Trans Passing Tips for Cis People (Gender Analysis 05)

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Did you know that parents tend to see newborn boys as larger and newborn girls as smaller, even when they’re the same size? Welcome to Gender Analysis.

Last time, we talked about how transgender people are affected by the expectation of passing – the idea that we should blend in as if we’re cis people. We discussed how this can force us to become secretive about every part of our lives, how it can keep us from advocating on our own behalf, and how it can isolate us from other trans people.

Now I’d like to examine passing in practice. Most people think of passing as a one-way street, as though the responsibility for passing or not falls solely on trans people. We often see cis people feign helplessness and protest that they just can’t see us as our gender. This serves as an excuse to misgender us.

But we’re not the only variable in this equation. It’s easy to assume that perception is an objective sense – that we all reliably see a person exactly as they are, just like pointing a video camera at them. Yet perception isn’t really like that at all, and this means that there are aspects of “passing” that are completely external to trans people. [Read more…]

Spawn More Trans: Transgender Awareness and Activation (Live at Social Justice Calgary)

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Remarks as prepared for Social Justice Calgary 2015:

Hi, I’m Zinnia Jones. I’ve been publishing my work on YouTube and on Freethought Blogs for several years now, covering secular and LGBT topics. I’m very honored that the University of Calgary Freethinkers have invited me here.

Most recently my focus has been on transgender issues. I’ve been transitioning for a couple years, and I’ve covered this topic like I would pretty much any other aspect of my life — telling the internet everything I think about it. I’ve also done a lot of research on it, because it seemed like no one else could really tell me all the things I wanted to know about going through this. So that’s a gap I’ve felt I should try to fill by sharing what I’ve learned with a wider audience. [Read more…]

Some Advice on “Passing” (Gender Analysis 04)

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Hi, welcome to Gender Analysis. The term “passing” is typically used to describe whether or not a trans person is perceived as noticeably trans. For a trans woman, to “pass” is to be seen as a cis woman in everyday life, and vice versa for trans men. Most people tend to assume that passing is or should be a goal for every trans person, and it’s easy to see why. Some of us do find it necessary to look like cis people of our gender, because that’s what it takes to relieve our dysphoria. In other cases, the changes that we need in order to feel comfortable just happen to push us more in the direction of passing. And when people don’t know we’re trans, it can eliminate some of the insecurities that can arise when people do know, like wondering if they really see us as our gender or they’re just humoring us.

More than that, being visibly trans in public can be dangerous. In a study of over 6,000 trans people in the United States, those who were seen as “visually non-conforming” were more likely to be harassed in retail stores, hotels and restaurants, and they were more likely to be attacked when using public accommodations such as restrooms. Practically all of us have faced the fear or the terrifying reality of being heckled by strangers just because of what we look like. Passing isn’t just about aiming to reduce our own dysphoria – it’s also about keeping ourselves safe from everyone else. [Read more…]

The Gender Axis of Evil (Gender Analysis 02)

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Hi, welcome to Gender Analysis. Imagine if the light switches in your house turned all your lights on or off at the same time. You flip one switch, all the lights are on. Flip another switch, all the lights are off. That would seem kind of bizarre, right? If you’re just going to the kitchen for a midnight snack, why do you need the lights to be on in the laundry room and the office and everywhere else? That’s pretty unnecessary.

What if they were all dimmer switches instead, so that every light in the house could be brighter or darker in synchrony? That kind of flexibility still wouldn’t help, because it wouldn’t address the underlying issue: why are all these lights stuck together? Who would design a house’s electrical wiring like that in the first place? What sense does this make? It’s almost like they missed the point of having different light switches.

And yet this is the way that many people tend to think about gender, gender expression, and sexual orientation. Conceptually, they see these as just a handful of light switches that are ultimately linked to only one thing. To them, all of these concepts are locked together, moving with each other in synchrony – they think changing one thing can affect the rest. [Read more…]

Low T: A Tale of Two Hormones (Gender Analysis 01)

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Hi, welcome to Gender Analysis. In recent years, prescription testosterone has become a booming industry around the world. From 2001 to 2011, the percentage of men over 40 in the US who were prescribed testosterone replacement grew from about 0.8% to 2.9% – more than a threefold increase. And data from 41 nations shows that yearly testosterone sales have increased from $150 million in 2000 to $1.8 billion in 2011. Meanwhile, chains of “low T clinics” focusing on testosterone therapy have opened dozens of locations across the country.

