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How HRC Is Botching Its Apology to Trans People (Part 2)

feat-hrc-clickIn 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…

Misinterpretation vs. Post Liberal Disingenuousness

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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?
  4. 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.

Notes from the Writing Trans Genres Conference

I like to write up my thoughts as I’m attending a conference or just after I walk away from it, while the plethora of conversations are still swirling around in my brain. It’s a little reminiscent of how I studied in primary school, by taking in as much of the school day as  Icould and then writing up my notes later. Maybe I need to move my fingers around to set the thoughts in place, I’m not sure.

I just finished up my participation in the Writing Trans Genres conference in Winnipeg, Manitoba. There were at least four generations of trans authors and thinkers there, maybe 250 of us, roughly. At least it felt like a quarter of a thousand. I didn’t do a head count and I didn’t ask the organizers. I didn’t want to miss even a moment of it—unlike truly humongous conferences like the Popular Cultural Association Conference or the BookExpo, where there is no hope of going to every panel, this was more intimate and almost comprehensible in scope, until people started talking. At that point there were so many ideas all in one animated stream that it took a lot of energy on my part to keep up with the conversation and concepts. But maybe I’m just an exhausted parent of two kids under the age of three. This conference was marked by several laudable characteristics not commonly found at conferences: Read More…

The Rhetoric of Trans According to Popular Culture

Trigger Warning: This post discusses suicide and violence toward trans people.

This week the Williams Institute at UCLA released further analysis from the National Transgender Discrimination Survey conducted a couple of years ago with the National Task Force (formerly NGLTF). The point of analysis? Transgender suicide attempts, which the survey found had occurred in forty-one percent of the more than 6,000 responses. This would mean that suicide ideation—thinking about suicide or considering suicide—would be even higher (but these data weren’t captured in the survey itself). The Williams Institute analysts, Ann Haas, Philip Rogers, and Jody Herman (a dear friend of mine), looked at other correlations in the data in order to find any drivers for suicide attempts. You can read their full analysis at the link above.

In the context of this month’s completely inappropriate article in Grantland.com, in which an aspiring sportswriter outed a trans woman and in which that outing led to her suicide, it was declared by Bill Simmons, Grantland’s Editor-in-Chief, that they should have known better than to run the article in part because trans people have “an appallingly high rate of suicide.” I would argue that these carefully analyzed data show the reverse emphasis to be true—that transpeople are exposed to repeated instances of rejection, alienation, harassment, threats, and violence, and that suicidal ideation and attempts are a direct consequence of such stress. In other words, transgender and gender non-conforming people suffer from an appallingly high rate of abuse, including invasive journalism, as it turns out.

Given these data, I feel compelled to trace out some of the narratives and rhetoric around transition and about the trans community that lend to this sense of disrespect, vulnerability, and hopelessness. Read More…

An Open Letter to America

IMG_5181I don’t understand us humans. No really, I don’t get it. Maybe I’m getting dumber in my middle age, but it could be that we really have stopped making sense. If Emile texted me while I was in a movie theater, I would totally text him back. And I would expect not to get shot just because I told my kid “hi” while I was away. Why can’t we have a respectful conversation about guns and gun control? Why don’t the rank and file NRA members stand up and say, enough is enough, there has to be a way to balance our Second Amendment rights and public safety? And why are we so unwilling to admit our mistakes and where our public policies have gone wrong? We agreed to make legal opiates available to the general public (in the form of Oxycontin and Percoset, etc.) knowing that some percentage of people would become addicted to them, and disabuse ourselves of a comprehensive program to help them out of addiction?

