Tuesday, December 6, 2011
Wednesday, October 5, 2011
There's often bickering and conflict in any community about where to draw the boundaries for group membership. For the trans community, such as it is, one central debate is whether genderqueer people belong under the trans umbrella. Some trans folk believe that the boundary for who "counts" as trans should be easy to cross: anyone who self-identifies as trans on any basis that matters to them should be welcomed. Others define the "truly trans" around formal gender transition: anyone, genderqueer or binary in their identity, who seeks to take some transitional steps legally and/or medically can stand under the trans umbrella. Yet others are much more restrictive, seeing only binary gender-transitioners who transition surgically as "really trans," and others as confused people who deserve to stand out in the rain until they "make up their mind" and follow the medically-normalized, binary pathway to "sex change."
I'm inclusively-inclined, and don't feel marginalized communities do themselves any good by trying to define people out of the group. I hate it when people turn to a community for support, and instead face gatekeeping checks: "Prove you're intersex. Prove you're trans. Prove you're disabled. Prove you're Asian." So I accept as part of the trans community anyone who says they belong. However, I believe community membership entails duties to the community, and central among these are understanding the diversity within any community, recognizing one's own privileges, and working never to marginalize the most marginalized among us.
So it's from this position--full inclusion, celebration of gender diversity, and a demand that all of us be respectful to community members--that I address the issue of genderqueer people as members of the trans community.
I believe that sometimes genderqueer people are among the most marginalized of trans people, and other times, among the most privileged. As someone who ran the gauntlet of legal transition and seeking access to hormone therapy I can testify to the fact that this process is much more difficult for someone who tries to assert a genderqueer identity. I didn't have the strength to do it. I kept my lack of allegiance to the gender binary a secret and tried to answer all the gatekeeping questions in a traditionally masculine way and present myself as a standard guy. There's something very ironic in having to pass as something one is not (a manly, manly man) in order to be permitted to stop passing as something else one is not (a woman). And it makes passing through the gatekeeping system more complicated and nervewracking. However, I'm sure my experience was much easier than that of a person who tried to, say, assert a totally neutrois identity while seeking access to hormone therapy. I can but salute anyone who attempts to take the difficult path of seeking openly to transition to a nonbinary sex, and recognize that the barriers they face make them among the most marginalized of trans people.
At other times, however, genderqueer people are privileged in comparison to other trans folk. I acknowledge as having the right to trans community membership anyone who identifies with a gender other than one conforming to the sex they were assigned at birth. But it's important to distinguish between gender identity, gender presentation, and seeking to access gender transition services.
Anyone who doesn't identify with the gender society pushes on them suffers the pain of gender dysphoria. Our psychological suffering is equal and deep when we are misgendered by others, however we dress or groom ourselves and no matter what our transition status. A FAAB person who identifies as genderqueer but who presents as a gendernormative woman shares the emotional pain of a MAAB trans woman who has just come out at work when the two are called by the wrong pronoun by a customer. However, the material consequences are likely to be very different for the two individuals. The first person gets to go to work without facing transphobic harassment, while the second person's career is endangered.
There is a huge difference in the levels of harassment and marginalization faced in everyday life between those whose genderquerity is always visible to cis people and those who identify as genderqueer but who generally pass as cis people. Again, I can testify to this personally as a trans man who identifies as genderqueer but who is now often perceived by cis people to be a generic guy. I certainly enjoy wearing eyeliner and fishnets to a queer party, but most of the time I dress like a standard metrosexual male professor. I can teach, go shopping, attend my kid's school play and just go about my business. When my more androgynous trans woman spouse does the same things, she has to endure a barrage of stares and whispers and binary-enforcing confrontations ("Are you a dude or a chick?"). It's clear that because I can choose to present as genderconforming and I usually do, I am privileged. True, my privilege can evaporate in an instant when my trans status is revealed (and I've certainly had the experience of having a guy touch my chest and realize what I keep bound up in there). And there are plenty of circumstances in which I can't try to present as a cis man--any context requiring disrobing, for example. But by having the choice to be able to present as a binary man and by taking it, I enjoy privilege--albeit discreditable--that I need to acknowledge.
Genderqueer individuals who pass as cis people in a way that can't be discredited by a random touch enjoy even more privilege, and must acknowledge that too. People who are usually perceived by others to be members of the sex they were assigned at birth, whose ID cards all match that sex, and whose bodies present the expected genital configuration enjoy cis privilege. They may not want it, any more than I desire male privilege or white privilege, or any more than a MAAB individual who wishes to but is afraid to transition desires male privilege. But we all have to acknowledge each of the privileges we have, and how we benefit from them. To deny I get many privileges from being white would be racist. To deny I enjoy male privilege would be a sexist act. Not acknowledging one's privileges makes one complicit with marginalization.
An analogy: I had an acquaintance who identified as a person of color due to being Jewish. She was deeply aware of the fact that Jews were considered a “dark race” by Europeans a century ago, and how 6 million were exterminated as racial others in the Holocaust. She didn't identify with the experiences of Anglo Americans, and so she refused to check off “white” on forms and instead marked “other” and wrote in “Jewish.” She had an absolute right to identify as she did, and to seek to subvert our current definitions of race. But she was fair-skinned and blue eyed. When she would speak of her “experience as a person of color” and fail to distinguish between her lived experience in the contemporary United States and that of, say, a dark-skinned African American, I considered her way off base. She might not identify as white—but she enjoyed white privilege. By failing to acknowledge the difference between her nonwhite identity and the fact that her daily lived experience was one of a person perceived as white who was not trailed by store security, presumed to be in grad school due to affirmative action rather than merit, or any of the thousand other indignities faced by people of color, she was acting in a way I'd deem complicit with racism.
