Thursday, January 14, 2016

On "Male, Female, Transgender" Checkboxes

I've actually been encountering more forms on which I'm asked to identify my sex or gender using checkboxes labeled "male," "female" or "transgender." This is my response in image form:


"Wait. There are more than two religions--what if someone has a different religion, or no religion at all? And 'convert' isn't a religion, it means a person who has gone through a process that welcomes them into one."

Exactly.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Traveling While Trans: The False Promise of Better Treatment



Back in 2012, I wrote a post about the problems I regularly encountered as a trans person when going through TSA security screening at airports.

Since that time, we've been promised, much has changed. The TSA has formally stated that it will not discriminate on the basis of gender identity. Passengers are to be screened based upon their gender presentation. Any pat-downs are to be conducted by TSA agents whose gender matches the passenger's presented gender, no matter what gender marker is listed on the passenger's government ID. The agents on the floor operating the body scanner now just see a body outline icon marked with any areas of "anomaly" on their screen, instead of an actual image of the details of the passenger's anatomy, so privacy should be protected. The TSA has promised that the bad old days of trans people being harassed and humiliated by its agents are in the past, and we have reached the era of enlightenment.

That would be nice. 

Unfortunately, what now happens in practice is another matter altogether. In my own experience, intrusive, frightening, and humiliating screenings continue unabated. To illustrate, I'll relate what happened to me when I flew from Milwaukee to New York a couple of weeks ago. The short version is this: I was detained for almost an hour and subjected to multiple, increasingly-invasive pat-downs, as a result of the equipment used by the TSA, along with the (lack of) training by agents in the TSA's stated trans policies. Eventually, as things escalated, even my daughter was taken aside for intensive screening, though she had set off no alarms--because an agent came to believe that she too was trans, and thus a suspicious traveler.

Let's look at how this could come to  happen.

Today, body scanners are the normative screening method in U.S. airports. In the past, travelers had the right to request a physical pat-down instead of going through the scanner, but the TSA recently decided complying with such a request is at the discretion of the agent. Since simply requesting not to be scanned can be perceived as suspicious, most trans passengers will be body-scanned. So, let's look at an example of the icon image a TSA agent running a body scanner receives:



As you can see, the way the system operates is that the TSA agent pushes a pink-for-girls or blue-for-boys binary gender button when a passenger enters the body scanner. The scanner then looks for "anomalies" under the passenger's clothing--and in the process, engages in technological sex/gender policing. The image above shows what a TSA agent will see when many trans women go through a scanner: an "anomaly" in the groin area. When I go through the scanner, the red and yellow areas of "anomaly" are in my chest area, as I wear a binder. Every time I am scanned, when I look back at the display, I see my chest area outlined in colors of alarm:



The TSA says it does not discriminate on the basis of gender identity, and that travelers will be treated with respect as members of whatever gender they present themselves as. But in fact, the "Automated Target Recognition" software used by body scanners is set up to police both binary sex and cisgender bodily expectations. Bodies that vary from these expectations set off alarms and are treated as potential terrorist threats.

Once a TSA agent sees ares of red and yellow on the screen before them, the passenger must receive additional screening until the possible threat is deemed "cleared." The first step is that a public pat-down is performed right outside the scanner by a TSA agent. (That agent is supposed to be of the same gender as the traveler, but one should note that binary gender is presumed by the TSA, and there is no official TSA policy about how to handle passengers with nonbinary gender identities.) 

If the initial pat-down doesn't "clear" the issue, the passenger is taken to a screening room for a more invasive investigation. This makes the initial pat-down pivotal in determining how unpleasant the process of passing through security will be for a trans traveler.

The factor that determines what will happen to trans travelers after we are marked as "anomalous" by body scanners is largely a matter of the training and attitude of the TSA agent called over for the public pat-down that follows. If that agent understands that the alarm has been set off by our trans anatomy, and that the TSA is supposed to treat trans bodies with respect, we get a quick pat-down and are cleared to move on. The trans passenger will experience a brief flash of adrenaline when their body sets off an alarm, and anxiety as their body is publicly palpated in an area likely to be one they do not wish scrutinized, but the interval of apprehension is brief, and travel is not disrupted.

The problem is, many TSA agents have little understanding of trans people or our bodies, although they supposedly should have received appropriate training. They view our "anomalous" body scan results as suspicious, as weird, and as marking a potentially serious threat. So when their physical inspection confirms there is indeed Something There where the scanner image shows glaring red and yellow, they send us off for further, more intrusive screening.

In my personal experience, my chances of being detained for additional screening after the brief public pat-down are about 2 in 3 when flying out of my home airport in Milwaukee, but significantly lower when flying out of airports in large coastal American cities. My body and my binding practices are the same when flying away and flying home, so it's clear that local culture plays a substantial role in trans experiences with TSA screening. Levels of trans awareness and transphobia vary. And this impacts not only whether we will face additional screening, but what that screening will be like.

(This is not to say that TSA agents in large coastal cities are trans-aware paragons. When my wife was flying out of San Francisco in 2014, the TSA agents did grant that since her response to the question "are you presenting as male or female" was that she a trans woman, the TSA agent who patted her down should also be a woman. But that agent spent an inordinate amount of time patting and feeling over her chest with an expression of confused suspicion. Finally, she asked my spouse what she had in there. My wife responded, "Erm, those are my breasts." The response of the agent? "How can you have breasts if you aren't wearing a bra?" My spouse stared at the agent for a bit, openmouthed, before replying, "You're a woman--you tell me." The TSA agents conferred for a while, before deciding that while they were uncomfortable my wife's clearly trans body, the mounds on her chest were indeed breasts, and going braless does not constitute a terrorist threat. So they allowed her to proceed. But it was hardly a smooth encounter that left my wife feeling respected or validated.)

In December 2015, while flying from Milwaukee to New York with my daughter, my body scan results showed my "anomalous" chest highlighted in red and yellow as usual, and the operator of the scanner called a TSA agent over to give me a pat-down. When patting me down, the agent palpated my binder, and asked me what I was wearing under my shirt, following standard TSA procedure. I stated that it was a chest binder. This is the critical juncture--perhaps a third of the time, in Milwaukee, the agent will ask no more questions, simply complete patting down my body, and send me on my way. But more often, I'll be interrogated as to why I wear the binder, as was the case this time. My initial reply is always the simple statement that I wear it to compress my chest, but the agent usually finds this reply incomprehensible, and asks why I would need to do that. Once I explain that I do so because I am a trans man, I'm inevitably separated from my belongings and my travel companion and taken to a small room with two TSA agents for additional screening.

In 2012 I wrote about the highly uncomfortable experiences I have when I am locked in a screening room with two or more TSA agents for inspection at the Milwaukee airport. Since then, I have been assured that the agents have received additional training. They are supposed to be aware that the TSA considers a chest binder to be a prosthetic device, and that trans passengers should not be asked to display or remove prostheses such as binders, breast forms, or packers. I have been told that agents would no longer make me open or remove my shirt when being subjected to the additional screening procedure.

