tim: protest sign: "Down With This Sort of Thing" (politics)
Today I stumbled upon "Categorical Exclusions: Exploring Legal Responses to Health Care Discrimination Against Transsexuals" [PDF], a 2002 article in the Columbia Journal of Gender and Law by Kari E. Hong. In my opinion, the most interesting point Hong raises in her discussion of how American law enshrines anti-trans discrimination is about the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Is being trans a disability? Arguably so, under the ADA's definition of "disability":

"(1) a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the major life activities . . .; (2) a record of such impairment; or (3) being regarded as having such an impairment."

Even from the perspective of trans activists who believe the only unpleasant thing about being trans is the marginalization that we experience by cisnormative society (a perspective I don't share), being trans qualifies under clause (3): even trans people who don't believe they have a medical condition, don't believe that "gender dysphoria" or "gender identity disorder" are real things, and don't feel they require medical intervention are regarded as "impaired" by others. Under one definition, being trans means to have one's gender and/or sex not universally recognized as valid. That means that you are regarded as impaired in an area of life that most people consider essential (having a gender and sex that are concordant and unambiguous). So at least by the ADA's standards, being trans is a disability. I don't have a problem with that, since I don't feel the need to perpetuate ableism by holding myself as superior to and apart from people who have disabilities.

Since the ADA makes it illegal for health insurance companies (as well as health care providers) to discriminate on the basis of disability, you might wonder why a significant majority of group health insurance plans in the US (and every individual health insurance plan that I know of) have specific trans exclusion clauses in their policies, which exclude coverage for what is usually -- crudely and non-clinically -- referred to as "sex transformation" or "sex changes". Actually, these clauses exclude coverage for a variety of reconstructive surgeries (mostly on the genitals, chest, or face) when trans people are having them. Often, the policy covers the very same reconstructive surgery for cis people that's excluded for trans people: for example, breast reconstruction for cis women who have had mastectomies due to breast cancer is covered (this is required by federal law), while breast reconstruction for trans women is not.

So according to the ADA, isn't this blatantly illegal discrimination? Well, no, and for that, you can thank Republican senators (at the time) William Armstrong, Orrin Hatch, and Jesse Helms, all of who were involved in introducing a heinous amendment to the ADA:

At the end of the bill, add the following:

Under this act the term `disability' does not include `homosexuality,' `bisexuality,' `transvestism,' `pedophilia,' `transsexualism,' `exhibitionism,' `voyeurism,' `compulsive gambling,' `kleptomania,' or `pyromania,' `gender identity disorders,' current `psychoactive substance use disorders,' current `'psychoactive substance-induced organic mental disorders,' as defined by DSM-III-R which are not the result of medical treatment, or other sexual behavior disorders.'

If you read Hong's article, you can find some of the despicable things that Armstrong and Helms said on the Senate floor that led to the introduction of this amendment. As Hong points out, Armstrong and Helms made no attempt to hide that their antipathy for trans people, pyromaniacs, drug users, and so on had nothing to do with evidence or medical science. I can't help thinking about much more recent controversies over Republicans like Todd Akin, who also made medical claims (that cis women who experience rape can't become pregnant) that are completely contradicted by fact. It's hard not to think that there not only hasn't been progress in the past quarter-century, but that we've gone backwards. While Armstrong's and Helms' ignorant statements could maybe, maybe be excused by the lack of widespread knowledge about and experience with trans people, Akin lacked that excuse for his asinine statements about pregnancy -- not a marginal condition, but one experienced by up to half the human population.

Because nobody in the Senate really gave a shit about trans people (not that I have any reason to think that's changed), the Armstrong-Hatch amendment passed, and continues to be law today. There are other legal bases on which somebody who was denied insurance coverage just for being trans could challenge that decision, but without some significant effort to show that the Armstrong-Hatch amendment violates the Equal Protection clause of the Constitution, the ADA won't be one of them. Then again, it does violate the Equal Protection clause, so you'd think someone would get on that.

Hong's article is ten years old; since then, I've seen very little other writing that explored a potential ADA-based challenge to trans exclusion. Recently, groups like the National Center for Transgender Equality and the Transgender Law Center, as well as writers like Melissa Harris-Perry, have lauded how the Affordable Care Act (ACA) adds additional legal protections for trans people facing health care discrimination. However, I find these celebrations to be premature and totally misleading and harmful, since the ACA in no way addresses the core issue that trans people can be denied medical care that cis people get with no obstacles, simply because we belong to a socially stigmatized group. So long as social stigma affects the kind of health care I can access more than medical necessity does, I won't be celebrating.