What I ask of genderqueer-identified people who are not seeking to transition legally and who pass as binary cis people in their ordinary daily lives is that you acknowledge the material cis privilege you enjoy, and how great it is, even if you suffer from the emotionally painful dysporia all trans people share. Don't equate your experiences as someone whose gender identification isn't reflected back to you by the cis masses to those of people who have gender transitioned and are often misgendered. Both of you may feel psychic pain, but the material consequences of the misgendering benefit a person who is not perceived as trans, and endanger a person who is. Use that privilege to speak up for your trans siblings and fight transphobia. But don't presume to judge a less privileged trans person who doesn't report an act of police harassment against them, or doesn't refuse to use the basement bathroom their boss orders them to use, or doesn't correct a teacher who misgenders them in front of a classroom full of people. Actions that may be safe for you may not be safe for them.
What I want from binary-identified trans people is that you accept genderqueer identities as equally valid gender identities. Don't presume that someone who says they are genderqueer is just "taking the easy way out" or "going through a stage." And please acknowledge that your genderqueer trans siblings who seek transition services are treading pathways even more difficult that your own, that put their access to transition services at risk if they refuse to keep their genderquerity in the closet.
What I want from everyone in the trans community, as a genderqueer-identified trans man, is that we do our best to walk under the trans umbrella together, being as careful as possible not to tread on one another's toes.
Saturday, August 13, 2011
I feel some reluctance about posting these photos. I know many trans people fear to post transition photos under their real names for fear of losing their jobs or risking their safety in a transphobic world, but having postponed my transition until my career and family life were pretty secure, it's safer for me than for most to be open about my trans status. I'm white, I'm male, and I have a professional position—privileges enough to make me feel a duty to be open.
People are curious about the process of gender transition, and I do want to participate in demystifying it. I know that before I decided to transition physically, I looked at as many photos of trans people and their transition experiences as I could find, and I believe I should pay that forward, as it were, for other people who are considering gender transitioning. I also want to help cis people who are trying to educate themselves about trans experiences.
Still, I'm reluctant, because I'm unhappy with the way trans people are usually portrayed in transition photos: with the “before-and-after picture.” This started with the very first person reported to medically transition—Lili Elbe, who received an orchiectomy and vaginoplasty in 1930 in Germany. They spread around the popular media during the publicity over the transition of Christine Jorgensen in 1952. I've posted these classic images here. These photo diptychs misrepresent gender transitions in important ways.
A central problem is that the “before-and-after” photo trope presents gender transition as a purely physical process, one in which a doctor waves a magic wand and changes one thing into its “opposite”: EX GI BECOMES BLONDE BEAUTY. It hypes a dyadic, polarized vision of gender, where three piece suits and uniforms switch to glamorous pearls and bonnets, perpetuating the idea that trans people are walking stereotypes, invested in binary ideas of gender. Many of us have much more flexible ideas of gender, and much less binary identities, but you don't see that in the before-and-after trope.
Note that the “before-and-after” presentation frames doctors as the real actors in gender transition. It's physical changes wrought by hormones and surgeries that are the focus. All of the difficult and spiritually transformative work that we who gender transition do—coming out to ourselves, our friends and families, our employers; negotiating the legal hurdles to transition; deciding which if any medical interventions to seek and trying to access them, often at great financial cost—is rendered invisible. One minute we're one thing, and in the next frame we're another. The challenging journey is missing.
This is why I put together nine headshots in picturing my transition thus far. I wanted to present snapshots of my journey, awkward and transformational at points that aren't pictured in the before-and-after dyads.
Here's a narrative to go with the photos: the first headshot shows me in early 2006 in standard “girl” presentation. That's the supposed “before” photo, but what does “before” mean? As an intersex person, I was never of the female sex. And I had, in fact, taken tentative steps toward transitioning back in 1991, but that was before accommodating gender transition was on the radar for most any business, and the “liberal” firm I was working for instituted a dress code just to stop me from wearing men's suits and ties. (Well, the code applied to everyone, but the lead partner of my law firm sat me down and explained that the partnership had drawn it up with me in mind. It required “women” to wear “professional feminine dress” including pantyhose and “light makeup.”) I abandoned the idea of social transition and turned my energies toward reproductive pursuits instead. I went with the flow, lived in my assigned sex, and did the best I could to present in a gender I didn't identify with.
Looking at the second photo of me in the blue shirt, you might see little difference, as I was still presenting as a woman, but major changes had happened. One was physical: I'd had my atypical set of internal reproductive organs removed, as they were causing problems for me. But while this physical change might be framed as an important medical transition step (as in addition to my three gonads I'd had my bicornate uterus removed), it wasn't the important thing that had happened in terms of my transition process. What was truly important was that I'd made new gendertransgressive friends, most importantly the woman whom I would later marry—an intersex person who had gender transitioned--and they were inspiring me. I was rethinking my life. I was dressing more androgynously, though that may not be visible to you. It felt real and important to me, though.
The third photo is the happiest one. This was the centerpiece of my gender transition. Again, you may see little difference. I was still wearing clothing from the women's side of the rack, though I'd cut my hair and stopped wearing much makeup. What was important wasn't something visible though: it was something internal. I'd made the decision to gender transition, and had started the social process. My close friends were all calling me “he” or “ze.” Making the decision and taking these first social steps felt profoundly liberating and spiritual to me, and I was transfigured. I think you can see it in my face. This is my key transition photo, and it's not one that would ordinarily be included in a before-and-after pair.
