Posts Tagged ‘transition’
Disclaimer: This is an expository piece on Disney’s Frozen and the connection I, a trans woman, felt with Elsa. Though much has been written about the racial representation and choices made by the Disney Company in regards to Frozen, this essay will not be addressing that topic.
Spoiler Warning: Frozen
In Disney’s Frozen, a film loosely based off Hans Christian Andersen’s short story “The Snow Queen,” Elsa conceals what she believes to be a terrible and dangerous truth about herself. She understands, at an early age, that she is different from others, but in the exuberance and open-heartedness of youth, that difference is neutral, lending her neither a special place nor a villainous one. That changes while she is playing with her younger sister Anna when she accidentally hits her sister with a magic ice shard that threatens her life. With the help of a rock troll Anna is spared, but Elsa is told that her powers are dangerous and expressing them will put others, most especially her sister, in jeopardy. She is taught to conceal her powers and stuff her emotions, which can trigger them, down so deep she becomes numb to them. “Conceal; don’t feel” is her mantra and she becomes a girl numbed by cold isolation and closed doors. The Disney Wiki describes Elsa as “traumatized” by these early experiences and states “Elsa forcibly spent the rest of her life distanced from the kingdom, including Anna, trying to keep her powers from growing out of control and harming those she cares about.” And this fear, according to director Jennifer Lee, is what drives Elsa.
Having grown up as a trans girl in hiding, I found myself relating to Elsa’s story. I have always understood myself to be female. Like Elsa, I did not think of who I was as different or unusual, until outside events forced me to confront how the rest of the world saw me. In the early eighties I sat with other girls my age on a ratty, beige, shag carpet stained mud brown by the tromp of little feet shod in velcro Stride Rites, Winnie-the-Pooh rain galoshes, faux-leather Mary Janes, and pointy-toed cowboy boots. The teacher readied us for lunch by dividing us into two lines, each to march on opposite sides of the hallway, one of girls and one of boys. I lined up with the other girls. The teacher stood in front of the closed door and frowned at the class. “I won’t open the door until everyone is where they belong,” she said. She waited. It took a minute before I felt the eleven pairs of kindergarten eyes staring at me as though I were the village idiot. The teacher walked between the two lines, straddling that divide between little girl and little boy that only adults dared to stand above and stopped in front of me. “You are in the wrong line.” Panic welled up from my four year-old chest into my throat, where it squeezed my voice box shut. It was my first experience with a crippling anxiety that would numb my body and lead to the concealment of my feelings and who I was. Several decades later, I would learn terms like gender anxiety and gender dysphoria, but growing up I could only describe it as being frozen inside myself.
A few years later, I sat on the edge of the flower garden that ran along the side of my grandparent’s stuccoed duplex. The bruises where my cousin and a neighbour kid had beaten me up already appearing as dark splotches on my arms and chest. The beating was a punishment for having caught me playing house with the girls who lived down the street; I was the mother. These young teenage boys who considered themselves strapping examples of manhood stood over me scowling and said my kid brother would be really “fucked up” if I didn’t learn to behave like a boy and not a girl and my father would hate me for being a sissy. The lesson was clear. Conceal who you are so you don’t hurt your family; don’t feel anything or you will expose yourself and hurt the ones you love. It was a hot a summer day and my white t-shirt was plastered to my bruised and aching chest by sweat, but it could have been winter because I was ice inside. Like Elsa, I was numb to everything except the anxiety and fear of what would happen to my family if I didn’t hide who I was. “Conceal; don’t feel” was my mantra.
For Elsa, the conflict between who she is and who others believe her to be comes to a head at her coronation and she has what trans activist and gender theorist Kate Bornstein calls a splatter moment, when two or more identities come in conflict and the result is a terrific splatter. The stress of keeping her powers secret begins to crack and seep through the image of calm, component queen that she is portraying. She begins to freeze the scepter and globus cruciger at the cathedral. At the coronation ball a confrontation with her sister results in such intense anxiety and fear that shards of ice rise from the ballroom floor and cut her off from everyone. Her secret is out and Elsa has to deal with the consequences of a world that knows who she truly is. The conflict drives Elsa to flea Arrendale and sets off a winter storm that freezes the town and harbour. Splatter.
