Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Crumbling the Cookie Cutter

In a stunning decision, Federal District Court Judge Michael W. Mossman issued a temporary restraining order postponing Oregon’s domestic partnership law from going into effect. It’s been a tough year for human rights and equality if you happen to be gay, lesbian, bisexual or, particularly, trans. I witnessed Joe Solmonese lie about the Human Rights Campaign’s commitment to a trans-inclusive Employment Non-Discrimination Act before an audience of 1,000 trans human beings.

We’ve seen an insidious escalation of rhetoric against trans children and youth. Not a week goes by without a conservative political or religious coalition, organization, group, club or cabal objecting to a youth expressing his or her gender identity in a nonconforming fashion. They claw their way out of their cave of intolerance and point fingers, spread lies and threaten elected representatives. They petition school boards if a 10-year-old trans child is using the “wrong” bathroom. They protest a high school drama department’s decision to stage the play Rent because it has a sympathetic and positive portrayal of not just gay characters, but trans characters as well.

What makes this so insidious? Well, that may be the greatest socio-cultural sleight-of-hand trick in history. While the focus is supposedly on “who one sleeps with,” in reality it’s about gender identity expression. In fact, anti-gay bigots themselves say: “We don’t care what you do in the privacy of your own bedrooms. Just don’t flaunt it.” This is what Barney Frank, Joe Solmonese and other “leaders” don’t acknowledge. It’s the part the Alliance Defense Fund, Mike Huckabee and even Barack Obama don’t understand.

The voices of intolerance have distracted us with the shiny object in one hand (same-sex physical acts) while pulling the wool over our eyes with the other hand regarding gender expression and transgression. It’s not about sex. It’s about how far from gender conformity someone drifts. It’s about the “too feminine” male or the “too masculine” female. People aren’t discriminated against because a same-sex physical act has been witnessed. They are discriminated against because of assumptions someone makes based upon their gender identity expression.

“Straight acting” gay men and women suffer less oppression than their “gay acting” gay and straight counterparts. “Passable” gender-conforming people suffer less oppression than their “non-passable” counterparts. This applies to cisgender and transgender people. “Straight-acting” children (who may not yet have a sexual orientation) suffer less bullying and teasing than their “gay-acting” gender non-conforming counterparts.

Each of us has a stake in this fight. We have a stake because there are those who want to measure “how much equality” will be portioned out based not upon who we love but upon how we (and our children) express ourselves. We must work together to build a world in which our children are not forced into a gender-expression cookie cutter. We must stand up for them by first standing up for ourselves.

TransActive Education & Advocacy

Monday, January 21, 2008

Massachusetts' First Transgender Legal Clinic

(Some thoughts on MLK Day. . . ) Last week, the first legal clinic for low-income transgender people in Massachusetts opened its doors. We will be holding monthly legal clinics.

The clinic was organized by the Massachusetts Transgender Legal Advocates, an all volunteer group. We were co-sponsored by a coalition of groups, including Cambridge Cares About AIDS' TransCEND program , AIDS Action, the Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition, and the Committee for Transgender Inclusion for the MA Lesbian and Gay Bar Association. We saw a substantial number of clients. There's a lot of enthusiasm all around for the project.

Okay, so why does this matter, other than being a good piece of news for folks in Massachusetts? It makes visible three things central to transgender activism and effective politics:

1) The movement's work is intersectional. What our clients face is serious and severe and is deeply connected to racial and economic inequalities, as well as transphobia.

2) The movement need not rely solely on non-profits. Other models of activity are available and may be more effective for on-the-ground work. While the leadership of the clinic worked in close conjunction and is supported by non-profit advocacy organizations, they were, ultimately, not bound by their interests or structures. The non-profits that work with the clinic provide essential structures, services, resources and guidance. They are indispensible. However, the clinic itself is run and led exclusively by volunteers. This makes it possible, I think, for the clinic to be run without its eyes constantly looking to where the next grant or funding opportunity is going to come from or with the constant need to getting good PR (the very nature of maintaining client confidentiality prohibits high levels of publicity.)