In the fourth photo, where I'm wearing stripes, my expression is very different. I think I look pinched and tired. This was a very trying period in my transition—the one in which I was pursuing legal and medical transition without yet having much luck. I hadn't yet found a way to get the therapists' letter I'd need to change my gender marker on my license or to access hormone replacement therapy with testosterone. I was worried about the timing of so many things—how to make my transition work with getting married to my partner, with coming out at work. And I was living a sort of double life, trying to present as male at home while having to live with being treated as a woman everywhere else.
The central fifth photo is the first one you see of me as an "official" male, at the end of August 2009. I'd been on testosterone, T, for only eight weeks and my name change was still in progress, but the school year was about to start, and I'd decided to come out to the world with the start of the semester to make things more manageable at work. What's interesting to me about this photo was that really, there had been little change in my body after just two months on T, but I look different anyway. That's the power of social transition. Coming out to the world and asserting my male status changed something subtle but important about how I lived in my body.
The rest of the photos are rather less interesting to me, which is ironic, since they're what tend to interest people unfamiliar with gender transition. These four photos document the changes in my face over the two years I've been on T, two from the first year and two from the second. Initially, to give clear signals to others that I was presenting as male despite my scanty facial hair, I got a pair of very classically male glasses and kept my hair very short. I'm not really a crew cut sort of person, though, so after the first year as my facial hair grew in more robustly, I started to let my hair grow out. In the first year I looked boyish and many years younger than I had the previous year. I was constantly being mistaken for a college student. Now I look like an adult again, though I know from surveying my students that people still underestimate my age by fifteen years. Transitioning to male is amusing that way.
And so we come to the last “after” photo, but hardly to the end of my journey. Again, the reason others tend to focus on for my not being “done” is physical: I've not had the top surgery I very much want. (It's not covered by my insurance and I can't afford it while supporting a family of three that includes two people with substantial disabilities and two gender transitioners.) But for me, the more important thing is that I'm not at all done with my evolution in my presentation as male. My masculine presentation has been quite conventional thus far, as I've felt it necessary as I try to address the percentage of the time I'm misgendered by others and called “she,” especially at work. But after two years of being officially a male professor, I feel I've done my part to give physical reminders to people. If others keep misgendering me, that's their problem and not mine, and I want to be more free in my selfexpression, and not have to be the most conservatively dressed man in the room at work. So I'm sure how I look will continue to evolve over time.
Having displayed my transition in photographs, I feel another spasm of anxiety. I feel hesitant to post images of my earlier life because I've had experience in how they are received by a good number of people--and it's because I looked fairly cute during the many years I passed as a woman. We have a sort of cultural narrative in the U.S. in which gender transition is sometimes tolerated, so long as it fits within a particular framework, and that framework focuses a lot on appearance. If you now look indistinguishable from a cis person, and you strike people as looking depressed and unconvincing in the gender you were assigned at birth, then people are more likely to accept you. And I strike people as having looked perfectly fine living as a woman. For this reason I've found that if I show people photos of my prior incarnation, they are suddenly less likely to see me as "really" a man, and to slip and call me "she," beard and all.
This is a sad and unfair state of affairs for most trans people. The entire basis of trans experience is that bodies do not determine gender identity. And while some trans men were gifted by birth with tall, uncurvy bodies, and some trans women by the luck of the draw found themselves with bodies that developed short and slight and hairless, that is not the majority experience. I'm more than a foot shorter than the trans woman to whom I'm married. I've had people shake their heads ruefully and tell me, "That's too bad," since it makes it unlikely we can "pass" together as cis people. And I find that just bizarre: you're sorry for me because I met the love of my life? That's not how love works ("Sorry, I can't date you because we might fall in love and you're not under 5' tall").
If someone meets the love of their life, and that person is the "wrong" color or gender, they may face serious pressure from family and community to give up on their love. But I would hope they would by willing to face discrimination and disapproval for the sake of love, rather than let some arbitrary aspect of the body in which their beloved was born weigh more than love's joy. And gender identity works just like love: it is based on valuing the self and soul over social understandings of bodies, because the flesh we're born in is arbitrary.
So: I know that some people will look at these photos and see my masculine identity as somehow falsified by how "normal" I appeared presenting as female. They expect to see that prior to transition a "real" trans man would have looked like a linebacker forced to dress in drag.
But in fact, when I look at my former self, drag is exactly what I see. It's just that as in everything I do, I tried to do it well. If you were forced to live years of your life as a gender you don't identify with, what would you do? I treated it as a show I had to perform, and I did my best to do so with campy panache. I wore leopard prints and rhinestones and ruby lipstick, and people were entertained. If you're going to do drag, it should be fun.
The thing is, what really makes drag fun is that at the end of the day you get to take off the costume and relax and live your normal life. And for decades, I couldn't do that. I was trapped, and it was exhausting. What I feel when I look at these photos is the great relief of finally getting to wash off the mask of makeup and relax as myself.
I hope you can appreciate my relief as well, and wish me well on my ongoing journey.
[Note: I retain the copyright on my selfportraits, but make them available under a Creative Commons license to those who wish to use then for noncommercial purposes, with appropriate attribution. They may not be published in any book, article, or other commercial medium or setting without my prior permission.]
Tuesday, July 26, 2011
I hate the term "passing."
It's used as a euphemism for death: “All were saddened at his passing.”