Elsa terrified of who she is.
Elsa’s powers manifest.
This is the coming out moment; where who you are and who you are pretending to be can no longer exist in the same space and everything is forced to the surface. I had two major splatter moments and, like Elsa, what set them off was a reality I could no longer suppress. The need to be who I was grew inside me, just as Elsa’s powers grew stronger over time. It seeped out of me in moments when the dysphoria was too intense to handle. Little things like putting on one of my mother’s dresses or some of her makeup when no one was home. Like young Elsa accidentally freezing her window sill, my reactions after these “slips” were fear of and disgust with myself. The older I got the stronger my need to be myself became, until it took tremendous effort and isolation to keep it contained, but it still leaked out until I was caught by my wife and family and who I was created a wall between us and the resulting storm that shook my family and friends. Most of them reacted like the Duke of Weselton did to Elsa, they referred to me as a “monster” and demanded that my transition be “put to an end.”
Elsa isolates herself in the mountains and sings “Let It Go,” which deeply resonated with my coming out process. As she widens the distance between herself and Arrendale she says, “The wind is howling like the swirling storm inside. Couldn’t keep it in, heaven knows I tried. Don’t let them in. Don’t let them see. Be the good girl you always have to be.” This is what it feels like to deny and burry who you are. I knew I had to do it but it was so difficult to wear the costume of the perfect little boy, the perfect man, that everyone needed me to be; to keep them outside and not knowing who I was truly was. It created an intense sense of loss and isolation and when the secret was finally out I was scared and relieved that I could finally let it all go. Elsa sings, “Don’t let them know. Well know they know! Let it go! Let it go! Can’t hold it back anymore!” She and I both recognise the freedom that our splatter has given us but also the price that this freedom bares. She continues “Let it go! Let it go! Turn away and slam the door! I don’t care what they’re going to say. Let the storm rage on. The cold never bothered me anyway.” She sees the cost of being herself as complete isolation. As character design supervisor Bill Schwab said, “She’s finally free–even if she is all alone.” But then, she has always been alone, so if the cost of freedom is isolation, it is a cost she can bare. The line “The cold never bothered me anyway” is perhaps more accurately captured by the French translation of the song, “le froid est pour moi la prix de la liberté” which means “the cold is for me the price of liberty.” She’s willing to pay the price of isolation for her liberty. And as I watched friends and family fall away, I realised they never knew who I was to begin with and that even while they were around I was intensely alone. The isolation that my transition created was an acceptable price because unlike my isolation before, I was now free to be myself.
For a time Elsa believes she is a monster. The idea is reinforced in her by the news she has cursed Arrendale with a winter storm and injuring her sister with her powers. She sinks deeper into isolation and into depression (her physical environment, created by her powers becomes darker and heavy with ice shards). Then Hans and soldiers from Arrendale attack the palace with the intention of killing Elsa. She is forced to defend her herself proving, in the words of Hans, that she is the monster they think she is. This is the insanity of her situation. She is attacked in her home and defending herself, fighting back against those who would kill her, but she is seen as a monster and her attackers as innocent and justified in their reactions.
Elsa’s environment darkens with her depression.
Provoked by Hans and the soldiers, Elas defends herself.
This is what happens to trans women across the world. This is what happened to CeCe McDonald. This is what happened to me. I have been assaulted and keep a bat by my door in case the people who did it come back; I have had my home vandalised, with the word “TRANNY” scrawled across my door; I have been verbally harassed and stalked on the street, in stores, and at my place of employment; I have been sent death threats. All because of the storm of discomfort just seeing me creates within them. I have filed reports with police and human resources and building security and every time I am told there is nothing they can do and, more egregiously, that being who I am, I bring it on myself.
