In a few months, I’ll be attending a secular conference to speak about trans-related issues. Since this subject is pretty general and wide-ranging in its scope, and most of the audience obviously won’t be trans, I was hoping I could enlist your help in figuring out exactly what people might be curious about when it comes to trans stuff.
When asking questions about these things, most people I’ve come in contact tends to be quite polite and tactful , and I really appreciate that. At the same time, I also know what it’s like to be on the other side of this. I used to assume I was straight and cis and a guy, and I really had no idea what it meant to be trans, queer, or anything like that. Frankly, I was pretty much clueless. I didn’t have a good sense of what might be appropriate or inappropriate to say about any of this. There were a lot of things I never asked anyone about, because I wasn’t sure if it would be in good taste.
Normally, that’s the best protocol for everyone to follow. We expect people to exercise good judgment and decency, use their common sense, and not ask us things like “why the hell would anyone want to get it chopped off?” That way, we can more or less get through the day without having to field intimate questions that we might not feel like dealing with. It’s a legitimate and important expectation, because trans people and other minorities don’t want to spend all their time explaining their lives to curious people.
However, speaking at a conference is different: I’ve chosen to be there and explain these issues to an audience that’s prepared to learn. In that situation, my foremost goal shifts from avoiding uncomfortable questions in public, to presenting information that’s as useful as possible. Some areas of discussion that might usually be considered off-limits could actually be helpful to their understanding. I want to locate those areas, and I’d like your help.
In the interests of mapping this out, I’m suspending the usual primacy of tact for anyone who wants to assist me with this. I know that, for most people who aren’t trans, trans-related topics simply aren’t something they think about a lot. I’ve had to learn about this out of necessity, and I’ve largely forgotten what it’s like to be inexperienced and confused when it comes to this stuff. I’m hoping to regain a sense of that, so I can gauge which information a cis audience is most in need of.
Cis readers, that’s where you come in. I know you all mean well and want nothing more than to be polite, but I’m sure there are some things you still wonder about – things you normally wouldn’t say out loud. I bet there have been times when you’ve thought, “I’d better not ask her that.” Maybe there are questions you’ve privately pondered when among other cis people, but would never actually talk about in front of someone who’s trans. Even if you do your best to be supportive and understanding, there are probably some occasions where it still feels like you don’t entirely “get it”.
Those are the sorts of things I want to know about – even if it’s something you’ve learned (correctly) that you should never say to a trans person. If you’ve decided against asking a certain question before, I’d like you to decide in favor of it this time. I need to know what people need to know, so that I can work out how best to answer such questions and clear up whatever misconceptions people don’t often speak openly about. Somewhere between the assholes who just hate us, and fellow trans people who truly know what it’s like, I know there are plenty of cis people who are pretty nice folks and really do want to learn more about these things.
So, what’s something you still struggle to understand about us? What’s something you don’t quite get? If you’d like to get all your seriously honest questions out there, go ahead and leave a comment with something you’d like to know more about. If you’d rather do so privately, you can email me at [email protected], or if you want to be super-anonymous about it, you can send me an ask on my Tumblr. This would really help me avoid, or smooth over, any potential areas of confusion when giving my talk. I can’t guarantee that I’ll have time to reply, but it would definitely show me the sorts of things I might need to address. Let’s get it all out in the open. Thanks!
It looks like we’ve got another recent addition to the collective: Ally Fogg of Heteronormative Patriarchy for Men! For those unfamiliar with his work, Ally explains gender and social justice issues for people who are only willing to listen to a straight white guy. While the need for this is unfortunate, I suppose someone has to do it, and it’s good that Ally has chosen to engage in this kind of outreach. Everyone go and give him a warm welcome!