So what’s behind this growth? Let’s take a look at one commercial for prescription testosterone gel:

“I have low testosterone. There, I said it. See, I knew testosterone could affect sex drive, but not energy or even my mood. That’s when I talked with my doctor. He gave me some blood tests – showed it was low T. That’s it. It was a number.”

Companies selling these medications increased their spending on testosterone ads from $14 million in 2011 to $107 million in 2012, using a snappy new name like “low T” and the promise of a quick and easy pick-me-up for older men. If your T is low, you feel bad; if your T is higher, you feel good – right? This is the approach that’s fueled an explosion in testosterone usage. The problem is, it’s not just a number. In reality, “low T” levels are uncertain, the symptoms are vague, and the relationship between levels and symptoms really isn’t so direct. [Read more…]

Seeking trans participants for a project with photographer Martin Schoeller

My good friend and colleague Kristin is working with photographer Martin Schoeller on an upcoming project featuring trans people during transition. Schoeller is well-known for his series of photographs of celebrities and other subjects in his signature close-up style. Kristin, herself a trans woman, has worked with Schoeller on earlier projects, and he is very LGBT-friendly.

We’re looking for people who are at the beginning of their transition and are willing to have face and full body photographs taken, followed by another series 12-18 months later. This project is likely to be featured in a number of high-profile publications, and could become a standalone book. These photographs will be taken in a tasteful and humanizing style.

Trans women, trans men, and nonbinary trans people are all welcome to participate. Currently, we’re looking for participants around New York City, Boston, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and the Miami-Fort Lauderdale area. If you’re interested, or know anyone who might be, please contact Kristin at liveyourlove4@gmail.com.

Why I’m representing Chelsea Manning at SF Pride

lauren-userpicThis year, Private Chelsea Manning was selected as Honorary Grand Marshal of SF Pride. As she is unable to attend, she asked me to serve as her representative due to our personal history, and I agreed. I’ll be present for various events this coming weekend, including the parade on Sunday. If you happen to be in San Francisco this weekend, I hope that you’ll have the chance to stop by.

Throughout my involvement in this case, I’ve occasionally heard from trans people with some connection to the US military – defense contractors, veterans, or active duty. Some feel that Chelsea’s actions reflected poorly on trans servicemembers, and have set back the movement for trans acceptance and inclusion in the military.

Regardless of one’s opinion on Chelsea’s conduct, the fact remains that she is a trans servicemember who is currently incarcerated in a men’s prison and is still being denied access to any transition treatments. As such, her case involves key issues like integration of trans people into the armed forces, and the ability of trans people in prisons to receive appropriate transition-related care.

The Army has refused to provide Chelsea with treatment such as hormone therapy, on the basis that transgender people are ineligible to serve. However, the Army is also unable to discharge her because she’s currently appealing her sentence. Chelsea’s fight for access to treatment while incarcerated could potentially set a precedent, with implications for the military’s policy toward the eligibility of trans servicemembers and the availability of necessary care for them. The importance of changing this policy should be clear to everyone, no matter our personal opinions of Chelsea herself.

We must also recognize that transgender service in the military is not a hypothetical – it is a reality. As with gay, lesbian, and bisexual servicemembers under Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, many trans people are currently enlisted and serving in silence. The Williams Institute at UCLA estimates that over 15,000 trans people are currently serving in the US military, and finds that trans people are actually twice as likely as the total adult population to have served. This is not a question of bringing trans people into the US military for the first time ever; it is a matter of accepting those who are already serving.

In light of this, citing Chelsea’s actions to justify suspicion of all trans servicemembers is plainly absurd. Thousands of trans people already serve in the US military, and many more are allowed to serve openly in the armed forces of allies such as Canada, Britain, and Israel. Using one person to make generalizations about a group of thousands is as invalid here as it would be anywhere. Such fears are not due to the actions of any particular trans person; they are due to the widespread prejudice of cis people. The enemy is not a trans woman incarcerated in a men’s prison without access to treatment. It is a culture of institutional intolerance toward trans people – an intolerance that is never justifiable.

