edited to add, 2017-09-20: Rory's fundraiser was fully funded and their surgery went well! If you're only reading this now, find another trans person to donate to -- there are plenty. ;)
edited to add, 2017-09-20: Rory's fundraiser was fully funded and their surgery went well! If you're only reading this now, find another trans person to donate to -- there are plenty. ;)
Lots and lots of people are falling for the "trans people are destroying free speech and intellectual freedom!!11" articles that are going around. For context, a good one to start with is:
"Why Tuvel’s Article So Troubled Its Critics" by Shannon Winnubst:
As one of the many scholars involved in writing the open letter calling on Hypatia: A Journal of Feminist Philosophy to retract the essay "In Defense of Transracialism," by Rebecca Tuvel, I am compelled to come forward and attempt to reclaim a narrative spinning increasingly out of control.
First, I want to clarify the anonymity of the authorship of the letter. The writing was a collective effort by a dozen or more scholars — the majority faculty members and all of us in philosophy — weighing in on drafts, contributing to and editing sections, requesting additions, and demanding deletions. Many of us became involved at the request of black and/or trans scholars who feel completely demoralized by Tuvel’s article and the failure of peer review that it represents. Speaking for myself, I signed and circulated the letter because I know, firsthand, of the damage this kind of scholarship does to marginalized groups, especially black and trans scholars, in philosophy.
The letter was addressed specifically to Hypatia’s editor and associate editors. All of those involved in the writing of the letter care deeply about the journal, and our effort is itself an expression of our commitment to it. Given our various roles as authors, readers, and longstanding reviewers for the journal, we were alarmed about the failure of the peer-review process that allowed the publication of Tuvel’s article. Some readers have stepped back and come to understand our dismay.
Tuvel received substantive critical feedback at conferences from scholars in critical race theory and trans studies. We do not understand how this failed to shape the review process and can only assume that such scholars were not selected as peer reviewers. We argue, then, that the peer-review process failed, in this instance, in at least two ways. First, it failed a junior scholar, Tuvel, by allowing subpar scholarship to be published in a flagship journal. Second, it failed the field of feminist philosophy as a subdiscipline that continues to struggle to break from the longstanding habits of the broader discipline of philosophy. More specifically, the article’s publication signals an arrogant disregard for the broad, well-established, interdisciplinary scholarly fields of both critical race theory and trans studies. For an article that is explicitly about the concepts of the transracial and transgender, that omission is egregious.
While feminist philosophy should imply a critique of the field of philosophy itself, the open letter to Hypatia wasn’t aimed at the discipline over all. None of us ever expected it to circulate so widely, to garner so many signatures, or to become the object of news stories. Yet, largely due to the fast response by Brian Leiter, the letter and the quickly issued apology by a majority of associate editors of Hypatia quickly became whipping girls, as it were, for the discipline as a whole. This has been, for me, the most astonishing part of the saga. Why would a discipline that has shown a systemic disregard for feminist scholarship suddenly care about this critical dialogue within it?
An article by Julia Serano
Regardless of what you think about the specifics of this case, what happened next is unconscionable: Jesse Singal of NY Mag (who has a penchant for writing high profile articles that depict transgender activists as out-of-control and anti-science, and with whom I've had previous run-ins) decided to write an alarmist article decrying the open letter to Hypatia as a "witch hunt." This helped to inspire a "pile on," as pundits far and wide who couldn't give two-shits about feminist philosophy weighed in on the matter, and attempted to portray this as yet another liberal-attack-on-free-speech (a position that I've previously critiqued as disingenuous and hypocritical).
Historically, "witch hunts" refer to when the masses, consumed by moral panic, attack people on the margins based on the assumption that these marginalized groups will infect or contaminate greater society with their wayward or evil beliefs and practices. So it seems extremely farcical (not to mention scaremongering) for people in the dominant majority to complain that one of their own kind is the victim of a "witch hunt" solely because a few people in the marginalized minority have challenged or critiqued their views.
A third article by Noah Berlatsky:
So, a scholar failed to follow best practices around the treatment of marginalized communities. Critics pointed out the problem. She acknowledged her error and the harm it caused, corrected it, and apologized. Truly, this is a crisis of totalitarianism in the academy.
You have the option of reading those articles, by authors who patiently explain the problems with the Tuvel article and the manufactured controversy about it, at length, or you can read tweet-length summaries. Your choice!
From TransTheory on Twitter: https://twitter.com/TransTheory/status/
"I want to consider (1) core commitments of Trans Studies/Philosophy in the context of Hypatia and (2) irresponsible contrapositives.
Trans Studies/Philosophy demands awareness of the ways academia exploits our bodies, which are highly politicized
In this vein, the “In Defense of Transracialism” article already fails by not addressing that it is wrapped up in this politicization.
In most Philosophy journals this may have flown, but Hypatia (a feminist journal) professes to do better. JS's article decontextualizes this"
From Sara Ahmed on Twitter:
"Baby tip: be very skeptical of articles using 'poisonous call out culture' and 'witch hunt' to describe critiques of transphobia & racism."
"The work of exposing how transphobia and anti-black racism is reproduced by how philosophy is reproduced is vital, brave and risky."
"I learnt from working on sexual harassment that 'witch hunt' tends to be used to describe what you are doing when you contest power."
More from @TransTheory:
"excited that Philosophy & the opinion magazine community expanded which groups have a sacred right to reduce others' lives to tenure fuel
this is a great step forward for professional feminist philosophy, which no longer has to worry about pesky things like feminist commitments" (read the twitter thread for more)
An excerpt from Julia Serano's book, Outspoken, about cis people claiming to be experts on trans issues: https://mobile.twitter.com/JuliaSerano/
- If you're defending an article you haven't read while simultaneously refusing to even read what actual trans people are saying in response, consider whether maybe it isn't intellectual freedom that you're defending.
- When you're used to controlling a conversation, you may feel upset when people you've traditionally been able to silence get to say anything at all. This doesn't mean their presence is stopping you from speaking. If you claim you want an intellectual debate, reacting to hearing the other side by throwing a tantrum about evil call-out culture is inadvisable.
- The patterns of elevating an intra-community disagreement to a campaign by evil trans people to silence differing views, and of framing the presence of speech by marginalized people as somehow repressive of speech by privileged people, are familiar from GamerGate.
- Try not to engage in cis fragility: the process of centering your own discomfort with being criticized by trans people to the point where you demand that trans people be silent in order to make you feel more comfortable. (By analogy with the concept of white fragility.)
- Have some tissues for your cissues.
Elizabeth Waite was a trans woman who committed suicide last week. I did not know Elizabeth, but several of my friends did. In an article for the Daily Beast, Ben Collins described what happened after she died (CW if you follow the link to the article: it quotes extremely transmisogynistic and violent comments and images, including some that incite suicide.)
The night the article describes, I sat in my office after work with Elizabeth's profile open in a tab, watching the stream of hateful comments pour in almost faster than I could report them to Facebook. My friends had mentioned that members of an online forum known for terrorizing autistic trans women were flooding her profile (particularly her last post, in which she stated her intention to commit suicide) with hateful comments. Since I didn't know Elizabeth and wasn't emotionally affected by reading these comments in the same way that I would have been if I had known her, I felt that bearing witnesses and reporting the comments as abuse was work that I could usefully do. Since many of the comments were obviously from fake accounts, and Facebook is well-known for its desire for good data (read: monetizable data), specifically accounts attached to the names people use in everyday life, I reported those accounts as fake as well.
And later that night, I watched dozens and dozens of emails fill my inbox that were automated responses from Facebook's abuse reporting system. Most of the responses said this:
Thank you for taking the time to report something that you feel may violate our Community Standards. Reports like yours are an important part of making Facebook a safe and welcoming environment. We reviewed the comment you reported for displaying hate speech and found it doesn't violate our Community Standards.
Please let us know if you see anything else that concerns you. We want to keep Facebook safe and welcoming for everyone.
Because the posts in question were eventually made private, I can't quote the comments about which a Facebook content reviewer said "it doesn't violate our Community Standards", and in fairness to the person or people reviewing the comments, some of the comments weren't obviously hate speech without the context that they were in a thread of people piling on a dead trans woman. Facebook lacks a way to report abuse that goes beyond "the text of this individual comment, in the absence of context, violates Facebook's Community Standards." That's part of the problem. If trans people were in positions of power at Facebook, you can bet that there would be a "report transmisogynist hate mob" button that would call attention to an entire thread in which an individual was being targeted by a coordinated harassment campaign.
Likewise, even though Facebook is notorious for harassing trans people for using the names we use in everyday life as our account names, when I reported an account with the name "Donny J. Trump" for impersonation, I got an email back saying that the account would not be suspended because it wasn't impersonating anybody:
Facebook's tools don't address this problem. Imagine you're the family member of a trans woman who just died and whose profile is receiving a flood of hateful comments. Dozens of users are posting these comments -- too many to block, and anyway, what good would blocking do if you don't have access to the deceased person's account password? The comments would still be there, defacing that person's memory. Reporting individual comments has no effect if the harassment is conducted by posting a series of memes that aren't necessarily offensive on their own, but have the effect of demeaning and belittling a person's death when posted as comments in response to a suicide note. And getting an account converted to a "memorial account" -- which allows someone else to administer it -- can take days, which doesn't help when the harassment is happening right now. Again: you can look at Facebook and know that it's a company in which the voices of people who worry about questions like, "when I die, will people on an Internet forum organize a hate mob to post harmful comments all over my public posts?" are not represented.
But Facebook doesn't even do what they promise to do: delete individual comments that clearly violate their community standards:
Facebook removes hate speech, which includes content that directly attacks people based on their:
Sex, gender, or gender identity, or
Serious disabilities or diseases.
Out of the many comments in the threads on Elizabeth Waite's profile that clearly attacked people based on their gender identity or disability, most were deemed by Facebook as "doesn't violate our Community Standards."
At this point, Facebook ought to just stop pretending to have an abuse reporting system, because what they promise to do has nothing to do with what they will actually do. Facebook's customers are advertisers -- people like you and me who produce content that helps Facebook deliver an audience for advertisers (you might think of us as "users") are the raw material, not the customers. Even so, it's strange that companies that pay for advertising on Facebook don't care that Facebook actively enables this kind of harassment.
If you read the Daily Beast article, you'll also notice that Facebook was completely unhelpful and unwilling to stop the abuse other than in a comment-by-comment way until one of the family members found a laptop that still had a login cookie for Elizabeth's account -- they wouldn't memorialize it or do anything else to stop the abuse wholesale in a timely fashion. What would have happened if the cookie had already expired?
Like anybody else, trans people die for all kinds of reasons. In an environment where hate speech is being encouraged from the highest levels of power, this is just going to keep happening more and more. Facebook will continue to refuse to do anything to stop it, because hate speech doesn't curtail their advertising revenue. In fact, as I wrote about in "The Democratization of Defamation", the economic incentives that exist encourage companies like Facebook to potentiate harassment, because more harassment means more impressions.
Although it's clearly crude economics that make Facebook unwilling to invest resources in abuse prevention, a public relations person at Facebook would probably tell you that they are reluctant to remove hate speech because of concern for free speech. Facebook is not a common carrier and has no legal (or moral) obligation to spend money to disseminate content that isn't consistent with its values as a business. Nevertheless, think about this for a moment: in your lifetime, you will probably have to see a loved one's profile get defaced like this and know that Facebook will do nothing about it. Imagine a graveyard that let people spray paint on tombstones and then stopped you from washing the paint off because of free speech.
What responsibilities do social media companies -- large ones like Facebook that operate as completely unregulated public utilities -- have to their users? If you'd like, you can call Facebook's billions of account holders "content creators"; what responsibilities do they have to those of us who create the content that Facebook uses for delivering an audience to advertisers?
Facebook would like you to think that they give us access to their site for free because they're nice people and like us, but corporations aren't nice people and don't like you. The other viewpoint you may have heard is: "If you're not paying for the product, then you are the product." Both of these stories are too simplistic. If you use Facebook, you do pay for it: with the labor you put into writing status updates and comments (without your labor, Facebook would have nothing to sell to advertisers) and with the attention you give to ads (even if you never click on an ad).
