How Small Is Your Dick? Some “uncomfortable wiener questions” for Tim Graham

Last week, actress Laverne Cox and model Carmen Carrera appeared on Katie Couric’s talk show to discuss their careers and their experiences as trans women. What could’ve been an otherwise respectful interview instead took a turn for the incredibly inappropriate as Couric openly and shamelessly asked Carrera about whether her “private parts” are “different now”. Carrera, who was just not having any of that, responded perfectly: “I don’t want to talk about that, it’s really personal.” Cox later took the opportunity to explain how focusing on “the genitalia question”, as Couric phrased it, ignores the very serious issues of homelessness, discrimination, economic injustice and violence faced by trans women. Both Carrera’s and Cox’s segments are worth watching for their fantastic responses, if you can handle the severe awkwardness of the situation.

Naturally, the conservative NewsBusters.org – a Media Research Center outlet billing itself as “exposing & combating liberal media bias” – doesn’t really see a problem with any of this. It seems there’s only one thing with the power to unite the MRC and Katie Couric, whom the MRC previously bestowed with the singular honor of “Worst Reporter in the History of Man”. This is, of course, a mutual and overwhelming sense of entitlement to trans women’s bodies.

Tim Graham, the MRC’s director of media analysis, upholds the standard of excellence in news coverage for which conservative media are famous: vacuous commentary, lazy misgendering, and literal toilet humor. In his post, titled “Katie Couric Upsets the ‘Trans Women’ By Asking Those Uncomfortable Wiener Questions” (why the scare quotes? Is he calling us cis?), Graham spends a few short paragraphs putting in the least effort possible even for a transphobe. Meandering from calling Carrera and Cox “men” who “dress like women” (clearly Couric was actually inquiring about the surgery they’ve had done on their wardrobes), to suggesting questions about genitals (or “the bulge issue”, as he so cis-ly put it) were “inevitable”, to pondering whether it’s “possible to pretend to be a woman and use a urinal”, he ultimately projects an air of befuddlement that only comes from people who’ve never had to think about this in their lives: how could you possibly see anything wrong with asking trans women which genitals they have on national television?

Indeed, what’s the big deal? It’s just genitals, right? No need to get uncomfortable over a few wiener questions. Yet Graham would do well to ask his colleagues at NewsBusters the same thing. Since 2010, his fellow writers have published numerous articles expressing their outrage at the Transportation Security Administration’s updated screening procedures – namely, the full-body scanners that reveal the shape of passengers’ bodies, and the “extended pat-downs” which can include contact with the breasts, buttocks and genitals. Just look at all these very upset stories:

Oh, and an article from just last month in which Graham himself described the TSA as “well-known for being too aggressive in its body searches”.

So, let’s put it all together: When some bored TSA agent in another room merely looks at the shadow of an angry cis white guy’s “junk”, or checks whether that’s a firecracker in his pants or he’s just happy to see them – for the purpose of potentially preventing hundreds or thousands of deaths – it’s “invasive”. It’s “overboard”. It’s a “civil liberties abuse”. It’s “too aggressive”.

When trans women of color are asked point-blank about their genitals in front of a daytime audience of millions, for no reason other than prurient and entitled curiosity, it’s “inevitable”.

Inevitable. Inevitable that trans women’s bodies will be treated as public property and denied even basic human dignity. Inevitable that they’ll be gleefully dissected in detail for the enjoyment of cis people – or, as Laverne Cox pointed out, simply murdered in the streets if that’s what cis people want.

As long as no one touches Tim Graham’s junk.

But those “uncomfortable wiener questions” are still on the table, right? That’s totally an appropriate topic for everyday conversation. Has anyone gotten around to asking Tim Graham if he has a penis? Or is that “bulge” just a packer? Are those his original genitals or did he have them reconstructed? Does he have to sit down to pee, or can he use urinals like a real woman? Is he a grower or a shower? How big does it get? How does he have sex – like, how does that work? Does he have to take medication or does he have one of those erectile implants?

Most crucially: Can we all make sure that he’s forced to answer these very important questions every single time he decides to share his valuable opinions and experiences as a straight cis man?

Penis Impossible: The most baffling transphobia ever

Purely out of necessity, people can be very creative when trying to invent real-world evidence – rather than merely abstract objections – to justify hating and fearing trans people. Some of this transphobia relies on arguments about scenarios that are theoretically possible, but do not actually occur: things like cis boys passing themselves off as trans girls to peep in locker rooms, something which happens only in the imagination of Bill O’Reilly. Other transphobia relies on citing situations that probably do occur sometimes, and then using them in arguments that are plainly illogical – like a cis man picking up a trans woman he finds attractive while assuming she’s cis, having a mutually enjoyable tryst with her, and later discovering she’s trans and retroactively declaring this was now a singularly horrific event which was wholly her fault.

Occasionally, we get the chance to see transphobes wander just a little too far into the realm of fantasy. I don’t know how I managed to miss this, but last year, transphobic radical feminist “Ann Tagonist” took the typical disclosure-and-deception sex trope and ran with it – directly into oncoming traffic. Tagonist’s breathtaking new argument (I’ve honestly never seen this one before) is structured as follows:

  1. Cis women can be at risk of becoming pregnant from sex.
  2. Cis lesbians might assume that limiting themselves to lesbian sex means they are not at risk of pregnancy.
  3. If a cis woman sleeps with a trans woman, the cis woman could be at risk of becoming pregnant.
  4. If the cis woman in question has not been informed that her partner is a trans woman rather than a cis woman, she might not realize she needs to take steps to mitigate her risk of pregnancy.
  5. Therefore, trans people should be obligated to disclose that they are trans before having sex.

Before getting into this, I’ll give you a moment to locate the exact point where this falls apart. (Hint: somewhere between 3 and 4.)

Tagonist first makes reference to a real-life case that can’t possibly support this line of argument:

The Scottish Transgender Alliance has filed a petition with the Home Office demanding that Scotland’s courts stop jailing people who lie about their trans status to their sexual partners. Over 2,400 people put their names on this thing. The Scottish Transgender Alliance argues that a person’s “gender history” is their own personal medical history and they are not obliged to disclose anything to do with it.

This petition followed the conviction of Chris Wilson, a trans man who did not disclose that he was trans before dating two women. Trans men (men who were assigned female at birth) lack the capacity to produce sperm, no matter which procedures or surgeries they may have had. There is no way in which the risk of pregnancy is relevant to trans men having sex with cis women – not even in theory.

Undeterred by this particular fact, or any facts at all, Tagonist goes on to lay out her concerns:

Lesbians, when they consent to sex with female partners, are doing so on the understanding that they are definitely not going to become pregnant. … If a lesbian ‘consents’ to sex with someone she thinks is reproductively female but that person is actually reproductively male, that lesbian has not given informed consent. She has not been given enough information with which to make her decision. Women need to know the reproductive capacity of a potential sex partner so they can decide not to engage, or take steps to protect themselves. …

“Gender history” is irrelevant here. We need to know the sex of the people we’re having sex with because, hello, pregnancy. Legislation which allows males to lie about their sex in order to obtain consent contravenes women’s bodily autonomy.

Rarely do I encounter transphobia rooted in something that is not just improbable, not just illogical, but in fact literally impossible. If we were to make a decision tree of every different way in which such a hypothetical event could proceed, there would be no possible endpoint where the cis woman partner would both experience an event leading to pregnancy and remain unaware that her partner is actually a trans woman and not a cis woman.