Yemisi Ilesanmi is a Nigerian woman, resident in UK. She holds a Masters of Law (LL.M) degree in Gender, Sexuality and Human Rights. She is a trade unionist, human rights activist, an author, a poet and sometimes moonlights as a plus size model. She is a passionate campaigner for equal rights, social justice and poverty alleviation. Her debut book ‘Freedom To Love For ALL: Homosexuality is Not Un-African’ is available in paperback and kindle editions on Amazon (www.amazon.com/dp/1481864815). In sometimes, what she thinks as a past life, she was- – National Women leader/Assistant National Secretary, Nigeria Labour Party. – Vice President, International Trade Union Congress – Chairperson, ITUC Youth Committee – International Labour Conference (ILC) Committee Member on Applications of Standards – Founder/President, National Association of Nigerian Female Students She is the founder and coordinator of the campaign group Nigerian LGBTIs in Diaspora Against Anti-Same Sex Laws.
Needless to say, I share many of her interests, and it’s wonderful to have her here. I’m definitely looking forward to reading her work.
I’ve watched Arrested Development a couple times. It’s not really my cup of tea, but Heather enjoys it, and I can certainly see why people might like it. Now that it’s returning on Netflix for another season, I might have given it another chance. And then someone who runs their Facebook page had the great idea of posting this:
(Text: “Who’s your favorite granny tranny?”)
For those not in the know, when cis people use the word “tranny”, they’re typically not referring to us in a kind or affectionate way. It’s vastly more likely to be used as a cheap insult, a threat, a porn keyword, or as seen in this case, a joke unto itself.
And that’s literally the entire joke here: Trannies! Ha ha, isn’t that funny?
Well, honestly… it’s kind of not funny at all. It’s the sort of lazy humor that every comedy, given enough time, will arrive at eventually – like a Godwin’s Law of transphobia. These low-effort attempts at comedy are made under the assumption that the mere idea of men in dresses, or trans people, is inherently laughable. Treating both as though they were the same is just the icing on the cake.
This can make it difficult to enjoy otherwise entertaining media, because you can run into it anywhere. You’re just looking up a Facebook page for a TV show, and… oh. There it is, the all-too-frequent reminder that This is not for you. It’s meant for other people, so that they can laugh at you. It tells us that the fact of our humanity wasn’t actually taken into account at any point between someone having an idea, someone cobbling it together, someone approving it, and someone clicking “post”. Just being able to go about our lives would be too much to ask – we have to be someone’s punchline.
That’s me they’re talking about.
You don’t have to be trans to have a problem with this. Knowing trans people is enough. Having an understanding of trans people as real human beings should be enough. Hell, all you need is a good sense of humor that doesn’t force you to lean on what’s become the most pervasive and played-out “joke” in comedy.
In early 2011, Dr. Kermit Gosnell was arrested on charges of murder related to his abortion services: one charge for the death of a woman who had sought an abortion at his Philadelphia clinic, and seven additional charges for the killings of infants that had been born alive. The grand jury report on Gosnell’s clinic contained a variety of emotional appeals that were largely irrelevant to the actual charges, and at the time, the sensationalized report received wide coverage and was frequently used to attack abortion generally. My partner Heather analyzed the report and its subsequent coverage, and found many arguments by the grand jury and the media to be lacking. Many magazines and publications refused to print her analysis, and now that the trial of Gosnell has begun and these same arguments have flared up once more, we’ve chosen to republish her piece here. -Zinnia
Looking Gosnell in the Eye
by Heather McNamara
In the wake of the release of the grisly grand jury report and the media firestorm surrounding the atrocities at Dr. Kermit Gosnell’s abortion clinic, we, as pro-choice feminists, have been posed a difficult question. Basted in gruesome quotes, the emotional appeals from the pro-lifers (and more reserved pro-choicers) who read the report are everywhere and seem to ask, “Did you know it was this gruesome?” The responses from pro-choice advocates have been reserved – usually articles featuring calming, tranquil images of very pregnant women in silhouette standing by windows, presumably contemplating all the trials and joys ahead of her, and certainly not crying on the bathroom floor with a positive pregnancy test. “Think of the women!”, we say, “think of the babies”, they say, and nobody seems to be answering the question: well, did you know it was that gruesome?