If you're using something that's being given away for free, then the person giving it away has no contractual obligations to you. Likewise, if you are raw material, than the people turning you into gold have no contractual obligations to you. But if you're paying to use Facebook -- and you are, with your attention -- that creates a buyer/seller relationship. Because this relationship is not formalized, you as the buyer assume all the risks in the transaction while the seller reaps all of the economic benefit.
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Why do cis people need the concept of "biological sex" so much? Why do they have such a strong need to put trans people in their place by saying, "Sure, you identify as a woman. But your biological sex is male"?
At the root of cisnormativity, like all other harmful normativities, is a desire to control. To exercise power over somebody else. And telling somebody, "You aren't really who you say you are -- I can invoke some greater authority that says you're lying about who you are" is a way of controlling somebody else. It frames that person as an unreliable narrator of their own experience, and reinforces the cis person's greater power to name, to identify, to categorize.
It doesn't help that the watered-down liberal version of trans education that has been promoted for a long time emphasizes the difference between "sex" and "gender," making cis people feel like they can evade criticism as long as they memorize that talking point. It also doesn't help that anyone who challenges the simplistic sex/gender binary gets accused of wanting to alienate allies or wanting to make it harder for them to understand us.
That didn't cause the problem, though.
"Sure, you identify as a man, but you'll always be truly biologically female" ultimately means, "What you identify as doesn't matter. It's not real; it's all in your head. My objective observation of your body is that you are female, and that's scientific."
There is no rule of science that says we must use terms for other people that they wouldn't use for themselves. That's social and political.
So the attachment to "biological sex" is really about saying this: "There is something other than your own self-description that I can use to classify and categorize you without your consent. I can categorize and label you based on externally observing your body, without asking you what categories you belong in." The power to name is the power to control. And cis people react badly when we try to take this power from them by saying that "sex" is just another name for gender.
It's easy to see what purpose "biological sex" serves structurally: gender-based oppression would no longer be possible if gender categories were entered into consensually. To oppress somebody, you need the ability to place them in an oppressed class in a way that others will generally recognize as valid.
But on an individual, psychological level, I wonder what purpose it serves. Why is there such a strong need in so many cis people to tell somebody else they're wrong about their own sex?
One answer is that cis people don't like admitting mistakes, and that most cis people learned as children that boys have penises and girls have vaginas. When faced with a choice between recognizing trans people as fully human, or maintaining their own omniscience, they go for the narcissistic choice of refusing to admit that what they learned early on was incorrect.
But I don't think that's the whole story. People make all kinds of mistakes, but admitting that they were taught something incorrect about sex categories seems uniquely difficult.
So I'm leaving it here as a question. Why does any individual cis person feel such a strong need to tell a trans person, "You are truly biologically male," or, "You are truly biologically female" when that isn't how the trans person would describe themself? The answer isn't "science", since science doesn't require anybody to place others in particular political categories; as well, very few cis people saying this have any understanding of science. I don't know the answer to this question, but I think the only way to begin finding it is to reject the pseudo-scientific notion of biological sex as objective truth rather than socially and politically motivated narrative. We have to stop asking what biological sex is, and start asking what work the concept of "biological sex" does and what needs it satisfies.
Arguing over the terms of reform means trying to get people to understand complexity. It violates the old adage that in politics when you are explaining you are losing. Better to let the other side explain complex formulae while you line up behind an easily articulated view."Transphobia comes from ignorance. Cis people treat trans people badly because they just don't understand gender. If we take the time to educate them, it'll pay off in respect."
-- Michael J. Graetz and Ian Shapiro, Death by a Thousand Cuts: The Fight over Taxing Inherited Wealth
That's my impression of the premise behind most "trans 101" workshops, handouts, and books that I've seen. I think the premise is flawed, because asserting boundaries is incompatible with education. This is not to say that education is never necessary, just that exchange of ideas and boundary-setting shouldn't be intermingled freely, much as developing software and doing code review -- or writing a book and editing it -- are different activities. While I suspect what I'm about to say applies to other social power gradients besides just trans/cis, I'm going to focus here on "trans 101" education.
I believe education is extremely oversold as a means for effecting change. You cannot convince people that you are in possession of facts and truths (borrowing Rebecca Solnit's words) while you are educating them. And in the case of "trans 101" education, what we need to teach people is exactly that: that trans people are reliable narrators of our own life stories. But in order for us to teach people what they need to know, they have to believe it already! This is why the ubiquitous advice to "educate people before you get angry at them" is as ineffective as it is smarmy: you can't educate someone into treating you as a person.
"Trans 101" workshops, on the other hand, are situations where someone or a group of people (sometimes a trans person, sometimes a cis person, sometimes a mixed group) has volunteered to do the work of educating in a structured and planned way. This isn't like randomly telling people on the Internet that they should educate strangers for free -- there's a better return on investment, and it's not something people are coerced into doing.
In practice, though, most "trans 101" content I've seen, well-intentioned as it is, is fundamentally flawed. "Trans 101" materials often rely on infographics like various versions of the "Genderbread Person" diagram, and these pictures illustrate the fundamental flaws of the educational approach. Rather than embedding any version of that diagram in this post (bad publicity is still publicity, after all), I'll defer to an illustrated critique of the 'Genderbread Person' trope that articulates why all of the diagrams are reductive and misleading.
Rather than teaching cis people what sex is, or what gender is, or about the difference between gender identity, expression, and role (I can never remember what those all mean anyway), or what "performativity" means, you could save everybody a lot of time and set a boundary, specifically: "Everyone has the right to have their sex and gender, as self-defined at a given moment in time, recognized as valid. If you are a respectful person, you will respect that right and not cross a boundary by denying the validity of someone else's self-defined sex or gender." Here's how.
Tell, Don't AskA hidden assumption behind most "trans 101" content is that the educator's job is to persuade. It goes without saying in much trans 101 content that the speaker (if trans) is asking the audience for permission to be a person, or that the speaker (if cis) is trying to explain to the audience why they should treat trans people as people. No matter who's saying it, it's self-undermining. If you expect to be treated as a person, you don't ask for permission to be one.
"Meeting people where they are" is a commonly cited reason to tone down or simplify discussion of boundaries and self-determination in "trans 101" content. I think most people grasp the basic concept of boundaries, at least those who are old enough to have learned to not grab the other kids' toys and that you don't get to pull your mom's hair just because you want to. So if we "meet people where they are" on the common ground of boundaries, we'll share the understanding that boundaries are not negotiable and require no justification. Justifying a statement implies it's not a boundary -- it implies that you can negotiate or debate with me on whether or not I'm a person. Actually, I know more than you do about what my subjective experience is; your opinion isn't equally valid there.
I think the premise that "meeting people where they are" requires a great deal of explanation arises partially from the difficulty of functioning in a system where it's still not widely accepted that everyone gets to have bodily autonomy. Disability, children's rights, the right to an abortion, sexual assault, or consent to being assigned a sex/gender, are all examples where the conditional or contingent granting of bodily autonomy causes significant pain.
So stating boundaries isn't easy. But piling on the explanations and justifications doesn't help either. You don't take power by asking for permission. You don't demand respect by asking for permission. And there's no "please" in "I am a human being, and you had better treat me as one."
Eschew ObfuscationYou know those people who ask for a checklist, right? "Give me a list of words I should avoid using, so that I can be sure that no one will ever get mad at me again. If they get mad, I'll tell them you gave me the list and they should get mad at you instead." A lot of "trans 101" content panders to the desire to avoid doing hard interpersonal work yourself -- to formalize and automate empathy. Unfortunately, that is also self-defeating. Ideally, a "trans 101" talk should provide as few rules as possible, because checklists, flowcharts, and other rule-based approaches to respecting other people are just another site for people to exploit and search for loopholes.
The flowchart approach goes hand-in-hand with the peddling of various oversimplified models of sex and gender that have the supposed benefit from being different from the one that white American children were taught in elementary school in the fifties (that boys have a penis and grow up to be men, girls have a vagina and grow up to be women, and there's nobody else.) But trans people don't get oppressed because cis people don't sufficiently understand the nuances of sex and gender. Rather, cis people construct models of sex and gender that justify past oppression and make it easier for that oppression to continue. For example, teaching people that sex is "biological" and gender is in your mind doesn't make them any more likely to treat trans people as real people. We see this in the ongoing legislative attacks on trans people's right to use public accommodations: cis people who have learned that "gender identity" is self-determined while other people determine what your biological sex is have adapted to that knowledge by framing their hateful legislation in terms of "biological sex."
Remodeling sex and gender doesn't fix transphobia because a flawed model didn't cause it. You can't address fear with facts. Models are interesting and potentially useful to trans people, people who are questioning whether they're trans, and people who study science, culture, and the intersections between them. Everybody else really doesn't need to know.
Compare how pro-choice rhetoric fails when it revolves around enumerating reasons why someone should be allowed to have an abortion: what if you were a victim of rape or incest, or young, or sick, or you can't afford to raise a child, what if, indeed. What if nobody has the right to be in somebody else's body without that person's consent? You don't need a reason or an explanation for wanting to keep somebody else out of your body -- dwelling in your body is reason itself. Likewise, we don't need to furnish reasons or explanations for why you need to use the names and pronouns for someone that are theirs. We just need to say you must.
Know Your AudienceIn "The Culture of Coercion", I drew a line between people who relate to others through coercion and those who build relationships based on trust:
- A person operating on trust wants to be respectful, even if they don't always know how. These people are who "Trans 101" workshops try to reach. They are the majority. You don't need to give them reams of scientific evidence to convince them to be -- they decided to be respectful a long time ago. You don't have to bring reams of scientific evidence to convince them to respect. It muddies the waters when you do.
- A person who operates on coercion isn't really sold on that whole "everyone is human" concept. Workshops cannot persuade these people. If someone doesn't accept the reality of others' personal boundaries, no amount of evidence or civil discussion will change that. Firmer enforcement of those boundaries will, and an educational workshop is not the tool for enforcing those boundaries.
Education requires being really, really clear on who you're trying to reach. And unfortunately, even trust-based people are likely to try to game the system when given a flowchart on how to be respectful -- well-intentioned people still look for ways to avoid feeling like they did something wrong, because because narcissistic injury is uncomfortable. The only circumstance under which you can teach is when your audience wants to know what your boundaries are, so they can respect them. So tell them!
Against Education?I'm not really against education. Consciousness-raising, cognitive liberation, freeing your mind, getting woke, or whatever you want to call it is a prerequisite for organizing for change, especially when you're trans and are systematically denied language for describing who you are. But that is self-directed education, and I think that intentionally directing your education inwards -- in the company of like-minded people, with the goal of discovering the power you already have -- is the only way education changes the world.
In any case, education can't take place without boundaries -- classrooms have ground rules. Ask any teacher.
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At a press conference today, North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory took further steps to ensure that his controversial bill, HB2, will be upheld when it comes to law enforcement. McCrory announced that his office has setup a 24-hour hotline for individuals to call if they witness someone not abiding by the new law.
“If you see a woman, who doesn’t look like a woman, using the woman’s restroom, be vigilant, call the hotline, and report that individual.” McCrory told reporters. “We need our state to unite as one if we’re going to keep our children safe from all the sexual predators and other aberrant behavior that is out there.”
Tom Downey, a spokesman for the Governor’s Office, explained the new hotline to reporters.
“Beginning today, individuals that notice any kind of gender-suspicious activity in the men’s or women’s restrooms are encouraged to call the new ‘HB2 Offender Hotline’,” Horner said. “We encourage North Carolina’s residents to take photographs and report as much detail as possible when calling. With the information gathered from this hotline, we’ll be working closely with local law enforcement agencies to make sure this law is enforced and those who break the law see jail bars. We are sending a clear message to all the transsexuals out there; their illegal actions and deviant behavior will no longer be tolerated in the state of North Carolina."
To report suspicious bathroom activity, North Carolina residents can call the ‘HB2 Offender Hotline’ at 1-800-662-7952.