In order for it to be possible for a trans woman to impregnate a cis woman during sex, that trans woman must still be capable of producing sperm. This would no longer be the case following vaginoplasty (commonly known as “The Surgery”), during which the testes are discarded. A trans woman with a vagina has no remaining tissue in her body that can produce sperm – ever.

The only way in which a trans woman could conceal the fact that she’s trans during any kind of genital-genital contact is if she has a vagina, and thus can’t produce sperm. After all, the entire trope of trans women not disclosing prior to sex relies on a scenario where our partners can have sex with us and still not be able to tell we’re trans. Conversely, the only way in which a trans woman could impregnate a cis woman during sex is if she still has a penis (and testes), the presence of which can be assumed to disclose one’s transness inherently. Yet Tagonist seems to be under the impression that these two mutually exclusive possibilities could happen concurrently – that a cis woman could have sex with a trans woman without knowing she’s trans, and become pregnant due to this.

I struggle to comprehend the reasoning behind this. Perhaps Tagonist believes that cis women can become pregnant from exposure to trans women’s vaginas, something which is physically impossible. One might as well fret about the potential risk of virginal conception (and any unintended deities that may result). Or maybe she believes cis women are so totally ignorant that they would not recognize the presence of a woman’s penis as an indication that this woman is indeed trans – which is contradicted by her assumption that cis women will have enough baseline knowledge of trans issues that they will know how to act on this information.

Or perhaps she imagines that a cis woman could somehow remain completely unaware that a real, live human penis is present in close range of her genitals – before, during, and after a sexual act that could lead to pregnancy. Maybe, in Tagonist’s world, trans women are capable of flawlessly concealing their own penises even during penetration itself, like the sexual equivalent of the hallway scene from Mission Impossible Ghost Protocol.

Which totally happens all the time, what with our state-of-the-art Invisible Stealth Parts – the latest craze that’s sweeping Thailand! I mean, how else would such a thing be possible? Have I missed something here, like time-traveling trans sperm? I’m genuinely curious as to how this whole line of argument coalesced in her mind. For all I know, this is something she’s dealt with before, in which case she should strongly consider taking up Randi on his $1 million paranormal challenge. Otherwise, her ramblings about “informed consent” in regards to trans people having sex ring rather hollow, given that she doesn’t seem to be informed about much in this area at all.

Queer ghosts of Christmas past

christkindlmarket-chicago-christkindlmarket-chicagoBack in 2004 or so, I was probably 15 or thereabouts, and back then I was still staying over and visiting at my dad’s house every weekend or every other weekend. I had my own room in the basement, a computer, the whole works. So yeah, being 15 and testosterone and so on, I’d sometimes just look at a ton of porn. There was this one night where I was looking at stuff on 4chan and I found whatever section had super-femme guys in it, and there was just this wholly uneventful realization of… this works for me. There wasn’t even a moment of anxiety or worry about what it might mean – only the immediate sense of “oh.” It was probably the first time I realized I was some variety of queer.

The next day, we all got on the train to go to downtown Chicago for the Christkindlmarket festival, and the entire day, I was just completely distracted because my world felt like it had been turned upside down. It was fascinating and I was just in awe of this newfound understanding that I could find literally anyone attractive if I wanted. It totally blew my mind and it felt like an incredible shift in perspective and I just stayed in that state of whoa for like a week. It was so liberating.

So yeah, Christmas has always been really strongly associated with the stirrings of queerness for me.

oplatekOne of the traditions at dad’s house was Wigilia. I think they still do it, I just haven’t been back there for the holidays in years. It’s this big Polish dinner for Christmas Eve (with some Kucios elements since we’re Lithuanian too), with pierogi and white fish and mushroom soup, and also herring and sometimes sunflower seed bread and other fun stuff like that. My grandma and grandpa would come out to visit, we’d all open presents that evening, and it was nice

But before we could get to dinner and presents, we had to do… the oplatki. It’s basically a large rectangle, about the size of a tarot card, of the same vaguely edible material used in communion wafers. It ended up being possibly the most passive aggressive Christmas tradition imaginable. How it works is the oldest person takes it first, and offers a piece to everyone around the table, with their wish for them in the new year. Then the second-oldest person offers a piece to everyone around the table, and so on, until everyone’s had a chance to exchange new year wishes with everyone else.

For as long as I can remember, this had devolved into a palpably uncomfortable “airing of grievances” where people would hassle each other for not quitting smoking, or tell each other to get a job, or tell me to get a haircut and do something with my life, and so on. Things between me and my stepmom and her kids had always been uneasy throughout my teen years and I just tried to shrink into the background and ignore anything mean they said. But there was this one year, it must have been 2009 or so, when I had finally come out as a “gay guy” to everyone. And yeah, it wasn’t really the most comfortable identity for me at the time, and I was still in that liminal state where I had yet to figure out that being massively femme actually meant something much different than gay-dude-ness for me. But, back then, that was where things stood.

And while I gritted my teeth during the oplatki, trying not to take it too seriously as I listened to the barely concealed barbs, my older stepsister held out the wafer and I broke off a piece and she told me, “Meet lots of cute boys.”

And it was one of the first times anyone had ever made an overt gesture toward openly including that part of me in family life, and it was all the more surprising because it came from someone I hadn’t always been on good terms with. And as rough as things might have been before, my dad’s side of the family turned out to be the ones who were so, so much more ready to accept me and include me without question. Through everything, to this day.

I love Wigilia, and it’s really important to me.

Back in 2010, I was still living with my family, and also living under the delusion that I was a guy. Heather and I were in the still-just-super-really-good-friends (-who-are-in-love-but-don’t-know-it-yet) phase – we’d yet to meet up, other than just talking online all day and all night. And we decided we totally had to get each other Christmas presents. I think I got her a new translation of The Second Sex (she LOVES books), and she picked out something from my Amazon wishlist. But we told each other not to open it until Christmas, so when I got a package from her (gift-wrapped and all!), I put it under the tree with the rest of my family’s presents.

And then it was Christmas morning and my mom was handing out everyone’s presents, and of course I had to just tear right into Heather’s first, and it was the most beautiful pair of arm-length black satin gloves. I put them on immediately in front of everyone and they were so perfect. I was just so excited! My mom haltingly asked: “…Who are those from?”

“My friend Heather!”

“Oh.”

And I ran off to take selfies in my pajamas to show to Heather:

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Transgender women in women’s restrooms: A purely imagined harm

This August, California passed the School Success and Opportunity Act, a law mandating that transgender students must be included in school activities on the basis of their identified gender rather than their assigned sex. This includes playing on sports teams consistent with their gender, as well as the use of facilities such as bathrooms and locker rooms.

Conservative groups predictably painted this as an outrage, raising the terrifying possibility that trans girls might use girls’ restrooms – which is supposed to be a problem for some reason. Frank Schubert, a strategist behind numerous state campaigns against marriage equality, is now leading an initiative to overturn the law. The National Organization for Marriage, following a lengthy series of failures to achieve any of their marriage-related aims, has decided it would be easier to attack trans kids.

