I’ll be at Women in Secularism 3. Will you?

Women in Secularism 3 is coming up fast, running from May 16-18 in Alexandria, VA. Among the speakers are Ophelia Benson, Barbara Ehrenreich, Melody Hensley, Susan Jacoby, and many other spectacular secularists you won’t want to miss. Also, I’ll be appearing on the following panels on Friday, May 16:

  • 1:15 pm – 2:45 pm
    Online Activism
    Moderator: Lindsay Beyerstein, Panel: Soraya Chemaly, Amy Davis Roth, Zinnia Jones, Miri Mogilevsky
  • 3:00 pm – 4:30 pm
    Intersectionality and Humanism
    Moderator: Soraya Chemaly, Panel: Miri Mogilevsky, Heina Dadabhoy, Zinnia Jones, Debbie Goddard

This is going to be really awesome and you should totally be there. Register early for discounted rates!

A Secular Argument for Transphobia

trinity-150Guest post by Trinity Pixie

Trigger warnings: Abuse, isolation, transphobia, homophobia, racism.

My previous post, Green, which I presented without comment, was actually a piece of creative nonfiction. It was about my family’s response to my transition: taking advantage of my disability to isolate me.

I lived in a place somewhere between rural and suburban. Many houses, few businesses, no public transit. There was a convenience store about a mile and a half away, a grocery store about ten, and in between were a number of people who would likely recognize me from pre-transition – many of whom were happy to attack me previous to transition, without the excuse of queerness thrown in.

I was explicitly not invited to family functions, and forbidden from telling anyone, even my siblings, of my trans status. I had access to medication and health care used as a bargaining chip, was told that I was faking the severity of my disability. I had my own father threaten me with physical harm and make me fear for my life, all the while being told I was the one harming the family.

My parents are atheists. They have used labels like secular humanist to define themselves. They don’t believe in a god, a savior, or a holy book. The reasons, the arguments they would use to defend what they did, how they treated me, are secular. They are also just as valid as any secular arguments against abortion, so why is it that a leader of the secular movement will acknowledge those arguments, but not acknowledge my parents? Aren’t these the type of people you’re trying to attract to the movement?

Why are you comfortable with violations of the rights of cis women, but not with people like my parents? My parents, who vote Republican, choose to give their money to companies like Chick-fil-A, and likely (I’ve admittedly never discussed it with them) are anti-abortion. Who believe slavery should have been a state-by-state issue, and have a secular argument for that. You need to ask yourself: why are you comfortable drawing the line there?


Trinity Pixie is a member of the Secular Woman advisory board.

Darker shades of pink: Having depression when you’re transgender

1522095_10152076191576077_222205893_n (1)The past few years of my life have featured various events that repeatedly force me to update significant parts of how I understand myself.

I used to see little purpose in life and no path forward for myself, until I created an ongoing open-ended project to direct my energies toward, and coincidentally slid into utter femininity in a matter of months. I’ve gone from coasting on the decades-long assumption that I was still a guy – just an extremely femme one – to realizing that no part of me bristles against womanhood. I thought I didn’t have any gender dysphoria, and medically transitioning was simply a matter of taking things from “good” to “even better”. Then I started HRT and gained the perspective to see just how awful, how suffocating, how unbearable things were before – and how it brought me to a place where I was finally a happy, functional person who truly loved life.

About that last one…

You’d think, after all this, I’d understand that things are always going to keep changing. I should realize by now that if I believe the current state of my life will persist forever, I’m almost certainly wrong. Many of my writings should be considered mostly obsolete for that very reason. They’re snapshots of a certain time in my life, not conclusions meant to persist for all eternity – and as more time passes, they’ll become more divergent from reality.

Still: I thought I had fixed this. I thought I had found the answer – the reason why I had felt so pervasively uncomfortable for all of my life, and the solution that did what nothing else could and actually made everything better. I thought I was in the clear to check that off as decisively handled.

I’m now having another one of those moments where I’m forced to realize: I was wrong. I was wrong about having fully understood the nature of my problems. And I was wrong about the extent to which transitioning could adequately address them.

1. How I experience dysphoria

For the most part, my dysphoria typically doesn’t feel like discomfort with the physical form of my body. My dysphoria feels like depression. I wasn’t aware of this similarity at first, because I didn’t yet have an understanding of what depression feels like. Other people had to tell me.

When I wrote “8 signs and symptoms of indirect gender dysphoria”, I aimed to offer a description of the emotional problems which I experienced prior to transition, and which went away after I transitioned – experiences that had also sometimes been relayed by other trans people. I did my best to convey how this felt for me:

  • “I could force myself to get things done, but it would take a lot out of me. I would be irritable, snappish, annoyed by everything, and in anywhere from a mildly bad mood to a very bad mood almost every day.”
  • “As a child, I would cry almost every day at the drop of a hat. Anything could trigger it – being even mildly reprimanded, getting a wrong answer on schoolwork, the sort of insignificant things that no one else around me ever cried so frequently about.”
  • “A feeling of just going through the motions in everyday life, as if you’re always reading from a script.”
  • “When I worked on things, there wasn’t any higher sense of eventually working toward anything.”
  • “Nothing made me feel truly fulfilled, like I was accomplishing anything meaningful.”
  • “I often wondered how other kids could just go about their lives, talking and laughing and being so calm and happy, like nothing was wrong.”

Many trans people told me that this article resonated strongly with them; some said it was as if they were reading what could have been their own journal. Others pointed out that there was substantial overlap between what I described, and the symptoms of depression. Some felt that this overlap was so complete, the article was not a meaningful description of dysphoria at all – one trans woman called it “frankly, bullshit”.

To show a connection between these experiences and gender dysphoria, I had to rely on one key point: that these issues were present before I transitioned, and they unexpectedly subsided once I began to transition.

So what does it mean when they come back?

