Wednesday, July 24, 2013

On Teaching (Trans) Gender

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.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Camp You Are You

Recently, Slate ran an article on You Are You, a summer camp for children who were assigned male at birth and who would like to have two weeks in which they are free to dress in feminine attire.  The article, illustrated with photographs by Lindsay Morris, has gotten a lot of attention in my online social circles, and I wanted to reflect on it.

(The photo on the left is not one of Morris' photos, which are copyrighted; it's a portrait of Franklin Delano Roosevelt as a young boy.  No, he wasn't crossdressing--young boys wore frilly frocks in his day.  Gender norms change a lot over time. . .  But you can look at Lindsay Morris' photos by clicking here.)

I celebrate camp You Are You for giving children and their families a safe space to enjoy freedom of gender expression.  What I want to do here is to discuss the article, and the commentary on it I've encountered in my online milieu.  I'm not going to attempt to respond to the public comments on the Slate site, as reading such comment sections often makes a sane person despair of the human race.  Instead I want to address the issues raised by people with good intentions.

As such articles go, the Slate article is a good one.  I appreciate the framing of camp You Are You in the article as being about the joys of gender expression, rather than about "tragic" children's lives, which is a more common and frustrating trope.  Now, the subtitle of the article is "A Boys' Camp to Redefine Gender."  I appreciate the recognition that a person--child or adult--can identify as male but prefer a feminine gender expression. People so often assume that gender identity and gender expression need to match, which is silly--I myself know a young boy who is both very clear that he is male, and very, very glittery and feminine in his presentation. He's lucky enough to have parents who support him in his desire to wear what makes him happy, and correct others who say "what a lovely girl you have" in a matter-of-fact manner.

All of that said, I see that this is a camp that is really for kids who were male assigned at birth and who enjoy feminine gender expression, whatever their gender identity. I presume, as the article notes, that some of these kids are trans* girls. Framing a trans gender girl as a "boy" troubles me, as does calling all the kids "he".  I understand that this is an article for a Slate audience, but I don't think it would be very difficult to say, "'You Are You' is a camp that lets children who were assigned male at birth enjoy the freedom to glory in feminine dress in the company of others who enjoy the same thing. Camp organizers don't care how these children will identify in adulthood--as gay or straight, as cis or trans*, as genderconforming or gendertransgressive. The camp just gives these children a space to enjoy themselves as they are now, however they identify."

Interestingly, in discussions of the issue of the author referring to all the children at this camp as boys, I saw people coming to opposite conclusions by looking at the photographs: either seeing the kids as mostly trans* girls, or seeing them as mostly self-identifying as boys. 

My perspective is that from the article and from looking at the pictures, none of us can tell how these children identify. Some of them may look just like cis girls to us, and others we may perceive as clearly male-assigned-at-birth children wearing dresses. That has no relevance at all to gender identity. Some people who have gender transitioned look like cis people, and some of us are visibly trans* our whole lives. The only way to tell a person's gender identity is to ask them.  I find people's speculating on others' gender identities based on how well the person "passes" as a cis person hurtful, not helpful, and I hope as a trans* person that our allies will soon learn to avoid it.

Another theme that I encountered in responses to the article was a concern that the photographs of the children at You Are You revealed that someone was teaching or forcing the children to be hyperfeminine, perhaps sexualized, in their expressions of femininity.  This often came up in comments from cis feminist women.  It arises, I believe, out of a lack of frame of reference, especially since so often references were made to drag queens, and how their hyperfemininity made the commenters uncomfortable by seeming to "mock" or stereotype women.  So I want to elaborate a frame of reference for understanding the many different sorts of gender expression engaged in by different groups that can all find themselves collected under "the Trans* Umbrella."

Let's start with adults, and the drag queens often cited in this conversation.  In adult culture, drag queens and kings generally display an exaggerated femininity or masculinity that we call camp. It's not meant to be a portrayal of how everyday women or men look--it's performance, often ironic. It can explicitly address, acknowledge, and play with gender stereotypes, and pay homage to cis gender celebrities' gender performances as just that: iconic enactments of particular styles of embodying and displaying gender.