I'm told I should be happy about “passing.” When used to refer to trans people, “passing” is defined as being accepted by others as a member of one's identified sex, on the basis of appearance, mannerism and voice. Ever since my voice changed and my facial hair came in, I've been congratulated by others (both cis and trans) for being able to “pass,” despite my height and frame (I'm a mighty 5'2”). I'm told that I “pass pretty well” as a man. It always makes me very uncomfortable.
I've listened to so many trans people express huge amounts of anxiety about not being able to "pass," and I empathize utterly with their fears. People who are obviously trans--especially those who are perceived as "men trying to be women" by the transphobic--often face virulent bigotry. People stop and point and stare when we walk down the street in middle America; adults pull their children away from us; insecure, hypermasculine types jump us; hysterical people call the cops on us when we use a public restroom. In much of the country, people who are obviously trans face being fired from their jobs and often find themselves being treated as criminal suspects by the police. It's scary stuff, and who would not want to take a pass on that?
But let's think more about the term “passing.” It's a term with a weighty history, referring to concealment of one's marginalized true identity, in order to avoid violence and discrimination. In the U.S., it's often used in the context of race, as in the case of the fairskinned Anita Florence Hemmings, who passed as a white woman in order to attend Vasser College in the late 1800s. She's now celebrated as Vasser's first African American graduate, but when her “colored blood” was discovered in 1897, five days from her graduation date, it was a great scandal, and the school was outraged at Hemmings' “deceit,” living in the dormitories amidst unsuspecting white “women of quality.” Hemmings, an excellent student, was given her diploma but sent home in disgrace, her classmates cutting off all social contact.
Hemmings passed as white in order to gain access to privileges unfairly denied to women of color. Sometimes the motive for passing is more urgent—a matter of life or death. Consider the case of Edith Hahn Beer, a young German Jewish women who escaped from a train taking her to a concentration camp, and used the identity papers of an Aryan Christian schoolmate to establish herself as a “respectable” German nurse. She met and married a Nazi soldier, avoided any close friendships for fear of revealing her secret, and survived the war while her family died in the camps.
The actions taken by Anita Hemmings and Edith Hahn Beer to pass as white or as Aryan are totally understandable. But they also illustrate why the idea that trans people should be encouraged to “pass” is highly problematic.
First of all, one passes as something one is not. Hahn Beer was a Jew, and after the fall of Nazi Germany she stopped passing as an Aryan and returned to her name and religion of birth. By this logic, if someone tells me I am “passing” as a man, then I am being framed as “really” a woman. I am being complimented on an excellent deception. Thus the term “passing” undermines the fundamental fact of a trans person's life: that we transition to our true genders. For many years, I passed as a woman, having been assigned female at birth, and it is only now that I have transitioned to male status that I am displaying my real identity, my truth.
To think of a trans man as a “fake” man is the essence of cissexism. This is why every time I listen to one of the many people I've met who are afraid to transition cry, “I can't—I'll never be able to pass as a man/woman,” I sigh, because I know that the real battle they face is not their bodily structure, but their internalized cissexism, which tells them they don't have the right to claim their true gender identities because their bodies trump their inner truth. Cissexism holds that appearance is all, and that trans people who don't conform to binary sex ideals are fakes, freaks who deserve to be mocked and harassed. As if cis men never looked down at their bodies to find themselves short, or sporting moobs, or sparsely haired. As if cis women were never tall or flat-chested or strong. As if people were never born intersex, like me.
The pressure on trans people to “pass” creates a spectrum of privilege among trans people, depending on how closely our bodies conform to binary gender ideals for our identified genders. This is similar to other dimensions of identity—for example, the way that African Americans still gain privilege from having lighter skin and straighter hair. It's wrong that an African American born with darker skin is likely to grow up to have an income substantially less than an African American born with lighter skin, and it's wrong that a trans woman born with a slighter bone structure faces less harassment than a trans woman whose body is taller and stronger-boned. It's an unfair, common pattern of bias and marginalization. But what makes it truly painful, in my mind, is the way we on the margins internalize it. Consider the term “good hair,” long-critiqued by African Americans, but still employed in the community to refer to hair that is lighter and straighter, which reflects a devaluation of African-looking hair. Among trans people, it's “passing” that is spoken of in ways that reflect internalized selfhatred.
A reader of my blog commented on my last post, “When I first started down this road, I had a support group that I attended every month. It was here that I first saw the dividing line. Outside of the group, those who 'passed' well socialized exclusively with the others who also 'passed' well. One of my 'friends' was very direct about this. She said that one of us on their own might not draw any attention, but two or more of us in a group will get all of us read. Thusly, she only socialized with the 'passes well' group.”
I despair of the dynamic in marginalized groups in which those with somewhat more social privilege try to build themselves up by further marginalizing those with less privilege.
By now you may have come to the conclusion that I think trying to “pass” is evil, but that's not the case. Think again of the historical instances of “passing” that I raised. Hemmings and Hahn Beer protected themselves by “passing.” True, they saved only themselves. Today, some people tend to look back and cluck that they acted immorally, but I disagree. To save oneself from violence is a moral act. In the Hebrew Talmud it is said, "Whoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world." In passing as an Aryan German, Edith Hahn Beer saved her own life. Anita Hemmings did not face death camps, but she faced brutal treatment, poor schooling, segregation, and a life where she would be expected to work in menial jobs instead of developing her talents. She tried to save herself from this fate by passing for white. We'd find it more uplifting to hear that she risked herself to help her community rather than denying she was a part of it, but we cannot demand self-sacrifice.
