Archive for the 'Essay' Category

07
Sep
16

Trans Media Representation Without Inclusion Is Nothing More than Exploitation

It’s been a rough couple of weeks for transgender representation in film. First, Michelle Rodriguez announced that she will be starring in a bizarrely-premised film where she portrays a hitman who is “tricked” into undergoing gender-altering surgery and then goes on a revenge spree. Last week, it was announced that cisgender actor Matt Bomer will be playing a trans woman sex worker in the new film Anything, based on the play of the same name. The pair of movies are perfect representations of how disappointing the state of trans representation is mainstream media remains.

Anything, in particular, fall into some depressingly familiar patterns laid down by films like Dallas Buyers Club and The Danish Girl and shows like Transparent that continue to make plain the notion that, while there appears to be a distinct interest in narratives that feature transgender themes, there is little in the way of appetite for actual transgender people, and that the mainstream creators of Hollywood still view trans women as little more than men in dresses.

When the casting of cisgender actors in transgender roles is questioned, one of the most frequent arguments is that straight actors routinely play gay characters, and vice-versa. However, as trans activists and educators have been attempting to explain for decades, sexual orientation and gender identity are completely separate issues. In the modern era, casting directors do not regularly cast cisgender men in roles where they portray cisgender women, and any film or television show that attempted to do so would most certainly be met with extraordinary outcry. So why does it remain acceptable for men to play trans women?

Casting professionals will often hide behind the supposed lack of availability of recognizable transgender actresses. Of course, because the industry continues to refuse to cast trans actresses and give them the opportunity to become recognized, this complaint is a self-perpetuating one. They have similarly defended the choices due to a lack of recognizably trans actress, which is cuts to the core of one of the key issues at play here, that the wide mainstream creative community still views trans women as men, or at the very least, as much close to men than to women. Inherent in this belief is the notion that trans women must inherently be recognizably, visibly trans for the comfort and understanding of a cisgender audience (and indeed, perhaps the creators). Indeed, the reality is that trans women span a wide spectrum of appearances from very cisnormative to profound and intentional transgression of gender norms. Given this, perhaps it is not actual transgender narratives that the creative community is seeking, but rather the spectaclization and exploitation of trans identities for entertainment value.

Transgender characters and narratives in more mainstream film and television have been limited to a few very specific themes that have little do with the actual experiences of trans people. The most common fodder continues to narratives that focus narrowly on the topic of gender transition. The “transformation” aspect of these narratives (featured in Transparent and The Danish Girl) seems to have long captured the public imagination, dating back to the days of bad daytime talk-shows. The consumption of these narratives by the wider cisgender public consistently feels prurient, treating trans people as objections of fascination and turning one of our most personal, formative experiences into what feels like little more than sideshow spectacle. This notion is reinforced by the fact that these narratives also largely focus on the external aspects of transition in both meanings of the term— that is, the physical changes of transition, but also the effects that transition has on those around them. This kind of narrative is so common as to have its own set of oft-discussed tropes within the trans community, such as shots of the character applying makeup, scenes focused on clothing choices, unnecessary sexualizing of the experience, etc.

Even when trans characters are featured outside of the well-worn transition narrative, the variety of stories and characters written is depressingly lacking in variety: trans women as sex workers, trans women as murder victims, trans women as deceptive deviants, trans women as the profoundly mentally ill, and trans women as violent murders. All of these narratives play back into the predominant usage of trans women a spectacle concept and an object of fascination, and seem to affirm the largely puerile interest that the wider public has in our stories. Trans women are portrayed as something to be pitied at best, and something to be feared, mocked, and disgusted by at worst.

This situation is so especially horrifying because trans women have so little opportunity to provide highly visible counterpoints to these dominant media narratives. We are hamstrung by our small numbers, our relative lack of social influence, and by our historic tendency towards intentionally invisibility. Many point to the fact that the gay rights movement was propelled forward by high levels of visibility, both in everyday life and within mainstream movement, with the thesis that the same should be possible for trans people. Unfortunately, by sheer numerical quantity, the trans community is only a fraction of the size of the gay community, which already places us a relative disadvantage. Further, when the wider gay rights movement began, gay people already existed throughout public life, and were widely represented throughout the creative media community, leaving them well-placed to have a significant degree of control of how their narratives played out as they became more commonplace in wider media landscape. Trans people lack that existing influence and infrastructure, and therefore often have functionally zero agency when it comes to shaping how we are portrayed by the dominant media culture. We are stuck in a position of being increasingly visible, but without a concomitant increase in agency, which a recipe for exploitation, which has very important real world consequences.

The ways in which trans women are portrayed has become increasingly concerning as the anti-trans rhetoric in the political arena reaches a fevered pitch. In our push for recognition of even the most basic rights (such as using a restroom without fearing arrest), we are forced to contend with both the historical social discomfort of those who transgress gender norms, but also a media narrative of our lives and experiences that was crafted specifically to play on the salacious fascinations of the public.

Additionally, the effects of this limited view of transness on the psychological well-being of the wider trans community and trans women in particular cannot be ignored. We are constantly bombarded with messaging that we are less-than-human, that we cannot hope to be anything more than victims, and that the rest of the world still views us largely as men. While those of us who are already out may have developed the resolve to endure this situation, it still becomes a drag on our mental well-being. In the simplest terms, it’s absolutely exhausting to be seen this way. Worse though, is affect this has on trans people who are still in the process of coming to terms with their gender identity. To call the current cultural view of trans people “discouraging” would be an understatement of the worst kind. That situation is only amplified for trans youth, who are far more impressionable and far more at risk.

What is extremely frustrating is that it is possible to do media featuring trans narratives well. When trans people involved in the creative process, and when we we’re actually cast to play trans characters, truly ground-breaking visual media is created. The Netflix series Sense8 is one of the highest profile examples, featuring the Wachowski sisters at the helm and trans actress Jamie Clayton. The series provides perhaps the most nuanced, humanizing portrayal of a trans woman seen in big budget production to date. On a smaller scale, the now Emmy-nominated webseries Her Story is perhaps one of the best possible examples of how much can be done with the actual experiences people, and its production included trans women in every aspect of the series, from technical to creative to performance. Indeed, there’s at least some sign that bigger networks are taking notice of series like these. Trans actress Laverne Cox will star in a new NBC legal drama, Doubt, this fall. The network hired trans woman novelist Imogen Binnie to write for the show, and it was announced last month that Her Story stars Jen Richards and Angelica Ross will make a guest appearance in the first season.
However, as films like (Re)Assignment and Anything, continue to be produced, it is clear that the hunger for exploitive portrayals of trans women has far from abated. While it is true that television and film are still, at their core, business ventures, the most financially successful art is often that which gives the audience something it didn’t even realize that it wanted. If creators are interested in making truly transformative film and television, it’s time to start betting that the appetite for the genuine experiences of trans women can outstretch the prurient fascination with our spectaclized existences that have long been the mainstay of our appearance on screens both big and small, and to start including the numerous talents trans writers, directors, and performers as trans characters become more commonplace in the media landscape.

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22
Jan
15

The Ten Worst Things About Being The Token Lesbian Of Your Social Circle

Sometimes, through no fault of your own, you just end up being the token lesbian in a circle of friends. It’s not that you don’t have queer lady friends, it’s that in certain parts of your social network, you’re the sole sapphic representative. For me, it’s that my lady-loving lady friends are kinda spread all over the US, whereas most of my local friends are straight girls and gay dudes. Don’t get me wrong, I love them all to death. But, sometimes there are just things about being the lone rainbow-licker that aren’t super fun, and those things make me want to drink. A lot.

1. You’re the Official Representative™ of the entire queer women’s community.

If a question comes up about the peculiarities of queer lady culture, you’re expected to answer for it. No, I don’t know know why so many lesbians drive Subarus. If something even moderately note-worthy happens to a queer women, you’re expected to have a statement prepared. Sorry, I forgot to check my inbox for the official Gay Girl Nation press release on all of today’s news. Oh, and of course, there’s the “is that a lesbian thing?” question.

Sorry, I just don't know.

Sorry, I just don’t know.

 

2. While they will share all manner of TMI about the all the straight or gay-dude sex they’re having, they turn completely green at the slightest detail of lesbian sex.