2. The limits of my understanding

Before transitioning, I had concluded that these pervasive negative feelings were simply an innate aspect of my personality, and something I’d have to learn how to live with:

I figured all I could do was ignore it as much as possible and focus on whatever positives I could find – I gave up hope of ever truly fixing this.

So, having decided that this is just how I am, I didn’t think to consider whether these issues might be due to an actual, knowable cause like dysphoria or depression. Even as I developed a better sense of my gender, it didn’t occur to me that there could be a link between finding a more suitable identity for myself and resolving my emotional problems. I saw these things as two parallel lines, each progressing on their own path but never intersecting. I didn’t regard transitioning as a way of fixing my mood issues – of all the reasons I was driven to do it, this just wasn’t one of them.

So it came as a surprise when these two things began to interact: I started HRT in 2012, and almost immediately felt free of all the crushing negativity for the first time in my life. Thus, I learned to recognize dysphoria. I did not learn to recognize depression.

This would prove to be a major deficiency in my understanding of the problems I’ve faced. Around the end of 2013, I started experiencing what seemed like the same thing all over again:

  • Being exhausted by everything, and irritable all the time
  • Feeling unable to handle the basics of everyday life
  • Becoming stressed to the point of crying at the end of every day
  • Seeing no ultimate point to anything I did, and feeling it was all meaningless
  • Wondering why I even had to be alive

Because I had previously associated these feelings with dysphoria, my first guess was that all of this had to be linked to gender-related factors. So that was where I started: Was it my recently-adjusted progesterone dose? Is it that I just haven’t had the right surgeries? I switched back to my previous dose – but the relief was only temporary. (Surgeries, obviously, are not quite so accessible or easy to experiment with.)

It just didn’t make sense – I didn’t understand why everything suddenly felt so horrible, even though very little had changed. I was starting to get scared. Things were fine before. What is this?

3. Looking beyond gender

My fiancée Heather has often provided a useful outside perspective on my issues. That just sounds really abstracted, though. The truth is, she’s the reason I realized I’d rather be someone’s girlfriend than their boyfriend. She was the first person to call me “she” all the time and make it feel normal, a simple fact of who I am. She started a new life with me, in a place where everyone knew me as a woman. She let me know that starting hormones would make me even more desirable in her eyes, not less.

Without her, much of my transition wouldn’t have happened with such efficiency, or happened at all. We’ve been together for nearly three years, and Heather knows me very well. She’s also struggled with depression throughout her life, and this provided her with some degree of insight into just what the hell was going on with me this time.

When she noticed I’d been miserable for weeks, and asked me what was wrong, I told her how all of this felt – how everything just seemed like too much, and I didn’t feel like I could handle it anymore, and I didn’t know why. It sounded familiar to her, and she raised the possibility of depression. I asked her: is this what depression feels like? She confirmed this. My next, even more desperate question: just how helpful is her medication?

4. Navigating healthcare as a trans woman

I only go to my gynecologist for HRT and the associated check-ups and blood monitoring. I’d have to find someone else for this new… thing. (I still wasn’t certain of how to name it, and I’d talk about it in terms like “this stuff” or “dealing with things”.) Before this, I actually didn’t have a regular physician, largely because I just didn’t want to deal with doctors. It’s not due to some arbitrary aversion – it’s because receiving appropriate and sensitive healthcare when you’re trans, even healthcare completely unrelated to transitioning, is a minefield.

Trans people have often found that when they seek care for any sort of illness, their doctors advise them to discontinue HRT regardless of whether their current health problem has any connection to this. Some of us don’t even get that far – one of my friends was unable to receive any medical attention for her asthma simply because her doctor refused to treat trans people at all.

This issue is more than anecdotal: in a national survey of over 6,000 trans people, 19% reported they had been denied service by a healthcare provider due to being trans. 28% had been harassed in a medical setting because they’re trans. And 28% also reported that because of disrespect and discrimination from providers, they delayed or avoided treatment when they were ill.

That may not be wise, but when cis people go to a clinic for a flu or a broken toe, they generally don’t have to worry about being turned away just because of who they are. We do, so seeking care can be a difficult thing to contemplate. When going to a new and unfamiliar doctor, we never know what kind of ignorance or hostility we’re going to face. It’s an alarming unknown.

So I went with the option that we already knew the most about. Heather’s family doctor had treated her depression and anxiety, and he knows that she’s queer – she told me of how she’d started crying in his office while talking about how her co-workers called her a “fag” every day. She’s never had problems with him. I’d also met him when we took our son for check-ups, and he was really friendly toward all of us. To me, he seemed like the best bet. Heather reassured me: “If he gives you any trouble, we’re all firing him.”

5. “Mild depression”

Outness is a risk factor for refusal of service: 23% of trans people who are out to their medical providers have been denied service, compared to only 15% of those who aren’t out. Nevertheless, I still listed my current medications on the intake form, and left helpful notes like “I am a transsexual woman (male-to-female)” in the “other information” section. I didn’t want to have to deal with any surprise issues if they only realized I was trans later on, nor did I want to see someone who would only be willing to treat me under the pretense that I’m cis.

Fortunately, all of this turned out to be a non-issue. Other than asking whether I was taking hormones under the supervision of a doctor and whether I’d had a blood test recently, the topic didn’t even come up. He asked how I was feeling, and I told him everything – the way that life had somehow become unbearable for no apparent reason, and the dread I felt at having to face every single day. And I made sure he knew that it wasn’t like this before, that transitioning had helped me more than I ever expected, that it really did make things so much better and I didn’t know why this was happening now.

He seemed to know exactly what I was talking about, even identifying the feelings I hadn’t yet mentioned: the monotony of everything, and the difficulty with finding the motivation to get started on almost any activity. Everything he said gave me the impression that he understood this well. He concluded that because this appeared to be a more recent and transient problem rather than a lifelong issue, it was likely a kind of “mild depression”.

We worked out a balance of which medication would be both affordable and effective for me, and ended up settling on his first recommendation – something he felt would give me more energy. “I take it myself”, he reassured me as he wrote the prescription.

