Sunday, October 19, 2014
This weekend, the NY Times cover story was on trans men at women's colleges. I found the article very frustrating, first of all due to the title, "When Women Become Men at Wellesley." Dear NY Times: trans men are coming out at college, which is different from cis women "becoming" trans men. Your title is as off-base as one reading, "When Straight Women Turn Into Lesbians at Wellesley."
The subtitle of the article is "Can women's colleges survive the transgender movement?" The answer to this hyperbolic question is obviously yes. The reporting in the article itself is much less inflammatory, so let's just re-title it in our heads to match the actual content--something like "Women's Colleges Struggle with the Place of Trans Students"--and consider that content.
I understand why trans men wind up in women's colleges. If you're a young person who is assigned female at birth, and you are struggling a lot with gender issues, a women's college might seem a good place to go. One student in the article, Jesse, says "he chose to attend Wellesley because being female never felt right to him. 'I figured if I was any kind of woman, I'd find it there.'" It's actually quite common for people struggling with trans identities to enter institutions highly centered around the sex they were assigned at birth--for example, many trans women report joining the military or entering highly masculine fields such as firefighting to see if those institutions can reconcile them to living in the gender expected for someone of their birth-assigned sex. Of course, the result, for many, is to realize they do not identify with that gender at all. And so it's right and good that students who realize they are trans come out.
But once a trans man or masculine-of-center genderqueer person comes out at a women's college, they have to face the fact that they are a man or masculine-of-center person in a woman's space. Personally, what I would do at that point is start making arrangements to transfer to another college, because I support the existence of women's colleges in a patriarchal society, and the whole point of them is that they are for women--and I am not a woman. That said, I don't believe that transmasculine students should be required to uproot themselves and transfer out. Leaving a college can be emotionally difficult and have financial repercussions, and a transitioning student has a lot on their plate to deal with. I believe that an ethic of care demands a struggling transmasculine student be permitted to stay, and be treated with respect as a man or genderqueer person.
But there is a big difference between accommodating struggling transmasculine students and having trans guys make women's colleges all about them. And that's exactly what I'd call it when trans men keep insisting that when these colleges call themselves "women's colleges" without adding "plus some transmasculine people" they are doing evil. That's exactly what I'd call it when trans guys demand that students should stop calling their classmates "sisters" and start calling them "siblings." I absolutely agree that it undermines one's identity as a man to be referred to as a sister, and I'd hate it too--which is exactly why I would not stay at a women's college. To stay, and then insist that your needs as a man outweigh the needs of everyone else who chose to go to a women's college . . . that's hubris.
I've certainly met my share of trans men with hubris. When someone transitions from female to male, they face hurdles in the form of cissexism and negotiating legal and often medical challenges--but they also gain male privilege. All trans people are aware of the challenges they are facing. But many trans men seem little aware of the male privilege they are gaining. That's normal, in the sense that most people are unaware of most of their privileges--but it's ironic when you encounter it in someone who talks about patriarchy and cis privilege, as I have. Just like a cis man, a trans guy can be oblivious to his own privilege, taking over conversations about sexism in a circle of cis women, or transmansplaining cissexism to a trans woman. You see, when someone who is being respected in his male identity talks, whether he is cis or trans, people listen more attentively than they do when a woman talks. That's basic patriarchy, and I've certainly experienced the difference in how my statements are taken more seriously as a result of transitioning to male status. If you're expecting it and looking for it, as a man, you can see it some of the time and catch yourself. (I'm sure it happens often without my recognizing it.) But I've met my share of trans men who conflate their new male privilege and the greater deference they are granted with their gaining confidence and coming into their own as they transition. They presume people pay such attention to what they say now because they have fascinating things to contribute. And at a women's college, where young men are a novelty, this effect of attention centering on a man is exacerbated. (Some of the ways this manifests in the article are pretty creepy, in terms of cis women proving they can be "tranny-chasers" too, but trans men like Jesse report loving having become popular and having people "clamoring" to date them.)
Personally, were I a woman at a women's college, I'd be upset at trans men telling me not to presume my dorm or class was a women's space. My accepting of transmasculine students would not contradict the fact that they are sojourners who chose to enter a rare territory designed for women. I guess I'm just fascinated, given the uproar that many cis feminists made when trans women tried to participate in women's events like the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival, specifically so that they could be with other women, that when trans men plant their flag and actually say "stop calling this a women's space," the opposition is so minimal.
Which brings me to the topic of transfeminine students in this article--a brief bit near the end of the piece. I find it very disappointing that an article about women's colleges should give trans women such little attention, while devoting masses of space to transmasculine people. Look: fundamentally, trans women belong at women's colleges, and trans men don't. But there's little to report, given that no trans woman has ever attended Wellesley, as far as anyone knows. (If one did, she did it utterly in the closet, and at great personal risk. Such things have happened before, however--Anita Hemmings, a woman of African descent, passed as white and graduated from Vassar in 1897, though she was outed in the last weeks of her exemplary college career and kicked out, lucky to have a diploma mailed to her afterwards.)
What really disturbs me is that much of what the article conveys on the topic of trans women entering Wellesley is the opinion of some trans guy. He says that trans men and genderqueer people who were assigned female at birth belong at Wellesley--but that trans women should have to face barriers to admission, and be treated with suspicion. No trans woman should be admitted, he declares, unless she can prove she's started medical transition or has changed her name legally (steps very difficult for someone of a typical age to be applying to college to have taken, requiring parental support for the transition and financial resources). Why this disparity? To keep Wellesley a safe space for women, of course! If she hasn't had medical and/or legal interventions, a trans woman might not really be a woman, he claims. Taking the difficult steps of coming out and applying to Wellesley as a woman aren't enough proof of her commitment! Maybe her identity is fluid and she'll identify as a man again . . . But hey, aren't genderfluidity and lack of interest in medical interventions treated as fine in transmasculine people? Yes, says the trans dude. "Trans men are a different case; we were raised female, we know what it's like to be treated as females and we have been discriminated against as females. We get what life has been like for women."
This argument is appalling on so many levels. First, it is exactly the reasoning used by "gender crits" and Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists to "prove" that gender transition is an impossibility: that gender socialization is rigidly binary, inescapably tied to birth-assigned sex, and sex assigned at birth is thus immutable. The thing is, the TERFs are at least logically consistent in saying that this means not only that trans women are "really" eternally men, but trans men "really" eternally women. It's transphobic logic--yet it's being voiced here by a trans gender person. How is this possible? Enter transmisogyny: the trans Wellesley student applies it only against trans women, while ignoring the implications of the argument for trans men like himself.
Underlying the ability of this trans man to assert a transmisogynistic logic while refusing to see how it applies to trans men is that hubris again. Look, he basically says, a trans woman on campus might make cis women feel uncomfortable in what's supposed to be a women's safe space! But apparently it never occurs to this student that a cis woman seeing him in her dorm at night might feel unsafe. He presumes (a) that women can always tell if a given man is cis or trans at a glance, (b) that everybody agrees trans men are always "safe" in a way cis men are not, and (c) that if a woman did feel unsafe seeing him in her dorm, her reaction would simply be wrong, as he is Mr. Perfect Nonthreatening Male of Female Experience, and can tell her what she should feel.
For a trans man to believe that trans women pose a threat to female safe space, while transmasculine people should be allowed free access to women's spaces--that demonstrates a combination of patriarchal egotism, lack of awareness of one's own male privilege, and transmisogyny that I deplore.
I do believe that trans men in women's colleges should be treated with respect, but I look forward to the day when a report on trans students in women's colleges will center transfeminine people and decenter transmasculine ones.
Thursday, October 9, 2014
I wanted to do a quick post about this thing that happens a lot, which is probably quite clear to you if you are a white trans woman, or spend much time with one. I've illustrated it courtesy Bitstrips (click to see a larger version). It's a window into the ways that intersectionality and the consumptive chaining of varieties of marginalization work, even when the only people you have interacting are white women.