But that's just not true. Every time I am taken into the screening room for additional scrutiny, in every city where this has happened, I am asked to open, lift, or remove my shirt so that my binder can be inspected and swabbed for explosives. And every single time this happens, I get to watch the agents' faces go from puzzled confusion to uncomfortable or disgusted recognition that I have breasts under there, and that they are covered with chest hair. This never changes.

How the screening proceeds from there, however, does vary. Sometimes it is very tense. Last year, a TSA agent at a New York airport ordered me to remove my binder so it could be sent through the x-ray machine. I had to insist that a supervisor be called to confirm that I could not be required to remove my binder, and at one point during this confrontation there were four big men in the tiny room with me, which is an intimidating situation. 

At least during my most recent screening, nobody asked me to take the binder off--I was only directed to untuck and lift my shirt so that the agent could reach under the shirt and swab the binder for hazardous substances. Still, things went far from smoothly, because for some reason, when tested, the swab that the agent used to swipe over my binder and clothing set off an alarm as positive for some unspecified "substance".

That's when the atmosphere got a lot more serious. Another agent was called. All my carry-on belongings had to be removed from my backpack and medical equipment bag and swabbed for "substances". I had to have a more intensive triple pat-down of my entire body, including my "sensitive areas" (TSA-speak for groin, buttocks and chest). Multiple parts of my body were swabbed, including all of the outside surfaces of my binder, which I had to reveal in its entirety by lifting my shirt. And when this round of swabs was analyzed, two of them again tested as positive for suspicious substances (apparently two different substances, though the agents wouldn't tell me what they might be). 

At this point, supervisors were called, as well as an agency office in Madison. My ID was confiscated, and my name, address, license number and phone number taken for entry into some database. There were now three men in the room with me, and a supervising woman standing outside the door. I was given a very intensive pat-down. When conversation turned once again to my binder and how to "clear" it, I had to remind the agents that as a prosthetic device, I could not be asked to remove it. So an agent proceeded to wedge his hands under the binder and grope my chest--to disprove, I suppose, his hypothesis that my bound breasts might somehow be bombs--a deeply uncomfortable experience, physically and psychologically.

At this point I was worried that I wouldn't be allowed to board my plane at all. I really, really wanted to know what the agents thought my binder was contaminated with.

Here's the thing I didn't know at the time, that my daughter, waiting nearby, told me afterwards: it was obvious that something was wrong with the equipment that analyzes the screening swabs. It was oversensitive or faulty. The device was setting off an alarm to report detecting suspicious substances every time a swab was inserted for every person being tested, including a little old lady in a wheelchair. The agents outside the screening room in which I were detained were complaining to one another about the equipment, and asking that it be recalibrated or replaced, as the next day was a busy one for holiday travel, and they were worried that the machine was going to cause a disaster in delays as it gave off false alarm after false alarm.

This situation in which I found myself reveals transphobia in action, because the alarms that were being taken very seriously in my case were not being taken seriously at all in the case of the other travelers my daughter observed setting off swab alarms. The agents must have felt that a bunch of middle-aged or older white cisgender travelers posed no real risk, and those travelers were quickly sent on their way. But I and my binder were treated as a credible threat. This is how privilege and marginalization work, along so many dimensions of identity: by determining what is deemed innocuous and what is considered suspicious.  When I first entered the screening area, I was treated with friendly professional camaraderie, enjoying white male privilege--not pulled aside, for example, for the "random" additional screening that so often amounts to the screening of brown people at the Milwaukee airport. But once my trans status was revealed, the friendly TSA treatment I was experiencing quickly switched to intensive surveillance. Thus, alarms that were not taken seriously in the case of other passengers were treated with stony suspicion in my case.

Now, when I am detained for additional security screening, I always try to keep things light. I stay calm and make friendly conversation, in an attempt to present myself as nonthreatening, and as a human being making human connections. This time, two of the four agents who wound up inspecting and questioning me maintained an unsmiling stare despite my efforts to be friendly, but two responded by adopting a casual, chatting tone. Unfortunately, that proved as hurtful as it was helpful.

I think it was helpful, in that although I was detained for over three quarters of an hour, eventually I was released and allowed to board my plane, despite setting off TSA alarms several times. But it was hurtful in that it led to a further delay and additional screening--of my daughter.

So here's how that transpired. During the screening, I had chatted with one of the agents about my travel plans--visiting relatives with my daughter--so the agents in the room with me knew that my travel companion was my college-aged child. But after my 45-minute screening was finished and I was just waiting for paperwork to be completed so I could be released, the door was opened, and the woman who was the supervisor, who was standing outside it, began chatting with me. She wanted me to know it would be a few more minutes until the paperwork was finished, and inquired about when my flight departed. I replied that I still had sufficient time to make my plane, as my wife and I had learned, both being transgender, that we needed to budget extra time for frequent additional screening. 

The supervisor told me that that was very wise, and complained how so many people who ought to know better don't budget the full two hours one is supposed to set aside to go through ticketing and security, and then get upset when they miss their planes. She then asked me a few questions about what I meant exactly when I stated that my spouse and I were transgender. I explained that I was assigned female at birth, while my wife was assigned male, but we had both legally gender transitioned. She responded in a manner both friendly and uncomfortable, saying,"I get you, even if lots of people are against that. You have to be yourself, even if people don't understand it. You're very lucky that you found a wife who understands." (She also asked me, "How did they give you that beard?," so I explained testosterone therapy.) 

The supervisor then walked off, saying that they should have me released soon, but that now they would need to "screen my travel companion and her carry on items." And she got another woman TSA agent, and took my daughter off to the "female" screening room.

I was puzzled by this, as was my kid, since she had been sitting nearby ever since I was detained after being scanned while she was not. She had been waiting for most of an hour without anyone implying she needed additional screening. But she complied, went off to be isolated in the screening room, watched while all her things were taken out of her backpack and examined, and submitted to a full-body pat-down. The supervisor chatted with her while doing this in a friendly manner, but was very thorough and intensive in the screening she was conducting. Then, at some point, the agent said something to my daughter about what "your husband explained." My kid cut in to yelp, "Ack, that's not my husband, that's my DAD!" And suddenly the whole atmosphere changed, and the agent told my daughter she was free to go after three quick seconds of additional halfhearted patting.

It was immediately obvious that my daughter, who had set off no alarms and been considered no threat for 45 minutes, had suddenly transformed into a security risk in the mind of the TSA when an agent came to believe she was my transgender wife rather than my cisgender daughter. When this was revealed as a misunderstanding, the perception of my daughter as posing some sort of threat immediately evaporated. The TSA's formal policy that passengers will be treated equally, regardless of gender identity, is belied by actions like this.

A few months ago, Shadi Petosky, a trans woman and television comedy producer, had an experience similar to mine with the TSA. A body scanner registered an "anomaly" in the area of her groin, she was patted down and questioned about what that anomaly was, and when she responded that she was a trans woman and that it was part of her anatomy, she was taken aside for additional screening. A swab of her clothing for some reason set off an alarm for some potentially explosive substance. She was interrogated, treated with trans ignorance, subjected to stares and sniggers, and detained for a substantial period of time. Since she didn't set aside the recommended two hours white cis people almost never set aside for screening, she missed her plane. She found the experience of her trans body being treated as a dangerous "anomaly" humiliating--and she live-tweeted what was happening to her until her phone was taken away.