3) Legal change is an essential but insufficient basis for equality. Not enough prevents transphobic biases leading to the misapplication of the law. This is true whether the problems faced by someone arise at the front door of the Dept. of Motor Vehicles or on in front of a judge.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

NH DMV Petition

There are people up in New Hampshire trying to convince the DMV to change their surgery requirement for gender marker change on licenses. In order to show how much support there would be for such changes, they've started an online petition.

Requiring surgery as a condition of ID change is both medically and economically discriminatory.

Do sign it.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Enron Activism

Enron Activism
By Monica F. Helms

After ten years as an activist for the transgender community, I am seeing a rather dangerous trend in the mindset of many other activists in our community. I call it “Enron Activism,” after the failed corporation who convinced their employees to put all of their money in the company’s stock and not diversify. Many transgender people are not supporting the idea of diversifying our efforts when approaching various issues. We saw what happened to the Enron people when they didn’t diversify. Not pretty.

I’m not talking about those wonderful people who work just one issue, like homelessness, AIDS/HIV, the youth, or transgender veterans. I’m talking about those who think their approach to the broader issues facing the community is the only way we can accomplish anything. They even go as far as saying that what other people are doing has no merit.

Historical references from other rights movements show us that a multi-prong approach is always the best. Each of those movements had leaders who took one direction to achieve their goals, while others took another direction. While Gandhi was on his hunger strike, others were in the streets protesting. A similar thing happened in South Africa and here in this country. Individuals took a single approach, but they DID NOT put down those taking a different approach. That’s the difference I’m seeing today in the transgender community.

I have heard a lot of negative comments from all sides of the transgender community on what other people are doing. Most of the comments are centered on how the community should react to HRC and their supporters. I have been a target of some of those attacks for things I’ve said. Some people are saying we should ignore HRC, but when others want to do protests, educational initiatives or write extensive blogs about HRC, they are somehow “wrong.” Why? “I don’t see any benefits in that.” I can’t recall anyone becoming omnipotent all of a sudden.

Others who are planning on doing educational initiatives at HRC events are looking at those who want to ignore HRC and they say, “I don’t see how that will do any good.” For a community that prides itself on being able to think beyond binaries, it amazes me to see so many stuck with a singular viewpoint in activism. And sadly, some are stuck in a never-ending, singular hatred towards others in this community.

I get the impression that if a person didn’t come up with an idea initially, then it has to be wrong, flawed, not helpful, or has no redeeming value. Sometimes, one never sees the redeeming value of an effort until after someone makes that effort. I always say, “There is no shame in failure, but there is in failure to try.” Why are there so many in this community who don’t even want to try and want to put down those who do?

This very thing happened to TAVA when we decided to have the first Transgender Veterans March to the Wall. Other veterans dumped on us with all kinds of negative remarks, such as, “You shouldn’t be so visible at the Wall.” “People will say horrible things to you.” “The police will arrest you.” “You have to have a lot of people to make it successful.” It turned out to be one of the smoothest run events in transgender history. We had 50 people show up; we laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns and even got a police escort from the hotel to the Wall. We were not afraid to try and look what happened.

It would be nice that one of these days someone will come up with a novel idea and instead of hearing from a ton of negative people in our community, we hear things like. “I may not want to participate, but I wish you luck.” Or, “Let us know how it goes.” Or even, “Just be careful.” No, we won’t hear that. Some will waste a multitude of bandwidth writing on why this person is wrong, why the effort will fail, and even put down the person on a personal level. It’s a terrible thing to witness, but I am guilty of doing it, too.

Rather than the constant horizontal in-fighting, we need to become more unified. Yes, I know I’m dreaming. Many talk a good game about wanting to unify the community, but their actions and constantly putting down of what others are doing makes that unification much harder.