But of all the groups that have lined up to oppose this law, perhaps none have been as vocal – and as dangerous – as the Pacific Justice Institute. On their website, Pacific Justice immediately began seeking plaintiffs who felt they were somehow wronged by this new law, and were willing to challenge it in court. Having apparently no success in their search, they had to go all the way to Colorado to find the supposed victims they needed as the face of their campaign.

On October 13, the Christian Broadcasting Network published a story claiming that a transgender girl had been harassing other girls in restrooms at Florence High School in Colorado. From the very beginning, this story was suspiciously light on details. No further information was given as to the specific nature of the alleged harassment. No individuals involved were identified or even quoted. No evidence was provided that any of this had actually taken place. The “story”, if you can call it that, came down to nothing more than a vague allegation – and half of the very short article was devoted to grandstanding and self-promotion by Pacific Justice.

Following its publication, this story was uncritically syndicated by news outlets around the world, including Fox News and the Daily Mail. Fortunately, Cristan Williams of Transadvocate.com took the time to contact the school superintendent, Rhonda Vendetti, and find the facts surrounding this supposed incident. When asked about the story, Vendetti stated: “to our knowledge and based on our investigation, none of those things have actually happened. We do have a transgender student at the high school and she has been using the women’s restroom. There has not been a situation.” She further added: “There has not been an incident of harassment, or anything that would cause any additional concern.”

In other words, the Pacific Justice Institute’s story appeared to be more of a non-story, and likely nothing more than a false accusation. The Daily Mail subsequently removed the article from their website. But the exposure of their fabricated story didn’t stop Pacific Justice from continuing to pursue it anyway. Within days, they issued a very revealing clarification of their earlier claims: “It is our position that the intrusion of a biological male into a restroom for teenage girls is inherently harassing and intimidating.”

This is not a minor detail. As soon as their false accusations of harassment were revealed, they tried to claim that what they meant all along was that her mere presence was the same as an act of harassment. This is a significant backtracking from their original allegations, and essentially an admission that nothing had actually happened. Cristan Williams subsequently interviewed the student’s family, and found that she’s only 16 years old, that she had transitioned two years ago, and that she was now on suicide watch following the campaign against her.

What really happened, according to the cis “victims”

But even that wasn’t enough to convince Pacific Justice to back down. Last week, they posted a video of the “victims” talking about how traumatic it is that a trans girl would use the women’s restroom. If you can stand to watch the video, I highly recommend that you do. What the students actually had to say about their experiences is really surprising.

Throughout the video, three girls recount what it was like to use the bathroom, or not use the bathroom, while a trans girl was there, or was not there:

“It kind of makes me a little bit nervous about if I run into him. … I was going into the bathroom, as I was just walking in, I see him there, and I just turned around and walked out of the bathroom. … I just don’t go to the bathroom as much anymore.”

“I feel uncomfortable because I know that he doesn’t have the same parts as me, which I do not think that’s right that he could go into the same bathroom as me. … I actually only use the bathroom probably once a day, and that’s when I’m in gym and I don’t have the same gym class with him, so I’m trusting that he won’t walk in there while I’m in there. … Me and my friend were in there, and all of a sudden we see him walk out of the stall, and I felt really weird and we just walked out.”

“I believe if you want to be gay or a girl if you’re a guy, you have the right to do that but you don’t need to put everyone else in a position where they’re uncomfortable to do that. Things are meant to be private and kept for you and only for you.”

Here’s the most striking thing about their stories: All that they’re talking about is how they used the restroom while a trans girl was there, and nothing happened. At no point in any of their stories is there any instance where this girl did or said anything inappropriate – indeed, there are no instances of her doing or saying anything at all.

If she had conducted herself in any way that was even remotely possible to construe as harassment, you can be sure that it would have been brought up in this video. But nothing of the sort is mentioned at all. Literally the only event they talk about is: a trans girl used the restroom.

Note also how much of this is about them. They are the ones who are nervous. They are the ones who are uncomfortable. They are the ones who “felt really weird”. They are the ones refusing to use the restroom. How is this the fault of one student who’s done nothing wrong? She’s not the one being weird around them – they’re clearly the ones being weird around her.

Yet their parents, and Pacific Justice, are all too willing to treat this as a compelling reason to attack a student who hasn’t done anything inappropriate. Against a background of dramatic music, three parents ramble aimlessly and veer off into utter incoherence:

“You’re kind of wired, as a mom, to protect your kid. And when you’re unable to, it’s scary. … I feel sorry for this little boy, but at the same time, I need to respect him, he needs to respect me. And I do that. Why can’t he do it? Why can’t we teach him, you know, respect others? … This is not the school’s problem or my daughter’s problem that he has decided to do this. But it is my problem when they’re uncomfortable, and not safe at school. I feel as if they’re not safe at all.”

“The school pretty much told us, your daughter has no rights. … When the school told us, there’s no rights, I was like, there has to be rights for these girls. … You have private parts for a reason, you know, and now they’re not private anymore. … We pray for this boy every night, as a family we decided we’re going to pray for this boy and, you know, he’s a confused boy.”

“From day one, you protect your kid from electrical outlets, you put things on your cabinet so they can’t get into the medicine, it’s your job to protect your kid because they can’t protect themselves yet.”

Again, these parents are talking about protecting their daughters in a situation where all parties admit that nothing has even happened. Moreover, they do this while, in the same breath, turning one innocent girl’s life into a media firestorm. After this girl has been on suicide watch, they now claim their daughters are the ones who aren’t safe.

They talk about “rights” as they try to kick her out of a public restroom. They talk about “respect” when they can’t even bring themselves to respect her gender. They talk about “private parts” while making international news out of someone’s anatomy. They offer their meaningless and condescending prayers while refusing to do anything that could actually help this girl. They call it a “problem” when their daughters are “uncomfortable” in the face of no harassment and no inappropriate behavior, yet they have no problem with harassing one girl until she’s almost too uncomfortable to go on living. They don’t even care.

And that’s really the heart of all this. The closest thing resembling an argument in this video is the contention that cis people’s discomfort should be the only reason needed to exile trans women from women’s restrooms – even if these trans women have never done anything inappropriate. They seem to believe that if cis people are ever uncomfortable with the mere idea of this, then trans women need to leave immediately and just never use women’s restrooms.

But no thought is given to how uncomfortable trans women might be about this, or whether trans women’s discomfort should compel cis people to act differently. They don’t seem to think this is worth considering at all.

In light of this, I contend that the mere discomfort of cis people at the simple presence of trans women in women’s restrooms should not be a compelling argument for anything. This is not a sound justification for excluding trans women from women’s facilities. And there should be absolutely nothing wrong with seeing yet another case of cis people complaining about nothing, and telling them, “who cares?”

Use of women’s restrooms by trans women is normal and common

The discomfort of cis people is not some inherent feature of trans women using the women’s restroom. It does not need to be seen as a completely understandable reaction: a great many cis people are just fine with trans women using women’s restrooms, and these cis people do not make an issue of it at all. It is not an inevitable consequence of our bathroom use – there’s nothing about our presence that forces people to feel this way. So this is not about what we are doing, it is about how they choose to react to that. Given that so many cis people don’t see this as a problem and don’t try to ban us from bathrooms, what’s their excuse?

Moreover, even if every cis person was uncomfortable with trans women using women’s restrooms, their discomfort would be totally unwarranted. This anxiety is completely unsupported by the facts at hand – there is nothing to be anxious about, and so this baseless reaction shouldn’t be considered a compelling argument for anything.