A person who saves only himself from a fire and not others is not acting immorally. We can't insist that people be heroes. But a person who walks over others to increase her chances of survival is another matter. And there is an uncomfortable element in Hemmings' story of “passing.” After being sent home in disgrace by Vasser, she married the fair-skinned Dr. Andrew Jackson Love, a graduate of the “negro” Meharry Medical College, and they moved to New York, where Dr. Love claimed to have been educated at Harvard Medical School, and where they took up lives as a white couple. They raised their children as white, sending them to prestigious all-white private schools and summer camps. To avoid being “outed,” Hemmings refused to have contact with her parents, and when her mother insisted on a single visit to New York to meet her grandchildren, Hemmings made her use the servants' side entrance. And yes, the Hemmings-Love family had black servants, and did not share their secret with them. Perhaps they treated their servants more kindly than did their neighbors—but perhaps they did the opposite, in order to underline their position of racial privilege in the eyes of the members of their white social circle. We don't know. But this issue is important in the lives of people in many marginalized groups, including trans people.
To address the question of whether “passing” is a morally good act, a morally neutral act, or an immoral act, we have to break down the term more carefully and consider its components in context. When people speak of trans people “passing,” in fact they may be referring to any one of a series of things. They may mean “this person has made changes to their body and/or dress to reflect their gender identity”--in other words, that the person is gender transitioning or has transitioned. They may mean that the person embodies the binary gender ideal of their identified sex closely. Or they may mean that the person is living a “stealth” life, hiding the fact that they have gender transitioned, as Hahn Beer hid her Jewish status and Hemmings hid her ancestry.
At the center of trans gender ethics is the belief that gender transition is a moral good, because it allows honesty. When we come out, we cease to lie about whom we really are. I think using the term “passing” to mean “taking steps to reveal one's true self” to be a very poor choice of terms, but the action itself is good. I'd simply call it “transitioning.”
The second usage of the term “passing,” to mean “how closely a person embodies an iconic, binary, cis sex ideal” is morally neutral. It's like having blond hair and blue eyes: it conveys a social advantage, but there's nothing inherently superior (or inferior) about it. By the luck of the genetic draw, some trans women are born slight of form, and some trans men tall and robust, and to hold that against them would be ridiculous. But what is truly immoral is to for anyone to treat a person as inferior because they didn't win the social privilege lottery, and were born with dark skin, a Jewish nose, or a lot of body hair. What is also unfair is that, to a certain extent, embodying physical ideals is something that can be purchased. The wealthy can afford to sink the price of an average home into plastic surgery, but most of us cannot. Any while people of any background can gain social privilege through plastic surgery, the costs of not being able to afford surgery (or hormones or a new wardrobe) are much higher for trans people, for whom the changes are not merely cosmetic. Not being able to afford medical transition services sets up legal barriers to our transitions, limits our activities (you try swimming in a midwestern public pool as a trans man without having had top surgery), and leaves us at constant risk of physical violence from transphobic individuals who despise our bodies.
Now let's consider the implications of the third usage of the term “passing,” to mean living a “stealth” existence, in the closet about one's gender transition. What the term means here is “passing as a cis person.” In the early days of medical transition services, agreeing to hide one's pretransition past was a requirement of treatment. A person who leads a stealth life is able to avoid stigma and violence, to get a good job, to be accepted into a cis gender social circle. And to want a good, safe life for oneself is perfectly understandable. But just as in the case of passing for white or Aryan, it's a life of high risks and costs. There's an everpresent fear of discovery, the loss of ties to one's communities, and the temptation to bolster one's privilege by ill-using other trans people.
To assess the morality of living a stealth life and passing as a cis person, context is all-important. Consider the difference between Edith Hahn Beer and. . . the numerous antigay politicians and religious leaders who have been caught having secret same-sex relations. Hahn Beer would have been killed if her Jewish status were revealed, while the antigay hypocrites have built up their already plentiful social privilege by abusing others like themselves. Obviously, these are extreme cases, one of moral rectitude and one morally despiciable. In the U.S., trans people aren't rounded up to be sent to death camps, and I've never heard of a single case of a closeted trans person trying to gain political power by running on a platform of anti-trans policies. But for some people, revealing their trans status would put them at immediate serious risk—for example, of physical violence or loss of child custody—and under such circumstances, keeping their gender transitions a secret is not morally wrong. It's like Anita Hemmings' choosing to pass as white to attend Vassar. It's risky, and it doesn't help other trans people, but it protects important life chances.
The question I wrestle with is how to morally evaluate the decision to live stealth lives by trans people who face more moderate risks. If you are a trans person who by luck of the draw and/or personal resources has a body strangers don't notice to be trans, and you keep your gender transition a secret, you have access to privileges most trans people don't. People may draw the analogy to, say, a gay man who has not come out of the closet, but the analogy is off for two reasons. First, the risks today are a lot higher if one is known to be trans gender than if one is known to be a gay man—there's less social acceptance of trans people, more harassment, and less legal protection. But secondly, any gay man can choose not to reveal his gay status and stay in the closet, while the majority of people who gender transition cannot hide the fact that they are trans. We can decide never to transition, but we can't decide to “go stealth” in our identified genders, just as most African Americans could not decide to pass for white as Hemmings did.
What I return to is the thought of Hemmings refusing to acknowledge her own mother. Passing as white to get into Vassar didn't hurt anyone, it just didn't benefit other African Americans. But living a stealth life often winds up involving stepping on others like oneself to raise one's privilege. I know of too many stealth trans people who would cross the street rather than walk next to someone who is obviously trans. I'm sure there are trans people out there who laugh at transphobic jokes to preserve their secret.