The scenario goes like this: young white cis women meet a white trans woman. Because her trans status is in some way visible to them, they do not treat her as they would other women they encounter. Instead, they treat her as a drag queen--as if she were some hyper-gay man performing femininity for their entertainment. Their framework for acting flamboyantly gay is some sort of urban femme minstrelsy, so they greet her through an awkward performance of tropes of fierce black femininity. And for good measure, they treat her body as sexualized public property, perhaps by slapping her on the rump.
It's horribly cringeworthy. It's cissexism piled on transmisogyny topped with misogynoir. But the young white cis women involved think they're being supportive and progressive, and an attempt to call them on any of the many problematic layers of their greeting results in defensiveness and hurt feelings.
Sunday, September 14, 2014
Recently I spent several days in a public internet group for "gender critical" people, after a few intersex friends voiced some positive things about this line of thinking. As an intersex individual who gender transitioned from the sex he was assigned at birth, I was puzzled and concerned by this development. I'd read in trans writing that "gender critical" feminists were actively transphobic--yet here were some intersex advocates excited by what they were saying. So I wanted to go have a look for myself. Were "gender critical" feminists in fact good allies for the intersex community? What would it mean for trans communities if this were so?
Intersex People Critique the Insistence that Sex is a Binary
Simply on the face of it, from an intersex perspective the phrase "gender critical" sounds appealing. Advocates for the intersex community are extremely critical of the way sex and gender are understood and enforced in contemporary Western socieities. We live with a social ideology of binary sex which conflicts with the biological reality that sex is a spectrum, and many people are born with bodies that lie between the male and female ideals described in textbooks. The textbooks say "men have XY chromosomes and women have XX," but there are XX men and XY women, and people with many other sex genotypes (XXY, Xo, and XX/XY mosaics to name just some). Textbooks proclaim "men have a penis and scrotum, while women have a clitoris, labia and vagina," but many people are born with an intermediate phalloclitoris and labioscrotum. Children are born with a phallus and a uterus, with vulvas but internal testes, with intermediate ovotestes, with external testes but no penis, and with other variant genital configurations.
Sex is a spectrum of variations, in humans and the rest of the animal kingdom. But societies cut that spectrum up into socially-recognized sexes, just as they slice the color spectrum up into named colors. Cultures in different global locations and different historical periods have sliced the sex spectrum up in contrasting ways, just as they've named differing numbers of colors when looking at the rainbow. While other social sex systems recognize three, four, or five sexes, contemporary Western societies generally only recognize two: male and female. And people are deeply invested in the ideology that there are just two sexes--it's been embedded in religion ("Male and female created He them"); it's graven into our birth certificates and a thousand other forms of ID listing "M" or "F"; it shapes our built environment with bathrooms and locker rooms and the like divided by binary gender; and it underlies our understanding of sexuality, family, and intimacy. So when, inevitably, intersex children are born, it's treated as a crisis.
It's hard, growing up intersex in a society that enforces a sex binary, medically, socially and legally. We are subjected as children to surgeries meant to "normalize" our bodies, with lifelong ramifications that can be quite negative (loss of genital sensation, loss of fertility, loss of a source of natural sex hormones, and sometimes assignment to a sex with which we do not grow up to identify). Often we are not told the truths about our own intersex status. Our bodies are treated as shameful, and we are taught to keep our variations secret, closeted. We may find it hard to form relationships, being told both that our "conditions" will drive people away and must be hidden, but also that if we do not disclose them to sexual partners we are deceitful. If our variance isn't discovered until adulthood, we may find ourselves losing relationships, reputations, even careers, and forced to have hormonal and surgical medical interventions (as a condition, for example, of participating in sports).
Intersex advocates want this to change. We want the natural sex spectrum to be acknowledged, and our bodies accepted. We want to put an end to genital surgeries forced on unconsenting children. We want our gender identities to be respected without our having to alter our bodies medically unless we so desire. We want to remove gender markers from birth certificates, since that requirement is used as an excuse by doctors to force rushed sex assignment decisions on parents of intersex children. We want children to be told the truths about their bodies matter-of-factly, for doctors to stop treating us like fascinating "cases" to poke and prod, and for society to stop treating us as freaks. We want intersex children to grow up with self-respect, and with the autonomy to express their own gender identities and make their own decisions about what medical interventions, if any, will be made into their bodies.
Intersex people are very critical of the binary sex and gender ideologies of our society, and how they are implemented institutionally. Therefore, a group that says they critique gender from a feminist perspective certainly sounds like it would make a reasonable ally.
Intersex People and "Gender Critical" Politics
The intersex friends of mine who mentioned being drawn to "gender critical feminism" were particularly attracted by the fact that these feminists were critical of the term "cis gender." Intersex people are often uncomfortable with the application of the terms "cis" and "trans" to intersex experience. The terms apply very poorly because they presume that physical sex is binary (even if allowing that gender identities may be nonbinary). For example, if a person is born genitally intermediate, is surgically assigned female in infancy, and grows up to identify as a woman, is she "trans gender" because she was surgically altered to become female, or "cis gender" because she identifies with the sex she was assigned at birth? Either term winds up misrepresenting something about her experience. (I've suggested the alternative term "ipso gender" for intersex people who identify with the binary gender they were assigned at birth, because I think it vital that we have a term for people who identify with their birth-assigned sex, rather than leaving them unmarked as "normal." The problem as I see it is not the term "cis gender," but the fact that the cis/trans binary erases intersex experience, and at least one additional term must be added to address this problem.) In any case, gender critical feminists reject the term cis gender, and this has appeal for intersex people frustrated with binary cis/trans terminology applying so poorly to them.
Another reason some intersex friends of mine may have been drawn to gender critical writing is that In recent months, there have been a series of "mainstream" articles and online posts in which these positions have been sympathetically expressed. For example, one article mentioned by an intersex friend critiqued the term "cis privilege" by caricaturing it as meaning "having a female body is a privilege." Clearly this is false: because of patriarchy, female bodies are sexualized, framed as weak, and subjected to surveillance. Lots of nonintersex cis women dislike getting periods or feeling constantly at risk of an unwanted pregnancy. Having a female body is not a privilege--but it is also not how trans advocates define cis privilege at all. Trans people actually define cis privilege as "the benefits one derives from being seen as a 'real' and 'natural' member of one's identified sex" (lack of public scrutiny of one's primary and secondary sex characteristics, being able to use a public bathroom with relative ease, having ID that matches one's identity, etc.). Nor do trans people deny, as the linked article claims, that cis people also suffer from gender policing. Someone who identifies as a woman yet who is very butch in her gender expression can suffer from bathroom panic, and a male-identified person who is quite feminine may well face a great deal of street harassment. That is why trans advocates regularly fight for laws banning discrimination on the basis of gender identity or gender expression. But if you read the article mentioned by my intersex friend and took it at face value, as they apparently did--why, the arguments of trans women sound regressive and ludicrous and enforcing of binary gender stereotypes. Trans women are telling other women their privilege is to enjoy being pretty and silent and submissive and having lots of babies, says the author! If that were true, transfeminists really would be revealed to be patriarchal oppressors in disguise. Only. . . it's not true. It's a false characterization on par with saying that "feminists are man-haters."
Another factor attracting intersex people to "gender critical" arguments is that they put the idea of accepting the natural body front and center. Instead of rejecting one's body as defective, embrace it! This exhortation has enormous appeal to intersex advocates whose central concern is stopping the imposition of "normalizing" genital surgery on intersex infants. If only parents, upon the birth of a child with intermediate genitalia, would look on them, not with dismay, but with the same tender appreciation that parents feel when seeing tiny little sex-typical penises and vulvas on their newborns! If only female-assigned intersex tweens weren't told they would have to have a vagina constructed soon, because otherwise they would never be able to have sexual relationships. If only so many American children born today and given an "M" on their birth certificates weren't given genital surgery for hypospadias, sometimes just because the urethra opens low on the penile head instead of the tip. Shouldn't the person possessing genitals be the one to decide if the risk of loss of sensation in their genitalia is worth the presumed benefit of those genitals looking somewhat more like the idealized binary?