Postscript: There's one thing I think Hong is totally off-base about: her assertion that trans kids shouldn't receive medical treatment. If her opinion were policy, at least one person I know probably wouldn't be alive today, and that would be bad, since I prefer her to be around. She seems to confuse reparative therapy for trans kids as practiced by Ken Zucker and supported by his pals entourage Ray Blanchard and J. Michael Bailey, cheerled by Anne Lawrence and Alice Domurat Dreger -- something that is absolutely harmful and unethical -- with treating trans kids by letting them be the gender they are. These two modalities are about as similar as antifreeze and ginger ale, but Hong seems to fall for the harmful misconception (allow me: cisconception?) that medical treatment for trans kids amounts to forcing gender roles on them. That couldn't be further from the truth, since denying medical treatment is an attempt to force a gender role on a trans child: the gender role the child was arbitrarily and coercively assigned at birth. When it comes to adults, though, I find Hong's arguments pretty sound (aside from some of the language -- like the self-contradictory phrase "biological gender" -- which reflects the standards of the time).
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: Mike Slackernerny thinking "Scientific progress never smelled better" (science)
It's about 7:30 PM and I have another two or three hours to go before the northbound Coast Starlight train I'm on gets to San José. I've done all of the work, and working on the other (much huger) blog post in progress that I'm working on, that I can stand for today. You know what that means, right? It's Surgery TMI O'Clock!

Like with my first surgery post, some disclaimers apply:
  1. I like to be open even about things many people consider private, and that means I'm okay with writing about intimate details about my body and my sexuality in public. I'm okay with sharing these details with anyone who might stumble upon them. But you may not be comfortable with reading about them. I'm expecting this will mainly apply to people who know me in particular contexts.

  2. Besides the sexy stuff in here, there's also stuff that's kind of gross, so if you're made easily queasy by blood 'n gore, you might not want to read it either. Seriously, if you don't like reading about pain and some of the grosser things bodies do, don't read it.

  3. Just because I'm sharing these details doesn't mean it's okay to ask any other trans person about surgery they've had, surgery you think they may have had, surgery you think they should have, anything else about surgery, or any intimate details about their bodies that you wouldn't ask someone who wasn't trans who you knew only casually. So don't do that! We're not all alike, and I am not going to be the one who gives any cis people an excuse to ask other trans people invasive questions. In fact, there are a lot of situation in which I don't want to discuss the contents of this post, even with people who I'm comfortable having read it: in the office, in church, on VTA Light Rail, and so on. So use the same judgment you'd use when bringing up any other sensitive topic.

If this post doesn't provide TMI about how I relate to my body and about what makes me tick, sexually, then I'll have left something out that I meant to put in, and you'd better nag me about it. It's up to you whether you want to read or not, and so you can decide for yourself, here's a cut tag.

Read more... )
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: Tim with short hair, smiling, wearing a black jacket over a white T-shirt (Default)
I have an announcement to make that some people may consider TMI and which may be NSFW if text can be NS F your W. In 3 1/2 weeks, I'm having genital reconstructive surgery. I'm a person who doesn't mind sharing details about my body that many would consider rather personal. The concept of TMI has never rang very true for me (in general, I want to know everything about everybody, and it's hard to imagine being squicked by somebody else knowing something about me). However, I also believe in consent, and part of that means not foisting details about my sexuality on anybody before they have the chance to opt out. So if you are someone who plays a role in my life such that knowing very intimate details about me would make you uncomfortable -- or if you just don't care what's going on in and around my crotch -- here's your chance to opt out. Don't follow the link.
For the rest of you... )
tim: Tim with short hair, smiling, wearing a black jacket over a white T-shirt (Default)
I cannot tell you how many times I have been told the following: “I have no problem with you people dressing however you want, and I’ll even call you ‘she’ if that’s what you want, but if you go around hitting on guys, don’t be surprised when you get what you deserve.” The threat of violence there is implied in only the loosest sense; no rational person in the threatened group would interpret that as anything but a threat. At the very least, it is condoning it as deserved.
-- Autumn Nicole Bradley, "Larry King is why L, G, B, and T are together"
Go ahead and call it abuse. Call it assault. Call it rape. If you've done a whole lot of waffling about your experience with not-very-niceness, it probably was whatever you don't want to call it. It'll give you a sense of legitimacy when you feel hurt or angry. It'll give you, and the people you disclose to, a cue to take your experiences and their impact on your life seriously. It doesn't "cheapen" anything--do you think it's wrong to call influenza "illness" because really ill people have cancer oh my god don't cheapen the I-word like that? And it'll stop you doubting or devaluing your own emotions. If you survived something painful, you're a survivor, and it's not drama but simple fact to say "I'm a survivor."
-- The Pervocracy, "Survivor"
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.