A person may think that what someone else is doing will not help the community, but they need to stop verbalizing it. We are coming up on one of the most critical years in our history and the action of outside groups and people to divide us are succeeding. We are better than that . . . at least I think we are.

I can just see Ken Lay smiling because the transgender community’s attitude toward diversification mirrors his. He’s looking at us through all those flames that surround him.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Race and Transgender, Racism and Transphobia

The intersections and interactions between race and transgender identity, racism and transphobia are complicated and underexplored. The magazine Colorlines has published an important article about those complex intersections. Importantly, the writer respects the racial diversity of our communities.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Lambda Lit Nominees

The Lambda Literature Awards have their current nominees' list up in the Transgender category:

* Transparent, Cris Beam (Harcourt)
* Male Bodies, Women's Souls, LeeRay M. Costa, PhD, (Haworth)
* The Marrow's Telling, Eli Clare (Homofactus Press)
* Vienna Dolorosa, Mykola Dementiuk (Synergy Press)
* The First Man-Made Man, Pagan Kennedy (Bloomsbury)
* What Becomes You, Aaron Raz Link & Hilda Raz (University of Nebraska Press)
* Nobody Passes, Mattilda, aka Matt Bernstein Sycamore (Seal Press)
* Scott Free, Marijane Meaker (Carroll & Graf)
* Omnigender: A Trans-Religious Approach, Revised & Expanded, Virginia Ramey Mollenkott (The Pilgrim Press)
* Whipping Girl, Julia Serano (Seal Press)
* Imagining Transgender, David Valentine (Duke University Press)
* Transition and Beyond, Reid Vanderburgh (Q Press)

and I wanted to explain, before anyone asked, that I'm not on that list due to an administrative fuck-up. Seal Press, my publisher, went from 17 employees to 2 this year, and as a result, some things fell through the cracks - including their nomination of She's Not the Man I Married for a Lammy.

& Yes, I'm disappointed, but I also wanted to wish all my friends and peers on the list the best of luck - Julia, Reid, Virginia, Mattilda, & Eli.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

TransForming Community videos

So in the past I’ve mentioned the annual National Queer Arts Festival event TransForming Community, which is dedicated to exploring the friction at the intersection of contemporary trans and queer communities. (an anthology of the same name and theme edited by Michelle Tea and myself should *hopefully* come out sometime later this year – it’s been put on hold as our publisher has recently had to relocate...).

Anyway, the Queer Cultural Center (who puts on the festival) has recently YouTube'd excerpts of individual performer’s pieces from shows over in the last three years. There are 20 of them and they are all great, so you should definitely check them all out!

As you know, I’ve written exhaustively* about the issue of trans woman-exclusion, irrelevance and invisibility in queer women’s spaces, and how this invisibility is exacerbated by the increasing numbers of trans men who feel entitled to inhabit women’s spaces too. A lot of the performers brought up this issue in one way or another, so I wanted to highlight a few of those pieces:

of course, there is me ranting about the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival trans woman-exclusion policy

Shawna Virago (who is a personal hero of mine!) talks about a similar policy at a bay area women’s bathhouse called Osento

Michelle Tea has a few funny and poignant words about why trans men are “in” and trans women “out”

and finally, the piece that I find to be the most brave and moving is Prado Gomez’s piece (I raved about this back in June after seeing him perform it live). It addresses the hypocrisy of trans men who move through the world as men, yet distance themselves from the word “man” whenever they find it convenient. Personally, I feel that this video should be required viewing for all newly transitioning trans guys.

anyway, hope you enjoy them all! -julia

* when I say “exhaustively,” I don’t necessarily mean that I’ve said everything there is to say about the topic, but rather that I exhaust myself by writing so much about it.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

What Trans People Have in Common with Lyndon Johnson's Gall Bladder

IT seems to me that the perfect metaphor for the way trans people are portrayed in the media might be summed up by this image:


Yes, that’s right. It’s Lyndon Johnson showing America the scar from his gall bladder surgery.