Now, as a practical matter, it turns out that intersex advocates and gender critical feminists have very different end positions on medical interventions into the sexed body. Intersex advocates believe that no intervention should be forced--but also that once an intersex person is old enough to give full informed consent, that hormonal, surgical, or others interventions should be performed if that's what the individual truly wants. Any many, many intersex people do choose interventions of their own free will. Sure, an intersex person who has vaginal agenesis may have no desire whatsoever to have her pelvis dissected and a neovagina constructed from a section of cheek or intestines or labia. There are so many ways to enjoy sexual relations other than vaginal penetration. But many do want a vagina, to support female identities if they so identify, or because of the great social value placed on penetrative vaginal sex, or in the case of those with a substantial uterus and with ovaries, because they could become pregnant through sexual intercourse. Intersex people often seek hormone replacement therapy to masculinize or feminize their bodies, or surgeries to move their urethras to allow neater or standing urination, or any of a wide number of other interventions. And intersex advocates support all of these choices. We just wish them to be free choices, not forced by doctors or parents or social shaming.
Gender-critical feminists, on the other hand, turn out to hold a very different position: that all interventions into the sexed body are mutilations, not just those imposed without consent. Just as it is a mutilation to surgically alter the innocent bodies of intersex babies, they say, it is a pointless self-mutilation for an adult to choose to have their sexed body medically altered, because sex cannot be changed. Chromosomes can't be altered. A vaginoplasty cannot produce a real vagina, nor a phalloplasty a real penis, they say, and all interventions into the sexed body are motivated by patriarchy and thus counter to the interests of women. The only healthy and feminist response to unhappiness with one's body presented is to learn to accept it as it is. For intersex people, this just replaces the rigid regime of forcing medical interventions with a rigid regime of withholding them. Switching one constraint on intersex people for another isn't the motivation for this gender critical position--I don't know if they are even aware that intersex people desire some medical interventions. The main purpose of their argument that one must accept the natural body is to tell trans people that they must give up on the "delusion" that one can be born with a penis but really be a woman, or born with a vagina but really be a man, or born a human being and really be a member of some alternative sex.
Gender-critical feminists, it turns out, have one central obsession, and that is with rejecting trans people, or more accurately, with rejecting trans women. In other words, they are TERFs.
Gender Crits, Radfems and TERFs, Oh My
Most trans folks are familiar with the label "TERF," standing for trans-exclusionary radical feminist. This is the term used in most writing by trans people to refer to feminists who oppose the acceptance of trans women in feminist organizations, women-only "safe spaces," and female facilities, and who fight against regulations, laws or policies that would protect trans people from discrimination. The designation "trans-exlusionary radical feminist" was created by other radical feminists who are not transphobic, and who were upset that the name "radfem" was becoming associated in the public mind with bigotry against trans people.
Few people actively call themselves TERFs--transphobic feminists generally portray the name "TERF" as a slur. I used to have the impression that most called themselves radfems, and were older second-wave feminists, who came of age in the era of lesbian separatism and who thought of themselves as "womyn-born-womyn." I thought of them as people whose transphobic framing of feminist politics was frozen in their youths, destined to fade into irrelevancy as the rest of the world moved on. But instead there's been an upswing in their movement, probably as backlash to the fact that trans people have become more visible and, while still lagging far behind the rights being secured based on sexual orientation, some protections for people based on gender identity and expression have been won.
Now, the group in which I sojourned called itself a gender-critical discussion group. It had rules prohibiting personal attacks and requiring respectful listening, which sounded heartening. Nothing in its mission statement said anything about excluding people, it was open to all, and on its face, there was not a thing about it that seemed bigoted. I could certainly understand why a random intersex person coming across the group would be curious. I myself hoped that the "gender crits" would be different from transphobic radfems, and that their criticisms would be helpful to intersex people. But that's not what happened, and a couple of days spent reading and attempting to have conversations left me feeling depressed and sullied. The gender crits turned out to be TERFs by another name: feminist transphobes. There were a few positive moments, but they were vastly outweighed by slogging through a lot of LOLing about how stupid a person must be to think they can call themselves female when they were born with a penis.
What I think it is important for trans advocates to point out to intersex people is that trans-exclusionary radical feminists believe that sex is a natural binary, innate and immutable: men have penises, women have vaginas and uteri. The TERFs note that gender is a relationship of power, and frame this in an embodied way through binary sex: men seek to control women's uteri, reproductive capacities, and thus lives. The ultimate expression of patriarchy in this framework is the use of the penis to rape. As a result, "gender critical feminists" make the strong claim that anyone who denies that sex is a binary and that genitals determine gender is ignoring the terrorizing of "natal" women by rapists. ("Natal" is their alternative to "cis" to refer to a person who was born with the sex organs expected for someone of their gender.) This gender-critical feminist claim puts intersex people in a very bad place, positioned as supporters of rape if we argue that sex is not a natural binary.
Showing that TERF Positions are Not Good for the Intersex Community
Intersex advocates are interested in criticizing binary sex ideology--that's what makes the term "gender critical" sound appealing. But that's not what these transphobic feminists mean by it at all. As they use it, the phrase "gender critical" denotes being critical of (or more bluntly, rejecting) the concept of gender identity--most especially the fundamental precept of trans gender advocacy, which is that when gender identity and legal sex conflict, this provides pragmatic and ethical justification for a change of legal sex. But intersex people don't reject the concept of gender identity at all. Most intersex people in the contemporary West have a clear gender identity, often as women or men, or sometimes as genderqueer or as as identifying with the term intersex as a third gender category, and want their gender identities to be respected. Intersex advocates believe it is of paramount importance to center a child's gender identity in any decisions made about altering an intersex child's body, and have been famously fighting the legal case for M.C., a child who identifies as a boy, but whose doctors assigned him female based on their treatment protocols. The "gender critical" feminists' core belief--that gender identity is a myth or delusion that society should ignore rather than validate--would undermine M.C.'s case. Transgender people need to point this out to retain intersex individuals as allies--and make trans support for children like M.C. clear by supporting the rights of children and adults to refuse imposed medical transition procedures, not just to request desired ones.
Another thing that may initially draw intersex people to TERFs is that they actively deny that they are transphobic, presenting themselves as reasonable women who are victims of slander. They often say they have compassion for "men under the delusion that they are women," which they present as equivalent to believing one is really a horse or a space alien. They only wish, they say, to help trans people improve their mental health and come to accept their bodies. Accepting one's body means accepting that one cannot call oneself a woman while having a penis. But participating in discussions with gender crits, it quickly becomes apparent that they are indeed transphobic--and apparently obsessed with penises. They talk about them constantly, and presume that all trans women have them (because they say even a trans women who has genital reconstructive surgery now simply possesses an "inverted penis"). And penises are always presented as dangerous--"natal girls" might see them in locker rooms and be traumatized, trans-protective laws would mean no woman could ever be sure the person in the next stall didn't have a penis, and thus pose a threat to her. This obsession with other people's genitals and validation of the idea that people should be upset by those with the "wrong ones" runs completely counter to the interests of intersex people. It's the very same binary sex essentialism and acceptance of gender policing that the medical profession uses to justify intersex genital reconstructive surgery. It is the logic used by doctors when they amputate or "reduce" the intermediate phalloclitorises of children they've assigned female: unless they do so, the child's body will inspire shock and repulsion. In painting trans women's bodies as deceptive, dangerous and disgusting, transphobic feminists paint those born sex variant with the same brush.
