The Radical History Of Transgenderism

Nearing her death in 2002, Sylvia Rivera, no less outspoken and uncompromising in her old age, expressed a wish to see the current generation of queer activism “destroy” the Human Rights Campaign, which she had come to regard as highly emblematic of the kind of exploitation and backstabbing of trans people by the wider queer community that she had experienced and fought against her whole life (such as jumping on stage to condemn Jean O’Leary’s hateful comments about the trans women and drag queens in the audience at a Stonewall rally in 1973, pointing out how the event they were supposedly commemorating was largely the actions of trans women and drag queens).

Rivera had been on the very front lines of the Gay Lib movement, and queer-rights activism, from the very beginning. And over and over again, she saw herself and other trans women used, exploited, dismissed, whisked out of the public eye whenever it was necessary to keep up appearances, and erased, with our rights being repeatedly used as bargaining chips to be compromised on behalf of less “extreme” requests of the queer community. The life and activism of Sylvia Rivera paints an intensely tragic (and damning) portrait of this history of betrayal. She gave herself utterly to the cause of queer rights, only to be silenced and pushed aside whenever the discussion turned to her own liberation.

And one of the organizations she saw as being unforgivably complicit in that history of betrayal was the HRC. [Read more…]

Kind Of A Drag

Several weeks ago I became a bit mixed up in what had a lot of potential to become a hugely embarrassing misstep on the part of CFI Ontario in their efforts to present a queer-friendly image through participation in Toronto’s pride parade. As has been written about elsewhere, such as by Zinnia Jones, CFI Ontario had the plan of marching in drag as participants in the parade.

The initial proposal for this plan explicitly, and quite insultingly, presented the idea as being supportive of the trans community, an act of solidarity against transphobia, by asking cisgender CFI members and volunteers to “step outside their comfort zones”. After the initial wave of outrage reached CFI Ontario, their first response was to simply remove any reference to trans advocacy from their proposal, which had the unfortunate effect of suggesting the trans-positive message was never really genuine in the first place, and had simply been tacked on for the sake of publicity after the fact of someone, somewhere deciding that dressing up in drag would be fun. They also issued a rather patronizing notpology in which a whole lot of cissplaining was offered to teach us trans people what drag is really all about and how we ought to feel about it.

After a lot of discussion, however, an altogether positive result was reached in which the plan was scrapped and some much more genuine apologies were offered. Although clearly a great deal of work still needs to be done in terms of hetero/cis allies being more prepared to talk and, more importantly, listen to the queer communities on whose behalf they position themselves speaking and acting, it’s a nice change of pace to have been involved in actions that ultimately prevented something hurtful and insulting from occurring, rather than having to explain these things in the wake of their consequences, with the much more abstracted goal of someone maybe learning something from it, or perhaps achieving another millimeter of collective movement in what one hopes is the right direction.

However, this does end up illuminating some icky creepy things crawling around in the blind spots many cis people have in regards to what drag is, what it isn’t, and how it does and does not relate to the broader range of transgender identities. Even drag’s inclusion under the concept of transgenderism is not something I, personally, feel completely comfortable with, but do have to reluctantly accept in order for my current working definition to be consistent. At least it’s necessary in order to avoid  some really thorny territory about what is or isn’t not a significant variance from expectations about gender.

(I do kinda feel like revising my working definition, though) [Read more…]

Blogathon: 3rd Hour

So… Isis King has an American Apparel ad.

Isis King, if you’re not aware, is a particularly beautiful (under normative standards) trans woman who appeared as a contestant on Next Top Model.

American Apparel, for Pride Month (which is June in most US Cities, though July up here in Vancouver), have done a series of new ads demonstrating a supposedly pro-LGBT message. “Supposedly” because I’m not sure much effort has gone into the latter two letters. Isis King was recruited as a model, and appeared in the following images:

[Read more…]

…What The F@#k?

Our sexual orientations are innate. We’re all just born that way. None of us really have any choice in what kinds of bodies we are and aren’t attracted to. It’s just the way we are. Personal preference. You can’t change what your sexual desires are, they’re just a part of who you are. And if you criticize how those desires manifest, or what we say about them, you’re clearly a bigot.

So the dominant narrative goes anyway. [Read more…]

Imagine No Religion 2- A Recap

Okay, I’m back! With a nice little bundle of posts for the coming week.

First things first, though, as promised, I wanted to write a little recap of the Imagine No Religion 2 conference, and a few of the things that stood out to me over the course of what was, all in all, a pretty awesome weekend.

