them a copy of my legal name change decree from five years ago, as well as my passport. That was about a month ago.

Since I'm buying a car, I wanted to check that my license was still valid, so I called the person I talked to before again. She said that she had received the documents, but if I didn't submit a DL-329 form, the DMV would invalidate my current license and I would have to go get a new license with an 'F' gender marker. I asked her if it was correct that she was asking me to carry a driver's license that says I'm female, and a passport that says I'm male, and she said that was correct. I asked how she expected me to prove that I should have an 'F' gender marker, since when I went to the DMV the worker would clearly see that I present as male. She said I should bring a copy of my birth certificate. I asked if it's correct that California disregards federal law by requiring people to have a different gender on their ID than the gender on their federal government ID. She said yes.

I am not up for debating why I don't want to fill in the DL-329 form and I will delete any comments that try to argue with me about this. I don't agree with the idea that either the motor vehicle registry or a doctor is more qualified to assess whether my "demeanor" is "male" or "female" than I am. I also don't know what it means to have a "male" or "female" demeanor. If I put barrettes in my hair, does that make my demeanor "female"? I don't think the DMV or anyone who was involved in making the law that underlies this form knows what it means to have a "male" or "female" demeanor, either.

Besides that, it's sex discrimination to subject trans people to a process of having their "demeanor" assessed as male or female just to be able to drive a car (and what if your demeanor is neither male nor female?), when cis people aren't required to prove what their gender is or get a doctor's signature to prove their demeanor is male or female.

So, now I have the options of either not only not driving, but not having any government ID other than my passport; or turning in my current driver's license in exchange for one with the wrong gender on it. I honestly don't understand why California feels the need to have a definition of what gender I am that's different from the federal government's definition. (Yeah, I know legal gender doesn't actually exist and is just a name to cover up a process of institutionalized bullying -- that's sort of the point.)

I don't see why I can't just keep my driver's license the way it is, especially given that having the correct gender on my license for the past year hasn't harmed anyone.

I would like suggestions, but "ask _____", where the blank is filled in with any well-known trans rights organization, is not going to cut it. Sorry. All the organizations that I know of appear to think that the current process is just fine and there's nothing wrong with making trans people, but not cis people, fill out a DL-329 form to get correct ID. If you have actual evidence that this isn't so, please share, but otherwise, yes, it has already occurred to me to talk to whatever organization you're thinking of, and no, I don't think that's going to work. Many trans people are happy with the current system of gatekeeping and don't see a reason to change that. I just don't see why anyone should have to fill out a demeaning and dehumanizing form just to be able to drive a car or, less than that, write a check or buy liquor. And as I said, I'm not up for debating this, only for receiving practical suggestions about solving the problem at hand. As such, all comments are screened.

I'm also wondering what happens if I correct my birth certificate before going to the DMV, and thus have no documentation left to show that "proves" I'm female (let's not talk about the absurdity to have to prove something that's false in order to get a driver's license). Unfortunately, Massachusetts's requirements involve proof of what they erroneously call "sex reassignment surgery", and while I happen to have that, I don't want to tacitly approve of a system that says that having surgery changes people's sex or gender, which it doesn't do. Then again, is it a lesser evil to supply proof of surgery in order to get a correct birth certificate that I can then use to buffalo California and their unarguably more objectionable rules?
tim: Tim with short hair, smiling, wearing a black jacket over a white T-shirt (Default)
A couple weeks ago, Zoe Moyer, a student at Wellesley and writer for the Wellesley news, emailed me asking my opinion about a petition to make Wellesley admissions gender-neutral. I explained that in my opinion, Wellesley is already not a single-sex institution and the question is whether to admit people who were coercively assigned male at birth, not whether to admit men (since Wellesley already admits men, provided they were coercively assigned female at birth).

The article was published last week, but unfortunately, it appears I didn't make myself very clear in my comments, as the first part of the passage where my name is mentioned is accurate about my views, but the second part isn't. I wrote the following email to Zoe:
I'm afraid that something I wrote in my email may have
been unclear, because of this quote:

'Because transgender women are also allowed to apply to Wellesley,
Chevalier said that Wellesley "need[s] to be honest…and stop referring
to [itself] as a single-sex college.'"

The quote makes it look like I believe that trans women are not women,
and that's absolutely something I do not believe. Trans women don't
make Wellesley not-a-single-sex-college; trans *men* do. The quote
would reflect what I believe if "women" was changed to "men". Would
you mind printing a correction? I would hate for anyone to come away
from the article thinking that I said something that was so erasing of
trans women's personhood.


Anyway, I just thought I would post this here in case anyone came across the article and thought that my view is that admitting trans women (which Wellesley never does in practice, except for those women who have corrected their gender documentation and can avoid disclosing their trans status, as far as I know, so that's also a bit confusing) makes Wellesley not-single-sex.

If anyone is interested, my original reply from which the quotes from me are derived:
Read more... )
tim: "System Status: Degraded" (degraded)
It's been radio silence here for too long (there's a reason for that, which I may or may not ever get around to mentioning), but in the meantime: here, how about some comments about this article by Jennifer Boylan that I posted on a closed forum? I don't have permission to repost other people's comments, so this will look a little disjointed, but hopefully gets across some stuff I've been thinking about lately.