TERFs are not just binary sex essentialists, however, dividing the world into oppressors and oppressed through reference to binary genitals. They also have a theory of gender socialization. Their vision of gender socialization is bleak: boys are socialized to dominate, control, and rape women; girls are socialized to submit to this and embrace their oppressors and call this "femininity." Clearly this is bad, and feminism is a movement of "natal" women that teaches women to recognize and resist this programming. Men, however, are presented as inevitably and eternally shaped by their socialization into patriarchy, as it advantages them. Trans women are asserted to be men, and while they may claim they do not enjoy being treated as men, this is said just to illustrate their blindness to their own privilege. Trans women are inevitably socialized to try to control "natal" women, as evidenced by their belief they should be able to force "natal" women into "supporting their gender delusion" and treating them as sisters. Again, this rejection of gender identity conflicts with the interests of intersex people. It also paints a simplistic and binary picture of gender socialization, a process which is in fact quite variable and complex, shaped by one's gender identity and one's many social locations. Moreover, it is important to acknowledge the intersectional nature of marginalization and privilege, and speak not just of patriarchy but of kyriarchy, taking into account race, age, sexual orientation, (dis)ability, and other dimensions along which power is distributed. And one of these dimensions for nonintersex people is the axis of cis privilege and trans marginalization. Trans women--particularly those who are poor, of color, and/or have a disability--suffer huge levels of social stigma, violence, employment discrimination, etc.
Women who are neither intersex nor trans gender need to acknowledge that while they are marginalized as women, they are privileged as cis people. But if trans communities want intersex people to be their allies in getting others to acknowledge this, then they have to take some steps as well. The first step for trans organizers is to recognize and affirm that intersex people don't have cis privilege in the same way nonintersex people do. An intersex ipso gender person shares some privileges with a nonintersex cis person--having thier birth certificate and other ID matching their identified sex, for example. But an ipso gender intersex person is marginalized in other ways like a nonintersex trans person, such as by having the veracity of their gender identity called into question by others due to what is deemed a mismatch with some of their sex characteristics. Furthermore, I hope that nonintersex trans people will acknowledge that they enjoy privileges which intersex people lack, especially that of not facing one or many unconsented-to medical interventions into their bodies, perhaps destroying the very sexed aspects of their bodies with which they matured to identify.
A final core factor in "gender critical" ideology is that while it grows frothy in its fears about trans women, it is weirdly quiet on the topic of other trans people. Trans men are presented by TERFs as just sad: women who don't understand that it's ok to be a butch woman or a lesbian, victims of Stockholm syndrome identifying with their oppressor. There's some anger about butch women "abandoning" the women's community to chase fantasies of joining the oppressor camp, but the basic attitude is that "women who are deluded into thinking they are men" should be pitied and exhorted to return to the fold. Genderqueer people are presented as quite silly, confusing the admirable androgyny to which we all should aspire with a mythic new gender identity. They're presented as dupes of the "genderist trend," obsessed with something that doesn't exist. In this, gender-crits are little different from society as a whole: much more transmisogynist than generically transphobic, paying much less attention to trans men and people with nonbinary gender identities than to the big bugaboo, trans women.
There's a parallel thing that happens with respect to intersex people. Intersex people who identify as women get fetishized and scrutinized, and may in fact be misperceived as (nonintersex) trans women. On the other hand, those raised as men are mostly invisible to society--in fact, many people believe the old saw that "all intersex people are assigned female at birth." In fact, at least 1 in 125 children assigned male at birth is diagnosed as having hypospadiacal DSD (disorder or difference of sex development). But doctors carefully avoid the term "intersex" in describing most of them--calling them just "boys with hypospadias"--and very, very few men with hypospadias come forth to claim their intersex status. Fragile masculinity in our society discourages men from doing anything that makes them appear less than fully masculine in society's eyes. As a result, most, though not all, of the interesx individuals assigned male at birth who come out to claim their intersex status are those who have nothing to lose thereby, as they identify as women or with a nonbinary gender.
And those intersex children assigned male at birth who mature to identify as female face huge levels of scrutiny. Sadly, this is one of the things that my attract intersex people to "gender critical" rhetoric. That's because transphobic feminists claim that trans women are using the intersex community to try to force others to treat them with pity. They claim that it's not intersex people, but trans women who are always going on about intersex issues in public discourse on sex and gender. And they claim that most people presenting themselves as intersex are really trans women pretenting to intersex status. Unfortunately, when they hear this, a lot of intersex people nod their heads angrily.
I really have to say, as an intersex person, that TERFs did not make up the issue of trans gender intersex wannabes being a problem. I have spent many years in support groups and networks for intersex people, and they are often inundated by people either speculating that they are intersex, or flat-out asserting it, wanting to know how to access gender transition services. Now, there are a number of perfectly understandable reasons why people may believe they may be intersex, although this is not the case. There's so little information given to people about intersexuality in the course of education about biology and sex. And the idea that physical sex traits determine gender identity is widely held. So, if a person does not identify with the sex they were assigned at birth, they are likely to be prompted to wonder if their reproductive organs or genes have caused them to trans-idenify. And there's so little understanding even of what sex-typical genitals are "supposed" to look like or do that people can misinterpret quite typical characteristics as strange. A person with a typical phallus may see a line on the underside and think it must be proof of childhood surgery, when all people have a perineal raphe, which extends up the underside of the typical penis. You'd be surprised how many people have asked me if the fact that their clitoris gets erect when they are aroused is proof that they are intersex. Similarly, a lot of people seem to be unaware that it's totally typical for women to find some darker hairs on their upper lips, or some whiskers spouting on their chins.
I see no problem with people who are questioning or exploring their gender identities to have questions about how typical or atypical they are in their bodily sex characteristics--though it can be frustrating to try to run an online intersex support board and have people posing questions like these overrunning them. But what is really damaging to the intersex community is when nonintersex people wishing to gender transition decide they are intersex, while knowing nothing about actual intersex bodies--and then run around telling eveyone they meet strange stories about what being intersex means. I've encountered dozens of such people, and some of the stories they tell are frankly bizarre. Often these stories involve being born with two sets of genitals and reproductive organs, one male-typical and one female-typical, and one of these sets somehow being removed. (One person said his mother forced him to take birth control pills as a child, which caused him to absorb his penis into his abdomen, leaving just a set of female genitals behind. Another told me his uncle had hated his atypical genitals, so had ripped off his testicles and cut a hole for him to menstruate through, and now he just looked like a normal girl. A third told me she had a penis and scrotum in front, but a clitoris and uterus attached to her rectum, and regularly menstruated rectally. And several have told me that they were born with a uterus that doctors removed when they impregnated themselves.) These are not plausible stories because intersex people are born, not with two sets of sex organs, but with one intermediate or mixed set. And a person cannot impregnate themself, even in the extraordinarily rare situation where a person has both an ovary and a testis and a small vagina and uterus and a small phallus, because a sex hormone balance that allows producing viable sperm will not support a menstrual cycle, and one that will support a menstrual cycle will not support spermatogenesis.
In my own experience, trans people of all genders present as intersex wannabes and tell strange stories about their bodies, trying to gain support from others to secure binary gender transition services or to validate their genderqueer identity. A particular focus on trans women as intersex wannabes probably just reflects transmisogyny on the part of TERFs and, sadly, some intersex people. Hopefully this phenomenon will fade away as transition services become easier to access, but today it's still a big problem for the intersex community, because these wannabes spread disinformation, sometimes setting themselves up as "intersex authorities" to people around them. Some of this disinformation can be actively dangerous, and none of it helps demythologize intersex reality in the general populace. Unfortunately, the substantial frustration in the intersex community about trans gender wannabes plays a large part in making transphobic feminist rhetoric sound attractive to intersex people. If the trans community wants intersex people to ally with it, it is very important that trans people educate themselves on what intersexuality actually means, and call out other trans people they hear telling impossible stories of having had two sets of genitals in childhood, or having impregnated themselves.
