“This is a colonial view of gender, and by that I mean that those who deviate from our designated gender at birth are only valid through the gaze and assessment of the dominant groups in society that determine that designation. For transgender people — and as a transgender person, I can certainly attest to this — there is a pressure to concede our identities and articulate them on the terms of those who colonize our identities. We are denied alternative discourses. When we assert who we are, there always remains an eternal and unassailable check on that assertion to which we must submit; “Well, yes, I am biologically such-and-such, but…”
Like a lot of trans women, I get excited when I hear about one of us making an appearance on national TV. I get excited because I see opportunities to spread awareness of trans issues, call the prevailing discourse about transgender people into question, and to seize control of our narrative with millions of people watching. This kind of advocacy is important because we are a community that has so long been pressured to remain invisible under the threat of violence or social ostracization.
That is unfortunately not what we got when Janet Mock recently appeared on Piers Morgan Live.
To summarize, Janet Mock went on Morgan’s show to promote her new book, Redefining Realness, and during the interview, Morgan referenced Mock’s past as the time when she had “been a boy” and referred to her by her dead name (the name assigned to her at birth). “Had I not known anything about your story,” he said, “I’d have never known you had been a boy – a male.” He also seemed to imply repeatedly that it was the act of sexual reassignment surgery that was the moment at which she became a woman, rather than her first moments of self-identification as a woman, summarizing Mock’s story as the “story of a woman who was “born a boy and remained that way until the age of 18.” A lot of transgender people, Mock included, took offense to this, and made Piers Morgan well aware that they didn’t approve of his handling of the interview via Twitter.
Personally, I think some of the response was a bit harsh and unwarranted, because Piers’ mistakes seem to be ones born of sincere ignorance rather than malice, but it was his handling of the criticism that caused the whole thing to take a turn for the worse. Rather than listen to what people were saying and make an effort to understand (the role of an ally, which Piers describes himself as), he painted the response as irrational, referring to his critics as “dimwits”. When an entire community of marginalized people tells you that they have an issue with something, it’s probably for a good reason.
After the firestorm of criticism, Morgan scheduled a second interview with Mock. I was hoping that he would address some of the points brought up by some of the individuals criticizing him, and that he would lead a civil discussion with Janet in an effort to reach a greater level of understanding. Instead, Piers conducted the uncomfortable segment more like a trial than an interview, demanding to know why she had stoked the coals and instigated the transgender community to victimize him. This is not only an inaccurate summary of what happened (the trans community took umbrage at the interview before Mock had anything to say about it) but it is not an angle that someone who claims to support transgender rights should be taking. Allies listen first and put their own feelings aside when criticized, working with the people who bring issues to their attention to make the situation right. They don’t delegitimize the emotions of those for whom they advocate or claim persecution when offered opportunities to improve.
There could have been a very productive dialogue about the ways in which we impose the gender binary and gendered expectations onto the designation of sex. I’d have loved for Mock and Morgan to unpack some of that and discuss the effects that it has on transgender individuals. For example, while many act as if “biologically male” is an objective, impartial scientific reality, this insistence in practice serves as a means for larger society to negate the identity of transgender individuals. As a trans woman, I’m expected to simply accept that I’m inescapably male, even if others deign to acknowledge me as a “male woman”, and act as if there are no gendered connotations in this designation. What I hear when people insist that I acknowledge that I am male is that I can only ever aspire to be a woman to a point. No matter what lengths I go to to legitimize my identity, there will always be an external check in place to make sure that I know that the best I can hope for is being a woman with an asterisk. In other words, I can pretend to be a woman all I want, but “objective reality” will always say otherwise.
Perhaps if Mock had been able to articulate this instead of having been put on the defensive, Piers Morgan might have had a greater understanding about how the persistence of the male designation affects us, and how being referred to as male at any stage in our lives brings to mind the very real effects of this supposedly “objective” definition in our every day lives. I live as a woman, I am perceived as a woman, I have a legal name that is deemed to be a woman’s name, yet every time I look at my identification I am greeted with an M, a scarlet letter to remind me that this is the state sanctioned identity that I have to defy to achieve legal recognition as who I am. This is a difficult thing to do short of a prohibitively expensive surgical procedure.
Piers Morgan also noted that Mock herself had allegedly referred to herself as male in her article “I was born a boy”. As she noted, however, article titles are often editorial decisions designed to get pageviews. It is difficult to unpack the complexity of transgender identification in an article title. It would take another article entirely to explain that complexity, and how the prevailing narrative of transgender identity – that we are born in the wrong body, defined by our genitals, and that we are the gender we are assigned corresponding to our sexual designation until we have genital reconfiguration via surgery – is an oversimplification that is not reflective of the personal narrative that shapes many transgender individuals’ understanding of themselves. It’s difficult to articulate the pressure that we feel to concede to this simplistic narrative in efforts to explain ourselves in a way that will be understood even on a basic level. To be even half-accepted, half-understood, half-acknowledged, we have to cater our narrative to others, and if we dare to venture outside of their lines we face invalidation and ridicule.
This could be easily avoided. If we decided to acknowledge the self-identification of transgender individuals as a valid reality, rather than a superficial, subjective, and flimsy role, and if we didn’t insist on the primacy of a sexual designation that is anything but objective (chromosomes are not readily visible indicators of gender, rarely tested, and operate in ways far more complex than most people acknowledge, making designation by medical professionals in effect an educated guess) then perhaps transgender individuals could be more easily accepted as who they are. I personally shun the “male” designation, and I prefer to think of myself as an individual appraised to be a likely carrier of an SRY gene, objectively speaking. In any case, my sexual designation has little to do with my lived reality outside of a few medical situations. It is, for the most part, completely irrelevant, and I’m pretty tired of having it used as a trump card to invalidate me. Those who criticized Morgan likely shared in this frustration.
