Posts Tagged ‘Gender identity’

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An Open Letter to Faith Leaders As We Approach TDoR

15 November, 2017

Dear Friends and Leaders,

 
Monday, 20 November, 2017 is the Transgender Day of Remembrance. Every 20th of November services are held to remember and make visible the known transgender people who have died due to anti-transgender violence. Black and brown transgender women make up the majority of these victims. This year continues the trend of seeing more transgender people killed than the previous year, yet these attacks and the Transgender Day of Remembrance receive very little acknowledgement outside of LGBTQ circles. The vast majority of Americans are unaware that on this day, every year, a day of mourning happens to honor the people lost solely because of their gender identity. This year, we mourn over two dozen Americans.

 
In light of this being Transgender Awareness Week and the week ending in the memorial service for those who have been lost, I encourage my pastors, my friends who are faith leaders, and all faith leaders to specifically mention the Transgender Day of Remembrance in their services and in their public prayers. Pray for and act on behalf of the victims of anti-transgender hate crimes. Pray for and act on behalf of victims and survivors, their friends, their families (chosen and biological), and their community.

 
Today, I present myself to you as a voice crying from the wilderness. A wilderness of fear, anguish, and suffering. A wilderness so dark that it cannot even be said to be ignored or rejected, but lost. I am the Samaritan woman begging for your children’s fallen scraps; for even your pets receive the blessing of Saint Francis once a year. I am the bleeding woman reaching out in hope of a miracle; I am extending my hand to you in faith that you will act to stem this bloodshed. I am the woman with the crooked back, bent over and hobbled, having seen nothing but dirt for decades; I stand before you now and hope you will lift our faces that we might see you and be seen by you.

 
I understand that the choice to do this comes with risk. There will be those who will be surprised or confused by what you say. Still more, there will be those who reject and actively resist what you say. I know that you have a position and a responsibility to your congregants and your superiors. You are expected to adhere to the dogma you were empowered under. I appreciate the gravity of what I am asking and I am asking it all the same. For God wants justice to follow down like mighty waters and that is powerful imagery. Mighty waters are overwhelming and not a little chaotic. They rip apart established structures and consume them. Mighty waters are not gentle, they do not only come if you are ready, and they do not ask your permission or acceptance for their flood. Scripture is demanding that justice, true Divine justice, be not concerned with what is political, or expedient, or comfortable.  Scripture demands we be prepared and willing to rip out the old structures and dogma, if it stands between God’s children and God’s justice. Are you willing to unleash those waters and let them wash away the injustices the church has shored and bolstered?

 
According to Matthew, Jesus said, not a sparrow falls from heaven without God seeing it, and how much more are we than sparrows. God sees us. I am asking that you, also, see us. God cares for us. I am asking that you, also, show care for us.

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Trans Girl with a Lesson Plan II