It's not just a problem that some trans people tell bizarre stories of impossible intersex bodies. Trans people are going to continue to alienate intersex people if they continue to assert the more abstract claim that the entire trans community has the right to call itself intersex, because trans people have an intersex brain, or the brain of one binary sex in the body of the other. This claim deeply alienates intersex people for two reasons. First, the impulse to appropriate the term intersex is based on the presumption that it is better to be deemed an intersex person than a trans person. This indicates a profound ignorance of all the the pain and marginalization intersex people face--in other words, it illustrates nonintersex privilege. And secondly, the people who make this "intersex brain" case generally go on to assert that they deserve free gender transition services, because intersex people get those services for free as children, as society understands in their case that this is medically necessary. This claim presents the central problem against which intersex advocates struggle--forced genital surgery performed on unconsenting children--as both necessary and good. Arguments in favor of forced sex assignment surgery on intersex infants (or adult intersex athletes, or any other group of intersex people) are so maddening to intersex advocates that they can drive people into the arms of TERFs.
Steps Trans People Can Take to Support Intersex People and Keep Them as Allies
1. First and foremost, since TERFs believe that the "natural" sexed body should be accepted rather than medically altered, many commenters in the "gender critical" discussion group I visited were opposed to performing genital surgery on intersex infants, seeing it as a mutilation. This aligns with the central focus of intersex advocacy: stopping the imposition of genital surgery onto unconsenting intersex infants. Trans advocates tend to describe hormone therapy or genital reconstructive surgery only in positive terms. When someone presents a surgery as mutilating, trans advocates may immediately attack them as transphobic. This is very alienating to intersex people, and it is time for a more sophisticated approach. What trans people need to do is shift from arguing that hormonal treatment and genital surgery are lifesaving wonders that are never misapplied, to talking about a fight only for positive interventions into bodily sex, and never for negative ones. What distinguishes good from bad medical interventions into the sexed body are autonomy and full informed consent. Centering full informed consent will allow trans people both to counter transphobes and support intersex allies. When a transphobic critic claims that "confused girls are amputating their breasts," for example, the reply can be, "Chest reconstructive surgery is supported by the American Medical Association as a treatment for gender dysphoria. Those trans gender individuals who receive it are not confused, but have undergone careful counseling and have given their full informed consent. As trans people, we believe very strongly that interventions into the sexed body should only be performed with the full informed consent of the individual involved. For example, we oppose genital surgery when it is imposed on intersex infants, who cannot agree or disagree to it."
2. In addition to becoming more vocal critics of intersex infant genital surgery, trans people can show that "gender critical" feminists make bad bedfellows for the intersex community by focusing attention on TERF insistence that sex is a binary. In the discussion group I visited, the fact that people are born sexually intermediate was somehow said not to undermine the "natural" sex binary because intersexuality was presented as a disorder, and, I was informed, "you can't take a disorder and call it a sex." Group members believed intersex infants must be permanently assigned to a binary sex. They dismissed the alternatives advocated by intersex people (removing sex-markers from birth certificates generally, or making a provisional sex marker listed at birth easily amendable to "M," "F," or a nonbinary alternative, once an individual matures to be able to express their identity and give full informed consent). Removing binary sex markers from IDs, or at least expanding the gender options and making them easy for an individual to change, are also goals of the trans community. Trans advocacy about gender markers on identity documents is widespread, but rarely if ever addresses the central intersex concern about such markers: that requiring a permanent gender marker on the birth certificate leads to hasty binary sex assignments for intersex children. Making this issue a regular part of all trans advocacy about gender markers, and offering to work in partnership with intersex groups on it, would be a good way to strengthen trans/intersex community ties.
3. While it was agreed in discussion in the gender crit group I visited that doctors shouldn't perform cosmetic genital surgery on intersex babies, I was told that they should examine the infants and assign them to the correct binary sex based on capacity to reproduce in the "very rare" situations in which that would be possible without surgery, and otherwise on genes. This was an odd rule, not comporting with the treatment protocols imposed by doctors, and would lead to results that the discussants seemed unaware would counter their own precepts. For example, people with complete androgen insensitivity syndrome (CAIS), born with typical vulvae and developing female secondary sex characteristics at puberty if unaltered by gonadectomy, would be understood as permanently and naturally male, being infertile and having XY chromosomes. Yet CAIS is often not diagnosed until late childhood or puberty, so either CAIS teens would be forced into gender transitions--a process the "gender crits" frame as impossible--or the TERFs would have to accept XY women. Trans advocates can point out that TERFs propose schemes for assigning intersex children to a permanent binary sex that are even more problematic than those applied by doctors today. Demonstrating that the trans community has considered the outcomes of different sex-assignment schemes, and understand why both the standard medical protocol and the TERF alternative are harmful to intersex children, will prove that trans folks are doing the real work of being allies to intersex people.
4. Since the central point of "gender critical" feminism is that gender identity is a sort of delusion or myth, the idea that families and society should allow a child to mature to assert their own gender identity (male, female, or something else) is basically incomprehensible to transphobic feminists. This is an important issue to focus on for trans advocates seeking to cement allyship with intersex groups. Intersex advocates urge, in addition to leaving intersex children's bodies intact, assigning them a provisional binary gender marker to deal with institutional forms and spaces requiring one, but following the child's lead, and supporting them in whatever gender identity they grow to have. This is a model trans advocates can certainly support, while TERFs view it as "genderist" lunacy, and that's an excellent fact to point to in showing who the real allies of intersex people are.
5. We've discussed how transphobic feminists try to draw intersex people to them by framing trans people as appropriating intersex issues. Trans advocates can turn this claim on its head by showing that "gender critical feminists" are appropriating intersex issues to try to advance their transphobic goals. The main situation in which intersex concerns were treated as relevant in the group I joined was in the context of discussions of trans-identified children. (A particularly overwrought conversation in the group discussed an article which bore the blaring title "Toddler Aged 3 Assessed for Sex Change at London Clinic," which actually just reported that a 3-year-old was assessed for gender identity issues, not that the child was offered any sort of hormonal or surgical treatment.) A claim made in the discussions of trans-identified children was that for parents to "indulge" this "fantasy" by bringing them to a clinic to be diagnosed, changing the pronoun they used to refer to the child, and/or having the gender marker on their ID changed was analogous to forcing genital surgery on intersex children, and thus a human rights violation that should be banned. I don't see an analogy at all, but rather an inversion: forced genital surgery performed on infants violates their autonomy, while validating a child in their gender identity supports the child's autonomy. I see TERFs appropriating intersex concerns about unconsented-to genital surgery to bash at children who assert a trans identity. And pointing this out is another way to convince intersex people that the trans community is their true ally, and transphobes poor allies indeed.
So: I followed a recent suggestion that "gender critical" politics might be useful to intersex people, and spent several days reading posts and participating in a group for "gender critical" partisans. What I found was something that left an awful taste in my mouth: a lot of transmisogyny, a denial of the lived reality of trans people of all genders, and an insistence on an immutable sex binarism that frames intersex people as disordered. I was told that most people who say they are intersex are trans pretenders, using a tiny minority to advance their nefarious goal of insisting that gender identity should be respected and genitals treated as nobody's business other than the person bearing them and their intimate partners. And I found the intersex community's concerns being co-opted to vilify parents who support their children in identifying with a gender other than that on their birth certificates.
Intersex people may be drawn to the intriguing moniker "gender critical," but I believe the trans advocates can and must demonstrate that these trans-exclusionary feminists make very poor allies for the intersex community. Trans people should commit to becoming better and more active allies for intersex folks in the future, and ensure that what seems a natural alliance between trans and intersex communities does not founder, but flourishes.
Monday, September 8, 2014
The article New York Magazine ran on Martine Rothblatt this week could have been great, were it not ruined by tired old tropes of journalism about trans people. This was clear from the moment you see the sensationalist title--not, say, "Meet Martine Rothblatt, America's Wealthiest Trans Woman," but "The Highest-Paid Female CEO in America Used to Be a Man."
Martine Rothblatt is a genderqueer transhumanist trans woman with a multiracial family and a passion for artificial intelligence and virtual worlds. Sounds like my own spouse! The difference is that Rothblatt is a wealthy CEO with a lot of fancy toys that make her fascinating to a mass audience.