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?


Jun. 9th, 2011 08:30 pm
tim: "System Status: Degraded" (degraded)
"You built a relationship with an imaginary person, and it didn't go so well. You're sad because you're realizing your imaginary son was just that. Congratulations on developing a real relationship with a real person, that's really cool!"

-- Reddit user "windowful", challenging the "It was like my son died and I got a daughter instead / It was like my daughter died and was replaced with a son" trope that parents of trans kids sometimes call upon

This needs to be said more often. Like a lot more often.
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)
Another Wellesley alum who came out as being a guy after graduation, Warren Kunce '08, posted a video reacting to the recent news. I particularly liked his comments from 3:44-5:58 in the video, as follows:

"The admissions office at Wellesley has decided that that is either too confusing for a prospective student, or somehow the interview would be made all about me and my transition. Which is really insulting, by the way, that, like, I am an intelligent human being. I do know what the purpose of the interview is. I do know how to make an interview not be about myself. It's just this whole idea that the interview would be more about me than about the student is frankly, just absurd. It's insulting as well.... It first of all assumes that, one, that I would be comfortable talking about being trans and my transition, which, depending on the situation, I probably won't be. I mean, the whole thing can be taken care of in two sentences, like: "Hello, yes, I'm transgender, I transitioned to male after I was at Wellesley College, but this interview is about you, not about me, so let's go ahead. You know? This is not difficult. I'm not going to sit with a prospective student, a stranger who's 17 years old, who I don't know, and talk to them about, like, my gender identity and my transition. That's so inappropriate, so inappropriate. Why would I do that?

The only reason I can think of for us to spend any time at all talking about my gender identity is if the student was trans and wanted to know: as a trans person, how will it be at Wellesley? Will it be okay for me to transition at Wellesley? In which case I think I would be the perfect alum to be having this interview with the student. This whole policy, not letting trans alumni do the prospective interviews, also assumes that the prospective student is not transgender, which is not cool."

Warren, if you're reading this, thanks for saying this! Someone had to call out just how ridiculous the idea that someone who was trans would automatically make the interview about himself, and to me it was so absurd that I couldn't even address it head-on. It bounced right off my absurdity filter.

In other news, here's a story about the Smith student I mentioned who's being denied the role of hosting prospective students. As well, notes from a Bryn Mawr alum who's trying to get them to state a clear policy on trans women as applicants, featuring this bureaucratic gem from their admissions office: "If it is not clear that an applicant to the College is female, we would approach the situation on an individual basis to gain a better understanding of the student's circumstances." (I assume this means panty-checks?)
tim: Tim with short hair, smiling, wearing a black jacket over a white T-shirt (Default)
For the current or former students / faculty / staff out there, tomorrow (May 2) is your last chance to sign the petition being circulated by current students; if you agree with the text at that link, then email Sarah Ditmars - sditmars at wellesley -- with your name and status (e.g. class year for alums).

I don't have much else that's new except to express some puzzlement at the comments I've been reading in the blogosphere to the effect that "Wellesley is not a historically women's college" or "Wellesley should not become a historically women's college". Well, that bird has flown, as far as I can tell, unless it's possible to be a "women's college" and graduate men. I've said all this before, but: trans men don't "become" men by transitioning, they are born male and live as boys or men for their entire lives, even though their gendered presentation may vary during the course of their life (the same as for everyone else!) and their level of conscious awareness of that fact may vary.