Piers Morgan could have educated himself prior to the initial interview, and focused on Mock’s journey rather than her past. He could have made an effort to understand how important it is for transgender people to not feel inextricably tied to the identity that was imposed upon them at birth. Yes, Janet Mock could have stopped him, and corrected him, but we are conditioned to accept those misconceptions and oversimplifications in polite conversation in order that we are heard at all. To articulate our identities fully, we are expected to be conversant in biology, philosophy, gender theory, and the million other perspectives that people take in efforts to invalidate us. The least we can ask for is for those who profess to be our allies to make efforts to educate themselves, and to accept criticism graciously so that they may learn from it. Hopefully then we can have a more productive conversation about transgender identity – one that is less polarizing, more respectful, and more capable of bridging an understanding between trans individuals and those who wish to understand us.
(Content warning below.)
Yesterday, I came across an article in the LA Times regarding the National Transgender Discrimination Survey’s study of the elevated risk of suicide in the transgender community. To briefly summarize, the statistics are shocking:
- 41% of transgender/gender non-confoming individuals have attempted suicide, a rate of 9 times the national average
- The risk was higher for those who had suffered discrimination or violence
- For those driven to homelessness, the risk was even higher, at 69%, for those refused medical care, 60%
- For individuals who are “openly” transgender, or more often read as transgender, the risk is higher
- Even transgender individuals at “low risk” have attempted suicide at a rate of 30%-40%
- Suicide rates were lower in families that “stayed strong” after transgender individuals came out
Part of me finds these statistics shocking. They are, after all, appalling, and certainly unacceptable. However, as a transgender person, and one who is quite open about it (by choice, since I am privileged to not be read as trans, and because I am a transgender advocate), I am not surprised. In fact, before I transitioned, I too, wanted to die. I thought about how I would kill myself daily. I would pray to be hit by a truck as I drove to the store. I wondered what the most painless way to do it would be. I stopped eating and engaged in self-harm. I really, truly wanted to die. This was before I even faced much discrimination due to being transgender – I wasn’t even out yet – but even so, knowing the road that lay ahead I was terrified. I was terrified knowing that the world would hate me for wanting to be myself.
I am very thankful that I got past that point and that I sought help. I am thankful that I began hormones and started transitioning. Since that low point in my life, I am much more at peace with myself and my body, and I have become a much stronger, more well rounded individual. I feel like a person. Even so, there is a prevailing attitude that being transgender in of itself is equivalent to mental illness. In other words, the problem lies within transgender individuals, and their desires to achieve self-actualization are misguided, and ultimately, futile, attempts to cure a disease that causes them to irrationally transgress socially prescribed normative gender identities (those which correspond to one’s designated sex at birth). One need only look to the comments section for evidence of this attitude:
It doesn’t matter to these people and to our society that the actual “reality” of the situation (one that transgender people know quite well and have faced on a deeper level than these internet commentators could imagine) contradicts exactly what they are saying a few paragraphs above their ignorant attacks on those that they refuse to understand. It is a symptom of the real disease at play here: transphobia. Like with other social ills, transphobia is a disease that causes those affected to stigmatize those whose body, gender identity, and presentation defies their preconceived notions of normalcy. I mean, after all, how would one explain the following comments about my gender identity?
(I could go on and on here; I’ve received no shortage of hatred like this.)
Yes, the problem in our society is CLEARLY transgender people and not those who attack us, even when we are total strangers.
This sort of thing is not uncommon in other forms of related social prejudice. Pathologization of Otherized identities by inferring sickness or disability is an age-old practice. Quoting Tobin Siebers in Disability Theory:
“The pathologization of other identities by disability is referential: it summons the historical and representational structures by which disability, sickness, and injury come to signify inferior human status.”
(Siebers 2008, 6)
It’s easy to see this pathologization at play with regard to an individual’s transgender status – the bizarre fixation on an individuals adherence to a socially constructed notion of “healthy” genital configuration congruent with one’s designated sex. The rhetoric of “mangled” or “mutilated” genitals (words chosen for their connotations of deformity, words not chosen to describe other surgeries) that pervade the discourse surrounding transgender individuals, regardless of whether or not they have even had any sort of surgery to modify their genital configuration. Many have not, due to the prohibitively high cost of what is commonly known as “sexual reassignment surgery” or “gender reassignment surgery” – which is on average $20,000 for transgender women (who some refer to as “male-to-female”) and up to $80,000 for transgender men (who some refer to as “female-to-male”). This cost is even steeper when you factor in the high rate of unemployment and poverty in the transender community, and their lack of access to adequate health insurance. Even with health insurance, transgender health care is often denied as a necessity and described as cosmetic, despite being long established as necessary treatment for gender dysphoria. The depathologization of gender dysphoria (formerly referred to as Gender Identity Disorder) is itself a recent development that long reinforced the societal association of transgender identity to pathology. Like homosexuality and wandering uterus, also known as hysteria, it is the perception of deviance that creates the pathology, not the behavior that is perceived as deviant.