I'm kind of perplexed at why a trans woman (or trans man, for that matter) would use "transgender" as a noun or imply that trans people "change their gender". But I hope that was due to bad editing.
The problem is that in the NY Times article (I read _She's Not There_, it was a long time ago, so I don't remember much), she's *not* just making a statement about herself. She's saying that transsexuals are "(individuals who change, or wish to change, their gender via medical intervention" -- not *her*. *All* transsexuals. To me, that's profoundly offensive, because I'm transsexual (not transgender), but I have never changed my gender, nor could I if I wanted to; rather, what makes me transsexual in public -- or, what I actually prefer terminologically, a man with a transsexual body -- is that I'm someone whose sex and gender are not universally accepted as valid. And what makes me transsexual in private is that I have a morphological sex, and a neurological sex -- just like everyone else -- but unlike most people, these two sexes aren't on the same side; so, "trans" (across) and not "cis" (on the same side).

(For the "public" definition, I credit Queen Emily at Questioning Transphobia: http://www.questioningtran​sphobia.com/?p=3865 )
There is a new set of definitions going around that I like, but don't always use since it confuses people, that says that "transsexual" is more or less what I said above, but "transgender" refers to a person who has articulated more than one dialect of gender over the course of their life. So actually, what Boylan characterized as "transsexual" would then be "transgender"! Now, it's ok that she uses those definitions, but she should have been clear that definitions around trans terminology are controversial and in flux, and that she speaks for herself, not the entire community. It's unfortunate that every time a trans person opens their mouth, they have to prefix disclaimers like that, but it's reality, and what happens when they don't add disclaimers is that a very, very narrow sector of the trans community (trans women who are white and who at least pre-transition are socially and financially successful and who transition in their forties or later) ends up doing all the speaking for everyone.
Unfortunately, it's not obvious to everyone that everyone's lived experience is different -- somehow, it seems like the more marginalized you are, the more other people are willing to generalize about your experience. Nothing drives this point home like having one doctor ask you "How long have you felt like a man trapped in a woman's body?" (well, gee, I thought I was in my body -- if I'm in a woman's body, where is she and is she pissed off that I'm using it?) and another doctor ask you "Do you have sex like a boy or like a girl?" (the question-asker in the latter case was trans, and should have known better).

So it really can't hurt to say "but everyone's lived experience is different". Of course, what Boylan did with her questionable definitions was different than that -- she didn't just talk about herself while forgetting to say that she doesn't speak for everyone, she actually said something offensive and false about people who aren't her.

I also don't agree that "ever splintering identity politics" is limiting the civil rights advances that can be made. I get suspicious when people start using the phrase "identity politics", because mainstream politics is identity politics (the Tea Party is identity politics for white cis men who identity as heterosexual), but it normally doesn't get labelled that way. "Identity politics" really means "identity politics for people whose identities I think aren't too important", so it's kind of othering and it's term I tend not to use.

What I think is limiting the civil rights advances that can be made for trans people is that a lot of people hate and fear us and don't want us to have rights, because if trans people get rights, cis people lose the ability to feel better about themselves by virtue of being gender-normative.
I'm probably not communicating very well, because I've failed to communicate that my issues with Boylan's definitions aren't peripheral squabbles -- they are central to the trans liberation movement, and show how she's actually undermining it. I don't think her undermining is entirely unintentional, either. But I'll explain.

The fundamental struggle that people like me are fighting is against coercive assignment, for autonomous definition. (I'm borrowing that formulation from a friend, I didn't come up with it.) When Boylan says that people like me change our gender, she's saying that the genders we were coercively assigned at birth are real; that to be recognized for the genders we autonomously define ourselves as, we first have to submit to a process of "change". But I reject that -- the gender I was coercively assigned at birth was never real in the first place.

Every struggle in the trans liberation movement -- equal access to health care, employment rights, the deregulation of gender (i.e. getting that little 'M' or 'F' off your driver's license), and ending violence against us, to name a few -- relies on rejecting the cis world's attempts to coercively assign us. So we can never win by accepting terminology like that advanced by Boylan (and not only Boylan) -- if we accept that, we accept that we have no rights. We accept that what we were coercively assigned is what we *are*.

And if we accept that, we can't claim that we have the right to health care. How can we claim that if we're whimsical eccentrics trying to defy what we *truly* *are* (as opposed to people who have the right to live as who we are, like everyone else)? We can't claim that we have the right to employment, because if we're trying to "be a different gender", that's simply a whim that indicates our likely mental stability, and employers would be totally fair if they didn't employ us. We certainly can't claim that we have the right to have government-issued ID that reflects who we are, as then we're just talking about some fiction in our heads rather than the reality of what we were coercively assigned. Finally, we can't do anything to defend ourselves from violence because we can't say we're in a particularly oppressed class of people -- after all, under this regime, we're all free to stop trying to "change" reality (which is to say, the truths that were imposed on us by force) and be who we *really* are, which would free us from such violence.

So I don't take issue with Boylan over petty details. I take issue with her because she doesn't accept the same basic principles I do, and those basic principles are the foundation for any claim I have to civil rights. Unless this was all merely an editing error, she is not "my people", as people who make statements that deny that I am who I am are not "my people". And Ms. Boylan doesn't get to write off my struggles just because she's pretty, thin, transitioned after attaining financial and personal success while passing as her coercively assigned gender, and fits the standard narrative. That's why the NY Times picked her as a spokesperson for all of trans-kind, but it doesn't give her the authority to decide that everything that would actually make it possible for me to live my life is just a matter of petty "identity politics" (again, a silencing term).