I try not to live a life of judgment. I know I benefit ever day from what gets called “passing privilege”--the ability, with my gender presentation going unchallenged, to go get some groceries without people nudging and staring, the ability to walk into a professional meeting and to just have people listen to a presentation I give, rather than treat me like some sort of freak. Personally, even if I could live a stealth existence, I wouldn't, because I'm fortunate enough to have job security and a loving trans spouse and a supportive kid who's old enough that I don't have to worry about her being taken away from me by child protective services because some neighbor places a call complaining that my home environment can't be safe for a child. Given my relative security, I feel a duty to the trans community to be out and open and to educate others. Still, I am grateful that if I bind and dress carefully, on most days, most people don't question my male status, and I can choose to wear a bunch of trans buttons or not. I can choose to reveal grand genderquerity and prance around in a beard and dress at a party—and then I can take off the dress if I choose and walk home in a pair of jeans without fear of harassment. I certainly don't think that people have a responsibility to always be out, in all places, at all times.
But I know that others don't have the privilege I do. Their trans status is always visible, written in their bodies. And it really burns me up to see other trans people with “passing privilege” distance themselves from them, or worse, blame the visibly trans for their victimhood when they are mistreated by transphobes.
I've heard trans people living stealth lives say that there is a split in the trans community between people who just want to get through their transitions and move on to live normal lives as women and men, and people who are too political, and angry, and “into” being trans for the drama of it all. According to this narrative, after one gender transitions, one is no longer trans, but a “real” man or woman, and people who don't live mostly stealth lives are exhibiting some sort of arrested development. Stealth living is presented as a matter of personal maturity, rather than of having the luck and resources to have a body that meets cissexist expecations, and of making the decision to avoid risk by choosing to conceal one's trans status. Thinking all the time about the oppression of trans people is presented as being obsessively political or overly dramatic, rather than the consequence of constantly facing oppression because of how one looks.
I abhor the argument that the suffering of other trans people is irrelevant to a post-transition person who “passes,” because they are no longer trans men or women, but “just” men or women. I agree our genders as trans people are no less real than those of cis people—and I think that dropping the “trans” adjective in fact suggests the opposite. A person who says they're no longer trans is saying that trans people aren't really their identified genders. I am a trans man, just as I am a Jewish man and a queer man. Anyone who says this makes me less of a “real” man is revealing their biases.
I am not passing as a man. I am a man. I do not wish to live a life hiding who I am and how I got here. I empathize with those whose life circumstances are such that they feel they must. But I am deeply pained when privileged trans people marginalize others already suffering because their trans status is visible to others.
Save yourselves, when danger presents itself. But don't step on others to do it.
Tuesday, July 12, 2011
As a trans man, I need to say that I am sick of seeing queer people dump on trans women.
Why would people marginalize others who are supposed to be part of the same LGBTQIA community? Occasionally I encounter it when I'm speaking with older lesbians who still buy the Evil Empire rhetoric that trans women are really men who are trying to smuggle their phallic privilege into women's safe spaces, in order to run the whole world and sneak peeks in women's bathrooms. More often I'm in a space dominated by gay male politicos where trans issues as a whole are thought of as distracting--something that scares off the Main Street straight supporters who might otherwise support same-sex marriage. But sadly, I run into it regularly in the sort of spaces I'm told should be most comfortable for me: spaces full of educated, activist, third-wave-feminist queer folks. The kind of places, ironically, where androgyny and genderquerity are celebrated as radical and transformational.
A while back I had a conversation with a young white cis lesbian--let's call her Sadie. Sadie had recently, she said, "discovered" trans men. (Perhaps we are some sort of continent. . .) She was telling me how cool she thought I and other trans men were, because we "got" sexism, having seen firsthand how women are treated. I chatted a bit about how gender transition is an interesting window into sex discrimination, as studies show that upon transitioning, trans women make significantly less money than they had previously, while trans men make about the same, or a bit more. Sadie paused a moment, then said, "Well, I don't know about trans women." I asked what she meant, and she replied, "I guess I've mostly only seen them on television, and they look like glamorous living stereotypes." I agreed that television gives a very limited view of what trans women are like--just as the images of (cis) lesbians in the media are usually either of hot femme chicks who are meant to appeal to male fantasy, or of butch women who are presented as the opposite of sexy. Sadie replied, "OK, that's true. But I'm still not sure about transsexual women. One did hang out with me at a party once and it was kind of freaky." I asked what she meant and she said, "I don't know, she just. . . well. . . didn't really look like a real woman, you know what I mean?"
At this point in the conversation I ran out of tolerant educational patience, and just said, "No, I don't know what you mean. You do realize that there are plenty of homophobic people out there who complain that lesbians don't look like 'real women.'" Sadie got flustered and replied defensively, "Yes, but she made me uncomfortable when she hung out with me at the party that night. I have a right to feel safe."
Dear Fellow Members of the Assigned-Female-At-Birth Queer Community: you have an absolute right to be safe. No one should be permitted to harass or harm you. But you do not have a right to feel safe, if you're going to define that as being free from challenge to your preconceptions. Protecting yourself from threatening acts is important, but treating another person as a threat just because you're uncomfortable what they look like is juvenile prejudice. How can you demand that society at large accept your gender transgression and your nonconforming appearance, say too bad if people think you look or act weird--and then turn around and tell other folks to conform to your expectations or you'll declare them weird and exclude them so you can feel nice and safe?