This perception prevents transgender people from being accepted in society, let alone understood. It prevents us from equal access to necessary healthcare. It prevents us from equal economic opportunity, and as the survey shows, it prevents us from equal access to a healthy, happy life. We are defined, as Siebers says, as inferior human beings. Our existence is not the result of pathology and should not be stigmatized. If there is an illness we must combat, it does not involve transgender individuals attempting to achieve self-actualization. It is the socially communicated intolerance and hatred of bodies and identities that deviate from the status quo. It is that illness that plagues our society. It is that illness that is killing my transgender brothers and sisters, not our efforts to assert ourselves against the onslaught of violence we face for daring to affirm who we are.
If we wish to address statistics such as those in the survey, and if we wish to save lives, we must deconstruct our normative notions of only certain bodies and identites as acceptable and prerequisite to full personhood. We have to recognize the discourse surrounding transgender individuals and the negative representations of transgender identity as symptoms of a systemic intolerance of perceived deviance that deligitimizes, marginalizes, and even kills. If we don’t, things will not change. The only outcome that will result from forcing transgender individuals to conform to an identity that is not their own is a life of misery or death, as the statistics indicate. If those spouting ignorant hatred of transgender individuals were truly concerned about their mental or physical health rather than their own comfort with the status quo, they would advocate the same thing that every reputable source in healthcare advocates for transgender individuals – acceptance in society, affirmation of our identities, access to our healthcare, and the same opportunity to achieve self-actualization as anyone else.
Siebers, Tobin. Disability Theory. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2008.
As a transgender person, my relationship with mass media hasn’t always been the best of relationships. Every single day, when I watch television, or a film, or read news articles, or books, or even twitter, I feel like I’m walking through a minefield. Inevitably, I will step on one and be onslaught with some horribly insensitive comment or dehumanizing portrayal of a trans person. The systemic view of trans individuals as non-people is too ubiquitous, and the lack of understanding of our struggles coming to terms with our identities has created a mythologization of our lives with little concern for our perspective.
Like any other mythology, the transgender mythology relies on cultural tropes that help to structure narratives around it, which appeal to a shared sense of reality. This reality, however, is one told from only one perspective – that of cisgender, or non-trans people. Thet are the heroes, the polloi, the Hellenes. We are the monsters that the hero must battle, the exotic and shameful lust that the hero must resist, or the riddle that the hero must solve. This mythology can serve as the foundation of both tragic and the comedic narrative, from sophomoric frat boy humor to the epic tale. Regrettably, this mythology even manages, from time to time, to seep into the realm of journalism.
At the heart of much of this mythology is the theme of deception. Mainly, that transgender individuals, by living in the gender with which they identify, are doing so with intent to deceive, as if there were some inherently ulterior motive in their assertion of their own identity. This assumption is especially problematic in a society where transgender women are referred to as “traps” and face the threat of violence if their transgender status is discovered.
Enter Caleb Hannan. On January 15, Hannan published an article in which he investigated the history of a peculiar golf club that he learned about via YouTube. Such an article wouldn’t be the most enthralling subject to anyone who was not a golf enthusiast, but when used as the vehicle for a commonly understood mythology wrapped up in all the trappings of a mystery, on the other hand, that is interesting.
As Hannan detailed the aspects of Dr. V’s story that, in his mind, didn’t add up, I could only imagine that he saw himself as a hero serving the will of the gods of investigative journalism. Dr. V, the golf club’s mastermind, was, on the surface, merely an eccentric genius with a brilliant product, but like any reporter doing their job, he couldn’t to rely on appearances alone. He began to investigate, and indeed, he found inconsistencies in her credentials which cast doubt on the science of the golf club. Hannan didn’t seem to focus on the perceived inconsistencies in her credentials, however. Instead, he crafted his narrative around the perceived inconsistencies in her gender, a matter wholly unrelated to the golf club or the science behind it, and elected to draw upon the mythology of transgender deception to undermine her identity.
Hannan described the “chill down his spine” when the monster (a human being in the form of a trans woman) was revealed to him. He described a sense of epic betrayal when reality did not conform to his assumptions. He even described the pity he felt for this monster, whose identity he pathologized as he woefully described Dr. V as a “troubled man”. What he didn’t do was humanize the subject of his inquiries. He summoned her, described her Otherness to an unsympathetic audience, described her sins of deception (to her investor as well as to Hannan’s assumptions), and vowed to vanquish her evil by “revealing the details” of her past, despite Dr. V’s requests.
As if to justify what follows, Hannan relates the “menacing” tone of Dr. V frantically pleading with him to not reveal her identity to a world hostile to her existence. Hannan refuses, and the tale reaches its tragic climax. In the end, Dr. V took her own life. Disturbingly, Hannan adopts a stoic posture, expressing a regret that rings hollow and frankly unaware of the severity of his actions.
“Although there were times when I had been genuinely thrilled with the revelation that Dr. V’s official narrative didn’t line up with reality, there was nothing satisfying about where the story had ended up. ”
The tragedy of her Dr. V’s death was written as Hannan’s tragedy, a regrettable end of a heroic epic. An epic whose moral seems to indicate that all could have been avoided had she not been deceptive. This is perhaps the most troubling inconsistency, however – namely, that Hannan’s tale was not, in fact, a fantasy. It was a reality. Dr. V was no monster – she was a person, and the end result of his dissection of Dr. V’s identity and his exposure of that identity without her consent ended in her very real death. The moral of the story for transgender individuals was a very different one – not to trust others under penalty of death.