If this isn't legible, I'm not sure what more I could say that would clear things up, but I do recommend the post I already linked to once (I think?) -- http://www.questioningtran​sphobia.com/?p=3865 -- as well as, for general background, all of the posts listed in the "Trans 101" sidebar on the main page at http://www.questioningtran​sphobia.com/

‎(Just one postscript -- I feel like it's misleading to characterize a disagreement between folks like Boylan who are happy with the existing definitions of sex and gender and simply want to modify them slightly to allow for a "change of gender", whatever that means, and folks like me who reject those definitions entirely as based on incoherent double standards, as "infighting". That implies that all parties in the debate have the same amount of power. But Boylan clearly has the upper hand here -- her views are much more satisfactory to the larger power structure, thus she's being published in the NY Times, where you aren't going to say the words of, say, Lisa Harney, Julia Serano, Talia Bettcher, or Viviane Namaste. So really, throwing around terms like "infighting" or "identity politics" is just another way of denying privilege.)
tim: "System Status: Degraded" (degraded)
When I read essays like this one, it makes me want to give up on software, give up on academia, and spend the rest of my life communicating these concepts. And acting on them.

Just so you know.

Tobi Hill-Meyer has proposed what I think is the only really plausible and useful definition of transness which presumes that trans people are as real and authentic as cis, which is: a trans person is someone whose sex/gender is not universally recognised as valid. Other definitions premised on a transition “from” one sex to another unwittingly reify cis sexes as static and homogenous sets of physical and emotional characteristics and behaviours. This premise of binary sexes is both inaccurate – point to almost any characteristic and there’s exceptions which are not considered trans – and arbitrary, repressing the diversity of human sex and gender morphologies, histories and behaviours.

[snip]

What we currently have is an intellectual failure, a failure to truly include the totality of human sex and gender expression in our cultural imaginary, a failure to truly consider trans men as men, trans women as women, and non-binaries as whatever particular sex-gender they live their lives as. There would be no need for “trans” to mark our invalidation then, because we would have already been included in the definitions of “real” from the start. Because we’re not copies.
-- Queen Emily, "When am I trans?

*headdesk*

Jul. 27th, 2011 11:53 am
tim: "System Status: Degraded" (degraded)
From a closed-forum reply to this link about casual misogyny and othering in the tech community:

"Why. WHY does this ALWAYS happen in CS courses??

In college my data structures professor used pictures of the following to examplify members of the class "Object", over and over again throughout the course:

A Lamborghini Diablo

A mug full of beer

A flat screen TV

Salma Hayek

headdesk"


(By the way, when I was majoring in computer science at a historically women's college? None of my professors used such examples. Just sayin'.)
tim: "System Status: Degraded" (degraded)
I've been doing some eyerolling about news coverage of Kathy Witterick and David Stocker, the parents who chose not to disclose the geography of their infant's genitalia to the world at large. Starting, and largely ending, with the headlines: "Parents keep child's gender under wraps". They're not keeping their child's gender a secret. They don't know what their child's gender is yet, as the assumption that external genitals precisely determine neurological sex has been empirically proven false. They're doing the loving thing and doing what's best for the child whether or not their child is cissexual or transsexual -- rather than doing what most parents do (albeit because they may not know any better) and doing what's best for an idealized, cissexual version of their child rather than their actual child.

I've also been eyerolling a bit about the internets comments that insist that the child is missing something crucial by not having strangers know whether ze has a penis or a vagina. I mean, seriously? How is an 18-month-old affected by whether others know details about hir genitalia, exactly? By the time the child is old enough to be aware of what it means to be assumed to be a boy, or to be a girl, ze will be able to verbalize whether ze is a boy, a girl, or something else. And at that point, hir parents will respect and affirm hir choice, whether or not it coincides with hir assigned sex at birth -- a privilege that all children should have.

For the rest, I'll quote a comment that was posted on Reddit, since it says what I would say but more succinctly (emphasis original):
Everything about the middle boy's remarks — that is, Jazz's remarks — sounds of his own volition, his own determinism, and his own learning process. What he is learning empirically (indeed, a very early chance at learning what many cis people never do) is that it isn't his articulation of gender that is hegemonic; it's that of the world around him.
He is consciously learning bright and early that you can and will be punished by others for articulating oneself instinctively (i.e., "just being yourself") — just like the lyrics in songs you hear growing up (such as "Free to Be . . . You and Me", which itself even has hegemony unconsciously embedded in the lines "Every boy in this land grows to be his own man / In this land, every girl grows to be her own woman"; we obviously know now that this isn't universally true and never will be universally true; or more accurately, we know that every girl or boy, if making that determination by one's body only, does not universally grow up to be a woman or man, respectively). Just like Andy Samberg emphatically saying that his "dad is not a [cell] phone"," Jazz is learning that pink is not a gender: it is a colour. And he likes that colour on his person. Were this before World War II, no one would have batted an eyelash at him.
And Jazz is also learning that people are programmed by this hegemony that they enforce when they scold him for going with what works well for him, not with what works for them. People know what they're doing when they "police" the articulation of others and how to "police" others, but when you confront them on the question of why — and disallowing the lazy response "This is how it's meant to be" — you witness the breakdown of that hegemonic (il)logic.
Storm, meanwhile, is receiving the novel opportunity that every single trans person I have ever known would have wanted: the agency of self-consent (aka., the elective option to assert a non-elective part of oneself, or choice). That is, trans people have only wanted one thing early on: the autonomy and independent decision making to sort out whether one's neurological sex is on the same side as one's morphological (body) sex — and, by extension, whether the grammatical rules of gender ascribed to people's body morphologies (i.e., feminine for vaginas, masculine for penises) instinctively works for them or not. Those rules of gender exist wholly and independently of both biology and morphology (shape).
Trans people, as a consequence, are punished twice: first, for not being empowered with this autonomy of self-consent; and then punished even harder later for sorting it all out. Social "policing" is always gentle at first (e.g., enforcement through cues of colour and application of when and how to use gendered pronouns) and only gets tougher and more punitive as one's life progresses (e.g., severe beatings at McDonalds, fatal beatings in intimate settings, firings at workplaces, disenfranchisement of citizen rights while still being subject to citizen responsibilities (i.e., discrimination)).
These kids are learning invaluable lessons on life within a social context and putting together the riddle of gender (answer hint: "it's a language"). They are already light years ahead of most adults in understanding this stuff. Wisdom is powerful and, thus, wisdom is going to be threatening and scary to many others who don't understand it.
tim: Tim with short hair, smiling, wearing a black jacket over a white T-shirt (Default)
Here's a comment that was posted on Reddit in response to Jake Pecht's article "I Am Smith And I Am Male". I'm reposting it with permission, but the author would prefer to remain anonymous.