For individuals living outside of North Carolina, please call (919) 814-2000.To file a complaint after normal business hours, call (919) 814-2050 and press option 3.
-- ABC News report
(Note: I struck out the 919-814-2000 number. It doesn't accept voicemail and when I called during East Coast business hours, I got a recording saying to call back during business hours. The 800 number appears to reject calls from non-North-Carolina area codes.)
I encourage you to use your own words, but if you don't know what to say, here's a script you can use when leaving a message at the 919 number, or both numbers if you have a North Carolina phone number you can call from. I adapted this script from a post on Tumblr by lemonsharks.
I am calling to report suspicious activity.
It is very suspicious that the state of North Carolina is spending money enforcing a law whose sole purpose is to harass trans people and stop them from participating in public life. This would be suspicious even if North Carolina didn’t have a child poverty rate of over 25%.
It’s suspicious that people who are not trans are enacting this kind of legislative violence against trans people. It’s suspicious that they have not reflected on their own fear, asked themselves what they are so afraid of, rather than projecting their unexamined fear outward onto vulnerable people.
I think you need to investigate this immediately. Thanks for your attention. Goodbye.
Disowning desire: how cis people use deception, contamination, and stigma to deny their attraction to trans people
The biggest threat to cisnormativity is the idea that a trans person, particularly a trans person who was coercively assigned male at birth, could be attractive.
The social stigmatization of trans people creates a positive feedback loop of attraction and desire in cis people's minds. A minor manifestation of that feedback loop is the OkCupid question that has ruined more of my potential relationships than I care to count: "When is it most appropriate for a transgender person to reveal their transgender status to a match?" The answer choices are, "It should be clearly stated in their profile," "During messaging prior to meeting in person," "Prior to having intimate contact or sex," and "Never." Absent is the answer I want to give: "Only if and when the particular trans person in question wants to and feels it is safe to do so."
Typically, cis people frame their answers to this question (if asked to justify their answers, which they seldom are) as being about "honesty." A cis person might say, "I have the right to know important parts of someone's history before I get into a relationship with them." Absent is an explanation of why it's only the parts of someone's history relating to the sex they were coercively assigned at birth that are relevant, and why no other aspect of someone's history requires this level of transparency.
Platitudes about "the right to know" or "honesty in relationship" are tidy disguises for a messy collection of fears, insecurities, and desires. I think they serve to conceal the work that the OkCupid question does: the work of shifting emotional labor off people in socially privileged classes, and onto people in socially disprivileged classes.
In a (current or nascent) relationship, who does the work? Who takes risks? Should a cis person risk embarrassing another cis person by asking, "Are you cis?" on a date or in a message thread on a dating site? Or should a trans person (in practice, usually a trans woman) take the initiative in disclosing that they are trans, thereby taking on the risk of being harmed or killed? How much bodily harm does a trans person need to be willing to risk in order to spare a cis person from embarrassment?
( Read more... )
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I prioritize bodily autonomy and self-definition. Bodily autonomy means people get to relate to their bodies in the way that they choose; if we're to take bodily autonomy seriously, respecting self-definition is imperative. If you use language for someone else's body or parts thereof that that person wouldn't use for themselves, you are saying that you know better than they do how they should relate to their body.
For example: I have a uterus, ovaries, and vagina, and they are male body parts, because I'm male. Having been coercively assigned female at birth doesn't change the fact that I've always been male. Having an XX karyotype doesn't make me female (I'm one of the minority of people that actually knows their karyotype, because I've had my DNA sequenced). Those are male chromosomes for me, because they're part of me and I'm male. If I ever get pregnant and give birth, I'll be doing that as a male gestator.
I don't know too many people who would want to be referred to as a male woman or a female man, so i'm personally going to stick to using language that doesn't define people by parts of their bodies that are private. And no, you can't claim parts of my body are "female" without claiming I am - if they're female, whose are they? Not mine.
If someone does identify as a male woman or as a female man, cool. The important thing is that we use those words to describe them because those are the words they use to describe themself rather than because of what sociopolitical categories we place them in based on their body parts.
For extra credit, explain why the widespread acceptance of the sex-vs.-gender binary is the worst thing that ever happened to transsexual people.
Further reading: kaberett, Terms you don't get to describe me in, #2: female-bodied.
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"Someone showed me a picture and I just laughed
Dignity never been photographed"
-- Bob Dylan
Caitlyn Jenner appeared on the cover of today's "Vanity Fair". She was not the first trans woman to pose with less than street clothes on in a magazine -- Laverne Cox did that, earlier this year, and Cox deserves praise for that.
So does Jenner. I looked at that magazine cover and, well, as weird as it is to say, I recognized something. There are a lot of differences between Caitlyn Jenner and me. I'm not rich, famous, or Republican. I was coercively assigned female at birth. But I looked at that cover and I saw somebody who's spent decades of her life struggling with the distance between how she looks in the mirror and how she sees herself in her mind's eye, and who has finally been able to look like she needs to, or enough like it to appear confidently on a magazine cover.
Not everybody can afford to look like they need to look, but everybody should be, and when I look at the picture I think that everybody should have access to the same resources that Jenner had access to. I hope it's possible for me to acknowledge massive social inequality and the need to redress it, and, at the same time, find meaning in this photograph.
Finding meaning in things, especially finding reflections of myself in anything or anybody else in the world, can be hard for me. Just seeing my own reflection in the mirror can be hard for me.
For whatever reason, I can look at it right now, and think that I look okay. I didn't think that last year and I might not think it again next year, but it's okay for now.
Part of the reason for that is that I dyed my hair pink again. It's not that my internal image of my true self has pink hair... though maybe it does. To be honest, that image has never fully come into focus for me. It's more that having pink hair makes me like looking at myself, and then I can look at the rest of me, too, not just my hair.
Maybe it's not so important that I dyed my hair pink as it is that I made a choice to change how I look, and carried out that choice. It doesn't matter that I paid somebody else to dye my hair for me, which is what I did this time, it matters that I exercised agency.
To get to a point where what color my hair is could matter, though, I had to do some other things first.
Sculptures and Monsters
When I talk about being able to, or not being able to, look at myself, it's a way for me of talking about something harder to talk about, which is a feeling of not being fully present in or comfortable in my own body. These are different things but it's hard to separate them from each other.
I'm fat, which means that socially, I get discouraged from thinking I look attractive or even that I should be looked at at all. (Since I'm a guy, I experience this less harshly than fat women do, but I still experience it.)
I'm trans, which means that socially, I get discouraged from thinking I look attractive. Part of it is that I'm too short and fat to look like the gold standard for attractive male guys when I have my clothes on. Part of it is that when I have my clothes off, you can tell I'm hung like a hamster. Part of it is that at least these days, my gender presentation runs more femme than masc, and there is not much room for femme guys in what gets falsely reduced to a zero-sum game of who gets to be attractive. But also, internally, I have trouble occupying my own body. Sometimes, anyway; less than I used to have, partly because of the changes I've been able to make to my body and partly because of harder-to-describe changes.
I'm a survivor of complex trauma in childhood, and I wish I could explain to you more fully what that means but part of being a survivor of complex trauma is having difficulty explaining what it means. Imagine if somebody was running around pulling bricks out of your house while you were building it, and then imagine how much structural integrity your house might have left at the end. That's what trauma does to your ability to describe emotional experiences. The best I can do right now is that when I was growing up, I was not permitted to have the boundaries about what does and doesn't happen in and around my body that even very young children usually get permitted to have. On an emotional level, I never really formed the belief that my body is my own -- something that it seems a lot of people take for granted. So that also makes it hard for me to actually be in my own body, much beyond the baseline difficulty I'd already have with it if I was trans and not a survivor.
It's easy for me to focus on how I look and harder to think about my subjective experience, for reasons that are probably familiar to other survivors. But I think that also reflects widespread confusion about trans experience. Most narratives about trans people tell us that we transition in order to look different to other people. Most of those narratives are written by cis people. The real reasons why we transition, which are different for every person who transition, have more to do (in my opinion) with looking right to ourselves, and also with feeling right to ourselves. Because it's hard to describe subjective experiences, I'm writing about looking at yourself in a mirror as a stand-in for that.
This is the minimal backstory I feel I need to lay down to say this: When you don't feel comfortable with yourself, it is hard to figure out what would make you feel comfortable and harder still to show that to other people. What if they laugh? What if they accuse you of not being really yourself when you actually feel like yourself for the first time ever? Those are things that really happen, especially to trans people, but not just to trans people. Caitlyn Jenner, at 65 years of age, figured it out anyway and showed herself anyway. She didn't, at least in the end, let anybody tell her that it was too late and she should just live out what years she had pretending to be somebody else.
I transitioned when I was 26, which was eight years after I learned that transitioning was possible. It was a long eight years. I can't imagine how long 45 to 65 years is when you know you need to transition but you can't, or don't feel it's possible, or feel that the loss of your dignity and pride will outweigh the benefits of seeing yourself as you are, or have the expectations of family, friends, or even the general public weighing on you, or or or. While recognizing that few people have the privilege to do what she did in the precise way she did it, I still feel glad for Jenner that she was able to do it, because everybody should be able to. Also, because having models helps us figure out our lives even if necessarily, models are often public figures and public figures are almost by definition privileged in some or many ways. (This is not to discount the real danger in visibility and fame for all women, particularly women experiencing one or more types of intersectional oppression, either.)
So the thoughts and feelings I had when I looked at that magazine cover were about my own experiences and about the partial but still real way in which they relate to Caitlyn Jenner's experiences.
The thoughts that some cis people had, though, were more along the lines of: "Wow, she looks good. Her surgeons did a good job."
Let me interject with a couple things here: First, it's okay to say that somebody looks good. You would say that to a friend, so I don't see why you shouldn't say it about someone who chose to appear on a magazine cover. At least it seems fine to me.
Second, I didn't read the article inside the magazine (yet), so I don't know what Jenner has said publicly about what surgeries she has or hasn't had. From the picture alone, I am not going to assume anything about what surgeries she has or hasn't had. It's certainly not uncommon for people who appear on magazine covers, whether or not they're trans, to have surgery. But I do want to call out the assumption that she must have had surgery in order to look as she does. Trans people do a variety of things in order to make our bodies externally look and internally feel different. Surgery is only one of them. The details of any of these things are none of your goddamned business unless you are a trans person, an intimate friend of a trans person, someone who thinks you may be trans (and if you think you may be, I would encourage you not to run from those thoughts), or a medical professional who helps trans people with our body issues.
With those disclaimers in mind, I want to talk about how it felt to me to read the words "Her surgeons did a good job." (I am paraphrasing; those may not have been the exact words.)
There is this thing that can happen when you exercise agency over your own body to reshape it in some way, and that thing is getting demoted from the status of "person" to the status of "sculpture".
Suddenly, you are no longer a human being struggling to make your own body a place you can feel at home in, but rather -- and this is at best (I'll get to what the worst of it can look like) -- a work of art that a cis person made. You are no longer self-made.
"Isn't it a nice thing to say that somebody looks good?" Well, yes. But it's not a nice thing to go from there to congratulating the surgeons. Where does it stop? If I look good, are you going to tell me that my dentist or my hairdresser or the people running the machines that sewed my clothes deserve praise? Well, you might, but not if your conversational objective is to connect with me. Complimenting haircuts is, indeed, within social norms, complimenting surgery isn't... except when the object is trans, or disabled, or fat, or -- you guessed it -- in those social categories whose residents' humanity is contingent.
Do you know what the mirror image of "sculpture" is? It's "monster". When you talk about a trans person as an object of aesthetic appreciation in an immediate context of talking about what surgical interventions that trans person has had, you are steps away from treating that person like Frankenstein's monster. The subtext that's obvious to many of us is how amazing it is that any surgeon could have the technique necessary to make somebody who looks male -- in your eyes -- look female -- in your eyes. (Or vice versa, and it doesn't happen as much in the other direction but I've experienced it firsthand.) The subtext is that we're freaks of science, that we're freaks of nature, that we're objects of curiosity. When trans women talk about how they're made to feel like monsters, or like artificial creations (see Talia Mae Bettcher's "Evil Deceivers and Make-Believers: On Transphobic Violence and the Politics of Illusion"), I listen. I can relate, but there is a limit to how far my ability to relate goes, because as a trans man I do not experience the same degree of othering, of socially enforced disgust, of structural violence that trans people who were coercively assigned male at birth do.