6. Anything but trans

People widely regard being trans as an undesirable existence. Often, cis people just don’t want the people around them to be trans – whether this comes from a place of overt intolerance, or just pity and regret for the hardships we face. And trans people, sometimes to an even greater extent than cis people, have also been known to seek out any potential reason to conclude that they’re not actually trans and therefore won’t need to face expensive procedures and near-universal hostility from society.

This urge to avoid the possibility of transness manifests as a staggering variety of excuses and denials. The cis people around us, often our parents and relatives, may claim that our gender-related feelings can instead be explained as a product of:

  • Childhood bullying
  • Sexual abuse
  • Negative experiences with other members of one’s assigned sex
  • The influence of supportive therapists and other professionals
  • Following a trend among a social circle
  • Viewing pornography
  • Homosexuality
  • Unspecified “confusion”
  • Demonic supernatural influences
  • Low testosterone (for trans women)
  • Traumatic brain injury
  • Autism
  • Depression

These are all things that trans people have actually reported hearing from various cis people, and this is not an exhaustive list. Given the prevalence of these creative explanations, trans people in search of reasons to doubt their own transness have ample opportunity to seize on them as well. But this fervent effort to locate any possible alternatives to transness extends beyond the poorly-informed folklore of laypersons. It’s also visible in the poorly-informed folklore of certain medical professionals.

7. Trans-negativity in medicine

Dr. Kenneth Zucker is head of the Gender Identity Service for children at Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. Under his direction, this program has subjected children to a form of reparative therapy to discourage them from being trans or questioning their gender. This includes taking away “girlish toys” like dolls from male-assigned children and encouraging more stereotypically masculine interests, an approach resembling the techniques of discredited “ex-gay” programs.

Zucker contends that cross-gender identification in children is driven by other issues not directly related to their gender, and calls their feelings “a ‘fantasy solution,’ that being the other sex will make them happy” – in other words, a misguided answer to a separate problem in their lives. He posits that their desire to live as another sex is instead largely rooted in family issues:

First, he thinks that family dynamics play a large role in childhood GID—not necessarily in the origins of cross-gendered behavior, but in their persistence. It is the disordered and chaotic family, according to Zucker, that can’t get its act together to present a consistent and sensible reaction to the child, which would be something like the following: “We love you, but you are a boy, not a girl. Wishing to be a girl will only make you unhappy in the long run, and pretending to be a girl will only make your life around others harder.” So the first prong of Zucker’s approach is family therapy. Whatever conflicts or issues that parents have that prevent them from uniting to help their child must be addressed.

Zucker is open about his belief that transness should be avoided if at all possible:

Despite these difficulties, Zucker clearly feels it’s important to at least attempt change. He points out that the burden of living as the opposite gender is great, and should not be casually embraced.

“We’re not talking about minor medical treatments. … You’re talking about lifelong hormonal treatment; you’re talking about serious and substantive surgery,” he says.

Failure to intervene increases the chances of transsexualism in adulthood, which Zucker considers a bad outcome. For one, sex change surgery is major and permanent, and can have serious side effects. Why put boys at risk for this when they can become gay men happy to be men?

(In fairness to Zucker, he is noted as “the first to acknowledge that no scientific studies currently support the effectiveness of what he does.”)

Alice Dreger, a bioethicist who previously compared gender-questioning kids to children who unseriously pretend to be train engines, promotes a similar idea. She’s cited unnamed clinicians as agreeing that these children are the product of “dysfunctional” families:

Here’s more unwelcome news from Ms. Dreger. A child’s gender issue may merely be a symptom of other family problems. “The dirty little secret is that many of these families have big dysfunctional issues. When you get the clinicians over a beer, they’ll tell you the truth. A lot of the parents aren’t well in terms of their mental health. They think that once the child transitions, all their problems will magically go away, but that’s not really where the stress is located.” Clinicians won’t say these things publicly, she says, because they don’t want to sound as if they’re blaming gender problems on screwed-up families.

Dreger likewise depicts transitioning as undesirable, and endorses alternatives where possible:

Sex-changing interventions are nontrivial. They involve substantial physical risk, including major risk to sexual sensation, and a lifelong commitment to trying to manage hormone replacement. …

But somehow if we wrap these major interventions around gender identity, we’re supposed to believe they are not that big a deal in terms of planning for a child’s future? And the clinician who tries to get a gender dysphoric kid to learn to like her or his innate body really is a Nazi? Not buying it. …

What if a boy could go to school in a dress and still be a boy? What if a girl could declare she’s going to grow up to be a man without being dragged to a clinic for a cure and/or prep?

effexor-poster-2As a trans woman, my diagnosis of depression exists within the context of these widespread attitudes. We live in a society where transitioning is regarded as a “bad outcome”, a last resort, only to be pursued when all other avenues for dealing with this discomfort have been exhausted. Are you sure you’re not just gay? Maybe you only think you’re trans because you’re afraid of other men. Can’t you wear a dress and still be a boy?

We’re warned that this may be no more than an illusory “fantasy solution” to our real problems. Commonplace medical practices reflect this overabundance of caution, something which became all the more striking when compared to my recent experiences. Unlike in 2012, I did not need to find one of the few therapists in a city of millions who would evaluate me and provide a lengthy referral letter for treatment. Instead, I was able to go to the same doctor as the rest of my family, and soon found myself sitting in an exam room full of detailed posters about depression and the drugs that might help. Within 30 minutes, I walked out with a prescription in hand. Trans people are often asked to consider whether they may just be depressed cis people – but depressed cis people are rarely asked to consider whether they might be trans.

Yet I’ve now found out that my ongoing unhappiness has persisted through transition, and so I’ve opted to receive treatment for depression. What am I supposed to make of that? And what will others make of it?

8. Relationships between dysphoria and depression

Actually, there are some critical (and obvious) flaws in the notion that other mental health conditions may serve as an “alternative explanation” to apparent gender dysphoria.