The New Yorker piece presents lots of interesting biographical detail. But it opens by talking about the very small percentage of CEOs who are women, and how the Rothblatt is the highest paid of this tiny minority. There's no discussion of how trans women on average are unemployed at very high rates and are poorly paid, in fact economically disadvantaged in comparison to cis women. The implication--jumped on by transmisogynist commenters in many threads I've read--is that Rothblatt and other trans women are not like "real" women, and are advantaged like men. Empirically, this is not the case, but every social pattern has exceptions. The first American female millionaire was Madam C. J. Walker, an African American child of parents who had been enslaved. Her success selling hair straighteners and skin lightening creams does not prove that African American women were more socially empowered than white women in the 19th century. Her success was an exception to the rule. And such is the case of Rothblatt as well.
The New York Magazine piece also presents a gratuitous physical description of the sexed characteristics of Rothblatt's body early in the piece ("magnificent, like a tall lanky boy with breasts"), and informs the readers that she has had "radical" transition surgery. This approach is so, so tired. Journalists may claim that what the reader of any piece about a trans person first wants to know is how sex-conforming their body is and whether they've "had the surgery," but this is cissexist gender-policing BS that journalists are in large part responsible for creating and perpetuating. I find it terribly offensive.
Anyway, if you can get through that, as far as biographies of the wealthy go, Rothblatt's life story is certainly interesting. Americans love to read about the lives of the rich and famous, and the stories of every Fortune 500 CEO who is not a cis white man is likely to be venerated by their communities, as they are few and far between, and generally viewed as "success stories."
But instead of framing Rothblatt against a backdrop of the huge social disadvantages faced by trans women generally--as a story of her overcoming the odds--she's framed instead as more successful than cis women because she is "unisex," as if genderquerity confers social advantages rather than social marginalization. And that journalistic presentation is not only wrong as a matter of fact, but does active harm to trans women by seeming to validate the claims of transmisogynists, who frame trans women as privileged male impostors in women's spaces. After reading several posts about this article full of TERFs crowing about how Rothblatt proves that trans women are really oppressive men, I'm feeling very tired, and like New York Magazine owes the trans community an apology.
Sunday, June 8, 2014
This weekend I spent two days at PrideFest Milwaukee. I was especially looking forward to it because on Friday afternoon, a federal court in Wisconsin held that the state ban on same-sex marriage was unconstitutional, and a number of my friends were among the couples who joined in a delirious rush to get married before any injunction could be issued. I was very happy for them, and was anticipating a particularly giddy PrideFest.
In many ways, it was a lovely weekend. I've been attending this particular pride celebration for 15 years. The first time I attended, just after moving from San Francisco, it was a shock. I had to enter the festival grounds, pulling my scared young child along by the hand, through a huge gauntlet of homophobic protesters shouting that we were going to go to hell for our perversions. Inside, the crowd was small and, in a racially diverse city, very white. The entire event seemed quiet and tentative.
Things have changed a lot since then. The protesting homophobic groups are much smaller, and a loving counterprotest of PFLAG volunteers stands by the entrance to the festival grounds, so that nobody has to push through a hostile wall of bodies to enter. Inside, the venue is full, and the crowd much more racially diverse. There's a visible trans presence, both in terms of organizations hosting information-and-activity tables, and among the attendees. There's a festive smattering of furries brightening up the place. A goodly number of children of assorted ages are in attendance, happily collecting scads of stickers, or being pushed in strollers by parents of all flavors.
So, PrideFest Milwaukee has come a long way. But I'm sorry to say that it still has a long way to go, because it is not yet doing right by trans people.
What I want to note in particular is the bathroom problem. There are no designated gender-neutral, inclusive restrooms. This is 2014, and even the mainstream professional association conferences I attend as a sociologist designate and give clear signs directing people to gender-neutral bathrooms. The conferences are held in hotels that may not have such facilities, so what the organizers do--this is not rocket science--is select a capacious facility designated for one binary gender or another, and put a sign over the door labeling it a gender-inclusive restroom. But PrideFest--guaranteed to have more genderqueer and gender-transitioning people attending than the crowd at the American Sociological Association conference--does not do this.
Maybe it wouldn't matter that much, if people just felt free to use whatever binary-gendered facilities were most convenient. It is, after all, an LGBT+ festival, and the inclusion of all genders should be an aim of all attendees. All the bathrooms should be, in effect, gender inclusive. But unfortunately, that is not true. There is a segment of the crowd that isn't just forgetting there's a T in LGBT. They are opposed to trans inclusion. They want to attend a cis lesbian-gay-and-maybe-bisexual festival. In particular, there are cis lesbians present who don't want to let trans women into "their" spaces--like the women's bathrooms, or the "Wom!n's Lounge and Cafe."
What this means is that, at PrideFest 2014, I know a number of trans women who were harassed when all they wanted was a place to pee. One of them was my spouse. There were visibly trans women who received glares, misgendering challenges to their entering women's bathrooms, and physical shoves. And there was nowhere else for them to "go"--not that a trans woman should be forced to use a gender neutral restroom, when all women, trans or cis, have an equal right to use the binary-gendered bathroom that matches their gender identity. But at least a gender-inclusive restroom would have been a safe alternative for a woman being harassed in the bathroom because she is trans.
Gender policing and bathroom panic have no place at a Pride festival. The massive illogic of threatening trans women who are trying to pee on the bogus theory that they pose a threat to other women in the bathroom is a classic example of how bigotry works. Discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation has been justified in the same way--as necessary to protect threatened innocents. A lesbian teacher would "convert" her helpless students, a gay male scouting troop leader corrupt the morals of his charges. The "homosexual" has been framed as a threat in the locker room or the group shower. To have some cis lesbians turn around and make the same sort of charge against a different group of marginalized women is a nasty irony.
It's not just some cis women who made PrideFest 2014 feel unsafe for trans people. Walking around the festival grounds with my visibly trans wife, I watched unfortunate numbers of cis men and women of all stripes directing microaggressions at her. That's not to say there weren't also people present who gave her big grins or who complimented her hair or told her that she looked lovely. But I witnessed too many of the very same microaggressions she gets outside of a Pride festival: people snickering at her, elbowing their friends and pointing at her, or giving her long, unsmiling stares. At least there were no bros yelling at her to stop wearing women's clothes or shouting, "Look at the tranny!" But that's hardly a high standard of what to expect at an LGBT+ celebration.
What I'd hope would happen at a Pride party is that when people acted in rude or harassing ways, other people would call them on it. When a visitor at the table hosted by a genderqueer organization is demanding to know what genitals the individual sitting behind the table keeps in their pants, it shouldn't just be up to them to explain why that's a rude question. When a passerby feels compelled to inform a young person wearing a button saying "my pronoun is he" that this is silly because he looks like a pretty girl to him, someone should step up in that young man's defense. But that didn't happen in the case of these incidents.
People tell me that it's the nonconfrontational culture of the Midwest that explains this. People in Wisconsin are polite, and don't want to make a scene or embarrass someone by calling them on inappropriate behavior. But if people in the Midwest are so nonconfrontational, why are they confronting trans people about their pronouns, or right to use the bathroom? If Midwesterners are so polite, why are they asking strangers about their genitals?
I can say this: I know that there are plenty of cis people out there who want to be good allies. This morning, in an attempt to take at least some step toward addressing the bathroom issue, I made up a batch of signs that were variations on a general theme of "Trans? Genderqueer? Worried about using the bathroom? Ask here for an ally to escort you." Then I went around to various organizational tables and asked if they'd be willing to put one of the signs on their table, and to escort anyone who asked for assistance. Fourteen of the organizations put up a sign. Most of the time, cis women at the table said that they were so sorry to hear that this was a problem, and that they would be very happy to help trans women use the bathroom in safety. And that's a good thing.
