Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Sandcastle Virtues

Once I knew a crossdresser named Monica. This was several years ago, when I was a regular in the transgender demimonde--the curious collection of repurposed-for-a-night bars and "safe" restaurants we frequented on the weekends. Given that most people in this world were closeted, or like me, semi-closeted--I was out to all the important people in my life, but the idea of going out in public during the day was still too frightening--and this was their one chance to "go out" (that's how we said it, too: "I'm going out this weekend" meant going somewhere crossdressed), after a while you got to know the regulars, the ones that were there every week: that girl who always wore pleather fetish outfits; the married couple that dropped in so the husband could dance and flirt with guys while the wife got wrecked at the bar; the very pretty, I-can't-believe-she's-forty crossdresser who had once run her own trans themed party but now was limited to a few nights out a month because she had a young kid.

Over time, Monica and I became close friends; I even saw her male self a few times, and later on she got to see mine when I invited her to my birthday. We both agreed that these "parties" were nothing more than an extension of the closet; we deplored together the awful dance music the hostesses played (not that it would have mattered much: it is a curious fact that most of the white, middle-aged CDs I knew didn't like to dance); we longed for something more than the desultory anomie of these Saturday nights, but neither of us was ready yet to try to do anything more.

Not everyone who came to these parties was a crossdresser. Some wives and girlfriends came, whose expressions ran the gamut from pie-eyed terror to exhilarated joy. We always looked at these women with curiousity, scarcely allowing ourselves to believe that it was possible to find a woman who could deal with--with all this. There were also the trannie chasers. They were a hard crew to figure out--perhaps because most of them were having a hard time figuring out their own attraction. Some wanted to crossdress but couldn't face their own fears; some wanted to suck a dick attached to something feminine, to mitigate their attraction to male genitalia; and a few just seemed to be turned on by trans bodies. The greater part of them were very shy, standing with their backs to the wall or the bar, always looking just slightly uncomfortable.

We all looked down on the chasers.

There was one group that we looked up to, though: the transsexuals. Relatively few ever came out to these nights, which somehow made us respect them more--they had done it, they had transitioned and they didn't need an extended closet to be women in. A few did come by, though, out of nostalgia, or maladjustment to their new lives; out of friendship for other transgendered people who hadn't transitioned, or out of a need for a safe space as they first began their transitions; out of curiosity or empathy or condescension. They fascinated us. These were people that were more than just women for the weekend; they were women period now, and their stories haunted and attracted us.

For a lot of crossdressers, the idea of transition is something that you never really ever let go of. I think this may be because as a transgendered person, you want to be the opposite sex, even if it is only for a little while; so to deny that you would want to transition is to deny that you want to be a woman, which is what you really do want to do. It's all highly confusing, and I think that was one of the reasons we sought out transsexuals: to find our boundaries, to compare stories and see where they were different, to listen to the struggles they had undergone in order to transition and silently do a secret accounting of our own lives and wonder if the price we'd pay would actually be worth it in the end.

But we were told--or at least we had heard--that there were real differences between crossdressers and transsexuals; that crossdressers never transitioned, that transsexuals were in such pain from their gender inconsonance that they had no other choice but to transition. And we believed those stories, crossdressers and transsexuals alike; we crossdressers told our wives and girlfriends that we weren't destined to transition, and transsexuals told the world that they weren't just men who liked to wear women's clothing.

There was one transsexual who was a regular. I didn't really know why Ingrid kept coming (and after a while, she just didn't), but I guess she fit into the category of people who were starting transition and needed a place to get their bearings. We were friendly, and used to talk politics and Japanese martial arts and the American songbook--she had a lovely voice and sometimes would sing a few bars of Cole Porter.