As good a time as I was having, though, my brain has a hard time turning off, as does the parts of it that get irked by certain attitudes. Given that during most of the weekend there wasn’t much opportunity to respond to any of the things that got to me, and very little time before the next thingy that required my attention began requiring my attention, I had little recourse but to just settle those thoughts in some little corner of my brain and wait for a chance to get into them. This is that chance.

So… structuring this as several little mini-posts, here’s Everything I Wanted To Say At Imagine No Religion But Didn’t Get A Chance To Rant: [Read more…]

Lazy Sunday: How Low


Hi, everyone!

I’m back from my little trip south of the border, and feeling much, much better. It’s funny how little it can take sometimes to make so much of a difference. Just a little of the right care in just the right places is often all it takes.

Well, the lead singer of Against Me, now going by the name Laura Grace, has now joined Mina Caputo amongst those with either the courage or brazen recklessness to transition in the public eye (not to imply that either really had much of a choice, mind). She’s announced her transition through Rolling Stone magazine. Keep an eye open for the HILARIOUS assumption that readers need to be informed that no, Laura is NOT the very first transgender musician ever.

I can’t help but feel things like this are pieces of a larger cultural shift. That they hint at something immense, and immensely beautiful. Would this have been possible even five years ago? Why now?

Let’s make the most of this now, everyone.

Anyway, I find the whole thing enjoyably recontextualizes a lot of her past work. For instance, this stark meditation on the mechanical repetitions of addiction, and the meaninglessness of statements of “I’m going to change things!” when you’re not yet able to address what really needs to be addressed. Something I understand entirely too well:

Elsewhere… [Read more…]

Protect Traditional Marriage!

By now, you’ve probably seen a certain political cartoon. It comes in several variants, but the basic premise is always the same. Basically, it juxtaposes a straight person’s adamance in “protecting” his or her marriage from same-sex marriage with obliviousness or willful laziness in regard to those more realistic and immediate threats of their own making, such as adultery, drinking, abusiveness, emotional distance, poor sexual intimacy or compatibility, getting married far too soon or too young, or just the overall rate of divorce amongst straight couples. One version contrasts the “threat” of same-sex marriage against the supposed threat presented by quickie celebrity marriages, such as those of our sacrificial pop culture whipping girls like Kim Kardashian or Britney Spears.

Funny how they’re always mocked for this, but not their husbands. Slut-shaming writ large.

You may have also seen a witty political outreach campaign asserting the message “same-sex marriage does not threaten our marriage” alongside images of happy, committed, loving straight couples. Stephanie and Ben Zvan contributed a particularly adorable image in this series.

The message being conveyed in these cartoons, jokes, and campaigns is that it’s simply absurd and silly for anyone to believe that allowing men to marry men, or women to marry women, poses any kind of threat to a straight person’s marriage, especially when held in contrast to the much more direct threats that are born of their own flaws and vices. This is often followed, in the easy, self-congratulatory tone of the mainstream Whole Foods and NPR liberal, that we’re smart enough to recognize this. We’re much less clueless than those homophobic right-wingers who rally together under the banner of “protecting” the institution or “sanctity” of marriage. We’re smart enough to recognize an actual threat to our marriage, and thus we won’t mistakenly invest our energies in the wrong places and will consequently have much happier, and ultimately more successful, unions. They’re just taking their own miseries out on a vulnerable minority because they can’t accept responsibility for themselves. We’re better than that.

This is to make a fundamental misunderstanding in what is meant by threat.

Honestly, not once have I ever seen an organization like NOM (National Organization for Marriage), or supporters of DOMA (Defense Of Marriage Act), or even your everyday, ground-level homophobe ever once advance the opinion that same-sex marriage is a threat to their marriage in the direct sense of potentially contributing to a divorce. The idea that this is the argument being advanced by opponents of same-sex marriage is a ridiculous, groundless, and dangerous straw-man, that leads us away from where the actual ideological battle is taking place. The idea that would substantiate a campaign like “same-sex marriage does not threaten our marriage” would be that this is meant as an informative, educational tactic, designed to help spread the message that heterosexual couples have nothing to fear from same-sex unions threatening their own, with the image of healthy, “normal” straight couples accompanying the message to help drive it home. But it’s trying to address a belief that no one actually holds, and is thereby wasted effort. Misdirected energy.