Petosky's case got a fair bit of media attention due to her experience being live-tweeted and shared. Afterwards, the TSA declared that they had listened carefully to Petosky's complaints, and all would now be well, as the TSA was releasing a new policy. That policy was that the TSA would replace the word "anomaly" with "alarm".

In fact, I know that this promised change in terminology has not actually been implemented at the level of practice. During my last TSA encounter, I referred to the body scanner's response to my bound chest as "an alarm," and was told by the supervisor that I was using terminology incorrectly: the swab setting off the analyzer was "an alarm," while the body scanner had reacted to "an anomaly."

But I really don't care about whether the TSA calls my body "anomalous" or "alarming." Under either term, trans bodies are treated as security threats. The supposed new TSA policy of saying "alarm" instead of "anomaly" does nothing more than put a gloss of sensitivity over an actual practice that frames trans bodies as strange, wrong, and dangerous. 

Binary sex and gender policing are foundational to how body scanners are currently set up to function. Each passenger must be designated blue-for-boy or pink-for-girl in order to start the scan, and men are not "allowed" to have breasts, nor women to have a penis, according to the scanner's software. As long as that is how body scans are conducted, trans bodies will inevitably be policed as security threats.

The TSA may claim that trans people will be treated just like cis people by its agents, but its nondiscrimination policy conflicts with the actual practices of its agents and the functioning of the body scanners they deploy.

For these reasons, things have not gotten better for those of us who are traveling while trans. The only thing that has really changed, in my experience, is that the TSA now presents itself as enlightened, and is congratulated for that--including by some LGBTorganizations.

In a way, it's this that is for me the most frustrating and hurtful part of the whole situation. Trans people continue to be treated as wrongly and dangerously embodied. We continue to be pulled aside, isolated, groped, and our bodies stared at by TSA agents whose expressions often flash to that of a person smelling garbage. But we're told that everything's come up roses for us and we should dance for joy because we now live in the promised land of equality.

Better to just tell it like it is. The TSA's actual policy is that people with bodies that do not conform to binary, cisgender expectations can be treated as freakish security threats. If you have a body like that, budget an hour more of time at the airport than your friends with conforming bodies set aside, or you may miss your plane.

That's the real policy under which I operate whenever I fly.



Wednesday, October 7, 2015

A Bathroom Panic Bill Hits Wisconsin




I suppose it was only a matter of time. A transphobic bathroom gender-policing bill has hit my home state and its Republican-controlled legislature. 

Republican state legislators have proposed a bill to require that Wisconsin schools:

1. "Designate all locker rooms and bathrooms for one gender exclusively;"

2. Only allow students to access facilities matching their "biological gender" as determined by chromosomes and anatomy at birth (a framing which incidentally puts intersex children in a terrible position, apparently banned from using any bathroom);

3. Allow transphobic parents to "file a written complaint if they feel their student’s privacy is being violated because of transgender students’ use of a school’s bathroom or locker room;"

4. If transphobic parents are not satisfied by the school's resolution of the complaint, allow them to "file a lawsuit against the district seeking money or other kinds of damages" (among which is mentioned in discussion by one of the bill's sponsors the expulsion of the trans child from the school); and

5. Require the state Department of Justice to defend school districts in lawsuits alleging the policy is discriminatory.

Now, mind you, the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights has determined that Title IX guarantees trans students protection, including access to facilities that match their gender identity. The U.S. Department of Justice holds that forcing trans students to use a specially-designated separate bathroom instead of the regular gendered facilities violates that student's civil rights. So a lawsuit will follow, and I as a taxpayer will have to pay to have the state lawyers argue that people like me and my wife should be segregated and excluded and treated as a threat.

The legislators introducing this bill use the same-old, same-old tactic of disguising their hatred of trans people as a noble urge to Protect the Children. "What if a [cis] girl is followed into a restroom by someone and she can't tell if it is a trans gender student or a dangerous [cis] male up to no good?" Time after time, cities and towns and school districts voting on whether to protect trans people from discrimination have been faced with hysterical claims that (cis) women and girls would be attacked by a flood of predators if trans people's rights are respected. Time and again, it hasn't happened. You see, it is already illegal to assault people. (Which is not to say that girls and students of other genders aren't sexually assaulted with depressing frequency at high schools. But what is enabling this isn't that their assailants are pretending to be trans--it's that they are seen as very normatively masculine, their behavior is written off with a shrug as "boys will be boys," and it's the victims who get shamed. If Republicans really wanted to protect students from sexual assault, they'd attack rape culture, not trans students.)

I hope that Rep. Jesse Kremer, R-Kewaskum, and Sen. Steve Nass, R-Whitewater, and their counterparts in the other cities and states who are introducing a rash of transphobic "bathroom bills," some day come to feel the full weight of shame their actions deserve. Bear in mind that 78% of trans K-12 students are harassed and assaulted at school. A large-scale study of college students found that a quarter of trans students were raped during their college career. And as a result of pervasive mistreatment and disrespect, 41% of trans people report having attempted suicide in their lives. The transmisogynist trope of "men in dresses" posing some pervasive social threat to cis women and girls conceals the reality: that trans children and adults are victimized and abused and murdered at terrible rates. And the actions of legislators like Kewaskum and Nass treat this state of affairs as all well and good--as in fact, a state that should be made worse.

We really need to work to protect trans children in schools, not attack them. A fair number of school districts in Wisconsin have instituted policies to protect trans students, including the one in which I live and the districts of Menasha and Madison. Students here in Shorewood have been very supportive of the protection of trans students' rights to use the bathroom in peace. In Madison, any student who is possessed by an irrational fear of possibly encountering a trans person in a bathroom is directed to use a special single-stall nongendered facility. There have been no issues, no rash of cis boys suddenly telling everyone they are trans so that they can assault cis girls.

What Republican legislators here in Wisconsin and elsewhere who are introducing gender-policing bathroom bills want to do is reverse the modest degree of social progress trans people have made. They are standing on the side of hate, and their victims are the children, teens and adults who really need protection.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Dear U.N. Ambassador: Gender Identity is Not a Sexuality


All around the world, people are being maltreated because they are born intersex, or they are trans, or they have a sexual orientation or identity that is in the minority. And LGBTI+ rights have become a battleground in international law. Representatives of nations including the influential Russia have been fighting at the U.N. against the idea that gender and sexual minorities should be protected, and continue to criminalize same-sex activity, gender transgression, and attempts to gender transition. It's important that the U.S. fight for the rights of sex, gender and sexual minorities.

So I was glad to hear today that the U.S. delegation to the U.N. is going to do this. Deputy U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Richard Erdman announced U.S."support for the rights and dignity of all individuals regardless of their sex, sexual orientation, or gender identity," even where those rights have not been recognized in international law. (Bans on "sodomy" are now against international law, but international law doesn't protect gender identity, nor does it recognize a right to same-gender marriage.)