This is sadly not an uncommon story for us. The novelty of the “trans reveal” that shocks cisgender sensibilities has little appeal to us when the end result of that mythological trope is, more often than not, violence towards us. The mythology of our deceptiveness is inconsistent with our own narratives of heroic defiance of a society that wishes to destroy us. We’re tired of our reality being viewed as mythology and the mythology surrounding our existence being portrayed as reality. Most of all, we’re tired of this mythology killing us.
I’m not accusing Caleb Hannan of murder. His journalism, however, was irresponsible. He violated Dr. V’s trust and revealed aspects of her identity that were not public domain without her consent. He did this to write a story about a golf club. What makes matters worse is that it was totally unnecessary – her gender identity did not need to be a part of the story at all, and if we lived in a society that saw our gender identities as valid and not deceptive, perhaps Dr. V wouldn’t have felt a need to keep hers hidden. This is the reality, the end result of mythology that dehumanizes us. This is not a tragedy that we can walk away from. This is our lives, and the best outcome that I can hope for is that the reality of our existence, not the mythology, becomes accepted so that tragedies like this don’t occur again.
Recently, a post popped up on my Facebook news feed about Lizzie Velasquez. I’d describe who she is in this sentence, but I don’t think I could do her justice. To me, and many other people, she has become an incredible inspiration. You see, Lizzie and I have a lot in common. No, I don’t have the same condition that she has, and I can’t imagine what she’s dealt with. She’s not transgender and hasn’t had to deal with my struggles or fight my battles either.
What she reminded me of, is that no matter what conditions we have or what circumstances we are born into, they do not define us. We define ourselves. We choose to become who we want to be. This message was the central theme of her excellent talk at TedxAustinWomen.
Now, I know what some people might be thinking. Yes, our circumstances do shape our identity, and membership in culturally marginalized groups especially can cultivate an identification with a group and greatly increase our likelihood for having similar experiences. Things are harder for some of us. That’s not what defines us, though. No matter who we are or what others say about us, we are in control of who we are. To quote Lizzie:
“Even though I’ve had it hard, I can’t let that define me.”
“You are the one that decides what defines you.”
The resonance that message has for me as a transgender woman is profound. As I’ve said, my summary of what it’s like to be transgender involves just that – trying to define yourself in a world intent on denying you the right to do so. For a long time, the ferocity with which our society denies us this self-determination kept me trapped in a state of non-being, yearning desperately to be a person. Sure, I existed – I was alive, but I wasn’t really living. There were no boundaries to contain my shapeless sense of self as I was whipped about like flotsam on a stormy sea and smashed against the rocks.
From my earliest memories of interaction with other children, I was bullied. I was threatened with violence, I had rocks thrown at me, I was physically, verbally, and emotionally assaulted by my peers, and before I knew it I had become a total recluse whose only friends were her video games and her books. Although they provided me a temporary refuge from harm, they didn’t give me any feeling that I was in control of my life or that I would ever be free from the definitions that others thrust upon me – fat, ugly, poor, weird, stupid, and ultimately, unworthy of friendship or love. I was shackled to those definitions for most of my 26 years on this planet, and I became incredibly bitter. What I didn’t know at the time was that it was that it was I who shackled those definitions to myself, not my peers.
I internalized the violence hurled at me. I hated myself, and I defined myself through the lens of those who hated me. I saw myself as unlovable, as a failure, as a stupid, fat, ugly kid that could never be seen as beautiful and who didn’t deserve her friends. I pushed people away and kept myself from flourishing. Worst of all, I defined myself as someone that didn’t deserve to live, and it almost killed me. Then at the nadir of my existence, everything changed. I decided to take the reins. I decided that a definition for myself that I thought was impossible – a woman – was the only definition that could suit me. I decided that I was going to live, and that from that day, the day of June 5, 2012, I would define myself as a woman. It was a long time coming. I finally started to see some shafts of light shining down through the dark clouds that hung over my head for so many years. I was awash in the glow of a euphoria that I never could have imagined was possible. I felt happiness. I couldn’t put it into words, but things felt right.
Even though I was more comfortable in my own skin, I kept my trans status a closely held secret, known only to my parents and my closest friends. I felt better, but I still felt insecure. I didn’t want to be seen, and constantly worried about the perceptions of others (despite the fact that to the rest of the world, I was any other tall, lanky, and slightly awkward girl). I was defining myself in cissexist terms. I defined my trans status as shameful and defined myself as flawed for not being cisgender. I told myself that the only thing that I could offer the world was what was visible on the surface, and that I was only acceptable if I kept the reality of my body hidden. I soon realized, however, that I didn’t want to be defined as a person with a shameful secret. That was, after all, what I was running away from when I transitioned. I wanted to know the real me. Slowly, but surely, I began to venture out of my shell via my blog (then on Tumblr) and my Twitter account.
The first time I defined myself publicly as transgender, I was simultaneously terrified and relieved. While a weight was lifted off my chest, I feared that definition would be used against me, and indeed, there have been times when it has been. However, I learned that when others would use that definition against me, it would be their inaccurate, ignorant, and stereotypical image of a transgender person that they were wielding against me. It wasn’t reality, and it wasn’t my definition of self. My identity does not, and cannot ever belong to them because I own who I am. Moreover, I found that the definition of me that they would try to attack me with was a flimsy and inconsistent one that took a different shape depending on their angle of attack. Often, the same person would demean me for my womanhood one minute, and accuse of being a man the very next. That didn’t change who I was, however. I remained the woman that I always was. They’d harass me incessantly, angry at the words that I said, and accuse me of being the “troll” and project their irrational anger and hate onto me. That didn’t make me a troll, it only reaffirmed that I am doing my job as an advocate.