One thing about Ingrid did bother me, though: she didn't like Monica. Or rather, she thought she was a mess, directionless, and misguided. Now, truth be told, Monica's hairstyle was out of the Marilyn Quayle school of immobility, her clothing choices were pretty drab and uninspired, and her shoes--well, it's best not to talk about them. I had myself recently graduated from my evening-wear phase, when I would wear gowns and formal dresses out to bars and had started to dress in a fashion that I thought a woman of my age might dress. So that gave me license to be a bit of a snob, and I am ashamed to say that sometimes I snarked right along with Ingrid.

In the trans community, people tend to be judged on a scale that I will call--borrowing it from the world of drag--realness. This isn't surprising, given that the very drive that defines us as transgendered is to be the opposite sex. Realness is a troubling term, though. It's not that it's inaccurate--it very accurately describes the attitudes I usually encountered. But we made "realness" mean the same thing as "authenticity"--we based our perceptions of you as a person on how close you were to this ideal of "womanhood." Thus, people who wore everyday clothes were superior to people who wear fetishistic clothes; people who lived as women were better than people who only crossdressed on the weekend; people who had had the surgery were better than people who hadn't, or didn't want to.

Wearing pants was even somehow better than wearing a skirt--because real women didn't wear skirts all the time. (Neither do crossdressers in their everyday lives, but making that point hardly helped their case.) In fact, it was a bitter joke amongst us that if you started to show up wearing pants, it meant you were bound to eventually transition.

If I would sometimes put Monica down, I also defended her; I would point out that she was one of the sweetest, kindest people I knew, and that went a lot further with me than her fashion sense; and in any case, the more she came out, the better she looked. But no matter; Ingrid thought she was a hopeless case, and Ingrid was a woman of firmly-held convictions.

Besides, Monica and I were both crossdressers, and so clearly didn't know what we were talking about.

It's been a long time since I was a regular in that world, and I've learned quite a bit since then. One thing that I learned is that I wanted to transition, that the bright lines I had drawn were a lie; crossdressers really did transition. That led me to question other things, to wonder if being a transsexual actually made you more real; or was it that, crossdressers were perfectly real crossdressers? And that somehow, that wasn't wrong or something to put people down about? On one of my last trips out to one of these parties, I was sitting at the bar, silently smirking at this or that poorly-done outfit, when an elderly crossdresser came in. Her dress looked terrible on her, her lipstick was as crooked as a Vermont dirt road, and her wig was haphazardly clinging to the top of her head. But when I looked more closely, I could see the pure joy in her eyes, the incredible relief at being able to finally express this part of herself. And my smirk died a cold death on my face and I--I in my careful makeup and fashionable clothes--I was ashamed.

Since then I've learned much more about feminism and power structures; I see now that what we saw as realness was nothing else than judging people on their looks; that people have the right to define their own gender/personality/womanhood however they want to, and that makes it as real as anyone else's. I learned, too, how often it is in underprivileged communities that heirarchies arise, tiny parodies of the larger, oppressive order. I learned that trans people were hardly alone in equating realness with authenticity; everywhere I looked among the various underprivileged communities I encountered--female, feminist, people of color--I saw the same pattern of holding other members of your group up to your own personal ideal, and then calling them out on how far they fell short of it. People complained about it; long and bitter struggles took place with each faction trying to prove their authenticity to each other. And yet the patterns persisted, over and over and over again.

I last saw Monica four years ago, on my birthday. She wore a tasteful leather suit, a short wig, and perfect makeup--she looked, in short, the very model of a still-rockin' suburban woman in her 40s. She had begun to play electric guitar--she was a huge Kiss fan--and had even done her own drag act in Las Vegas. She was still one of the sweetest people I have ever met. And she seemed very happy.

I ran into Ingrid about a year later at a Julia Serrano reading. By that point I was well into my own transition; in fact, outside of onsite visits to my clients, I presented as female all the time. Ingrid, on the other hand, seemed to be much as I had last known her; she was presenting as male that day, which surprised me--it had been five years since I'd seen her last, I thought she'd have gone fulltime by then.