People who are unfamiliar with the genre of the drag show may presume that drag queens (or kings, but as a culture we're much less fascinated by them) are attempting to embody everyday femininity (or masculinity) and not getting it right. But a drag queen performing a Lady Gaga routine is aware of the artifice of Lady Gaga's performance of femininity, and that the women she sees at the grocery store rarely look like that. So the concern is misplaced and comes from lacking the frame of reference.

Then there are adult crossdressers, who are not performing in shows, but dressing up at home. The key phrase here is "dressing up." A cis woman who is dressing up for a date often dresses in a manner not just more carefully considered than her everyday clothes, but more self-consciously feminine (the party dress, not the jeans). If someone is crossdressing at home for sexytimes, of course they're going to want to put on a sexy outfit. Because of the way our culture associates femininity with beauty and sexual attractiveness, even a very straight, very male-identified man may at times slip on a pair of thigh-high fishnets at home and feel sexy. He may be uncritical about the way in which articles of feminine attire are considered sexier, and how this constrains women in everyday life, but he's certainly aware that most women don't wear thigh-high fishnets every day.

And then there's the phenomenon we can call "Halloween crossdressing." Halloween is one day a year in which we're encouraged to costume in the U.S., and many people take the opportunity to crossdress and go out in public. ( I've found that while cis people tend to be a lot more comfortable with Halloween crossdressing, trans* women who have transitioned are often uncomfortable with it, because they encounter a lot of bro-ish men who base their costumes on their vision, not of cis women, but of some conflated image of drag queens and trans* women.)

And so we come to trans* folks. People who have transitioned are just living our lives in our identified genders (female, male, or some other gender). That is not to say that there's nothing performative about that, as we must often calculate how best to present ourselves in a manner most likely to ensure that others recognize and reflect our gender identities back at us.  Depending on our bodily configurations, this may mean that we need to display some very carefully selected, quite gendered items to maximize our chances of being recognized in our identified genders without somehow coming across as "overdoing it," which can make dressing for the day more work for us than it is for many cis people.  But cis people perform gender as well. Anyone needing proof of that should just spend a day at a middle school (egad: the selfconsciousness, the awkwardness, the hypermasculine grunting, the oddly-applied makeup). It's just that after reaching full maturity, many cis folks stop being aware of the performative nature of gender, as it's become as second-nature as riding a bike. And people who gender transition experience a similar trajectory: at first, there's a period of awkward exploration of one's personal style, but it eventually becomes second nature.

OK, then, what about the kids at camp You Are You? Well, first of all, I'd point out that in the contemporary U.S., kids' clothing is more highly gendered than that of adults. I know that my cis gender daughter and her friends struck me as a pool of miniature drag queens when they were around five and moving through the Princess Phase, dressing up as their favorite icons of exaggerated Disney femininity and prancing about in glittery pinkness. Meanwhile their male-assigned peers ran around with masculine emblems emblazoned on everything (Batman, sports heroes, dinosaurs driving trucks emitting lightening bolts). It seems to me that our society teaches children to learn to do binary gender by sending them all to Camp Camp.

Now, the hypergendered nature of kids' attire drops off as they get older, though it re-emerges in a pseudoadult form at puberty. Many of the children at camp You Are You look to be in the "big kid" range, when boys and girls alike tend to run around at summer camps in t-shirts and shorts. But "dress-up" clothing for big kids remains highly gendered.

So my take on the kids at You Are You is that they are going to a special camp that allows children assigned male at birth to wear feminine attire. They could go to some other generic summer camp and wear shorts and t-shirts very easily--but here, they are allowed the freedom to glory in feminine expression. So of course they want to dress up! Perhaps some of them are trans* girls living full time as such with the full support of their communities, but I presume that this is not the case for many of the children. So maybe in their everyday lives, they can wear t-shirts designated "for girls" without harassment, but showing up at school in a dress is a very different story. This is their chance to do that. And remember: kids' dress-up clothing is often hypergendered. It's not that these children think, "real females must wear lots of flounces and makeup and heels instead of jeans, and mustn't play sports or build things because they'd break a nail." They're just dressing up in the same way cis girls putting on a fashion show for their friends would, in the attire our society sells for girls of their age.  And note that the photographs of the fashion show are the ones used to illustrate the Slate article.  A good part of the reason that readers get an impression that these children are wearing very feminine attire that would make hiking around at camp difficult is that we see photographs of them at their fashion show, but not of them going for a hike in more practical girls' clothing.