Some very pathetic individuals (one of them, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, a former member of a neo-confederate hate group) used some of these very same tactics against me recently, in efforts to intimidate me, to silence me, and to try to alter my self-perception and self-definition. They’re not the first, but just like the others, they tried to use the very same tired tactic of trying to define me by my assumed anatomy and the totality of my identity by my membership in a culturally defined, marginalized group. It didn’t work, and it didn’t work because I’m not my anatomy. I’m transgender, but that’s not all I am. I’m a strong, beautiful, smart, and capable woman who isn’t a “victim” at all, but rather, a survivor. I’ve had to overcome more in my 26 years than most will ever have to face in a lifetime, and no one can take that away from me. I’ve defined myself as a respected voice in the transgender community and in the feminist community, and I’ve done so in a short amount of time. I’m Kat Haché, and I’m a woman that I’m proud of being, and as long as that is the definition that I give to myself, that is who I am. I like how I’ve defined myself, and if I could go back in time and do it all again, I wouldn’t change a thing.
Like Lizzie, I’ve defined myself, and it is that definition, not anyone else’s, that can have any claim to an accurate description of who I am. That definition will probably evolve as I (hopefully) continue to evolve as both an advocate and an individual, but I will always be the one to decide who I am. I decided not to be a victim of my circumstances, and to become a fighter – a champion. I decided that I am the woman that I want to be and that I am deserving of love. I decided to be courageous put myself out there despite the repercussions. In the face of that reality, all of my detractors’ definitions of who I am ring hollow. They can’t contain all that I am within the narrow boundaries of their hatred. Knowing that, I’m bulletproof.
Being transgender, is, in pretty basic terms, a never-ending quest to assert and affirm the right to define oneself on one’s own terms in a world very intent on preventing one from doing so. It’s an emphatic denial of the identities thrust upon us by a society that defines us by our adherence to socially prescribed norms. For people who dare to defy these norms and refuse to be defined by an oppressive society, the punishment is , in turn, that same society attempting to define you by your deviance. As you can imagine, this is both exhausting and dehumanizing, and our society doesn’t take very kindly to defiance.
Last night I was thinking about some of these things after a search of the word “transgender” on twitter. I made note of the fact that the word transgender is used as a noun with a depressingly high rate of frequency, and one of the more common phrases it was found in was “(some person) looks like a transgender”. Not only is this completely nonsensical, because transgender people are people, and as such all look different, but it’s also awful, because they’re saying much more than the simple observation that a person looks like what they expect a transgender person to look like.
What they mean is that (as I’ve mentioned) our deviance from their notions of what a man or woman should be defines us and we are nothing more than that. It’s also a way of saying that we’re ugly or inferior or otherwise flawed, because we’ll never be seen as who we are, only a poor imitation of the gender with which we identify. By calling us “a transgender” it’s erasing our individual qualities that make us human, that do not change as a result of our gender identities, and dehumanizing us in order to justify to themselves that we are a freak, or a pervert, or a trickster, or even their fetish object. Inspired by my friend Suey Park’s defiant #notyourasiansidekick hashtag, I decided to affirm my own identity in opposition to the stereotypes thrust upon me and other transgender individuals.
First off: the bathroom thing. When I go to the bathroom, I go to the bathroom to pee. The bathroom is not some savannah where trans women seek their prey, despite the false narratives that pervade our discourse. It’s probably the least erotic place I can imagine. That isn’t to say that there isn’t the possibility of a pervert trying to infiltrate a bathroom, but assuming that transgender women are guilty of predation until proven innocent is unfair and unsubstantiated, and to force transgender women to use facilities inconsistent with our gender presentation puts us at risk of violence. When people want to force trans women out of women’s spaces, they advocate a policy of pushing women into real violence based on the myth that imagined violence by trans women against cis women in women’s spaces is pandemic despite all evidence to the contrary. Transgender individuals avoid using the restroom because these myths exist. We are the ones afraid behind the stall door, not you, and sadly, for good reason. In barring trans women from access to safe bathroom facilities we do nothing in addition to the laws already exist to bar hypothetical perverts from entering women’s spaces, and it ignores the reality that trans women are far more often preyed upon than the predator themselves. According to Rebecca Stotzer (2009) (cited here), nearly half of all transgender people experience sexual violence at some point during their lifetimes.
What about my personal experience? Well, in the great state of Tennessee, where a state senator vowed to “stomp a mudhole” in any trans people using facilities that correspond to their gender identity within proximity of him or his family, it’s never been an issue. In fact, I’ve had people, women, employers, tell me that they prefer I use the women’s facilities based upon my gender presentation. It only makes sense. Furthermore, I’m kind of insulted by the idea that my sexual attraction (which is largely toward men) is even a factor at all in where I pee, let alone the fact that it’s apparently erased by the paranoia of others. Especially when gay and lesbian cisgender individuals already use bathroom facilities that correspond to their gender identity (again, without incident). And where are trans men in all of this? What are they supposed to do as a result of this trans bathroom panic?
When you spend even 5 minutes thinking about transgender bathroom paranoia it becomes absurd, although that hasn’t prevented it from becoming a hot button issue with disastrous consequences for trans people. Realistically, there is no way to enforce proposed legislation to bar us from our safety outside of mandatory genital checks at the door and karyotype testing. Trans women are women, and trans men are men, and we are all people and deserve safety. We are not your boogeyman.