The difference between flashing the grand jury report and flashing large poster images of aborted fetuses in front of clinics is subtle but effective. Gosnell broke the law. He kept an unsanitary facility; he performed abortions that were so late term that they should have been done, assuming they were legal, in hospitals where better monitoring was available; he did not properly care for his patients; and he was arguably negligent with the way he prescribed drugs. These things are absolutely wrong, and no doctor, no matter how much good they intend, should be recklessly endangering lives. Each and every woman who sought the help of Dr. Gosnell deserved a safe, clean, well-staffed clinic. It’s difficult to argue that the abortions Gosnell performed were not wrong, because there were clearly so many things he did that were wrong.
However, there is no connection between the lives Gosnell endangered and the ethicality of abortion, and some of the things in the grand jury report that disgust us – jokes about the fetuses being “so big they could walk me to the bus stop”, for example – are things that could happen in clean, professionally staffed clinics. There is no law against bad taste. So why were they even mentioned in the grand jury report? Among the shocking and frankly manipulative language contained within, we find outright misleading quotes such as “these women were giving birth” to refer to the induced contractions to dilate cervices, “he played with the baby” to refer to his touching the fetus’s hands, and “he stuck the scissors into the back of their necks” to refer to a method of terminating a fetus that has long been widely recognized as entirely valid and comparatively humane. The proper vernacular is “intact dilation and extraction”. Quotes like these, considered rationally, should not compel us to question abortion, but instead should make us question the state of mind and competency of the grand jury. In legal contexts, emotional appeals are out of place.
The reality is: medical procedures can be violent, visceral events. Every day in hospitals everywhere, people are bruised, broken, and cut open. Ribcages are cracked open, skin sliced open, veins burned and yanked out, sensitive areas cut, and burns scraped. These things are done to help and save people. The inner workings, procedures, ethics, and yes, tasteless jokes in any clinic could be detailed in such a way as to turn you off the idea of healthcare forever, but that does not make anyone’s need for it any less valid.
Dr. Gosnell ended the lives of some fetuses, which, left alone, would have become cute little bouncing pink babies in adorable little outfits. He cut into the backs of their necks and severed their spinal cords. Legitimate abortion providers also do this. They dilate women’s cervices, which can be painful, they terminate fetuses, and they cut flesh. And so what? Does the weakness or strength of your constitution, or anyone else’s, comprise a valid basis for granting or removing a woman’s control over her most precious domain – her body?
These arguments exist for one purpose: to desensitize us to the plight of the presumably healthy, if scared and distraught pregnant women we imagine, and turn our attention instead to the horror we can observe. They’ve caught us at a vulnerable time when several states are introducing bills to limit and outright deny access to abortion. Now is not the time to be squeamish. Now is the time when we, as feminists, can show we’re not afraid to confront the difficult and unpleasant realities of abortion – the disturbing bloody images, the fact that sometimes women don’t actually have a Very Good Reason to be seeking one, and even the unfortunate physical and emotional consequences that sometimes follow. Once we acknowledge that these things are there and real and unpleasant, we can continue to assert our right to do it anyway, and in doing this, remove their power over us.
Heather McNamara writes about indie literature, politics, and civil rights at HeatherMcNamara.net.
Now that BlogTV has shut down, Heather and I have to find another home for our live shows. Tonight at 10:30 PM Eastern time, we’ll be trying out Justin.tv. There may be bugs that we have to work out. The show may not start on time. There may be an inconsistent user experience or inconvenient ads. We may even discover dealbreakers that cause us to throw up our hands and quit the entire venture until we find a better place. But we’re hoping it all works out and that everyone has a good time, as is usual for these shows. Please feel free to join us for this experiment, and we’ll all try to make the best of it.
A recent story in Slate looked inside the community of “gaybros” on Reddit.com, a group of masculine-identified gay men who feel that they’ve been somewhat estranged from the wider LGBT community because of their masculinity. Columnist Bryan Lowder met with the gay bros, learning about their typical interests – sports, video games, grilling, the military, and so forth – and exploring the difficulties they’ve sometimes faced in relating to other gay men and dealing with cultural stereotypes of what it means to be a gay man.