For one, there is no reason why gender dysphoria and other mental illnesses should be seen as mutually exclusive. If you’re trans, having depression doesn’t suddenly make you no longer trans. (For that matter, neither does childhood bullying, sexual abuse, autism, and so on.) Would anyone ever make a similar argument about physical conditions – that, say, you can’t have both Crohn’s disease and migraine headaches? Those also make me feel pretty terrible, but it would be absurd to claim that only one of these is responsible for the entirety of my physical pain. There is no reason they can’t coexist as contributors to that pain. And just as I’ve had to acknowledge that my gender dysphoria alone isn’t sufficient to explain all of my mood issues, it would be equally faulty for someone else to claim that my depression alone would suffice to explain this.

Does it seem at all realistic that there would be no occurrence of depression among trans people? People sometimes get depressed, and trans people are people. Scientific studies confirm, rather predictably, that gender dysphoria and depression can coexist. A 1997 study of 435 trans people found that they experienced psychiatric conditions at a rate similar to cis people:

Specifically, gender dysphoric individuals appear to be relatively “normal” in terms of an absence of diagnosable, comorbid psychiatric problems. In fact, the incidence of reported psychiatric problems is similar to that seen in the general population. Similarities in incidence included depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia. … Although a small percentage of gender dysphoric individuals in this sample had prior identifiable psychiatric problems (7-10%), this is not inconsistent with the general population.

And a 2010 study found comparable levels of mental health conditions in 579 people diagnosed with gender dysphoria:

Adjustment disorder (6.7%, 38/579) and anxiety disorder (3.6%, 21/579) were relatively frequent. Mood disorder was the third most frequent (1.4%, 8/579).

Furthermore, studies of trans people undergoing medical transition have consistently confirmed that these procedures are significantly helpful in addressing the symptoms of other mental health conditions, and increase our general well-being. Hormone therapy, in particular, stands out as a key factor in reducing levels of distress. A 2013 study followed 57 trans people before and after HRT and genital reassignment surgery, and found that starting HRT was associated with a marked decrease in depression and anxiety:

A difference in SCL-90 overall psychoneurotic distress was observed at the different points of assessments (P = 0.003), with the most prominent decrease occurring after the initiation of hormone therapy (P < 0.001). Significant decreases were found in the subscales such as anxiety, depression, interpersonal sensitivity, and hostility. Furthermore, the SCL-90 scores resembled those of a general population after hormone therapy was initiated.

Another study of 70 trans people examined their self-reported stress and their blood levels of cortisol, a hormone associated with stress. Being on HRT was linked to a reduction in perceived stress levels and cortisol awakening response:

At enrollment, transsexuals reported elevated CAR; their values were out of normal. They expressed higher perceived stress and more attachment insecurity, with respect to normative sample data. When treated with hormone therapy, transsexuals reported significantly lower CAR (P < 0.001), falling within the normal range for cortisol levels. Treated transsexuals showed also lower perceived stress (P < 0.001), with levels similar to normative samples.

And in another study of 187 trans people, initiation of hormone therapy was associated with reduced symptoms of depression and anxiety:

Overall, 61% of the group of patients without treatment and 33% of the group with hormonal treatment experienced possible symptoms (score 8–10) or symptoms (score >11) of anxiety. The same pattern was found for symptoms of depression; the percentages were significantly higher in the group of patients without treatment (31%) than in the group on hormonal treatment (8%).

A study tracking 118 trans people before and after hormone therapy found that their levels of depression, anxiety, and functional impairment were much lower after HRT:

Psychiatric distress and functional impairment were present in a significantly higher percentage of patients before starting the hormonal treatment than after 12 months (50% vs. 17% for anxiety; 42% vs. 23% for depression; 24% vs. 11% for psychological symptoms; 23% vs. 10% for functional impairment).

And a study of 67 trans people found that those who received HRT had a higher quality of life, reduced depressive symptoms, and better self-esteem:

After adjusting for age, gender identity, educational level, partnership status, children at home, and sexual orientation, hormonal therapy was an independent factor in greater self-esteem, less severe depression symptoms, and higher psychological-like dimensions of QoL (psychological well-being and taking care of oneself of the SQUALA).

These studies suggest that the relief of depressive and anxious symptoms I experienced upon starting HRT was not something I only imagined – it is a phenomenon that has been repeatedly observed among many other trans people. Conversely, those trans people who did not receive HRT were noted to have higher levels of these depressive and anxious symptoms. This doesn’t bode well for the notion that trans people should first seek relief from their distress through means other than transitioning; medical transition may be exactly what they need.

This is not a mere “fantasy solution” as described by a handful of bombastic personalities who traffic in media controversy. This is real: for trans people, transitioning works. That doesn’t mean it’s a miracle cure-all – and really, what is? – but it does mean that it helps.

9. How transitioning helped me

For trans people who are depressed, treatment for depression is not a substitute for transitioning – it is an additional treatment for an additional condition. Being treated for depression hasn’t made me feel that my transition is any less necessary, or that my womanhood is any less important; I continue to be far more comfortable than I ever was as a “guy”. If anything, I know that the experience of transitioning has put me in a far better position to handle a challenge like depression.

Before I made the decision to start HRT, I saw it as something to put off for as long as possible: it was a last resort, to be used only in the event that any further physical masculinization became intolerable. Eventually, I took a more proactive stance, realizing that it would be better to avert those changes as early as possible. And when I finally started transitioning, I was astonished that I had been missing out on the mental benefits of HRT for so long.

What I learned was: don’t wait. I didn’t have to spend all that time enduring daily discomfort when there was a treatment right in front of me that could have helped. And I wasn’t going to make that mistake again. As soon as I recognized that I was likely experiencing depression, I made an appointment – there was simply no good reason to put it off. The sooner I received treatment, the sooner I could start getting better.