As for the accusation that the children are acting in a sexualized manner, I think that's an adult projection. We associate crossdressing with sexuality in adult lives, and project that onto children who are just embodying femininity. (Trans* women often suffer from a similar conflation of ideas, and are rudely presumed to be hypersexual.) Yes, it is problematic that our society sexualizes femininity, but these children are not to blame for that fact. I find it creepily reminiscent of rape culture when people (often feminists!) accuse trans* girls and women, and feminine boys and men, of being sexually provocative. Any person of any gender and any age should be able to go out in a dress without being assaulted, and without being accused of "asking for it."

So: for those who feel uncomfortable with the photographs of the children at camp You Are You, please bear these things in mind. The kids are dressing up, and are aware of that fact, and how girls and women dress to go to the supermarket. The photographs we see are those that are most "dressy," because of our society's anxiety about, and fascination with, crossing gender lines. And we should not demand that those who are marginalized be the people who solve the social problems associated with gender, such as the association of feminine dress with sexual provocation, when those with gender privilege can wear the same clothes to go out to a party or on a date without the same demands being made of them personally.

Friday, June 21, 2013

On demisexuality, marginalization, and privilege

I wanted to share some musings on demisexuality.  

People who identify as demisexual fall between the sexually-oriented and the asexual (as you can see in this graphic courtesy of AVENwiki.)   Asexual people are marginalized in contemporary American society, which views sexual attraction as the basis of couplehood, domestically-partnered couples as the basic building block of a stable society, and being in an aspirationally permanent sexual relationship as the marker of maturity and mental health. (Note that this wasn't the case in the Victorian era, in which asexuality or at least demisexuality were considered normative for "women of quality," i.e. white middle-class women. Sexual attraction was viewed as completely unnecessary to a woman's marriage.)

Demisexually-identified people occupy a social position analogous to bisexual/pansexual people in the LGB community, and to genderqueer people in the trans* community. And like bi/pan folks or genderqueer folks, sometimes they experience a good deal of social marginalization, and other times they do not. For example, a person could identify as a genderqueer biromantic demisexual, but live as a typical-appearing woman married to a man, and experience lots of social privilege. Or ze could live as a lifelong singleton, mainly romantically interested in women, presenting very androgynously in a buzz cut with a bound chest, who is highly socially marginalized in a social world built around coupledom and sexual attraction, heteronormativity and gender policing.

Sometimes people with liminal identitites--the ones who break down the binaries of male/female gender identity, gay/straight sexual orientation, and asexuality vs. sexuality--are doubly marginalized, both by the "mainstream," and by the marginalized umbrella group to which they ostensibly belong. This is sad and reprehensible. Yet at other times, people who assert liminal identities really do come across as dabblers who want to play with the cool kids, and then go home to their lives of privilege.

All of this is introduction to the following anecdote: a cis woman college student asserted to me that she was demisexual because she didn't enjoy hookups. She wanted to get to know someone, feel safe with him, date him, and have her romantic interest fanned by his doing caring things like giving her little gifts before she wanted to have sex.

To me, that sounds exactly like the description of normative female sexuality as presented in a zillion (socially-conservative) critiques of hookup culture.

The central issue that socially isolates people on the asexual side of the spectrum is not feeling any sexual interest in other people, and in a demi person's case, feeling sexual attraction under limited circumstances. I can see how saying "I'm demisexual" rather than, "I don't do casual sex" could be quite useful in starting a conversation about one's limits without seeming prudish. But this woman wasn't experiencing isolation or marginalization due to demisexuality--she has a boyfriend, and from her description, seems to have had an active social and sexual history.

Really, the impression I received is that this woman hangs out in a feminist crowd that contains LGB folks and trans* folks, and as a cis woman who dates men, found that the language of demisexuality increased her coolness factor. And that felt appropriative to me.

But I'm not a person from the asexual side of the spectrum, so maybe I'm off-base here. Feedback is appreciated!