In an absolute sense, trans women using women’s restrooms is an incredibly common occurrence. A 2011 study from the Williams Institute at UCLA analyzed multiple surveys, and found that about 700,000 people in the United States are trans. Let’s assume half of these people are trans women – about 350,000. If these trans women only use women’s restrooms an average of 3 times a year – some of them more, some of them less – there are over a million instances of this every year.

There are over a million instances of something that Pacific Justice wants us to believe is “inherently harassing”, over a million cases of what they see as cause for a melodramatic, teary video about how traumatizing it is just to be in our presence. Yet the reality of our bathroom use clearly does not support such an assumption. On top of that, 77% of trans women haven’t even had any genital reconstruction – most of us indeed do not have “the same parts”. But are we to believe that every time we use a public restroom, this ends with shocked and weeping cis women running from the stalls?

No. The inherent harassment postulated by Pacific Justice is, in truth, neither inherent nor harassment, and “parts” clearly aren’t a problem here either. Their president described this as an “ordeal” for these girls, who have apparently “gone through a lot, mentally and emotionally”. I think this would come as news to the millions more cis women who use restrooms alongside us without issue.

Admittedly, cases of trans women using restrooms do occasionally become newsworthy. We see dozens of such “incidents” make the news every year – but not thousands. The fraction of cases where this becomes an issue is so small as to be negligible. And when it does become a problem, it is almost invariably caused not by the actions of trans women, but by the actions of cis people. These are not instances where trans women have misbehaved, acted inappropriately, or harassed anyone. Instead, these incidents happen when cis people identify someone as trans and seek to exclude them from public restrooms for that reason alone.

In Florida, a nursing student was told she would face charges if she continued to use the women’s restroom at college. In Idaho, a woman was issued a no-trespass order for using the women’s restroom at a grocery store. In Colorado, a 6-year-old girl was told she couldn’t use the girl’s bathroom at school anymore. Almost every one of these supposedly newsworthy events comes down to the same story we’re seeing here: a trans woman used the women’s restroom and nothing happened – except for cis people causing problems. It’s obvious that we’re subjected to this not because of any behavior on our part that would merit such treatment, but simply because of who we are.

Trans women are at high risk in restrooms – because of cis people

If the harassment of women in public restrooms is something these people are concerned about, they could start by worrying about the harassment of trans women. In a survey of trans people in Washington, DC, 59% of trans women reported being verbally harassed in bathrooms. This included being “told they were in the wrong facility, told to leave the facility, questioned about their gender, ridiculed or made fun of, verbally threatened”, as well as having the police called or being followed after they left. 17% of trans women were denied access to restrooms outright, and 14% were physically assaulted in restrooms.

This is not a case of people “inherently harassing” us just by being there – they are actively harassing us by beating us, yelling at us, and denying us entry. This danger creates a climate of fear: 58% of trans people reported avoiding public places because they weren’t sure if a safe restroom would be available, and 38% avoided places with only gender-separated restrooms. And 54% suffered some kind of physical issue from waiting too long to use the bathroom.

One person explained how much planning goes into using public restrooms:

“Stay out in DC for short periods of time. Scout bathroom options. If men’s and women’s entrances are very close and the bathrooms are not currently in use, I will use them. If there is a line to use the restrooms, I will not. Standing in line usually always results in verbal abuse or denial of access.”

Does that sound like something cis people have to think about every time they need to go to the bathroom? Pacific Justice is happy to trot out stories of cis girls who avoid using the restroom while a trans girl is there, simply because they “felt weird”. What they don’t seem to realize is that this is a daily reality for trans women – and not merely because we feel “weird”, but because we face a very real threat to our safety. And that threat does not come from trans people. It comes from cis people.

Given the attacks we suffer from them on a regular basis, expecting us to view our own simple presence as somehow harassing to others is the height of entitled cis ignorance. Cis people harass us with extraordinary frequency, but nobody sees all cis people as the problem here. Yet trans people do nothing, and we’re subjected to campaigns to bar us from using the proper restroom. Does Pacific Justice have any data on how often we’re beating cis women in restrooms, threatening them, and telling them they have to leave? Or just some more videos about how nothing happened?

Cis people’s bathroom fears do not matter

These groups are trying to make an issue out of what is, in reality, the biggest non-issue imaginable. And the sickening irony of it all is that campaigns like these, where cis people’s unreasonable fears are inexplicably treated as valid, are exactly why we as trans women have every reason to be afraid. When their discomfort over nothing is elevated to a no-questions-asked veto power over our restroom access, this teaches people that they’re right to see us as a danger, and that they’re justified in taking action against us. It encourages cis people everywhere to appoint themselves as bathroom vigilantes, policing restrooms for any sign that a trans person might be trying to use the facilities.

And they think they’re the ones who are uncomfortable? They’re the ones who are “a little bit nervous”? We’re the ones who have to live in the constant fear that just using the restroom might mean encountering someone who doesn’t like how our faces look, how our voices sound, how our necks are shaped, or how tall we are. We have to live with the possibility that at any moment, no matter how unimpeachable our behavior may be, cis people can single us out, question the legitimacy of our gender, and make such an issue of it that it becomes a worldwide headline. And the world will think we’re the ones who did something wrong. We fear this because it’s actually happened countless times before, and it’s certainly going to happen again. Each of us fears that we might be next.

So let me be clear: When cis people talk about how unsafe they feel around us, I do not care. Just because they’re distressed at simply being around someone who’s trans, that doesn’t mean anything has to be done about this. It doesn’t mean we’re the problem here. Their discomfort with something harmless does not need to be accommodated at the expense of others – it doesn’t create any sort of moral imperative to be imposed upon us, and it doesn’t obligate us as trans women to cater to their baseless anxieties.

They have the luxury of being taken far too seriously when they fear a nonexistent threat. Meanwhile, we’re faced with suspicion, harassment, global media exposure, and even violence – for no reason at all. Campaigns like these are not just groundless, they are not just wrong, they are precisely backwards: Cis people are not the ones who are threatened by us. We are the ones who are threatened by them.

Hormones and transition: What would you like to know?

I’ve been on hormone therapy of the “male-to-female” variety for about a year now, and I’ll soon be putting together an in-depth review of its effects during that time. This is still a pretty uncommon thing, and it’s been a really neat experience with a lot of unexpected changes, so I want to make this as useful as possible for others who want to learn about it. So before I get started on it: What aspects of this process do you want to know about?

Whether you’re cis and just curious about what HRT can do, or you’re trans and considering it yourself, I’d like to hear what you’re interested in. The effects are surprisingly wide-ranging and span many areas of the body (including the mind!), so you can really ask about anything and there’ll likely be some notable changes.

In this limited instance, it’s okay to let good-faith curiosity prevail over tact. If there’s something you genuinely want to know, but normally wouldn’t mention because you have no idea how to phrase it inoffensively or you’re not sure it’s appropriate in polite company, just ask anyway. “Ask an adult question, get an adult answer” protocol is in effect – if you really want to go there, I’ll probably go there.

I started this for the very simple purpose of finding out what it was actually like to experience it. Now that I’ve done this, I’d like to share what I’ve found. So what do you want to know?

“That was dysphoria?” 8 signs and symptoms of indirect gender dysphoria

I am not a doctor, and none of this should be taken as medical advice or as diagnostic of any medical condition. These are anecdotes sourced from my experiences and those of others.

