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In Part 1 I outlined the HRC President’s apology to trans activists at the annual Southern Comfort conference, suggesting that looking at the entirety of trans lives would provide a better starting point for getting behind trans civil rights than staying the HRC course of a new, albeit now-trans-inclusive, ENDA bill. Beyond the general, “what do children, adults, and elders need in the way of trans rights” question, there are critical services and support systems that more vulnerable trans people also need and often don’t get, in part because they’re trans, and in part because they may have other overlapping statuses that limit their access to those services. Specifically, I am talking about trans prisoners, transgender people with moderate to severe mental illness, drug addiction, and trans sex workers. So today I’ll outline my ideas around what these vulnerable groups need that in large part, they are not getting from our society and its infrastructure. And if HRC would like to fund the programs that are in place across the nation, well, that money could make a real difference.
Trans Prisoners—Intersecting transphobia with societal hostility toward people convicted of a crime, transgender prisoners are especially vulnerable to abuse in the criminal justice system, from the earliest stages of a police investigation, through the pre-trial process, trial, sentencing, and throughout their term in the prison system. Data are incomplete but suggest that transgender prisoners are more often placed in solitary confinement, both as punishment and due to the dearth of alternatives for housing them while they serve their terms. Further, while no studies or analyses have been conducted regarding whether transgender people accused of a crime are treated fairly in the initial stages of an investigation, the CeCe McDonald case certainly highlights that extreme injustice can and does occur, and is very difficult to remediate through the criminal justice system itself. Trans people in prison are much more often than not denied hormone therapy or other trans-related health or mental health care. Organizations like the Transgender Law Center, Lambda Legal, and transgender prisoner advocacy groups are relatively underfunded and already working on these issues and could use a significant funding boost. Read More…
Late last week HRC President Chad Griffin offered a keynote speech at the Southern Comfort transgender conference acknowledging his organization’s failure to support the transgender community and its history of obstructionism (see here, here, and here) against trans civil rights. I and others called it a problematic apology, because he seemed to couch his understanding of HRC’s mistakes as one of simply not knowing enough about us (which has not always been the issue), and he framed his new approach in a paternalistic way, instead of asking us what HRC should be working on or how they can help.
People in the LGBT movement have for years been wondering amongst themselves just what will happen when the infrastructure that has been set up (to funnel money into the same-sex marriage movement) doesn’t need the same focus anymore. Will the donors move their money to a new issue? Buy yachts and celebrate the institution of marriage? Fund political campaigns?
I’m not here to argue about whether HRC is anti-trans or not (I’ve certainly made my views clear), not in this post, anyway. Instead I’d like to point out that Mr. Griffin’s idea that HRC will include trans-specific protections in the next anti-discrimination omnibus bill is far, far from what transgender and transsexual and gender non-conoforming people need, as civil rights movements go. Nobody is against anti-discrimination bills, especially if they include “gender identity or expression” as part of their protected classes, but it’s too easy for LGB activists to throw that clause in there without a real understanding of what protections for trans folk would look like. Well, let me ask us to reframe these considerations, in this way:
Let’s look at the trans person’s life cycle, from cradle to grave. What might we need to support our lives and experience that cisgender people would never need?