Transitioning taught me what it was like to feel truly good for the first time in my whole life. And this contrast showed me that what came before, the fog of constant unease and dissatisfaction and emotional numbness, was not normal. If I hadn’t transitioned, I might never have learned that there was an alternative – that I didn’t have to feel that way. I wouldn’t have known that this perpetual struggle to cope with my own existence meant that something was wrong.

So when my depression set in, I realized that my search for answers shouldn’t stop at “I guess that’s just how it is”. I knew I had to do something to fix this. As I described it to my doctor: “it feels like before I transitioned.” I have that frame of reference now, with an intimate understanding of just how awful and terrifying that feeling is.

Transitioning, quite simply, improved me. It made me into a more confident, capable, perceptive, outgoing, and overall emotionally well-rounded person. And it made me realize that I matter. At last, I love the person I am, the face I see in the mirror, the mind that can finally work at its full strength. Transition made me care about myself, and now I know that I deserve the best in life. I don’t deserve to suffer.

10. The story so far

Like HRT, I had no idea how this would feel before I started, and I wasn’t sure if it would even make a noticeable difference. But, also like HRT, I’ve now found that it makes a very noticeable difference. By the end of the day, the stress usually hasn’t overwhelmed me, and it fades more quickly rather than sticking around indefinitely. I’m getting more things done, and I’ve even started to write again. I’m just plain happy – or, at least, content.

Before, I’d been struggling to stay above water; now, it’s like sitting in a glass-bottom boat. I can still see and contemplate all the things that had dragged me down before – the sense that I’m worthless, the apparent pointlessness of existence, the question of why I keep going, the knowledge that my body is still wrong – but the dark things are behind a barrier now, and they’ve mostly lost their power to lash out and sink their teeth into me. I could choose to think about them, but I usually don’t; my mind isn’t drawn to them because there’s very little appeal there. Those thoughts rarely arrive uninvited, and they don’t stay for long.

Heather says that my mood is more like that of when I first transitioned. And it does feel like that. I once described HRT as like running my consciousness through a noise removal filter, and my antidepressants seem to have a similar effect. It makes me confident that I’ve made the right decision. It isn’t perfect – I’ve also had a moderate increase in panic attacks, and I’m now being treated for that as well. But, altogether, things are improving. My doctor agrees, and says I can stay on it for as long as I feel it’s helpful. He’ll see me again in three months.

I realize that these are still the early days and anything I say about depression and its treatment still comes from a place of inexperience. There’s certain to be surprises ahead, just as my first excited videos about HRT only offered a snapshot in time that couldn’t predict all the changes that would follow. It could get worse, like dysphoria can get worse. My current medications could eventually stop working, like hormones did. As always, things are going to keep changing, and I won’t know how until it happens.

I still worry that this pattern will keep repeating – that my entire life will just be a constant sprint from one apparent solution to the next, without ever being able to settle on any final answer. But hormones bought me a good year, and hopefully this will too. Transitioning meant checking one thing off the list. Treating my depression is checking off another thing. However long that list may turn out to be, I’m chipping away at it.

There Is Also a Secular Argument For Infanticide

1522095_10152076191576077_222205893_n (1)American Atheists president David Silverman recently attended this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) with the intention of reaching out to non-religious conservatives. CPAC, if you aren’t familiar with it, has featured such illustrious moments as:

All of that, by the way, happened within the past week alone. So, how did Silverman go about sharing the word of atheism at this most respectable of political conferences? Roy Edroso of Raw Story reports on his strategy:

“I came with the message that Christianity and conservatism are not inextricably linked,” he told me, “and that social conservatives are holding down the real conservatives — social conservatism isn’t real conservatism, it’s actually big government, it’s theocracy. I’m talking about gay rights, right to die, abortion rights –”

A simple enough idea: conservatives can continue to uphold (some of) their political values without any need for religious faith. Silverman, understandably, didn’t seem very interested in legitimizing homophobia or the deprivation of terminal patients’ medical autonomy. Anyway, where was he going with that last part?

Hold on, I said, I think the Right to Life guys who have a booth here, and have had every year since CPAC started, would disagree that they’re not real conservatives.

“I will admit there is a secular argument against abortion,” said Silverman. “You can’t deny that it’s there, and it’s maybe not as clean cut as school prayer, right to die, and gay marriage.”

Oh. Okay.

Taken literally, the statement that secular arguments against abortion do exist isn’t a very controversial one. Yes, there are anti-abortion arguments that do not rely on supernatural or theological claims. These arguments can instead rely on concepts like “rights”, “human life”, “personhood”, and so on, without introducing any explicitly religious elements.

Of course, the mere existence of such arguments says nothing about their soundness. Silverman himself stated that he was simply recognizing these arguments even as he disagrees with them:

and please understand this is not support. I’m vehemently pro choice. Just acknowledging they exist. They do.

But whether such arguments exist, and whether they have any merit, is beside the point. What really stands out as notable here is Silverman’s more open-minded approach to this particular issue, even as he dismisses other issues outright.

Silverman is not interested in reaching out to conservative CPAC attendees who oppose marriage equality, oppose end-of-life decisionmaking, or support prayer in schools. However, when it comes to conservatives who oppose the right to abortion, he takes a rather more tolerant stance. While he sees homophobic conservatives as having no place in organized atheism, he’s more willing to recruit anti-abortion conservatives to the secularist cause.

Whether he would actually agree with this or not, that’s how his special exception for abortion opposition comes across. To him, homophobes don’t have a place in our movement – but abortion opponents do?

Is this necessarily a demographic worth reaching out to? JT Eberhard argues:

We must be willing to work with people with whom we disagree on some subjects. …So if you acknowledge that someone need not be right on all subjects for them to be right on the one you’re working on together, this can’t be a reason for you to be upset with Dave Silverman.