But I know this much: you cannot talk about a trans woman like she was a sculpture, or an object of art, or a constructed thing without implicitly designating her a monster, a cold creation of technology, not human. Stop it.
Surgery and Dignity
In order to look like myself, or to start to look like myself, I've had five surgeries. The details of four are only relevant to myself, people who see me naked, and a number of people who work for insurance companies.
In 2009 I had radical breast reduction surgery. The result is that my body from neck to waist looks mostly right to me, aside from the scars that still look fresh because I develop hypertrophic scar tissue and aside from how my nipples are a little bit bigger than guys' nipples outside of the Folsom Street Fair are supposed to be. These are details that, on a good day, I can integrate.
What's harder to integrate is the memory of reading the surgeon's post-op report and noticing that in his narrative of performing the surgery, he used the pronouns "she" and "her" to refer to me, despite having correctly gendered me to my face. Dr. Paul Steinwald, if you're reading this, I hope you're not doing that to people anymore. I'm sure that he thought I was never going to read the report, but due to his own unwillingness to bill my insurance, I had to request a copy from the hospital. (And by the way, Aetna Student Health reimbursed me for 80% of my out-of-pocket.)
One of the things you might have to do if you are trans is to trust someone enough to literally cut into your body, knowing that your trust in them may not be justified. In most cases, if you need surgery, you have to trust somebody that much without knowing whether you can trust them to acknowledge your gender, a form of respect that all cis people can take for granted.
When people reduce you to the work that your surgeon did, therefore, they may be reducing you to the work of somebody who cannot even recognize who you are even as they are doing work that helps you recognize yourself as who you are. That's not hurtful because it's going to hurt Caitlyn Jenner, who we know is strong enough because she was strong enough to be on that cover. It's hurtful because it reminds some of us of traumatic experiences. It's also hurtful because it reminds other trans people -- ones who are in a state of knowing they need to transition, but not being sure whether it's safe to -- of why it's not safe.
In case I haven't made myself clear: getting surgery as a trans person is a terrifying, humiliating process. Maybe that's beginning to change somewhat. In 2009 and 2012, it was still terrifying and humiliating, and I say that as a trans person who was coercively assigned female at birth. That is, I say that as someone who is playing "be a trans person" on the easiest setting. When you look at a trans person who has had surgery and you see an object that a surgeon made, rather than another human being, you are making that process more terrifying and humiliating, most of all for people who sense that they may need to go through that same process but are justifiably afraid to. Many of the reasons for this fear -- for the fear that I experienced myself when I was deciding whether to get surgery, in 2007-2009 and again in 2011 -- are internal. But "ooh, nice results" comments and the objectification they stand for don't make it any easier.
The point, the only point, of transitioning for me was so I could be a real person. So I could feel like a real person. The terror of it was the risk I sensed, which is a real risk, that it would make me a less real person in other people's eyes. The reward is the knowledge that I can see myself as real even while other people do not. I'm trying to use my best prose here, but that inevitably simplifies a long, hard, scary, uncomfortable period of emotional labor. If you are not trans, you have the option to make that work harder for other people, or to not make it harder. Try to use your power responsibly.
Trans Empathy and the Cis Gaze
To look at Caitlyn Jenner on the Vanity Fair cover and say "ooh, nice results" is to make her an object rather than a subject. To be a surgeon who operates on a trans man and writes "She tolerated the anesthesia well" in a post-op report is to make him an object rather than a subject.
"But Tim," you might ask, "Isn't the reason why people appear scantily clad on magazine covers is that they want to be objectified?"
Well... no? I mean, no one has ever offered to let me pose for Vanity Fair, so I haven't had to think about whether I would want to and if so, why. But as far as I can tell, what celebrities do is satisfy their own need for attention while also making other people feel good. Attention is something that everybody needs and there's nothing wrong with being very good at getting it. There's nothing in there about being objectified. Being paid attention to doesn't mean being objectified. Being appreciated as a person whose body is attractive isn't the same thing as being objectified. If you can't separate those things, or can't separate them specifically for women whose bodies you find attractive, maybe take a gender studies class.
When you have a pleasant feeling of aesthetic appreciation about somebody else's body, that's a thing to cherish. It is, however, your feeling. Whether you're having a good feeling about somebody else or a bad one, whether it's about how they look or what they do or what they say, your feeling doesn't create an exception to the imperative to respect others and see them as humans like yourself.
My feeling, when I look at the cover, is to appreciate another trans person's struggle -- despite the gulf between what her life is like and what my life is like -- and, by virtue of how the appreciation survives the distance, feel a little less alone. I can't say I know what it's like to channel dysphoria into being an Olympic athlete rather than being a computer programmer, or what it's like to keep your own gender to yourself for more than 50 years, but I do know when to say, "Wow, that woman must be so happy to look in the mirror and see a reflection that finally makes sense." I know that because I've known, at times, what it's like to look in the mirror and see a reflection that makes sense.
I guess you are entitled to feel however you want, but feeling something is different from choosing to say it in public, and when you do choose to say in public that what you feel when you look at the cover is artistic appreciation of surgeons' work, rather than empathy, that harshes my buzz a bit.
Autonomy and Terror
What every person who transitions does, whether or not they are a public figure, is lose autonomy. That's in the short term. The hope is that in the long term we will achieve greater autonomy and a stronger sense of self. But in the short term, there's constant misgendering, there's getting called "it", there's struggling with dehumanizing administrative processes in order to have a valid driver's license and hold a job, there's being rejected for jobs out of hand, there's doctors, there's therapists, some of whom help and some of whom can't see beyond their own fears. I promise you that while this process is easier the more social privilege you have, no trans person has enough privilege to escape it.
Cis people, it's your job to create a world where we as trans people don't have to be afraid of you. We have many reasons to be afraid of you. A relatively minor but important one is this: you have the power to drown out an inner voice inside us that says, "Hey, maybe I could look like me, too!" with your own voice saying "We're always just going to see you as raw material." You have the power to make somebody just that much more afraid to take the steps needed to look like their own self. You can do better: when a famous person or maybe just a person important in your life comes out as trans, ask yourself: "Does the world really need to hear my hot take?" Please try not to drown out trans people's recognition of self with your ogling of the other.
Fellow trans people, it's a valid choice to transition in order to reclaim some dignity, and it is a valid choice to not transition -- to not transition at all or to transition in a way that doesn't follow the coming-out-to-everybody-you-know narrative -- in order to preserve your dignity. It's a valid choice to decide that one of the two binary genders fits you better than the one you were assigned at birth and to let people know that. It's also a valid choice to decide that because your gender matches neither binary option, there is no broadly legible end point for you to transition to.
I want to say that I love you no matter how you choose to navigate and manage being trans, even if I don't even know you're the gender that you are because of how you navigate your experience of gender. I wish it was easier to manage one's own experience of one's body and self without the crushing weight of very justified fears. But I know the way for me to deal with that wish isn't to expect individuals to be more public and be more out. That's just what the oppressor wants me to think. Reading things that cis people say about Caitlyn Jenner, as with the things they've said about every trans public figure who has come out as trans in this century so far, is nothing if not a reminder to myself to treat every other trans person as if they are at least as complex as I am and at least as deserving of space in which to apprehend their own complexity.
"They won't see you
Not until you want them to"
-- the Mountain Goats
Alyssa Caparas (2011):
I hate what TDoR has come to represent: a queer ‘holiday’ for embracing the narrative of fear; fear of violence, fear of death, self-stigmatization. The co-opting of POC trans women of a very-particular-background’s experiences as those of the ENTIRE trans community, regardless of race, class, or whatever. It’s a day to remind us all why we need to be afraid all the time and I think it’s a bunch of bullshit.
The large majority of people on the lists of the dead are NOT middle class white transwomen or men. They’re lower class PoC & PoC sex workers. I find it incredibly dissrespectful when white, middle, & upper middle class transpeople claim the narratives of transwomen of color & sex workers experiencess as their own. I’m sick of seeing Transbros at TDoR co-opting the narrative of transwomen’s experiences, internalizing them, and feeding those narratives back to everyone, then high-fiving each over how radical & edgey they are. I’m sick of being a Transwoman at TDoR and feeling marginalized by all the gender hipsters who’re there to bump up their scene cred.
erica, ascendant (2012):
because trans identity is so caught up in Caucasianness, a new problem emerges with both the claiming of dead trans people of color altogether: if we weren’t “trans enough” in life, why are we suddenly being counted by the same people who wouldn’t have us once we’re dead? it’s because the idea that it’s dangerous to be trans has to be sold somehow, given that cis people generally ignore violence against trans people regardless of what color we are, and i do have no doubt that it seems like a good idea to use all these names. the trouble is that when this happens without any discussion of race, class, and how violence is often linked to certain types of work, reading our names uncritically is appropriative and using the deaths of people you didn’t care about in life as a vehicle for activism in death. i get that this has to be sold as a concept because cis people are often willfully ignorant that we’re getting killed out here. thing is, there are ways to sell this concept and be conscious of the racial/class/social politics involved herein. i see what the point of TDoR is in terms of public relations, but it isn’t so invaluable that the problematic things about it should go unchecked.
Monica Maldonado, 2012
The truth is, the Trans Day of Remembrance is a day of political grand standing, using the deaths of trans women of colour as a numbers game to buy someone else’s pet project sympathy for votes, dollars, or attention. It’s a day where trans women of colour have greater value dead than we do alive.
We all too often hear that this day is a day where we must not let the deaths of these women be in vain, but this just underscores the transactional nature of these women’s deaths, most of whom fought no war. They lost their lives not in valour, but only as a result of being women in a world filled with gendered violence. They lost their lives because — all too often — our society casts out the disenfranchised and marginalized, no longer calling the huddled masses and tempest-tossed to our communities with heartfelt calls of liberty and virtue.
We should gather to mourn the dead, not conscript them into a battle they never had the privilege to fight while living. It pains me to stand here and remind you that these deaths, of our brothers and sisters and wives and husbands and daughters and sons, that these deaths are senseless tragedies that remain a black mark on society. These deaths are signs of a systemic, institutional, social, economic, and political failure to care for our most vulnerable and marginalized populations. But what may be worse, is the crude politicising of these deaths serves no cause more than that of the same vanity we decry.
Edited to add: Monika Mhz, 2013 (video):
The reading of each mispronounced name that usually happens, mostly from extracontinental locations, acts as a drop of emotional currency for the pimps feeding the masses hungry for misery pornography and serves validation upon their fears. I want to be clear that all fear is real, and I sympathize deeply with the way that events like this -- the general climate of fear, nonlethal violence, and broader aspects of discrimination felt by our community can impact our lives in real ways, regardless of whether or not our risks truly match. But if we are to move forward in creating the change, if we are to move forward in ending the lethal, nonlethal, discursive, institutional and cultural violence that plagues our society, if we're to forge a future where trans women of color's lives are cherished and we don't find reason to feel that we must need to look over our shoulders every waking moment, then we have to be willing to have a real discussion about the violence that faces our community.
fake cis girl, 2013
The dead are us. They’re trans women of color trying to live their damn lives. They’re killed by partners, by clients, by random encounters on the street. I mean, seriously, the silence of white trans people when Islan Nettles was beaten to death walking down the damn street, and even worse the attempts at victim-blaming, were truly horrific…including some invective hurdled about how walking around in the hood comes with such risks. There is such a severe disconnect that part of what would help is that if white trans people in general listened to us this one day a year it could be a catalyst, or so I try to believe. Our realities include much more than how we’re seen in the TDoR list-of-names format: dead people. We are so much more than that, and our realities might be uncomfortable to the “trans community” or maybe, just maybe, the “trans community” will see us as something more than just a list of names of dead people and a bunch of inconvenient bodies and realities to dismiss in life.