1: Childhood—In part because trans people have been more visible in the last generation, today’s children more often understand themselves as trans and ask the people nearest them (read: their parents and teachers) for support. A public policy for supporting trans kids would do some or all of the following:
- Offer trans-supportive mental health/social work services for trans kids so they have objective partners in their process
- Offer family support through identification of a trans identity (because you know, parents don’t automatically support their trans kids or know how to) into and through transition (if that is what the youth wants)
- Educate school systems, administrations, and teachers to provide a hostility-free learning environment for trans children, including using a child’s chosen name even if that name is not their legal name
- Readily identify trans-related bullying and help trans youth find alternative paths toward a high school degree if their primary school becomes an untenable place to learn
- Ensure that after-school and extracurricular activities are trans-friendly and accessible to trans youth
- Change rules around school sports to ensure than trans children can participate in a way that comports with their gender identity or expression
- Modify existing law around custodian care so that if only one parent is supportive of a trans child, they can still help direct their care and services
- Relax rules around emancipated minor laws for older trans teenagers who may need to leave their parents’ home
- Train crisis care counselors, suicide hotline managers/call centers, and any local government-run mental health care workers in trans issues so that they are culturally competent
- Educate physicians on hormone blockers, hormone therapy for adolescents, and the medical needs of trans youth
- Change laws so that trans-related care is included in health insurance policies
- Train youth homeless shelter staff in trans issues so that they are culturally competent
- Enforce rules changes with a resource/response board to hear complaints and advocate for trans youth
Cooper Lee Bombardier tagged me in some author chain mail thing, and normally I’d avoid a meme but first, he’s a really nice fella, and second, it’s about writing, so heck, I could bloviate about that all day. Here are my answers to four questions he posed:
I took one of those online hearing tests last night, the kind that test the upper Hz frequencies that only the young people can hear. I dropped out after 12,000Hz and tried not to be depressed by my 44-year-old inner ears. Middle age is here in my life, even if it doesn’t come in the form of a Gregorian Chant. (Although maybe it should.) In all fairness, it’s not really much of a loss, that 12,005Hz and higher range. I don’t need to hear squeaky buzzing, right? (Maybe, if Emile and Lucas decide to use them as ring tones on their someday cell phones.)
But there are some sounds I haven’t heard in a while due to lack of proximity, circumstance, or attrition. Here are a few of them:
Ocean foam—I didn’t make it to either the Atlantic or Pacific Ocean this summer, so I haven’t been listening to waves. But more than the sound of furious crashing surf, I love the sound at the very end of the wave, when the bubbles aerated into the ocean water explode and leave the liquid, making a quiet hiss before the tide is drawn back into the sea. It’s a sound that requires one be right on the shoreline, that one be quiet, too, because any sound smothers the foam hiss. I can hear a glimpse of it if I put my ear next to a stream of seltzer water running over ice; there’s that same bubbling up and collapse. It’s like a sigh from water, and when I can listen to it and see the horizon of the ocean in front of me, I feel at peace.
Quiet cat footfalls—I love hearing Emile trotting down the stairs or along the hallway on the main floor of our house. It’s often closely followed by a question, a calling of “Mommy” or “Daddy,” or a declaration like, “My belly is hungry.” These sounds are terrific and often amusing. But I also adore less assertive steps, like my sweet first cat Willie used to produce when I’d come home from school. It was a thump as he jumped off the couch in the family room and a dot-dot-dot-dot as he’d bounce over to me, and by the end of his jaunt he would have assumed an air of nonchalance, as if we both didn’t already know that he was totally excited to get a pet and a scratch behind the ears. Read More…
“That’s My Secret. Holding Still”: A Review of Zoe Whittall’s Novel Holding Still For As Long As Possible
Nice review, principled criticism.
Originally posted on Casey the Canadian Lesbrarian:
Reading Zoe Whittall’s Toronto-set novel Holding Still For As Long As Possible is kind of like reading a wittier, more exciting version of my urban early-to-mid-twenties queer life in the 2000s. It was fun and nostalgic for me to jump back into this world, but it is uncanny to read a book featuring characters that are so much like you and the communities you’ve known. I mean, in a good and a bad way: these are white, bike-riding, middle-class background, artsy, educated, FAAB queers. Unfortunately, both people of colour and trans women are pretty absent from the world of the book, although this is something that was mostly true in my experiences in similar communities in Halifax, Victoria, and London in that stage of my life.
What I’m saying is that what Whittall is doing in this book is limited, but she’s doing it really, really well. Like, I can’t…
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In 1983, I was 13 when Halloween rolled around, and instead of worrying about the exact placement of my zombie blood on my face, I was listening to my parents talk about the Tylenol tampering cases, and how I needed to inspect my candy wrappers before I ate any of it. It was a lot of discipline for a young teenager, but the message came at such a high frequency of fear that I heeded their proscription.