Sunday, April 14, 2013

On Trans* People and Suicide

A person who is dear to me has been having a very hard time.  She's a trans* woman, and she's socially isolated.  Her family of origin hasn't been supportive of her gender transition. Her trans* status is visible, and she faces regular gender-policing street harassment and the everyday indignity of being misgendered.  She has trouble finding work due to transphobic discrimination, and recently lost her part-time job.

She began feeling suicidal.

I'll tell you more about her story, but first, there are some facts that you should know.

If any statistic shows how difficult life is for trans* people it is this:

The general percentage of Americans who ever attempt suicide is 1.6%.  The percentage of trans* Americans who attempt suicide, however, is 41%.

Remember, that's not the percentage of trans* identified people who "merely" consider suicide--41% of trans* Americans try to kill themselves.  These statistics are from the National Center for Transgender Equality's large survey of 7000 trans* people, which you can read here.

It's not hard to understand why a trans* person is over 25 times more likely to attempt suicide than a cis gender person.  Just consider more statistics from the full report on the survey, available here:

  • 78% of minors who are trans* or gender-nonconforming report being harassed, and 35% physically assaulted, in school.
  • 90% of trans* adults report harassment or discrimination at work. 
  • 29% of trans* adults report being harassed by the police.

Living with the degree of social stigma and violence that are aimed at trans* people is hard.  And the very people whom we are told to turn to when we are despairing--doctors and therapists, family members and religious figures--often compound our distress instead of reducing it, due to their own transphobia.

Which brings me back to the story of my trans* woman friend.  She turned first to her small circle of friends for help, but while they were sympathetic and supportive, many of them, like her, were trans*, and dealing with their own difficulties.  She didn't want to overburden them.  So she tried posting about her unhappiness with her life circumstances on Facebook, but got a bunch of responses that were either unhelpful ("just keep on smiling and don't let things get you down!") or victim-blaming ("you're the one who decided to gender transition, so you have to deal with the consequences").

So recently, late at night, crying alone in her room, she called the National Suicide Prevention Helpline.  A man with a Southern accent answered, and asked her the standard questions, like "have you formed a plan to kill yourself?"  After several minutes, when he was talking with her about whether there were friends she could turn to, she told him she was a trans* woman, and that that had limited her social circle.

There was a pause, and then the man at the National Suicide Prevention Helpline hung up on her.

It is transphobia like this that explains that 41% attempted suicide rate.

People, it is important that we do all the positive things like celebrate trans* agency and creativity and resilience.  No, trans* people aren't mere pitiable victims.  But we can't just sit around telling success stories about how D.C. Comics now has a trans* character in the Batgirl series, and Chaz Bono is a household name, and public attitudes toward same-sex marriage have crossed over into positive territory.  Homophobia may be on its way out, but transphobia remains horrifically virulent.  We have to keep reiterating the appalling statistics about discrimination that people who are trans* and/or gender-nonconforming face every day.  And we have to keep taking action toward reducing the shockingly high rate at which trans* people attempt suicide.

About my friend--she made it through the night.  In fact, she found ironic amusement in being hung up on by a suicide prevention worker which gave her some strength, if bitterly earned, to persevere.

But we as a society have to do a lot better by our trans* gender siblings than this.

Friday, April 12, 2013

An Exercise for Explaining Gender Policing

Here's something I wrote as a tool for helping people to understand and empathize with the corrosive influence of gender policing:

Try this thought experiment.

Think about something that you are or do that is very important to you, and that you've worked very hard on. Something at the core of your sense of self. Maybe it's being strong, or kind, or honest, or analytic. Maybe it's being a teacher, or a dancer, or a good parent. Have an identity in mind?

Now imagine that every time you leave your apartment or house, you run into people who undermine that identity. Grocery store clerks say, "Can I help you, weakling?" Sometimes they do it casually, saying "Excuse me, liar," as they brush by. Other times they're confrontational: "You are a terrible parent and you make me sick!" And sometimes they treat you like a joke, elbowing one another as you walk past, snickering and muttering, "Look, it's one of those ridiculous bad dancers." This happens to you day after day, year after year. Not everyone acts like this, and you have friends who tell you that you are indeed kind or logical or whatever and to hang in there. But the majority opinion is that this is just what you should expect when you decide to do something strange like be a teacher or be honest. And every day, people undermine and mock you.