For those of you younger than, say, 45, this was a truly bizarre moment in American history. President Johnson, an odd man by any measure, had his gall bladder out, and afterwards had a press conference, and the reporters asked, how was the surgery, and he just yanked up his shirt and said, here ya go. And we all had to look at the President’s bloody scar and his flabby old man belly and the bandages on his bloody belly button. And America said, Crikey. Too much information, Mr. President.

The incident turned symbolic a few months later when a classic cartoon was published, in which “LBJ’s scar” was depicted as Vietnam.

But back to Susan Stanton– and so many of us. What I think so many trans folks in the public eye are determined to do is share our scars. To pull up our shirts, symbolically enough, and show everybody the grisly damage in our lives.

If you look at the way gay men and lesbian’s lives have been normalized in recent years, it’s impressive the way that people, in speaking of GLB lives, no longer speak exclusively, say, of butt-fucking and girl-on-girl oral sex and strap-on dildoes, just to pick a few phrases off the top of our head here. Instead we talk about, say, the fireman who saved the lives of people in the twin towers; we talk about lovely Aaron Copeland and the writing of Appalachian Spring; we talk about Ellen DeGeneres and how funny she is.

With trans people, though, we gotta hear people talk about “cutting their balls off.” We gotta hear about electrolysis of “Area 51.” We gotta hear about marriages shattered into little pieces, like glass. We gotta hear about cup sizes, and labiaplasties.. We gotta hear about “Lonely Transformations.”

I don’t know about you all, but I could happily go to the grave without ever hearing about any of those things again. And guess what: I’m willing to talk about trans issues every day of the week. But the focus maybe oughta be on something else. Like our humanity.

But it isn’t, because guess what. The press asks us, how’s your transition going? And in response, we yank up our shirts, and show everybody the scars.

JENNY BOYLAN’S NEW RULE FOR 2008: Everybody keep your shirts on. Especially when the cameras are rolling, or the mike is on. If dignity is our goal, maybe we should try, you know: acting dignified.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Please Susan, step out of the spotlight

I have to say I'm disturbed by the latest profile on Susan Stanton. First off I'm really sorry that she's lonely. That sucks no matter what. And for someone who undoubtedly is ambitious (you don't get to be a city manager if you're not) applying for 100 jobs and not getting one of them has got to be crushing. And facing a massive loss of male privilege is a tough thing. But I've far more disturbed by this:

"…Susan has said all along that she’s not like other transgender people. She feels uncomfortable even looking at some, “like I’m seeing a bunch of men in dresses.”

Eventually, she decided it was too early for transgender people to be federally protected. People need more time, more education, she says. “The transgender groups boo me, now, when I speak. Isn’t that ironic?

“But I don’t blame the human rights groups from separating the transgender people from the protected groups. Most Americans aren’t ready for us yet,” Susan says. Transgender people need to be able to prove they’re still viable workers — especially in the mainstream.

“The biggest issue against the federal legislation is that politicians think the ladies’ rooms will be invaded by guys in drag,” Susan says, “instead of someone like me.”


I've heard from those who know Stanton that she's distressed by the article and feels that many of her remarks were edited or taken out of context. It's possible she was misquoted, and I'm willing to hear her version of it. But the thing is... she's said these sort of things before, albeit not as bluntly. She's been chided about the "men in dresses" comment before, and at a Human Rights Campaign event last month she defended Barney Frank pulling gender identity from ENDA, implying the community hadn't done enough educating.