Seriously, I know WAY more about the penises of my straight friends’ boyfriends than I ever wanted to. I’ve heard entire oratories about the glories of huge dick. I know just how good (or not good) most of my friends are getting fucked at any given moment. It’s cool— we’re friends, so a little TMI is to be expected. But, one mention of a particularly toe-curling moment in my own bedroom sends them screaming with their hands clamped over their ears. Seriously, it’s just fucking. Ours just doesn’t rely on a fickle appendage.

Are you being serious right now?

Are you being serious right now?

3. They ask for advice about their relationships, even though you have zero understanding how to date or deal with dudes.

I find no particularly pride in my “Gold Star” status; it’s pretty much by accident that I never had sex with a guy before figuring out it wasn’t my thing. Nonetheless, I just really understand absolutely nothing about hetero dating dynamics. Frankly, I’m absolutely baffled you all don’t murder each other. And guy/guy dynamics? You might as well be be space aliens.

 

There's no way you thought I'd actually understand this, right?

There’s no way you thought I’d actually understand this, right?

 

4. They assume you must love Ellen/The L Word/The Indigo Girls/Other Stereotypical Lesbian Thing.

Yeah okay, I have a few stereotypically lesbians tastes. I have an unabashed love of cats, Tegan and Sara, IKEA kitsch, and cheap red wine. But, I can honestly say that I’ve never seen a single episode of the The L Word, and I have pretty meh feelings about Ellen Degeneres. Just because it’s gay doesn’t mean I’m into it.

5. They feel they need to press you onto the butch/femme spectrum.

I have no problem if you’re butch or femme. You do you. But, I’m neither butch nor femme. I’m just Mari. Some days, I wear adorable vintage dresses and pin-curl my hair and use lipstick. Some day, I wear jean shorts, a tank top, a sports bra, and a fuck-off look on my face. Those are not “butch days” or “femme days”. Those are just Mari being Mari. I can’t be simplified is such black-and-white terms, and lots of other queer ladies can’t either. Movies have lied to you.

 

You really think it works that way?

You really think it works that way?

6. You have to hear constantly about how weird/strange/gross vaginas/vulvas are.

I get it. You don’t like vaginas. That’s cool— it means more for us. But, I hear so many of straight-girl friends tell me that they’re horrified by their OWN lady business. Come on, ladies…they’re attached to you. Grab a mirror and get over that internalized misogyny that leads to terror at the thought of you own genitals. Don’t even get me started on how I’ve heard my gay-dude friends describe the vulva. Seriously, there are no teeth or tentacles involved.

Seriously, how are you afraid of your genitals?

Seriously, how are you afraid of your genitals?

7. The absolute disasters that occur when they try to set us up on dates.

Remember how I said I didn’t know fuck-all about hetero dating? Well, you know about as much about queer dating. I know you’re just trying to be helpful, but I really don’t need you to give my phone number/facebook/email to every lesbian you meet. That’s how I end up with stalkers.

Really? You gave ANOTHER random girl my number?

Really? You gave ANOTHER random girl my number?

8. When you finally get to go out to a non-straight bar, and it’s 300 shirtless gay dudes, 6 straight girls, and you.

Good lesbian bars are few and far between, and trying to convince straight girls or gay guys that it’s a fun destination for a Friday night is like selling evolution textbooks in Kansas. Sure, they’ll tell you the club you’re heading to is “pan-queer” and it has a “good mix of people”. But, when you get there, it’s like an Abercrombie catalog with strobe lights, and you spend the whole night drinking tequila shots and trying to avoid getting boy-sweat on your favorite club top.

The only solution is more shots.

The only solution is more shots.

9. Two words: Fashion Advice.

I know straight girls and gay guys are often super-aware of what exactly is “in” this season, and I know you don’t understand why I feel the need to wear Dr Martens with EVERYTHING. It’s my thing, and you’re just going to have to deal with that. I think I look awesome. Don’t tell me I need Spanx, or that I’m wearing too much eyeliner, or that I should straighten my hair. I might be nice if you’re a girl trying to be helpful, but you need to grasp that queer girls just tend to have a different view on what looks good. Oh, and if you’re a gay guy, I can promise that the moment you criticize my attire, I’m looking for something heavy to throw at you.

What I think of UGGs and leggings.

When you suggest I wear UGGs and leggings.

10. We sometimes have to experience the penis horror show that is a straight girl’s bachelorette party.

I will never understand the need to have a giant penis-themed party right before you wedding. Penis candy, penis cake, penis jewelry, and don’t forget *shudder* male strippers. Why can’t we just look hot, go dancing, and drink too much champagne and leave the phalluses out of it? Or, just don’t invite the gay girl so she doesn’t have feel obligated to awkwardly participate in your dong-related shenanigans.

MichelleObama_ewww

Bonus: We have to endure a never-ending stream of drunken attempts at drunken “experimentation.”

I’m not saying that all straight girls get a little queer-experimental after their third vodka-cranberry, but the sheer number of times that straight friends have tried to kiss me or grope me when they’ve had a few is pretty damn telling. I get it— lowered inhibitions and the feeling of reduced responsibility are a heady combination. Flattering as might be at times, we’re people with feelings and sex drives, and you aren’t likely to do anything but leave both of those things frustrated. Oh, and if your boyfriend is watching while you pull that move, we’re not friends anymore.

 

28
Feb
14

On Being a Manic Pixie Queer Girl, or “Just because you’re queer doesn’t mean you can’t fall into being a cliche.”

(Note: This is a piece that I had finished about 90% of back in July, but never got around to completing. I came across it today, and decided it was worth finishing and posting. Enjoy!)

I try to not be shy about admitting my faults and general fuck-ups. Chief among these faults is a tendency to be a little too arrogant about my own self-understanding and insight. Sometimes, this leads to moments where I feel totally foolish, and I ran into yet another of these moments this recently. The whole “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” concept as both a media trope and a cliche of female dating behavior seems to get a lot of coverage in the blogonets. If you’re unfamiliar with the term, it stems from a stock movie character whose sole function is to bring fun, adventure, personal growth, and a change in heart to the otherwise sullen, mournful, boring male lead. She uses her charming quirkiness, her non-mainstream interests and hobbies, and her off-beat sense of humor to be a mechanism for change for the male protagonist, without ever really having any motivations or needs of her own. She probably dresses idiosyncratically, has some kind of interesting speech pattern, has funky bangs, and owns a cat she talks to in an embarrassing sort of way.  Some of the best known examples include Natalie Portman’s character in Garden State, Romona in Scott Pilgrim vs The World, and Kate Winslet’s character in Eternal Sunshine on a Spotless Mind. (Zoey Deschanel’s character in 100 Days of Summer actually turns this entire trope on its head and is worth a watch.) Sadly, as such a common stock character in film and television, the behaviors and expectations are frequently emulated by real-life women when dating, and even more often, subtly pressed onto women by men. Now, as a queer woman who doesn’t date cisgender men, I always thought myself above such frivolous cliches. After all, I thought, aren’t these stereotypes about STRAIGHT relationships? I’m so much more insightful and self-aware! I would never allow myself to fall into such behavior; I am just too worldly and smart for that. Yeah, like I said, sometimes I’m a right arrogant idiot.

But, the other day I was reading this piece and something caught in my brain. Something about her experiences rang just a little too close to home for me. Now, I’ve been out and open about my gender identity to all of my partners since I was about 21, and as a result, I’ve not had to put on much of a “false front” of masculinity when it comes to long-term dating situations, so I can’t even make the excuse of it being a side-effect of trying to live/date passably as male. As a young adult, I made the pretty standard dumb dating mistakes that just come with the limited maturity you have when you’re 20-22. During much of my mid-to-late twenties, I moved onto what I considered to be more mature adult relationships. But, these situations always seemed to play out in the same way: meet someone, have an exciting year together, everything stagnates and falls apart, things end. Rinse, repeat. I definitely noticed the pattern after a few times, but I always chalked it up to “well, they just weren’t the right person.” But as this same pattern played out over and over again- often with the same fights, the same difficulties, and always the same ending- I began to re-examine myself and my own behaviors; after all, the common denominator here there was me. I had thought I had picked out the problem back then…that I was choosing relationships that were “projects” because I felt powerless to do anything to fix myself. And so I resolved to stop such things, and focus on making myself better and choosing relationships with more appropriate balance and boundaries. In hindsight, I had missed a major part of what had always been going on, and it would crop up again even as I made different choices in partners.