Morgan Collado, 2014:
Trans Day of Remembrance is filled to the brim with the names of murdered Black and brown trans women, but is a single evening of remembering enough? And what does it mean that TDoR doesn’t explicitly talk about race and is often dominated by white people? Here in Austin there’s this tradition of calling the names of the dead and then having an audience member sit in a chair that represents where the dead trans woman would sit. The seats are always filled with white people and non-trans women. What do our deaths mean when our bodies, our lives, the physical space we take up, is appropriated by white folks? How can I mourn for my sisters when the space set up for that mourning is so thoroughly colonized? And how can I even see hope of living a full life when I don’t see myself reflected in what is supposed to be my community?
Don’t get me wrong, it’s important to honor those women who came before us, those women murdered by colonial patriarchy. But it seems like more often than not, the queer community at large is content with just remembering. We only hear about trans women after their deaths. And even our deaths are not our own. A week doesn’t go by without a white queer citing the deaths of trans women of color as the evidence of how oppressed they are. These stats are often used in service of their own assimilation; meanwhile, they’re happy to leave us out in the cold. We don’t even have dignity in death, nor the ability to decide what it will mean for us.
fake cis girl (2014):
TDoR generally sees trans women of color as acceptable losses as a central part of the minstrel show that it is. You can’t have a list of dead trans people without it mostly being dead trans women of color with a significant scattering of disabled trans women, too. This common thread between trans suicide and homicides of trans people is no accident, because the violence of rejection may not be the same force of violence that comes from a killer’s blade, but it’s violence nevertheless, and that violence drives some people to suicide. That violence, unlike the violence of a killer, is tolerated and even encouraged in our community. From Ryan Blackhawke’s since-deleted libelous comments complaining about last year’s version of this article to Andrea James’ harassment to the exclusionary nature of the only spaces trans women have (spaces like Ingersoll) comes this violence, and it needs to stop.
TDoR is still broken and still fails trans women of color. Gwen Smith still keeps the list manicured and controlled for whatever political purpose she’s aiming for, refusing to discuss race on the official site of TDoR itself, a day Ms. Smith continues to claim to “own”, and she hasn’t shown any willingness to change the reprehensible fact that deaths in custody don’t count when trans women are frequently targets of police harassment which disproportionately affects trans women of color, which leads to the logical conclusion that we’re more likely to be victims of police and governmental violence.
Because any day is a good day for pointing out why cis people are wrong:
- Automatically labeling men who have uteruses as "transgender" = ugh. For the record, if you want a ticket out of my life, one of the fastest ways is to call me "transgender". I still don't know what that word communicates other than "I am trying to perform my well-intentioned, liberal attitude." (I'm transsexual, but then, if you're about to describe me that way, consider whether it's any more relevant than the fact that I'm right-handed is. You didn't know whether I was right-handed or not? Exactly.)
- "When Dad is the one who gets pregnant, the whole process of pregnancy and childbirth gets a lot more complicated." I guess so, but ONLY BECAUSE GOD DAMN CIS PEOPLE MAKE IT COMPLICATED WITH THEIR INABILITY TO UNDERSTAND ANYTHING MORE NUANCED THAN GO DOG GO.
- "someone who has transitioned from a female identity to a male or masculine identity" - I can't even begin to explain all of the fail in this sentence other than by headdesking repeatedly. I'd like to propose a licensing system where cis people get to use the word "identity" only a limited number of times and only when referring to their own identities, as opposed to using it for invalidating trans people, which is what they always use it for.
- "Pregnancy as a transgender man is unlike any other kind" - well, I haven't been pregnant (yet), so I don't know (and when I am pregnant, it won't be "as a transgender man", because again, wtf does "transgender" mean), but again, IF IT'S DIFFERENT, THAT'S BECAUSE CIS PEOPLE FORCE IT TO BE DIFFERENT.
- "Some transgender men use testosterone to look and sound more masculine." This is like saying that some cancer patients use chemotherapy to look more bald.
- "gender dysphoria, the feeling that one's psychological gender identity is different from one's biological sex" FUCCCCK it's almost 2015 and we're still repeating this nonsense about "gender identity" and "biological sex"? Reminder: humans do not have a "biological sex" that is different from their "gender identity". They have a collection of physical characteristics, some of which differ in ways that are sometimes categorized using a social model that some people ignorantly call "biological sex". But the only thing "biological sex" means is that a cis person is trying to misgender you because they feel that science is -- rather than a tool for understanding the world -- a good way for them to assert their power over you using the epistemic superiority that was granted to them the day they were born cis.
- "The author of the new graphic memoir Pregnant Butch, a masculine-looking woman named by A.K. Summers, said one of the worst parts of her pregnancy was that it exaggerated the most female aspects of her body" -- I'll take their word for it (which maybe I shouldn't) that A.K. Summers' pronouns are "she/her", but why couldn't they find an actual man who'd been pregnant to quote in an article about, y'know, men being pregnant?
- "In some of the transgender men in the study, gender dysphoria actually declined with pregnancy. These people said they were, for the first time in their lives, pleased with their bodies, which were finally helping them do something they valued that a typical male body could not do." WTF does "typical" mean? Why is a cis man's body any more "typically male" than mine?
- "gender identity is a spectrum" - no. Fuck you. (That's my "gender identity.")
- And finally, wtf is up with the headless-trans-man (though who knows what gender either the adult or the baby in the picture is... which is kind of the point, though it's probably lost on anyone working for NPR) photo illustrating the article? Given that the article strips away our autonomy and dignity, can we at least be afforded the luxury of having faces?
I should note that probably the study being discussed in the article is perfectly OK (though who knows? Since it's paywalled, I can't read it), with the exception of an author's use of "gender identity as a spectrum" (again, the term "spectrum" needs to be taken out and shot unless you're referring to a brand of organic all-vegetable shortening). I'm just objecting to NPR's coverage of it.
- Amy Dentata, “An Introduction for Biological Women/Warning for Non-Biological Women” (This one has the advantage of being funny, so if you just want one link, take this one.)
- Natalie Reed, "Bilaterally Gynandromorphic Chickens, And Why I’m Not 'Scientifically' Male"
- Mey (for Autostraddle), "It’s Time For People to Stop Using the Social Construct of 'Biological Sex' to Defend Their Transmisogyny"
- kaberett, "Terms you don't get to describe me in, #2: female-bodied"
- Dr. Cary Gabriel Costello, "The Phalloclitoris: Anatomy and Ideology"
- Annetta Gaiman, Annetta's Trans 101
- Kinsey Hope, "Male/Female: Broken Language?"
- EmilyEmilyEmily, "Sex Is Also a Social Construct"
- Unpitchable, "Language Tips for Cis Feminists Speaking on Trans Issues"
- Samantha Allen, "No, Kevin D. Williamson, sex is not a biological reality"
- kaberett, "Terms you don't get to describe me in, #2: female-bodied"
Insistence on the objective truth of the culturally mediated ideological construct called "biological sex" is anti-trans, anti-intellectual, and anti-science. It is indistinguishable from misgendering -- in fact, it's a form of misgendering clothed in ersatz scientific terminology -- and as such, it's violence against trans and gender-non-conforming people, but especially against trans women and other people who were coercively assigned male at birth but reject that designation.
I'm remembering how my income has more than doubled since I transitioned.
I'm remembering the time, not very long ago, when I thought that I was at risk of violence for being trans. I genuinely thought that if I walked into a public men's restroom and somebody glanced at me and thought they weren't seeing a man, that there was a real chance I could be assaulted or worse. I didn't realize that the overwhelming majority of trans people who get murdered are women, specifically are women of color, that many are sex workers who don't have other economic alternatives, that many have been homeless, and none of that is a coincidence.
I'm a man. I'm white. I've never had trouble finding a job, and when I've considered doing sex work it would have been for fun or politics and not because nobody would hire me to do work that isn't against the law. I've never been homeless. All of this means I'm very likely to continue not being the target against what sometimes gets called transphobic violence, but is really the intersection of several systems of oppression.
I now know that it would be ludicrous for me to claim to be at that intersection. I realize that as an affluent white tech worker in Silicon Valley, I have far more in common with people who benefit from the continuing war on all women -- a war that targets intersectionally marginalized trans women with special violence -- than with the people who suffer from that war. I realize that I am one of the people who benefits from that war. I realize that it would be obscene for me to stand someplace and light a candle mourning those who died so that I can live the comfortable life that I live, regardless of whether those people are trans or cis. I owe a large part of my current comfortable status to the advantages that I enjoy as a man working in technology. And the high status of the specific kind of work that I do has a lot to do with the gendered nature of that work. Even within technology, work is divided along gendered lines, and the line of work that I'm in (requiring specialized knowledge that women are largely prevented from acquiring) is both particularly male-dominated and particularly remunerative. That's not a coincidence.
The high cultural valuation of masculinity owes itself to the devaluation of femininity, which is not an abstraction. For me, the decision to affirm my male identity to the world and not just privately was a decision that has resulted in greater happiness for me and more money in my bank account. Contrast that with how every person who was coercively assigned male at birth and rejects that assignment has to choose between private suffering, and the very real threat of public violence.
It would be wrong for me to utter the phrase "transgender people" and imply that I have more in common with CeCe MacDonald than I do with Mark Zuckerberg. It would be wrong for me to cry false tears about the deaths of women who I did not stand in solidarity with when they were alive. It would also be wrong for me to abuse the name of Brandon Teena, a working-class rural trans man who affirmed his gender as a teenager and died because of gendered violence (it just happened to be violence that didn't target his actual gender) to clumsily equate my own situation -- playing life as a person who was assigned the wrong sex at birth on the easiest possible level -- with that of every or any trans woman and/or genderqueer CAMAB person.
I've already said too much. You should read what these people have to say instead:
erica, inchoate: nihil de nobis, sine nobis: trans women of color and Remembering Your Dead
Alyssa Caparas: Why I Didn't Attend TDoR 2011
CeCe MacDonald: On Trans Day of Remembrance: A Proposal
[edited to add:] fakecisgirl: TDoR For, By, and About Trans Women Of Color Now
As far as background, from January-March 2012, I was employed by Mozilla as a seasonal employee (nope, I didn't know software engineers could be seasonal employees either) which meant I wasn't eligible for any benefits, including health insurance. To be a responsible adult, I purchased an individual health insurance plan from HCC, which I found through ehealthinsurance.com. HCC was one of the few individual short-term plans that offered instant approval, which means not asking the detailed health questions that most short-term insurance companies asked. I know from experience that I would be denied insurance by any company that asks detailed health questions, so I had to go with one that offered instant approval. I was hired by Mozilla at the end of that period as a full-time employee with benefits, so I have group health insurance now, but of course it doesn't apply retroactively.
While I was interning at Mozilla but before I decided to (/was forced to) leave grad school, I made plans to have surgery in Feb. 2012. Of course, I didn't think that any individual health insurance plan that I would have would cover the costs, so I intended to pay for the surgery via credit cards, and that's what I did. And if not for what happened after my first surgery, I'd have paid off those credit cards by now.
Infections can happen with any surgery, and I got to be one of the unlucky ones; after returning from Arizona to Oakland, about ten days after having surgery, I got a high fever and other flu-like symptoms. I wrote it off as probably a cold or flu at first, but it didn't get better as quickly as flu would have, and a few days later I made an appointment with my primary care doctor for advice. Just before I left for the doctor's appointment, I felt something wet and noticed that one of my incisions had burst open and was bleeding. I shoved some gauze in my pants and headed to the doctor; she advised me to go to the ER, since I needed a plastic surgeon and that would be the only way to get in to see one on short notice. I ended up staying at UCSF for that night and the next night, and had emergency surgery to stop the bleeding, which was due to a buildup of fluid from the infection. Again, after that, I got better and everything was fine... except for the bills.