So, the fact that Wellesley is not a women's college is not up for debate. The question is how the administration narrates the story that justifies an (unstated) policy of considering applications from some men, but not others. I don't have an opinion on whether Wellesley should admit cis men -- I just think that if they're going to admit trans men but not cis men, they have to know the reasons why. If the policy is "we admit all people who self-identify as women at the time of application, and graduate anyone who's accepted and who fulfills graduation requirements," great! And if that is their policy, then they ought to have no problem whatsoever explaining to the public that they have alums who are men. Other reasonable policies are imaginable. But continuing to insist on the "women's college" label disrespects the inalienable right to be the final arbiter of one's own identity, for those students and alums who are male -- and really, for everyone, since when you take away that right from one person, you're saying it's not a universal human right and thus calling it into question for everyone.

In re-reading the Admissions office's statement, and discussing it with others, I continue to reflect on how the author seems to be trying very hard -- without actually saying so -- to make it seem as if my desire (as stated in the previous two paragraphs) for a reality-based discussion is the reason why they did not wish for me to interview prospectives. But, of course, nothing of the sort is true, since they made that decision while having one (1) unit of information about me: my gender. My opinions never entered into it, since they didn't ask for my opinions, or indeed, anything else!
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: Tim with short hair, smiling, wearing a black jacket over a white T-shirt (Default)
Sup! I wanted to post an update on my post from last week about Wellesley. Apparently, it hasn't escaped notice, which I'm glad for; one of my informers on campus let me know that there's now a petition with > 174 student/faculty/staff signatures asking the administration to provide either a statement of non-discrimination or a statement of the ways in which it discriminates and why. My sources forwarded me some of the comments that were posted on Community, and it surprised me that almost all of them were supportive. But there were a few points I want to respond to.

A faculty member pointed out that the petition, which asks the Admissions office to change their unofficial policy of discrimination, asks for something stronger than what I asked for in my post. This is correct. I'm confident that if the office merely puts their unofficial policy in writing, then justice will take care of itself in the long term. Prejudice thrives behind closed doors when people assume that everybody else shares it, and cowers before the light of day. So I ask for nothing more than the latter. But I'm also not going to question what students think is best, since, of course, this isn't just about me, but about treating all students and alums fairly.

The same faculty member wrote, "[The petition] also presumes what I'm pretty sure is the case but what hasn't been explicitly stated as yet - again, this is what the alum is asking for - namely, that turning down the alum was done because the alum is an out trans man." Well, without recordings of the phone conversations I had with Admissions staff, I can't prove it, but yes, I am completely certain that I was turned down as an interviewer because I'm an out trans man. The evidence is:
  1. Before anybody associated with the admissions / alum volunteer process met me in person, a decision was made in the admissions office that I should not be allowed to interview, and it was made very clear to me that that's because I'm male. If the decision had been based on anything about me as an individual, rather than based on the gender I belong to, then it would have been made after I spoke with either an alumnae association volunteer or an admissions office staff member, in person or on the phone. Because the decision was made by people who knew nothing about me other than my gender, and because everyone I spoke with (the volunteer, K., who was relaying information from admissions staffers; and Joy St. John, the director of admissions) took pains to explain why I should find it obvious that a male alum shouldn't be the face of Wellesley, I conclude that the decision was made based on my gender.
  2. I interviewed a prospective student in 2005. If I was a suitable person to represent Wellesley, then I am one now; the only thing that has changed is that I'm no longer pretending to be a woman.
  3. When I interviewed the student in 2005, there was absolutely no screening process. The process that led to me interviewing the student involved a few brief emails and me receiving an envelope of admissions materials in the mail.
  4. This is kind of a repeat of the first point, but my gender would never have been an issue if the Admissions staff hadn't brought it up. It's not really something I talk about much unless someone is interested. I guess they are interested.

A comment from a student averred that "All Wellesley students, to the best of my knowledge, are biologically female at the time of admission" and made reference to a policy (also unwritten, as far as I know) that I've heard before, to wit: "Wellesley admits women and graduates students." Well, I'm sorry to have to spoil the oversimplified notions that are taught in certain introductory women's studies classes (perhaps the ones at Wellesley, perhaps not, I'm not sure), but sex and gender are inseparable and not all Wellesley students are biologically female at the time of admission. "Biologically female" and "biologically male" are transphobic turns of phrase that make no sense unless you accept the idea that for any given human being, all gendered aspects of their embodiment (chromosomal type, hormonal balance, internal reproductive organs, external genitalia, secondary sex characteristics, neurological perception of one's own body as male or female, and I could go on) consistently map to the same binary sex category -- or at least the idea that humans who have a mix of conflicting gendered characteristics are somehow sub-human or atypical examples of the category "human". These phrases are deceptive as they attempt to clothe a social judgment in pseudo-scientific garments. They are political. They are misleading.