Elsa moves through the pain and loss in her life and her story has a happy ending, part of which is achieved by her realisation that love is the emotion that allows her to control and use her powers. She moves past her fears and finds a way to incorporate her powers into who she is; they are a part of her but they do not define her. My story, I hope, is far from over, but like Elsa, I have learned that love and compassion for those around me opens the doors for my own happiness. I am not always happy nor am I always the person I aspire to be, but the love that being myself has allowed me to find has opened the door to happiness. It has allowed me to develop friendships I could never have had before and it has opened me to receive the love of a woman who I have been blessed with the chance of sharing my life with.
It may seem odd that a children’s movie about two princesses loosely based on a short story written nearly 170 years ago should speak so intimately to my heart and experiences. And that the deuteragonist of this animation should unintentionally serve as a positive form of trans representation demonstrating how stories can be told that reflect the lived realities of minoritised groups should put poorly written, intentionally representative films such as TransAmerica and Dallas Buyers Club to shame. Trans lives are not difficult to represent and give honour to, you just have to understand that people are people and we all have the same fears and aspirations.
UPDATE: for further reading on this, check out Aoife’s piece discussing the association of trans experience with Elsa’s and look at the Japanese translation of “Let It Go.” Elsa and Trans Iconography: The Snow Queen’s Gloves Come Off
 Bornstein, Kate. My Gender Workbook: How to Become a Real Man, a Real Woman, the Real You, or Something Else Entirely. Routledge. 1998. <http://books.google.com/books/about/My_Gender_Workbook.html?id=NjH32xMTu7kC>
 “Elsa the Snow Queen – Disney Wiki.” 2012. 22 Jan. 2014 <http://disney.wikia.com/wiki/Elsa_the_Snow_Queen>
 “Let it Go – Disney Wiki – Wikia.com.” 2013. 22 Jan. 2014 <http://disney.wikia.com/wiki/Let_it_Go>
Early today i was reading a post about how all trans women’s experiences are female experiences, even ones that happened before social transition. You can find that post at Cis-Critical, not Cisphopic‘s Tumblr page. The permalink is here. This is a point that people miss and a lot of times they miss it due to the incorrect but deeply entrenched idea that trans women are mimicking womanhood and femininity. i know too many people who are quick to agree that since transitioning i have had female experiences who just as quickly write-off pre-transition experiences as male experiences. This is just a rephrasing of the idea that i am a man who decided to become a woman. But i’m not.
i was born female. My brain or neuro-chemistry or psyche or what-have-you has always been female. i have always understood myself to be female and i have been aware of how others did not recognise me as female since i was four years old and reprimanded for lining up with the girls. i have lived my life as a female, but one whose femininity was not taken seriously. i was beaten and emotionally abused by peers and family because they did not see masculinity in me and they decided it should be there. These are not male experiences; these are the experiences of a female who was being conditioned by force and against her will to be male.
So i adapted. i learned to fake masculinity to protect myself. That act was convincing because it had to be, my life literally depended on my ability to hide who i really was, to play a part so flawlessly that no one would know that i was female. But, playing the part does not make me male. Whenever i was alone i expressed my femininity, i gave myself permission to drop the act. For as long as my body shape allowed me, i would wear my mother’s clothes every time i was alone in the house. When i could no longer fit into her clothes i would ride my bicycle (that horrible dark blue bicycle that i was given because the ones i was looking at were too ‘cute’ and not ‘man enough’) to the local Salvation Army thrift store and buy girl’s and women’s clothing that i could fit into. i had to hide it really well, because i knew being caught meant trouble and, depending on who caught me, another beating. Even with those precautions the fear of being caught was so high i would burn the clothes after a week or two, play my role till i couldn’t take it anymore and then start the cycle over again. i took ages in the bath because it was my time to experiment with make-up and nail polish. Sometimes i filled the tub with water but never got in, it was just a cover so i could buy an hour alone to be myself. i am thankful for my acceptance into the drama club in high school because it meant i could stop hiding stuff at home. There i had free access to a huge women’s wardrobe and make-up. Thanks to a brilliant English teacher/drama coach (whom, i suspect, had an inkling of who i really was) i had free access to the wardrobe after school and sometimes during English class. If it hadn’t been for that teacher and that place where i could be myself, i would have have committed suicide before graduating because the pressure of playing male to keep everyone else happy was that destructive to my health and well-being.