In 1982, the cover of our Time Magazine subscription screamed about herpes and how many people were walking around with such a horrible, dirty virus. By 1985 the virus emergency had shifted to HIV, replete with all of the horrifying ways in which it possibly traveled to other people. (Mosquitos! Swimming pools! Soft drinks!)
The mid-to-late 1980s had us fearing crack cocaine,* the last throes of the Soviet Union, and what would happen if we elected Gov. Dukakis instead of Vice President Bush. Not a year has gone by that I can remember in my lifetime in which we didn’t have some huge bogeyman to fear as presented in the US media.
PCP. PCBs. Iraq (the first time), and then soon after, Desert Storm Illness. Terrorists, welfare recipients, inner city youth, trade unionists were all out to get us. We couldn’t even celebrate the new millennium without fearing that all of our computers were about to implode with bad programming. Read More…
Just a bit of what I’m working on this month:
Reginald runs down the hallway, his sneakers squeaking on the tired linoleum. It’s Joe in B14 again. Alzheimer’s dementia, sometimes gets combative. Reginald is the only orderly on this shift who knows how to calm Joey down. He wouldn’t have to beat a trail to the door so often if the fucking doctor would get this guy the medicine he needs, but hey, ole Reg is here to take care of things.
He bursts into the room. Lime green walls, plastered with random bits of newspaper articles because Joe insists that’s how people stay on top of current events. Someone pays for Joe’s private room because his insurance certainly doesn’t include that, but nobody knows who this sugar momma or daddy is. And why don’t they ever come visit?
Joe is screaming at the mirror in his bathroom. It’s full of streaks and a lot of the silver on the back side of the glass is missing so it doesn’t even but half-reflect a person anymore. But Joe is a stubborn bastard, so when Reginald runs in he finds Joe leaning on the sink, staring at himself and screaming.
“This mirror is broken,” he says.
“Come over here, Jocelyn. It’s okay.”
“What evil did you put in this mirror? Why are you doing this to me?” Read More…
I just jumped into DC this weekend after an absence of a few years, taking a quick flight from Detroit while we’re still on vacation to attend an LGBTQ book festival on U Street. It’s been truly fantastic to see old friends and have the kinds of sincere conversations that are hard to find with people one meets in one’s forties instead of in one’s more vulnerable youth. I suppose we erect sturdy fortresses in the interim, but I’m not sure why or if that’s helpful for us.
The OutWrite festival was successful, and here it is only in its fourth year. It would have been nice to know before I left Walla Walla that I’d be responsible for bringing my own books to sell, because then I’d have had more than my reader’s copy with me. (Crossing fingers the Internet pulls through for me and people shop online to get them.) I was grateful to see so many familiar faces, people I’ve known from when I lived in the District and did earlier activism there, and get to meet some new folks who are doing interesting work in LGBT literature. Read More…
Anyone who has spent more than five minutes with me in the spring or summer knows that I am no fan of insects. Maybe bees and dragonflies get a pass, and ladybugs. (But not those ladybug knockoffs.) But beetles, spiders, roaches, silverfish, millepedes, ants, I don’t want them on me or even near me, as impossible as I know that is. We’re very outnumbered by the insect world, and I super don’t enjoy thinking about that reality.
But there is a special level of ugh I hold for stinging insects like wasps and hornets and yellowjackets. I can deal with the fact that honey bees and bumble bees sting because heck, they need some kind of defense for themselves and they only use them as a last resort before dying. But those OTHER stinging insects are like extremist NRA members wearing their Glocks on their hips for a trip to Walmart, ready to shoot anyone around them and then keep on shopping like it’s no biggie. So when I see not one, but two hornets’ nests under construction on my newly acquired car port (otherwise known as the place where I park the family car four times a day), I have to take action. Especially when said construction includes laying the foundation for the next generation of venomous bugs.