Gender dysphoria is widely described and experienced as distress due to discomfort with one’s assigned sex, and the desire to live as another sex. The condition of gender dysphoria is common among transgender people, although being transgender is not itself a condition or disorder, nor is the presence of gender dysphoria required in order for someone to be transgender. Not all trans people have significant gender dysphoria or experience their dysphoria in the same way: different trans people may be uncomfortable with different aspects of their assigned sex, their body, their presentation, the gender role expected of them, and so on.

Nevertheless, the common thread of gender dysphoria is that it is linked with our gender and the various components of this. The distress of dysphoria, and hopefully its resolution, are contingent on how closely the overall situation of our gender aligns with what we need it to be. For this reason, people typically understand the experience of gender dysphoria as being very clearly and self-evidently centered on gender. The most widespread notion is that we become aware of our dysphoria in very direct, gender-related ways, such as knowing from a young age that we’re actually women or men despite the sex we were assigned, feeling “trapped” in our bodies due to their inappropriate sex characteristics, needing to make our “outside” match our “inside”, and strongly wishing to present and live as another gender.

Diverse experiences of dysphoria

This understanding of gender dysphoria is an incomplete one. A largely unrecognized facet of dysphoria is that not all trans people initially recognize or experience this as being unmistakably connected to our genders. Some of us suffer the distress that stems from dysphoria, but without many clues that this is about gender, and its relation to our genders may be obvious only in retrospect. Much attention is focused on the “gender” part of this, the well-defined cross-gender identities and needs and feelings. Less is given to the experience of more general dysphoria.

What is dysphoria? Outside of gender dysphoria, it’s hard to find much useful information on what dysphoria itself is supposed to mean. It’s certainly not limited to gender dysphoria – it can be a symptom of various other conditions as wide-ranging as anxiety disorders, personality disorders, major depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, insomnia, PMS, and stress, and it can also be a side effect of antipsychotic drugs.

But what does dysphoria actually feel like – how does it present itself? You won’t find much more detail than a simple list of other symptoms. Wikipedia describes it as “a state of feeling unwell or unhappy; a feeling of emotional and mental discomfort”. Another page lists anxiety as a symptom of dysphoria, and dysphoria as a symptom of anxiety. As a 2007 paper in Australasian Psychiatry concluded:

The current semantic status of dysphoria is most unsatisfactory. Its definitions are usually too broad or too simplistic and, therefore, not clinically useful. There is no agreement on what the term means.

People in distress want to understand exactly what it is they’re experiencing and why they’re experiencing it, and vague references to “feeling unwell” are not helpful. We already know we’re not feeling well. Why? And what can we do about it?

That’s the question faced by trans people whose gender dysphoria doesn’t present in ways that are directly and plainly connected to gender. My gender dysphoria primarily took the form of this indirect dysphoria, and I’ve spoken with many other trans people whose dysphoria also did not initially have a clear and unavoidable association with gender. Due to the lack of strong indicators that these “unwell feelings” are actually a matter of gender, it can take us quite a long time just to realize that we’re trans or that what we’re feeling is dysphoria. This can be so non-obvious that even as some of us do begin to explore the possibility of transitioning, we still might not make the connection that our unwell feelings are a symptom of dysphoria, or that transitioning is something that could help with this.

The importance of recognizing dysphoria

When you don’t know what this is, or that it’s even an actual condition, it’s easy to mistake it for who you naturally are. You might think it’s part of your innate personality and disposition, and something you just have to learn to cope with. This can delay recognizing that you’re trans or that transitioning is an appropriate choice for you. Because I viewed my lifelong unease in this way, I initially believed that I didn’t even experience dysphoria, and that I was already okay. I didn’t know there was anything wrong with me.

The real extent of my dysphoria only became clear after I began to transition (motivated largely by the desire to induce physical feminization and prevent further masculinization, rather than the need to treat a clear dysphoria), and these feelings dissipated for the first time ever. Once I had this basis for comparison, I could see that I was indeed experiencing gender dysphoria all along – it was just so indirect that I had failed to recognize it as specifically gender-related.

Trans and questioning people sometimes doubt that they’re trans simply because they don’t have distinct feelings of gender-related unease. They might otherwise face a great deal of confusion about what it is they’re feeling, but they can be aided in their self-understanding by the insight that gender dysphoria doesn’t always manifest as a neon sign flashing “FIX YOUR GENDER”. For them, it can help to realize that their less specific feelings of discomfort might also be due to gender dysphoria. It can give them a possible answer to explore. It can give them hope.

But they won’t get that from uselessly opaque lists of symptoms like “discomfort” and “unhappiness”. Words like “anhedonia” and “malaise” don’t capture the detailed, visceral, day-to-day reality of this indirect dysphoria. Here, I aim to define it ostensively, with real-life examples of this dysphoria that seem broadly common to the experiences of myself and others.

Again, not all trans people will necessarily have all or any of these signs, as everyone’s gender dysphoria is different. Some people have more obviously gender-related symptoms than others. Similarly, not everyone with these signs is necessarily trans. They aren’t inherently limited to sufferers of gender dysphoria and can potentially be due to any of the other conditions previously listed, like garden-variety depression or anxiety disorders – but for some trans people, these are indeed symptoms which resolve once the dysphoria is addressed.

This is an initial attempt to feel out a phenomenon that isn’t yet widely known, named, or defined. Some trans people may recognize their experiences in this list, and others may not. But if I had known these things, it would have made my transition a lot easier. And perhaps cis people, too, can start to understand just how damaging dysphoria can be – and how important it is to treat it.

Signs of indirect gender dysphoria

1. Continual difficulty with simply getting through the day. For most of my life, everything was inexplicably stressful, and it was hard to work up the effort to do even the smallest everyday things. Going to the store, cleaning up the house, getting in the shower, any little thing people asked of me… it all just felt like too much. Even when there was no situational cause for this stress, nothing came easily to me. It was more than a mere habit of laziness – it was like I was so mentally fatigued that everything was a constant burden and a struggle.

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. What happiness I did experience was typically short-lived and compromised by the ongoing undertone of dissatisfaction and, well, grumpiness. I didn’t like this at all. It was a constant tension, and I wished more than anything that I could find some way to relax and unwind. I didn’t want to be this way.

2. A sense of misalignment, disconnect, or estrangement from your own emotions. I was always on an unsteady footing with my feelings. 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. It really was abnormal, and eventually most of the people around me got pretty tired of it. It was so embarrassing and I tried to stop it because I didn’t want to cry so much, either. But I couldn’t control it.

In my teen years, this shifted: I could almost never cry at all, even when I wanted to. I would feel like crying, I would know on some level that I should be crying, but I just couldn’t make it happen. When I rarely did manage to cry, that was even worse. It was too much, and I would be overcome by it to the point of uncontrollable wailing sobs. There was no in-between, no moderate amount of tears. I cried as much at the death of a month-old pet rat as I did at my grandmother’s funeral.

And I dreaded crying, because afterward and for the next day or so, I would be smothered in this horrible feeling of emotional deadness. It felt like my head was full of concrete, like my consciousness was trying to wade through molasses, and it was a feeling that seemed to be genuinely physical in nature. It seemed as though my brain simply ran out of whatever fueled my ability to feel anything at all – like I had no emotions left. There was no way to “get over it” or force myself to perk up, I just had to wait it out. I resented anyone or anything that made me cry. I feared the awful choking numbness that was bound to happen next time.