It's great that the U.S. delegation to the U.N. is taking some action. What's not great at all is the language that has been chosen. The "U.S. government says it will begin using the term 'sexual rights' in discussions of human rights and global development" to refer to the rights of sex, gender and sexually marginalized people, and to the right to protection of "sexual and reproductive health."

I have to say, as an intersex trans person, this is highly problematic. Being trans is not about sexuality. (Neither is being intersex; unfortunately the U.S. government hasn't gotten around to considering the idea that intersex people have a right to physical autonomy.) 

I'm all for sexual and reproductive health. Sexual orientation should be protected. These issues can certainly be linked together under the banner of sexual rights. But sticking trans people in there as a sort of afterthought actually does us damage. It winds up further entrenching damaging beliefs about us: that people gender transition due to some sort of sexual kink, and that how we have sex and thus the status of our genitalia is what defines who we "really are."

We've been explaining for years that gender identity is not a sexuality, but even people who are trying to act as allies seem only to half-hear us. It's good to hear our U.N. deputy ambassador use the phrase "sex, sexual orientation, or gender identity". . . but then that gets collapsed into "sexual rights," which is not good to hear at all.

One more time, people: gender identity and sexuality are different things.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

"No, You're Not Going to be an Astronaut When You Grow Up"--Transphobia Translated



(Dr. Richard A. Friedman is a psychiatrist who specializes in the treatment of depression with drugs. He has a side gig writing pop psychology opinion pieces for the New York Times, and on August 22nd, the Times published an op-ed of his on trans people. Friedman has no special knowledge or expertise on trans issues or gender transition. In fact, he cites ridiculously outdated forty-year-old research on the "sissy boy syndrome" (which basically held that boys who wish to and are permitted to play with dolls grow up to be "homosexuals"). But Friedman uses his social authority as a professor of medicine to frame his personal negative opinions about gender transition and trans experience as The Truth. And his opinion piece immediately became one of the Times' most emailed and read items. This blog post is a parody of Friedman's piece, following his line of arguments but replacing sexuality and gender with career paths.) 

How Changeable Are Career Interests?
By Richard A. Friedman, MBA
Professor of Finance, Burberry Business School

Space exploration has been much in the news recently, with the New Horizons spacecraft providing dramatic images of Pluto's "heart," and astronauts on the International Space Station shown munching on lettuce grown in orbit. While astronauts make up a tiny percentage of the employed population, they have been getting a lot of media attention.

Certainly we should allow people to have whatever careers they wish, including atypical ones like becoming an astronaut. Society once looked down at "computer geeks," but today developers of software and applications run successful businesses and are embraced by many. We now know that therapies aimed at curing nerdiness by withholding computers and forcing individuals to play sports or take ballet classes are not effective. Is something similar true for those who profess a desire to pursue a career as an astronaut?

Scientific evidence does seem to show that while most people are intrinsically drawn either to jobs that pay well, or jobs that are stable and secure, career desires exist on a spectrum. Some people are, for whatever reason, committed to careers that are both insecure yet rarely make them wealthy, such as being in a band or venturing into space.

So, how should career counselors approach individuals who profess an interest in becoming a drummer or piloting a space craft, and state they cannot be happy unless they enter these careers?

Unfortunately, research shows that people who pursue these careers do not achieve the happiness they seek. Many aspirant rock stars find themselves playing small gigs in local bars, unable to support themselves, disappointing and angering their parents. The chances of those who wish to become astronauts ever being launched on a mission are low, and those who do go into space face mortal risks that destabilitze relationships with spouses and children. It seems that many would be much better off getting a job in middle management, and making Spotify playlists or building model spaceships as a hobby. And, in fact, this is what many people in the end choose to do. It seems that an interest in unstable careers is more malleable and is more of a choice than a fixed characteristic such as nerdiness.

Still, we are good libertarian individualists, and believe that people should be able to make whatever career choices they wish. If a grown man or woman believes that they could be the next Beyoncé or Neil Armstrong, despite all the eye-rolling they get from others, so be it.

But what about the children?

The issue of whether to encourage children who say they plan to be astronauts when they grow up is extremely controversial. In fact, most career counseling professionals I spoke with refused to discuss the issue on the record. I was warned that if I dared to write about the reasons why such encouragement is a bad idea, I would be attacked by the astronaut lobby. 

But I must speak truth to power. And that truth is that children often have unrealistic fantasies about their future careers. Many children state that they want to dig up dinosaurs or be elected president or become a professional gymnast when they grow up. And studies show that of all the children who write a school essay about their intent to become an astronaut, as many as 80% may grow up to have typical corporate jobs in adulthood.

Now, when astronauts are interviewed, we do find that virtually every one of them first expressed interest in this career as a young child. But how can we possibly tell whether a child who says they want to go into space some day will be one of these "persisters," when most children lose interest in such an insecure career path? So if you are, say, the parent of an 8-year-old who says she is going to be an astronaut, we can see why you might tell the child, "No, you won't."

Some claim that there are many studies that show that supporting children in their atypical career interests increases their self-esteem, improves their mental health, and betters their future financial success. But these are all flawed, because the researchers do not randomly assign the children studied to have typical or atypical career interests! Instead, we should focus on a forty-year-old study that found that boys who were allowed to obsessively play space-themed video games like Asteroid were likely to grow up to be nerds--not astronauts. Clearly, this study is much more relevant, and shows that we should not take a childhood interest in space seriously.

What is troubling is that many parents are in fact not just tolerating their children's probably transitory interests in atypical careers, but encouraging them. If the children claim an interest in space piloting, they are decorating their children's rooms with posters of the solar system, enrolling them in science enrichment courses, helping them with science-fair projects about comets--even sending children as young as 7 to Space Camp. Children who say they want to be pop stars are purchased instruments and enrolled in music lessons, given dance classes, permitted to adopt extravagant hairstyles, and applauded while participating in talent shows and even karaoke.

These actions may be irreversible.

What a school career counselor should do, given the social and psychological realities, is to tell parents to do nothing to encourage a child who expresses an interest in an insecure career, but take a wait-and-see approach. The parents should not enroll the child in science or music camp, or purchase them a telescope or keyboard. They should ask teachers not to encourage their children's stated interests in an insecure career. Children should not be allowed to wear t-shirts picturing the International Space Station or Skrillex. Career counselors should emphasize that most children will outgrow their youthful fantasies and become ordinary and respectable business and professional employees--accountants and assistant managers and customer service representatives.

Activists such as Neil DeGrasse Tyson and advocacy organizations such as the American Federation of Musicians do urge parents to support children's interests in astronomy and music.  They claim that children, even young ones, should be supported in any career interest they express, and that to refuse to do this is equivalent to the conversion therapy that was formerly practiced on computer nerds. Such a position is misguided. Career choices are malleable, and we must not take radical action based on cherished personal beliefs about valuing all careers equally.