At Smith, my face and female body is invisible, transparent, complementary. My medical records say I have a transsexual body. And because of this, my voice is inaudible and irrelevant in Northampton, in Wellesley, in Oakland, and so on. And also because of this, my mind and presence are unwelcome and unheard.

Smith, et al., can "la la la la can't hear you la la la la you non-cis women don't exist" towards trans women all they want. They can assert that trans women are not women. This position, however, cannot be reified, and it cannot last ad infinitum without the internalized misogyny of this tack eventually, in absence of a defusing, blowing up in their face. I think the detonator at this point has to come from our trans brothers to mobilize, to man (or tran) up, and announce the (non-)policy on its face as a farce. Then walk out with their cohort allies and see what remains of their student body count left behind. That's a lot of tuition revenue they stand to lose. The provosts would have to capitulate or fold (from loss of revenue). I doubt the latter would be permitted by alumnae to actually happen.

This actually doesn't affect me directly. I earned a bachelor degree from another institution, where I was female when applied (with prior transcripts also listing female) and female when conferred cum laude. I attended one of the best schools in the world, despite plenty of barriers asserting that, as a trans woman, I would never get so far as university. My alma mater's gain was the Sisters' loss, because I had been looking at two of those schools carefully (Smith was not one of them) before I started to apply.

It was not a sex-segregated institution like Smith or the other Sister holdouts. The policies of these morphological/body sex-segregated colleges, however, are not gender-segregated — even if for now the notion of letting trans men hosting potential applicants gives them cold feet. These schools allow for the masculine articulation of gender (and the social identities affirmed therefrom) in their students; allow them to continue with and complete their studies; and allow them to exist in these spaces as active participants who constitute part of the college's student body.

These colleges allow for this articulation of masculine dialects because they, quite plainly, neither recognize nor respect that trans men are men, are male, and might also be masculine. These colleges regard (with a wink and nod) that these men are "still" women.

This cognitive dissonance may be the most insulting aspect to this blanket exclusion of (known)† trans women at these American women-only colleges: the continued inclusion of trans men in these self-governed, female-only-enforced campuses undermines their emergent manhood and invalidates their encephalic/neurological sex as male. The schools cannot have it both ways without that cognitive dissonance to erupt.

The eruption has to come from these guys and their female cohort allies, or we as trans people, writ large, are not going to make a lot of progress on being recognized at face value for who we are. Institutions and estates (like the media) have to be on-side by eradicating exceptions of treatment and distinction of trans people. Exception clauses undermine all of us — (trans) men and (trans) women alike.

[† Trans women certainly exist as students at these women's colleges (as in, I know actual trans women who are or have been enrolled — not by some hypothetical abstraction of "existing"). They are not known to the colleges as anything other than cisgender women with cissexual bodies, and for these institutions to try to "sniff out" these transsexual bodies would create the most bizarre paradox: a de facto witch hunt on a women's college campus.]
tim: "System Status: Degraded" (degraded)
According to Chaz Bono, testosterone makes you more interested in gossip and less interested in listening to women talk:
“No, really. There is something in testosterone that makes talking and gossiping really grating. I’ve stopped talking as much. I’ve noticed that Jen can talk endlessly.” He shrugged. “I just kind of zone out.”

“You just don’t care!”

“I just don’t care!” He laughed. “
Now, maybe Chaz was misquoted. (Entirely possible, since the rest of the article is a catalog of almost every misconception about trans people, only some of which the author places in a position where they can even be questioned.) Or maybe he was only joking (and it's okay to say anything, no matter how retrogressive, as long as you call it a joke, right?)

A certain category of trans people, like Chaz Bono in the above quote, or a certain famous trans man author who titled his memoir after the hormone in question, like to grossly oversimplify complex socially and culturally mediated phenomena by attributing them to the action of a single hormone. The latter author even went so far as to claim that taking testosterone gave him an understanding of why cis men commit rape -- funny, I always thought that rape culture had something to do with that, and that that's something that anyone prepared to think critically about people and social structures of domination can understand, without any need for a shot in the ass. Likewise, a certain category of cis people -- those who are attached in a death-grip to that form of gender essentialism which simultaneously claims that gender is unimportant and that it's so incredibly important that you have to force yourself to be the gender you were assigned at birth -- like to claim that because sex hormones don't have any effects on people that can't be explained socially or culturally, that when trans people take hormones and subjectively experience psychological changes, this is solely explained by their expectations that hormones will change their subjective experiences. It's all in their heads, in other words.

It would be victim-blaming to claim a causal relationship between the actions of the first group and the reactions of the second group. It's wrong for any cis person to dismiss a trans person's lived experience because it's ideologically incorrect. When your ideology can't explain someone's reality, the answer isn't to tell the person their experiences aren't real, but rather to revise your ideology.