3. A feeling of just going through the motions in everyday life, as if you’re always reading from a script. Everything always seemed like it was somehow less real than it ought to be. I didn’t feel like I was my own person – I had no sense of myself as someone who could make my own choices and decisions as I wished. I often lacked that internal initiative that wants things and seeks things for no reason other than the fact that you simply want them and that’s that. I didn’t even think of that kind of wanting as a feeling I was capable of – there was just no drive for it.

In the absence of a well-defined identity and a strong sense of self-direction, other people’s obligations filled the void. Since I didn’t want to do anything, I just did whatever was expected of me and said whatever was expected of me. That was all I ever did. I felt like an actor, being handed my lines by someone else, and I didn’t know how to be anything other than that. I didn’t know I should be anything other than that. I often thought of wanting to tear my face off to see if there was anything real underneath.

4. A seeming pointlessness to your life, and no sense of any real meaning or ultimate purpose. Even when I did find things to do that I vaguely enjoyed, it still felt like I was just killing time. Each day was like checking off a box, knowing that eventually the days would run out, but not really knowing how else to spend the time. When I worked on things, there wasn’t any higher sense of eventually working toward anything.

You live for a while, and then you die, and that’s that. I didn’t think there was anything else to life. So why bother with any real long-term goals? When I did set goals for myself, it was just for the sake of it – not because I was motivated by any purpose that I genuinely cared about. Nothing made me feel truly fulfilled, like I was accomplishing anything meaningful. So why bother?

5. Knowing you’re somehow different from everyone else, and wishing you could be normal like them. 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. I don’t know what I really expected of them – I didn’t have the vaguest idea of what was “wrong”, either. I didn’t know why I felt so anxious all the time, I just did. I had no idea why the rest of the world didn’t feel the same way, and I wanted to know what that was like.

It felt like my mind was constantly talking to itself without any interruption, and it was overanalyzing everything around me. Some second, parallel existence seemed to be running alongside my direct experience of consciousness: an inner monologue of sorts, but a very toxic one. I couldn’t stop thinking about everything – it was as though this loud voice in my head kept me from simply existing in the moment.

There was no way to shut off that voice and just be, like everyone else. I wanted those two sides to line up and merge so I could feel natural and at ease too. But it wouldn’t go away, no matter how hard I tried. There always seemed to be some invisible skin separating me from the rest of reality – I could move around in the real world, interact with it, but never actually touch it or feel it.

6. A notable escalation in the severity of these symptoms during puberty. Around 12 or 13, things really started going downhill for me. While it was already difficult to cope with school, friends, and a troubled home life, I was able to handle it before the onset of puberty. Not anymore. For a few years, my emotions weren’t just blunted or dysfunctional – they went missing almost entirely. I felt nothing, day in and day out. And each day was the same, a robotic routine of just waiting for the time to pass. I couldn’t even force myself to care about anything. This, too, felt like a truly physical thing that I couldn’t fight.

I knew I was failing every class, and it just didn’t matter to me. I handed in blank tests without a care in the world. I was fully aware of what the long-term consequences would be, but none of it seemed real. I’d already hit bottom – nothing could make it any worse. I couldn’t bring myself to get anything done no matter how much anyone lectured or threatened or punished me.

They told me I was throwing away my future – I didn’t even see any problem with that. What future? Why did anyone care about me? I sure didn’t. My parents withdrew me after sophomore year because there was no point to keeping someone in school who just didn’t do anything. So I stayed indoors like a hermit for most of my teen years, and didn’t do anything there, either.

7. Attempting to fix this on your own through various coping mechanisms. I often wondered whether some substance, like cannabis, was what I needed to loosen up and finally relax. I tried that. I tried drinking, I tried Vicodin, I even tried nootropics like piracetam, all of it in the hopes that it could improve my mood and make life feel easier. I wanted to find something, anything, that would be the key to repairing what I increasingly saw as the broken parts of myself. Some of it helped for a short while, thought not significantly. By no means did it “fix” me in any meaningful sense – it took my mind off things for a bit, but the problem was still there.

When none of that worked, I tried to train my mind to shy away instinctively from negative thoughts so that I wouldn’t spiral off into depressive ruminations as I had for most of my teen years. This was mostly successful, and it wasn’t a bad idea by any means, though the fundamental unhappiness and anxiety remained. 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.

8. Substantial resolution of these symptoms in a very obvious way upon transitioning, particularly upon initiating HRT. While this is somewhat of a diagnosis-by-treatment, this is what makes it clear that these difficulties are indeed specifically gender-related, and not due to other conditions. If we’re fortunate, then one way or another, we eventually start to pick up on our own personal hints that lead us in the direction of reconsidering our gender. And at a certain point in the process, we begin to realize that this might be what we’ve been searching for all our lives.

For me, as I transitioned a little, it helped a little. When I presented in a feminine way and took on a feminine identity, I started to come into my own and take shape as a real person. I began to steer my life in a direction that I wanted. It was easier to have goals and things I derived satisfaction from, and this encouraged me to start caring about myself more. I was able to fall in love and have a real relationship for the first time – something I never saw the point of before, and had resigned myself to doing without.

Still, my general sense of discomfort and irritability remained, and it kept making my life difficult. I was tired of feeling bad every single day. But as it turned out, when I transitioned a lot, it helped a lot. Once I started HRT, the effect was immediate: these symptoms totally dissipated. It was such a stark difference, it became clear that what I’d been suffering before likely was indeed physical and chemical in nature. I could tell it had been gender dysphoria, because it just wasn’t there anymore once I received the treatment for gender dysphoria.

Now, I could actually relax – it was so amazing to be truly calm for the first time in my life. And it lasted, and there was no more pain to hide. I could cry and feel good afterward, as if it replenished me rather than draining me of emotion. It was possible to feel things in all their detail and depth and texture, rather than being limited to either numbness or emotional overload. The skin of separation was gone, and life was a breeze: I was just happy, all day, without constantly intrusive thoughts distracting me and separating me from the world. I can truly care about everything I choose to work towards, because it matters now. I’m the normal person I always wanted to be, and I can get on with simply living.

Finally, I was a whole human being. Nothing was wrong and nothing was missing anymore. I found what I was looking for, and it gave me back the life that dysphoria had taken from me.

Again, these signs aren’t shared by all trans people – every person’s dysphoria is a little different, and transitioning can have differing effects on us. But it seems that a significant portion of trans people, whether their dysphoria is clearly gender-related or more subtle, report having feelings similar to these. If you’ve been reevaluating your gender, and these experiences seem relatable to you, it may be worth considering that this could be gender dysphoria – and that it’s potentially treatable.

Update, March 2014: Please see my followup post on my recent experience of being diagnosed with depression after transitioning, as it contains important additional material pertaining to these symptoms.

I don’t want to be “one of the good ones”

A long-awaited companion piece for Heina.

If you’ve ever favorably contrasted me against other trans people or atheists or queer folks or anyone else like me, just because I’ve been quiet when they’ve been outspoken in the face of wrongdoing, or I was overly patient and indulgent of ignorance when they’ve been rightfully terse: fuck you.

Stop it. I don’t want your support or approval. I am not on your side. I am not one of you. I want to be like them – not like you. I don’t want to be one of your “good ones”.

