Archive for May, 2012

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Humour and Transmisogyny (a Caitlin on post)

23 May, 2012

Getting out of bed this morning and stretching my kinked back [the joys of sofa beds] sent a run of cracks and pops up my spine and into my brain where they dislodged an old joke the boys told in high school:

Why do women yawn in the morning?

They don’t have any balls to scratch!

I grimaced remembering this joke and not because after hearing it for the first time I made sure to yawn in the mornings. Rather, I recoiled from realising how problematic jokes like this are and how representative they are of American culture. This joke is both cissexist and transmisogynistic and it disturbs me how early on our culture indoctrinates children.

Cissexism

The joke promotes trans erasure by assuming all women have vaginas and all men have penises. By validating this limited understanding of gender it disregards the existence and experiences of thousands of trans* people. It is true that some trans* individuals undergo sex reassignment surgery (SRS) but this is not the majority of us. Most trans* individuals either cannot afford or do not want SRS (non-op trans*). These identities are often erased (read: invalidated and ignored) by the cis public because they are not binary normative. The “official” trans* life story is recognise who they are by age five, live in fear and isolation until their mid-forties, have a mid-life crisis, and “mutilate” genitals. Cis people like this version because it affirms the binary, makes for delicious gossip, and can be used to invalidate trans* identity (“You aren’t a real woman/man. Just look at everything you had to do to become one.”) The cost of these surgeries, however, is enormous; a trans* person is looking at $17,000 dollars or more depending on whether you are just looking for the plumbing or if you want the electricity to work too. If the price tag alone is not prohibitive, and for most it is, add these facts in: there are only a handful of surgeons qualified and willing to perform these surgeries and almost no insurance provider will cover them.

The trans* individual is left to pay for this surgery on their own. A hard enough task for anyone, but made all the more difficult by the additional road blocks society puts in front of trans* people, with psychological and employment discrimination being the worst. Trans* psychology is considered deviant and trans* people are required to go through years of expensive psychotherapy before they can even be considered a candidate for HRT and SRS. Also, trans* people (particularly trans women and of them most particularly trans women of colour) face legal employment discrimination in all but seven states. Not only is it okay to not hire someone because of their trans* status, but employers can also fire them if they come out as trans* while in the company’s employ. Many educated trans* people have menial jobs or are forced into sex work because no other industry will hire them (again particularly true for trans women of colour). Of the trans women who are not outright fired, the majority of them take a pay cut which drops their salaries to below what the average woman of colour makes, on the grounds the employer is just honouring the person’s gender “choice.” So, how do you save up for the surgery if you do not have enough to pay rent without roommates?

In this regard trans men have it a bit easier than trans women. Note I said a bit this is not a dismissal of the prejudice and difficulties trans men experience, but it is easier for trans men to be read as their gender than trans women. Because of this and because of the more dramatic secondary sex characteristics trans men gain from hormone replacement therapy (HRT) they do not spend as much on transitioning as trans women do and can save money for surgery faster. [It is important to add at this juncture that not all trans* individuals chose to go on HRT. It is a personal decision and some do not feel it is a necessary step in their journey.] Many, if not most, trans* women require a number of additional procedures to be consistently read as female and to increase their safety while in public. These procedures are not cheap. The primary one is electrolysis. Electrolysis averages at $100 an hour and by the time I have completed this treatment I will have logged three hundred (300) hours under the electrified tweezers. In total, it will cost me $30,000 to have the hair burned off my face. Other procedures that a trans woman might need are facial feminisation surgery (FFS), trachea shave, breast implants (for those whose breast growth is not significantly affected by the HRT), and wigs/hair plugs/forehead reduction. It is possible for her to have to spend over $100,000 on procedures all before considering saving for SRS. Further, the more of these procedures she needs the easier it is to out her and for employers to discriminate against her.

When examined from a trans* perspective it is easy to see why any suggestion that all women have vaginas and all men have penises comes across as offensive and invalidating.

Transmisogyny

On another level, this joke is damning toward trans women. It is an example of transmisogyny. Misogyny is, basic Psych 101, a hatred or extreme prejudice against women; transmisogyny is the intersection of transphobia and misogyny experienced by trans women and is often linked with effemimania [cf. Julia Serano, Whipping Girl] Examples of transmisogyny are constantly in the news and it is the driving force behind the beatings and murders of trans women. CoCo Williams, Paige Clay, and Brandi Williams were all murdered in a three-week period of April 2012. CeCe McDonald is being held for trial after she defend herself against a savage beating that lacerated her face, for which she was denied appropriate and timely medical services by the Hennipen County Police, all because she is a trans woman of colour.