If a person not of trans experience hears what someone like Chaz Bono says, notices correctly that it's ridiculous, and concludes that it's just as ridiculous to think that trans people's quality of life improves when their brain gets the right mix of hormones, that would reflect on them. Even so, I still want him to stop saying ridiculous things -- because chalking up your character flaws to a hormone trivializes the very real and positive consequences of liberation from being poisoned by one's own body. And because when you claim that testosterone has anything to do with why men rape, or why they don't listen to women, you give men a license to be awful. What else are you going to do? Put anti-androgens in the water?

There's very little difference between the quotation that I started with and chromosomal essentialism. Both are misappropriations of scientific-sounding terminology to erase the social, cultural and political meaning of a given situation. Trans people, though, should know better; they should know that who you are doesn't reduce to a particular hormonal configuration (otherwise, there would be no trans people), and it's merely true that having the right hormonal configuration for your neurology allows you to be more fully who you are. So, trans men of the world, if you want to be a misogynist, can you do that on behalf of yourself and not on behalf of everyone with belly hair? "Lack of respect for women" does not belong next to "hair loss" and "sensitivity to sunlight" on the FDA warning label.
Postscript: Like seemingly every mainstream media article about trans men, or a trans man (there's a difference?) that I've ever read, this one repeats 1970s-era assertions about the quality of genital reconstruction surgery for trans men as if they're reality. There are some serious issues with access to surgery (circularly, rhetoric about how functional the results of genital reconstruction aren't makes it easier for insurers to write off said treatment as "cosmetic"), and some shortcomings, it's true. But I can't help thinking that there's something politically risky about actually admitting reality: that more and more trans men are able to get surgery that gives them adult-sized penises and the capability to get erections, have orgasms, and (not that that's the be-all and end-all) penetrate somebody during sex. It is, I think, scary for some people to throw away the cherished belief that if anyone could get a penis, then everyone would want one. Surprisingly, some people (women) are just happier the other way around. I don't get it either, but it doesn't scare me and I don't feel the need to deny reality as a result.

Post(postscript): Guys of trans history, can you also stop claiming you know what it's like to see the world from "both sides"? You don't know what it's like to be a woman -- you know what it's like to be a man with a testosterone deficiency. You might think the chicks will dig your sensitive shit, but it's really just embarrassing.
tim: Mike Slackernerny thinking "Scientific progress never smelled better" (science)
Hey, guys!

You know the popular figure of speech where you use "person with a Y chromosome" as a synonym for "man", and "person with two X chromosomes" as a synonym for "woman"? Examples of such sentences might include: "Even though I have a Y chromosome, you might be surprised to learn that I think rape is bad," or "As someone with two X chromosomes, I'm here to tell you that I like sex."

Such statements are generally not descriptive, since most people have not been karyotyped. (Though if you have been, then more power to you! At least your remarks are factual.) They are even less likely to be descriptive if you're talking about somebody else. Unless you are a doctor, you probably have not, personally, tested anyone's blood to determine whether they have a matched pair of Xes. Moreover, such figures of speech do not take into account people whose chromosomal types are XO, XXX, XXY, XXXY, or XYY, much less XXes and XYes whose karyotype does not match the anatomical sex that an observer would likely impute to them at birth. Yes, just for the record: people with a Y chromosome have been known to become pregnant and give birth, while (statistically) a few thousand Americans have male genitalia and two X chromosomes apiece.

So what you're really saying when you say "She has two X chromosomes..." is, "I have made the observation that I believe her presentation to be female, and from that -- based on received knowledge -- I've deduced that she has two X chromosomes." You might as well just say that she appears to be presenting as a woman, no?

No -- because the work that your remark is doing is not just to communicate that you believe the target of your attention to be a woman; it's also reinforcing the belief that for each person, there exists a single, objectively measurable sex, which is always male or female, and which may differ from that person's internal sense of who they are. In other words, it's reinforcing the believe that trans people have a "true sex" that's different from the sex they intrinsically know themselves to be, while cis people just are men or women; no need for auxiliary phrases like "identify as".

Ever since this particular ideology -- that of biological essentialism -- was established (which actually wasn't all that long ago -- modern medical technology caused more pressure to "correct" intersex people's bodies in order that they might not live to contradict the ideology of objectively measurable, binary sex), cis people have had a number of privileges. For one, a cis person has the privilege of killing their sexual partner if the partner is trans and the cis person claims their partner failed to reveal their "true sex", so-called. For another, people who run health insurance companies can save money by denying trans people health care and claiming that having developed with anatomy that doesn't match your internal mental map of your body is a lifestyle choice. There are a variety of other ways in which people whose lives conform to an essentialist worldview can dominate those who don't, as I've written about before.

It's not like people ever got together to invent essentialism and decided to promulgate it by, in a centralized, coordinated fashions, encouraging people to say things like "My ovaries hurt today! I wish I had a Y chromosome." Broad social patterns can arise from local phenomena, like one person finding a particular turn of phrase useful and repeating it. And every time someone says something like, "Of course I love porn -- I have a Y chromosome," that reproduces essentialism one more time and gives it additional power. Language matters; how people think affects what people do. From essentialism, violence against trans people follows. If not for the belief that there is some innate, measurable, immutable characteristic about each person -- instantly observable by everyone (if you're cis) and everyone but yourself (if you're trans) -- that determines their sex, the trans panic defense wouldn't exist. We would have to accept that it's coercive to tell your child that they're a boy or a girl before they're old enough to tell you. We might even have to start asking everyone we meet what their preferred pronoun is -- or start using gender-neutral pronouns. (I like "they"/"them"/"their".)