I wondered if she still though Monica was a mess. If she, and me, were still wedded to our fantasy heirarchies, our own petite power trips. I still wonder that about myself.

Despite our internecine conflicts, we still manage to gain a victory and then all of us move forward: sissies can get married just the same as the straightest-acting modern Mattachinist; the woman who clutched her pearls until her hands bled got to vote the same as a bloomers-wearing suffragist; and maybe, just maybe, one day crossdressers and transsexuals will both be able to pee in peace.

We are like children on the beach, building little sandcastles, while above us the guns of a real fort threaten our lives. And yet, rather than march together on that fort, we bicker over how grand our sandcastles are, how much better they arethan other people's, how beautiful, how necessary, how safe. And so we will stay until these sandcastle virtues are all swept away.

(crossposted from The Second Awakening)

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Rethinking Barney Frank

As any LGBT who follows American politics knows, with the Democrats running things in Congress and Obama in the White House it's supposedly a new day in America for LGBT people and rights. At the same time, however, we also know that a lot of the Democrats in Washington are the very same people who've been there for years, even decades. When you're talking about politics, though, you know that in the end it's not as much about which individuals happen to be in which seats in Congress as it is about how they are likely to behave, and especially vote, in a given political situation. Such is the case, I believe, with Congressman Barney Frank.

I've never met or interviewed Barney Frank. In fact, the closest I've ever come is when we literally nearly ran into each other at a National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association convention in Brooklyn a few years ago. For all of the public complaining and attacking Frank's politics I'd been doing at the time, when I suddenly and unexpectedly came around a corner rushing toward a seminar and found myself face-to-face with the man I couldn't think of anything coherent to say to him until hours later. Looking back, perhaps it's just as well.

Over the years, Congressman Frank hasn't helped his own case much. His gruff manner and his willingness to take what many, including myself, saw as the easy way out, seeking to gain rights exclusively for wealthier and more politically potent gays and lesbians and his willingness, perhaps even eagerness, to achieve that goal by sacrificing those very same rights for transgender people to help entice the votes of skittish Democrats in Congress not only left me with a bad taste in my mouth just in general, but also sent the message that when push comes to shove, Frank believed that some animals are indeed more equal than others.

And then came 2007. Frank wrote and introduced the very first-ever transgender-inclusive version of ENDA that summer, but by late September and into early October of that year, trying to follow where Frank, the Human Rights Campaign, and other left-wing political players actually were on the issue of protecting transgender Americans from discrimination could give you whiplash. One minute Frank introduces the furthest-reaching federal anti-discrimination bill protecting transgender people in the history of American federal politics, the next he's on the floor of the House asking members to vote against that very same bill, telling his colleagues that transgender people who believe they should be protected against discrimination in the workplace like other Americans are living in Oz and belittling the ideal of equality for transgender Americans by making jokes about his weight. While his oratory may have seemed entertaining to some of his Congressional colleagues, to the average transgender person, probably unemployed and almost certainly facing at least some sort of discrimination as part of their daily life, Frank's wit and sense of humor probably did not play well at all.

It's not at all surprising that over time transpeople have come to see Barney Frank as every bit as much a villain in the ENDA saga as the Human Rights Campaign which quickly and enthusiastically supported his every move, right up to and including his stripping of transgender protections from the bill. For over a year afterward, transgender people and our allies have worked doggedly to promote inclusion in ENDA, lobbying Congress, making our views known in the media, protesting the Human RIghts Campaign at their dinners and other events. Finally last summer, in the heat of the Presidential campaign, Democratic Party nominee Barack Obama was repeatedly expressing his support for the inclusion of protections for gender identity and expression in ENDA. The tide began to turn yet again, and Barney Frank was among the very first seeking to capitalize on it.