As it turns out, I had been placing value on the wrong parts of myself. As I worked through my self-esteem issues, I had chosen to focus on what I felt were my positive, attractive qualities- namely that I was intelligent, had a wide variety of interests, and did interesting things with my life. The problem here is that as I applied this to dating, I strove to attract people not with who I was, but on the experience they would have with me, and what I could for their lives. Sound familiar? From the above-mentioned article:

    I’m a bit strange and sensitive and daydreamy, and retain a somewhat embarrassing belief in the ultimate decency of humanity and the transformative brilliance of music, although I’m ambivalent on the Shins. I love to dance, I play the guitar badly, and I also – since we’re in confession mode, dear reader, please hear and forgive – I also play the fucking ukelele. Truly. Part of the reason I’m writing this is that the MPDG trope isn’t properly explored, in any of the genres I read and watch and enjoy. She’s never a point-of-view character, and she isn’t understood from the inside. She’s one of those female tropes who is permitted precisely no interiority. Instead of a personality, she has eccentricities, a vaguely-offbeat favourite band, a funky fringe.

While I don’t play the guitar, and I only kind of play the ukulele, the above paragraph is a pretty succinct description of me at 26. As it turns out, I had turned myself into a supporting character in my own life, and in the interest of attracting partners and maintaining relationships, I subverted all of my own needs. When someone dated me, it wasn’t me as a person they were buying into, but me as an experience. But, as it turns out, when you present yourself as the adventure vacation of romantic partners, that’s exactly how people treat you. As long as there are novel experiences to be had, and life-changing personal growth to acquire, they’re head-over-heels excited to be with you. You’re the month-long backpacking tour of Asia they’ve been dying to take their whole lives.  But as soon as you’ve shown them all you can, and helped them grow as much as you’re able, there’s nothing left to hold the relationship together. Vacation spots are escapes, after all. No one stays on vacation forever because they’re not invested in that place, they just want the experience that place provides. And even more so, because you’re an experience and not a person, you become terribly invested in providing it…you twist yourself in ways to hide the flaws that don’t fit within the “experience”, never really allowing yourself to be the “real” you. Only main characters get to have flaws and be dynamic, and a MPDG is never a main character, and any part of her that doesn’t advance the storyline is unimportant.  And so it went for me, a long line of partners who never really knew me, but who were always so grateful for all I’d shown them, always telling me that I had changed their lives forever and made them better people…right after which they’d take their improved-self and move on to someone else (and in my case, very frequently marry that person). I was, in essence, the Manic Pixie Queer Girl, my own LGBT-ified version of a classic movie trope.

It’s easy to see how I ended up being a Manic Pixie Queer Girl. As a MPQG, you have lots of torrid, passionate romance and a seemingly-never-ending stream of fun with different people. For a while, especially for someone who spent a lot of life feeling pretty unwanted, it feels amazing to have people so enamored with you. It’s intoxicating to have people infatuated with you.  But looking back, I never got much out of those relationships, aside from sex and temporary companionship. No one ever *really* saw me, or loved me, or cared for me. They had no real interest in who I was inside- my goals, my aspirations, my fears, my perspective. They gave me no real support, and I never grew from the experience. It’s a life that’s lonely in its own specific kind of way, and ultimately just depressingly unfulfilling. I was never the love of anybody’s life, just a temporary, exhilarating stop-over.  In the end, I was just a vehicle for change in their lives, a secondary character that drives their own story forward- just as so many Manic Pixie Dream Girls in a hundred Hollywood films.

So, what’s a Manic Pixie Queer Girl to do? Well, the first step is for her to recognize that she was right prat for arrogantly thinking the whole thing was impossible. After that, it’s to step into her own spotlight, of course. Take charge, and be willing to be the main character in her own story. And, so I have. I’ve stopped selling myself as “The Mari Experience” to potential romantic interests, and I’ve shied off the folks who give indications that they view that way.  I’ve given up on being everyone’s summer-in-Europe of relationship partners, and I no longer view it as any part of my job to ensure that people evolve, or to save them from their boring lives. I’ve stopped hiding my flaws, instead choosing to express them as simply part of the whole, complete, three-dimension, dynamic person that I am. I’m still quirky, still weird, still living my own little unique existence. But, when I bring new people into it, it’s no longer as “let me show you all these cool things that will make your life more interesting”, but instead “let me share all these things that I love with you, because they’re important to me and I want you to be a part of the things I love.” Most of all, I’ve stopped looking for partners who can grow from me, and instead started looking for partners who can together grow with me. I’m not here to change anyone’s life. I’m just here to live mine, and I’m hoping to share the ride with someone who loves all of me- quirks, flaws, bangs, ukulele and all.

22
Feb
14

An Empty Gesture for Trans Students, or “Why the new VHSL policy on transgender student athletes helps no one.”

Policies about transgender students have been in the headlines for months, largely due to the signing and subsequent backlash against California’s AB1266, which significantly advanced protections and freedoms for transgender students throughout the state. Recently, the Virginia State High School League (VHSL), the state’s governing body for high school athletics, announced new rules that they claim allow the inclusion of transgender athletes on teams of their identified gender. They’ve pretty quick to congratulate themselves for being so progressive, and the mainstream press has given them a lot of credit for updating their policies for “inclusiveness”.

Unfortunately, either no one in the VHSL did even the slightest bit of research about trans issues, or the entire rule was designed to give the appearance of inclusiveness without actually making real changes. You see, the rule requires that students have undergone gender confirmation surgery (specifically genital surgery) in order to participate. The rule reads as follows:

Virginia High School League rules and regulations allow transgender student-athlete participation under the following conditions:

A. A student-athlete will compete in the gender of their birth certificate unless they have undergone sex reassignment.

B. A student-athlete who has undergone sex reassignment is eligible to compete in the reassigned gender when:

1. The student-athlete has undergone sex reassignment before puberty, or

2. The student-athlete has undergone sex reassignment after puberty under all of the following conditions:

a. Surgical anatomical changes have been completed, including external genitalia changes and gonadectomy.

b. Hormonal therapy appropriate for the assigned sex has been administered in a verifiable manner and for a sufficient length of time to minimize gender-related advantages in sports competition.

c. If a student-athlete stops taking hormonal treatment, they will be required to participate in the sport consistent with their birth gender.

C. A student-athlete seeking to participate as a result of sex reassignment must access the VHSL eligibility appeals process.

[Emphasis Mine]

 

That’s a pretty huge problem for many reasons. The largest of these is the current Standards of Care of the World Professional Association for Transgender Health (WPATH). The Standards of Care function as the guiding documents for pretty much all health professionals involved in trans medical care, and their guidelines for surgery are very specific (and almost no surgeon is willing to go against them). They read:

Criteria for metoidioplasty or phalloplasty

in FtM patients and for vaginoplasty in MtF

patients:

1. Persistent, well-documented gender dys-

phoria;

2. Capacity to make a fully informed decision

and to consent for treatment;

3. Age of majority in a given country;

4. If significant medical or mental health

concerns are present, they must be well

controlled;

5. 12 continuous months of hormone therapy

as appropriate to the patient’s gender

goals (unless hormones are not clinically

indicated for the individual).

6. 12 continuous months of living in a gender

role that is congruent with the patient’s

identity

[Emphasis mine]

In the US, the age of majority is 18. Last time I checked, there weren’t exactly a ton of 18-year-olds running around high schools- just a few seniors with really early birthdays. That’s not very many students who have even a glimmer of hope of meeting all the criteria of this policy. Given that genital surgery has quite a long recovery period (stretching months after the surgery), I don’t quite see how this policy is going allow pretty much ANY trans students to participate in high school sports in Virginia. If the members of the VHSL had bothered to ask a practitioner specializing in trans health, or to even just read the WPATH Standards of Care, they’d have been aware of this fact.

As a corollary, this policy isn’t even based upon anything approaching actual medical science. Last time I checked, the mere presence of a penis didn’t make you run faster, jump higher, or give one any other advantage in athletics. Hormonal transition, particularly in adolescents, fundamentally alters body phenotype and shuts down sex hormone production in the gonads, meaning there’s no competitive advantage is gained by simply HAVING your birth gonads. The changes in response to hormone are particularly rapid and profound in adolescents, so any arguments about requiring GCS to mitigate “competitive advantage” are pretty much scientifically bunk.