But this does nothing to explain why abortion rights should be a subject on which disagreement is acceptable, while LGBT rights, for example, should not. Drawing a line at that particular point seems arbitrary. JT continues:

I don’t think it’s fair to expect someone to avoid telling the truth (that a secular argument exists for being anti-choice, lousy though it is) in order to not give a hat tip to the people Silverman has said multiple times he opposes on that subject. That seems a bit like getting exacerbated at scientists whenever they acknowledge the existence of complexity in the universe because they’ve given a “tip of the hat” to creationists. … If you acknowledge as atheists we shouldn’t shy away from stating facts even though we know there are people out there who will twist them toward an inaccurate or unethical position, then you can’t really be upset with Dave Silverman.

Here is another truth that we, as atheists, need not shy away from stating: there is a secular argument for the elective infanticide of healthy newborn humans. It is not even a very complicated argument, and it is one that is perhaps especially well-suited to atheistic naturalism, scientific empiricism, and the rejection of mainstream Christianity.

Suppose that we abandon the idea that the human species occupies a uniquely privileged or “sacred” place among all organisms. Our ethical considerations in how we treat human life – from blastocyst to infant to elder – should not lean on an assumption that humans are special simply for the mere fact that they are humans. Ethical questions should take into account actual substance rather than just a name: the features that actually constitute an individual human. These features can include the extent to which they can experience pain and pleasure, their level of awareness of the world around them, their ability to possess distinct desires and goals, and their level of awareness of themselves as a sentient being.

When we recognize that questions of ethical treatment should consider such features, two conclusions emerge: First, humans are not the only organisms that merit our ethical concern – various animals are also capable of suffering pain, having desires, and possessing different degrees of awareness and self-awareness. And second, not all humans are identical by these metrics; depending on their degree of development, some may be more or less aware, more or less capable of experiencing pain, and so on.

Therefore, instead of a model wherein all humans occupy a special ethical category meriting unique concern, we can conceive of a spectrum of ethical concern along which all organisms fall – humans and other animals alike. One potentially uncomfortable fact is that some animals may be more well-developed than some humans in their capacity for self-awareness, desires, and so on. As Kate Wong notes in Scientific American:

Human babies enter the world utterly dependent on caregivers to tend to their every need. Although newborns of other primate species rely on caregivers, too, human infants are especially helpless because their brains are comparatively underdeveloped. Indeed, by one estimation a human fetus would have to undergo a gestation period of 18 to 21 months instead of the usual nine to be born at a neurological and cognitive development stage comparable to that of a chimpanzee newborn.

Similarly, MRI scans of dogs suggest that they are capable of experiencing emotions on a level similar to human children:

Do these findings prove that dogs love us? Not quite. But many of the same things that activate the human caudate, which are associated with positive emotions, also activate the dog caudate. Neuroscientists call this a functional homology, and it may be an indication of canine emotions.

The ability to experience positive emotions, like love and attachment, would mean that dogs have a level of sentience comparable to that of a human child.

Dogs may also possess mental capabilities on par with those of 2-year-old humans:

According to several behavioral measures, Coren says dogs’ mental abilities are close to a human child age 2 to 2.5 years. … As for language, the average dog can learn 165 words, including signals, and the “super dogs” (those in the top 20 percent of dog intelligence) can learn 250 words, Coren says. “The upper limit of dogs’ ability to learn language is partly based on a study of a border collie named Rico who showed knowledge of 200 spoken words and demonstrated ‘fast-track learning,’ which scientists believed to be found only in humans and language learning apes,” Coren said. … Dogs can also count up to four or five, said Coren. And they have a basic understanding of arithmetic and will notice errors in simple computations, such as 1+1=1 or 1+1=3. …

Through observation, Coren said, dogs can learn the location of valued items (treats), better routes in the environment (the fastest way to a favorite chair), how to operate mechanisms (such as latches and simple machines) and the meaning of words and symbolic concepts (sometimes by simply listening to people speak and watching their actions). … During play, dogs are capable of deliberately trying to deceive other dogs and people in order to get rewards, said Coren.

So: Humans are not the only organisms capable of emotion or developing accurate mental models of the world, and we’re certainly not the only organisms capable of experiencing pain or a desire to continue to live. Indeed, some animals possess these capabilities to a greater degree than newborn humans.

And yet, despite their possession of these capabilities, there exists a widespread disinterest in recognizing a “right to life” of animals. Instead, people commonly consider it acceptable to kill animals if we simply decide it is necessary. Cows “exhibit behavioral expressions of excitement when they solve a problem”, but all that’s needed to justify killing a cow is our mere preference that it should become several delicious steaks rather than continue existing as a feeling, thinking organism. Dogs exhibit intelligence and emotions similar to toddlers, but people leave healthy dogs to be euthanized at shelters every day.

In a society that accepts such treatment of animals as a norm – and accepts even the most trivial of human desires as a justification for such treatment – it should be similarly acceptable for the custodians of any newborn human to have that infant killed, for no reason other than their simple desire that this baby no longer be alive. Newborns have lesser abilities of thinking, modeling, perceiving, feeling and wanting than animals, and probably an equal capacity to experience pain. Yet the presence of even greater capacities in many of these areas has largely failed to convince us to recognize a “right to life” of animals. So why should the life of a human embryo, fetus, or infant be seen as always worth preserving and protecting?

Scientific findings support the facts underlying this argument for infanticide rights. This argument also has strengths which other common pro-choice arguments lack. For instance, one such argument contends that whatever right to life an unborn fetus may have, it is always outweighed by a person’s right to bodily autonomy – their right not to be compelled to provide sustenance, in the form of their own bodily resources, to another organism.

However, this “competing rights” argument opens the door to debate over just how important these respective rights are, and whether a fetus’s right to life really is small enough to be overridden. It implicitly agrees with abortion opponents in recognizing that a fetus actually does have, to some degree, a right to exist. And it requires proponents of a pro-choice position to maintain that a person’s right to bodily autonomy is, in all circumstances, the more important right in this situation. Abortion opponents, like Kristine Kruszelnicki of Pro-Life Humanists, may in turn contend that the fetus’s rights carry overriding weight.