Look, I'll make it simple with a couple of charts. Yes, they're tongue-in-cheek. This is the universe of queer people, as viewed through the eyes of bigots you despise:
You see how most queer folk are marginalized and villainized, as you deplore. Now, here's the queer universe as seen from a transmisogynistic position:
Now the purple circle of querity is a circle of joy--yay--but trans women get excluded from the party. Well, unless they look and act just like cis queer woman, in which case you'll permit them entry in exactly the way that the Midwestern homophobes you detest tolerate that churchgoing, Lands'-End-wearing, quiet lesbian couple.
Before I get in trouble, let me reiterate that I myself am a member of the queer community who was assigned female at birth. I have plenty of great friends of every sex and gender location on the map who stand arm-in-arm with trans women and others who are especially marginalized. I'm not trying to demonize any group.
All I really want to say is please, avoid hypocrisy. Don't marginalize others for the very same reasons bigots marginalize you.
Saturday, July 9, 2011
I went to law school long before I transitioned. At Harvard Law, the setting of One L and The Paper Chase, the large lecture halls were the scene of verbal hazings, where self-confidence in argument and an unwillingness to back down when challenged by professors or peers were at least as important as legal reasoning in securing one's intellectual reputation. This goes far in explaining the fact that while everyone who got into Harvard Law entered with a stellar academic record, women quickly fell toward the bottom of the grade curve. Women in the U.S. are expected to be pleasantly deferential to powerful male authority figures and to avoid confrontation. When verbally interrupted, they're trained to be patient and let a powerful man have his say, then gently suggest why their position might be a reasonable alternative to his.
In the masculine realm of lawyerly identity, these women look weak. They cave; they lack confidence; they're judged mediocre students by their professors. But they're also seen as nice, as feminine, as sweet--and when skewered by an argument, as victims to be pitied. What makes someone a good woman worthy of protection also makes her a bad lawyer. (This interested me so much I eventually studied the phenomenon as a sociologist and wrote a book about it, Professional Identity Crisis.)
Back at law school, I was living as a woman. I looked like one, I dressed like one. But I didn't argue like one--I was cocky, assertive, and would not allow my line of argument to be derailed by peer or professor interrupting me as I laid it out. I did very well at law school as a result, but there's a social cost to being perceived as a woman with balls. Being who I am, it didn't bother me at all to be seen as unfeminine. I had no interest in being perceived as a sweet woman, as the material for a suitable feminine wife, as a "real woman" at all. So I could be as incisive and as intimidating as I liked.
It's odd, but now that I've gender transitioned, I have had to soften up. If I argue as aggressively and cuttingly as I did in the past, I tend to trigger competitive alpha-male reactions from men in authority, and come across as a bully to people with less social power. While this is true for any verbally assertive man, there's more to it for me as a trans man: my argument style, once gender-transgressive, is now seen as a gender stereotype, and comes across to people as forced--as me being a hyperaggressive, hypermasculine jerk to try to convince people I'm a "real man."
My spouse has to deal with this issue in reverse, and it's a worse problem for her. I don't think she was ever the aggressive, self-assured debater I was, and law school would not have been her thing. But she spent some years being perceived as a young white man, and that means that when she spoke, people at least listened to what she had to say, which is something everyone deserves. I can see that one of the things that is hard on her now--one of the things that would drive me totally nuts were I in her position--is that as a woman, she gets interrupted and talked over a lot by men. And like the women at Harvard Law School, she is caught in a real double bind. If she just lets men talk over her, she is treated dismissively and feels patronized. But if she refuses to let a man talk over her, and pushes back, then while she may protect her intellectual reputation and self-esteem, she's seen as unfeminine. And for her, that can be downright dangerous.
When someone is a cis (not trans) woman and acts in a clearly unfeminine manner, she is seen as a "woman with balls"--a difficult but powerful woman. But when a trans woman acts this way, she's just seen as a man. The first situation may be uncomfortable for cis women, but the latter situation is terribly painful for a trans woman, and in some cases leaves her open to transphobic violence. And so my spouse generally just has to let men talk over her and patronize her and mansplain to her things like computer hardware about which she knows much more than they. And if she complains about having to do this when chatting with other women, cis women often tsk tsk and tell her to be a good feminist and let the men have what's coming to them. But they don't get it. The costs for her are much, much higher than they are for cis women when they refuse to conform to gender expectations.
So here you see laid out the horns of the trans dilemma when it comes to gender norms: if we as trans people conform to them, we're often seen as walking gender stereotypes: "Oh, all those trans men with their regressive masculinity, wearing their hair in crew cuts and talking over you! And the trans women are even worse, wearing makeup and heels to the grocery store and letting men talk over them as if feminism were never invented!" But if we transgress the norms of our identified genders, we may pay the terrible price of having our gender identities denied and mocked. "He's a freak--an asshole dude in a skirt who doesn't even know how real women act."
We as trans people are caught in a Catch-22 by cissexism. If we gender-conform, we're stereotyped dupes, but if we gender-transgress, we're not who we say we are, and deserve to be mocked and mispronouned, disdained and harassed. And this is where our friends and allies come in to the picture. We need your help to escape the horns of this dilemma. If you hear someone denying that we're "really" men or women because we don't "look like a real man" or "act like a real woman," please speak up and question why someone would think trans people need to be walking gender stereotypes to have their gender identities respected. And if you hear someone complaining conversely that trans people are too stereotyped in our appearance or behavior, point out to them that we're forced into this awkward position by a transphobic society that will use any excuse to say "Aha! That's really a man/woman." Because like anyone else we just want the space to be full, complex human beings. And we all need to help one another along toward that goal. Most of us are privileged in some ways and marginalized in others, and we need to have one another's backs--so I share with you a dilemma that presses on my trans family in the hope that it will help you help me and mine along. I try to do my best to return the favor when I'm the privileged one in the room.