When I went to the ER, I provided my health insurance information, knowing my insurance probably wouldn't pay, but I figured it couldn't hurt. And in fact, I was reluctant to go to the ER in the first place, even after the uncontrollable bleeding started. Think about that for a minute. How fucked up is it that I thought about treating unstoppable bleeding at home just because going to the hospital would accrue bills I wouldn't be able to pay?
Well, a few months later the unsurprising thing happened and I got a letter from HCC denying all my claims -- for a total of around $35,000 of costs that were my responsibility (between the hospital bills, anesthesiologist bills, and physician bills). They cited a clause in their policy that states that "Treatment required as a result of complications or consequences of a treatment or condition not covered under this certificate" is excluded under the policy. Moreover, there's another clause, that, similar to many other insurers' trans exclusion clauses, states that "Modifications of the physical body in order to improve the psychological, mental or emotional well-being of the Covered Person, such as sex-change surgery" are excluded. (As an exercise for the reader, you can think of all the things that are wrong or misleading about this sentence.)
In my opinion, HCC's denial of coverage was based on a correct application of the policy, but I believed that the policy itself was discriminatory. It singles out people in a protected class (trans people, as per California's Unruh Civil Rights Act) for poor treatment, as evinced by the use of the non-clinical term "sex-change surgery" to refer to genital reconstruction surgery and other procedures. The medical community agrees that for trans people who require surgery and/or hormones, those transition-related procedures are medically necessary -- not just desirable to improve "psychological, mental, or emotional well-being" (though, like almost any surgery, transition-related surgeries could certainly do that as a side effect -- not being in pain is more fun than being in pain, as a general rule). There is no controversy about that. So the only reason to single out trans people for denial of health care is to take advantage of public animus towards trans people; I'm not saying that executives at HCC necessarily hate trans people, but they know we're politically unpopular and that there will be no broad outcry against denying us care. A health insurance company's job is to stop people from getting health care, so the more unpopular groups they can identify and deny care to, the better they're doing their job.
I wrote a 4-page appeal letter elaborating on this point (and on other issues) and sent it to HCC in September of last year. After about a dozen phone calls and a few more letters sent to HCC, spread out over a few months (every time I called, I was told that the call center employee "didn't have permission to view [my] file"), I filed a complaint with the California Department of Insurance. Miraculously, within a week, I received a UPS next-day-air letter from HCC affirming the denial of my claim. The majority of the letter doesn't deserve the dignity of a response, but the key point is at the end: because HCC is licensed in Missouri, the letter states, they are not subject to California civil rights law -- even though they took advantage of the benefits of doing business in California by selling policies to me and other California residents.
I couldn't believe that this could be true, and I called back the person I'd interacted with at the Department of Insurance. She affirmed that this was true -- saying that in almost all cases, any health insurance company that is regulated in California and allowed to sell policies in California would be subject to California civil rights law, HCC fell into an exception for "health and life insurance companies". Because HCC sells both health and life insurance policies, they are allowed to sell insurance in California but don't have to comply with California law. Rather, they're subject to the laws of Missouri, which has no civil rights protection for trans people.
Something still didn't sit right with me about this answer, so I thought about finding a lawyer to get advice. But, I had already tried to do that:
- I talked to a friend who works at the National Center for Lesbian Rights, and he talked to a colleague of his who works at the Transgender Law Center. It appeared that the policy of both groups is not to sue health insurance companies for anti-trans discrimination, because challenging trans exclusion under civil rights law is something that has never been successful.
- I talked to somebody at the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund, and while he spoke with me at length, in the end he said that they weren't willing to take the case because they don't handle cases where a company has an explicit trans exclusion clause; they would only challenge it if an insurer was denying coverage for transition-related care but didn't have a trans exclusion clause in their policy.
- I spoke directly with an advocate at the Transgender Law Center and sent him a copy of my appeal letter before sending it to HCC, but never received a follow-up response.
- I called the offices of Christopher Dolan, a lawyer who has done some LGBT civil rights cases, but after receiving an intake interview from a staff member, was told that they would not take my case.
- Another friend of mine who's a lawyer recommended a lawyer known as the best client-side health insurance lawyer in California, and I called his office, but he never returned my call.
- I called the San Francisco Bar Association referral service; they took my information over the phone, then called back a few days later and told me they weren't going to refer me to anybody.
- I called my work's employee assistance program; they referred me to a lawyer who talked to me for 15 or 20 minutes, told me the case was really interesting and that if he had to file a brief on a related topic he would call me for advice (not what I want to hear from a lawyer, honestly), and to call him back once I received a response to my appeal. A few months later when I got the denial, I did call his office back, and they never returned my call.
- I called the office of Kari Hong, who wrote the excellent paper "Categorical Exclusions", but she never returned my call (and seems to have moved on to other areas of law anyway).
- I posted a query on LegalMatch, and got some views but no replies.
- I called BALIF, the LGBT law association, to ask if they did referrals, and they never called me back.
My understanding is that trans civil rights groups (and there are very few civil rights groups to begin with that defend trans people's rights) prefer not to pursue cases like mine because they think it's a better strategy to work with employers to lift clauses in their policies, on a company-by-company basis. I see this as a trickle-down approach to social justice, and like most trickle-down approaches, it benefits those people who are already the most privileged. The solution proposed is for everyone to just get a job at Google so they can have trans-inclusive insurance... but what if you're in a class of people who can't just get a job at Google? Oh, well. I'm personally in that category of the lucky few who have job options that come with trans-inclusive group health insurance, but my company still has trans-exclusive insurance (and, of course, due to the specifics of how I was hired, I wasn't even covered by their insurance when my emergency happened). And I like working at my company, and don't want to take a different job just for the health insurance.
Before all this happened, I thought that all it would take to challenge trans exclusion clauses would be for someone to be willing to be a test case, so long as they lived in a state that had trans civil rights protections. Well, now I see that I was wrong. I would have been happy to be a test case, since I don't particularly care about getting negative publicity (being a trans man, I would be unlikely to face the same kinds of negative consquences as a trans woman who outed herself publicly as being trans), but that didn't matter, since no one was interested in representing me.
And, of course, it's possible that even the world's best lawyer couldn't have won my case because of the health-and-life-insurance company loophole. I don't know enough about insurance law to know. That's why I wanted to hire an insurance lawyer. The individual health care policy industry seems to be a particularly unethical and exploitive corner of a morally bankrupt industry. And this is a good time for me to acknowledge that the basic issue here is the US's for-profit health care system, something found almost no where else in the developed world. If our failure to take care of each other -- even people different from ourselves -- hadn't created an industry whose purpose is to take people's money in order to stop them from getting health care, there would be no incentive for insurance companies to deny care to people in marginalized groups. That said, I think it's possible for different groups of activists to address different problems; we have to fight for a better system at the same time as we work to make the current system less blatantly unfair.
I feel like what I've achieved in my life so far is pretty close to the maximum for what trans people are allowed to accomplish. My lifelong depression has always stopped just short of being suicidal; I have a graduate degree, have never been homeless, and have a stable professional job and a high income. I'm pretty close to the trans ceiling, then -- and a whole lot of that is because I'm a trans person who was coercively assigned female at birth and who presents in a way that people recognize as falling within what men are allowed to do most of the time. I don't want to downplay any of my privilege here. Still, if the best that any trans person can hope to accomplish involves being in major long-term debt, there's a problem, because in that case why should anybody try hard when they're designated as subordinate from the start? Looking at the CNN.com story that featured me along with five trans women, a few months ago, is one way to find further context.
I'm okay with giving up this fight, but I'm not okay with not leaving a public record of what happened, so for posterity, here's my appeal letter in PDF form and here's the response from HCC denying my claim; also, here's the response from the CA Department of Insurance declaring that California has no authority to regulate HCC, also in PDF. For context, you also might want to read all of my previous surgery posts (but, warning: all of them contain explicit body and/or sexuality details about me): first, second, and third.
If you're wondering what you can do:
- When you get an unsolicited email from a recruiter, ask them if their company has trans-inclusive health insurance, and then post the results here.
- Find out whether your employer has trans-inclusive health insurance. If not, find out why not and pressure them to change. It's especially important than people who are not trans do this, both because they can do so with less personal risk and because their requests will be taken more seriously.
- Donate to the TGI Justice Project, which doesn't focus on health insurance but does advocate for the most vulnerable trans people.
Edited July 11, 2013 to add letter from CA Department of Insurance
Despite my net worth being in the negative five figures, I still try to donate to organizations I support, and (while doing my taxes for 2012) I had occasion to make a list of them. These are not the only organizations I've supported, but they are my favorites. Here they are, in case you have more money than you know what to do with and want suggestions.
ScarleteenI wish I'd had access to this site when I was 12 or 13. (I still thought that "oral sex" referred to kissing at that point.) In a country where whether teenagers should get accurate information about sex in school is a controversial subject, sites like this are sorely needed. Scarleteen is a labor of love by Heather Corinna, whose online presence I've been following for a while now, and her commitment and dedication to maintaining the site for minimal reward is inspiring.
The Ada InitiativeOpen-source and free software communities, as well as free culture projects like Wikipedia, continue to be hostile environments for women, people in gender, sexual and romantic minorities, and lots of other people who are from groups that have outsider status. It doesn't have to be that way, and it would be better for everyone if everyone who had desire and energy to contribute was able to participate in building the future without fear of humiliation. The Ada Initiative is the only group I know of that is specifically working to make that vision a reality. I have had the pleasure of meeting and interacting online with both of the founders, Mary Gardiner and Valerie Aurora, so I have particular confidence in TAI's effectiveness.
National Network of Abortion FundsIncredibly, getting an abortion in the US in 2013 is still highly dependent on one's income, and we still are a nation where being forced to give birth to a baby because of inability to pay around $500 (or in many locations, thousands of dollars when travel costs are factored in) is far from unheard of. The National Network of Abortion Funds focuses specifically on funding abortions for people who can't afford them, as well as changing unjust laws like the Hyde Amendment. They are sometimes good (not perfect!) at using language in their publicity that acknowledges that people who get pregnant and need abortions aren't always women. Stacey Burns, the online communications manager for NNAF, friended me on Facebook after I did a Causes.com birthday wish for NNAF a few years back, and through reading her posts, I've gotten a good sense for the kind of activism that NNAF represents, and that it's something I want to support.
All Hands VolunteersIn the summer of 2010, I went to Léogâne, Haiti for six weeks to help with earthquake relief. All Hands Volunteers was the group I volunteered with. I ended up leaving Haiti after four weeks instead of six -- turns out heavy labor in extreme heat wasn't the thing I was best at (and after years and years of sitting at a desk 40+ hours a week -- who'd have guessed?) While I was there, though, I saw firsthand that All Hands is a group that's very effective at getting a lot of work done with a small group of very committed volunteers. Since then, they've initiated disaster relief projects in the Philippines as well as post-Sandy relief in Staten Island and Long Island. Some of the volunteers I met while working with All Hands were among the most inspiring people I've ever met.
Lyon-Martin Health ServicesI'm biased -- Lyon-Martin, in San Francisco, is where I get my primary health care. It's a place where I can feel confident that I won't be treated awkwardly or be forced to educate about being a man with a transsexual body, and it's also a place where trans women, queer cis women, and genderqueer people can feel confident of the same. They operate on a shoestring and were close to shutting down not long ago. You should give not just if you want to support respectful health care in the Bay Area, but also if you want to make sure that the informed-consent model for trans health care spreads further.
Partners in HealthYears ago, I read _Mountains Beyond Mountains_ by Tracy Kidder (on the recommendation of a LiveJournal friend!), a biography of Paul Farmer -- who, along with Ophelia Dahl, founded Partners in Health -- and it has affected my thoughts, if not yet my actions, ever since. Paul Farmer's belief in and work towards providing the same health care to poor people that (say) a Silicon Valley software engineer like me would expect for themself or for their friends and family is challenging and is a source of hope. I also appreciate that while PIH is non-sectarian, it's inspired by liberation theology; _Mountains Beyond Mountains_ quotes Farmer as saying that he knew there had to be something to religion, because rich people hated it and poor people derived strength from it. I like that. And PIH gets stuff done (plus, Ophelia Dahl graduated from my alma mater, Wellesley, reminding me that not everyone from my school becomes an investment banker).