I’ll define this type of situation by way of example. A few months back, I was mentioned on Anton A. Hill’s blog in a list of several people with whom he’d recently had productive conversations on issues like feminism and trans stuff. In my case, this was because I happened to be in a friendly mood when he asked me a question that involved the phrase “born w/ a peepee”.

This was just one instance of a pattern that was repeated throughout the post: his surprise that his criticism of Freethought Blogs as a whole was handled calmly by NonStampCollector, or that a member of Secular Woman “respected” his “right to disagree with her” on issues of feminism (as if how people regard a man’s opinion of feminism is in any way connected to individual rights and freedoms), or that Marisa Gallego “maintained politeness” when he “downright called her on her shit” in their discussion of trans matters.

I’ll ask you to take a moment and think about which of these people you expect I’d be more inclined to align myself with – him, or the people who graciously “maintained politeness” when addressing his “born w/ a peepee”-level views on these issues.

Reading this post made me rather suspicious of what he was aiming to convey. As I found out by the end, it was nothing good: he capped it all off with vague criticism of fellow FTBer Ophelia Benson, and how his experiences with her had led him to suspect that all our conversations would descend into a “vicious, name-calling flame war”. We were the good ones… so who were the bad ones? In his estimation, she was.

I don’t agree with this at all. I don’t want to be used as a plank of someone’s argument in their ongoing grudge against FTB or Ophelia or Jen or Greta or Stephanie or Rebecca or Amy or any of the other women in the community who’ve continually stood up against harassment and threats. I don’t want to be an example cited by someone who thinks silence, or meek civility, is a norm we should all aspire to when faced with this. No – I would want such a person to know that I am not on their side here. I am not going to agree with them. I am not going to be complicit in being set apart from admirable and resilient people who have faced down this kind of abuse.

Does anyone really, honestly expect that my views come anywhere near “yeah, screw Ophelia for not suffering fools gladly! I’m with ya, buddy!”?

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This happened again after I was recently on TV to discuss the Chelsea Manning case, trans people in the US military, and access to transition care for trans inmates. Another blogger, Nelson Garcia, said I was “doing a stellar job explaining why it’s important for that person formerly known as Bradley to receive hormone therapy while she serves out her time.”

Much-appreciated praise – were it not surrounded by use of the word “tranny” (which he believes is a measured response to use of “the cis word”). Also, the claim that trans women “are just men who’ve deluded themselves and others into believing they’re women”. And the use of “he” in reference to a well-known trans woman activist. And – yes, he actually did this – nitpicking about the particular kind of surgeries she’s had, and calling this a “con” to have her identity documents updated. Oh, and then he called her a “media whore”.

I mean, holy shit.

Do you think I ever, at any point, would want a person like this to tell me I’m “doing a stellar job”? Does their judgment seem to be of such quality that I should even want to be on their good side?

Nothing I’ve ever done makes me any better than the other trans women he’s insulted and personally attacked in ways that are egregious and invasive even by the usual transphobe standards. And nothing I’ve done makes me better than, say, women on Twitter who just plain don’t feel like educating people from scratch on things like trans stuff and sexism. That’s their prerogative and it’s perfectly valid – it doesn’t make them any worse than me. Not everyone is always, or ever, inclined to get into it with people who are potentially hostile to the very foundations of their equality as human beings. We’re not all equipped to confront that every day, or any day. We shouldn’t have to be, and we shouldn’t be seen as any worse for not wanting to do so.

When what I say is used to fuel some expectation that we should all be unfailingly kind and patient in the face of nonsense, I don’t feel good about that. It’s not something I want my words to be used for at all, and such approval is not something I seek. When they try to separate us into “good ones” and “bad ones” based on how agreeable they find us, it’s often my friends who are considered the “bad ones”. And I know who I’d rather be with.

Behind the scenes at CNN: How the media fails on Chelsea Manning’s gender

by Heather McNamara & Lauren McNamara

Lauren: Last Thursday, I appeared on CNN’s The Lead with Jake Tapper to discuss the Chelsea Manning case. During the segment, we covered my personal history with Chelsea, as well as the question of access to transition-related healthcare for transgender people in prisons. Tapper repeatedly referred to Chelsea as her former name, Bradley, and used masculine pronouns. In my responses, I made sure to use her chosen name and pronouns.

Prior to my segment, the producers informed me that it was CNN’s current policy to use Chelsea’s old name and address her as male, as she had not yet legally changed her name or begun any medical transition process. However, they also let me know that I was free to refer to Chelsea as I wished. While I strongly disagreed with their policy of misgendering her and their excuses for doing so, I felt it would nevertheless be helpful to appear on the show and set an example by respecting her name and gender.

After my appearance, I tweeted to Tapper to express my appreciation that I was able to be on the show and discuss this case. Several of my followers took note of this, and rightly criticized Tapper for persistently misgendering Chelsea. Tapper responded that this was not his decision, and that it was a matter of CNN’s policy.

Later that day, my fiancee, Heather, made a post on my blog explaining how stressful her day had been due to dealing with people’s attitudes toward my segment on CNN. While she had been sitting at the doctor’s office with our two sons, my segment was airing on the TV in the waiting room. Some older people waiting there seemed to be laughing at the very idea of trans people, and she confronted them about this. She also found it awkward and unnecessary that, as our children were watching, Tapper referred to me as previously being a “gay man”.

Heather: Friday, I called out of work. Thursday had been a very long day, and in any case, it was easier to take care of the kids while Lauren continued to do interviews on Democracy Now! and various radio shows. However, I was still feeling ruffled from the night before, so I took to my Twitter, writing a number of tweets criticizing CNN’s unnecessary and transphobic policy of referring to Chelsea as “Bradley” and using male pronouns until such a time as her name is legally changed and medical transition has begun. One such tweet was a reply to one of Jake Tapper’s tweets regarding the interview with Lauren:

Before long, I received a reply from Tapper:

And then:

I’m going to assume the one-E masculine “fiance” was a typo. I replied:

I did not receive a reply to this tweet for a few hours. Another Twitter account, @DanielMWolff, jumped in:

At this point, Jake asked me to follow his account, and we exchanged email addresses and phone numbers. He asked me to call him because he was driving. I did not record the conversation so all that follows is paraphrasing and not by any means intended to be exact quotations.

The first thing he said when I called was that he wanted to let me know that he was deeply sorry for what I went through at the doctor’s office (referring to my previous post), and that he knew that I couldn’t be personally responsible for the barrage of tweets that he received on the topic of Chelsea’s gender, but that I needed to understand that CNN and NPR have the LGBT community’s best interests at heart. He said he wasn’t sure how he was supposed to know that saying my fiancee once identified as a gay man was supposed to be so much better than saying that she was a gay man.

I explained that I can’t stop people’s anger – that people get angry and vent, but what I’m trying to do right now is to get productive about the language that’s used on television so that we can avoid inciting that anger in the future. I told him that I’m older than Lauren and remember the time when respectful treatment of a person such as myself, a lesbian, would have meant discussing me as somebody with a problem that couldn’t be helped, or as being a product of some sort of childhood sexual abuse – but that has changed, and this is how that change happens.

Jake replied that he spoke with a trans activist who said there were 250,000 trans people in America. He said that’s not that many, and that even the LGB community, “of which you are a part,” has trouble accepting trans people and that I should know that.