Why are we so willing to throw away people after they’ve made mistakes, imprisoning heroin and pot users, or devaluing individuals, like telling poor people we won’t give them food stamps, telling poor kids they should have to work for that free breakfast at school? Why didn’t we pass a background check law last year when 90 percent of Americans wanted it? Why are we okay when a natural gas company contaminates the drinking water for 300,000 people in West Virginia? Why are we not talking about the shooting of schoolchildren in Sandy Hook after Wayne LaPierre, head of the NRA, asked us to have a one-year moratorium which is now over? Why did we even have to entertain the notion of armed guards at every school in America? Read More…

Not All Opinions Are Equal

Credit: Amnesty International

Credit: Amnesty International

There, I said it. Of course, this itself is an opinion. But give me the honor of a clarification first, and then we can debate the premise of my argument.

While it may be ethical to treat all people equally, provide equal access to resources, equal responsibility under the law, and equal opportunity to basic human rights (which are all debatable concepts, I know), people’s behavior, ideas, and attitudes are not in an of themselves equal. For example:

I’m pro-choice. I’m pro-life.

These are not equal sentiments, even if they are held in equal strength of passion by the individuals espousing each one. Yes, they are opposed, but the definitions of each of these stances makes them unequal to each other. One opinion allows for women to make their own choices with regard to their health and their lives. The other opinion holds that because life begins at some point before one’s birth, that women do not have the prerogative to make any “choices” once they become pregnant, and sometimes it means that women should not have the prerogative even to prevent unwanted pregnancy itself. Thus the effect of these opinions is to approve or denounce specific rights for women. Read More…

Best and Worst Pop Culture Moments of 2013

BeyonceTwo weeks until 2013 is in the dust bin with all of the other expired calendars from years past. So much has happened, including a drawn-out government shutdown, the death of Nelson Mandela, and the Lady Gaga/Muppets Christmas special, among other low points. On the bright side we’ve also witnessed the breakout hit Orange is the New Black, Wendy Davis’s filibustering prowess, and a thrilling conclusion (or even a conclusion) to Breaking Bad. It’s been a year of oh…forget it, don’t let me descend into platitudes. Here’s my best and worst list for the year.

Best Stuff

New Kickass Women in Congress—Yes, Tammy Baldwin and Elizabeth Warren were elected at the end of 2012, but they took office this year. And already they’ve gotten involved in issues that have been twisting in the legislative wind for years now.  They sent a letter to Secretary Kathleen Sebelius of Health and Human Services to end the ban on gay men donating blood. They’ve also taken on big, systemic issues, maybe most notably with Senator Baldwin co-sponsoring a bill to end to phone tapping by the NSA, and Senator Warren tackling banking regulation, the lack of which got us into the 2008 financial crisis. They’re happy to let us think that this Congress is unable to get anything done, because that’s just when they’ll squeak through urgent changes under the radar. Read More…

What’s Wrong with Transgasm.org

UPDATE: Jody and Buck have ended Transgasm before it even started, due to pushback from the trans communities. On their site they now call people with critiques full of “hate.” My question is, if Transgasm couldn’t last one week under pressure, what was this project really about?

Somewhere between the endless Kickstarter and Indiegogo campaigns, health care reform, and frequent trans community infighting, it had to happen. I mean, it couldn’t go on forever that the huge disparity in supply and demand for gender identity-related surgeries didn’t motivate someone to come up with a scheme touted as the solution to all of our troubles. Yes, there have been top surgery parties for years, and the swath of crowdsourcing applications seems to continue unabated, but these are at the initiative of the person seeking a surgical procedure. On Friday last week, Buck Angel and Jody Rose launched Transgasm.org, which sounds like a porn venture, but has nothing to do with the “gasm” spectrum.

Transgasm markets itself as a positivist campaign to fund trans-related surgeries. From their site:

Transgasm.org is an organization that will fully fund surgeries in the FTM and MTF transsexual communities and help to create income for the transsexual community, its supporters, and for anyone else who identifies the way they choose to identify.

Still following?