Lest you think I'm being pedantic, the conceptual vacuity of the notion of an objectively determinable mapping from person to "biological sex" is highly relevant to the question at hand. "Biological sex", even if such a thing did exist, has nothing to do with admission to Wellesley or any other women's college that I know of. To enroll in the college, I was not required to submit medical records that proved I had certain reproductive organs; proof that my chromosomes had an XX karyotype (I don't know whether they do or not -- do you know what yours are?); proof that I had certain levels of certain hormones in my bloodstream; or any other data that would establish the conformance of my body to the definition of "biological femaleness" that is hegemonic in our culture. I didn't even have to submit a photograph of myself! And the school does not require in-person interviews (alum interviews like the one I originally offered to do serve a function akin to that of an extra recommendation letter: they can strengthen a student's application, but can never weaken it, is my understanding, anyway). I suspect most parties involved, whether they're cis or trans, would find any request to submit such evidence to be demeaning and degrading, with good reason. So how do the readers of student applications determine whether the student is a woman? Why, by inspecting the student's first name (for the majority who have gendered first names, anyway) and the pronouns used in their recommendation letters, of course.

So -- biology has nothing to do with it. The fallacy that biology has something to do with it is just the transphobic fallacy that there's a causal relationship between social gender and any objectively measurable -- "biological" -- characteristics.

I was born biologically male, which I know because my brain has an internal mental map that describes certain body parts I was born without and is conspicuously silent on the matter of certain body parts I was born with. When I studied the arguments in favor of dualism and in favor of materialism in Philosophy 215 at Wellesley, the former didn't seem to have much going for them. So I conclude that the brain is part of the body, and hence, is biological. What makes me male is biological, making me biologically male. Of course, there are some aspects of my embodiment that other people would describe as being "female". But I know that people exist who have conflicting gendered characteristics in one body, since I've met and talked with many of them. Since I have a uterus and I have a brain, the latter of which is pretty definitively male (I didn't learn to need what I need to do during sex or to need to see a male face and body in the mirror -- it would have been in nobody's interest to teach me to need those things), and I'm a feminist, I think my brain determines who I am, not my uterus. Typically, in the culture in which I live, we associate identity with the brain. You don't inspect your ovaries or testicles to determine whether you're Buddhist, left-handed, extroverted, or whether you like the Red Sox; you experience those identities through your mind. And likewise with gender.

Therefore, the assertion that Wellesley "admits women and graduates students" is simply false. The notion that trans men start out as girls or women and become men, or trans women start out as boys or men and become women, is both transphobic and obfuscatory. Given the messages that Western culture bombards its youth with about the inherent untrustworthiness of the individual on matters of one's own identity, it's not surprising that many people don't reach an awareness of what their gender actually is until well after the age when one applies to college. The answer to that is not to subscribe to the imaginary causal relationship between extrinsic gender and intrinsic gender.

The answer is to acknowledge that the concept of a single-gender institution is a fiction, as it requires an ability to read other people's minds that, if anyone had it, would have been put to far more sinister uses by now. And again, any appeals to the notion of a single "biological", "measurable" sex that always corresponds to the letter an observer wrote on a given person's birth certificate are highly irrelevant, as no college or university I know of even tries to measure that attribute in any of its applicants. One could say that one is running a college for people whose birth certificates have the letter "F" on them; saying this would put one closer to expressing the true intent honestly, I suspect. But that would be unsatisfactory as well because -- again, as far as I know -- no single-gender institution requires prospective students to submit legal documentation of their gender. And even if they began requiring that, it would seem like an awfully weird organizing principle for an educational institution. "We admit students who have an 'F' written on their birth certificate and graduate students" just doesn't have the same ring to it. And for students, having to submit a copy of their birth certificate (certified? Or would just a photocopy be okay, to rein in the high cost of college applications these days?) along with their application could make them wonder whether they are applying to college or running for President.

Some people questioned my assertion that Wellesley is at most a "historically women's college". I hope this post has clarified why it's untenable to see it as anything else. Those who would cling to the idea of a "women's college" while paying lip service to trans self-determination lean on the concept of separating out only "biologically female" people to justify what makes a college like Wellesley special. But there is just no such thing as a notion of "biological femaleness" that has any relevance to one's educational and social life, and can be measured objectively. Thus, defenders of the notion of a "women's college" need to refine their definition or try harder.