I told him that yes, I was aware of this problem, and that if media sources like CNN could be guided toward resources for respectful language like the GLAAD style guide, then the common narrative might change.

In what I felt was a very condescending tone, Jake responded that he was sure the higher-ups were quite aware of the style guide, thank-you-very-much – but that, and he didn’t want to offend anyone by saying so, he thinks we can all agree that groups like GLAAD had (here, he struggled to think of an inoffensive word) an agenda.

He went on to say that he didn’t appreciate being treated like a bigot by angry people on Twitter, and that even though he understands that I had a bad time at the doctor’s office, he thought the language people were using to express their anger was counterproductive. He said that what he would do is pass on an email that I could send him to the higher-ups, and that I should keep in mind that if I use that kind of angry language within the email, nobody will read it.

He again said I should keep in mind that CNN and NPR care about LGBT people, and that they’re just trying to get things right. He also said that after two years of coverage of Manning as Bradley, it might confuse the viewers to switch immediately to Chelsea.

At this point, I reminded him that the blog post I wrote did not name him, and that it wasn’t about him or about anyone except myself and my experience as a mother of two children – who have learned about their stepmother’s gender – hearing their stepmother being described as a gay man on television and having adults in their vicinity laugh at this. I explained I never had any intention to be aggressive about this and that this was simply my story to tell. I told him that I’m sure there’s something I can think of that would clarify the transition from Bradley to Chelsea without being disrespectful to Chelsea.

He said he understood that some trans people wanted to think that a person becomes “a trans” the minute they say they are, and he personally doesn’t care whether somebody wants to be a man or a woman or whatever, but that from CNN’s point of view, if the person hasn’t done anything medical, then it’s confusing to “the rest of us.” He also said that the HRC hasn’t exactly given them any guidance on this issue. I said that, yes, the HRC does have a known problem with erasing trans people and issues.

He then closed the call by reminding me to keep my email civil and not to expect any response.

Heather & Lauren: This isn’t just about how a single anchor, or a single network, has handled Chelsea Manning’s gender. It also serves as an example, a microcosm of the attitude of many major news outlets toward trans issues. When we see mainstream news networks and papers acting as though respect for Chelsea’s womanhood is optional, or something for them to indulge at their own leisure and in their own due time, what’s going on behind the scenes are rationales like those offered by Jake Tapper.

This may have begun innocently enough as a group of people failing to understand an underrepresented and largely invisible minority group. Though Tapper and CNN’s higher-ups believe that excuses and summarizes the whole of the problem, that’s not the case. By now, several mainstream news outlets such as MSNBC, NPR, and The Guardian have already chosen to recognize and respect Chelsea’s gender. The continuation of this neglect no longer indicates innocent ignorance. Since Chelsea’s coming out, CNN and its partners in this neglect have actively made several distinct decisions to dismiss the voices and identities of transgender people.

Such news agencies have demanded that trans people meet an unusually high standard of proof simply to have their names and genders respected. When reporting on someone like Lady Gaga or Vanilla Ice, use of their names is not contingent on court orders showing their legal name or medical records providing evidence of their gender. Yet trans people’s very existence receives much greater doubt and scrutiny. Chelsea is first expected to pursue HRT and surgery even as the same news segment is reporting on her current lack of access to any of these medical resources. They’re clearly aware of the situation she faces, and their use of it as an excuse rings hollow – yet they choose to use it anyway.

In spite of Tapper’s (and presumably CNN’s) continuing insistence that they care about the struggles of LGBT people, their priorities clearly lie with making things as simple as possible for their cisgender audience to understand no matter the cost. These networks’ refusal to update their protocol sets an example for the cis world at large that a refusal to learn about or understand transgender people is acceptable. When supposedly liberal networks insist that trans people are too confusing to accommodate, society at large follows their lead.

These news outlets have substituted their empty declarations of self-assigned allyhood for any meaningful actions that would demonstrate true support for us. In their self-centered hypersensitivity, they balk at being thought of as bigots or criticized by LGBT people on Twitter. But they exhibit hardly any sense of the gravity of their own responsibilities. They sit in a position of great influence over the public’s understanding of trans people; with that position, they intentionally promote oversimplified taglines of “HE wants to be a SHE!” – authoritatively confirming to viewers that this is all they need to know or care about. The role of the news is to report events accurately and keep the public informed. And when they’re more concerned about being made fun of on Twitter, this shows that they don’t consider trans people’s lives to be important enough to bother getting the story right. “Ally” is not an identity; it is an action. They are claiming themselves as allies and refusing to do any of the work.

When the precedence for dismissal has been set, it’s hardly surprising to see the ensuing painful dismissal of the necessity and validity of treatment for gender dysphoria. The willfulness of the ignorance surrounding Chelsea’s gender extends to the persistent mischaracterization of her treatment. The medications she needs are both common and cheap while being uncommonly effective, yet Lauren was continually bombarded with questions over whether taxpayers should have to foot the bill and whether counseling should be considered sufficient. A cursory glance at the WPATH Standards of Care could have settled both of those questions, but when CNN says “Bradley wants to be a woman” instead of the correct “Chelsea is a woman,” they have misled the public to believe that this is the frivolous whim of a prisoner rather than a serious and treatable condition. As Lauren was repeatedly forced to explain, this should no more be up for debate than treating diabetes, but CNN and other networks’ word choice has made it seem so. Tapper stated that he was offended by being called a bigot. He may not like it and he may not be the decision maker here, but CNN’s actions are bigoted.

The medical aspects of gender dysphoria and the legal basis for the necessity of treating trans people in prison are incredibly clear and well-established. This is a real condition recognized by actual medical authorities, unlike some transphobe’s mocking contention that they now identify as a tree. Gender dysphoria has been studied extensively over the past century. Its defining features have been identified; its risks when untreated are known to be severe, and the only effective treatment has become so empirically obvious that it cannot be ignored.

As it stands, there remains no serious medical or scientific debate over whether transsexualism exists. Trans people are real people who live in the real world, not some mere flight of fancy so bizarre as to warrant suspicion that this is a fiction. But such bafflement and incomprehension are what an outlet like CNN encourages when they – one of the world’s leading media organizations – are mysteriously unable to educate themselves on the indisputable facts of this issue.

Whether CNN chooses to acknowledge it or not, trans people are a part of their audience. We are taxpayers, viewers, consumers, citizens, soldiers, and sometimes prisoners. We are not political debates. We are not an agenda. We are entitled to treatment where necessary and acknowledgment of our identities irrespective of the irrelevant opinions of lay persons and news reporters. The military has refused to provide a prisoner with the treatment she requires. That is a tragedy, and the only relevant news item.

While a CNN anchor may suggest contacting the network’s policymakers to bring about change, the attitude expressed in their coverage makes it all too clear that such an attempt would be thwarted at every turn. They’ve already decided which LGBT organizations they’ll listen to, selectively choosing to hear only the HRC’s silence while dismissing GLAAD’s unambiguous guidance as the product of a questionable agenda. They’ve recklessly delegitimized trans people’s existence in the eyes of millions then demanded we stifle our own justified anger. When these self-proclaimed allies can’t bring themselves to listen to the very people they’ve publicly maligned, how are we supposed to believe that they care about respecting us at all?


Heather McNamara writes about indie literature, politics, and civil rights at HeatherMcNamara.net.