At the Congressional hearing on transgender rights and equality he was instrumental in organizing, Frank was just about everything we could have hoped for. He was sharp, he was funny, he was devastatingly on-point, every bit the committed advocate we've always needed him to be. The rest of the Democrats in attendance were equally supportive, particularly Committee Chairman Rob Andrews, who deftly eviscerated Alliance Defense Fund Senior Council Glen Lavy's religion-based arguments against ensuring equal rights and treatment for transgender people. Most of all, what that hearing showed everyone, laymen and polititican alike, was that the rights of transgender people have significant and increasing support in Congress.

As angry as many of us are or have been with Barney Frank in the past, it's in these last several months since the prospect of an Obama and Democratic Party landslide became the popular expectation rather than simply a hope, that Barney Frank apparently decided that the time was right to begin in earnest the process of formally introducing transpeople to Congress as a valid minority constituency as well as one in need of legal protection from discrimination. He arranged the hearing, he spoke at the hearing, he's made positive statements in the media, he co-founded the LGBT Congressional Caucus, he's put a transgender person in a high-profile position on his staff. He's done pretty much everything you'd hope someone in his position would do to make sure that when anti-discrimination legislation is debated on and (hopefully) passed in this Congress it will be transgender-inclusive.

Anyone who reviews the history with a objective, critical eye comes to understand something about Barney Frank. We may not always like what he does. We may see him as someone who tweaks his public positions on certain issues to suit the politics of the moment a little too often for our tastes. But Barney Frank has proven remarkably consistent in at least one thing: He goes for as much as he thinks he can get.

If Barney Frank honestly didn't think transgender inclusion was viable, I doubt he'd be lobbying for it now. With yet another set of Lobby Days approaching, Congress will hear from transpeople again at just the right time, just before it's time to start voting on our rights again. When you step out and take a look at the bigger picture, the way all of these events have unfolded so neatly in concert with Democratic political successes, you wonder if perhaps this wasn't Frank's ultimate plan all along.

Considering that no one really expected any significant progress on LGBT rights to be made as long as Bush and his veto pen remained in office, it makes sense to believe that the strategy to get hate crimes and ENDA passed centered around getting them actually passed into law this year, in this Congress, with this President.

Barney Frank is a consummate politician. It's important to remember that this is not a bad thing. It means he knows how to get things done in Congress. It doesn't mean he was right to dump transpeople out of ENDA in '07, but it may mean that doing so was part of a strategy on his part which may well lead to our inclusion when these bills finally do become law.

I know, I know, after everything we've seen it's hard to consider giving Barney Frank the benefit of the doubt, particularly when it involves tacit approval of the '07 ENDA strategy. Yet, maybe it's the right thing to do. And before anyone gets on their high horse, let's also remember this: It was the anger of the trans community and the response to the stripping of the bill which got the trans community out and active at a level we've never seen before. Think about it: If you wanted to inspire more transpeople to be out, proud and politically active, how would you go about it? How about if you were a member of Congress who wanted to ask your colleagues to support transgender rights but didn't want to have to ask them to risk anything else in order to do so?

And then of course there's that other question: If this truly was Frank's plan, was HRC and their support for the non-inclusive bill part of that plan?

Yeah I know. It's enough to make your head explode. I have no way of knowing if I'm completely right, but I do believe I can't be completely wrong either. By the time the 2009 Christmas recess rolls around, I expect we'll all know the answer.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Call for Resources: Trans Women & Sex

Today's Feministing "Ask Professor Foxy" column is from a trans woman who can't find good sex resources for her. I've made a few suggestions, but maybe you all know other good places to check. So far I've recommended:

With your input, I can put a bigger list together.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Kilts and Cross-Dressing and Utah (oh my!)

Originally I was going to make my first post to the TGB a bit more of a commentary on GenderQueer identities: and then this came up and I had to share it with everyone…

Utah School Forces Student to Change out of Kilt

Basically, a student was forced to change out of a kilt because he was mistaken for a “cross-dresser.”