Furthermore, even IF the WPATH criteria didn’t preclude minors from having GCS, it remains an extraordinarily expensive medical procedure that is rarely covered by insurance, and only a minority of trans people will complete it in their lifetime, let alone someone still under the care of their parents. Lastly, this policy is horrifically ignorant just what a major decisions having GCS is for a trans person. Not only is it very invasive and full of risks, but it has a lifetime of physical consequences, and it puts a permanent end to a person’s ability to have biological children. It’s a decision that full-grown adults in their 30s struggle with, and it’s complete unreasonable to expect a teenager to make such a decision simply to play a game.

And really, what we’re talking about is high school sports, a bunch of teenager playing a game…not big-money college athletics or professional/world-class athletes. High school sports are supposed to be primarily about learning team-work, sportsmanship, keeping teenagers physically active, and providing a factor to drive student body unity. (Yes, I’m aware that lots of people take them FAR more seriously than that, but that’s another essay topic entirely). At the end of the day, the stakes are embarrassingly small to be this paranoid about someone having a competitive advantage, or to deny trans students the opportunity to participate in an activity that gives them the opportunity to integrate with cisgender peers.

So, really, what can we conclude? Either the VHSL is woefully ignorant about trans issues and far too lazy to actually research a topic before issuing a rule that affects an already heavily discriminated-against student population, or they were seeking the praise and hoping to appear “progressive” and “forward-thinking” without actually making any changes that would allow trans athletes to participate. In either case, it’s a big disappointment for trans students in Virginia, who deserve much better than this sad, lip-service-at-best policy.

11
Feb
14

Three Little Pills, or “Something resembling poetry about hormones.”

I wrote the following piece on a whim a few weeks back. I thought there might be more to it, but I hasn’t really come together, so I decided to just go ahead and share it. And be nice- poetry isn’t really my thing- but this gets at something personal about transition for me that I don’t think I’ve ever been able to properly write about. Someday it might grow into something longer, or perhaps something spoken. But for now, it is what is, and I’m happy with it. Without further ado, “Three Little Pills”:

 

Three little pills. 
That’s all it takes. 
Three tiny green ovoids, not much larger than a grain of rice,
Spread across my day to keep things even. 
Hell, they’re mostly sugar- just 2 milligrams in each is anything one might call interesting. 
6 milligrams per day. Almost nothing compared to the 130 kilograms that make me up. 
That’s 4.6×10^-7 percent of my body.
I’ll lose more than that in shed skin cells today.
It’s a lot of weight for so little mass. 
Three little pills,
One in the AM and two a night. 
And it’s enough change a body that once looked hard, bulky, masculine,
A body I grew to despise, that made me nauseous at the mere glance in mirror, 
A body that recoiled from even the most well-intentioned of intimate touches,
A body that screamed out to everyone but me “This is a man!”
A wrong body.
To one with softness, curves- breasts and hips, undeniably feminine 
A body that, even with its imperfections, I’m pleased to see reflected back at me each day,
A body that warms to soft kisses, and opens to loving embraces,
A body I’m proud to call a woman’s, 
A body that’s right. 
Okay, so they had a little help from two slightly bigger brown pills.
But that’s mostly to kickstart the process. 
It’s the three little guys, scored down the center, carrying their tiny payload
That really do the work.
Correcting a terrible birth defect,
A body that doesn’t match its brain.


29
Jan
14

Obama’s State of the Union Address Ignores ENDA (and more), or “Remember when the President stood up for trans rights in front of Congress? Yeah, me neither.”

In tonight’s State of the Union address, President Obama talked extensively about jobs and the economy. He discussed immigration reform. He touted the success of the Affordable Care Act. He devoted several minutes to discussing current foreign policy situations. He touched on education, tax reforms, and pressed for an increase in the federal minimum wage. Sadly, he left a number of critical issues completely untouched- chief among them the concerns of the LGBT community and the languishing of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, commonly known as ENDA.

Oh sure, he gave the minimum of lip service to our existence in his brief mentions of “marriage equality” and later his hat-tip to “sexual orientation” in his statement about equality in regards to the upcoming Olympic games in Sochi. Meanwhile, in 29 states it remains perfectly legal to fire (or refuse to hire) someone because they’re gay, lesbian or transgender. 33 states offer no protections to transgender workers. According to the most recent report from the National Center for Transgender Equality, 90% of transgender workers have experienced some form of harassment. Nearly half (47%) had been fired, had not been hired, or had missed out on a promotion because they are trans, including 26% who had been actually lost their jobs. Because of the persistent discrimination and transphobia in the US, losing our jobs has even more catastrophic effect than it does for the straight, cis population, leading to four times the rate of extreme poverty, and four times the rate of homeless (1 in 5 trans people will be homeless at some point in our lives). Most heartbreaking of all, 41% of trans people will attempt suicide at some point in their lives, more than 25 times the risk of the general population.

These bleak facts stem for a systemic, entrenched anti-trans bias within the entirety of the US economic system, from education to the workforce. While we have lots of work to do to disassemble this bias, comprehensive workplace protections for transgender individuals (and indeed, all LGBT people) would provide a large measure of stability and would represent a huge leap forward in trans rights. Congress has an excellent opportunity to enact such protections, though S. 815, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) of 2013. The proposal passed the Senate in November 64-32, including three yes votes from Republicans. While Congress has previously considered similar bills, this marks the first time such a bill containing protections for trans people has gained final passage in a chamber of Congress. All indications are that- if allowed to come to a vote on the House floor- the bill would pass, and President Obama has indicated that he would sign it. So what’s keeping this critical legislation from passing? The unwillingness of Speaker John Boehner to allow a vote, as he views it as “unnecessary” (I’d be willing to bed the 1 in 4 trans people who’ve been fired would handily disagree). Unfortunately, the rules of the House make it nearly impossible to circumvent the Speaker’s block on the vote.

So, back to Obama’s State of the Union Address. President Obama prodded the members of Congress towards action on a number of issues, including extending unemployment benefits, increasing the federal minimum wage, closing tax loopholes, and funding preschool education. Unfortunately, he entirely failed to prod Congress on the final passage of ENDA. Job protections for LGBT people are not a particularly controversial topic for the public at large. A poll by the Center for American Progress back in 2011 demonstrated that nearly 3 of 4 Americans support workplace protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals, including a majority of Republicans. More troubling is that 90% believe these protections already exist. So, we have a policy that the majority of Americans- and a majority of Congress- supports (indeed that most think already exists) that won’t become law because of one single legislator’s objections. The State of the Union seemed like the perfect opportunity to press for action on such an item. Mr Obama could have very publicly called on Boehner to allow such a vote (either directly, or indirectly). The President could have promised to sign an executive order to require protections for LGBT people in all federal contractors as an additional pressure, much as he did with the federal contractors and minimum wage. President Obama’s press office included such items in his pre-address “fact sheet”, but that’s a far cry from a expression of public support in a major address. When the President took the podium, all we heard was a deafening silence on one of the most critical issues facing us today.

Some might argue that it’s a fairly “minor issue”, affecting a small number of Americans, and not worthy of the President’s limited speech time. However, as a comparison, roughly 1.6 million people recently lost their unemployment benefits, about 0.5% of the population by my estimate. LGBT identified folks make up about 4% of the US population by current estimates, more than 8 times as many who would benefit from the far-more controversial unemployment extension. However, that issue was found worthy of mentioning at length in his speech. Returning to the minimum-wage issue for a moment, about the same number (1.6 million) of individuals currently make minimum wage (per Bureau of Labor Statistics)  as recently lost unemployment checks. And yet, raising the federal minimum wage was a key issue in Obama’s address. Don’t misunderstand me, I believe these are both very important and worthwhile issues and they certainly warranted being discussed in the President’s speech. But in sheer numbers, the passage of ENDA impacts a greater number of people, and it’s nonsensical to argue that we’re comparatively insignificant minority.

I could take the President to task for many oversights in his address, from drug policy to criminal justice to reproductive rights to proper funding for the NIH. However, his failure to press for action for such basic protections that could do so much to improve the lives of trans (and other LGBT) individuals is absolutely inexcusable, particular given that that ENDA enjoys wide support with Americans and has functionally zero fiscal implications. If this version of ENDA dies in the House without reaching the President’s desk, it will represent an enormous missed opportunity to provide trans and queer people with something most have never had- a chance to live their lives without fear of losing their livelihoods and incomes simply for being who they are. The simple fact is, Mr Obama had the opportunity to take a groundbreaking step in going to bat for the LGBT population in his address (and, in doing so, keep a key campaign promise). However, as has become so common a theme in his administration, President Obama left queer and transgender Americans out in the cold.