We must be skeptical and demand more data, rather than damaging children by supporting their interests.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Cis Gender, Ipso Gender


Last week, the Oxford English Dictionary, revered by many as the arbiter of the English language, finally added the term "cis gender." Many, like Slate's Anna Diamond, consider this an important step forward. Others, however, resist using the word. Some are overtly transphobic, and insist that they just be called "normal." Others claim to be allies, but insist that the term cis gender is just too strange or clinical or academic for the general public to ever use. The Guardian's Paris Lees says that it fails "the hair salon test."

I find this claim that "normal people" can't be expected to use the term cis gender ridiculous. My daughter was all of eleven when she started to use the term cis gender in conversation. By the time she was 13 or 14 she was having discussions with friends in which she could clearly articulate that she enjoyed wearing boxer shorts sometimes because messing around with gender expectations was fun, but that this activity did not make her any less a cis girl. When she was fifteen, she started dating her partner, who is genderqueer.

We do not live in San Francisco or New York--we live in the staid Midwest.

For kids growing up as digital natives, puberty involves surfing the internet and reading about a wide range of identities. The idea that the term "cis gender" is used only by academics and gender theorists and not hair stylists would make my daughter and her peers chortle.

For me, the struggle I'm involved in is not to get people to learn the term "cis gender," it's to get people to understand how that term does not apply in the way often presumed in the case of intersex people. I want people to learn about the term "ipso gender"--because that's a term that really is not widely known.

The term "cis gender" is often defined--I would say incorrectly--as having a gender identity that matches the sex one was assigned at birth. So, in standard usage, if your birth certificate says "F", and you identify as a woman (whether feminine or masculine in presentation being irrelevant), you are cis gender. If it says "F" and you don't, because you identify as a man, or as genderqueer, or as agender, or as anything other than a woman, then you are trans.

In the popular imagination, a trans person is someone "born in the wrong body," meaning they have a gender identity that conflicts with their physical sex. Trans people have been shifting the conversation away from the framing of trans experience as a gender identity/sex characteristic conflict, and toward framing it as a conflict between gender identity and sex assigned at birth, for understandable political reasons. Transphobes often present physical sex as binary, natural, and determinative of "reality." Trans advocates battle this by pointing out that physical sex is actually a spectrum, that binary sex is coercively imposed (see intersex people), and that gender identity determines one's reality. 

The problem is that this argument, which is conceived of as centering intersex experience, actually renders invisible much of my intersex community's experience with violence and gender identity. And that's because it refers to a person as "cis gender" when they are born with primary sex characteristics that are intermediate in nature, but are surgically reassigned to conform to a binary sex ideal, if they grow up to identify with that assigned sex. Calling someone who has essentially undergone a forced sex change in infancy "cis gender" is extremely problematic. This is something that intersex people have been justifiably protesting for years (for example, see gender fluid author and intersex activist Hida Viloria).

So, when speaking of intersex experience, what I hope people will do is to recognize that primary sex characteristics do matter, and we can't just talk about binary sex assignment on one's birth certificate. I urge people to define someone as cis gender if they have a binary gender identity that matches the one expected for people born with the primary sex characteristics they had at birth (genitals, gonads, chromosomes). For intersex people, being born sex-intermediate, a cis gender identity would be a nonbinary identity of some sort. A trans gender intersex person is one who gender transitions to the binary sex they were not forced into at birth. And a person who is born intersex, then medically and legally assigned to a binary sex, who then grows up to identify with that sex is ipso gender. (Ipso gender borrows from the prefix used in chemistry to refer to a substitution in the same place, as cis gender uses the prefix meaning "on the same side" and trans gender uses the prefix meaning "on the other side.")


So, for those of you who are fully familiar with the term cis gender as it is typically used, I'd like you to please consider rethinking it a bit. Because the majority of intersex people today do identify with the binary sex we were assigned, typically surgically, in infancy. The percentage of intersex people who gender transition is high, comparatively speaking (estimates vary widely, but the percentage is higher by at least a couple orders of magnitude in comparison to individuals who are not intersex by birth). Still, the majority of my intersex sibs do not gender transition from the sex they were assigned at birth. Yet great violence was done to my ipso gender siblings in forcing an assignment, rather than letting them grow up to assert their own identities, and to make their own decisions about what surgery, if any, to seek. Infant sex assignment surgery often robs a person of all or some capacity for sexual sensation, and leaves many feeling mutilated. Calling an individual who has endured this "cis gender" makes the pain and violence involved invisible.

I do want to point out that a cis gender intersex person, who has a nonbinary gender identity, suffers in the same way that a trans gender intersex person does, because they were assigned, typically surgically, to a sex with which they do not identify. For intersex people, cis and trans, this often means having to cope with two gender transitions--the first imposed in infancy, and a second one we consent to later in life. Ipso gender people at least have the privilege of not having to gender transition again. But we need a term to center the fact that imposed genital surgery in infancy, along with other unconsented-to medical interventions in later childhood, are a form of violence, even if a person does grow up to identify with the sex assigned at birth.

I hope people will familiarize themselves with the term ipso gender. Thanks!

Sunday, June 7, 2015

TERFs of the Times


This week's Sunday Review section of the New York Times has as its headline article an opinion piece by feminist academic and film director Dr. Elinor Burkett, entitled "What Makes a Woman?" The tagline summarizing the post is "There is a collision course between feminists and transgender activists." This of course frames trans activists as antifeminists, making it clear at once that this piece is a manifesto of trans-exclusionary radical feminist, or TERF, ideology. It's written with a sympathetic tone, and Burkett positions herself as someone who wants to support trans people. She claims she just can't because we are seeking to undo the hard work she and other feminists of her generation have done. 

(One way you can tell that Burkett is a TERF is that she calls the term TERF a "trans insult." In fact, the term was coined by radical feminists who are not transphobic, to distinguish themselves from bigots. But TERFs inevitably claim that the term is a trans slur and that they should be referred to simply as "feminists.")

Burkett's piece is the second-most emailed NY Times article at the moment I'm writing this, and the comments section shows it's struck a huge chord with transphobes. Since so many people are talking about the piece, and since it's such a painful read for trans friends of mine, as it was for me, I'm going to present a take-down of her arguments here, as a sort of public service. If you know people who are talking about or citing this article, you can just link them here rather than having to wade through and counter the key points yourself.

Expressing Femininity


First off, let me show you the official headshot of Dr. Burkett that appears on film festival programs. As you can see, she is wearing lipstick, has dyed her hair red, and is wearing a floral top. She clearly presents herself in a feminine manner to the media. But her "What Makes a Woman?" piece starts and finishes by critiquing Caitlyn Jenner for being presented in a glamorous feminine fashion in Vanity Fair

Burkett decries Caitlyn Jenner's wearing of "a cleavage-boosting corset" and "thick mascara," although such things are typical for those pictured in Vanity Fair. Burkett particularly focuses on Jenner's statement that a reason she wanted to gender transition was that so that she would be able "to wear nail polish, not for a furtive, fugitive instant, but until it chips off." Burkett concludes the piece by scolding, "I want that for Bruce, now Caitlyn, too. But I also want her to remember: Nail polish does not a woman make."