None of this is a male experience. And, i know, it is not the typical female experience, but it is a female experience because it was experienced by a female who tried desperately to make everyone else happy. A female who wanted nothing more than to make her Da and Mum and brother happy. So it kills me when people tell me i had male experiences prior to socially transitioning because they are actively erasing my past and ignoring my very real, very traumatic lived experiences.
My brother is a huge culprit in this erasure. He fully supports my right to be who i am now, despite his not really understanding it, but he does not accept that i was female before i announced my intent to transition. He holds to the idea that because i acted like a male around him that, obviously, is who i truly was. He rejects the notion that i was female from birth, that i had learned to hide who i was while he was still an infant, long before he could even be aware of gender differences. i’ve attempted to explain this to him, but i am met with rebukes. He tells me i’m exaggerating or lying. He says things could not have happened that way because no kid that age could ever be aware of those feelings or be clever enough to hide them. my past cannot be allowed to exist as it happened because he is too afraid of loosing what he believes happened; the lie, the act, is real to him and matters more than the truth of my experiences.
And he’s not the only one who does this. Yes, i received certain benefits of male privilege growing up, i cannot nor do i attempt to deny that, but having received those benefits due to other people’s insistence i was male does not alter the fact that i was a female pretending to be male. The existence of some aspects of male privilege (because of elements of my femininity i could not hide i was also excluded from aspects of male privilege) in my past does not negate my lived experience of being a female hiding as a male. i saw my experiences through the eyes of a female; i felt them with the heart of a female. i mourned and hated the existence of that male character because it was not me; it was a show and i loathed having to perform it. i constantly felt fake, on the verge of being discovered. i felt filthy and whoreish selling myself out to keep people happy. i may have draped myself in trappings of masculinity but i did it as a female trying to survive in a male dominated world that hates to the point of violence and murder my type of femininity. Every time someone says i was not female before i socially transitioned they erase my history and my life; they commit and act of psychological violence against me and hold up the patriarchal, sexist culture that forced me to hide who I have always been to begin with.
- Conservative Media’s Distorted View Of Trans Women On Display (lezgetreal.com)
One of the most vexing questions for trans* and cis Christians is how God views trans* individuals. Both inclusionists and fundamentalists turn to the Bible for support, however, the passages that support inclusion are rarely addressed in sermons or in the media. Below you will find the passages that argue for inclusion and the interpretations that support inclusion not just by trans* individuals or local churches but also by entire denominations.
So God created humanity in God’s own image, in the image of God, God created humanity; male and female God created them. — Genesis 1:27
There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female: for you are all one in Christ Jesus. — Galatians 3:28
Let not the eunuch say, ‘Behold, I am a dry tree.’ For thus says YAHWEH: ‘To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give in my house and within my walls a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name which shall not be cut off.’ — Isaiah 56:3-5
For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. He who is able to receive this, let him receive it. — Matthew 19:21
Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this scripture [Isaiah 56:3-5] he told him the good news of Jesus. And as they went along the road they came to some water, and the eunuch said, ‘See, here is water! What is to prevent my being baptized?’ And he commanded the chariot to stop, and they both went down into the water, Philip and the eunuch, and he baptized him. — Acts 8:35-38
A Note on Language:
When the various books of the Bible were written across the cultural and temporal timespan they cover, there was not a word for transsexual or transgender. The word eunuch, however, included three categories, only one of which was what we understand as a modern day eunuch. The other categories included under this umbrella-term were men who chose celibacy and birth-assigned males who dressed and lived as women (in other words, trans* individuals).