28
Jan
14

Why Genital Essentialist Comments are Transphobic Microaggressions, or “People need to stop talking about what “real” men and women have in their pants.”

Microaggressions: those little phrases you hear every day that give you a stinging reminder that the world considers you “less than”. The term was originally coined back in the 1970s in regards to racism, but it’s come into usage in feminist, queer, and pretty much all other intersectional conversations about privilege. Dr Derald Sue, who has written extensively about racial and other microaggressions gave the following definition in a Psychology Today article in 2010:

“Microaggressions are the everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership.”

Think of it like this: open aggressive harassment is like someone dropping a big rock on your car from an overpass- it’s sudden, immediate, and it’s probably going to do some serious damage. Microaggressions are like being caught behind a gravel truck every day- each little hit does a fairly minor amount of damage but the accumulated effect day after day is going to make a big mess. Some microaggressions are direct: intentionally misgendering of a trans person, or asking a black guy what gang he’s in. Some are more subtle: men referring to certain tasks as “women’s work,” or someone commenting on the enjoyment of cake by a random person of size passing by. Jared Leto’s recent acceptance speech at the Golden Globes is another perfect example, as Parker Molloy recently discussed over on The Toast. If it’s sort of thing someone might brush off criticisms of as “being too sensitive”, there’s a pretty good chance it’s a microaggression. If you’re still having trouble conceptualizing this, the good folks over at The Microaggression Project have cataloged more examples than you’ll ever need. (Caution: it can be a pretty triggery website.)

Transphobic microaggressions take many forms, from downright hostile comments about how “gross” or “weird” trans people (and/or their bodies are) to insidious things like the use of phrases like “hot tranny mess” in a derogatory fashion about someone’s appearance. One that seems to be among the most prevalent (and dismissed) are comments about the sort of genitals (or other features) that “real” men or women should have, a situation commonly known as “essentialism”. When these comments are specifically about the sort of genitals that one particular gender has (or doesn’t have), it becomes genital essentialism. I recently came across this post in the blogosphere, ostensibly written about standards of female beauty, but unnecessarily containing a bold transphobic microaggression. (I have extended criticisms of the entire misogynist piece, but we’ll skip those today.) The writer opines:

“I’m going to let you and the rest of society in on a secret, real women have vaginas. In fact, that is the number one prerequisite in being considered a person of the female persuasion. It’s not the shape of your hips or the size of your rump, it’s the fact that I can’t find a penis anywhere on your body.”

The problem here, of course, is that a statement like this also very clearly implies that anyone without a vagina is not, in fact, a “real woman.” It’s an implicit rejection of the femaleness every single trans woman on the planet who has not had GCS. Sure, it’s a flaming angry tirade from a religious crazy about what evil sexual perverts we all are. But, it is a jab at something that trans women hold fairly sacrosanct- their identity as a woman. In that, it becomes a transphobic microaggressions, even if the writer had no negative thoughts about trans women in his mind when he wrote it. A more wide-reaching example occurred just today on Twitter when Joss Whedon (of Buffy, Firefly, and Avengers fame) tapped out this doozy:

whedontweet

Once again, reducing femaleness to genitals…and this time not even the presence of a vagina, but simply the LACK of penis and testicles, making it not only an anti-trans microaggression (by implying that by having male genitals, trans women aren’t women and that by not having a penis trans men aren’t actually men), but also a sexist microaggression (by defining women as simply “that which is not a man,” the implication being that gender is defined in the context of maleness). Again, I’m not necessarily saying that Mr Whedon had any particularly transphobic or sexist intentions when he made this statement, but the fact that a statement like this can be tossed off like it’s nothing speaks volumes about the invisibility of trans people in the minds of the world at large.

Quite unfortunately, this whole “real women have vaginas” thing is a lot more prevalent than you might imagine. You see, a few years back the internets spawned a meme about female body image, centered around the phrase “real women have curves.” Not unexpectedly (nor at ALL unreasonably) there was significant backlash against this reduction a woman’s identity to her physical body appearance. After all, it’s pretty cruel and offensive to declare that thin women aren’t “real” women. Disappointingly, the phrase that seemed to frequently be substitutes in place of it was -you guessed it- “real women have vaginas.” This phrase became a rallying cry against the imposition of unfair beauty standards. Writer Dory Hartley wrote in a piece for Huffington Post:

“Number one: they all have vaginas. If you’ve got a vagina, you’re a real women.”

Again, the implication is clear: No vagina = not a woman, vagina = woman. There’s no room in that equation for trans bodies, and it becomes an inherent denial of our femaleness or maleness of this reduction of identity to genitalia. Tamsin Howse of Kiki & Tea was so body as to actual title a piece “Real Women have Vaginas.” In it she writes:

“Remember – Real women have vaginas. And some people I call women don’t even have that.”

There it is, again- a bold declarative about what exactly the sorts of body parts “real women” have. The follow-up statement feels like an attempt, perhaps, in being inclusive of trans women. But her phrasing contains an implication that she doesn’t believe they really ARE women, just that she calls them women, which feels almost like another microaggression in itself. I could, quite literally, go on for another 1000 words of similar examples. None of these pieces were written by trans-exclusive rad-fems bent on the oppression of trans people; I’m 99% sure none of them harbored any transphobic thoughts as they composed these articles. But each one of them is one more tiny jab at the femaleness (or maleness) of trans people, and a reinforcement of our invisibility.
The common response to this sort of criticism (so common I can practically hear the voices) is that we’re being “too sensitive,” that we’re “looking for transphobia” where it doesn’t really exist, that we’re trying to enforce “overly-PC” standards. These are the sorts of arguments consistently made by oppressor classes defend their privileged status. Similar arguments were made for years in regards to queer microaggression comments (for example, insulting a man by calling him a c*cksucker) that are now quite widely perceived as being offensive and inappropriate homophobic statements. Genital essentialist statements like “real women have vaginas” functionally reduce an extraordinarily complex portion of a person’s identity- their gender- to a rigid, overly simplistic, inaccurate, incomplete, and frankly incorrect biologic assumption that becomes an ugly, painful kick at something critically important to trans people, our firm understanding of our own femaleness or maleness. The accumulated effect of having statements like this bombard us daily from everywhere we look just adds to the pervasive transphobia that we endure from our culture. So, please stop reducing everyone to their genitals, and assuming that “real women” or “real men” have any single defining characteristic. Real women have bodies. Real men have bodies. Real Non-Gender-Binary-Identifying-People have bodies. That’s all you can assume about them.

24
Jan
14

Nine Things to Know If You (or Someone You Care About) Are Struggling With Gender Identity, or “These are the things I wish I could go back and tell 20-year-old me.”

For a big portion of the trans population, our teens and early twenties are when the first really big struggles with questions about our gender identity start to happen. Sure, most of us spend a lot of our childhood being vaguely (or not so vaguely) aware of something being “wrong” or different”, but puberty and sexual development seem to have a way of throwing a pretty harsh light on those feelings. It can be pretty lonely and confusing time, and it’s easy to feel completely lost and overwhelmed by the situation. After all, it’s not as though we’re likely to have a bunch of other friends struggling with these same sorts of issues to lean on, and I don’t think there are many other issues that shake the core of your identity quite like questioning your gender. Often, we’re terrified to admit these feelings to even ONE person (it took me until I was 20 to actually talk to someone about it). Back in those days (the early 2000s), internet information about being transgender/transsexual was pretty scant and stereotyped, and I remember not relating to a ton of it, which made me feel even more lost and confused.