Please note that I'm not talking about whether single-sex institutions are desirable, just about whether they're possible; if they're not possible, then their desirability is a moot point. It's certainly possible to focus on educating women without claiming to be a single-sex institution. That's why I suggested the phrasing "historically women's college". There are certainly other possible formulations. And of course, nothing I've said is incompatible with an admissions policy that says that admission is restricted to students who identify as female at the time of admission. As far as I know, this is not the current policy, because as far as I know (and people can correct me on this if I'm wrong), Wellesley does admit out trans men and does not admit trans women. However, if such a policy were implemented in the future, it would have to come with an awareness that only admitting people who are conscious of themselves as being women at a given point in time is not equivalent to "only admitting women".

And none of this says very much about people who don't identify as male or female, which is mostly because that isn't my experience and I don't want to speak for others. Nevertheless, they also deserve to know where they stand.

With that in mind, let me reiterate what I began with: I'm not asking for any change in college policy. I'm asking for honesty about the de facto policy that already exists, a policy that involves admitting men. And to me, honesty about that policy can't mean that the administration accepts the academic, social, spiritual, and financial contributions of male and genderqueer students while telling the general public that it's ashamed of them.

I understand that the matter is being taken seriously by students, faculty, and staff, so at this time, I don't feel that (at least at this time) it's necessary to organize a letter-writing campaign on behalf of alums -- though I still encourage alums to let the Admissions office know how they feel. That isn't to say that the conversation is over; clearly, it's just begun. An issue that I haven't taken on because it's not directly relevant is that of trans women as students; I don't know whether Wellesley has a policy on admitting trans women, either, but I would be very surprised if Wellesley departed from all the other women's colleges I'm familiar with and admitted trans women who were early enough in transition that their legal name and/or recommendations would make their trans status an issue. I would be happy to be told I'm mistaken, but fear that I'm not. Trans women experience everything that constitutes the reasons why women's colleges are still necessary, and they belong at Wellesley as much as anyone.
tim: Tim with short hair, smiling, wearing a black jacket over a white T-shirt (Default)
A little bit of background for the one or two of you who don't know: In 2001 I graduated from Wellesley College in Wellesley, Massachusetts, which thinks of itself as a women's college but -- since I graduated from it, and not just me -- is really more of a historically women's college.

Wellesley's alumnae [sic] association coordinates alum volunteers in various cities to interview prospective students. The interview is partially used for evaluating an applicant, but mostly, as I understand it, a chance for a prospective student to learn more about the college from someone who attended. I volunteered to interview a student in the past, when I lived in Berkeley, and I enjoyed it. So when I got an email last fall that the Oregon alumnae club was looking for alums to interview students in Portland, I inquired.

The difference between the last time I interviewed, and now, is that in between, I came out as being a man. I was always male, of course, it's just that because it's so rare when you're outside specifically queer/trans spaces to hear that encephalic sex can differ from the sex that people impute to one based on one's actual or presumed genitalia, I didn't know that I wasn't female until I was 18 and didn't know that I was male until I was 26. In fact, it was in a class at Wellesley (Anthropology 269 - Gender, Marriage and the Family with Prof. Lauren Leve) that I first learned that there were people in the world who'd been assigned female at birth, but weren't female. In any case, I didn't think this particular difference had any more effect on whether I could represent my alma mater to a prospective student than, say, the fact that I have longer hair now than I did when I graduated, but it turned out there were some people in the college administration who begged to differ.

I met with the alum volunteer who was coordinating interviewers, K., to discuss what would be involved. I had told K. by email that I was a trans man, so that she wouldn't be surprised when we met in person. When we met, K. explained that she had talked to someone in the alumnaeadmissions office, and they had decided that trans alums would not be allowed to do one-on-one interviews with prospective students. I had the impression that this was a "policy" that had been formulated on the spot. K. said that I would be welcome to participate in any other recruiting activity, but not do a one-on-one interview.

I wasn't terribly surprised by this, but I was disappointed. While I was pondering how to go forward, I received a call from Maggie Farnsworth, the associate director of admissions at Wellesley. She said that there had been a miscommunication, there was no policy against trans alums being involved with recruiting in any way, and that I could go ahead and be involved. After our brief exchange, I didn't actually get around to contacting K. again, because I was getting busier with grad school. This was back in November 2010.