Putting aside the conflict and issues with definitions like “transsexual” and “the way they choose to identify,” there are some clear points in the sentence. Things like “fully fund” and “organization” are specific terms, even if “anyone” and “create income” are not. And the vagueness in the FAQ for the site, which is supposed to be the page where questions are clarified, winds up being real cause for concern. Here are the issues I have with Transgasm.org: Read More…

Misunderstanding Pro-Choice

Last year I went to the 31st Annual Walla Walla Wine Auction to benefit the regional Planned Parenthood, and was amazed at how much fun it was. Every year they have a theme (last year’s was the speakeasy), and the Marcus Whitman Hotel is transformed for the occasion. Grafting a live auction with wine is a brilliant stroke, because as one’s inhibitions plummet with all of the tastings (there are more than 30 wineries pouring their product there), the number of bids one puts in on the silent and live auction items rockets. When we came to the 6-bottles of Leonetti cabernet sauvignon in 2012, I kept my paddle in the air, thinking I was bidding someone else up, and instead won the wine. This year I knew better, darn it. Also Susanne looked at the ready to grab my arm and get our purse strings out of any melee. I admit I was also excited because this year’s theme was all about a steampunk version of the wild west, and I was curious to see if people would dress up beyond finding a pair of driving goggles and sticking them on a cowboy hat.

WWofW LogoOnce again we weren’t disappointed with the decorations—the line in was drawn by a hitching post, flanked by a building that read “Jail,” and then we walked under a gate to the trading post, where the wines were in mid-pour. I waved at two of the people I knew working for wineries in the first room, then took a look at the wines assembled for the “cork pulls.” Thirty bucks got donors a grab at the bucket of corks, which corresponded to the bottles on the display. It was a less fancy display than last year, but I saw some great wines on the table. Susanne has great luck with these, and in a flash, she had won a magnum from Dunham Cellars. I pulled a rose. I hate rose. But it will make someone happy at a future gathering, I guess.

We wandered around and found our favorite wineries, me sipping the tastes with our friend Leah, Susanne sniffing at the glasses and snagging a few things from a long table of charcuterie. Then we looked at the silent auction items, promising ourselves that we’d limit our household to two items. We made a bid on two magnums from Rotie (a northern and a southern blend), and another magnum from Waters—Forgotten Hills. I sampled popcorn made with nitro-infused flavors, watched a chef carve meat off of a whole pig, shook hands with folks I knew, and sashayed up to a wall of ice that held tiny bites of seafood. I love you, seafood wall. I’ll see you again, someday. Read More…

What the Hell Is Wrong with This Country (Part II)

Primary school government classes in the United States explain the ideals of representative government—that our democracy supports the election of (often ordinary) people who then keep access open to their constituents so that the needs in their local districts and states will have a voice in the voting body. Unfortunately, in many districts, this is not really how elections and governing operate anymore. Consider:

  1. From The Campaign Finance Institute

    From The Campaign Finance Institute

    Congressional elections averaged $1.4M for House elections in 2010 and and more than $1.5M in 2012. Senate races averaged nearly $9M in 2010 and more than $10.3M in 2012. The total cost for all congressional races for the 2014 midterm elections is estimated to run $3.5B. That’s billion. These extreme costs narrow the possibilities of who can run for seats, limiting elections to well networked or party-sponsored individuals, the independently wealthy, or people running on a cause that garners a lot of grassroots support. (See Table at the right.)

  2. The Supreme Court’s ruling on Citizens United has put a lot more money from organizations and corporations into elections, even local-level campaigns. Between 527 groups, PACs and SuperPACs, even small congressional districts see a lot of monetary input, often from groups outside of the state or district in contest. If candidate fundraising doesn’t come from kissing babies and shaking constituents’ hands anymore, then…
  3. Issues taken up by office holders may reflect the priorities of big donors and organizations rather than the general public. At the least there is evidence that so much corporate money spent in SuperPACs has been used to wage negative campaigns against the presumed opponent (SuperPACs are not allowed to raise money for a particular candidate). Thus candidates now must raise money to get their messages out and to defend against the negative campaigns from 527s and SuperPACs (hence the rapid rise in average campaign costs). Read More…
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