A Note on Formatting:
Anything directly quoted will appear in italics and any commentary from me will be in plain-face.
Site Reference 1 (Presbyterian, Reformed):
This Biblical commentary on Isaiah 56:4, Matthew 19:21, and Acts 8:35-38 (along with other passages) specifically addresses the idea of trans* individuals in a context of Christianity and explains why the Presbyterian, Reformed church feels their inclusion by the Church is part of God’s plan.
- We see this new inclusion and celebration in the unfolding of Salvation History in Acts. Before the marvelous stories of the enfolding of the Samaritans and of the Gentiles into the Church we have the wonderful little story of the Ethiopian Eunuch. It is interesting that when he meets Philip, the Eunuch, most likely a Jew who probably knew that Deuteronomy excluded him from the covenant, was reading the prophet Isaiah, which envisions the inclusion of eunuchs. Unlike Peter, who needed a vision from heaven to cross the boundary of including Gentiles, Philip needed no prodding to know that the Spirit was calling him to include eunuchs in the Kingdom of God. Philip proclaims the Good News, the eunuch believes and is received into the family of faith immediately by Baptism. Thus the first boundary that was broken down in our Baptism in Christ was not one of religious differences or race, but one of unusual gender conditions.
- Sin, of course, does enter the story and it wrecks havoc with this mutual enjoyment. But the story of our redemption is a story of returning us to our original blessings. The goal of the Christian life is not for us to feel alienated from our True Selves, from one another, from all creation, and from God, but instead to be restored to a state of connection and the original sense of “rightness”. Transsexuals, in seeing that the relationship between their persons and their bodies is incongruent and in seeking to create a congruency where one didn’t exist before, are in a real sense fulfilling the mandate of Genesis is [sic – *in] a way that people without Gender Issues are not capable of doing. Transssexuals are people who are able to continue the task of creation and to take up the task of subduing the earth to make it fruitful within their own bodies. In a real sense, then, Transsexuals have a direct and powerful connection to the creation as creatures made in the image of God, for this connection is within their own beings!
- If God calls us to be farmers, shop-keepers, house-wives, lawyers, craftsmen, pastors, laborers, or whatever, God expects us to find fulfillment in that calling. If something stands in the way of that inner fulfillment and satisfaction, it stands in the way of our ability to serve God and God’s world well in our calling. A sense of Vocation would drive us to remove whatever barriers make it difficult for us to fulfill our calling. If Gender Dysphoria keeps one from being who they truly are and fitting into the reality around them, then it keeps them from serving God to the best of their ability. Vocation then demands that the individual do whatever they can to change this Gender Dysphoria. We now know that the body’s gender can be changed to fit the mind’s gender, but the opposite cannot be done. [emphasis added]
- So these two Reformed doctrines, Creation and Vocation, not only support people with unusual gender conditions having a freedom within the Church to change their outward gender, but in a sense they teach us that such folk are actually engaged in a sacred and holy task when they undertake such a difficult passage. Rather than attempt to see this passage as something shameful and guilty, we must see it as children of God taking seriously God’s creation of them as creatures who are made in the image of God being therefore co-creators with God and see it as children of God taking seriously God’s calling of them to ruthlessly remove any hindrances to their being whom God desires them to be so they may serve God to their fullest.
Site Reference 2 (Transsexual Road Map > Spirtuality):
Written by trans women for trans women, this section of the Road Map explains how trans* individuals have an accepted place within Christianity.
- See the section Passages from Scripture for a commentary on Deuteronomy 22:5. Read it in its entirety as it is too logical, contextual, and supportable to paraphrase.
- Isaiah 56:4-5
In contradiction to the rules against eunuchs in Deuteronomy stands this passage from Isaiah:
“For thus says the Lord: to the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths [sic], who choose the things that please me and hold fast to my covenant, I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument better than sons and daughters, I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.”
