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)
Friends, suppose you are a cissexual man. If you are one, this should be easy enough. If you aren't one, this should also be easy, as the use of most socially-sanctioned narratives in any culture you're likely to originate from is predicated on the appropriation of a distinctly male, assigned-male-at-birth persona.

Now suppose that I were to kick you in the balls repeatedly. I have reason to believe you would likely find that painful. But I can make it up to you! How about once you're recovered, you go ahead and kick me in the balls repeatedly? Go on, imagine it. Okay? Well, that didn't feel like much at all. I'm clearly impervious to being kicked in the balls, and that's clearly a reflection of my superior strength of character.

The only problem is that this is an unfair comparison, since my balls are made of silicone and kicking them would only serve to further cushion the blow that my already much-less-sensitive crotchal accoutrements would otherwise absorb. I'm not better than you because I'm less sensitive to a swift kick in the crotch -- I just don't have testicles, a lack that is hardly on my list of personal accomplishments and is in fact something I would change if I had any idea how.

Cis people often call trans people "oversensitive" or "easily offended" because they react to certain kinds of verbal attacks differently than a cis person would to the same comment. Of course, the person making such an attack does not always mean it to come off as aggressive, but since meaning is determined by the recipient of a message and not the sender, these comments are attacks nonetheless. For example, a cis person might call a trans person "oversensitive" because she reacts badly to being addressed with the wrong pronoun, and a cis person would just laugh or shrug it off. Or a cis person might say a trans person is "easily offended" and should "know what I mean" when he says "born female" to mean "assigned male at birth": when they say such a person is easily offended, they mean they react to such a comment more strongly than they would expect a cis person to react. Cis people stack the deck (they take advantage of their socially sanctioned privilege to define what a "normal" level of sensitivity is) and then complain when trans people won't play.

Like a swift kick to the crotchal region, verbal attacks are received differently depending on what, inside the recipient's body, takes the blow. A pair of testicles that you can't even see (when your victim has pants on) make the difference between a few moments of discomfort and a thoroughly ruined day. A collection of emotional baggage that you can't even see, comprising memories of, and learned reactions to, transphobic violence -- the kind of violence that hides behind words and makes its victim do all the dirty work -- makes the difference between a dickish comment that's laughed off and a dickish comment that ruins someone's trust in you and jeopardizes a relationship.

If I were to request adulation for what I characterized as thick skin developed through my own efforts, but is really a matter of (a certain kind of) luck, you'd rightly suggest I was disingenuous. So why is it a mark of good character to be "thick-skinned" and "not easily offended" when that really amounts to having had the good luck not to grow some brain structures that -- like your testicles, if applicable -- you don't think about all the time, but that make it difficult for you to regain your composure when someone stomps all over them? Why it's considered a virtue to not be "sensitive" -- that is, to be indifferent to other people's emotional states and responses -- and to be "thick-skinned" -- that is, to not care about your relationships with other people -- is another question as well. Why is "you're just being oversensitive" an all-purpose silencer, while "you're not being sensitive enough" gets you laughed at and called a castrating PC cunt (and then accused of oversensitivity when you don't like being reduced to the genitalia you're presumed to have)? But even if we take it as a given that apathy is a virtue, are virtues that accrue by accident of birth really so praiseworthy?

When you say that a trans person (or, you know, any person whose life is different from your own) is "oversensitive" because you are incapable of imagining their response to anything from a misplaced pronoun to a "Saturday Night Live" sketch dedicated to mocking and denying the humanity of a group of people to which they belong, you are really saying that it's easy to maintain a serene state of indifference to everything other than yourself. Easy when the rest of the world is indifferent to you, too -- and, just as easy when the rest of the world would prefer to see you dead.

You're saying that if it's harder for you to do something that's inherently more difficult than it is for someone else to do something easier, then the problem is that you're not trying hard enough.

And really, that takes balls.
tim: "System Status: Degraded" (degraded)
From an online discussion about sexism in graduate programs:
"Alice": Dropout rates might be an interesting thing to study, but the simple lack of women in the field is also quite important, and is probably one of the strongest factors affecting the dropout rate. While that is merely conjecture, I would say that it fits well with my experience, and I believe it to be demonstrably true.

And a reply:
"Bob": This "they don't feel included" notion is harmful. The problem is not that someone doesn't feel included. The problem is that we're raising insecure people unnecessarily hung up on what other people will think of them. This should be fixed by raising children better. Not by changing the environments at our universities.

If someone raised their daughter (or son) in such a way that she (or he) discards a carrier simply because s/he feels unwelcome in that particular environment because of lack of other people sharing some physical feature, then they raised an insecure weakling who is overly concerned about what other people think of her/him.

Fuck that. We should not be baby-proofing our environment so that people with stupid irrational insecurities don't have their feelings hurt. We should focus on raising independent people, not on crippling university environments.

All I ever cared about is what I want to do. Other people? Well, why should they have a say in what I should do with my life. It seems ridiculous to me that someone would base their major decisions on what sports do people at the CS department play or what kind of dirty jokes they like


I find "Bob"'s comment (not his real name) to be a great example of a meme that people who want to deny the existence of oppressions and their role in them often employ. The basic template is: "[insert social problem here] wouldn't be a problem if those of you who it affects would just toughen up and learn to ignore it."

Of course, this statement is generally made by people who have never had to toughen up and learn to ignore the problem in question, because the problem isn't their problem.

Let's suppose, for the sake of argument, that it's possible for a group -- for example, women -- to learn to ignore a problem that affects them -- for example, institutional sexism that denies them career opportunities. And let's suppose, again, for the sake of argument, that ignoring the problem would make it go away. This seems a bit absurd in the context of being a graduate student where if you ignore the people who are potentially treating you in sexist ways, you can't do your job; also because sexist behavior is often subtle and hard for an individual to perceive directly. It usually bypasses your conscious mind and goes straight to making you feel inferior, all with no chance for you to decide to "be tough" and ignore it.

But maybe the argument is that every woman ought to be supremely tough and completely impervious to anyone else's best efforts to make them feel like less of a person? (Men are exempt from this imperative of insensitivity, of course, as evinced by any "pro-men's-rights" rant about how men are oppressed because they don't get to dictate the contents of their partners' uteruses, have as much condomless sex with fertile individuals as they'd like without paying child support, or... okay, I'm drawing a blank here, but I'm sure there are lots of other ways in which men are oppressed.) I'm not sure how a person would go about doing that (perhaps installing a punching bag in one's basement with a carefully mounted image of Lawrence Summers on it and practicing for 30 minutes a day?), but let's suppose it's possible.

What is "Bob" really saying, then? I think he's saying that the burden of ameliorating an oppression is on the people being oppressed, not the people doing the oppressing. Explaining away a problem by telling people that it wouldn't be a problem if they learned to ignore it explains nothing and solves nothing. It just shifts the emotional labor onto everybody except the people who are causing the problem -- the people who are in a position of power and privilege. And why should we accept that?

As always, Samuel Delany says it better than I can:
There are no sexist decisions to be made.

There are antisexist decisions to be made. And they require tremendous energy and self-scrutiny, as well as moral stamina in the face of the basic embarrassment campaign which is the tactic of those assured of their politically superior position. ("Don't you think you're being rather silly offering your pain as evidence that something I do so automatically and easily is wrong? Why, I bet it doesn't hurt half as much as you say. Perhaps it only hurts because you're struggling...?" This sort of political mystification, turning the logical arrows around inside verbal structures to render them empirically empty, and therefore useless ["It hurts because you don't like it", rather than "You don't like it because it hurts."] is just another version of the "my slave/my master" game.)

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Tim Chevalier

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