A neighbor suggested I go to the hardware store at the eastern edge of Walla Walla, which turned out to be a ranch and home supply store. Here I could get a feed bag for my horse, any kind of Carhart gear my heart desired, or fake eggs to dupe the hens in my coop to lay more eggs. Or a can of thick poison guaranteed to kill on contact. I explained that I had a bee sting allergy thing and that I wanted to make sure the hornets would never get near me once I bamboozled them with my noxious elixir. The small man, his Vietnam Veteran ball cap pulled low over his forehead, squinted at me. Read More…
Everyone is finally talking about J. Jack Halberstam, but it’s not because he broke out the coup of academese or wrote a readable deconstruction of language, politics, and identity. Instead, Halberstam waded into the very tired “tranny” debate, and along the way, managed to become the next Dan Savage, Tosh.0, Seth MacFarlane of the LGBT universe. Like a ball of sticky goo (sticky goo being oh so funny, don’t you know), he picked up along the way a raging misreading of lesbian political history, a misunderstanding of stated boundaries, a misappropriation of assault survivor’s lexicon, and a misarticulation of gender performance.
Halberstam, in his piece, basically starts off bemoaning how nobody understands (the Spanish Inquisition) Monty Python anymore, and then delves right into his own lesbian angsty memory:
I remember coming out in the 1970s and 1980s into a world of cultural feminism and lesbian separatism. Hardly an event would go by back then without someone feeling violated, hurt, traumatized by someone’s poorly phrased question, another person’s bad word choice or even just the hint of perfume in the room. People with various kinds of fatigue, easily activated allergies, poorly managed trauma were constantly holding up proceedings to shout in loud voices about how bad they felt because someone had said, smoked, or sprayed something near them that had fouled up their breathing room. Others made adjustments, curbed their use of deodorant, tried to avoid patriarchal language, thought before they spoke, held each other, cried, moped, and ultimately disintegrated into a messy, unappealing morass of weepy, hypo-allergic, psychosomatic, anti-sex, anti-fun, anti-porn, pro-drama, pro-processing post-political subjects.
Here are my issues with this paragraph:
- I would expect an academic to understand his or her own experience in a political movement as exactly that, one data point. One experience. Extrapolating from one data point? Not an intellectual engagement.
- This completely misses the point that in the 1970s and 1980s (and 1990s, let’s get real) lesbians who came together to build a new community often did so under duress, sans love of family, against a culture that was much more weaponized against them than we see in 2014. There were a lot of things to cry about, a lot of broken people trying to make their way through the world with few resources. A lot of women lost their jobs expressly for being gay, and they had no recourse. The closet was a different beast. AIDS was claiming lives and lesbians were often on the front lines. So some of them finally felt that with their energy and input they were creating a space from which they could speak up about their needs (colognes do actually cause allergies), fighting one’s parents and siblings does leave one fatigued, but thanks, Dr. Halberstam, for asserting that these people who thought they were your comrades were messy and unappealing.
- This is really ableist. Though according to Halberstam’s critique there’s no room to claim that ableism is bad. I’m just a bad neo-liberal, right?
- Camille Paglia better look out because Halberstam’s paragraph reads like it was stolen out of her next manuscript.
Halberstam’s next paragraph pulls out two threads in the 1990s:
Political times change and as the 1980s gave way to the 1990s, as weepy white lady feminism gave way to reveal a multi-racial, poststructuralist, intersectional feminism of much longer provenance, people began to laugh, loosened up, people got over themselves and began to talk and recognize that the enemy was not among us but embedded within new, rapacious economic systems. Needless to say, for women of color feminisms, the stakes have always been higher and identity politics always have played out differently. But, in the 1990s, books on neoliberalism, postmodernism, gender performativity and racial capital turned the focus away from the wounded self and we found our enemies and, as we spoke out and observed that neoliberal forms of capitalism were covering over economic exploitation with language of freedom and liberation, it seemed as if we had given up wounded selves for new formulations of multitudes, collectivities, collaborations, and projects less centered upon individuals and their woes. Of course, I am flattening out all kinds of historical and cultural variations within multiple histories of feminism, queerness and social movements. But I am willing to do so in order to make a point here about the re-emergence of a rhetoric of harm and trauma that casts all social difference in terms of hurt feelings and that divides up politically allied subjects into hierarchies of woundedness.