This joke is transmisogynistic because of its use of oppositional sexism, traditional sexism, and the implication that women with male bodied characteristics are not women. Oppositional sexism is defined by Serano as, “the belief that female and male are rigid, mutually exclusive categories.” If one is male there can be no feminine qualities associated with him and if one is female there can be no masculine qualities associated with her. Serano defines traditional sexism as, “the belief that maleness and masculinity are superior to femaleness and femininity.” In other words, men are naturally superior to women by the very nature of being male. The punchline of the joke is rooted in oppositional sexism: men have penises and women do not. [As explained in the section above this is not always the case.] The traditional sexism is inherent in the telling of the joke, men are superior to women in that they have a penises.

The punchline is mired in the oppositional idea that to be male is to possess and to be female is to lack; in other words, men are complete human beings and women are incomplete or inferior human beings. Genitals are often what this type of thinking comes down to. This type of logic is also used to define superior men over and against lesser men. The larger the dangly bit between his legs are the more masculine he is, the smaller the less masculine and less deserving of respect. Now, consider how the smaller male is not considered feminine but as lacking appropriate levels of masculinity, which means to possess a penis of any size is an immediate invalidation of all other feminine characteristics and is an erasure of trans feminine identity. The reverse, however, is not held true. The absence of a penis does not negate masculine qualities in women and trans men. Instead they are said to have a honourary set.” This bestowed on them due to emotional or secondary sex characteristics that are perceived as masculine and they trump the perceived female characteristic of a vagina. The sexism in this is loaded into our use of language. To “have balls” is a positive thing, a sign of courage and strength, whereas to be a “pussy” is a character flaw indicating weakness and over emotionality. Feminists have made combating this attitude, that male characteristics are superior and invalidate inferior female identity, a priority in the feminist movement.

The attitude is so ingrained in our culture that women will often use it against other women. If a woman shows an aptitude in sports, interest in sex, or enjoyment of gaming and comic books she is expressing stereotypically male behaviour and other women will use it as a justification to erase her identity as a “real” woman. This attitude has been taken to the extreme by radical feminists as a means of invalidating trans women’s identities. “Women born women living as women” is used to deny trans women access to appropriate medical care and female only spaces. If you allow a trans woman into a women’s shelter the theoretical presence of a penis is enough to potentially trigger a “real” woman’s fear of men. Despite the fact trans women are more likely to be beaten simply for being women and their cases are often ignored by the police is not enough to overcome the stigma of having male bodied genitalia. Trans women are often denied access to female restrooms and changing rooms because the theoretical presence of a penis means they will rape the first “real” woman they see. And the theoretical presence of a penis is used as an argument for the barring of trans women from events such as the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival and RadFem 2012. By denying trans women access to these conferences they invalidate trans* identity and create an echo chamber in which only their biased thinking is expressed, amplifying itself in the absence of opposing viewpoints.

These attitudes, cissexism, transmisogyny, trans* erasure, and oppositional and traditional sexism, are so accepted in our culture that young men can tell jokes rooted in them and no one thinks a thing wrong with it. Until we begin a process of re-educating our youth to identify these thought patterns and disrupt them we will never see a culture where all women, trans* and cis, are accord equal status with men.

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My Dysphoric Life (a Caitlin on post)

20 May, 2012

Close your eyes for a moment and allow your mind to picture yourself. Go ahead; I’ll wait.

The image you see is not a memory. Nor is it an idealised version of yourself. The image is a mental understanding of your corporeality. It is a template that helps your mind interact with the physical world without having to visually monitor your actions. It can be thought of as a mental “you are here” map, that allows one to navigate their vessel of blood and bone through the rather hazardous environment we live in. This internal body template is what allows us to crack an egg without splattering it all over the counter, to pull our foot back when we step on a tack without toppling over, and to experience the physical and emotional sensations associated with sex. It is a rather nifty little trick, when it works, but what happens when it doesn’t work? What if there is a disconnect between the corporeality and the mind?

That’s when things get messy.

Imagine Lisa, an average woman with an accurate internal image. Granted, it is locked-in at twenty-five and she is pushing forty, but other than some grey hairs and a pound or two the image is as accurate as human beings can get. Until there is an accident at work and she loses her left hand at the wrist. Now there is a dramatic contrast between her corporeality and her internal image. The doctors call this phantom limb sensation. The hand is missing but the mind does not recognise its absence. The truth is her left hand is gone. The truth is her left hand is still there. The truth of its physical absence does not alter the truth of the impulses traveling between the brain and where the hand was. She will still unconsciously reach out for something, she will still shield her face or try to catch herself  with it when she stumbles, and the brain will still receive sensations from it (usually pain, tingling, or pressure). Lisa is experiencing bodily dysphoria.