Just before I left for the winter holiday break, I got another call from Joy St. John, the director of admissions. I waited until after returning from a bike trip to return her call, and spoke with her in January. She restated the original policy decision and rationale that K. had given to me, saying that if I were to interview a prospective, the focus of the interview would be on me, and they wanted interviews to be about the prospective student. She said that a prospective student wouldn't be expecting to interview with a man. I asked how she would feel about that if I was a person of color -- many high school students from Eastern Oregon might never have interacted with someone who wasn't white, and even among alums, some ethnic groups are certainly not well-represented compared to their numbers in the population. Or, what if I was a person with an obvious physical disability? This might also be surprising to some prospective students. Her reply was that the admissions office explains to prospectives that Wellesley has students of color, and disabled students, but not that Wellesley has male students. Thus, while she cited the need to protect prospective students (from, apparently, the knowledge either that trans men exist or that Wellesley graduates men), the real concern is protecting Wellesley's administration from having to acknowledge the existence of trans students and alums.

Again, it wasn't surprising to me that Wellesley was happy to throw its trans alums under the bus in order to desperately conceal from prospectives the existence of men living in Wellesley dorms and male Wellesley alums, but it is disappointing. It is certainly true that the Wellesley administration needs to decide how to handle the truth that the existence of trans people obliterates the idea of a single-sex educational institution (the only way to maintain the "single-sex"-edness of one's institution is to immediately expel students who come out as trans after enrolling, and I'm not sure anyone would find that morally tenable), but that decision is not for me to make, and the burden of determining just what it is that Wellesley has to offer prospective students aside from the absence of male students is not on my shoulders. In my opinion, respect for alums -- all alums -- has to come first, and being told, implicitly, that I'm not a suitable representative of my alma mater and that my college is ashamed to have me as an alum is certainly not respect.

It seems counterproductive to me to "protect" a prospective student from knowledge about trans students. If a prospective is accepted to Wellesley and decides to attend, then within just a few short months, she might be attending classes with male students, living with them, sharing bathrooms with them. I don't know how many out trans men are attending Wellesley right now, but it seems unlikely that the number will ever be zero from here on, barring any administrative crackdowns. Moreover, prospective students may be queer, may have trans parents, family members, or friends, or may be trans men themselves. Talking with Ms. St. John gave me the distinct impression that such students aren't who Wellesley wishes to recruit.

I asked Ms. St. John if the admissions office would be willing to state the policy on trans alums' involvement with recruiting in writing. It would be difficult for me to bring others into the discussion based on hearsay; a policy that isn't written down is not one that an institution can be held accountable for. I received no written reply for several months; at that point, I learned that Wellesley had recently hired an advisor to LGBT students, and contacted her about the matter. About a week later, I received the following email from Ms. St. John, which I must include below for the sake of holding power accountable.

Dear Tim,

I recently had a conversation with Dr. Fygetakis, Director of LGBTQ Services, regarding our office decision to ask you not to interview prospective students. In our conversation, Dr. Fygetakis indicated that you believed I had not responded to your request for a written policy regarding male interviewers. I want to clarify any confusion. In our original conversation I stated that I felt it was unlikely that I would be able to provide you with a written policy, because our decision to ask you not to interview was not a college or office policy, but rather, one of the many case-by-case decisions our office makes regarding volunteer interviewers. I then told you I would respond to your request for a written policy. A week later (after consulting with other administrators in my office and in other offices on c ampus), I did leave you a voicemai l message explaining that I would not be able to provide you with the written policy you requested. I apologize if you did not receive that communication. I am writing you an email in hopes that this is a more reliable form of communication. Our office will not be providing you with the written policy you request, for the reasons I stated above. However, I do want to be clear that the College would welcome your involvement in other volunteer activities. I am happy to remain in communication with you regarding this issue. My phone number and contact information are listed below and you should feel free to contact me again if you think it would be helpful.