Look, is there a limit to liberal feminism? Yes. Was it too easily fraught with the kind of “Lean In” thinking that furthers capitalism on the backs of more marginalized (read: of color) women? Absolutely. But why is it framed in terms of humor? You know who talks about women who need to “loosen up?” Sexist men, that’s who. “Loosen up,” the very phrase has been used since at least the last mid-century to dismiss women’s needs and boundaries. It doesn’t shock me in the slightest that Halberstam uses it here because he’s making the very same move. Your right to a perfume-free environment is bunk. Your claim that you are hurt is bogus. Loosen up and you’ll see that things won’t bother you as much. This is as clearly an anti-intellectual engagement around women’s boundaries as one can make.
Should we examine institutions for their role in perpetuating oppression differentially across race, class, gender, and other intersections of power? Yes! But can we take a step back and remember that we all have a lived experience inside of these institutions and forces and that people are situated in different places in culture? Sometimes their situatedness means that they experience a lot of pain and understand that pain as emotionally exhausting. Sometimes they find themselves the survivors of violence and those moments radicalize them such that they begin to make new inquiries into the world around them. Locating ourselves within this postcolonial/neocolonial world is an honest means of making revolutionary critique, it does not take away from it. And if we are lucky enough to have escaped “harm and trauma” then a critique with integrity would identify that as a site of privilege. Which means that when Halberstam is calling a “rhetoric of harm and trauma” problematic in that it is divisive, Halberstam is bing a privileged individual telling those with a different history that they need to be silent.
It is in this way that I read Halberstam’s piece as silencing, as not in solidarity with people who have made requests of us, the other people on the broad Left who have said at one point or another that we are all in this together. And when I get to that interpretation of Halberstam, the rest of his piece makes sense, in an internal consistency sort of way. It is actually antithetical to an emancipatory politic. Here is why.
Much of the recent discourse of offense and harm has focused on language, slang and naming. For example, controversies erupted in the last few months over the name of a longstanding nightclub in San Francisco: “Trannyshack,” and arguments ensued about whether the word “tranny” should ever be used. These debates led some people to distraction, and legendary queer performer, Justin Vivian Bond, posted an open letter on her Facebook page telling readers and fans in no uncertain terms that she is “angered by this trifling bullshit.” Bond reminded readers that many people are “delighted to be trannies” and not delighted to be shamed into silence by the “word police.” Bond and others have also referred to the queer custom of re-appropriating terms of abuse and turning them into affectionate terms of endearment. When we obliterate terms like “tranny” in the quest for respectability and assimilation, we actually feed back into the very ideologies that produce the homo and trans phobia in the first place!
It’s not surprising that Halberstam glosses over what “these debates” are about—because he misses their point entirely. The history here is that some trans women, most of them under 30 and representing a younger generation of trans women, have said for at least the last decade, that they want everyone in the LGBT umbrella (because we’re a political coalition, at least in the eyes of the Family Research Council), to stop using the word “tranny.” For them, they’ve stated plainly, the word has been used against them during violent attacks, during personal attacks, in the act of refusing trans women housing, employment, and education. It’s been deployed to alienate them, disempower them, and yes, kill them. To not even bring to light WHY trans women have asked us to stop using the term is to once again dismiss the request. I’ve heard all sorts of defenses for continued use of the T-word, from loyalty, a sense of nostalgia (usually among gay men), a pseudo-academic argument for free speech (which even SCOTUS understands as different from hate speech), and some misguided sense of entitlement (you can’t tell me what to say!). But I’ve never seen anyone make the case, until Bond’s and Halberstam’s essays, that getting rid of the word would perpetuate transphobia.