At best Stanton appears to be woefully unprepared for the position of spokes-trans that she's intentionally put herself in. As a post-op acquaintance noted, much of what she's been through is typical for transitioning MTFs: the unexpected support and the unimaginable cruelty, the loss of work and marriage, the feeling (of various durations) that you want to be thought of different that those folks who give you the creeps. But the thing is... if you're going to be a "community leader" you've got to have your shit together. In my non-trans life I once led a major grass-roots lobbying effort and it's hard because in many ways you have be a Jackie Robinson -- always be calm, cool and collected in public; as well as always careful with your words (to minimize them being misquoted or taken out of context) and aware of their impact. And if you can't do that, then you don't belong in the job.

If I'm being harsh on Stanton, it's because having been a city manager she ought to have known that. (While city managers are careful not to outshine their city council members, they're definitely political critters who deal with the press and public regularly, and know the weight that their words carry.)

I'm sure she's well-intentioned -- and as I said earlier I'm sorry that she's having such a rough personal time of it. But there's a saying that you can't manage others until you're capable of managing yourself -- and frankly I'm not sure she's doing the latter at the moment. In other words, she shouldn't be trying to represent the trans communities until she's sorted out her own issues, including what appears to be a fair amount of self-acceptance issues that are getting projected outwards. So in suggesting that she needs to step out of the spotlight -- both for her own good and the communities' good -- I don't think I'm being any harsher than Stanton as city manager would've been on an employee whose personal problems were getting in the way of doing their job effectively.

At worse, Stanton could cause a lot of damage for the trans communities, given that she's reportedly being courted by HRC, who's seemingly eager to anoint a "trans leader" without bothering to consult the trans communities. Barney Frank has already said he plans to strip gender expression protections from the next ENDA because the American public (i.e. Barney Frank) finds trans people too icky and the last thing we need is Stanton giving Frank and the HRC political cover. But again, Stanton appears to be incredibly naive about LGBT politics and unwilling to listen to those who've been in the trenches.

I guess one of the things I find saddest is that Stanton doesn't seem to be reaching out to other trans people for support (nor other anyone else), nor listening to the advice of people who've got her best interests at heart. To be honest, I think she'd benefit tremendously from being part of a place like the My Husband Betty forums (even if she felt the need to do so pseudonymously).

BTW, I just finished reading Steven Seidman's "Beyond the Closet," which looks at gays and lesbians and the closet -- but which is applicable to trans people as well. Seidman notes that the gay rights movement has had two competing schools of thought: the assimilationists, who have typically framed things in narrow terms of civil rights; and liberationists, who've sought to change the system entirely. Seidman sees faults with both positions and advocates a blend of rights-based agenda as the starting point with a push towards changing society (since legal equality can co-exist with social discrimination). Seidman critiques the "we're virtually normal" argument made by folks like Andrew Sullivan:

A narrow rights agenda ignores the way ideas of sexual citizenship establish social boundaries between insiders (good citizens), and outsiders (bad citizens). And, while same- or opposite-gender preferences is surely one boundary issue, there are many other dimensions of sexuality that are used to separate the good and bad sexual citizens... In particular, a rights-oriented movement does not challenge forms of social control that sexual victims and outsiders of individuals who sexual preferences are between consenting adults. By narrow its agenda to gaining equality and integration, a rights-oriented movement leaves the dominant sexual norms, other than gender preference, in place and removed from the political debate.

The strength of a liberationist perspective is its understanding of hetrosexual dominance [as in being the "default"] as being deeply rooted in social life and as part of a broader pattern of sexual and social inequality... [A] rights agenda can't avoid being implicated in broader patters of sexual and social inequality; it should, then, be blended with a liberationist politic.

To which I'd add is that the "virtually normal" argument invariably leads to tossing someone over the side -- or at least distancing oneself -- in an effort to prove one is not like one of them.

I think it's worth noting that the article mentions Stanton was a "conservative man" before her transition. I'd be willing to bet she's still got a lot of self-acceptance issues, and her statements are all-too-reminiscent of the "we're virtually normal" crowd of gay conservatives.

Anyway, if you're reading this Susan, please step out of the spotlight for the time being, for your own sanity and for the good of your peers.