Imagine Geoffrey, a twenty-three year old graduate student working an IT internship for a local law firm. On the weekends he likes to compete in body building and strongman competitions. His corporeality is a toned, muscular, five-eleven, one hundred eighty-three pound man. His internal image is locked-in at the one hundred and two pound, lightweight, weakling he was at eighteen. When he looks in the mirror he does not see the strength and redoubles his efforts at the gym. He gives up his social life and his internship to pursue more bulk, he just isn’t big enough. He pursues this goal not to get to something, but to escape something. To escape an internalised image of himself, but no amount of weight lifting will change that image. Geoffrey is experiencing bodily dysphoria.

I have always known I was female. It was not until I was four and starting kindergarten that this knowledge clashed with anything external, when I was wrongly placed in with the boys every time we divided up on gender lines. I went home and asked my parents how people could tell the difference between girls and boys and I received the standard answer regarding girl parts and boy parts. I was, also, informed that I was boy. This news crushed me. I knew I was a girl, but everyone around me believed the opposite. It was confusing and I did what every kid does with the things that make no sense: I ignored it. After all, at this point there really was no noticeable difference for me between girls and boys except hair length and clothes. I had red pants, which I knew was a girl’s colour, and foppish hair, so eventually everyone would realise their mistake and we would all move on. I continued to play house and Care Bears and Thundercats and whatever else was popular with the kids and waited for everyone else to come to their senses. An effective tactic, until I hit puberty and all the girls developed breasts and curves. All of them except me, that is. I got facial hair and a deepening voice. While the other girls were complimented on their slenderness and softness, I was made fun of for being scrawny and weak. My parents, concerned about my lack of weight and muscle, started giving me protein shakes with my meals. In less than a year, I went from a happy girl to a confused teenager who couldn’t look in the mirror or have her picture taken without having an anxiety attack. I had pulled the lever on the dysphoria bandit and it came up all sevens.

Pause a moment to consider something. In the first two cases this disconnect between mind and body is labeled bodily dysphoria. This is, also, how it is labeled in other situations (e.g. paraplegia, anorexia), but in my case it is labeled gender dysphoria. The reason? In the other cases the alternative image, the mental image, is considered viable. It is viable to be mobile, to have all your limbs, to be built like The Rock, and to be Kate Moss thin. In my case, the mental image is not considered viable. To be a gender other than the one you were designated at birth is not an option. This labeling says far more about psychiatric opinion of the trans* experience than it does about the dysphoria. Something to ponder.

During puberty, and every day afterward, I felt betrayed by my body. I hated how I looked, I hated my anatomy, I hated whatever cosmic joker had given a girl and male body. I could not look in the mirror without feeling despondent and as the changes progressed I slipped into depression. I could not tell anyone about this because I would be labeled a freak. I figured the news would kill, literally kill, my parents and my brother would be shamed and mocked because he was related to me. So my mind did the only thing it could do to protect itself: disassociate itself from my body. When I looked in the mirror it was like I was looking at a different person. Someone whose body I had to take care of until they returned with mine. As a result, physical sensation meant very little to me. Instead I received my emotional connection through words and ideas. I also became a fantasy and science fiction junkie. I would become absorbed in the stories, identifying with the female characters. It allowed me a vicarious physicality without having to associate myself with my traitorous body. I also invented stories of my own. In my stories there was always someone who was designated male at birth (DMAB) who would through magic, technology, or coercion be physically transformed to female.