And that idea, frankly, is preposterous. It would mean that mainstream (read: non-LGBT) individuals would come across the word and think, wow, I love transgender people. Look how cool Justin Vivian Bond is! Check out that Ru Paul! If they say it, I can say it, and it will mean I love trans women everywhere. It would mean that in the greater context of people bashing trans women and using the very same word that it’s the moment of drag frivolity (or what Halberstam would say is humor) that would transcend as the stronger signified, such that what, eventually if we just scream “tranny” often enough nobody will think of using it against trans women anymore?
No. I say no. Not only is this implausible, it means withholding material reality that trans women of color are the single most abused group in the FBI’s hate crime statistics. It would mean making invisible serious, authentic requests that women have made in order to keep a fucking word in the community. It would mean that there is no linkage between an epithet and a bigoted attitude toward a group. It means nothing less than the justification, rhetorically, of demeaning trans women in a larger community that has already demoted their political, social, sexual, and economic needs and that still will call up a sister and ask her to sit on the Pride planning committee so it can have a token trans woman in the room. It is nothing more than the lazy, anti-intellectual side-talking history that has worked against real change for LGBT people since we came together as a community during the Stonewall riots. During which transgender people and gay men fought side by side, by the way.
Saying that requests not to use a pejorative term or to put a “trigger warning” on a text of some kind are the kind of neo-liberal mushy (sorry, “messy, disintegrating”) inquiries that are limiting the movement is to erase the reality that for many people under the LGBT umbrella, we are broken and hurting and looking for support. Is it funny and humorous? No. Should a political movement use humor as one of its methods for liberation of its people? Sure, but Halberstam is making fun of ourselves, and the target ought to be those systems of oppression Halberstam says we should be focusing on.
All Halberstam’s piece does is give more life to a debate that is taking time and energy away from the real work we need to do. If a sexual assault survivor asks to be told up front if the content she’s about to see is violent, it is no skin off of Halberstam’s nose to tell her. Just as it is no loss to let the T-word fall to the way side, the way we have let many, many other words do in the last forty years. That Halberstam would pen this piece and offer nothing else for trans women in coalition with LGB interests, political, artistic, or other, tells me that he’s not really interested in trans women’s interests. And that is the sign of a disingenuous argument.
Of course we have made strides in the last two generations. That’s the point! It’s not the fault of younger trans people that they have come into a world that has the slightest grasp of what transgender identity is or can be. And even if an individual trans youth comes into a slightly more understanding culture, it doesn’t mean they face a more supportive immediate climate. Forty percent of homeless youth are LGBT, according to a recent survey. An unimaginably high percentage of trans people have attempted suicide. Saying:
These younger folks, with their gay-straight alliances, their supportive parents and their new right to marry regularly issue calls for “safe space.”
is as disingenuous as it gets. Not only should we be proud that the culture in the rightward-moving US has gay-straight alliances in some areas, we should not use it to dismiss requests for safer space. I may agree that there is no such thing as a safe space, and I may agree that left-wing policing can be used against in-community people to their detriment, but the problem isn’t in the call for safe space, and it’s certainly not the case that we ought to curtail any space that is more supportive than in decades past. This is just nonsensical. And I don’t see, once again, a good argument made here around gentrification. (For that, turn to Samuel Delany and Sarah Schulman.)
Halberstam then makes a leap from trigger warnings and the T-word and safe space to this:
…as LGBT communities make “safety” into a top priority (and that during an era of militaristic investment in security regimes) and ground their quest for safety in competitive narratives about trauma, the fight against aggressive new forms of exploitation, global capitalism and corrupt political systems falls by the way side.
Actually, no. Some segments of the community have set boundaries around specific issues of sexual violence, violence, and individual terms, and some segments of the community have tried to open a dialogue about safety. Our safety is of paramount concern to our political agenda (the one that deals with institutions and stuff, remember). In the past week I’ve seen at least four articles about Black trans women murdered, missing, or attacked. If we can’t talk about safety being a top priority, we’re pretty safe, in all probability. If we can’t talk about intersectionality because we’re afraid someone will claim we’re starting an oppression Olympics, then we can’t talk for very long. And if we’re concerned about policing, then what the hell is Jack Halberstam doing in this piece? Because it reads like a ship ton of policing to me.