No one needs convincing that same-sex marriage won’t lead to a divorce because as a general thing, no one is actually worried about that. [Read more…]

Born This Way: A Skeptical Look At The Neurological Theory Of Gender Identity

Sorry, everyone! No posts today. I’m terribly, terribly exhausted, as a result of falling way behind on my schedule, overextending my commitments, and having a friend from Kelowna staying over. I need sleep! So here’s a repost from Skepchick– one that is in desperate need of a follow-up, as I no longer entirely agree with the concepts and arguments I advanced in this post. My thinking on this issue has changed a lot over the past five months. So feel free to use the comment thread for helping expand the conversation, and move it forwards towards something a bit better, a bit broader, a bit more inclusive, and a bit more useful. Cheers!

For some reason, political debates concerning LGBT rights and issues like same-sex marriage often end up getting caught up in the question of whether or not being gay, lesbian, bi or trans is a choice. I’ve always considered this to be something of a red herring. Why, exactly, does it matter? If it were a choice, is there anything to justify treating it as anything other than a choice someone has the right to make? Any reason other than “Because The Bible!”, that is?

It’s certainly an interesting question, though. What exactly does cause variance in sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression? Why do these traits seem to be so fixed and innate? Why are they so unresponsive to attempts at re-conditioning and reparative therapy, even when the individuals involved are genuinely committed and would give anything to be “normal”? And of course there are tons of important medical and bioethical considerations when dealing with transsexuality, which requires medical intervention. If it’s a choice, then those treatments can theoretically be considered elective or cosmetic, but if it’s an innate characteristic, then they’re medically necessary and deserve to be covered by insurance or national healthcare. That particular issue becomes pretty controversial when conversations come up in the trans community over whether or not Gender Identity Disorder should be removed from the DSM.

The hypothesis that most people in the LGBT community run with these days is that it’s some kind of inborn facet of our neurological wiring, rather than a psychological issue or socially constructed predisposition. A simplified version of the theory runs something like this: in utero, prenatal hormones are sort of washed over the developing fetus, and these help steer the child, both physically as well as mentally, towards one sex or the other. The different sexes needed to evolve some differing behavioural characteristics as well as physical ones in order for our whole sexual reproduction thing to work out. As a very basic example, the females needed to mostly be attracted to the males, and the males needed to mostly be attracted to the females. There are all kinds of other behavioural differences too, but I’m usually pretty uncomfortable getting into evolutionary psychology applied towards gender. People always seem way too quick to use it to justify 1950s gender roles or hard gender-essentialism, so I’ll just leave it at the basics. Anyway, we suppose this prenatal hormone thing doesn’t always go quite to plan, and sometimes certain cross-sex neurological or behavioural differences can be triggered without any noticeable physical changes occurring. Perhaps our brains, being as complicated and subtle as they are, are more likely to manifest noticeable differences from subtle changes than other organs and tissues? Chaos theory complicated systems single variables butterflies and hurricanes somethingsomething?

The theory is appealing for a lot of reasons. For one thing, there are the political, ethical and medical considerations above. But it also speaks to and matches our personal experiences of being gay, bi or transgender… that these things are a deep, innate, unchangeable aspect of who we are. Something we never chose, that we usually didn’t want (even if eventually we learned to accept ourselves or even embrace those aspects of our identity), and that feels like it was always there (even if we’re sometimes the last to really know). It’s a belief that meets our social, personal, political and cultural needs, and a belief that feels true.

But as a skeptic, I can’t simply believe something because it feels true, or because it’s convenient to do so. What is the actual science? Is there any hard evidence to support this theory? [Read more…]

Caught Up In Cotton

Update/note: I did not coin the term “Cotton Ceiling” myself, nor do I at present support this particular term or the admittedly creepy, rape-culture connotations it possesses. I was primarily using this term for the sake of referencing a very particular conversation that was occurring in the trans-feminist community at a very particular point in time. Frankly, I’d prefer if we all moved on from that term, its connotations, its limitations, and its unduly narrow focus on one particular space and context in which trans women’s sexual agency is denied or subverted. Such issues are much broader than what occurs in queer women’s spaces, and we can talk about it in ways that don’t demand self-defeating terminologies like “Cotton Ceiling”.

Yeah… um… I’m a little late to the party on this one.

Over the last couple weeks, while I was preoccupied with, um, things, there was this big swirling chaotic word-blizzard in the transosphere regarding “The Cotton Ceiling”. I did my best to provide some links here and there as it unfolded, but just wasn’t quite able to properly dive into the fray. But at least I can try to make up for it by offering a few thoughts now, for whatever their worth.

(almost, but not quite, exactly nothing, in case you were wondering) [Read more…]