Once I hit senior high school fantasy was no longer a viable escape for me. My peers had discovered sexuality and were pairing off with each other or getting off to thoughts of the other. I could not because it involved a connection to the body that I did not have. Also, dating would have been awkward. I was not interested in girls romantically. If I thought they were beautiful it was usually accompanied with a jealous longing to look like them. Neither was I interested in boys because that would have made me (according to how everyone perceived my sex) homosexual and I certainly was not gay. God forbid, I would have been royally screwed up then, a girl in a boy’s body was bad enough but to make it gay also?  So I made my first transition. Not physically, but mentally. I went from fantasising or longing for a body that matched to the first steps in making that body match. At this point I was discovering the transformative power of clothing and accessories. I purchased or asked for rings and necklaces that could be read androgynously things that would blend but still empower my femininity. This was satisfying for a while but the need to transform grew. That was when I discovered theatre. As someone involved in theatre it was okay for me to be a little off, or a touch eccentric. It gave me the opportunity to be someone else, anyone else. Even an hour and half as another person was relief. And then there was the wardrobe room. I did not need a closet that doubled as a gateway to Narnia, I just needed this one wall length closet stuffed with skirts, blouses, and accessories. I snuck in there every chance I got. At first I had to create reasons to borrow my English instructor’s keys long enough to quick unlock and prop the door or to concoct a story legitimate sounding enough to get one of the janitors to open it. I worried about this becoming suspicious and with a little patience and practice I learned how to jimmy both the theatre and wardrobe room doors. Here I could be myself, I could transform, and everything seemed to be in alignment. I would invent reasons to stay after school or tell the director I was working on sets so I could get time alone in theatre. It was my only escape from the dysphoria and without it I would not have lived to graduate.

The trouble with dysphoria is it is a hungry condition. Like Audrey II it demands to be feed and each feeding makes it a little stronger and a little bigger. But its more vile than the plant from outer space because unlike Audrey II, starving dysphoria makes it even stronger. When I reached college  it was no longer enough to see my body looking like my minds image. I needed recognition of who I was. Not the whole world, but at least one person. I dated a few girls but that never worked because they were looking for a boyfriend and I was looking to be like them. I dated a few boys but, again, they were looking for a boyfriend and I wanted to be their girlfriend. And as far as sex went, forget it! I didn’t want anyone anywhere near my genitals. There was only one girl who ever came close to having sex with me and that was because she was very tomboyish, and I still had to shower immediately after. So I did the only thing I could think of, I grew my hair, hung out primarily with other girls, and hoped I would experience gender by proxy. Every time someone “misgendered” me I thrilled.

As college came to a close, even this was not enough to ease the dysphoria. I had immersed myself in fantasy, I had transformed for myself, and I had sought recognition from others; it was time to get scientific about battling my dysphoria. My first year of college was also the year the internet entered commercialisation. So by the end of college I had enough of a grasp on how to use the internet that I could start looking for answers. Mostly what I found was “she-male” and “tranny” porn. I found the images a bizarre mix of repulsive and triggering. I wanted nothing to do with it and at the same time there was an idolising of these women brave enough to become who they were. Beyond the porn, and internet without safety filters is loaded with porn, I found a few sites that provided answers and suggestions. I learned the term transsexual, I discovered there were operations and hormone therapy available for a price (astronomical). In the year after college and my first two years of graduate school I feel victim to every charlatan and snake oil scheme the internet had to offer. I tried diets, exercises, lotions, pills, anything that would ease the constant feelings of anxiety and depression associated with the dysphoria. Nothing worked for more than a month. Finally, my dysphoria hit critical mass and I attempted to transition.

It was a failure. People were bigoted and judgmental. Basically, they assumed I had lost my mind. And somehow, I knew without even really considering it, that bringing all this home to my parents was not an option. So I stuffed it all back down but those few months were enough to drop the dysphoria back to manageable levels and I kept it there by incorporating small touches of feminine clothing into my wardrobe (a shirt or pair of shorts) and jewelry. On its own this would not have held the dysphoria in check for long, but I was also introduced to the woman I fell in love with and married. For her I could hold the dysphoria in check. For awhile I even thought I had been cured, as Boylan says in her memoirs “cured by love.” But our marriage had other problems, big ones, and we started seeing a marital therapist even before we were officially married. The diagnosis he gave me was that I was not masculine enough. That I, literally, needed to man-up if I wanted my marriage to survive. So I did. I threw myself into the men’s movement. I read books like Iron John and Wild at Heart; I attended a men’s retreat and had men’s breakfast every Saturday. I was going to ignore my internal knowledge, I was going to conquer my dysphoria, and I was going to save my marriage. Instead I became withdrawn, disassociated from my body and interactions with others, and my already dysphoricly enhanced temper Hulked out every time my presentation of masculinity was questioned or threatened. I was miserable. I started self-medicating with phytoestrogens purchased over the internet and shipped from Thailand. In my alone time, which I had a lot of, I dressed and experimented with make-up and nail polish. I did whatever I had to ease the dysphoria so it would not destroy a marriage that was already on rough ground. And then everything went splat.

I was at home, in a dress, trying to ease the dysphoria before my wife came home so that we could have a nice hour together before we went to bed. I had started taking photographs as a way of getting the recognition I craved. I never did anything with the photos I just snapped them with my digital camera and stored them in an encrypted file on my computer. The photographs downloaded and camera equipment put away, I had just settled onto the couch to relax for half an hour when the door opened. My wife had come home early. She saw me. My whole sense of self splattered across us and our marriage. The decent into divorce escalated.