You might argue that the number of women who don't have two X chromosomes, and the number of men who don't have a Y chromosome, is small. So small that there's no need for you to revise your language on account of such a small group. In reality, the size of a given minority group in question is nearly irrelevant when we're talking about language that erases that group. You know how it was once acceptable to use "he" as a generic pronoun, because the argument went that it was understood that "he" referred to both men and women -- even though you'd never say "If a person is pregnant, then he should take folic acid?" Now, of course, such language is only acceptable if you're George F. Will: most of us understand that when you use "he" this way, you send a covert (or not-so-covert, anymore) message that the default sort of human is a man, and womanhood is defined as a variation on a basic, default, masculine template. Likewise, when you ignore trans and intersex "exceptions", you send a covert message that trans and intersex people aren't really people, that they're "mistakes" or "deviations" -- irregular goods by-products of the manufacture of normal (cissexual) humans.

Thus, casual throwing about, by non-life-scientists, of "chromosome" talk doesn't lend a scientific veneer to any conversation -- quite the opposite. It says that you're a person to whom personal opinions about how the world should be -- namely, the value judgment that non-binary-sexed humans are mistakes -- are more important than observing the world as it is. The belief that an intersex person is a mistake -- is less of a typical, exemplary human than a cis, non-intersex person is -- will eventually, no doubt, be seen the same way we now view the researcher who wrote a 1981 paper on the (quote) "Abnormal Sexual Behavior" of female long-eared hedgehogs. We now see that a scientist who classifies the behavior they observe (whether it's lesbian hedgehogs or Friday night in the Castro) as "abnormal" is one who cannot be objective, as they have allowed their particular culture's norms to blind them to universal truth. Someday, the day will come when we look at the sorting of cissexuals into the "normal" bin, and transsexuals and intersex people into the "deviations" bin, as just as ideologically driven as slut-shaming a hedgehog. And that day can't come soon enough. When that day comes, we will no longer identify ourselves and each other by a biological marker that means little more to most of us than a reification of purely social conventions. Just as those of us who think women get to be human too try to avoid addressing a group that isn't entirely male as "You guys!", those of us who think that we get to be human whether or not we were born cissexual try not to repurpose perfectly good scientific terms to do political work that we don't even endorse. No, I'm not reaching when I make this comparison. In both cases ("you guys!" and "has two X chromosomes"), the usage of language is predicated on the assumption that there's a particular subset of humans (women, in the first case; trans women and some intersex people, in the second) that just isn't worth mentioning.

If you find all of these sentiments to be politically correct fascism, then you're not in the audience for this essay; I'm only addressing people who want to be respectful, more than that, express what they mean without causing genuine harm (as opposed to offense). I'm not telling you what to say -- I'm only offering food for thought for those who do care about how what they say affects other people's lives. If you do feel like all of this is politically correct pedantry or like you're being told what to do, stop reading now!

The rest of us want to stop using language that erases people, language that renders groups of people invisible. We can disagree with each other, can fight for what we think is right, but outright denying that a person or a whole group doesn't exist is worse than meanness. Being oppressed is worse than having somebody be rude or mean to you. So I hope that when you learn that words you've been using, with no intent to offend, have the effect of reinforcing social structures that make people invisible, you'll stop.
tim: Tim with short hair, smiling, wearing a black jacket over a white T-shirt (Default)
Well, I'm on the front page of the Wellesley News this week -- here's the article (PDF). This is an ephemeral URL that will go away once the Wellesley News updates their site, so save a copy if you want to have one.

I thought that Lesley Thulin did a great job with the article. None of the Admissions Office staff were willing to comment on-the-record, but there was a fascinating comment from an anonymous Admissions Office staffer who said (column 4, page 2), among other things, that the admissions office had a climate of discouraging any mention of Wellesley's LGBTQ community to prospective students and their families.

To the extent that that anonymous source's perception is accurate, it's unfortunate that the administration doesn't align itself with Wellesley's student and faculty population in showing pride for the LGBTQ community at Wellesley, rather than distancing itself from it. And amusingly, by doing their best to try to make me shut up and go away, the admissions office has attracted way more negative publicity than they would have done by just letting me do an interview.

I love my alma mater, but the decisions made by the admissions office are cowardly.

If you would like to add your name to the petition being organized by current students, you can see the text of it at http://docs.com/BO71 and email Sarah Ditmars -- sditmars (domain name is what you'd expect) to add yourself. You should include your affiliation with the college (presumably for most people who haven't already signed on, that'll be "Class of [whatever]"). I didn't write the petition and if I had, I would have asked for something less strong (to wit, a statement of discrimination, with reasons why, or of non-discrimination), but I do support what it says.
tim: Tim with short hair, smiling, wearing a black jacket over a white T-shirt (Default)
One of my informers kindly forwarded me the following statement, which was posted on Wellesley's internal Official Announcements bulletin board today:
I write to offer some clarification in response to the discussion regarding a decision by the Admission Office not to allow a transgendered male alum to serve as an interviewer. The decision in this case was influenced by our tradition of having women serve as alumnae interviewers. The question raised in this discussion is whether this decision was based on a policy of not permitting transgendered alums to interview prospective students. The answer is: no, because no such policy exists.

We have a strong commitment to diversity and inclusion, and the recent discussions have reemphasized the importance of ensuring that we welcome the participation of all alums in all volunteer activities and admission outreach programs, including the opportunity to interview prospective students. We do value the diversity of experiences that our volunteer interviewers bring to the interview.