“Shall not be cut off??” Who says the Bible doesn’t have much humor! That’s a pretty bad pun! This passage is especially useful for transsexuals, since it appears in the Old Testament along with the Deuteronomy passage.
- Matthew 19:12
This passage has Jesus speaking directly about eunuchs:
For there are some eunuchs, who were so born from their mother’s womb: and there are some eunuchs, who were made eunuchs by men: and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven’s sake. He that is able to receive it, let him receive it.
Many interpretations of this passage have arisen. Some believe it is a discussion of voluntary celibacy, but the fact that Christ mentions people born that way indicates to me a birth condition. Some have also interpreted this to mean gays, which doesn’t seem out of the question. However, I think the most literal interpretation would include intersexed (born that way) and transsexual persons (made that way). Regardless of interpretation, the main point is that anyone able to receive the Kingdom of Heaven may do so.
- Mark 9:43-47
[For those who feel the “body augmenting” of transsexuals goes against the idea of your body as “God’s temple” (I Corinthians 5:19).]
This passage has Jesus speaking directly about altering one’s body:
If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell, where the fire never goes out. And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than to have two feet and be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell.
Many interpretations of this passage have arisen as well. While it is rarely taken as a literal exhortation, it does seem to say that your bodily form does not matter, and that altering it will not exclude you from entering heaven.
Site Reference 3 (Episcopal):
This site is a recounting of the Episcopal church’s choice to allow trans* individuals to participate in church life and to also allow their ordination.
- [T]he House of Deputies—one of the two Houses in The Episcopal Church’s bicameral system of governance – passed resolutions D019 and D002. D019 garuntees trans* individuals access to the life and governance of the church – so, for instance, it clarifies that transgender people can be Eucharistic ministers, vestry members, retreat attendees or leaders, etc and D002 allows trans* individuals to serve as ordained leaders in the church.
- A Deputy from Alabama (yes, that’s right, Ala-Bible-belt-bama) quoted Isaiah 56:4-5 and said: These were a people that formerly had not been allowed access to the assembly. They had been a people cut off—unwelcome because of what we might refer to as their gender identity and expression—but now they were welcomed. We must name what God has named.
Site Reference 4 (A Sermon for Transgender Day of Remembrance):
I’ll leave you with this quote from a sermon delivered by Shay, a trans man who is also a pastor. It is taken from the the sermon he gave on his seminary’s first TDoR service during which he addressed Isaiah 56:3-5. I think this sums it all up:
Some scholars have said that the eunuch is the closest biblical example we have to modern transpeople [sic]. Whatever the case, eunuchs were outcasts from society. They were denied a place in the holy assembly. They were looked down upon and despised. And yet here God is saying that they will be given a name that is better than sons and daughters. Friends, this is good news to transgender and gender non-conforming people. We know what it means to have names chosen for us that don’t fit, or to be called names that are hurtful. We also know what it means to choose names for ourselves that represent all of who we are. And we honor one another by using those chosen names even when others refuse to.
But to have an everlasting name; one that will not be cut off; this is hope for those of us who feel like outcasts. This monument is hope to those who have been killed and to those who worry they will be forgotten. This passage brings me great comfort: to know that I am a beloved son of God and that God gives me an everlasting name, even if my family rejects me, even if the church doesn’t want me, there is a place for me in God’s eyes. This isn’t just some cheap hope. I don’t offer it as a placebo, to say that we should stop fighting for our place at the table, our place in society and the church. Instead I offer it as a raft in the ocean for when the fight gets too hard. I offer it in response to the fearful hallelujah. I offer it because it’s the best I have to offer. We are beloved children of the Universe and no one can take that away from us. We are beloved children. We are beloved.
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)
I was recently contacted by another educator, GirlWithALessonPlan (you should follow her), who had four questions for me about being a trans woman in the education field. Here are her questions and my responses.