Transgender, Gender-Variant and Intersex Justice ProjectThere are big-name organizations that call themselves "LGBT" when the "T" really stands for transmisogyny and the B is silent, but the TGI Justice Project is the real thing. Just as PIH focuses on providing health care where it's needed the most, TGIJP focuses on the needs of that subset of the "LGBTIQ" cohort who need justice the most: trans women of color who are or have been incarcerated or who are targeted by the criminal justice system.
Having written this list, now I'm looking forward to having my debts paid off so I can support all of these organizations more thoroughly! If you particularly want to support organizations whose work is of a global nature, Partners in Health and All Hands Volunteers are your best bets on this list. Most of my favorites are US-centric, though, since I believe in helping with the needs that I'm most familiar with (since who else is going to but the people who are affected?)
Most people think that when a baby is very little, they can tell whether the baby is a boy or a girl. Also, they think that every baby is either a boy or a girl, never both.
They think this because they think that what a baby's between-the-legs looks like tells you whether the baby is a boy or a girl. But that's not true. Both boys and girls can have one kind of between-the-legs. And both boys and girls can have the other kind of between-the-legs. It's how you feel that makes you a boy or a girl, and babies can't talk to let other people know how they feel.
Also, there are more ways to feel than just boy or girl, and you can also feel any or all of those ways no matter what you have between your legs.
Some people think that everyone has a mark inside their cells that says they're a boy or that they're a girl. This, too, is wrong. These marks are real, but it's people who decided that one mark makes you a boy and the other mark makes you a girl. People are wrong sometimes.
Most people who get called a boy when they're a baby are boys, and most people who get called a girl when they're a baby are girls. It's harder for girls who got called boys, and boys who got called girls, and people who aren't boys or girls. There are two different ways in which it's harder.
First, some people have a picture of their body inside their brain that's of a body that looks and feels different than how the rest of their body is. You can't change that picture even by thinking very hard or getting help from another person. If you are this way, you have to change your body instead to make it match the picture in your brain.
Second, whether a person needs to change their body and does, or they need to change it but they can't, or they don't need to change it, many people aren't very nice to boys who don't look like they think a boy should look, or to girls who don't look like they think a girl should look, or when they can't decide if another person is a girl or a boy.
I'm in both the first and the second group. People thought I was a girl when I was a baby, but I was a boy. I didn't know this could even be true until I was much older. As soon as I found out that just because people thought I was a girl didn't mean I was one, I knew I wasn't a girl. After a while, I realized that I was a boy, and not someone who wasn't a girl or a boy. I was able to change my body to make it more like the picture that's built into my brain, so I'm much happier having a body now. And most people who see me realize I'm a boy without me having to tell them, which also makes me happy, because it was hard to explain to people who thought I was a girl that I was actually a boy.
It's harder for people who got called a boy when they were a baby but aren't boys, because lots of people are very afraid of people who they think have said no to being a boy. They think that someone else not wanting to look like a boy means being a boy won't be as fun for them. To deal with their fears about themselves, those people hurt other people. This gets in the way of the people who got called boys and aren't, who are just trying to live their lives.
You can make it better by believing people when they say that they're a girl, or that they're a boy, or that they're something else and not a girl or a boy. You can also make it better by telling people they are wrong when they make fun of others who they think are being boys wrong or being girls wrong.
And a friend who is cis asked, in response, 'Suggestions for (gently?) correcting cis people who're under the impression that "gender identity" is what trans people prefer?'
One thing that I, and many other trans people say, is that if you're cis, and care about trans people, you should call out cissexism when you hear it: for example, if someone in your presence uses the t----- word (and is not a CAMAB trans person), or makes a joke whose humor is contingent on it being ridiculous or pathetic for CAMAB people to wear or do anything coded as feminine, you should inform them of your displeasure. There is no need to do so diplomatically or politely unless you think that is the most effective way to send a message to the offender, and anyone else present, that this behavior isn't acceptable. Rules don't have to be polite -- stop signs don't say "stop, please". As an ally to trans people, you assert a boundary when you say "it's not okay for you to use slurs around me." And there is no need to be particularly nice in stating that boundary.
To me, though, use of the term "gender identity" -- which is, in my opinion, almost always part of a stealth tactic to invalidate trans people's self-affirmed sexes and elevate cis people's identities to the status of "biological" -- falls into a different category from slurs and hateful jokes. First and foremost, some trans people do prefer the "gender identity" terminology; some trans people do say things like "my biological sex is female, but my gender identity is male". It makes me cringe to hear that, and when I feel like I can, I'll try to let people know that there are other ways of talking about our lives that are more honest and accurate.
But it's not a cis person's place to have that conversation with a trans person, and likewise, it's also not a cis person's place to claim they know what set of terminology is right for all trans people.
Here's what I suggest you do instead if you want to call out terms like "gender identity", and you're either cis, or being seen as cis: shift the focus to cisness, instead of transness. For example, you could ask: "Do you have a gender? Or do you have a gender identity? Do you feel you know what your sex is? If so, how would you feel if someone else told you they know what your sex is, and the sex you know you are is just a 'gender identity'?"
Even using the terms "cis" or "cissexual" bothers some people because they would just rather be called "normal"; if "cis" and trans" are adjectives of equal status, neither one marked as the "default" state, then it's almost as if being cis isn't any better than being trans. By getting cis people to understand that they are cis, that the way they relate to their body and to the labels they were coercively assigned at birth are not universal but are simply their subjective experiences (no better or more real than anyone else's subjective experiences), you can encourage other people cis people to step off the pedestal, and relate to trans people as equals rather than superiors. If you can name yourself as "cis", that's one step towards realizing that trans people are not flawed versions of yourself, but rather, people who are different from yourself, just as you are different from us.
In my opinion, "gender identity" serves a similar function to language that marks "trans" but leaves cisness unmarked. The language of "biological sex", being "born a man" or "born a woman" (which sounds painful for the individual giving birth), "chromosomes", and so on, all sound scientific, but in this case they're serving a decidedly political function: to lend legitimacy to the idea that people whose sex is different from the sex they were coercively assigned at birth do not exist. "Gender identity" makes us second-class and tells us we have to be second-class for science (and few things are considered more shameful among the middle class than rejecting science, or rejecting anything that can be framed as "science").
But not all trans people agree with me. So rather than trying to summarize what all trans people prefer (an exercise that's likely not to end well, any more than you could summarize what all cis people prefer), maybe focus on questions, instead of answers. "What do you mean by that?" can take you a long way. I think that's especially true when unpacking much of the language used to describe sex and gender, whose function is to subordinate some people politically and raise the status of others, rather than to describe reality.
I applied online back in August, and eventually (they don't send notifications so I had to do this by manually polling the web site online) was invited to appear in person to interview for the card. The only locations where you can do this are near the border, so for me, the closest location was Seattle. The soonest appointment was February 1, 2013; later I tried to see if I can change it as a different date might have been more convenient, but I was offered June as the next available appointment, so I decided to keep it February.
Lesson number 1: if you're applying for a card in Seattle, Sea-Tac is *not* the place to go! I read it quickly, thought "oh, the Seattle airport", booked a hotel near Sea-Tac for the night before, and... the night before, realized my appointment was actually at Boeing Field/King County International Airport (which is also, by the way, a 20-minute walk from the nearest public transit stop). This isn't an issue if (unlike me) you have reading comprehension skills, but don't go to SEA, go to Boeing Field.
I arrived 15 minutes early or so for my appointment, but basically as soon as I sat down in the waiting area, the DHS agent showed up and offered to take my passport and driver's license so she could pull up my file. After a few minutes she came back and brought me inside for the interview. She was very quick and efficient. I had worried about getting asked weird questions relating to the fact that I had two previous legal names, both of which connote a gender that I'm not, but she just asked me to verify that I'd used those names before and I said yes; no comments or weird looks or anything. So that was professional of her, and should hopefully reassure any of you who are trans if you were thinking about applying.
She asked me if I'd ever been arrested, ever been turned away from the border, ever had a DUI, or ever had to go before a judge. I said no to all of them, but more about that later. She explained very briefly how the Nexus and PreCheck programs worked and then took a digital scan of my fingerprints (all ten fingers! Serious business. No toes, though.)
I was told to bring a print-out of my "conditional approval" letter inviting me to apply, so I did, and was never asked for it. It turns out that I also didn't need my car registration, which I brought; being a US citizen, I also didn't need any proof that I live at the address that I claim. (My driver's license and passport were apparently sufficient.) I had been told I would need the car registration if I wanted to cross the border in my car, but the agent said that was outdated info, and I would now be able to cross the border in any car so long as every occupant of the car had a Nexus card.
Then she escorted me outside to wait for the Canadian border agent, who came out to greet me within a few minutes. The Canadian agent was much less friendly. He asked me where I work and for a business card (which I knew to bring, so I had one ready) -- so, if you have business cards, bring them! He asked me why I wanted a Nexus card in sort of a skeptical way -- I explained I was going to Vancouver for job training for about two and a half months, and he ended up asking me a lot of questions about that. So he said "but why do you want a card if you're just going once" and I said I might go to Seattle a few times for weekends to visit friends, which is true, and also that I wanted to use PreCheck lines within the US. He said "but you don't fly!" so I guess they know that? I didn't want to get into the whole "I'm trans and I don't like being groped" thing so I said that I'd been driving and taking the train more because of security lines, and if I was able to get through security quicker, I would fly more (which certainly wasn't a lie, just incomplete).
Then he asked me the same questions about arrests, courts, etc. that the US agent did, but when I said I hadn't been to court, he said, "are you sure?" I said, "Well, I had to go to court a month ago to sue my landlord," and he said, "is that all?" "Well I had a few traffic tickets around 2005, but they were dismissed." "Is that all?" "Well, I also had a misdemeanor around that same time where I had to appear before the judge, but the charges got dropped." "And what was it?" "Hitting a car in a parking lot and leaving the scene. The case got dismissed." "Anything else?" "Yeah, I changed my name, so I had to go to court for that." I said that was really all and he was more or less satisfied at that point. (I don't know what he was seeing in the records.) I'm pretty sure I wasn't forgetting anything! Anyway, the lesson learned here is to say everything in response to this question. I thought at first I didn't need to mention stuff that was dismissed, but I guess it doesn't hurt to say so.
He asked me if I had a letter explaining what the purpose of my training visit was, and I said yes, but only on my laptop (I hadn't thought to print it out since the copy that got shared with me was still a draft) and I tried to pull it up on the screen, but wasn't able to because it was in Google Docs and I didn't have a wifi connection. So, another lesson learned: I should have printed out the letter. I tried to avoid giving too many details about my work visit since the administrative people at my work are still dotting the t's and crossing the i's at this point -- basically just saying that I had been informed by the legal team at work that I wasn't going to need a work visa given the length and nature of the visit -- but he did ask a fair amount of questions about it.
Then he told me that based on the interview, I was eligible, and should be receiving the card in the mail within 5-8 days. The unfortunate part, which I didn't know, is that the US DHS offices don't have the machine to scan your irises; you have to go to Canada to do that. So I'll have to make *another* trip to Vancouver (or, I guess, just do it when I get there for work) to get my irises scanned, which I need to do if I want to use the card at airports (I won't need it if I'm crossing the border overland, but I'm not sure yet if I'm going to drive or fly there for my work visit).
I was not asked whether I'd ever used recreational drugs; based on googling other people's experiences, and also on the security clearance application that I once filled out (which never got processed since I quit the job that required it), I thought that might be a question that would come up. But it didn't -- the only legal things that got asked about were DUIs, arrests, court appearances, and being refused entry to a country.
I also think it was a good decision on my part that I decided to wear my "Stop AIDS Project / Department of Homoland Security" T-shirt yesterday and not today. (I wasn't sure what to wear, but ended up going with an incompetently-ironed (by me) button-down shirt and black khakis, no tie. That seemed to be okay.)