These are my views, and my views alone. However, in my role as her representative, Chelsea has also asked that I emphasize certain key points to the queer and trans community: that we have the right to exist as our genuine selves, that we are the only ones who can define ourselves, and that we should stand and make ourselves visible. These values are not centered around her circumstances – this is a universal message of pride for all queer and trans people. I believe Chelsea Manning’s message deserves to be heard at SF Pride.

—Lauren McNamara
26 June 2014

“Why can’t Bailey Jay just have her feelings about RuPaul?” On the trans community and differences of opinion

After trans adult performer Bailey Jay criticized trans people who object to the use of transphobic slurs in mass media such as RuPaul’s Drag Race, an anonymous person on Tumblr asked me why I took issue with her remarks. My response is reprinted here.

Anonymous asked: Why can’t Bailey Jay just have her feelings about RuPaul? Some consider her (Ru) part of the trans community, others don’t. The idea of a ‘transgender’ community or identity is a recent invention, and many people have the word ‘tranny’ used against them. just my two-cents from a twoc who’s found RuPaul empowering, even if you consider her just a Black man in a (fabulous) dress. Also fuck that last anon, you’re just as pretty as Ru! :P

I appreciate your perspective on this. I don’t consider drag to be something that’s strictly and inherently negative in terms of its consequences for trans people, and I can totally understand how it can serve as a gateway for trans or questioning people to explore gender. So I get how it can be empowering – I had a phase where I had no better way than “drag” to describe what I was doing, and that was a step on the way to figuring myself out.

What I really object to is RuPaul’s various statements about how the difference between drag and trans people is “$25,000 and a good surgeon”, and recently, the overt hostility toward trans people who’ve objected to these particular slurs being regularly used on TV. Were it not for that sort of thing, I otherwise wouldn’t really have a problem with RuPaul, or the others who’ve been involved in this.

If the idea of an overarching trans community is a recent one, then I can see why some of these people might think they’ve been unwillingly drafted into something bigger, and others are now telling them they can’t use their own slang. Personally, I’m not a fan of the “trans umbrella” concept either – there are a lot of serious distinctions between drag performers, recreational crossdressers, people who transition, and everyone else whose differences get erased by a blanket concept of “transgender”.

I try to look at things in light of the different challenges we respectively face – some of us will have to deal with the legal and medical system in the course of expressing our gender, issues with sex-segregated environments, coverage of transition-related treatments, and so on; others will not have to deal with any of this. I think looking at the specifics is more helpful than anyone just deciding to define us together, or define us apart.

But at the same time, I’ve recently seen a lot of these same people – Calpernia Addams, Andrea James, Justin Vivian Bond – suggesting that “transgender” really is such a broad grouping, and a label which they have equal claim to. Looking at how gender-variant people in general have been historically treated, I can see that there’s some truth to this. Bigots often haven’t bothered to distinguish between gender-nonconforming cis people, or drag performers, or crossdressers, or people who transition – to them, every one of us is a “tranny” or “shemale”. They don’t care much for the specifics of our lives and identities and experiences and what the differences may be.

The trans umbrella grouping may be recent, but it seems like the recognition that these are distinct phenomena is also just as recent. The other day, I was reading an article in the New York Times from 2000 about Calpernia Addams. The writer could barely figure out which pronouns to use, whether she was a woman or a “gay man”, the implications of this for her boyfriend’s orientation, and whether they were in a “homosexual” relationship or not.

It was so conceptually muddled that it was obvious the author was conflating so many distinct ideas – but back then, they just didn’t have the language or the models and understandings to articulate this in a more sensible and clear way. It was like that person on Tumblr who was like “Neil Patrick Harris is gay, not cis”, except it was an entire article full of that. And that was just 14 years ago.