Riddle me this: if I, as a female bodied, GenderQueer, masculine person was to wear a kilt (which happens frequently, I might add) to this school, what would happen? Would I be a cross-dresser, now that the principle is aware that a kilt is traditionally masculine? This is yet another example of the problems associated with having such a strict gender binary. We get these kinds of knee jerk reactions to any article of clothing that steps outside what society sees as normative.

On another note – I realize this is Utah, and, by default, a little conservative (not all residents, of course). That being said, I still find it amazing that “cross-dressing” is so openly criminalized in public situations.

...and for a comparative study in gender. James Bond (Sean Connery) in a kilt.

Thanks everyone!

Sunday, May 17, 2009

France Depathologizes Transsexualism

Saturday's edition of the French language newspaper Le Provence headline:

Transsexuality will no longer be classified mental illness in France

and the article explains why France has now become the first country to depathologize transsexualism.

English translation is now online.

Very, very interesting and good news on the eve of the APA conference in California, where protesters will be gathering to protest the GID diagnosis.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

the APA protest...

...will be this upcoming Monday, details below, feel free to distribute them widely. And if you know any media types that are interested in covering/writing about the protest, please direct them to the GID Reform Now media advisory (which has contacts for the protest organizers, etc.). -julia


May 15, 2009

Protesters call for Reform of Gender Disorders at American Psychiatric Association Convention

What: San Francisco, California (May 15, 2009) A coalition of transgender community advocates and mental health providers will gather in San Francisco May 18 to protest how the American Psychiatric Association (APA) is handling revisions to “gender identity disorder” and related diagnoses in their fifth edition of the ‘Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders’ (DSM-V).

Where: At the corner of 4th Street and Howard Street –Outside the Moscone Center

When: Protest starts at 6:00pm, Monday May 18th

Who: Community leaders scheduled to speak include Julia Serano, PhD; Madeline Deutsch, MD; Masen Davis, MSW; Kelley Winters, PhD; Danielle Askini, MSW; Mara Keisling; Andrea James, MA; Lore Dickey, PhD; Michele Angello, PhD; and Rebecca Allison, MD.

GIDreformNOW.com is a coalition of gender-variant and transgender people, medical and therapeutic professionals, and allies who have grave concerns about the current diagnostic classification and lack of disclosure by the Sexual and Gender Identity Disorders Work Group about plans for the DSM-V. The protest is at 6pm May 18th at the Moscone Center at Howard & 4th street, San Francisco, California.


Thursday, May 14, 2009

more on cisgender, cissexual & cis privilege

So there has been a lot of blogosphere discussion about the terms cisgender/cissexual and cis privilege lately (most recently on Feministing.com). I've been meaning to write about how I use these terms in Whipping Girl (and some of the misconceptions people seem to have about them) for quite a while now, so these discussions have finally gotten me off my butt to do just that. My treatise on cis/trans & cis privilege can be found on my blog (sorry, would have cross-posted the entire thing here, but I need to get into work asap...).

best wishes, -julia.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Why feminists should be concerned with the impending revision of the DSM

Hi everyone,

FYI, I just posted a piece called Why feminists should be concerned with the impending revision of the DSM over at Feministing.com. It's mostly about Ray Blanchard's suggestions to revise the Paraphilia section. Feel free to check it out if you're interested...

Monday, May 04, 2009

RIP: Virginia Prince, 1912 - 2009

Dr. Richard Docter announced at dinner last night, here at the Liberty Conference, that Virginia Prince had died at the age of 96. She was in good health and mentally acute until about a month ago when her health began a steep decline. Docter was her biographer
as a well as a friend.

I met the grand dame here, in this Philly Airport Hilton hotel, about five years ago, and I am a little surprised by how moved I have been to hear of her passing. She was an imperfect person, as we all are, but rocked where it counted: having the cojones to be an out-transvestite in the 1950s. Her bravery is something we'd be fools, as a community, not to acknowledge.

Imperfect, problematic, heroic. You often don't get one without the others. We have lost an important pioneer.