1. How far before your career did you begin living [as] the gender you identify [as]?
I began living as my identified gender (female) just out of college (2000). I was working as a special education aide and living part-time as my proper gender and presenting male at work. I lived this way for nine months before deciding to go back for my MFA in Creative Writing, Fiction. When I made that decision I had to move back in with my patents for two months and then moved in with four male flat mates, so that ended my first attempt at transitioning. I tried again in 2004 but this time full-time. I was working as an editor and English tutor, but people stopped speaking to me and my co-workers complained, ending my second attempt (employment is a big transition preventer for most trans women). Finally, spring of 2011, I made the transition full-time and started HRT. I was teaching full-time as a middle school TAG English instructor and the conditions on my transition were so restrictive and backlash from faculty, parents, and the student body so nasty that I chose to transfer schools. I have only presented as my identified gender at the high school I work at.
2. Do your students know about your previous gender presentation?
Yes. Yes, they do. Mainly because I was only four months on HRT when I started my new position. I had very unrealistic expectations of the HRT time schedule, part of that was from Jennifer Boylan‘s book “She’s Not There,” which is an excellent book but set me up with unrealistic expectations for transitioning. My transition has been easier than a number of FtF (female to female, as I do not see myself as ever having been male in anything apart from presentation, though MtF is the more standardised term), but Boylan’s book makes her transition seem a brilliant mix of acerbic wit and acceptance (I doubt it was, but the writing comes across that way). I also had the downfall of having been told by so many I had a feminine build and facial structure that I believed changing my presentation would be simple; decades of testosterone damage did not make that the case. So, the students know I did not always present as my gender but they do not know when I switched presentations. There is a wide amount of speculation on that ranging from the day before school started to when I was a kid. There is also a lot of speculation as to whether I have had FFS (facial feminization surgery)—the answer to that is no, I have not.
3. Has your identity ever caused problems for you at work?
Slews of them! Parents have worked/are working to get me fired. Teachers have spoken out against me to their students. Certain administrators refuse to look at me, let alone assist me when I need it, and a fair number of students refuse to work or listen. The students are the ones that are the most extreme in their reactions because they are the most honest in how they feel. Kids I have never interacted with have burst into the room, called me “tranny,” “freak,” “whore,” et cetera, then dashed out of the room laughing like hyenas, or they’ll stand outside the door and stare in at me like I am an exhibition for their amusement. It works the other way, also. Once a student accepts me they are unwavering loyal. A female student of mine chased a boy who called me “tranny” down the hall, tackled him, and pinned him until the principal came (so damned proud of her!). Mostly it is the girls who are accepting and come to like me as an instructor and a person, though a number of boys have come around as well.
4. Have you helped students with their gender identity?
Directly? No. I am not allowed by the county to discuss the issue, at all, under any circumstances. The one time it came up naturally in class a student told a teacher, who told the principal, who told the superintendent, who had me written up for “failure to recognize ‘she’ does not teach a health class.” Indirectly, it is impossible to say, but I hope by just being myself I have. I have had outside-of-class discussions with several lesbian students who are having difficulty dealing with family, friends and/or relationships. I am glad I can offer them some of the support they need.
Though you did not ask this, I feel I should add that although there are policies that prevent them from outright firing me, they can and sometimes do, make life a living hell. There were three schools they could have transferred me to that would have been more accepting, but they chose to put me in one of the least tolerant communities in the county. Also, they can always find a reason to remove you from the classroom or terminate you that has nothing to do with your identity. I am still employed partly due to tenure and the union. Mostly, however, my employment continues because I am damned good at what I do. I scored in the top one percent of the nation on my English Content PRAXIS exam, I have consistently raised test scores with every grade level I have taught, and I have gotten kids who hate reading to pick up and willingly complete at least one novel per quarter. Ultimately the only way a trans person survives in this or any other business is to know their stuff and perform their job better than anyone else, to be irreplaceable.