Still, one of the organizations that agreed to take a sign was running a survey about experiences with health care, supposedly for LGBT people, and obviously recently constructed, since it asked if the person filling out the survey had tried to get insurance through "a health care exchange (Obamacare)." Yet the questions only asked if the person suveyed had faced various sorts of poor treatment due to their sexual orientation. I went to the person running the booth and pointed out that I've had a variety of poor healthcare experiences due to my trans status, but that the healthcare providers in question never even asked about my sexual orientation. Her response was to say "Ohhhh, I see what you mean," and then to advise me that if I wanted to I could answer the questions as if my trans status were my sexual orientation. But it isn't. And not having thought of that beforehand is not a sign of being the best of allies to all the trans people answering the survey.
(Another health survey I filled out at PrideFest was even worse. It asked me if I was attracted to people who were "male, female, transgender, other, or it doesn't matter." As if a trans man is not a man, and a trans woman not a woman. As if nobody would have a trans partner unless they were "sexually oriented" to trans people of all genders as a class.)
I know things could be worse. A few years ago, signs were put up on the bathrooms at PrideFest saying that nobody could use the facility unless the gender on their ID matched the gender specified on that bathroom door. At least the organizers aren't taking steps explicitly to gender police entry to the bathrooms.
But I was really hoping for better. This was a year in which there were people present glowing with joy because their friends had just been legally married. Trans people have often complained that so much community energy is being focused on marriage equality, while little is focused on access to transition services, or on the needs of those who don't identify with the gender binary, or on the violence directed at visibly trans people. I didn't want to sound grumpy in a year where a significant victory was being celebrated. But if my wife gets harassed for just trying to pee, that's going to put a serious damper on our family's LGBT+ celebration.
Next year, I want to see both clearly identified gender inclusive facilities available at Milwaukee's PrideFest, and an active ally network helping to ensure that all people--most especially trans women--are able to use the bathroom that feels most affirming for their identity. I want a community that commits to calling out people at the event who marginalize those with less privilege than they have, because they are trans, or a person of color, or fat, or wearing a fursuit, or whatever their marginalized difference. And I want that to be the case at Pride celebrations everywhere.
Let's all step up to try to make it so.
Wednesday, July 24, 2013
I am a white, middle-aged, intersex trans man. I teach sociology at a large Midwestern state university, and sociologically speaking, gender transitioning here has been fascinating. It's a story of prejudice and of privilege.
On a personal level, it's been weird.
I'm the first professor to have transitioned at my university, despite its huge size; while locals think of the university and surrounding area as very liberal, from a national perspective, they're quite socially conservative. It's a land of racial segregation, and of LGBT+ closeting. Many of the tenured white gay cis male professors I know here, for example, are not out at work, and communicate about sexual orientation in coded phrases straight out of the 1950s. (Having moved here from the San Francisco Bay area, the level of closeting is eye-popping.) As far as I can tell through my social networks, two people proceeded me in gender transitioning at my university, both trans* women staff members who soon left. In any case, my administration had little experience in dealing with gender transitions, and none with the issues raised by an instructor doing so, when I announced that I had begun the process.
My university has no official policies and procedures for dealing with gender transitioners, though it does formally include a ban on discrimination on the basis of gender identity or expression in its antidiscimination clause. Since it's a huge institution, the lack of policies made transition a bureaucratic nightmare. I could write a long and very tedious post just about that, but suffice it to say that as I enter the fifth year of my transition, I am still finding my old female name being given out by yet another independent university software system. And I still have in my files, where I regularly now ignore it, a memo to all individuals with offices in my building stating which single male bathroom I will use on campus, so that they can avoid it if they wish.
(This very awkward memo was the only notice given by my university about my transition to others, and I was expressly forbidden to send emails myself to people outside my department to let people know. The administration's reasoning was that if they let me announce my gender transition and name change, they'd have to let every woman who got married and changed her name to send a broadcast email, clogging up 40,000 mailboxes. When I pointed out the difference between getting married and gender transitioning, that was considered “political,” and sending political email on work computers a violation of state law. Thus, years into transition, I still find myself on committees with people I've worked with before who now have no idea who I am, and I have to come out endlessly. It's just as socially awkward for stammering others as it is for me.)
The physical process of my early transition was made especially awkward because I got to go through it in front of my large introductory-level class of 350 Midwestern students. Most of them were 18 or 19 and on the tail ends of their own awkward adolescences, and few of them were aware of ever knowing a trans* person in real life. I did explain to them that I had changed my legal name and the gender on my ID, that I was beginning my medical transition, and what pronouns to use in referring to me (despite explicit instruction from administration not to discuss my transition, because it was my “personal” and “political” business that I should not “impose” on students). I had to give students some way to understand and address their instructor. But many students couldn't process the information and didn't know what to make of me. In hindsight, it's sort of amusing, but at the time. . . ugh. My very androgynous body made students anxious, and they stood much farther away from me when speaking to me after class than students had in prior years. Every time my voice cracked, a little ripple or shudder moved across the lecture hall. I often caught students inappropriately staring at my chest or my groin, and both they and I would flush when I caught them.
That semester my student evaluations, while still generally positive, were much less enthusiastically so than in the past—and most were very awkwardly worded to avoid any use of pronouns (“The professor seemed to know what the professor was talking about.”). Of the modest number of students who did use pronouns in writing their evaluations, more used female pronouns than male (and none used gender-neutral pronouns). My gender—and students' discomfort with my physical androgyny—were front and center in everyone's classroom experience, both mine and that of the students.
But after a couple of years on testosterone I had grown a solid beard, and people by and large “read” me as male, including in my classes. The majority of my students called me “he” without hesitating, and the chest-and-groin-checking was much reduced. My student evaluations rebounded into the quite-positive zone. And my personal experience rebounded further yet. I found that I now received male privilege. Before my transition, students had regularly commented on my appearance, dress or hairstyle—now none of them did so, as men are judged by their minds much more than their bodies. Students now see me as more authoritative than in the past. Most defer to me more, challenge me less, and some even find me intimidating (at my mighty 5'2”).
And it's not just male privilege that I now experience, but that most celebrated form, white male privilege. I have become The Man. And while this means that some students of color in my very racially-segregated setting, while still respectful of me, also react to me with greater distrust than students of color displayed before my transition, amidst the white majority I am treated as a person of dignity, trustworthiness, competence, and esteem. This happens in the classroom, in administrative meetings, and when I'm driving a car or visiting a store. As I've only experienced this for a few years out of my almost 50, it's glaringly obvious to me, and I'm amazed that my fellow white men who are cis gender seem so often to feel disrespected and put-upon. Small reductions in deference to white male power prey on their minds, but believe me—our privilege is still very substantial.
I have to note how much easier it is to transition to male, and to do so as a white person. My wife is an intersex gender transitioner like myself, and I see every day how much more difficult it is to be a trans* woman. Transphobia directed at trans* women is much more virulent, and is compounded by misogyny. Androgyny in trans* women is treated with much more negative social sanction than androgyny in trans* men. Trans* women of color are routinely treated by others as if they were sex workers, and subjected to extraordinary levels of discrimination, abuse, and violence. So I enjoy not only privilege as a white man, but in comparison to others in the trans* community.
I wanted to lay all of this out before raising a problem I face, relating to a modest number of students who now complain about my teaching. I want to make it clear that I recognize how privileged I now am as a white male tenured professor to be able to have such a job issue to worry about at all. Still, as a trans gender man, I have issues to worry about that my cis counterparts do not.
I teach hundreds of students every year, and every year a small number of them who are not doing well in my classes, perhaps a dozen, complain about my teaching. It's rarely my teaching style that they object to; they usually complain about one of two content areas. One of these I don't worry about: they object to my teaching about global climate change in my social problems class. Students who complain about this are usually cis white guys with right-leaning politics who argue that I am teaching “pseudoscience” concocted in a leftist conspiracy. Whatever. The empirical evidence for global climate change is great, and I am sure the political motivations of this group of students' objections would be clear to my administration if the students were to file formal complaints.