13 May, 2016
Have you ever wondered what it is like to be a trans woman trying to teach in a public high school? If so, read on and learn about my day.
     It started before I got in the building. The principal meet me outside and said that (we’ll call him) “K’s” guardian “isn’t going to let his grade stand. They’re gonna fight this.” I told him, “K has missed 29 days of school and was tardy 42 times on the days he was present. HIs grade is a 48% and he needs a 73% to pass.” The principal said, “I know, and I’ve got you 100%, but they’re gonna fight it.” So, a lovely opening to my day, but that’s not all that will happen.
     Because the seniors are no longer required to come to school, I have been substituting for other teachers. I start the day off with a teacher’s credit recovery class. I’m not in there for thirty seconds when the first of the kids comes in. He takes one look at me and says, “Oh, hell no. I’m not sittin’ in no room with an it.” They walked out and the three students behind him followed suit. In the end, I had one student in the classroom.
     Halfway through this first period, I get called down to the guidance office to talk to a student about his grades. Oh, surprise, it’s K. I explained to him exactly what I told the principal and tell him the choices he made during the school year have lead him to a point of no return. There is no recovery for fourth quarter. He will have to do summer school. Then I’m sent to sub another class.
     Twenty-minutes later I get called in to meet with a different student and his mother. When the mother enters the room she looks at me, winces, and averts her eyes. I’ve seen this before, you can’t be a trans woman and not recoginise this look. She is so disturbed or offended by what she sees when she looks at me that she cannot bring herself to look at me. My HR person had the same reaction when I came out at work; after that he never looked directly at me again. So, we all stand up to shake mom’s hand. I offer my hand and she will not shake it. I’m standing there like a dope with my hand out, as everyone looks at us feeling awkward, but not near as awkward as I felt or even awkward enough to justify not saying something about this situation. She slowly take a deep breath, holds it, loosely places her hand in mine for about two seconds, then wipes it off on her jeans while expelling her held breath so she doesn’t catch whatever disease I have. She avoids looking at me the whole time, even when I was speaking to her directly. Oh, and it is my fault her whole family is coming to see her son not graduate.
     Then it’s K again. We have to call his mom to talk about his grade. It’s a conference call with the principal and vice principal included. Mom doesn’t acknowledge my presence except to ask what work I will give him so he can graduate. I explain everything all over again. She refuses to acknowledge what I have said. I explain about the summer school program. She says, “I hope you won’t be teaching it.” That’s all I get out of her the whole meeting.
     Then it’s back to my room for thirty minutes. Five of which are taken up by K emailing me pleading me to give him some work that will raise his 48 to a 73. The next twenty-five are taken up by a student who was part of the group I sponsored. He spent his time trying to guilt trip, whine, threaten, and cry his way out of the 60% he earned. Mind you, he’s still graduating because he earned 90+ over the required percentage for the year. When that fails he tells me, “I’m disappointed in you You think that you fight for equality but you don’t. If you can’t see I’m a good kid and deserve a better grade then you don’t stand for equality.” I told him the conversation was over and he had to leave. He sat there arguing for ten minutes, refusing to leave the room, despite my asking and telling him to leave no less than seven times. He finally left when I went to page security to the room. He left saying, “I’m gonna pray for you because you need it. God bless you and thank you for the service you rendered.” I locked my door so he couldn’t come back.
     Then I dealt with another email from K. This one tells me he will be homeless if I don’t change his grade and I will have personally ruined his future.
     Now it is fourth period. I have had no lunch and no planning (which is supposed to be third period.) Instead, I go to a science classroom to sub for a ninth grade teacher. It is acknowledged by the administrator that this is a very poorly behaved class. He used the words “out of control,” Why he thought I was a good fit for that is beyond me. It takes ten minutes to get them out of the hall and seated. I have to shut and lock the door because there is a different group of ninth graders in the hall mocking the “man in the dress.” They begin banging on the door. The students ignore me, ignore the instructions, ignore the school rules, and ingnore everything except their phones. Well, all except one student, who we will call “H.” H gets on his FaceTime and begins telling a student at another school that some “he-she is supposed to be watching us.” H then tries to let the students from the hallway into the classroom. I stand in front of the door and block him. He says, “Hey, SIR, I wanna let them in.” I stand there and say nothing. He goes to sit back down saying “He looked like he wants to knock my ass.” I call for the administrator; when he arrives he takes over the class and tells me to write the boy up. I do, but I also realise that nothing will actually be done about it.
     Then it’s back to my room. I answer one more email from K who tells me I should have been telling him everyday that he was failing because the failed papers, failed tests, failed grades in the system, and the failed grades on his progress report weren’t enough to for him to know that he was failing.
     The phone rings. It’s the credit recovery teacher letting me know I’ll be teaching the seniors who failed . . . starting Monday . . . for the next month.
     I turn off the lights, curl into my desk chair, and hide in the dark for the next fifty minutes. Hoping no one else will call or knock before I can leave for the day.
That is what it is like to be a trans woman teaching in the public education system.
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Caitlín

7 April, 2016
On Monday, 1 August, 1977 a baby girl named Caitlín was born to two loving parents. They were told to raise her as a boy. No one understood that she was a girl. Her parents did a good job of raising her and gave her many moments of joy, but that joy was interspersed among gorges of self-hate, fear, and confusion about why God or the Universe would make people think she was a boy. Life was always stressful and there was a weight of pain and responsibility for other people’s happiness and welfare always dragging her below the surface.
Eventually, this all became too much. Her health declined and she came very close to her body just shutting down on her. She decided to save herself and become herself. Her parents still loved her, but she lost almost everything in the process. Much of her family, nearly every friend, her wife, her economic security, her safety leaving the house, and she was ex-communicated from her church. Her job was openly hostile and they put her in as many horrible situations as they could because they could not fire her. She almost broke.
Piece by piece, over many years, she began to rebuild her life. She deepened the few remaining friendship she had, she built new friendships, she eventually found someone who could love her for who she was. Work, however, continued to be a place of violence and abuse that whittled away at her heart, though she developed a few friendships that could provide her with safety when she most needed it. The administration, many staff, many students, and even parents were actively against her and continue to be so. They do their best to hurt her and they are trying to get her removed. Her greatest fear is that they will eventually succeed or that they will finally break her.
I am Caitlín and this is my life.
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Privelege is Also the Privelege to Leave

30 March, 2016

I had another nightmare last night in which the tide of public opinion and policy had so turned against transgender people that I was forced to flee the country to seek refuge, but there was nowhere I could go.