These days, of course, trans people of all stripes are making their voices heard on the web. You have only to look at my extensive (yet not even remotely exhaustive) blogroll to get a sense of that. I wrote a while back about the importance of trans success stories, and why each of our voices is so important. But, as I approach my 1 year mark on HRT, I began to think about the sorts of things that would have been helpful to hear from someone when i was 20 and struggling to understand the mess of thoughts about my gender. Furthermore, I’ve come to realize that supporting a person struggling with gender dysphoria can also be a challenge, particularly if gender issues are something that are very new to you. It’s very easy to feel lost for words when trying to support trans people, especially if you aren’t trans yourself.  So, in light of all that I came up with nine simple, but important thoughts that I believe are important for anyone (young or not-so-young) to hear if they’re dealing with gender dysphoria:

1. Feeling dysphoric about your gender does not mean you’re a sexual deviant or a pervert. Trans people often have to endure being labeled deviants by the transphobic public because of the uninformed (and flat-out WRONG) belief that cross-gender/gender-dysphoric feelings stem from “immoral” sexual desires. Nothing could be further from the truth- gender dysphoria stems from a mismatch between your physical body and your brain’s expectations. I think if most cis-folks took a minute to think about how they’d feel if they woke up one day in a body of the other sex (I’m guessing they’d be pretty damn freaked out), they’d understand the immensely stressful feelings we struggle with every day. A fair amount of good science also exists to support this brain/body mismatch. Sadly, the media has a tendency to portray us in a very unflattering light and pornography and trash television have only retrenched these horribly misguided stereotypes. But it’s important to understand that gender dysphoria is a very real medical/psychological issue! As a corollary, experiencing gender dysphoria does not mean you’re just “gay and confused” or anything else about your sexual orientation. Sexual orientation and gender identity are completely separate concepts, and trans people are gay, straight, and everything in between (and only you can decide where you fall on that spectrum).

2. Everyone’s pathway to understanding their gender identity is different. This one was perhaps one of the hardest things for me, personally. There’s an awful lot of literature floating around that says things like “you’re only a trans woman if you’ve felt X, Y and Z.” These are misleading and bordering on cruel. We’ weren’t all super-feminine children, nor are we all feminine now. Not all of us experience our dysphoria as a specific dislike for our genitals. The unifying experience is the discomfort with the sex we were assigned at birth…the rest is as unique as we are. Your path is your own, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

3. Everyone’s pathway to and through transition is different. This is a follow-on from #2, really. Some people are ready to start pursuing transition as soon as they’ve accepted that they’re trans. Some people aren’t. Some people live part-time or full-time in their preferred gender before starting medical transition. Some people are on hormones for a year or more before they venture out presenting as their preferred gender for the first time. Some people push through their social transition quickly, and others take a bit longer road. Some people choose to have surgery, and some do not. ALL of these things are normal and acceptable! Just because your path and progress differ from someone elses doesn’t make your trans experience or gender identity less legitimate.

4. Gender dysphoria has deeper effects on your emotional health than you realize. Living in a body that feels wrong is exhausting. You’ve been dealing with those feelings for a long time, so it’s easy to chalk them up to just “normal” life for you. But, there’s a good chance that your dysphoria is slowly and insidiously eating away at your mental stability. There’s anxiety associated with trying to “fit” or “pass” in a gender that doesn’t feel natural. There’s the self-esteem hit you might be taking from looking at a body that feels wrong, or maybe even ugly to you. And worst of all, there’s a constant, gnawing depression stemming from the stress and discomfort that dysphoria brings while your brain is being washed with the wrong hormones. Your subconscious is expending lots of energy dealing with these things, and that’s a recipe for some serious problems with your emotional stability Bringing the mind and body into alignment through transition does WONDERS for mental health, and you’ll be astounded by how much the anxiety and depression drops off as transition progresses. (That being said, transition is NOT a magic cure for all emotion problems, and there’s a decent chance that you’ll still have underlying issues to work through once the gender issues are taken care of.)

5. You are probably more attractive than you think. This is was one of my single largest mental roadblocks to transition. The image you see in the mirror every day conflicts with your own internal conception of what you SHOULD look like…that’s enough to screw with ANYONE’S self-esteem! Add to that the likelihood that you’re focusing on the traits that make your face/body feel too masculine/feminine for your brain-sex, and you’ve got a recipe for some pretty harsh judgements about your appearance. Give yourself permission to explore, to find out what the preferred gender version of your face and body might look like. And even more so, give yourself permission to feel attractive. You probably are!

6. People who truly love and care about you will support you. Yes, there’s a risk in sharing your gender identity with people. It’s terrifying, and when you’re looking at those first few conversations, it feels like you’re risking everything! People might be shocked at first, or need a little time to process the situation. But if you come armed with information and resources, and you’re genuinely reaching out to someone with something this personal and important, chances are- if they’re a person who loves and cares about you- that they’ll become a supporter. And if you don’t have any friends you feel this way about, it’s time to make some. You’re going to need them over the course of transition. Admittedly, family (especially parents) can be a much more complex situation, and those don’t always go quite as smoothly. But, if you’ve chosen your friends well, they’ll stand by you during your journey. And if they don’t, well, they weren’t worth having around anyway. I’m constantly impressed by just how accepting the people in my life have been of my transition.

7. It’s really lonely in the closet. When you’re closeted about your gender identity, you’re hiding part of yourself from those around you. You’re putting up a false front so that you can survive in the world, hiding your true self deep inside. While this keeps us safe, it also means we’re essentially always alone- we’re never sharing all of our real selves with others. Embracing your gender identity and coming out helps you be more present in your relationships, both friendly and romantic, by letting go of the gap we tend to maintain between our true selves and the false front identities we construct to inhabit our assigned genders. It can actually be pretty overwhelming at first if you aren’t prepared for it! I didn’t realize just how much I kept other at a distance until I started transition.

8. Transition happens a lot faster than you think it will (once you get started). Standing at the opening of the metaphorical tunnel that is transition, it often looks daunting to the point of being overwhelming. It feels like it’s going to take FOREVER, and that you’re going to be stuck in that terrifying middle ground for longer than you can bear. It’s not true. If you set measurable goals and stick with them, and focus on making progress, you will flabbergasted at how quickly you’ll be standing on the other side going “Holy shit, did that really just happen?!”. Yes, some of those months of the process are going to suck, and you’re going to feel like it’s TAKING SO LONG, but things pick up speed quickly, and each step drives the next until one day you realize that there aren’t any more steps, and all that’s left is living the amazing, genuine life you’ve built for yourself.

9. It’s okay if you aren’t ready to transition (or if you’re never ready). Transition is a BIG step! There are lots of things you need to have in place. It’s financially burdensome, emotionally taxing, and it has far-reaching consequences for all kinds of scary real-world stuff like jobs, housing, and more. It can take a while (sometimes a long while) to have all things you feel you need lined up. That’s okay! You’re ready when YOU’RE ready. And for some people, transition just isn’t the right thing for them. That’s okay, too. You should still seek out counseling and do whatever it is you can to mitigate your dysphoria, but it certainly doesn’t invalidate the dysphoria you’re struggling with. Whatever it is that works for you is right FOR YOU!
As I mentioned, this list isn’t just for trans people- it’s for anyone who considers themselves an ally to the trans community. Pre-transition folks are often those who are in most need of love and support, and these nine things might be some of the most important things you can share with them as they try to find their path.

16
Jan
14

Terminology, Labels, Descriptors, Boxes and Prisons Made of Words, or “Why descriptive terms are like underwear, and how Julia Serano made me change mine.”

Ahhh, terminology. Amongst queer folks, it’s a Pandora’s Box of potentially ugly arguments. For the transgender/genderqueer/gender-variant/gender-non-conforming (pick whichever umbrella term is your favorite of the day), some days it feels less like a Pandora’s Box, and more like big glass of nitroglycerin (you know, even breath wrong and it blows up in your face). One of the most interesting (and problematic) issues with the terminology that surrounding non-cis people is that, frankly, no one seems to be able to agree on what the terms actually mean. Hell, beyond the fact that people can debate all day about what exactly it means to be “genderqueer”, “gender-fluid”, or “transgender”, we really haven’t settled (as a community) on what exactly one is referring to with terms like “sex” and “gender”! (Here’s a hint, it’s a WHOLE LOT more complicated than “gender is between your ears, and sex is between your legs). At this juncture, I’m even entirely sure I could give succinct definitions (based upon my own beliefs) of what exactly “sex” and “gender” mean to me. (Though that discussion would definitely make an excellent essay for another time). In any case, there are quite literally many dozens of glossaries of sex-and-gender-related terms all over the internet, written by everything from big national groups like The National Center for Transgender Equality and GLAAD, to smaller advocacy sites like TransWhat and TSRoadMap, to individual bloggers like Natalie Reed and Erin Houdini. Not shockingly, even amongst just those six, there’s pretty significant variation as to how the various terms are defined.