An important component of the admission interview is that a prospective student leaves with a clear understanding of the value of attending a women’s college. One thing we do insist on is that the interviewer strongly support and articulate the College’s commitment to being a women’s college.

Beyond this specific point, our community would benefit from a broad discussion of various ways in which the inclusion of transgendered students—and alums—has an impact on our institutional identity as a women’s college and our current practices. President Bottomly, my Senior Staff colleagues, the Alumnae Association, and I look forward to these important discussions with the community.


-----------------------------
Jennifer Desjarlais
Dean of Admission and Financial Aid
Wellesley College


I find this statement to be an example of the kind of communication that is intended to obfuscate rather than to clarify. I also find it to be a non-response to what students, alums and faculty are asking for, and to what happened. With the least important point first, "transgendered" is a word I have never used to describe myself, and is an objectionable word to apply to transgender and transsexual people. Joanne Herman, among others, has explained why. "Transgender" is an okay word, but I don't use it to describe myself; I'm transsexual. (That's an adjective, by the way; referring to someone in a way that turns an adjective into a noun is rarely respectful.)

The statement suggests, but does not say explicitly, that no alum who was trans would be allowed to serve as a volunteer interviewer. This suggests, contrary to what the statement does say explicitly, that there is a policy. Wellesley just doesn't want to take responsibility for that policy by stating it as such.

The decision to ask me not to serve as an interviewer could not possibly have been made on the basis of a belief that I would not "strongly support and articulate the College’s commitment to being a women’s college", as this statement insinuates but doesn't say outright, because no one bothered to find out whether I would "strongly support and articulate the College’s commitment to being a women’s college." As I've said in previous posts (which, of course, I published after the decision in dispute was made), to me, saying that Wellesley is a women's college is like saying that the sky is green. It's not something that should be controversial. Whether Wellesley graduates two men in each class or 200, it's not a women's college as long as the number is greater than zero.

On the whole, the administration's response is disappointing and I'll continue to be involved in whatever way is appropriate to ask them to be accountable for their decisions. It's what current students want, and it's what's morally right.
tim: Tim with short hair, smiling, wearing a black jacket over a white T-shirt (Default)
A bit far afield from the subject of the previous post, but here are some more reasons why you might want to think about teaching yourself to talk about cis people and trans people rather than people who are biologically some gender or the other:

  • Because of the popular belief that trans women aren't "biologically female", many US states will deny such a person the right to correct her birth certificate to reflect her gender. (Same for trans men.) While cis people always have the right to have government-issued documentation that reflects their social gender, trans people are frequently denied that right. The justification for this inequality is that government-issued documentation reflects one's "biological gender". Being denied the right to carry documentation that doesn't reflect the gender one socially presents as -- again, a right that cis people never have to think twice about -- renders one vulnerable to rape and other physical assault.

  • Because of the popular belief that trans men aren't "biologically male", a trans man's health insurance company can deny him medically necessary care for no reason other than the concept that such care is intended to change one's sex or gender. (Same for trans women.) Even though the American Medical Association's stance is that treatment that brings one's physical characteristics into line with one's biological (neurological) sex is medically necessary, the non-evidence-based notion that transitioning is a matter of "changing sex" or "changing gender" provides a political foundation for the systematic denial of health care to some people. For many trans people, said health care is a matter of life and death; one recent study showed that 41% of trans people attempt suicide at some point in their life.

  • The notion that it's possible to "discover" that a trans woman is "biologically male" is the foundation for the trans-panic defense, which means that a cis man can murder a trans woman with no legal consequences if he has sex with her while fully aware of her trans status and later regrets it. Similar reasoning is used to legally deny trans people such luxuries as the right to use a public bathroom.


So usage of terms like "biologically male" and "biologically female" is not harmless imprecision, and calling it out is not mere PC policing. Language is the primary tool used to reinforce the culture of oppression of those who can't or won't live with their arbitrarily assigned gender, so the language you choose to use affects whether you participate in reinforcing a certain culture of violence, or in actively resisting it. Of course, the consequences of that oppression are all too real.
tim: "System Status: Degraded" (degraded)
This is not an April Fool's joke, it's just a question that's been on my mind a lot lately.

Why do we assign genders to infants at birth? The historical reasons are obvious: until recently, in the culture that I live in, there was a belief that externally visible genitalia determine the gender role that an infant will eventually feel most comfortable in. There was also a belief that sex is binary and all humans have a consistent set of sexed biological attributes---chromosomes, hormones, internal reproductive organs, external genitalia, and internal neurological maps of the body, to name a few---such that, for each person, all of those attributes correspond to the same sex category. We now know that those beliefs are false, but the practice of assigning genders to newborns based on what's no more than a guess---albeit a guess that's likely to be right---persists.

I really like the vocabulary of "assigned male/female at birth" and "coercively assigned male/female at birth" because it emphasizes the subjectivity of sex assignment. The existence of an individual body is real and objective, to be sure, but the placement of that individual into a category created by humans as a model for understanding the world is subjective and requires an observer to be meaningful. In contrast, saying "born male"/"born female" reifies subjective judgments of maleness or femaleness in a way that serves to reinforce coercion. It's a sly use of language to surreptitiously remove the observer (the one who decides, about this person who hasn't had a chance to assert their own identity yet, whether the person is male or female) from the picture. The "born male"/"born female" usage implicitly blesses the observer's subjectivity as "real" and "objective", and marks the observed's subjectivity as "subjective" and "imaginary". But the belief that everyone has a real, objective biological sex that is just waiting to be observed and that may conflict with their internal, subjectively experienced sex is predicated on confusion between the map and the territory. So adding the word "coercively" helps us remember that rarely if ever do the parents of a newborn get to opt out of sex assignment---most of the time, they don't even know it's possible to opt out. And the child themself certainly does not have the option of protesting the gender arbitrarily assigned to them.