This is something that people who are the “right” gender, the “right” religion, the “right” colour, the “right” orientation, and the “right” ethnicity don’t really understand. If the election or a policy doesn’t go the way they would like, they are not in true immediate danger and, as long as they hold a current, valid passport, they have places they can go. But where would I go? Other countries are also dangerous for me. They pass laws against me, they make it difficult to impossible to get the medical services I need, they have high rates of violence and discriminination against transgender people.

Part of what has made me safe here is the years I have had to build a life and a history that others do not immediately question. Part of what makes me safe here is Whitman-Walker, one of the few transgender health care clinics in the world. Part of what makes me safe here is the relative anonymity allowed to me as someone born and raised in this country.

If I were forced to flee the country, and it would be the result of being forced, I would have to abandon everything that has provided me with a measure of safety. Where could I go? Where could others like and unlike me, who do not fit into the white, cis, heterosexual, Christian mold go? We would be forced to abandon the safety nets that have taken years, decades, to build and to start over as minoritised people without the bits of safety and community that we worked so hard to make for ourselves.

Part of being privileged in America is having the privilege to pack up and leave when things do not go your way. For those of us who struggle and fight for basic human rights like the freedom to worship, the freedom to not be profiled, the freedom to secure basic documentation with ease, the freedom to use public restrooms without violence and threats of arrest, we don’t have that privilege. We cannot just say, “Well it’s time to become an ex-pat” and walk away. For better or worse, we are stuck here and, if priveleged people with a voice and relative power to influence policy and attitudes who can leave chose to leave, then it will be worse for those of us left behind.

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The SRS Question (a Caitlin On … post)

1 September, 2012

I’m standing in the hallway outside my classroom. It’s 7:30 AM and the students are wandering zombies aimlessly shuffling about before first period. Boys are punching one another in their simulated battles for dominance, their “just playin” fights that too often lead to actual fights. Girls are complaining about the people in their lives who are “doin too much.” Couples are clinging to one another—a girl draped across her boyfriend’s arm and shoulder, hallway princesses holding hands, “sweet” boys playing grab-ass with anything that moves. There is no personal space and unwanted attention is chastised with a sharp “Boiii!” or “Whatcha doin, son?” I separate anyone who is getting overly friendly but mostly keep to a policy of non-interference. There is a culture of invasiveness among these children and it’s hierarchy is governed by rules and social patterns that are as foreign to me as deconstructionist literature is to them. I smile. The framework recommends smiling; be in the hallways, greet them with a smile, make them feel welcome and they’ll develop the right attitude toward learning. I don’t believe this, but I don’t have anything better to offer so I go with it. It’s become a habit. I smile all the time now. It has become an ingrained response similar to Dr. Hibbert‘s laugh; it spreads across my face regardless of how appropriate or inappropriate the situation.

While I’m monitoring the hallway, a boy who looks eighteen but is probably fifteen or sixteen stops in front of me. He stares at me and I can almost hear the grinding of his mind’s nefarious machinery. His cocked head and aggressive posture reveals the sinister twist to his thoughts. I smile and brace myself for what is coming.

“Have you, ma’am,” he emphasises the word and let’s it hang in the air a moment, a lot of the students do it as a way of feigning politeness while letting me know they don’t believe what they are saying, “had it, you know?”

Yes. I do know. With his eyes resting on my crotch only the village idiot would miss his meaning, but I smile and play dumb. “I don’t know.”

“Oh, come on, son. You know.”

I stand there cloaked in my smile, my Supergirl cape.

“Have you had it cut off?”

My jaw tightens and I can feel my teeth grinding into one another, but gods be damned if I don’t hold that smile in place. He smiles, too. A wide, moon-faced grin that says he holds power over me and it amuses him to use it.

The eleventh grade administrator stalks down the hallway bellowing, “Let’s go! Clear the hall!”