“So, TNF,” you might say, “how on earth are you going to talk about terminology and labels without an consensus views on what the terms even mean?” Well, random hypothetical person I made up, I’m going to circumvent that by not trying to assign a universal definition to ANY terminology. After all, I’m really just a random girl on the internet who decided to sit down at her laptop one day and start writing…it’s not really my place to start assigning concrete meaning to terms. Instead, I’m going to talk about the importance (and to some extend the non-importance) of labels, identities and terminology, and how the term I use to describe myself have evolved along with my personal understanding of myself as a person.

So, let me start off by saying what labels and terms SHOULDN’T be. They definitely shouldn’t be rigid boxes that place firm constraints on who and what people are. Once we start putting firm walls up around labels and identities, you’re also certainly going to fuck it up and screw somebody over. Human variation (from height, hair, and eye color to sex and sexual orientation) is impressively gradient. You can trust me on this, I’m a scientist! They also absolutely shouldn’t be used to injure, marginalize, exclude, or oppress others. Once we start projecting our own absolute definitions of various terminology onto others, it’s very easy to slide into “us vs them” types of thinking. After all, once we start drawing circles around who counts as “us,” pretty much everyone else becomes “them.” This sort of behavior seems to become particularly problematic among the least privileged of minorities. Trans people have some pretty heated arguments about who exactly is or isn’t trans, and whether or not someone is “trans enough” (I’ve heard this referred to as the “tranny-er than thou” argument.) I’ve certainly see similar behavior in lesbian circles as well (and even had some of it directed at me). I think it comes having to expend so much energy scratching out a little space in the world that we then feel compelled to defend that tiny space with the ferocity of a polar bear on PCP. Unfortunately, most of the rage is often misdirected at another marginalized group, instead of the actual source of oppression. The end result is a lot of energy spent (pretty much pointless) in-fighting instead of working to actually improve our effing situation. Of course, our individuals thoughts are important in the overall conversation of ideas that evolve (and create) our terminology. But, in grand scheme of things, how we decide a term is defined applies pretty much only to us as individuals.

Instead of “labels” on rigid metaphorical containers, I think it’s much more useful (and healthy) to think of the terminology as a descriptor, as succinct, convenient summaries. That is…instead of committing to our preferred terms as a closely-held identity, we ought to use think of them as “things we use to describe ourselves.” Very few of us think of “brown-haired person” or “blued eyed person” or “average height person” as important, intrinsic personal identities…our terms for our gender, sex, sexual orientation, etc shouldn’t be much different. If metaphors work for you (I love metaphors), instead of thinking of our terminology as something tattooed onto us -indelible, permanent, and unalterable things etched onto us…we should think of them like underwear- important, but only useful while it’s comfortable and easy to change once it starts to bind us up.

There are three big improvements in thinking about terms this way. First, it helps us accept the idea that the descriptor doesn’t have to fit perfectly, that sometimes we’re just hunting for a best-fit descriptor. As an example: when I’m dealing with lots of straight folks who aren’t terribly well acquainted with queer culture, I tend to describe myself as a lesbian. This is far from a perfect descriptor, but “queer and attracted to female-identified and female-leaning people regardless of assigned sex, and evolving somewhere in the poorly defined area between sexual and demisexual” is a mouthful. I actually just prefer the term “queer”, but that just invites irritating questions in that kind of company, and I’m not often looking to give a “Queer 101” lesson in random conversation. So, sometimes, lesbian works just fine. But because I see lesbian (and queer) as a descriptive term instead of a label on a bin, I don’t have any inherent need to give much thought to policing who or who isn’t “really” lesbian or queer.

Secondly, it helps us be more open to evolution, both in our descriptions of ourselves, and our personal understanding of our terminology. After all, if we think of our current preferred term as a clear label with firm boundaries, we’re going to find it a lot harder to change labels, even if our understanding of ourselves has changed. It might even prevent us from seeking a deeper understanding of our identity out of fear of finding that a label we’re heavily invested in no longer applies to us. However, if we view our terms as simply short convenient summaries of our current general position, it becomes much easier to swap out those terms when they’re no longer feeling accurate. And if we’re not committed to an unyielding definition of a particular term, it’s possible that how we look at that term can evolve through experience, research, and conversation. Perhaps a book, an interview, a talk, a personal experience (or a blog post!) presents a new way of looking at the terms we’re currently adopted (or maybe even previously adopted, or maybe even have never adopted but still think about). I think we’re much more likely to allow that experience to change your mind if you’re open the malleability of descriptive terminology.

Finally, it frees us from policing the behavior and identities of ourselves and others. When we’re invested in a rigid identity labels, we become incredibly conscious of any violations of those definitions. We judge and criticize others for not fitting exactly into our notions of what is “transsexual”, “transgender”, “queer”, or even “female”. Even worse, we restrict our behavior to fit within that box, to become someone we might not really be for the sake for fitting neatly into the square we (or others) have drawn. I find that notion particularly tragic for trans folks, as we’ve often literally risked everything- including our lives- to live genuinely, only to cram ourselves into yet another imperfect box. Letting go of that rigid commitment frees us to accept the broad variation in others, to be less concerned about how other behave- and most importantly- to just be our damn selves without compromise or contrition.

Like so many other trans people, I spent many years meandering amongst different labels and descriptive terms for myself, and oscillating between accepting and rejecting the idea of giving a label at all. I don’t think I even knew what a transsexual was until I got access to the Internet when i was 16 (I’m in my 30s, okay?). Even then, I rejected that label for myself. (Back then, internet information about “how to know if you are transsexual” was pretty awful). I think my first identity description was something vaguely mumbled about “being kinda like a girl who looks like a boy” when I came out a girlfriend at 20. I tried on a lot of different labels in my early explorations of my gender identity, including “pangender”, “third gender”, and (in a few moments of real self-hate) “cisgender pervert who is making this all up”. I proudly wore the term “genderqueer” for a few years, mostly because I was flatly refusing to consider anything else because I was convinced I’d be a very ugly monster of a girl if I transitioned. It certainly sounded better than “male assigned at birth who knows she’s really a girl but is fucking terrified of transition so she’s currently elected not to pursue it.” The first time I went out in public presenting as female pretty much tossed all of that in the trash, and I began to refer to myself as transgender pretty quickly there after. (I find this kinda funny to reflect on, because I definitely have pictures from those early days, and OH GODS am I embarrassed of how I looked!). I was on the road to physical transition a year or so later.

Through all of transition, I was pretty adamant about my preference for the term “transgender”, and my rejection of term “transsexual”. Years of exposure to stereotypes and horrible media cliche had soured me on the word “transsexual.” It sounded lurid, provocative, almost pornographic to my ears. It reminded me of the generally pretty disgusting portrayals of trans people in pornography. It felt like a reminder of all the ways people misinterpret the reasons for transition as being based upon prurient desire and deviant sexual behavior. I felt like using it to describe myself to other would immediate put in THEIR minds all of those awful media stereotypes pushed into the public mind by the likes of Jerry Springer. In essence, I felt like the rest of the world had sullied the word transsexual to a degree where it was unsalvageable. I knew pretty early on that large number other people viewed the term “transgender” as an umbrella for all people of non-cis gender identities, but I put those out of my mind. I had little arguments here and there about how I felt that “transgender” shouldn’t be an umbrella term, how it should be reserved for those who at least socially transition, and that we should adopt something like “genderqueer” as a blanket term for non-cisgender people. I even admitted, first to myself and then to others, that I pretty well fit the “classic” notion of a what a transsexual person is. So, I stuck firmly to “transgender” and “trans” as my descriptors.

And then, while writing a different (as yet unpublished) piece about the politics of gender labels, I came across this brilliant blog post from Julia Serano. I’ll admit, Julia’s the sort of writing I’m predisposed to be being influenced by, and her book “Whipping Girl” had been fundamental to my coming to understand myself as a trans woman. What I wasn’t expecting, however, was to suddenly and succinctly have my views on the word “transsexual” turned completely on their head. She writes:

    “A final objection to the word “transsexual” has to do with the presence of the word “sex” within it. There is a popular misconception that trans people transition for sexual reasons (e.g., to prey on innocent straight folks, to fulfill some bizarre sexual fantasy, etc.), and many trans folks seem to fear that the word transsexual (because of the word “sex”) enables those assumptions. One can see the de-sexualization of transsexuality in the growing use of the phrase “gender confirmation surgery” to replace “sex reassignment surgery.” I think it also plays a role in why many physically-transitioned folks prefer transgender to transsexual. It’s as if the words “gender/transgender” simply sound more polite and respectable than the words “sex/transsexual.””