This certainly isn’t a new phenomenon – practically every segment of the LGBT community faces its own challenges, even from within. Masculine gay men are seen as traitors who are trying to gain approval by mimicking straight people. Feminine gay men are called fairies and accused of putting on an act and making the community look bad. Butch lesbians are attacked for their masculinity and treated as unattractive, while femme lesbians are often invisible. Bisexuals are considered indecisive, untrustworthy, or secretly gay. And trans people are treated as freaks and told that they’re a special interest group that shouldn’t have anything to do with gays, lesbians or bisexuals. If you’re looking to have your queer identity demeaned and invalidated, there’s often no better place to go than the queer community itself.
That said, while there may be valid concerns here, the article seemed to promote the idea of a conflict without doing much to back it up. When you get into the substance of it, the notion of intra-community attacks on gay bros starts to look like more of a matter of perceptions than reality. And when the issue is one of men supposedly being marginalized for their masculine identities and interests, it’s easy to see why there might be just a little exaggeration involved.
This became especially obvious toward the end of the piece, when the community ethos of the gay bros was explained by contrasting it with that of the LGBT section of Reddit:
Of a piece with the brotherly vibe of Gaybros is the need to develop, as a site rule puts it, a “thick skin and sense of humor” toward contentious interactions, which crop up fairly often on threads about touchy issues like open relationships. Like “shooting the shit,” demanding a thick skin can at first sound like something a homophobic coach might yell at you for being upset by bullies, but it also has a socially useful function. Gaybros exists by nature and design outside the super-politically correct, college-bubble rhetoric that largely defines the terms of these discussions today (just check out the absurdly arcane ground-rules for r/LGBT to see what I mean). In this, it provides a so-called “safe space” for novice gay men who do not yet know the “right” words to explore their new identities and engage with their newfound community without fear of tar and feathers for not intuiting the difference between two-spirit and intersex.
This was especially interesting to read, because my partner Heather and I are in charge of the LGBT section, along with some very awesome volunteers. We launched it a few years ago because Reddit lacked a dedicated space for queer issues, and it’s currently the largest LGBT-related community on Reddit, with over 66,000 users. So we were a bit surprised to see the LGBT section described in this way, and we’re pretty sure our own community isn’t quite like how it was portrayed here.
In fact, for most of its history, the LGBT section had no rules at all, and it operated on the general principles now adopted by the gay bros: “We don’t remove posts of unpopular opinion, but try not to be a dick.” For a while at the beginning, this worked pretty well. The community regulated itself, dealt with trouble as it cropped up, and mostly kept itself in check. And then this stopped working so well. Eventually, the LGBT section grew to a point where this was no longer feasible. There were a lot of really transphobic posts going around, and it was discouraging trans people from participating in the community. When people started seriously claiming that 7-year-old transgender Girl Scouts were going to rape the other scouts, we realized this just wasn’t working out.
That was when we chose to enforce some pretty simple rules that you might expect to see in any LGBT community: don’t insult gay people, lesbians, bisexuals, trans people, HIV-positive people, women, or racial minorities. These are the guidelines that Bryan Lowder described as “super-politically correct, college-bubble rhetoric” and “absurdly arcane ground-rules”. Personally, I’m not sure what’s so challenging about being expected to respect LGBT people in the LGBT section. But since many people do seem to have trouble with this concept, Heather took the time to explain what this means in terms of how to conduct yourself, using easy language and concrete examples. For instance:
Don’t come in here and tell all gay or bi or trans people how “annoying” or “unattractive” you think they are.
Don’t question people’s identities.
Don’t tell people they’re “hurting the movement” because of who they are.
Don’t tell people not to be offended by slurs that have been used against them for their entire lives.
Be willing to listen when someone explains why something you said was wrong or offensive.
If you’re going to say something that may be insulting, include a warning first.
Oh, and: Please don’t suggest that trans women are going to use their penises to rape everyone around them.