In contrast, the pro-infanticide argument presented here does not have this vulnerability. It does not recognize an embryo, fetus, or even a newborn human as possessing a “right to life” to any degree whatsoever. And so it is not even necessary to argue that a person has a right to bodily autonomy which overrides a fetus’s supposed rights.

Clearly, there is a secular argument for infanticide. One does not have to support it or agree with it, and one may feel that it is far from decisive or clear-cut, but it does indeed exist. Others might twist this argument to make atheists look bad, but that doesn’t mean we should avoid recognizing this truth.

I’ve met David Silverman before, and he was a really nice guy – I hope we get to meet again. I don’t have any problem with believing that he certainly meant well with his outreach efforts at CPAC, as idiosyncratic as his views on acceptable political differences may be. And a few isolated quotes expressing a nuanced position – albeit a potentially disagreeable one – aren’t necessarily cause to dismiss and ignore a person entirely.

What I would ask is this: What is American Atheists doing to reach out to pro-infanticide atheists and bring them into the cause of organized secularism? Is our conception of the parameters of a “right to life” any less worthy of being courted than that of abortion opponents? If we’re really seeking to expand the tent of atheist activism, why extend it only in their direction, and not ours? I’d contend that if anything, those of us who are pro-infanticide can bring much more of value to the atheist movement than anti-choice conservatives would, such as our evidence-based approach to secular ethics. And if you think it would be distasteful to reach out to us, ask yourself: is it really more distasteful than inviting people who would legally force a person to give birth against their will?

Gender-Neutral Pronouns Rant

IMG_20140209_080947Ohey, it’s me!

This is a bit ranty, and I’m not sure if there’s going to be much direction to it or a “point”, but it’s going to be full of words. Talk of misgendering and such ahead.

I stumbled onto a rather unpleasant blog post written about a suit filed by a gender-neutral employee in regard to having coworkers repeatedly go against their wishes by referring to them with feminine pronouns and pet names like “miss” and “little lady”. Actually, the link I provided (the original source material) is the only un-biased, not-super-condescending thing I could find before having to abandon that mission. I won’t be linking to any of the hateful sites because no one needs that triggery shit.

A former catering worker who identifies as neither female or male is suing Bon Appetit Management Co. for $518,000, claiming co-workers referred to the employee as a female though repeatedly being asked to stop.

Valeria Jones alleges in a lawsuit that co-workers repeatedly called Jones “miss,” “lady” and “little lady” despite explanations that Jones “was not a female or a male and that the term was unwelcome.”

Workers also directly said Jones looked like a woman and made female celebrity comparisons, the suit states.

(Emphasis mine.)

I don’t even know where to start with this. Setting aside for a moment that this has anything to do with gender, everything about this qualifies as harassment. The coworkers were asked to stop referring to Jones with feminine terms (terms which I think we can safely deem “hurtful” since it caused emotional distress) and they didn’t. The company didn’t do anything because there aren’t provisions for trans* recognition in the workplace. The coworkers go on to tease this person. Making comparisons to Ellen (“female celebrity”) is a) very, very old and b) extremely rude when you’re talking to someone who clearly doesn’t want to be grouped in with women.

There is so much condescension surrounding this issue that binary-minded people don’t seem to even register that we’re talking about harassment here, regardless of the gender of the recipient. It seems pretty simple to me: If someone asks you not to call them something, you don’t do it, regardless of how harmless it may seem to you.

Since the existence of non-binaries is a totally new thing for most people, I can see how ignorance runs rampant. Many of the sites that have talked about this story seem to think Jones wants everyone to use some “made-up” word to refer to them. I don’t know why, but this freaks people the hell out. (Unfortunately, the small vocabulary of invented neutral pronouns hasn’t made it to the general populace yet.)

I kinda-sorta understand discomfort with trying to adopt alien vocabulary–it’s part of the reason I haven’t personally chosen to use any of the invented gender-neutral terms like “ve”, etc. But, English-speakers use a neutral pronoun all the time with “they/them/their”. It’s used so casually that we don’t even notice it happening.

This whole thing is really thorny for non-binary people because you have people telling you that your gender isn’t even real because there are only two gender options. You have people freaking out about using “made-up words”, then you get others who won’t use “they/them/their” because “It’s plural”.

Segue into the lovely conversation I had with someone on Facebook*. (You’ll spoil the surprise** at the end of the post if you read the full convo right now, btw.) My comments are paraphrased/edited down, M’s are copy/pasted as-is:

Comments:

M: http://genderneutralpronoun.wordpress.com/ Though it’s such a foreign concept to intentionally adopt made up words into my vocabulary, I’m willing to try.

Lux: What I’m pointing out is that people often assume that gender-neutral terminology requires use of newly-coined terms. I’m actually just turning a mirror on the fact that people use “they/them/their” without thinking about it. I prefer they/them/their to the new terms because people already use those easily and naturally in everyday speech.

M: But then the question presents itself, how to refer to someone in a personal pronoun. Without these new terms all we are left with is “one” and “it” and I doubt you’ll like either one of those. Him or her shouldn’t be insulting, I refer to you as her because your my friend’s wife, not because I only percieve you as a woman.

Lux: We use “they” to refer to hypothetical people we don’t know, like the drivers of other cars. It’s somewhat of a transition to start using it to refer to someone personally, but I also found that pretty easy to do when one of my friends requested gender-neutral terms be used to talk about them.

To clarify: I’m not insulted by gendered pronouns. It’s more a matter of hurt feelings. I’ve tried to make myself “okay” with “being a woman” and being referred to as such, but I don’t really have a choice about the fact that it makes me feel bad. It took a lot of courage to change stuff online to reflect who I feel I am, and to ask people to switch pronouns. In reality, I almost never ask people to switch, even people I trust, even though it hurts me (out of my control) to be called woman-related terms.