Our society is full of horrible assaults against trans women’s dignity (and trans men are rendered invisible by their lack of acknowledgement). It’s perfectly kosher for late night comedians or popular sitcoms to lash out at transgender individuals, to make us the butt of any poorly written joke for a low-effort, cheap, and easy laugh. This may not seem like a big issue to cisgender individuals, but for a population with an incidence rate of suicide like ours, the cumulative results of this assault on not only our claim to our gender identity, but our humanity, can be disastrous. As Natalie Reed notes:
We have the inescapable barrage of jokes at the expense of trans women. We have the use of challenges to a man’s gender as the most salient and consistently employed insult. It is effectivelyimpossible for a trans woman to make it through a single day without being confronted with messages telling her she should be ashamed of herself for what she is.
I’ve mentioned before just how bitterly exhausting it is to live in a world where that’s what you hear, constantly, from all sides. That you are the worst thing that could ever happen to someone. That your life is a misery. That your body is a disgusting abomination. That you are brimming over with sin and immorality. That you are an unnatural freak. That your identity is a joke. That your mind is diseased and delusional. That you are unlovable, undesirable, unfuckable, untouchable, that beauty is by definition only attainable through the degree to which you suppress and hide what you are, and that in all likelihood, no one will ever love or want you. That if you have the audacity to pursue love or intimacy or touch, then you are a deceitful liar who deserves whatever violence befalls her. That you are “really” a man, but bereft of everything that makes men “superior”. That nothing awaits you further in life but more pain, more misery, more loneliness, and if you’re lucky, an early death.
I am not something to be ashamed of. I am not the butt of your jokes. I am beautiful, capable, intelligent, and not mentally deranged. I do not look like a freak or exist to be gawked at, regardless of my attire.
I do not exist to be demeaned. I am not the butt of your jokes. I will not be ridiculed, and I am not your circus freak.
This tired stereotype can be found everywhere from the aformentioned sitcoms to puerile 4chan image macros (“It’s a trap!”). It is important to analyze it and to understand why it exists, however. The notion of trans women as deceptive stems from several things – The fear of straight men to acknowledge that they might be attracted to trans women, because our society tells them that we are not women, the general assumption that trans women are predatory, the assumption that no one would ever elect to love us or sleep with us of their own volition because we are, to quote Natalie Reed, “unfuckable,” and the demonization of transgender people in an effort to marginalize us and to differentiate us from the cisgender dominant group. It’s a ridiculous notion, however, if for no other reason than the fact that I have no desire to love or to have sex with anyone that doesn’t see me as a human being or appreciate and accept who I am. They are the ones not worthy of my time, not the other way around. Sadly, the way that this horrible stereotype plays out in reality is often tragic – for trans people. This cissexist stereotype is where compulsory heterosexuality and hegemonic masculinity intersect with the horrifying ubiquity of violence against women. This stereotype kills. Trans women are not here for your sexual pleasure, so our existence is not deception. We are who we are, we are not your deceitful trickster.
This stereotype is a result of one of the most dehumanizing double-binds of transmisogyny. Not only does larger society see us as unfuckable and unlovable on our own terms as we are, but we become fuckable and lovable only at the whims of straight men and defined by our sexual exoticism. We are not fuckable or lovable as individuals, only as categories – the sexual terminology used as slurs to define us even within decidedly non-porn settings. “Shemale”, “tranny” and “he/she” are all terms used to categorize the proclivities of heterosexual men to aid them in the clandestine consumption and degradation of our bodies. They are words meant to define our entire existence by the anatomy that causes us so much discomfort, and they are everywhere in society. So prevalent is the idea of our sexuality existing only insofar as us being fetish objects that any time I have objected to it, I have been met with retorts that as a trans women I should be satisfied with someone finding me attractive. This isn’t about my attractiveness, and attraction is not objectification. Attraction is when you see someone as an individual and accept that as part of who they are, while objectification is viewing an individual as nothing more than an instrument to satisfy your sexual desires. Objectification of cisgender women is reprehensible and dehumanizing, and it’s the same for transgender women. We have the right to define our sexuality, just as the rest of our identity, on our own terms, and we do not have to settle for sexual objectification. We aren’t an indulgence that exists only when your “exotic” sexual desires demand satisfaction. We aren’t your sexual experiment. We aren’t your shameful secret. We aren’t women with training wheels or women with an asterisk. We are not your fetish object.
I, like all transgender people, am a person with dignity and pride. I refuse to be reduced by a stereotype and as I continue to affirm my identity and my humanity daily, I will encourage others to do the same until those perpetuating these offensive stereotypes, rather than the transgender people like me that they malign, are shamed out of society.
If you haven’t been paying attention, Katie Couric interviewed Laverne Cox and Carmen Carrera (two fantastic and lovely trans women of color), and she didn’t do a very good job. She did her best to derail and (as so often happens) return the conversation to these women’s genitals.
Fortunately, Laverne and Carmen were having none of that, and schooled Katie Couric in common courtesy. Laverne in particular was brilliant bringing the discussion back around to some of the systemic difficulties that trans women face, and the danger that trans women, especially trans women of color, face for daring to live as they are.
