Posts Tagged ‘Gender identity’
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.
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.
- Lies about transgender people (and how to spot a rubbish journalist) (blogs.independent.co.uk)
- 8 Questions to Avoid Asking Trans* People (cisprivilegecheck.wordpress.com)
- What is Cisprivilege? (cisprivilegecheck.wordpress.com)
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.
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.
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.
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.
- The Media’s Sleazy Treatment of Trans Women (alternet.org)
- I Believe that Makes THREE Trans Women Murdered this April (tranarchism.wordpress.com)
- Definitions (nodesignations.wordpress.com)