Let's look at several of the key problems with this framing. First, there's the ridiculous assertion that Caitlyn Jenner believes in some way that wearing nail polish makes a person female, or is something only a woman can do. Were that the case, gender transitions to female would be extremely inexpensive, and thousands of unsuspecting dudes in bands would now find themselves women. . . Very few people over the age of four believe that putting on nailpolish literally defines a person as female, and portraying Caitlyn Jenner as actually believing this insults her by presenting her as having an infantile understanding of gender.

Looking beyond that obvious point, the tactic Burkett takes in this opinion piece is to critique Caitlyn Jenner as a means of critiquing all trans people. This presumes that all trans people are alike, so that what Caitlyn Jenner does and thinks represents what all trans people do and think. By this logic, all cis women think and act like Kim Kardashian--something we can presume Burkett does not believe. But Burkett ignores the fact that many trans people have spoken about how Jenner's experience is not at all like theirs. She does not acknowledge, for example, that trans people have expressed concern that the way Caitlyn Jenner is presented in Vanity Fair perpetuates the idea that to be "successful" in a gender transition, a trans person must want and get a ton of plastic surgery to make them look just like a cis person, and must appear conventionally feminine or masculine.

Not only is Caitlyn Jenner not representative of all trans people, her experience is representative of vanishingly few. Rare is the person who has the kind of money to be able to access such medical and aesthetic transition services. Jenner also enjoys privilege as a white woman. She's a Republican. She has a binary gender identity where many trans individuals do not. And she is conventionally feminine in her post-transition gender presentation. Many binary trans women and men are tomboys or feminine men. But by presenting some interview quotes and fashion photos of Caitlyn Jenner as representing us all, Burkett frames all binary gender transitioners as walking gender stereotypes.

Another thing you may have noticed that Burkett does in her concluding scold is to refer to Jenner as "Bruce, now Caitlyn." While better than refusing to acknowledge Jenner's transition at all, throughout the piece, Burkett makes sure to refer to Caitlyn as Bruce, Mr. Jenner and "he" as often as possible. The phrasing, "Bruce, now Caitlyn" also puts Jenner's deadname first, centering it while giving lip service to acknowledging her as Caitlyn. To use a trans person's former name and to use the wrong pronoun when speaking of a trans person's past are classic tactics used to belie our gender identities and presentations. It's cruel, it's rude, and it's against the NY Times' own style guide, but Burkett is allowed to get away with it.

Brain Sex

Moving on, the next thing Burkett does is to present trans people as having as a core ideology the belief that we are born with binary male or female sexed brains. Burkett frames us as having the goal of convincing society that brain sex requires people to act in a gender stereotyped manner--for example, that being born with a female brain makes a person bad at science and math, good at nurturing, and into frilly dresses. 

Now, it is true that Caitlyn Jenner makes sense of her identity as a woman by saying, as Burkett quotes, "My brain is much more female than it is male." There are many binary trans people who use this sort of language to try to explain what it feels like to have a gender identity that doesn't match one's assigned sex. But please note that the reason trans people do this so often is because cis people constantly demand that we explain how we know we are trans, and where our trans identities come from. 

Thirty years ago, when I was in college, straight people were always asking gay men and lesbians how they were sure they were "homosexual," and what made them gay. Back then, lots of LGB people were very interested in brain studies that claimed to show that gay men had brain characteristics similar to those of women, while lesbians had brain areas that were similar to those of men. Today, that just sounds silly, and scientific exploration of the idea that lesbians think like men and that gay men have girl brains has largely petered out, because people no longer demand to know what biological factor could possibly explain sexual orientation. With the depathologization of same-sex attraction, the search for some biological basis to explain it has faded away.

But when it comes to gender identity, many cis people still refuse to accept a person's self-report of how they feel. They demand that we "prove" our gender identities, and explain our "compulsion" to gender transition. There are scientists studying this question by examining brains, and so some trans people turn to this idea when asked to justify themselves.

What Burkett does not acknowledge is that there are many trans people, myself included, who are quite critical of the idea that there is some simple brain center that determines gender identity. There are many, like myself, who discuss how so much of the neurological research into "brain sex" has been deeply flawed, and used to bolster misogyny. What we argue is that gender identity is a deeply complex matter, that gender varies over time and between cultures, and that while you will find minor sex differences in specific parts of people's brains, the brain is a plastic organ that is shaped by our lived experiences. 

What the differences found in the brains of deceased men and women show is that we die with slightly different brains, not that we are born with our gender identities stamped in some simple way on our hypothalamus or some other brain center. The fact that trans women's brains resemble those of cis women's reveals shared identity and experiences, but the factors being studied as differing between women and men are tiny. "Brain sex" is a complex and subtle thing--not some matter of pink brain centers that are obsessed with makeup and blue ones that refuse to ask for directions. In any case, neurologists' understandings of sexed brains are still very limited and contested, and ordinary people can't be expected to parse their scientific articles.

What we urge is that cis society stop requiring that we somehow prove that our gender identities have some biological basis, and just respect our self-report of what our gender identities are.

So later in the piece, when Burkett goes on to report on the work of feminist neurologists who say that sex differences in the brain develop over a lifetime of experiences, she is actually arguing the exact same thing that many trans activists argue. But Burkett is oblivious to this fact, because she has stereotyped all trans people. She presents us as all as believing men and women are both with vastly different brains, that we were born with female brains in male bodies (or vice versa), and that this requires us to act as hyperfeminine trans women (or hypermasculine trans men).

I suppose Burkett must believe that nonbinary trans people believe they were born with androgynous brains. But she doesn't say anything about this--probably because she sees androgyny as a morally good counter to gender stereotypes, so has no motivation to bring up the topic here.

Hormones and Emotions

OK, next. Burkett takes a moment to sneer at Chelsea Manning, saying she "hopped on Ms. Jenner's gender train on Twitter, gushing, 'I am so much more aware of my emotions, much more sensitive emotionally (and physically)'." I do find it ironic when a feminist seeks to discredit another woman by accusing her of "gushing" overemotionally. . .

Chelsea Manning recently started hormone therapy, after much struggle with the military. Apparently Elinor Burkett believes that hormones produce no effects, or only affect physical things like breast or beard growth, so that to say hormones influence one's experience of emotions is an antifeminist delusion. This is just silly, because you don't have to be trans gender to see that sex steroids influence emotions. Tons of cis women are familiar with the emotional lability of PMS. Sure, this fact has been used by misogynists to frame women as too moody to take seriously, and this is ludicrous. But you can put your fingers in your ears and go "La-la-la" all you want to when people report that they cry less easily after having their ovaries removed, or cry more easily now that they are taking estrogen and progesterone to gender transition--it doesn't make the fact that this happens go away.

It seems from this section of her screed that Burkett believes any discussion of embodiment in relation to gender is evil sexism. Saying "I cry more easily with high levels of estrogen and progesterone in my body" is equivalent to saying, "A woman can never be president because her hormones make her too irrational." Burkett frames Caitlyn Jenner and Chelsea Manning as representatives of all trans people, and as what they are saying as evil. They are voicing "hoary stereotypes" that have been "used to repress women for centuries." And worse, they are convincing progressives that this is a good thing, undoing all the hard work of feminism.