As a transgender woman that is public (very public) about her transgender status, I too have had to field the genitals question more times than I want to recall. I’ve only been out and transitioning for a little over a year and a half, and in that time I’ve been asked more about my genitals than I had in the 24 years that I lived pre-transition at all of the doctor’s visits and in all the physicals that I’ve ever had. It even happens in the most ridiculous scenarios in which my genital configuration could not matter less.
Here’s one example: because I changed my appearance so much after I started transition, my ID no longer resembled me, so I went to get a replacement photo. I haven’t legally changed my name or gender marker, so I was just getting a photo ID that looked like me so that I could get a beer without getting intense scrutiny and outing myself (I knew most people don’t check beyond the photograph and the date of birth). The woman at the front desk of the DMV was kind enough, and didn’t remark on my old ID. She directed me to the self service kiosk. Unfortunately, it was not functioning correctly and had to ask for assistance. A man in his mid-50s or so walked out, asked me what the problem was, and I informed him. He proceeded to loudly remark on my ID’s inconsistency with my appearance, loudly ask me what my birth name was and repeat it as he typed it in, and then ask if I had had “the surgery” because I was “the first one he’s ever met” right there in front of the crowded DMV. There was absolutely no reason for him to need that information. Furthermore, I live in East Tennessee, which is not the most progressive area on earth, so I had no idea what any one of those people could have potentially done or said to me after I was pulled aside, isolated, and made a spectacle, being outed for everyone’s entertainment.
This sort of thing happens all the time. And it’s not just our genital configuration. People ask how we use the bathroom, how we have sex, and all manner of embarrassing, invasive questions in the name of “curiosity”. This isn’t curiosity though, this is entitlement. Our society, which privileges cisgender bodies, has a systemic entitlement to bodies that deviate from the norm. It is seen as fair game to interrogate us, dissect us, and put us on display to gawk at our Other-ness, not as a means of truly understanding and accepting us, but as a way of justifying their own oppressive beliefs and separating us from the status of “normal” people. It reminds us that we are in a subordinate status, we have no consent to access to our bodies. We are not in control of our own bodies. It tells us that the wages for daring to transgress society’s prescribed norms are consumption and ridicule.
Most people that I interact with have no clue that I’m transgender, unless I tell them as much. Outside of my activism, it’s hardly relevant, and it’s not a detail that I see necessary to divulge in the great majority of my relationships unless I am very comfortable with a person and I find it relevant to the subject at hand. Yet, as soon as it’s known, people feel entitled to inquire about the status of my genitals, as if when admitting my trans status, my entire body became an acceptable topic of public discourse. It is as if when I open my mouth, my clothes are stripped and I am made to parade around until others feel an acceptable level of “understanding”. It’s demeaning, and no one would think it acceptable to demand that of a cis person, especially a cis man (although cis women do face a similar kind of public dissection – see the obsession with female celebrities’ bodies for an example) I don’t mind people knowing as much as I used to, but the option for discretion is important. As I’ve mentioned, I have no idea how anyone that I tell will react when I tell them. I have no idea if they will embrace me fully as I am, or if they will decide to no longer speak to me, or worse – and that “worse” is tragically an all-too-real reality for trans women.
In dating, the fear of disclosure is a real one. There’s a debate about whether a trans woman need to disclose at all, and I am firmly on the side of “it’s none of your damn business unless I decide to make it your business”, but seeing as I, like many women, can’t afford to pony up the $20,000 on average surgery (excluding travel and other incidental costs, which, even if I could afford insurance would likely not be covered) that our society has deemed a goalpost for being a legitimate person, disclosure for me remains an inevitable necessity should I engage with anyone sexually. It may seem a cursory inconvenience to cisgender people to have to talk about our genitals, but as I’ve mentioned, transgender people value their privacy because not only is it defying society’s demand that we bare ourselves to an oppressive regime, but it ensures our safety.
I’m grateful for Carmen and Laverne’s grace in turning their humiliation into their triumph and forcing this conversation into the mainstream, because for too long the genital conversation that we need (about how our genitals are no one’s business but our own and we are legitimate regardless of our genital configuration) is not the genital conversation that we’ve had. My hope, is that as word of this interview percolates through the mainstream media, people have an increased understanding of the issues facing trans people, including the violation of our privacy, and that as a result we have both increased sensitivity to transgender individuals that are interviewed and a more safe society for trans people.
I had insomnia last night, so I made something to simulate when ignorant ass jerks throw opinions at marginalized people. Hope you like it.
Zoya Street, Mattie Brice, and Aevee Bee all put up excellent posts recently reflecting on the status of discourse within the loosely defined social justice “community” that are excellent and deserve a read. There’s not much that I can really add to what they’ve all said, except to echo that I share many of the same concerns, but I wanted to offer some of my own personal reflections on the topic.
I want to say, first of all, that I’ve noticed myself playing into this same toxicity at various times over the past year, which is more or less the entirety of time that I’ve been visible in my advocacy. It’s gained me a reputation within and outside of the circles I run in (both good and bad) and there have been many times where my actions have given me pause. Not to trivialize what has been said at all, but I think the moment when all of this started to crystallize (forgive the horrible pun that that word is about to become) is when I began to watch Breaking Bad with my boyfriend.
If you are one of the people that hasn’t watched the show, I won’t spoil too much in the way of specifics, but basically, the main character, Walt, is a school teacher that learns that he has cancer and decides to spend the last of his days cooking crystal meth to make money to leave for his family. He ends up getting everyone else caught in his increasingly complex web of secrecy and undergoes a massive personality change as a result of his increasing notoriety.