I guess it might seem funny that I was willing to put up with all sorts of indirect privacy invasion in order to buy myself a chance of getting out of the direct privacy invasion of having a government contractor feel up my crotchal area. I feel like it makes sense, though (as a compromise in the horrible society we live in) because I'm privileged enough to have very little to hide (from an illegal-activity point of view); on the other hand, having a cis stranger discover unexpectedly that I have a transsexual body puts me at risk. It's not the same kind of risk that a woman with a transsexual body would undergo in that situation, but it's a risk nonetheless, and one that I claim agency in doing what I can to avoid.
(And also, because I haven't mentioned this: yeah, I'm going to be in Vancouver for about 10 weeks, starting this March 11! I'll be working at the Mozilla Vancouver office and learning about linkers, profiling, build systems, debuggers, and other awesome topics from the one and only Graydon.)
The only TDOR event I've attended was two years ago, at Portland State University. To the organizers' credit, Tobi Hill-Meyer was a featured speaker. But other than her speech and showing of her movie, there wasn't a whole lot in the program that was on-topic. What I remember most about the evening was the "genderqueer acrobatics" performance, featuring a number of mostly white youths in furry costumes, cavorting. It didn't seem appropriate for a memorial, any more than a dance party -- which is apparently happening tomorrow as part of more than one city's TDOR event -- is. Do white people jump for joy at the deaths of trans women of color? One might be left thinking so.
I think that part and parcel of this fundamental not getting it is the characterization of violence against trans women of color -- which makes up the overwhelming majority of reported violence against trans and gender-non-conforming people -- as "transphobic violence" or "violence against transgender people".
It's no such thing.
As people like Erica and Monica have already written about, violence against trans women of color is fundamentally violence against women -- specifically, those women who are most vulnerable due to the intersecting oppressions (such as race, poverty, and participation in sex work) they experience. Being trans makes a woman even more vulnerable to violence, because there is no place in the world where law enforcement has much, or any, motivation to investigate a violent crime against a trans woman, particularly a trans woman of color who's not wealthy. It's not that violence against trans women of color happens because of some special kind of violence that's different from run-of-the-mill violence against women because it's rooted in transphobia. It's more indirect: yes, trans women make easier targets, but to understand the real story you have to understand misogyny, racism, poverty -- in other words, the same issues that make cis women vulnerable to violence. Strangely enough, violence (to personify it) seems to be more respectful towards trans women's genders than are the trans men and cis women who often organize events like TDOR. While the latter group seems to need to construct a narrative of transphobia to explain violence against trans women -- so unable are they to see that men commit violence against trans women because they're women -- certain men show that they see trans women as women, by treating them in the same way they treat cis women: only more violent.
When trans men organizing TDOR celebrations talk about the suffering of "transgender people", when academics like Dean Spade make their entire careers off talking about the litany of ways in which "transgender people" are oppressed, they're being wildly misleading. Perhaps not intentionally, in most cases. But it still comes off as self-aggrandizing when college-educated white trans men (like myself!) talk about how they could be killed for being trans, when the worst thing they've ever experienced was someone looking at them funny in the men's room, once.
I don't mean to say that even the most privileged white trans men never face oppression for being trans. Health insurance companies are allowed to deny us needed medical care because we're trans, which affects all but the very richest of us. Many of us can't get government-issued identification that reflects our sexes correctly, which is humiliating if nothing else. I've personally known trans men who had trouble getting employment due to being perceived as trans men. I could go on, but I won't. There are issues that affect all, or almost all, trans people, regardless of their privilege along other axes. And no one should feel that those issues aren't important to work on just because someone, somewhere is suffering more.
So I am totally not opposed to someone working on health insurance discrimination in the US, for example, because that's the issue that moves them, even though having health insurance at all is a privilege many trans people lack. What's wrong, though, is erasing and distracting from the experiences of trans women facing intersecting oppressions by blurring the boundaries with the phrase "transgender people". That phrase groups together trans people who, in fact, profit from white supremacy and unequal distribution of incomes (hello, like me) with trans people who are being profited off, and implies a common set of interest where there is none. The same set of forces that means trans women of color often get the rawest deal even within a particular underclass is the set of forces that allows me to earn a very comfortable living by pressing buttons on a computer all day.
Therefore, for me -- or someone who resembles me -- to go on a stage tomorrow and talk about all the violence that "transgender people" suffer would be wrong. It would be self-aggrandizing. For me to pretend that there is something significant that makes me more similar to a trans woman of color doing sex work and living in poverty than I am to a white cis man running a well-funded Silicon Valley startup would be dishonest. And it would be hard not to see that as a cynical attempt for me to use dead women as instruments to advance a political agenda that -- because it serves the most privileged rather than the least -- isn't really about much other than a self-perpetuating machine of publicity and fundraising.
The rhetorical sleight of hand in grouping all trans people's experience together with the phrase "transgender people" is not just inaccurate and imprecise. It's actively harmful in a way that's very much like the use of "die cis scum" as a rallying cry for some white trans people. The ability to prioritize cis people's oppression of trans people as the most piercing injustice is a reflection of privilege: the privilege of being someone who expects to be in a position to dominate others, but is blocked from being in that position solely by being placed as transsexual and/or transgender. Just as seeing cis people as the only threat is a luxury for those who can rely on white trans people to have their back, garnering sympathy because one could be "killed for being trans" is a privilege reserved for those who can identify a unitary threat to their rightful place of privilege, a single reason why they can't live life at the very lowest difficulty setting.
Clearly, we white trans people (and the cis people who love us) need a common enemy to rally against. But because there's so little violence against us that could reasonably be called "transphobic" (there's a movie called "Boys Don't Cry" because it is indeed so rare for a white trans man to be attacked; if there was a movie about every trans woman of color who met a violent death, there could be an entire category for them on Netflix), it's hard for us to make our movement seem vivid enough to get people interested. Health insurance exclusion clauses, medical gatekeeping, and state bureaus of vital records that refuse to change gender markers on birth certificates are not exactly the stuff of which an attention-getting crusade for justice is made. But the answer isn't to steal stories from people whose lives have inherent value because they were, or are, who they are, as opposed to because a more socially privileged person can use them as an instrument.
What's the harm in all of this? Isn't it always good to raise awareness? But when a group like the Transgender Law Center gives an "Ambassador Award" to Chaz Bono, a man who told the New York Times that testosterone made him feel bored when women were talking, you have to wonder whether ameliorating misogyny matters to self-styled trans activists. (The same group saw it as a priority to help Bono file a legal name change, something that many trans people of more modest means do on their own, without help from a nonprofit.) I think there's a connection between how many groups that claim to be concerned with "LGBT rights", or even with "trans rights", serve mainly the most privileged, and the treatment of trans people's experience as unitary that's exemplified by TDOR and its accompanying rhetoric of "violence against transgender people". The result is a fundamental misdirection of resources. It's been pretty rigorously shown that trickle-down economics doesn't work, and I don't believe that trickle-down social justice works, either.
If it makes you feel good to watch candles being lit and listen to people who look like me mispronounce the last names of people who, well, don't, then it's possible that nothing I've just said will change that. I'm mainly writing this to sort out my thoughts. I've been wanting for a long time to do more than just write about trans activism, to get involved, but I've never been able to see a place to start that clearly does more good than harm. So maybe that's a sign that it would be more effective to work for health care and fair working conditions for everyone, cis people and trans people.
( Read more... )
If you're confused, that's understandable. A long time ago, I lived in California and had a driver's license with my old name, and the sex I was coercively assigned at birth. Then I moved to Oregon, and legally changed my name to the name I use now. I got a driver's license in Oregon, which made my California driver's license invalid. Two years ago, I corrected my passport to have the correct gender marker, which I did immediately after the State Department reformed their guidelines for changing gender markers on passports. Previously, you had to submit evidence of having had surgery (the question of what kind of surgery was a bit fuzzy) in order to change your gender marker. Starting in mid-2010, all you needed was a letter from a doctor saying you were undergoing appropriate treatment for gender transition. There was no longer any requirement for surgery, hormones, or counseling.
When I moved back to California last year, I got a new driver's license. I presented my passport, myself, and my old Oregon driver's license as ID. Even though my Oregon driver's license said "F", presumably the correct gender marker on my passport -- as well as my appearance, which was close to what it is in the userpic attached to this post -- prevailed. I did say I'd had a CA driver's license before, but the DMV worker was unable to find any record of it. So, I had a CA driver's license with my correct gender on it.
California law says that to change the gender on your driver's license, you're supposed to submit a DL-329 form. I didn't want to do that, for reasons I'll get to. I figured that having been out of state would be sufficient to bootstrap a clean record instead.
And that worked, for about a year. A few months ago, I got a letter from the DMV saying that during a review of records, it had been discovered that there were two people with the same Social Security number who'd had a driver's license -- of course, those two people were my old name (listed as F) and my correct name (listed as M). In a phone call, I explained to the worker at the Records Security Division who'd written the letter that I did not intend to submit a DL-329 form, but that I would be happy to send her a copy of my legal name change decree, which I did. I also included a photocopy of my passport.
I didn't receive a response to this letter for several weeks, so I called back the person I had spoken to before. She said that I would still have to submit a DL-329 form, and that my license would be invalidated if I didn't. I asked what I was supposed to do for a driver's license if I didn't submit the form. She said they would reissue my license with an 'F' gender marker. I asked how I was expected to go to the DMV and prove I was an 'F' given that I had no current driver's license with that marker, no passport, and no other ID that has a gender marker. She said I should show my birth certificate. (Actually, for all she knew, I might already have corrected my birth certificate; I have everything I need in order to do so.) I asked when my license was going to be invalidated. She said "as soon as I send the letter saying so", but didn't say when she was going to send the letter.
Today, I got the letter shown above in the mail. Because I was able to (effectively) change my gender marker by submitting only a legal name change and copy of a corrected passport, I expect that the DMV will allow any other trans person to do the same -- otherwise, it would be unfair.
If you're familiar with the rules, you might be asking, "Tim, aren't the requirements for correcting a passport very similar to what's stated on the DL-329 form?" Yes, except for one thing: the DL-329 has separate sets of boxes for a doctor to check for "Demeanor" and "Gender identification". In both cases, the only options are "male" and "female". (There's a third set of boxes where the physician gets to choose whether your gender identification is "complete" or "transitional".) Here are some of the things that are insulting about this form:
- The assumption that your demeanor can be different from your gender identification.
- The assumption that your gendered "demeanor" is relevant to your ability to operate a motor vehicle safely.
- The assumption that everyone has a demeanor that is either male or female, not both, and that everyone has a gender identification that is either male or female, or not both.
- The assumption that a medical doctor is automatically qualified to assess whether someone's "demeanor" is male or female.
- The assumption that a department of motor vehicles should be in the business of assessing someone's "demeanor".
I see a trans-affirming primary care doctor who would have been willing and able to fill out this form correctly for me. That's not the point. What does it mean to have a "male" or "female" demeanor? Can you define that precisely? I don't think the DMV can. If I wear barrettes in my hair, does that make my demeanor "female"? If I take them out, does that change it to "male"? (Not a hypothetical question.)
Fortunately for trans Californians, you don't have to fill out this insulting form anymore; if you're required to, contact me and we'll make sure that the department is aware that you're aware that someone else was allowed a correction without filling it out, so why shouldn't you be granted the same right?
Caveats: I am not a lawyer. If you try this and your records get irreparably screwed up, it's not my fault. It's possible that the fact that I had a gap in between the period of validity of my old 'F' license, and my new 'M' license, affected things (although I don't think that should matter). With that said, I think that those who feel they are in a position to do so should start challenging the system -- this is the crack that we can pry open to break the whole oppressive system apart.
If you know anybody at a trans rights group that deals with California, you might want to let them know about this. (I've learned from experience that these groups only seem to talk to certain kinds of people, of which I am not one.) And please redistribute this post far and wide.
On Facebook, a friend noted: "a keystone of the enforcement of administrative law is not making exceptions. you know why i love exceptions? because they let you poke holes in bad policies and insulting procedures."