Trans Women as Sexist Men

Next, Burkett comes out with a truly vile and nasty paragraph, which I will replicate here so we can unpack it:

"People who haven't lived their whole lives as women. . . shouldn't get to define us. That's something men have been doing for much too long. And as much as I recognize and endorse the right of men to throw off the mantle of maleness, they cannot stake their claim to dignity as transgender people by trampling on mine as a woman."

Notice what Burkett is doing here. Trans women are called first "people who haven't lived their whole lives as women," and then flat out "men." Trans women are "men" who are trampling on the rights of "women," and "women" of course here means cis women. "Transgender people" are in this paragraph all trans women. And by asserting their dignity as trans people, trans women are proving themselves to be really men in that they are seeking to control (cis) women.

Now what, exactly, are trans women trying to force cis women to do? Burkett states that trans activists are not just asking for equal treatment as are "African-Americans, Chicanos, gays and women"--instead they are "insulting" (cis) women by "demanding that women reconceptionalize ourselves." Apparently Burkett believes that trans women not only assert, but demand all women agree, that gendered behavior is not socially constructed at all but is inborn and fixed. Gender roles are eternal and innate, and thus biology compels that all girls love playing dress-up, and all boys love sports!

This is ridiculous on so many levels it's hard to list them all. First off, since we have to think about gender a lot in order to figure out our own identities, most trans people I have encountered know a whole lot more about what social construction means and how it operates than do most cis people I encounter. The chances of a random trans person--be they a man, woman, nonbinary or agender--being a feminist is also much higher than that of a random cis person being wiling to call themself a feminist.

I know hundreds of trans people. Of the binary trans women I know, some--a minority--have the narrative of having been very feminine children who constantly wanted to play dress-up and house. But exactly zero of those individuals would say "real girls must only want to play with dolls and not chemistry sets."

Compared to the cis people I know, my trans acquaintances are much more likely to admire and support gender-transgressive children and adults, whether the gender-transgressive individuals are cis or trans. (And studies show this is true of trans people generally, not just my personal friends.)

I have no idea where Burkett gets her bizarre idea that trans women demand hyperfemininity of cis women. (Except I do--it's a common slander perpetuated by TERFs.)

Gender Socialization and Brain Sex Revisited

Burkett underlines her positioning of trans women as men by repeating the old TERF saw that gender is determined by socialization, not identity. Burkett claims that Caitlyn Jenner and nameless other trans women have not experienced sexism in their lives as Burkett has, and that therefore "their female identity is not my female identity." This implies a trans woman doesn't know what a "real" female identity is, while Burkett does.

Burkett either doesn't understand what gender identity is, or pretends not to. There is immense diversity of experience among people who identify as women, by age and race/ethnicity and sexual orientation and a wide variety of other factors. But this doesn't mean some categories of women have a less truly female gender identity than others. For example, Burkett says that part of what creates a female identity is being relatively poorly paid at one's job. Now, since white women earn more than African American, Latina or Native American women in America, does this mean that as a white woman, Burkett has a less real female identity than do women of color?

I don't imagine this parallel has occurred to her.

Anyway, what Burkett says is that trans women live with male privilege: male earnings, male freedom from fear of sexual assault, the male privilege of being treated as a subject and not a sex object. And, she says, this socialization shapes their brains. So in fact, trans women must have male brains, not female ones.

I'm struck by the illogic of framing trans women as "having a male brain" while simultaneously claiming that saying there's such a thing as brain sex is a sexist act being perpetuated by trans activists. But beyond that, there are two fallacies here. The first is that Burkett ignores how we are active participants in our own socialization. In fact, socializing messages are received quite differently by different people. And a person who identifies as a girl or woman will attend to socializing messages about girls and women.

The second fallacy comes from framing all trans women as being like Caitlyn Jenner: as living for many decades being perceived by others as masculine men, and as having started their transitions very recently. In fact, trans women who have been perceived as feminine boys or men will have dealt with lifetimes of bullying, harassment, and unequal treatment at school and work because of their femininity. And whatever her past experience, once a trans girl or woman comes out, she gets to experience all the (uniformly negative) social things Burkett lists as female socializing experiences at levels typically much higher than those faced by cis women. Getting stared at by men. Fearing sexual and physical violence. Job discrimination. And socialization doesn't end in young adulthood--all of us are always having our behavior shaped by the socializing messages we receive from those around us.

What Burkett would say about the socialization experience of binary trans individuals who come out as children in supportive families and are treated as their identified sex from a young age I do not know, because she doesn't address them. In her NY Times piece, all trans women are Caitlyn Jenner.

Is a Woman Defined by a Uterus?

Another topic which Burkett treats with eye-popping logical inconsistencies is the issue of whether a woman is defined as a person with a vagina, uterus and ovaries. On the one hand, Burkett asserts that trans people who say they were "born in the wrong body" are offensively "reducing us to our collective breasts and vaginas." In fact, many trans people critique understandings of us as "born in the wrong body." I am one of many who has written about how it's not my body but society that is the problem.

And Burkett is part of that social problem, because while she sometimes asserts biology is irrelevant, she also states that trans women can never understand what it means to truly be women because they have never "woken up after sex terrified they'd forgotten to take their birth control pills the day before." Suddenly, in a scenario where it can be used to discredit trans women, having a uterus and ovaries becomes definitional to being a "real woman." This implies that cis women who were never fertile are not real women, and is offensive and absurd.

In fact, most trans people argue that bodies do not determine if we are really women or men. It's gender identity that is determinative for us, not genitals or reproductive organs. A cis woman who has a hysterectomy or mastectomy does not become unwomaned by the surgery. A trans man does not need genital reconstruction to deserve to be respected as a man. And a nonbinary person is not "really" a woman or a man because they were born with a vagina or a penis.

Can We Speak Differently About Genitals?

Eventually, Burkett gets around to talking about trans people other than binary trans women. It's two-thirds of the way into this diatribe that centers transmisogyny, but in the end, those under the trans umbrella who are not trans women finally get called out as oppressors as well. The reason? We don't want to equate women with vaginas.

One of the things that makes life difficult for trans people today is the way that so many people, organizations and institutions treat genitals as synonymous with gender. Most trans people in the U.S. have not had genital reconstructive surgery, and many of us have no interest in it. Many of us are uncomfortable talking about our genitals with others (and really, so are most cis people, even though the stakes for them are lower).  Often, we use terms other than vagina or penis or clitoris to name our genitalia in private discussions with partners or friends, because those terms are so loaded with gender expectations by our society. 

Burkett mocks the use of alternative genital and reproductive terms in her piece as "politically correct" nonsense.

But what gets Burkett all riled up is that there are people who were assigned female at birth--genderqueer, agender, and transmasculine--who are trying to raise consciousness about more trans-inclusive ways to talk about anatomy and gender in pro-choice organizations. Not everyone seeking an abortion identifies as a woman, and the difficulties of seeking to terminate a pregnancy are compounded for such people by constant misgendering, and ignorance of the very idea of using alternate terms to describe anatomy. To Burkett, an effort to raise consciousness about these individuals' experience and shift the language employed constitutes some kind of war on women and attack on feminist leaders that will endanger reproductive freedom.