I felt a lot of sympathy for Walt in the beginning. After all, his diagnosis wasn’t fair, and his life was not the greatest. By all counts, he deserved better, and so did his family. His brother-in-law, who was doing far better, was an oppressive jerk. Even when he decided to “break bad” I wanted to see him succeed, because his motives were seemingly pure and his heart seemed to be in the right place. When he was in danger, I would clutch tightly on my boyfriend’s arm and hope that he would get out and continue building his empire.
Somewhere around the midway point of the series, I began to realize that I was cheering for someone to continue an activity that drained the emotional energy of his family and put them in danger of having their lives destroyed. It became more and more clear that even if his motives at the outset were altruistic, that they had become selfish and misguided. I began to see people like his brother in law as human beings and not their oppressive language. I began to analyze the ramifications of Walt’s actions. Finally, I came to look at my own actions in a different light.
Perhaps what caused me to make this connection between Breaking Bad and the pieces by Zoya, Aevee, and Mattie was this recent Thoughtcatalog post:
I was fairly sure that the message that the show wanted to send was that Walt was a sociopath, not a “badass,” and that his behavior shouldn’t be celebrated. Nor should a lot of the behavior that I’ve seen or engaged in.
Rest assured, I haven’t been cooking meth in what little free time I’ve had in the past 6 months. But I have gained a sort of notoriety within the twitter social justice crowd in a very short amount of time. People have told me that they follow me to see me schooling people or tearing them apart. I have become very, very good at it, and to be frank, at times it scares me. It has even caused me problems in my personal life. I won’t go into detail, but as my confidence and “badass-ness” has increased, so has my bitterness, and that’s not at all how I want to be seen.
I think there have been times when others have looked at me and seen that they were cheering on someone to tear another person apart. I’ve seen pieces of that here and there over the past year and I like to think that the past few months I’ve been doing better, and I’ve been vocal about wanting a better environment and discourse within whatever community we have. It’s not just me, however.
The same sort of cheering that people did for me to be more harsh and violent in my rhetoric is directed at others. It’s cheering others to be more visceral, more cruel, and more unrelenting in their assault. I see that, and I see how quickly some of that anger has turned on some of my friends, how it quickly collapses into a black hole of animosity, and I fear that it’s only a matter of time before it’s directed at me. I don’t think that’s sustainable, and when I see social justice language used in a performative act of trying to upstage one another in terms of cruelty towards others, others who should be our allies, I have to wonder what makes us so different from those perpetuating the same social ills that we profess to be fighting against.
Anita Sarkeesian’s TED talk touched on this sort of performative cruelty, where targeting other individuals online has gained somewhat of a competitive aspect, similar to that of a video game, with a rewards system that reinforces toxic behavior. I have to say, as much as I’ve seen directed at me that mirrors exactly what she describes in the threads about me on 4chan, I’ve seen a disturbing amount within the social justice circle.
I don’t want to seem as if I’m preaching from any place of sanctimony. I’ve been caught up in this negativity and perpetuated it. I more or less made national news for a twitter fight with Todd Kincannon.
I still think that a lot of anger is justified, and that righteous anger can be a useful agent for change. It gets people motivated. What I’ve seen hasn’t been anger, it’s been cruelty and brinksmanship, especially that which has been directed at those within the community itself. I have seen people viciously ostracized for reasons that seem petty and in the long run only alienate allies to our cause. All the while it’s been cheered on reinforced in the echo chamber nature of our community.
I’m sure that it feels like that viciousness is serving our cause. I know that I’ve felt the same about my harshness towards others. I have felt at times, a sense of power that is addictive. I’ve had a taste of the weapon that has been wielded against me and kept me subjugated and using it against others has made me feel momentarily revitalized. When the anger subsides, however, I feel a craving for that high again, but it never satisfies me. This is why, in part, I believe that the forces we fight against are so hard to dismantle. They are addictive. They are rewarded by the peers of those who indulge in them. They are a drug, and getting anyone to see that things are better when they aren’t under the influence of a self-destructive drug is a hefty challenge.
If we continue to wield power over one another for personal gain within our community, then we’re not going to last as a community. It’s going to be a group of competing vigilantes staking their claim to a fleeting sensation of dominance, much like the oppressors. I just don’t believe it’s sustainable. And because I want to live and practice what I preach I am making it my goal to try and be a little more humane in my interactions with others online and offline. It may be less theatrical and exciting, but I don’t want to be manufacturing toxicity or dragging others around me down. It’s not worth it. No amount of followers, nor the reach of my voice can justify the long term effects.
For 2014, I’m going to try to use my anger more productively, to funnel it into creative projects and to inspire and build up rather than to tear down. I want to be a different kind of warrior, one who is known for what she creates rather than what she destroys, and known for her nurturing rather than her viciousness. I still believe my anger to be capable of creating positive change, but I must be mindful that the power that I wield is as capable of being used to divide in my hands as it is in the hands of those that wish me ill for existing. I won’t be a Walter White. I won’t tear people apart. I will use my sword much more judiciously, and practice caring and compassion as I work with others to be better, because I too have so much to learn.
The progress that we’ve seen has been fostered by increased dialogue, not silencing others or making them unafraid to speak, or drowning them out with our voice. That is why I am committing myself to doing what I can to not engage in that sort of conduct and to call it out from this point forward. I may be less of a “badass” for it, but I will be much more of a positive force, and that is something that I want for myself and for this community as we work together for the ideal world that motivates us all to advocate for others.