M: No like, I’m not gonna ask: “Hey Chris how’s they/them/their?” I can say: “How’s Lux? Or how’s the wife?” But the English vernacular doesn’t allow for a nongenderized version of him/her. I can use they/them/their when it applies in proper form. But from now on ill ask Chris: “How is they?” See what I mean? Not as simple as it seems, there is no personal nongenderized pronoun.

Lux: How are they. It’s fine to use the plural verb since the context implies that you’re referring to a singular.

M’s first comment proved my point that people’s initial conclusion is to think of the invented pronouns and not the ones we use every day. Then, they made the assumption that I’m insulted by the use of feminine pronouns and immediately told me that I shouldn’t feel insulted because they don’t mean what I think they mean.

Then we see a little more of the imagined issues with using “them” to specifically refer to a singular person, such as switching verb conjugation, which is completely unnecessary. Another commenter pointed out that we juggle singular/plural verb use every day with the word “you”.

Why do people seem to think it’s okay to trample all over people’s gender-related preferences? It seems like every trans* person will deal with someone deliberately misgendering them at least once in the name of “you shouldn’t be offended, it’s not like I’m using slurs or anything”. There are cis people in our lives who seem to feel entitled to choose our labels for us. (And, of course, there are larger structures in place which enable people in power to ignore the requests of people in comparatively disadvantaged positions more generally.)

I do want to call attention to something I mentioned in my Facebook comments: I actually don’t ask people to switch pronouns in my AFK interactions. Online, all of my bios are written with gender terminology and my genderqueerity is one of my primary identifiers in internet interactions; I just sort of expect people to pick up on it and use those terms without my having to say anything. I will occasionally correct people misgendering me online, but usually only because they managed to upset me.

I pretty much never ask people I have face-to-face interactions with to use proper pronouns for me. Even if it hurts my feelings to be misgendered all the time, even though some people misgender me out of ignorance and others out of spite, even though it’s simply incorrect to refer to me with feminine terminology, I don’t ask people to switch.

Why? Because my gender is an important part of who I am and it’s hard to explain and easy to misunderstand. It’s a very vulnerable, raw thing that I’m not interested in submitting to potential injury by lack of understanding or malice. I’m not interested in risking having an integral part of me rejected and/or scoffed at, so only certain people even get to know that I’m genderqueer in my AFK life.

Plus–and this is actually kind of sad–I’m concerned about being imposing by asking people to switch pronouns. I understand that if you’ve never switched pronouns, you have to reprogram your brain to think of gender as a plastic thing in the first place and then train yourself to use the proper ones. You have to retrain the way you think about the person whose pronouns have changed. All those difficulties are tripled when the person requests gender-neutral terminology. I recognize those difficulties, and they weigh in heavily when I’m deciding whether to inform someone of the proper terms to use.

TL;DR

If there are any lessons to be learned here, let it start with: Don’t assume you know what other people are thinking. It’s condescending and rude. Telling someone that they shouldn’t be insulted implies that you have some insight into what they’re thinking and that you know better than they do what does or should upset them.

Further, if you are aware of a trans* person’s pronoun preferences, use them. If you don’t know and you really need to know for some reason, ask them privately. If you have any amount of respect or care for them as human beings, you will do what you can to minimize their marginalization and suffering, and affirm their gender. It’s really just basic recognition of an integral part of their identities that almost every other human being gets to have validated. (Or not integral, in the case of some agender and other people.)

 

*My tweets forward to Facebook. This format was easiest since I didn’t want to take a screencap from Facebook. I’m lazy, sue me.

**The surprise is that I used absolutely zero gendered pronouns in this post. Did it in any way detract from the information provided that you didn’t know M is a cis man?

To my future mother in law on the occasion of my impending wedding

We chose a theme today. You don’t keep in touch too often, but even if you had you might have missed the significance of that one so no harm done so far. This week, we crossed a significant hurdle in the progress of my divorce. My ex-husband and I had some tax debts that would have been more than complicated to resolve on account of his status as a non-resident alien. This year’s filing resolved that debt with my refund and gave me a little extra money to boot. We are now no longer impeded by the debt or the lack of funds that once stood in the way of serious wedding planning. So, we chose a theme.

We also chose a venue. We wrote a guest list. We’re making a budget. We’re working on a timeline. So if your hesitance to display enthusiasm was at all related to my legal marital status, I hope this clears up any reservations you may have had on Lauren’s behalf. I can assure you that the length of our engagement has had everything to do with raw numbers and nothing to do with any sort of indecision or unwillingness on either of our parts.

If your reaction to Lauren’s phone call today was fully a result of the above, you can disregard the rest of this correspondence and stop reading now, but you’ll forgive me if I don’t believe for a minute that you have – or at least, not honestly. Since forming a relationship with Lauren, my second-hand encounters with you have been littered with painful aggressions wrapped in cowardly excuses, casual blame shifting, and disingenuous denials. You have actively shielded your family and friends from the reality of Lauren’s gender and sexual orientation. You have continually expressed humiliation and unwillingness to prioritize your familial bond with Lauren above the meaningless, shallow social capital you’ve amassed in your little suburb.

If only you could see your words from an outside perspective – from the vantage point of somebody who just watched her partner disintegrate into tears as her mother offered to “skype in” to a wedding. What would you think of yourself, do you suppose? Are you the sort of person who is perfectly content to discard your family’s well-being for the sake of your reputation? Oh, who am I kidding. Of course you are. “Don’t tell grandpa.” That’s your favorite phrase, right? Or is it “I’m glad you live far away.” Well, I’m glad you live far away, too.

But perhaps I’m being too harsh. Perhaps you simply don’t possess the wherewithal, courage, or natural instincts with which most of us are endowed. Maybe you’re simply not capable of caring for people other than yourself. In which case, I’m sure you’ll understand that your presence is not welcome at our wedding. While your presence would certainly save on electricity bills, we’d much prefer an air conditioner for keeping our venue frosty.

-Heather