Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Attempting to Define Gender, a Case Study

What is the definition of "woman"?  When I first saw the essay "Are Lesbians Women?" by Jacob Hale [trans man], it piqued my interest, partly because one of the first objections to my gender when I came out as genderqueer was that if I cannot adequately define "woman", I cannot adequately define myself to be outside of "woman".  (One wonders why it would not suggest that, given the allegedly questionable validity of womanhood itself, I could be more easily "allowed" to define myself outside of it, but I digress.)

Pop culturally, trans women are not "real women", but a quick google reveals that cis women can have their "real woman" card revoked as well (though albeit on a somewhat different "no true scotsman" level).  "Are Lesbians Women?" attempts to break down the fundamentals of womanhood into a list of what society has generally agreed are the criteria.  Jacob Hale is quick to point out that no one single item on the list is "necessary or sufficient", meaning you can generally leave one off and still be included within the category of "woman" by society, but if you can only count one in your favor you are not included.  For example: while "identifies as a woman" should be necessary and sufficient for womanhood, society rejects that criterion as such.

1. Absence of a penis
2. Presence of breasts
3. Presence of reproductive organs which allow for pregnancy to occur
4. Presence of estrogen and progesterone in balance with androgens within "normal" range
5. Presence of XX, or perhaps absence of Y, chromosomes
6. Having a gender identity as a woman
7. Having an occupation considered to be acceptable for a woman
8. Engaging in leisure pursuits considered to be acceptable for a woman
9. Engaging in some sort of sexual/affectional relationship with a man who is commonly recognized as heterosexual
10. Achieving and maintaining a physical gender self-presentation the elements of which work together to produce the gender assignment "woman"
11. Behaving in ways to produce the gender assignment "woman"
12. Giving textual [documentation] cues that work together to produce the gender assignment "woman"
13. Having an unbroken history consistent with the gender assignment "woman"

Notice that, thanks to the work of feminists, some of these categories have been so expanded as to include most people of any gender, particularly #s 7 and 8, and 10 and 11 to a lesser extent.  Perhaps that's what my well-meaning friends are saying when they insist that I do not fall outside of sufficient criteria, because to a certain extent I cannot fall outside a criteria which encompasses nearly everything.  However, as it stands, I only fully satisfy some of these requirements at this point (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 8, 12),  others are satisfied/unsatisfied in different ways at different stages of my life (7, 8, 9, 10, 11), and I definitely do not satisfy a few obvious ones (6, 13).  It becomes even more complex when one realizes that #s 1-5 cannot be verified as fact by others without an intimate understanding of my medical history.

What about "lesbian" - can that be a gender identity in its own right independent of woman?  (Yes, anything can be a gender identity. And no, claiming your gender identity is "squirrel" doesn't make you cute, it makes you a jerk.)  How many criteria of "woman" can one violate and still be "lesbian"?  For example, a genderqueer friend satisfies #s 7, 8, 11; partially satisfies 10; and does not satisfy 1-5 or 9.  They also answer #6 as "identifies as lesbian" (among other gender labels).

There are many questions yet unanswered:  How "woman" is "woman enough"?  How many criteria must one meet before one is "real"; how many criteria must one violate before one is "fake"?  How do we take into account the different ways different people rank the importance of different criteria?  How do we allow for the ways that race, ethnicity, class, religion, sexuality, regional location, etc influence the threshold of each criterion?  To whom do we defer authority to answer these and further questions on authentic womanhood, and how do we process dissent?  Certainly Jacob Hale was in no position to answer all of these, and certainly I am neither, but that's the way I rather prefer it to be.

Friday, June 27, 2014

How I Process Others' Anger on the Internet

One thing I've learned from a wide variety of sources, including those who practice mindfulness meditation and some social justice advocates, is acknowledging and experiencing emotion without judgement. Primarily, this is to be used as an act of self-awareness and can be an integral part of radical self-acceptance. What I do is I pause for a moment, take an inventory of all the emotions and sensations I am experiencing, consciously state to myself "I am feeling anxious, my heart is racing, this is a physical state of being, it is valid for me to feel, it will pass, it will not overcome me, I do not feel okay, it is okay to not feel okay, I will be okay*". I could do this with a variety of emotions and sensations, but I primarily use it to manage the symptoms of my anxiety. (Note: it doesn't make my anxiety go away, it simply eliminates the meta-anxiety, the anxieties I get about my anxieties.)

In learning to treat myself this way, I've gained enough skill to be able to treat others in this way too. Sometimes I don't have the energy, because self-care comes first. When I do have the energy, it allows me to experience the extreme emotions of others as a necessary part of their humanity. Or, to flip it, to avoid dehumanizing others by making their emotions out to be something they owe me.

So, sometimes when I'm reading things that are rather extreme in their anger or bitterness, assuming I do have the spare energy to deal with it at the time, I'll guide myself through my reaction to their feelings similarly. "This person's tone strikes me as bitter, this is an emotion they are experiencing, I am privileged to be able to see into their experiences, their emotions are a valid part of who they are, their actions are not their emotions nor are their emotions their actions, I can learn from their experiences." It helps me absorb the entire message, especially in those more difficult situations where I'm apt to take things personally (such as when people of color call out the BS white people do, and I recognize I'm included in the target demographic).  I definitely could use way more practice at this, but it's a worthwhile skill that has enriched my existence thus far.