Burkett is apparently in love with the word "vagina" and using it as a synecdoche for "woman." She is indignant that many trans people of all sorts have gotten tired of the play The Vagina Monologues, performed annually at colleges and women's centers all over the country since the late 1990s. Yes, trans people critique performances that equate vaginas with womanhood--but not because we are antifeminist, as Burkett frames us. It is because we too are feminists, and we expect more of our feminist cis siblings.

When trans activists critiqued the choice to call a feminist event "A Night of a Thousand Vaginas," the goal was not, as Burkett believes, to turn back the clock on feminist progress. It was to urge feminism forward toward greater inclusiveness.

Do Trans People Oppose Women's Institutions?

Another source of panic for Burkett is the idea that trans people are doing damage to institutions such as women's colleges. She notes that there are students at some women's colleges who do not identify as women, and that that some individuals at women's colleges use the term "siblinghood" as an alternative to "sisterhood" to acknowledge them. And she reports that there are some trans male students who ask their professors to stop using the pronoun "she" to refer to a generic, abstract student at the college.

The thing is, the focus of most trans advocacy has been on convincing women's colleges to admit trans women, which is as it should be. Most trans people are fine with the idea of there being women's spaces and institutions, so long as they don't exclude trans women. And many of us have in fact written critically of trans male students who decide to continue to attend a women's college after coming out, and then want the colleges to center their experiences as men. That's male privilege--not young trans women daring to assert that they should have a right to be considered for admission by woman's colleges.

Who Owns Feminism?

The last segment of Burkett's diatribe before she concludes by recapping her dissing of Caitlyn Jenner is both infuriating and smarmy. In it, she discusses who is moving feminism forward, and whether trans people should be welcomed to that project. The smarmy answer is, in her words, that "we'll happily, lovingly welcome them to the fight" if "they" do the right thing. The feminist "we" is cis gender, and the "they" seeking admission are trans people.

In this section of her piece, Burkett writes as if trans people didn't exist until a couple of years ago, and up until then, all the good work of seeking gender equality has been done by cis women. She goes on for a while about the revolutionary nature of the amazing work people she describes as "women like me" have done in advancing equity and freedom. She describes this as including "smashing binary views of male and female well before most Americans had ever heard the word 'transgender' or used the word 'binary' as an adjective."

Apparently it has not occurred to Burkett that many trans people have been involved in feminist advocacy for much of their lives. That some of those who have been fighting gender stereotypes as long as she has did so because they had or have nonbinary identities. That some did so fighting side by side with cis women in organizations like NOW, and that others fought from the margins, because they were excluded from mainstream women's organizations, either because of their gender presentation/gender identity/sex assigned at birth, or because those organizations excluded them for other reasons, such as their race. In fact, a multitude of young and old people with all sorts of identities other than cis gender are involved in gender activism and scholarship at this very moment, without noticing that they do not carry Burkett's seal of approval.

Burkett doesn't even acknowledge that among the people fighting gender stereotypes, there have been, and still are, cis men.

In any case, Burkett posits that cis women own feminism, and they have the right and the power to decide whether to admit trans people.

What most underlies Burkett's stance in my mind is cissexism: the belief that cis people's gender identities are authentic and real while trans people's are questionable, coupled with the belief that cis people have the right to sit in judgment over trans people's gender expressions, and decide whether to acknowledge a trans person's gender identity. Burkett has positioned herself as having the right to decide who is acknowledged as a woman, or as a feminist, or as having a "real" gender identity.

Fortunately, Burkett and her fellow TERFs do not in fact get to own feminism or to set the rules for gender authenticity. All of us are collectively involved in these projects, and the number of us coming out under the trans umbrella is rapidly expanding. The number of young cis people who are trans allies has been expanding in the same way. 

Burkett and her ilk can make our lives more painful and difficult, but they can't make us disappear.

What Does Burkett Want?

The really ironic thing is that trans advocates share a good deal of what Elinor Burkett at least claims that she wants. And that is that we agree that confining people to gender stereotypes is bad, that gender roles are socially constructed and change over time, and that we can and should work to change things about contemporary gender norms because they disadvantage women, cis and trans. As I've noted, the percentage of trans people who agree with this is higher than the percentage of cis people who do.

The other thing Burkett says she wants from trans people, before she and her cis compatriots admit us to the club, is that we affirm this statement: "So long as humans produce X and Y chromosomes that lead to the development of penises and vaginas, almost all of us will be 'assigned' [binary sexes] at birth." This one a lot of people might just shrug at, but that I reject. 

I am intersex by birth. It's vital to me that we stop naturalizing the idea that sex is a binary, when it is a spectrum. It's important that we acknowledge the medical violence done to thousands of intersex children every year, in an attempt to make our sex variant bodies conform to this ideology. And it's high time we stopped putting imposed gender markers on birth certificates, as we've stopped having doctors chose a race marker for birth certificates. Burkett wants us to acknowledge the social construction and cultural variability of gender, but denies that sex is socially constructed and culturally variable. This betrays an ignorance not just of intersex experience, but of the fact that many world societies have divided the sex spectrum into three or more sexes, and that the binary sex system we see as natural is in fact ideological, only one system among many.

It seems to me that what Burkett really wants is to stop the progress in social acceptance trans people have been winning, at least in more progressive social circles, by framing trans people--especially trans women--as regressive and antifeminist. I don't know what motivates her to want to do this any more than I understand what motivates any sort of bigotry. Usually there's some combination of personal insecurity and a fear that one is losing social power.


What Burkett frames as triggering her whole opinion piece is that she wants to critique Caitlyn Jenner for presenting herself in such a gender-conforming manner, but feels she must bite her lip and stay silent, lest she be viewed as transphobic. Of course, she hasn't in fact stayed silent in the least. Having this op-ed critiquing Caitlyn Jenner as a representative of all trans people published as the headline piece of the NY Times' Sunday Review is about as opposite from staying silent as a feminist author gets.

So apparently what Burkett wants is to be able to say transphobic things and not be called a transphobe ("TERF is a trans slur").

Sorry, Dr. Burkett, that's not going to happen. 

However, that's not to say people shouldn't be able to critique Caitlyn Jenner because her trans status is some sort of magical shield and she can do no wrong. Critique her all you want, so long as you do it in the same way you would were she a cis woman. And if you're going to attack her for her conforming feminine self-presentation, then you should also publish diatribes about how Vanity Fair cover model Scarlett Johansen is undoing the work of feminism by displaying vast amounts of cleavage and wearing thick eyeliner, or how Jennifer Lawrence is a dupe of feminine stereotypes because the cover photo of her complaining about how nude photos of her circulated without her permission shows her apparently nude except for a diamond necklace.

Or you could stop framing all trans people as embodied by a couple of interview snippets and a photo shoot of one star in the Kardashian celebritysphere, and tying them to tired old claims about how trans people are all walking gender stereotypes.

And you could start reading the writings of transfeminists.