I’m just glad that things have become a bit clearer since then – it may not be a perfectly clear split, the lines may be blurry, but it’s not all one identical shade of grey either. And I get how performers like RuPaul can have very different experiences from trans people, while also facing some of the same things, like the slurs and hostility. But I have trouble accepting the logic of: “we’ve been targeted by these slurs, they’ve been targeted by these slurs, they feel fine about these slurs, therefore let’s all continue normalizing these slurs in mass media”.

One imbalance here is that the particular people who are putting their stamp of approval on this language have a great deal of media reach and access. RuPaul has a really popular TV show. Calpernia Addams and Andrea James are advisers on trans portrayals in major Hollywood films. Bailey Jay is probably the single best-known trans adult performer. So they have a disproportionate impact, even when there may be hundreds or thousands more trans people who are really uncomfortable with the casual use of these words. They may not represent our views – but they’ve still ended up representing us to the entire world anyway. There are far fewer trans people with that level of access and popularity who have strongly spoken out against these words.

Another issue is that this has extended far beyond them having their own feelings about these words, about RuPaul, and so on. They also have feelings about us having our own feelings about this. Particularly, when we’ve expressed our discomfort with hearing these slurs all the time, they’ve called us “nutty”, “fringe”, “fascists”, “trans lesbians” in a derogatory sense (why they think this is derogatory, I have no idea), “newly minted queers”, “stay at home activists”, and accused trans women of having “male privilege”. They’ve attacked our orientations and genders. This has gone beyond a respectful difference of opinion.

Personally, I haven’t felt any need to misgender any of them during this, or use mental illness stigma against them, or attack them for their sexual orientation, or any of that. I don’t know why someone would do that and I’ve honestly been surprised that many of them have escalated this to that level. I’ve stuck to addressing their arguments, because that’s all that should have to happen here.

So it’s become about more than the words themselves. It’s also become about how the people who loudly, publicly endorse these words also just so happen to be loudly, publicly attacking trans people in ways that, if cis people were to talk about us like this, would be unambiguously recognized as severe transphobia. It’s been really uncomfortable to see them doing this time and time again, and it worries me that their support of slurs used against trans people is so often associated with outright hateful attacks against trans people. At a minimum, this is not breaking down the association between these words and transphobic hatred. It is reinforcing that association. I don’t like being on bad terms with people – I really, really wanted to be able to like RuPaul and Calpernia and Andrea and Bailey. What they’ve been doing lately is making that really difficult.

But even if they hadn’t done any of this, and even if they had otherwise respected us, I’m still not sure that this can be a live-and-let-live kind of situation. For a lot of trans people, those words can conjure up really traumatic memories of being beaten or harassed on the street or rejected by their families and partners or anything else that so many of us deal with from a transphobic society. It’s not even just memories – it’s a reminder of the real danger that some of us face just going outside every day.

And it’s a reminder that society has, at seemingly all levels, decided that the words we hear from people who reject our existence – sometimes violently – are totally suitable for mass media. That’s disturbing, and unsettling, and suffocating. The reality of having to live in this world can feel like we’re drowning and no rescue is coming. It’s like a nightmare we can’t wake up from.

So I find it difficult to accept that erring on the side of caution, here, means going ahead and continuing to throw these words around casually just because some people think it’s okay. I have to wonder what degree of deprivation that people will be subjected to simply by being asked not to say “tranny” and “shemale” – is the absence of these slurs from the conversation just as frightening as the everyday, inescapable transphobic climate that they’re so often associated with? I find that hard to believe.

I think erring on the side of caution would mean showing the decency of recognizing that these words often show up alongside some really, really bad shit for a lot of people who can’t get away from it. And I guess I really can’t grasp how these other people can feel so put-upon by that simple idea. I was being called a “tranny” and “shemale” on YouTube, years before I transitioned or before I even knew I was trans. It was never, ever, ever a positive thing, and even back then, there was no way that I was comfortable even saying those words out loud, let alone as some kind of joke. Even if others also have a claim to these words, I think it’s worth considering whether we’re really asking as much of them as they’re asking of us.


Related reading:

Trans Women Oppose Recent Attacks by Calpernia Addams and Andrea James

How modern-day drag hurts trans women and achieves little or nothing of value