I stopped telling administration about these incidents because I know they won’t do anything about them. It’s just kids being kids, they say, don’t let it get to you. The boy knows I won’t say anything. So we both stand there, smiling at each other, until the administrator has shuffled farther down, as much a hallway zombie as the students. Then the boy walks off in the opposite direction.

I could answer the boy with a simple yes … or no … or even that’s none of your business. But that isn’t why he is asking the question. It isn’t why anyone asks the question. And it’s a question I am asked on a fairly regular basis. Not always with such blunt rudeness, but always from the same place of entitlement. Whether it is have you had it cut off, did you have the surgery, did SRS hurt, how much does a vagina cost, does it work, or do you still have a dick the SRS question always comes from the asker’s belief that, as a trans woman, the status of my genitals should be public knowledge. And it isn’t just boys or even kids that ask these questions. For those of us who lack “passing privilege” (a problematic term for which there is not a suitable alternative) and those of us open about our trans* status, it is often one of the first questions we are asked by friends, acquaintances, and people introduced to us. And there are only two reasons for asking it: the asker is trying to invalidate our identity or the asker is sexualising us.

When it comes to gender identity, asking the SRS question is always an attempt to invalidate trans* identity. If an asker intended to validate my identity they would look at my presentation, the social cues I give off or, and this is a radical concept, they would just accept my stated identity. After all, that is exactly what we do for everyone we assume to be cis gender. Further, for me to ask invasive questions about the status of a cis gender person’s genitals would be considered adequate grounds for a sexual harassment suit. We don’t ask women presumed to be cis gender if they have a tilted uterus, or men presumed to be cis gender if both their testicles have descended, as our way of validating their identity because it would be insulting. Thus, the need to ask a trans* person if they have had surgery can only come from a place of insult and disregard, because we understand such “curiosity” to be inappropriate in other situations.

Further, the nature of the question prevents the person being asked from replying in a way that will not result in an invalidating of her identity. [Note: I will use her as example because it is my experience and it is a more common experience for trans women than it is for trans men; as our society makes penises the standard, even cis women are defined by our culture as human beings who do not have a penis versus human beings who have a vagina] If she answers that she has not had SRS, her gender identity is immediately forfeit because, in the game of male, female, neuter, the presence of a penis trumps everything. If she responds that she has undergone SRS, her identity is not validated but becomes the subject of further inquiry and comment. Does it work? How much did it cost? It’s not like you can have babies with it. Do you have phantom penis syndrome? Well, it doesn’t work like a real vagina. Each of these follow-ups is a directed attack with the goal of invalidating her identity. Nor can she decide not to answer the question because her silence becomes an admission that she has not had SRS.

The SRS question is also a sexualising of the trans woman. It takes her out of humanity and reduces her to her parts. The only time a person needs to know if the other person has a vagina or a penis is if there is a mutual decision to have sex. To ask her, do you have a penis, is to tell her that she is good for only one thing: being a receptacle for a penis. Not only is this transmisogynistic, it is also an example of heteronormative bias, traditional sexism, and oppositional sexism. It reveals more about the asker’s biases and motivations than it does about trans* identity.

The argument is often made that when the asker is genuinely interested in having sex with her that the asker is owed an answer. But this argument assumes it is only their interest in having sex that matters. It is narcissistic to reason that because the asker wants to have sex that she, our trans woman, is obliged to be the asker’s sexual object. If she desires a sexual relationship then full disclosure is necessary, however, if she has no interest in sexual relations with the asker, she is under no obligation to answer the question. In the case of the latter to ask her if she has a penis is as inappropriate as asking if she is wearing underwear or if she is menstruating. Society recognises the other two as inappropriate questions and should recognise the first as one, also.

The status of my genitals is no one’s business but my own. If and how I decide to reveal this information is at my discretion. The persistence of the SRS question reveals more about the asker’s personality, their invalidation of my identity, and their tendency to view others as objects for sexual gratification, than it does about who I am and what my journey has been like.

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Gender as Personality; Gender as Cultural Perception

19 June, 2012

I have been wondering for a little while (read: thirty plus years) what gender is, how one becomes gendered,whether gender is a social construct or an aspect of physiology, and how someone who is transgressively gendered can move through and interact with a traditionally (perhaps coercively) gendered world?