Joy St. John

One of the most common verbal assaults against trans people is that we "just want attention". Apparently, if one is trans, one is expected to be above the normal human need for interaction with and validation from others. I've been hesitating for six months to discuss this matter in a public forum, because I believed that I should go through the proper channels first; well, in my opinion, the quoted email demonstrates to me that I have done everything it's possible to do within the proper channels. I also hesitated because of the threat, already levelled at me, that if I contested this decision, I would be accused of wanting to make everything about me, of wanting attention. Well, I don't; I certainly couldn't care less about whether I, or someone else, is asked to do a particular volunteer job. I do care whether I'm treated the same way as everyone else, or treated differently based on my gender or on my assigned sex or the juxtaposition of the two. In her email, Ms. St. John said that discrimination against trans alums was a "case-by-case decision". It's hard to read this statement with an assumption of good faith, because she and others made it very clear to me that I was not being excluded from recruiting because of any personal, individual qualities, but solely because of my gender. It's impossible that it could be any other way, as the decision to exclude me based on my gender was made before anyone involved with the admissions office had met or talked to me. If I was being excluded not to interview because someone in Admissions believed I would not be a good representative of the college, or wouldn't be cordial to a prospective student, then the subject of my gender would never have come up in conversation. Furthermore, since Wellesley considered me a good representative of the college when I interviewed a prospective student in the past, and since the only thing that has changed since then is that I'm no longer pretending to be a woman, I would have to come to the conclusion that no "case-by-case decision" was made, but rather, a discriminatory decision was and is being made.

Since institutional discrimination is rarely confined to one person or one situation, in the end, I think it's worthwhile for me to raise the issue in public. I hesitated as well because I could be accused of complaining about "First World problems". Surely no one privileged enough to have graduated from a college like Wellesley has anything to complain about? I think not, though; incidents like this one are examples of microaggressions: tiny interactions that accumulate on each other to maintain social structures of domination. If the existence of worse problems in the world was an excuse, I could get out of a speeding ticket by saying that at least I'm not engaging in child sex trafficking. I think that whenever you tell somebody that they are less of a person, that that makes the world a worse place.

I don't think that my alma mater has anything to be ashamed of in having me as an alum. I'm working for a nonprofit right now; I'm planning to finish my Ph.D and become a teacher. I volunteer, I ride my bike instead of driving, and I've helped friends get through tough times. I'm certainly not the most noble or the most high-achieving person in my graduating class, but at least I don't work on Wall Street. Even though most graduates of my alma mater are women and I'm a man, I am exactly as good a representative of Wellesley as other alum is. Every individual is different, with their own set of experiences; no one is more typical than another. And it's not going to do Wellesley any good in the long term to either purge trans students or work to erase those students' gender identities. Wellesley will always have male students, since gender-variant people who were raised as female will always search for liberation from the roles that were forced on them, and flock institutions that seem to have strong feminist values. The question for the administration, then, is that given that male students will always be with them, whether there's a good reason to distinguish between a man with an 'M' written on his birth certificate and one with an 'F' there. That question isn't for me to answer. All I know is that they can't have it both ways; if they don't consider me good enough to represent the college, then surely my money isn't good enough to support the college, either. Which would seem to contradict the contents of my mailbox every few weeks.

Being told my alma mater wishes to deny the fact of my existence is a small injustice, but as with any microaggression, it grates nonetheless. Everybody only gets (at most) one undergraduate alma mater, and while most people never have to think twice about being able to say, proudly, that they graduated from the University of _______, I do have to think twice about whether I can be proud to have graduated from a school where, it seems, the administration would be more comfortable if I was still pretending to be something I'm not.

The outcomes I'd like to see are either that Wellesley issue an official, written statement of the specific ways in which it does not treat its alums and students who are trans men or who are genderqueer in the same way it treats its alums and students who are cis women, which can then be discussed or critiqued; or, alternatively, that they issue a statement that it is college policy that there is no discrimination on the basis of gender within the context of alum activities. If you are a Wellesley student or alum who agrees with me, I would encourage you to write to the office of admissions to let them know how their decisions to try to erase trans alums will affect your willingness to donate to the College. And let me know as well, so that we can think about what collective action is possible.

Finally, it appears that Wellesley isn't the only putative women's college that's having a problem balancing its image with respect for trans students and alums: a trans male student at Smith was denied the opportunity to be a host to a visiting prospective student and is circulating a petition about it.

Edit: It seems that I made an error in the original post by mentioning the alumnae office. As far as I know, nobody from the alumnae office was involved in policy discussions about trans alums' involvement with recruiting. It is solely an admissions office matter. If you're a Wellesley person, direct any thoughts to the admissions office only.


tim: Tim with short hair, smiling, wearing a black jacket over a white T-shirt (Default)
Tim Chevalier

September 2017

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