Immediately after reading that, I kinda felt like I had been kicked in the head; I was reeling. She had hit on pretty much exactly the sorts of feels I had about term. (She also takes down a number of other objections I had in other parts of the article…you really should go read it). It’s one thing to read something that helps you evolve your understanding of topic…it’s quite another to suddenly have that understanding completely called into question. She continues:

    “While many trans people use “gender” as shorthand for gender identity, in these other areas the word is more commonly used to refer to gender expression or roles (i.e., masculinity, femininity, androgyny). This confusion leads many people to presume that transsexuals transition in order to become gender-conforming or because we uncritically want to perpetuate sexist gender roles, and so on. This is not the case, at least not for me and most transsexuals I’ve spoken with. I experimented with and expressed my femininity plenty when I was male-bodied. For me, transitioning was first and foremost about my physical sex, not gender expression. Being male-bodied felt wrong to me and being female-bodied feels right.” [emphasis mine]

Well, fuck me. Game, set, match for Julia on this one. Dumbfounded is a pretty accurate description of how I felt afterwards…how had I completely missed such a simple idea until now? It honestly took me a few days to process this new set of thoughts…to roll it around in my brain and see if how well I could deal with the sudden shift in view…to see if it really stuck. And, despite feeling a little dizzy from the metaphorical head blow, it really did stick with me. It seems like a such a small bit of insight, but it dramatically altered my views of a word that I previously harboured downright revulsion towards. (There’s the importance of evolution I talked about earlier.)  So, while I’m still not 100% comfortable with the “baggage” that comes along with calling myself transsexual, I’m marching forward with it anyway. I’m “taking it back” as the kids say.
I’m a transsexual woman, and I’m proud to say so.

09
Jan
14

5 Things You Should Stop Doing To Your Post-Transition Trans Friends, or “Some things your trans friends might be too polite to ask you to stop doing.”

So, here I am falling into another terrible blogger cliche, and using the age-old internet crutch: the list article. There are all kinds of wonderful lists about things you shouldn’t say to trans people. Like this one from Matt Kailey at Tranifesto, and this one from Justin Cascio at One in Six Trans Men. But those are general, all purpose, “these are the things that make you look like a total asshole” lists…this is an area that I don’t think has been covered very much. While the medical part of transition can go on for years and years (depending on hormones, surgical choices, etc), there comes a point relatively quickly where the rest of transition is essentially complete. For me, that point really hit when my name change occurred. I was already living full-time at that point, and it really marked the point where the bulk of the “journey” portion of transition was over. When that point hits, it’s time to think about how you approach certain conversational topics with your trans friend(s), as the reality of the situation is often rather different than it as a few months (or a year or two) before.For those of you who have been awesome enough to stick by a trans friend through transition, or who met a new friend during an early stage of transition, the evolution of conversation can be difficult once they reach what I tend to call “post-transition”. Sometimes things that really were supportive and helpful early on start to feel a little overwrought or repetitive as time goes on.  So, with that in mind, here are 5 things you should definitely stop doing to your post-transition trans friends:

1. Stop introducing them as, or referring to them as your “trans*” friend. I know…when it’s early in transition, and we’re either not feeling terribly confident about our appearance or having difficulty “blending in”, it can feel necessary to give people a heads-up to avoid potential awkwardness. It’s still not exactly a great thing to do to even then, but I’ll give it a bit of a pass. But seriously, let go once things are settled down! I know it can feel like you’re embracing their identity and demonstrating your support by talking about (or introducing) them as your “totally awesome trans* friend,” but it’s kinda like introducing someone as your “totally awesome circumcised friend.” You’re sharing private information about our genitals to a stranger.  Not everyone in the world needs to know that we’re trans, and it really should be our decision when and how we disclose it.

2. Stop asking about “how things are going with the whole [transition/hormone/etc] thing” every time you see us. Again, this is one of those things that I know you probably feel is being really supportive. But we reach a point where we get tired of talking about transition-related stuff every time we see friends. It starts to feel like it’s biggest thing our friends see about us (which I’m sure it actually isn’t, but still). Once someone is living full-time and on hormones, there’s usually not a ton of day-to-day (or even month-to- month) news. Do you really want to hear “well, I think my breasts grew like a millimeter or two, and I have like 3% less body hair” every time we talk?

3. Stop telling us how brave you think we are for transitioning every time you see us. Honestly, it’d be nice if people would give this up after the initial “coming out” conversation. Once again, I KNOW this meant to convey support, but I’ll be perfectly honest…I don’t generally think of myself as brave. I think of myself as doing what I had to do to survive, and I’ve had other trans people echo this sentiment. I understand that from the outside, you might see it as a very brave act. I think it’s a perfectly fine (and often encouraging) sentiment to express right after someone comes out. But when it happens half a dozen (or more) times, it starts to feel like (for me at least) like I’m battling something like cancer. In any case, it’s definitely not something you need to declare every time you see us.

4. Stop commenting about “how far we’ve come along.” And definitely stop giving them a serious appraising look every time you see them. This is especially the case if you’re saying things like “Gosh, you look just like a real girl!” I know that personally, this makes me feel like I’m being examined and scrutinized, which is absolutely panic-inducing. Plus, it has a subtle hint to it that you previously thought they looked badly (or at least worse than they do now). It’s much better to let us point out the changes we’re excited about (if there are any) than to suggest that you were examining them looking for the changes that might have occurred.

5. Stop asking us what the “next step” is in our transition. This is one of those things that I think people say in order to demonstrate that they’re interested in this big thing going on in our lives. But for a lot of us, once the metaphorical dust has settled (i.e. we’re living full-time, our names are changed, etc), it’s just kind of…life. We might not be taking any more “steps” at all, or any other steps might be a long way off. In either case, it can make us feel a bit like “crikey, isn’t this enough?”. The early stages of social and medical transition are a whirlwind of change and process, and once we get through, we’re often burned out on thinking/talking about the process itself. Again, let US broach this subject if there is, indeed, a next step coming up for us.

So you’re saying “Shit, I’m so used to talking about the gender/transition stuff…now what do I talk about?” If you have a brain fart about what else to say/do in place of the above, try one of the following:

1. Tell them they look amazing (without qualifiers). By this I mean not “You look amazing for someone born a man!” or “You look so good for a trans woman!” and so on. Just give a sincere, unqualified compliment (i.e. “Wow, you look fantastic!” or “Gosh, your hair is gorgeous!”). It’s a nice little boost to our confidence without reminders that you’re thinking about our gender identity.

2. Ask them about something new or exciting in their lives not related to transition. Did your friend start a new job recently? Meet a new partner? Get a new cat? Finish a degree? Take a Hawaiian vacation? Take up the art of blind-folded flower arranging? They’re your friend, so hopefully you know about SOMETHING in their lives other than the fact that they’ve been going through transition. Everyone loves the chance to gush about the new thing they’re excited about, and it’s a reminder that you see them as a whole person.

3. Give them a genuine, unhesitating gesture of affection. Hugs are good, if you’re the hugging sort. Gentle shoulder touch, friendly punch-in-the-arm, air kisses, or intricate secret-society handshake are also options if they’re the sort of thing you and your friend are comfortable with. I definitely don’t advocate UNWANTED affection of any kind (seriously, they’re your friend…you should know what kinds of friendly affection they find acceptable/unacceptable). The genuine, unhesitating part is important! Even the best, most accepting of allies/friends can get a little weird/uncomfortable about how physical interactions with their trans friends work post-transition, and we can definitely sense that hesitation (or at least I can). Unhesitating affection signals a degree of acceptance that isn’t always easy to express through words.

Final note: This is not the sort of list that is meant to AT ALL belittle or insult the allies of trans people, so please don’t take it the wrong way and send me hate mail. Allies deserve a bajillion thank-yous for standing by us, and there’s zero implication here that doing any of these five things makes you a bad person…it’s just an opportunity to point out some things that can help make better allies (and friends).




A blog about nerdy things, feminist thoughts, and queer/trans life. It's full of rants, opinions, and personal stories. I don't claim to speak for absolutely anyone but myself. Read at your own risk.

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