Part of the difficulty in addressing these questions and with talking about gender is a lack of common language. I think those who are traditionally gendered do not spend much time contemplating their genderedness. Like having two excellent eyes or ten flexing fingers, being traditionally gendered is taken for granted. When you are not traditionally gendered, however, you spend every moment of every day thinking about gender, not just your gender, but everyone’s.

“I wish I could stop thinking about my gender.”
—TotallyAmelia via Tumblr

I am able to remember a time in my life where I was not concerned with this thing called gender, I was four. The idea of gender had not been introduced to me yet. I simply knew my personality and that was all I needed to know. Honestly, I think that is all any of us needs to know. This raises another batch of questions for me. Why do we not interact with others based on their personalities? We do we feel the need to know a person’s gender? How are we determining their gender? Why do we try so hard to determine the gender of androgynous people or, worse, disbelieve those whose identified gender does not match what we perceive it as?

I have come to see gender not as a letter on a driver’s license or even a word on a birth certificate but as a multifaceted spectrum that incorporates physiological and cultural components. The arguments that it is merely a biological classification or that it is strictly a set of cultural norms fail to capture the complexity of the concept. Let’s be honest, if it were as simple as what parts you are born with or which conventions you follow, would I and so many others like me have spent so much of our lives obsessing over our gender, where it came from, and why it doesn’t seem to align with what society expects?

I think a life or a time looks simple when you leave out the details.”
Ursula K. Le Guin,
The Birthday of the World and Other Stories

Gender is a way of thinking about one’s own personality and the personalities of those one interacts with and it satisfies the cultural need to classify those personalities into tidy little packages. It is a philosophy designed to bring order to our world, but like all philosophies it mutates into rigid dogma in the hands of those attempting to maintain power and those who are afraid of anything outside of their individual experience.

Gender as individual personality is, perhaps, the easiest concept for a transgressively gendered person to understand and the hardest for traditionally gendered people to understand. When your personality runs fairly close to what society expects of you in your role as woman, man, girl, or boy, it does not occur to you that the personality you have is expresses your gender, that it is a method of categorising you with like personalities. Instead, the traditionally gendered see gender categories as being the domain of biology, in particular genitals and secondary sex characteristics. But gender is far more complex than that. When I was four and in kindergarten I got a damaging lesson in personality as gender.

It was a week or so into the first quarter of kindergarten and the children were just getting used to each other. Small groups of friends were forming and my instructor must have decided that not all of those groups were appropriately holding up the gender classification system. ‘Today,’ she said (or said something very much like,) ‘we are going to be in groups according to if we are boys or girls.’ We were all fine with this; after all weren’t we already with those like us? ‘Girls on this side and boys on that side.’ I had not really thought about whether I was a girl or a boy, but I knew I liked what the kids on the girls’ side liked and I played with them. The kids on the boys’ side were different from me. They played different games, they were louder, they were rougher (more aggressive), and I did not understand them or why they acted the way they did. Based on the logic of personality and perception I clearly belonged on the girls’ side and moved to join them.

‘Where are you going?’ the teacher asked me. I’m a girl, I told her. And she smiled at me. It was a smile that I would grow too familiar with. It lacked warmth or humour; it was reserved and hid her true emotions, a lot of disapproval and a little disgust. It was a frightening smile that told me not to question anything she said next, not to ever say what I had said again, and, more than anything else, that smile told me to never, ever reveal who I was (what I was) to anyone, ever. ‘No,’ she said. ‘You are boy and belong with the boys. Go to the boy side.’ I did not know what would happen if I didn’t do as she said, and that smile told me I did not want to find out. I shut my moth, crammed my personality into a deep dark corner, and joined the boys. I stayed there for thirty years.

And for thirty years I questioned my personality, I questioned how I was gendered and why my feminine personality did not align with what society classified me as. It never occurred to me to reverse the question, why did society believe I was male in spite of my evidence to the contrary? Everyone from school, to parents, to the mainstream media, to erotic fiction and porn confirmed that body trumped personality, so, clearly, I was broken mentally. I was a freak. And I knew I was freak because my personality was female.