So, why assign gender? Other than historical reasons and the fact that most cis people would likely see it as awkward or socially disruptive to have a child about whom they would choose not to answer the question "Is it a boy or a girl?", I'm not sure. Neither history nor the comfort zones of adults are particularly relevant to the welfare of a particular child.

I think about what I would have preferred to have done for me when I was born. What if, instead of saying "it's a girl," no one had labeled me as a boy or a girl, instead waiting until I was old enough to speak for myself and proclaim that I felt more of an affinity with the girls over there, or the boys over there, or maybe neither? I think it would probably have been easier for me to say that I was a boy if I'd grown up in a milieu where I hadn't been getting told that I was something I was not---a girl---for as long as I could remember. I spent at least seven years of my life, from age 11 to 18, both severely depressed as a result of having the wrong hormone balance in my body, and unable to describe what might be wrong because I wasn't familiar with the concept of being a boy who everyone else thought was a girl. It's easier to assert yourself and speak for what you need when you haven't spent a great deal of your life being told something you are not.

I can't really blame my mother for thinking I was a girl because I happened to be born with external genitals that looked like female external genitals, because in 1980 not a lot of people knew that not all babies born with vulvas were girls and not all babies born with penises were boys. But now, in 2011, a lot of people do know that, at least within the circle of people I know. And yet even people with a good understanding of all the ways in which humans are not sexually dimorphic, and who find themselves parents of an infant, assume that their particular infant's gender follows from the infant's genitals, even though they know that in general this is not true. They say that their child is probably cissexual and so they will treat them as such until they have evidence otherwise.

There are, of course, a number of problems with this approach. First, the way that statistics work is that any particular individual, like your baby, is either 100% likely to be transsexual, or 0% likely. If you pick a random individual from the population, you have a 9 in 10 chance of picking a cissexual person. But if you fix one specific individual, any particular statement about them is true or false. In the case of a child who's too young to communicate about who they are, you just don't have any way of knowing which it is. But the point "they're probably cissexual" is moot.

More importantly, to me, I don't think any kid should have to go through what I went through, so if you say that every child should be treated as if they are cissexual until proven otherwise, you're saying that you approve of some kids having to make a choice between contradicting what every authority in their life tells them is true, or being non-functional for many years. You're saying that the minority (trans kids) should have to pay the cost of making life convenient and comfortable and non-socially-awkward for the majority (cis kids). I think of Ursula Le Guin's short story "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas" here. Should even one person be condemned to suffer if that suffering directly results in happiness for every single other human being? I don't believe so, because I believe that every individual has worth that can't be destroyed just to accrue benefit to somebody else, and that doesn't change even if it's a lot of somebody else's.

Moreover, if you assign gender coercively, you're saying, if you're a parent, that you don't want what's best for your kid. You want what's best for an idealized version of your kid who's perfectly conformant to any social norms you happen to value. You only want what's best for your kid to the extent that they happen to conform to that ideal.

Even if you don't agree with me, I hope you can excuse me for not advocating a position predicated on me being less than a person. If I am a person whose self-determination is just as important as anyone else's, then the same is true of other people like me, and so a systematic course of behavior that makes it much more difficult for such people to achieve self-determination---for no particularly good reason---cannot be justified. For me to approve of coercive gender assignment would be for me to say that I believe that if I got another chance to be born, I should once again have to spend the majority of my adolescence and young adulthood fighting to show that I am not who I'd been told I was, taking up much energy that my peers got to use on more externally rewarding pursuits. For me to approve of coercive gender assignment would be for me to deny my worth as a person.

I do not feel comfortable co-signing an ideology that threw me under the bus and would do so again unrepentantly if it could.

Finally, if the idea of waiting until a child can speak for themself before assigning gender -- just in the same way that you wouldn't decide, the instant a child was born, that they were a Democrat, were extroverted, were left-handed, or were Buddhist -- seems weird, I would ask what you think is harmful about it. I've already argued that assigning gender coercively is harmful to a minority of children. Is failure to coercively assign gender harmful? I don't think it is. Any discomfort involved is endured by adults, who can well afford to endure it, not by very young children, who generally don't think much of propriety. The instant a child expresses a preference as to whether he would like to be addressed with "he" and "him" or she would like to be addressed with "she" and "her", you can start doing that. And if they never express a preference, there's no harm in that either.

To be clear, I'm not advocating treating one's kid a certain way to advance a political agenda or to better the lot of anyone other than your kid. I'm advocating treating your kid in a way that's neutral about 9 times out of 10, and that spares them from psychic and/or literal death 1 time out of 10. "What if by addressing my child as 'he', I was actually gradually eroding their sense of self?" is probably not a question that many parents lie awake worrying about at night, but it's relevant to a hell of a lot more lives than "What if my kid got into some stranger's car to help look for their lost puppy?" So, considering that a lot of parents expend quite a bit of effort into preventing some much, much less likely occurrences (like their child being kidnapped by strangers), I can't see why a parent wouldn't want to decline to assign.

(As with many questions, Questioning Transphobia covered this one before me and better than me, with "Raising (Potentially) Trans Children".)

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Tim Chevalier

September 2017

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