The other group of students' complaints I worry about regularly, however. These involve students who object to what I teach about intersex and trans gender issues (basically, that forcing cosmetic genital surgery on unconsenting infants is a bad social policy, and that transphobia is a form of bias akin to sexism, racism, and homophobia). Unlike those who object to my teaching about climate change, these students are usually (cis) women who take my gender class. Some are white women from rural areas of the state; some are African American women from urban locations; many of them explicitly self-identify themselves to me as Christian. They believe that sex must be binary, and that “corrective” surgery for intersex “disorders” in infancy is a medical imperative. Further, they believe that binary genitals (constructed or present at birth) must determine gender, and that a desire to gender transition is both a mental illness and immoral.
From my perspective, this group of complaining students is exactly like the first group: they hold to an ideology that is political in nature and in conflict with the literature in my field. As I point out at the start of my classes, there are many different perspectives that can be taken on any given issue—biological, psychological, religious, political, etc.--but that they are taking a sociology class, and in this class, are expected to learn and employ the sociological position in assignments and exams. I have no desire to be the thought police, and I tell them I support their right to use other perspectives in other contexts. But it is my job as a professor to teach them the subject matter they have signed up to learn. Most students have no problem with this—but there are some who are very resistant.
So, the two groups of complaining students may be analogous in being resistant to learning class content—but the students who object to the intersex and trans gender components of my classes pose much more of a problem for me.
One problem they present for me is that they often persistently misgender me. Now, I teach my Sociology of Sex and Gender course as an online summer class. This means that students don't see me in front of them—instead I have a virtual presence for them, constructed mostly via text. During the first week of class, I do have students post pictures of themselves, and I post one myself. And our first exercise requires students to state their gender identity and list the pronoun they use—and again, I do the same myself. Further, each student receives at least four personal comments from me each week, and all are signed “Prof. Costello.” So, my gender, pronoun, and the form of address I expect are theoretically made clear to them. In the early days of my transition, I was more likely to be addressed as a male in this online setting, due to my clear masculine self-framing, than I was in my in-person classes, where my physical androgyny outweighed my self-presentation in students' minds. But now, the reverse is true. Students in my in-person classes don't often misgender me. Every summer, however, I have some students who persistently refer to me as “she,” or the eye-rolling “Mrs. Costello”--something students never called me before my transition. I correct them in a matter-of-fact manner, first addressing whatever their substantive point was in their post or email, but they often continue to mispronoun me. Rather than helping to correct any peers who misgender me in online discussions, other students often seem to become less sure of the “realness” of my male status, and some become uncomfortable, seeing me as “forcing my issue down other people's throats” (an aggressively Freudian description one student gave me in an email intended to be sympathetic). This happens despite my constant efforts to be polite to people who refuse to recognize my gender identity and legal sex that trans* friends see as going well above and beyond the call of professional duty. The persistent misgendering makes me feel dysphoric, and the class atmosphere less comfortable for all.
In my class on sex and gender, I assign one exercise about intersex issues, and one with an optional trans gender focus. It's in this context where I most often encounter active student resistance to course content, though it does arise elsewhere. Now, to be clear, the way I grade all course exercises is according to the quality of the essays submitted. Students are expected to cite course readings or lecture points in analyzing a hypothetical situation. So long as they do that, and write a coherent essay, their conclusions can be whatever they like. For example, this summer a student wrote her essay on the abortion unit of the course about how she believed doctors should universally screen fetuses for intersex conditions and abort those found to have them. I personally strongly disagree, but so long as the student cited course materials sensibly and wrote a cogent analysis, she'd receive full credit. I don't let the fact that I perceive writing such an essay to a professor whose intersex birth status was clearly revealed earlier as microaggressive impact my grading. But if students fail to try to engage in any way with the course materials, and simply assert their opinions, citing no class readings (or sometimes citing instead their Christian status, which is no more a source of sociological authority than is my being Jewish), then they do quite poorly on an exercise.
The problem is that such students often perceive their poor grade as due to my “pushing an agenda.” More: they frame me as an abuser. They often present themselves as trying to protect innocent children from sexual radicals who seek to damage them. Complex and inchoate ideas often come up relating to permissive versus authoritarian parenting, or eugenic ideology (from white students), or the imposition of purportedly white preoccupations onto struggling African American families (from Black students), or about the decline of American civilization. But central to most student complaints about poor grades on intersex and trans* exercises is the framing of me as lacking any authority to teach on these matters, because I am “biased.”
The idea that only the privileged have the right to speak about the marginalized because the privileged are objective and the marginalized are not has been critiqued by many. Before my transition, cis male students in my gender class often complained that as “a woman,” I was biased while they were not, and that the statistics I cited were not credible. I didn't worry about this at the time, because if any of them ever made a formal complaint to the administration, I expected the administration to be suspicious of such a claim. (It turned out I was probably wrong. I almost didn't get tenure because an outside reviewer claimed that my research on race/class/gender in the professions was a mere voicing of personal bias against white men. He bolstered this claim by attacking my very large qualitative research project (almost 100 in-depth interviews plus 18 months of participant observation) as not meeting the significance standard for a quantitative study, which was just silly, but it gave his critique the veneer of “objectivity” that led my tenure case to be voted down. I did finally get tenure on appeal, after a long and exhausting battle, but it was a very close thing.)
Now, my university, like most, is generally staffed by people who believe that gender discrimination is a bad thing, not to be tolerated. Even so, male professors earn more than female ones, are more likely to get tenure, and are less likely to be accused of bias in their work. But what about trans* gender discrimination? While my university does have a formal policy banning discrimination on the basis of gender identity or expression, in my experience, many of the faculty, students and staff are uncomfortable with gender transition and hold private or public cissexist views. And so I am rationally worried about what would happen if one of my students who do poorly on a trans* or intersex assignment in my class were to take their complaints beyond exchanges with me and up the administrative hierarchy. Supposedly I have job security in the form of tenure, meant to protect professors' ability to teach and engage in research with full academic freedom. But tenure is not “forever” if a professor commits an offense, such as criminal activity, dereliction of duty—or harassment. And I have no doubt that students who persistently misgender me and who refuse to engage in course materials dealing with intersex and trans* materials feel that I am “harassing” them, rather than vice versa. And remember, some frame me as advocating child abuse, which is a criminal offense. One of my recent students who watched an optional video link I posted to a mainstream TV news story about a young trans* girl wrote a post accusing me and the media of assisting the girl's parents in “abusing” her by “allowing” a “confused boy” to wear dresses. And while contemporary social science literature supports the recognition of trans gender identification in children, it's plausible that there are administrators at my university who share my complaining student's perspective: that I am pushing a disturbing agenda and harassing students who fail to parrot it back at me.
Given that I was explicitly instructed by administrators not to use my teaching podium as a soapbox for advocating my “personal agenda,” I worry that including segments on trans* and intersex issues in my courses on gender, sexuality, and on social problems might somehow be framed as a breach of duty on my part. But to avoid teaching on these topics where they are obviously relevant is something I see as the real breach of pedagogical duty. Should I as a Jew not be able to address religion in my courses, because as a religious minority I am not “objective”? Should my colleagues who are people of color not be able to teach about race in their classes? Taken to its logical extreme, are the only suitable sociology professors cis, straight, white, middle-aged, middle-class, Christian men without disabilities? (Of course, the opposite is in fact true: a person who has experienced something has a better understanding of what is involved than someone who has no such first-hand experience. You won't find me taking a SCUBA diving class from someone with only academic book-knowledge of diving. . .)
Many, many instructors have faced this issue of being members of a marginalized group and being accused of bias when teaching about that group. As a white man, I enjoy a privilege many of these instructors have not enjoyed, that of being presumed competent as a professor by virtue of my race and gender. At the same time, privilege is always context-dependent. As an intersex trans* person, I'm a member of a small minority that is currently considered quite outré , in the Midwestern city where I live.
And thus, in teaching on the topics on which I have the greatest expertise, I always feel at risk, my job security subject to challenge from people who refuse even to do class readings. And that. . . is sad.