“She gives me that look. And I know I’ll have to pretend to be a little boy from then on.”
Kate Bornstein,
Hidden: A Gender

Far easier for traditionally gendered people to understand is how other people’s personalities reflect their gender. Their personalities allow us to place individuals in the proper gender categories: girl, boy, straight woman, straight man, gay man, lesbian. Determining someone else’s gender category is more difficult than determining our own. For ourselves we ask one question: do I have a penis? If I have a penis then I am a member of the dominate gender, man. If I do not have a penis (because this is a phallocentric culture where a person cannot even use the word vagina in mainstream politics without drawing harsh rebuke), then I am not a man, but a member of the subordinate gender, woman. But with others the odds of our seeing their genitals to determine their gender are quite slim, so we find other ways. Of primary importance are secondary sex characteristics, such as facial hair, voice, and breasts. Of almost equal importance are behavioural cues, or personality. The way a person moves, speaks, and takes up space. What a person enjoys doing, the type of career they pursued, how they pursued it, the kinds of people they hang around. All of these are aspects of personality. As a society we default everyone to a male gender and then change that perception based on how the person’s looks and personality align with it.

According to research done by Kessler and McKenna it takes four female cues to outweigh one male cue. That’s how phallocentric our culture is and why women get sirred far more often than men get ma’amed.

Because our society cannot abide ambiguity we have created this nifty little classification system called gender to tell us who is what and, once we know what they are, how much of our respect they deserve. That is the ultimate purpose of the gender classification system. It is more than just the need for tidy little categories. It is what those categories help us determine, the thing we are most desperate to know, who is above who on the hierarchy. This is why transsexuals and other transgressively gendered people are such a threat to the gender classification system. They are jumping gender categories and changing the amount of power and respect they are entitled to, thus exposing the ridiculousness of the system. My personality is little altered from when I was socially male to my being socially female, but I receive less respect, my opinions are devalued, and I make less money (despite doing the same job). Conversely, I know some female to male transsexuals who have stepped not just into a different socially perceived gender but also more respect, more opportunities, and higher wages. Their personalities have not changed either. Our actual genders have remained consistent, but our perceived genders have changed and we suffer the penalties or reap the benefits according to our new position. Personality as gender exposes cultural perception as gender for the misogynistic system it is.

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A Queer and Pleasant Review

2 June, 2012

The first thing you need to know about Kate Bornstein is she is a compassionate person. She weaves A Queer and Pleasant Danger (May 1, 2012, Beacon Press) from great lengths of compassion and love. This isn’t just a book, she hasn’t produced a litany of entertaining anecdotes for mass consumption. Her memoirs are a love letter written for her daughter, Jessica, whom she hasn’t seen in thirty years and her grandchildren whom she’s never met. Kate is a former Scientologist and her daughter and grandchildren were born into Scientology and are still in it. As a former Scientologist, the church declared her a suppressive person, an SP; for her to contact someone in the church would destroy that person’s life. As much as she wants to see her daughter again, know she is safe, and tell her she is loved, Kate cannot bring herself to shatter the only world her daughter has ever known. That is compassion; that is love. And that is the purpose behind her book. It is an open love letter to her family in case they ever wonder about and try to find her. You and I, Sweetie, are just lucky folk who get to eavesdrop.

And the reader should feel lucky, because there is a serious lack of authors like Katherine “Auntie Kate” Bornstein in the literary world. Her compassion, honesty, service, and humour are rare and beautiful traits in a society supersaturated with anemic pop culture. She was the first person without a gender I met. Initially we met on paper, in the lines of her wonderful primer, My Gender Workbook. Like Kate, I had been designated male at birth and was living that way, had lived that way for thirty-four years. I scoured amazon.com for the best possible hey-you’re-a-girl-trapped-in-a-man’s-body-but-don’t-give-up-hope-you-have-options book on the market; there are surprisingly few books in this niche. As I surfed the electronic pipeline, I kept coming back to Kate’s My Gender Workbook. It seemed too light, too comfortable with itself and it’s readership, too fun. The book’s subtitle convinced me to buy it: how to become a real man, a real woman, the real you, or something else entirely. This spoke of compassion. Kate genuinely wants to help her readers figure out who they are. Now, fourteen years later, Kate is bringing that same compassion to her memoirs.