Friday, July 8, 2011
[The following is a handout I use in the courses I teach. Feel free to make use of it yourself--just credit me, Cary Gabriel Costello.]
- Sex Spectrum: an array of physical differences, defined by:
- Primary sexual characteristics: those sexual differences present at birth:
- Genital characteristics: differentiation of the fetal phalloclitoris into penis/scrotum or clitoris/labia. The degree of differentiation varies.
- Gonadal characteristics: differentiation of the fetal ovotestes into testes or ovaries (which occasionally does not occur).
- Secondary sexual characteristics: differentiation of the body under the influence of the sex steroid hormones (testosterone, estrogen, progesterone), typically at puberty. The body normally produces both masculinizing (testosterone) and feminizing (estrogen, progesterone) hormones—the ratio of these determines the relative masculinization/feminization of the body as follows:
- Testosterone effects: growth of bodily hair, growth of facial hair, increase in upper body width, increased muscle mass, growth of the larynx leading the voice to lower, fat deposition in abdomen, increased size of penis/clitoris, increase in libido, production of semen/lubrication, increase in sweat and oil production, increase in size of testes and sperm production, irritability.
- Estrogen/Progesterone effects: growth of nipples and breast tissue, increase in pelvic width, softened skin and ligaments, increase in subcutaneous fat, fluid retention, cholesterol regulation, fat deposition in hips and thighs, proper spermatogenesis/ovulation, regulation of menstrual cycle, irritability.
- Sex Categories: a manner of dividing the sex spectrum into socially-recognized units. In Western societies, there are three sex categories, defined under the authority of medical science as follows:
- Female: a person ideally possessing a vagina, labia, a clitoris of less that 0.5 cm at birth, ovaries, a uterus, XX chromosomes, and an estrogen-dominant hormone profile.
- Male: a person ideally possessing a penis of length greater than 2 cm at birth, scrotum, testes residing in the scrotum, a prostate, XY chromosomes, and a testosterone-dominant hormone profile.
- Intersex: a person whose intermediate position on the sex spectrum fits neither the ideal male or female category, including:
- those with intermediate phalloclitoral genitalia;
- those with internally ambiguous gonads and/or reproductive anatomy;
- those with chromosomal variation (e.g., XY individuals with ovaries, vagina, clitoris; those with atypical sex chromosomes such as XXY or Xo); and
- those whose hormone-dominance causes their secondary sexual characteristics to contrast with their primary sexual characteristics.
- Social Sex Assignment: the assignment of an individual to a particular socially validated sex, usually at birth.
- Dyadic sex assignment: in Western societies, all infants must be categorized as either male or female on their birth certificates. Those classified as belonging to the intersex category must receive either a male or female assignment.
- Other sex assignment systems: other societies have nondaydic social sex assignment systems, such as triadic systems (male, female, other) and quadratic systems (male, female, both, neither).
- Gender Roles: cultural norms applied to people of different assigned sexes in a given society, including occupational roles, appearance standards (clothing, grooming, cosmetics), emotional norms, and interests. Gender roles are categorized as:
- Masculine: the collection of norms for male-assigned people in a given society
- Feminine: the collection of norms for female-assigned people in a given society
- Additional gender roles: neutral or additional gender roles specific to a given society
- Gender Identity: the subjective experience of identifying with a gender role—the internal knowledge that one is a man, a woman, or a member of an alternative gender.
- Cis gender identity: gender identity that matches one’s primary sex characteristics (e.g., a person born with vulva, ovaries and uterus who identifies as a woman)
- Ipso gender identity: gender identity that matches one's social sex assignment at birth, when this differs from one's primary sex characteristics (e.g., a person born with intermediate genitalia who is assigned to the female social sex category at birth and grows up to identify as a woman)
- Trans gender identity: gender identity that does not match one’s social sex assignment at birth (e.g., a person born with phallus and testes who identifies as agender, genderqueer, a woman, etc.), which may lead to:
- Gender transition: to move from following one set of gender roles to another, changing characteristics such as clothing, grooming, cosmetics, and pronoun used; sometimes accompanied by:
- Sex transition: to move from one social sex assignment to another through medical treatment with hormonal alteration of secondary sex characteristics, and/or surgical alteration of anatomic sex characteristics (chest, genital, gonadal, laryngeal, etc.)
- Gender Expression: individual self-presentation as a member of a given gender, including:
- Gender-conforming expression: self-presentation that is strongly in accord with the normative gender role expectations of one’s society;
- Androgynous expression: self-presentation which does not align strongly with polarized male or female roles; and
- Gender-transgressive expression: self-presentation that defies the traditional expectations for a person of a given gender identity (e.g. feminine men, masculine women).
- Sexual Identity: the sex or gender alignment of partners in sexual attraction, including:
- Dyadic sexual orientation frames: in which one must know the binary sex/gender of both individuals in order to classify them as:
- Heterosexual: being attracted to a person whose sex and gender are dyadically opposite of one’s own
- Homosexual: being attracted to a person whose sex and gender are the same as one’s own (i.e., gay men and lesbian women)
- Bisexual: being attracted to both dyadic sexes
- Directional sexual orientation frames: under which one need only know the gender of the person desired to assign the desiring person as:
- Androphilic: being attracted to people of male gender
- Gynephilic: being attracted to people of female gender
- Androgynephilic: being attracted to people who are androgynously gendered or intermediately sexed
- Pansexual: being attracted to people independent of any particular sex or gender status or identity