A year-plus later and I am rebuilding my life. This time, I am ignoring what everyone else thinks I am and I am rebuilding it as me. I am female. I always have been, despite how my body was designated. The dysphoria I feel is still present. I still have days where I cannot look in the mirror without crying and there are still aspects of my body I regard with disgust. Due to years of testosterone damage and some abusive mistreatment of my body I will never be free of the dysphoria. But with each change I make it eases, just a little. I’m happier now than I have ever been. I hope that each year sees this happiness grow. If you are privileged with never experiencing dysphoria you are lucky person and I envy you. You are beautiful beyond what you will ever realise. And all I ask of you is that you accept who I am in my search for my beauty and that you are patient when I refuse to believe your reassurances that I am.

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The Truth is, You Did: Trans Reflections

4 May, 2012

From an e-mail dated 23 April, 2012:

. . . [T]his isn’t easy for me, you being a transgendered [person.] You understand that, right? Well, it’s even harder when you disappear for days or even a week or you post a bunch of transgendered stuff. You pretty much killed the person I knew, which makes you hard to like. . . . How can I get over it if you are not around?

His e-mail continued that train of thought for another four paragraphs, but that passage encapsulates the essence of his complaints, i.e. I have periods where I isolate myself from others. [I refuse to address the idea that I murdered my former.]

My first instinct was to trash the letter. The sender was brash with his statements. I had not heard from him in four months, and that was only after I initiated the conversation. I could have made similar complaints about him and his inability to deal with change. I set the letter aside for several days before working up the nerve to re-read and respond to it. Was there truth in his accusations? I didn’t want to think so, but we never want to confront our shadow-selves. I needed to sift the letter several times to find any truth, but it was there. A trembling, shadowy part of me making herself small and unnoticed in the corner.

From my response dated 27 April, 2012:

I do have a tendency to drop off the radar, but I do not do it to hurt you. When I disappear I’m trying to avoid hurting you. There are things in our shared history that occasionally make it difficult to be around you and sometimes the only way to deal with it is to isolate myself for a time. It’s easier than dredging up things you probably don’t remember.

There are things that were said and done by friends and family during my time pretending to be a normal, cis male that still trouble me, but how can I discuss them without making the other person feel bad or learning things about them I do not want to know? In my guise, people felt free to say and do things around me they would not have said or done had they realised they were in the presence of a transsexual. Sometimes it was in small ways like rude remarks or poking fun at people who appeared trans* or non-binary. Sometimes it was in large ways like a Halloween evening in Duluth when a transsexual woman came into Fitger’s by herself and the three people I was with made fun of her, commented on how ugly she was, and continuously referred to her as him. And sometimes it was in huge ways like when people I knew would talk about “queer bashing” and “smear the queer,” occasionally going so far as to invite me along.

From his e-mail dated 29 April, 2012:

If I did something to hurt you, just tell me.

The majority of these things have been forgotten by the other people, but I remember each of them. They helped build the wall I hid behind and they reinforced my decision to stay closeted. Being out and gaining a modicum of respect for my identity does not erase these memories. There are times I look at people and all I see is their privilege and their ignorant or bigoted past. I remember the things they have said and done and wonder if they still feel that way and are just hiding it the way I hid myself. How do you tell someone something they said to you fifteen years earlier has left you scarred and suspicious?

From my response dated 1 May, 2012:

Several years ago, while we were out eating, you pointed out a person you described as “faggoty” and suggested an “ass whopping” was the cure. You probably wouldn’t have said that had you known who I am, but you revealed something about yourself that bothers me. I felt like you were threatening me as much as you were threatening the other person.

That is the reason I disappear at times. Every time someone I care about said or did something bigoted it was also directed at me. Unintentionally? Certainly they would not have shown that side of themselves if they had really known me, but that does not make it less intentional. They revealed a prejudice and by invalidating one trans* person’s identity they invalidate every trans* person’s identity.

I know people change. Fear and bigotry can be overcome with education and interaction. I try not to let what people have said or done in the past taint who they are now, but there are times it threatens to. So, I hide myself away from people until their old prejudices fade into the background and I can interact with them without forming new prejudices of my own. It is not an ideal way to handle problems but it works.

Usually.

From his e-mail dated 5 May, 2012:

I wouldn’t have beat YOU up.

The truth is, you did.