The compassion isn’t just for her daughter, grandchildren, and readers. Everyone that Kate writes about in her memoirs she treats with the same tenderness. The world is Kate Bornstein’s lover and she is a gentle partner. Perhaps, it comes from her time as a bottom, the dominated, in the S&M community, though, I suspect, it is from her being a bottom throughout her life. This is something else you should know about Kate: she has always submitted to and served others. From early on she formed herself to the will of others, the world’s daddies, starting with her own daddy. By today’s standards Paul Bornstein would be considered an emotionally abusive man, a self-proclaimed male chauvinist pig who could have served as inspiration for Norman Lear‘s Archie Bunker. Kate recognises that Paul was a cruel man. She is under no delusions about that, but she also sees the good, sometimes just potential good, that was in him. Throughout Queer and Pleasant there is never a sense of judging him, just telling the truth about who he was and what growing up as a son who was really a daughter was like in his household. She doesn’t hide his attitudes and flaws; she accepts that this was who he was without sugar-coating, just truth. She does the same when talking about L. Ron Hubbard and life in the Church of Scientology. She lays the truth about Hubbard before you. She doesn’t demonise him, he does that well enough on his own, what she does is treat “the Old Man” with the same honesty and acceptance she does her daddy. Even as she reflects on Hubbard’s death, there is compassion:

“No one’s come forward online to say they were there when the Old Man was lost, or that they held his hand and cried with him. If I’d been there, I would have.”

I don’t think I could have called up that type of compassion for a man who treated people the way Hubbard did, but Kate is a bottom, and from the bottom it is easier to see just how messed up we all are. And that’s truth.

This is the next thing you should know about Kate, she has an unwavering commitment to honesty. She tells Jessica and us at the start of Queer and Pleasant that, despite the label of suppressive person and the implication of being a spinner of lies, she will tell the truth. Even when she exaggerates or tells you how she wishes things could have happened she still relates what really happened. This is the aspect of Kate’s narrative that drew me in like a walleye on a fishing line. I spent thirty years lying to everyone by pretending to be a boy; now that I’m done playing at boy and living as girl, I don’t have time for lies. And neither does Kate. She went through a myriad of personalities and ways of living, each, she says, its own unique way of being gendered; she married and divorced three times; she did some cruel things to people who didn’t deserve it; she touched a number of people in very deep and intimate ways. She bares all this to her readers with unflinching honesty. But, like I said, this is a love letter and love is honest even when it means showing your own darkness.

Her memoirs, however, are not a Robert Lowell confessional; they do not dwell in the darkness. Like her other works, there is a wry sense of humour that infuses Queer and Pleasant. This is the last thing you need to know about Kate, she possess a levity that enables her to see the humour in the bizarre situations she’s come through. Her pop culture riffs and Doctor Who allusions make her memoirs a joy to read. How can a person who has served in the church of a mediocre science fiction writer who espoused the idea we are all thetans from the Galactic Empire who were shot out of an erupting volcano into a soul catcher and joined with cave dwellers not see the humour in life? How can a female placed in a male body by a cosmic prankster of a God not approach her story with a little self-deprecating humour and a lot of irony? For all the trauma and trials she went through Kate is still remarkably vivacious. If you need proof just consider the book’s subtitle: the true story of a nice Jewish boy who joins the Church of Scientology and leaves twelve years later to become the lovely lady she is today.

Reading A Queer and Pleasant Danger was a pleasure for me. I learned more about a heroine as important to me as my Mommy and Grandma, but more important I learned lessons about compassion, love, truth, service, and humour. Thank you, Auntie Kate, for being the lovely lady you are and for sharing that with us. And I promise, I won’t take the personality test.

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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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Trans* DOs and DON’Ts

24 April, 2012

I am transsexual . . .

do treat me like you would anyone else.

do respect my name and my pronouns. If it is not clear what my pronouns are you may politely ask. Generally, a trans woman goes by she and a trans man by he.

if you make a mistake with pronouns, do politely apologise and then continue with the conversation.

do not ask me what my birth name was. That is private and a source of anxiety for many trans* people.

do not ask me about any surgeries I may or may not have had. That is the business of the trans* person only.

do not assume things about me. Do not assume I am straight or gay, liberal or conservative, happy or unhappy, married or single. We are all different.

do not assume a trans* person wants to teach you about trans* issues. Some trans* people find this very hard to discuss; others are comfortable answering questions. Everyone has a different comfort level.

do not touch me inappropriately. Some people think it is okay to touch trans* people’s bodies to see if things are real. If you would not touch someone else that way do not touch a trans* person that way.

do not “out” me. Do not tell some else I am trans*. The only person who has the right to reveal if someone is trans* is the trans* person. If you reveal it you could embarrasses them or even put their safety and life at risk.

do not say, “But you are really a man (or woman),” “I still see the man (or woman) in you,” or “You pass really well.” These are very insulting comments and are often used as a way to invalidate that person’s gender identity.