How would you feel? What would happen to your self-esteem, your character?

This is what it's like to encounter gender policing. People call you by the wrong pronoun in a loud voice. Strangers confront you, comment negatively on your appearance, tell you to stop trying to be some gender they are sure you are not.

People have to deal with gender policing every day because they are intersex, trans, queer, living with a disability, or none of the above but simply. . . different looking. Gender policing is especially intense if you're perceived as a visibly trans gender woman. This is something we have to solve as a society--those who are marginalized by it can't do it themselves.

Gender policing is insidious, cruel, and pervasive. Please, friends, name it as a social problem. Think about how you might participate in it, and resolve to change that. Notice when people say gender policing things around you, and confront them. Teach your children to appreciate sex and gender variability. Please help us work toward a world in which people are judged on the content of their character, not on the conformity of their appearance.

Friday, March 8, 2013

On Escaping Sexism

As a trans* guy, I've been asked one of the classic questions a number of times: "Did you perhaps transition because you wanted to gain status as a man rather than fight sexism as a woman?"

The answer, of course, is no: I transitioned to male status because I am a man.  That's my gender identity.  Yes, I'm genderflexible about it; no, this flexibility doesn't mean I should have just stayed legally female.  I moved toward a position that would allow me to live my life authentically as myself, and I'm much, much happier now.  It's great to come home, as it were.

So, I didn't transition in order to gain male privilege.  But I do have it, now.  It's true that my male privilege is discreditable, so that I can lose it in situations in which my trans* status is held to negate my manhood, but most of the time, I am accepted as male, and this comes with benefits.

They're nice benefits.

I didn't ask for male privilege, but that doesn't mean I can disclaim it.  White antiracist activists still enjoy white privilege; male advocates of gender egalitarianism still enjoy male privilege.  As a man, I'm taken more seriously in a variety of ways than I was when I was framed by others as being female.  As a professor, for example, I'm less likely to have lecture points challenged by students now.

What got me thinking about this topic today was that I found myself looking at students' ratings of me on  The majority of my ratings on the site were written after my transition, but there are 7 or 8 from before it.  The ratings are consistently positive and say that my classes are interesting both before and after my transition, but one thing has changed, and that is that my students who have known me to be male don't say anything about my appearance, but that's not true for pretransition raters.  In fact, one of my students who perceived me to be a woman gushed that I was "adorable."


OK, why do I find it distressing to have a student write something they clearly intended to be complimentary?  Well, first off, because this is one of the ways sexism works: by associating women with the body, and imposing on them a duty to be attractive.  I stand in front of a class to convey ideas to them, but before transition, students were examining and judging my body on some attractiveness scale, rather than just engaging intellectually.  Now, I have always taken care to present myself professionally, and part of that means being well-groomed, and I take that care as a man--my shoes are shined, I wear a tie.  But I know from reading endless reams of student evaluations that my good grooming used to be much more important to my students than it is now.  Before my transition, I regularly got comments on student evaluations that complimented my clothing.  Now, I get none of that--my evaluations all focus on my teaching.  As they should.

But there's something else about the term "adorable."  Though the student that described me as adorable clearly meant it positively, the term is subtly belittling.  Supposedly it just means someone or something that is admirable, worthy of being adored, but people who admire President Obama don't go around calling him "adorable."  It's an adjective we use to describe kittens, cute children, charming little cottages. . . and women.  It presents the person or thing described as small and weak, not powerful.  So when a student calls a professor adorable, it presents the professor as lacking authority.  It belittles the person while framing them as appropriately feminine.

I am so glad to have left behind a life where I had to deal with this constantly, just because I was understood to be a woman.  

I try to imagine what it would be like to be a trans* woman instead of a trans* man.  How would I feel if, for the first time, a student wrote that I was "adorable?"  I imagine the difficult ambivalence: "Oh, I've been validated as a woman!  But *sigh* I'm being evaluated superficially on my body."  It's so much harder to have as a destination a place where you lose status than a place where you gain it.  I have a great deal of respect for my trans* sisters, who must take on both transphobia and sexism, when I only have to deal with the former.

So: I didn't transition to gain male privilege.  But I have to own that I do enjoy it.