We understand that some of these particular examples of common sense may not be obvious at first, and that’s why we’ve pointed them out explicitly. Certainly no one should need a college degree to understand why you shouldn’t come to the LGBT section just to call gay people “faggots”, or tell someone their queerness is hindering progress, or act like trans people are all rapists.
Managing a diverse LGBT community is different from managing a community of gay bros. Their section is one-third the size of ours. It’s also populated by individuals who largely share the same identity, gender, orientation, interests, and sometimes troubled relationship to the larger queer community. And there’s nothing wrong with that – they’ve established a community that serves their own purposes.
But in the LGBT section, we have distinctly different needs, because we’re managing a space populated by gay people, bi people, trans people, men and women, masculine people, feminine people, and people with all sorts of different politics and concerns. In this situation, where the intra-community conflicts of LGBT people have the opportunity to play out on a daily basis, telling everyone to “have a thick skin” and “try not to be a dick” just isn’t enough. We would know – we tried that. I don’t think this misplaced comparison of the gay bros to the LGBT section is helping either of us.
And I especially don’t think that treating LGBT people’s identities as inaccessible, laughably radical, “college-bubble” nonsense is respectful to anyone. I’m sure it’s really easy to find some funny-looking words like “intersex” and “two-spirit”, and hold them up as an example of “political correctness” gone mad. Those college liberals sure are living in a fantasy world, aren’t they? “Intersex”, “two-spirit”, who has the time to learn about all these things?
These concepts and identities are portrayed as the domain of quibbling academics, incomprehensible and inconsequential to the lives of everyday people. I find that very interesting, because when people are calling someone a “hermaphrodite” or a “tranny” or a “he-she” or a “shemale”, I’m pretty sure they know exactly what they’re talking about. This isn’t ivory-tower pedantry, it’s prime time on Comedy Central.
Maybe this just didn’t occur to Bryan Lowder, but these terms refer to actual people. Of course, when you’re not one of them, you have the luxury of never needing to know what any of this means. You have the option to dismiss this as so much academic gender-studies blather, so it might seem like an unnecessary burden when anyone expects you to learn about this. It’s just not relevant to your life.
But here’s the thing: I don’t have that option. You get to walk away from this – I don’t. I’m the one who has to deal with it when people suddenly fail to understand that I’m a woman, or forget what words to use when someone is a woman. Meanwhile, you have your quote-unquote “safe space” that’s not safe for anyone whose identity isn’t part of a 4th-grade vocab lesson.
I mean, that is pretty much how privilege works, right? Oh, sorry – college word! Let me spell it out for you: You get to have an attack of pronoun amnesia, and I get to be called a man. Gay bros are important enough to have a reporter go bar-hopping with them and cover their struggle to be accepted as masculine men, but no one has the time to Google the word “intersex” or learn why they shouldn’t call me a “trap”.
You know what I don’t have time for? People who can’t be bothered to learn about anything outside the sphere of their immediate existence. When you’ve had to figure out just who the hell you really are, like I have, it’s difficult to be patient when someone acts like reading a paragraph is the hardest thing in the world. And after we’ve taken the time to help people understand how they can be respectful in our community, I’m really not impressed when a major publication would actually try to hold that against us. Maybe flaunting your ignorance is something to be proud of, inside your politically-incorrect idiot bubble. But out here, it just makes you look ignorant.
Zinnia Jones is an atheist activist, writer and videoblogger focusing on the impact of religious belief, political follies and LGBTQ rights. Since 2008, her videos have been viewed over 7 million times and her articles have been featured in the Huffington Post, The New Civil Rights Movement, and The Fight magazine in LA. Originally from Chicago, she's currently living in Florida with her partner Heather and their two children. She is still insufferably Midwestern. Her pleasures include picking apart everyone's arguments, rationality, feminism, philosophy, transhumanism and pet rats. You can reach her at [email protected] or on Twitter at @ZJemptv, and her YouTube channel is at www.zinniajones.com.