Where Trans People May Tread

Some amount of hay–I haven’t quantified it in any way–has been made over the disinclusion of Jenna Talackova from the Canadian Miss Universe pageant. The usual suspects that get trotted out in the name of “unfairness” after all, couldn’t be a part of the rationale for disqualifying her; Ms. Talackova’s presumed muscle mass didn’t matter in a non-physical contest, and her “male socialization” was moot given that by definition, the attributes sought after on the part of the judges would specifically be looking for gender neutral areas (as in the Q&A section) or feminine-coded areas, like how good contestants look in an evening gown or swimsuit. In other words, Ms. Talackova was either on equal par with the other candidates, or at a disadvantage, not an advantage.

Jenna Talakova, Miss Universe contestant

But no matter, she was out. Until Donald Trump himself, manager of the whole affair, reversed his decision. Through his attorney, Michael Cohen, he said:

The Miss Universe Organization will allow Jenna Talackova to compete in the 2012 Miss Universe Canada pageant provided she meets the legal gender recognition requirements of Canada, and the standards established by other international competitions.

The application process does not make any mention of transgender inclusion or exclusion, so it’s interesting that there was any basis to rule her out in the first place.Even conservative provacateur Bill O’Reilly came out in support of Ms. Talackova as a trans woman. The mind boggles.

This she’s-out-she’s-in hokey pokey has happened a good number of times before around the issue of trans women and men in competitions and in private groups. Earlier this year a teenage Girl Scout in California posted a video calling on people to boycott her organization’s annual cookie sales–their major fundraiser–because one troop in Colorado had admitted a trans girl after initially denying her entry into that local affiliate. In this case the statement about Bobby Montoya’s acceptance as a Scout focused on an earlier incorrect interpretation of the Girl Scout organization’s rules for membership. For my part, I bought double the quantity of cookies I typically purchase in a given year. Go Girl Scouts!

Trans women’s entry and participation in women’s sports has been met with more resistance. Renee Richards had to go all the way to the New York Supreme Court in order to play in professional tennis as a woman. Lana Lawless settled her dispute with the Ladies Professional Golf Association (it’s not for women, it’s for ladies) after they changed their bylaws to include only “female at birth” players. Let me suit up for a run at the league, then. They have since changed this rule, as part of the settlement.

Even people assigned female at birth who seem too masculine have been subject to harsh scrutiny or expulsion from sports. Take the case of Caster Semenya, an Olympic-level runner who was ruled ineligible in international competition because coaches and players from other countries (Ms. Semenya is South African) thought she looked too masculine. She must have been on steroids, or maybe she was male and pretending to be female. Turns out Ms. Semenya is intersex, which makes her extremely public outing all the more horrifying for her. Imagine finding out very new information about your own gender because all manner of physical tests have been ordered for you, simply because you run quickly.

Trans men have been barred from organizations and competitions on a less spotlighted stage; the examples that come to mind include men’s bodybuilding competitions and gay male organizations where well, genitals “come up” as part of the group’s activities. But less attention and vitriol seems to have come against trans men seeking entry into male spaces. Perhaps we assume men need less protection from interlopers, or that they’ll “handle” these folks on their own. There is a different calculus at work, so society decrees, in admitting people who once bore or may still bear male genitalia than admitting those who were born without it.

People not transgender need not see that they come into contact with gendered spaces, but they’re present nonetheless. Have a gym membership? The entire premises, not just the locker rooms and rest rooms, are rife with gender expectations. Bodies are rarely more on display than at one’s workout venue. Look around any workplace cafeteria, and one can find groups of men and women, clustered together, even as some others are at mixed tables. What’s going on here? Women and men have learned different strategies for communication, which have offered them unequal comfort levels when conversing about non-work topics, so for some strata of the population, there’s some gravitation toward their own sex when work isn’t pressing them to talk to everyone.

What is less disconcerting to me than the drumbeat of exclusion for trans women from specialized activities they ought to be able to join are the reasons we exclude. Taken to its logical endpoint, and normal distributions what they are, the fears around physical prowess make no sense in an athletic environment–simply put, some women will always be stronger than others. And clearly, as new examples of exclusion show us, we are capable of excluding trans women even in non-physical settings, and even women the trans woman in question is so young as to have no physical advantage over her “born female” peers. What we’re talking about on the most basic level, is attributing way more fear and power to the presence of one organ (or lack thereof), and I can’t think of anything more disrespectful to the complexity of the human condition than that.

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Categories: LGBT Civil Rights, Pop Culture


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