*Well... until I die one day. Eventually. :-P

Monday, December 30, 2013

The Grace to Become our Better Selves

I believe in something greater than myself.
A better world.
A world without sin.

So me and mine gotta lay down and die...
so you can live in your better world?

I'm not going to live there.
There's no place for me there...
any more than there is for you. Malcolm...
I'm a monster.
What I do is evil.
I have no illusions about it, but it must be done.

Serenity (2005): the Operative calls Mal

The remarkable thing about self-justification is that it allows us to shift from one role to the other and back again in the blink of an eye, without applying what we have learned from one role to the next.  Feeling like a victim of injustice in one situation does not make us less likely to commit an injustice against someone else, nor does it make us more sympathetic to victims.  It's as if there is a brick wall between those two sets of experiences, blocking our ability to see the other side.  Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson, Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me), page 192¹

"We back people into corners, and don't give them the grace to become their better selves." ~Me²
"Oh, that is just so cute!"  ~James Croft

I have no interest in being one of the Good Ones.  I'm not your model minority.  This terrible bargain I have regretfully struck often leads me to situations where I don't have any beneficial doubts left to give.  So how then did I arrive here in this space, contemplating the ways in which the social justice community has utterly let us down?

I have had to block a grand total of 3 people on Facebook for harassing me in private messages which they initiated.  I consider myself lucky that it's only 3, as I know of people for whom that is their daily minimum.  One was a guy who said he had a crush on me, and when I didn't respond quickly enough³, he gave me a lecture on how I owed him a response.  Another guy I had to block was actually e-stalking me, after I posted a smart-ass comment on his blog where he declared his intent to quit blogging if one more feminist complained about "sexism in atheism" [spoiler: he didn't quit blogging].

But the one that actually made my jaw drop was no entitled jerk-butt dude, she was a social justice activist.  I had shared two things on Facebook which she objected to.  I understand why she objected, and I myself would not share them today.  What happened with her was such a flurry I could barely keep track of what was happening at the time, but I still remember it vividly.  I had been working, and when I got the time to check back into Facebook, there were 75 comments on the offending post, and half of them was this woman calling me (and anyone else who wandered in) a bigot.  There were also several private messages from her that were taking me to task.  I tried having a conversations with her about the matter over the following day or so, but I quite obviously didn't have the time or energy she did to keep up with the vitriol she was throwing at me and everyone else on my page, so I blocked her too.

What really stuck with me though was the way she made it quite clear that she saw her role in all of this as being my punisher.  She wasn't trying to educate me or anyone else there about why Everybody Draw Mohammed Day can be Islamophobic, nor did she ever ask whether I knew RadFem Hub⁴ was transmisogynist (again, things I now know better about).  She put minimal effort into showing concern for the harmful effects our actions would have on actual Muslims or trans* people.  She didn't even want an apology or for me to make a good-faith effort toward fixing the situation or changing my ways for the better.  No, what she demanded most was for us adapt her perspective that we are bad people.

I don't share this story so that you feel sorry for me, or outraged at Those Social Justice Activists™ (after all, I did eventually figure out what she was ranting about, and learned a thing or two).  The reason this sticks with me even today isn't for throwing a perpetual pity party⁵.  It's that I realized through her behavior I was being granted a vision of my own SJ future; there, but for the grace I grant humanity, go I.  And much like Ebeneezer Scrooge, I saw how easily I could become that person myself.

This isn't to say that I can just blow smoke up my own ass and everything will be okay.  Obviously, if all it took for us to be granted our equal rights in society was for us to ask politely, we'd have equality by now.  But I also know that the act of expressing anger is not without negative health effects on my own physical body.  As a humanist, I know that I only get one life.  This is it.  I want to spend it making the world a better place for others, but I am unwilling to destroy myself in the process.  Self-care is not selfish.

This is where the social justice community has failed me, and many others like me.  There are entire guides to calling others out and checking your own privilege and being a good ally.  I do not, however, see a doctrine of transformative grace.

What I need, what so many of us need, are the tools to become our better selves, and the social support to explore what this means for ourselves without being cut down at our first faltering steps.  For example, even though there is no obligation for anyone to forgive their oppressor, some of us may want access to and support using the tools we need to let go of bitterness before it burns us to ashes from within⁶.  But when we speak out about this aspect of our mental/emotional health, we're quickly shot down with reminders of how our needs aren't politically convenient to the social justice narrative.  We're told that we're accepting blame on ourselves as individuals that should be placed on society, that we're reinforcing the status quo - a perversion of "the personal is political".

I keep holding off on publishing this, waiting for inspiration to recall that perfect real-world example from my past that will bring tears to my readers' eyes, or write that perfect closing paragraph to revolutionize the social justice community.  And of course I won't, because I'm just some humanist with uncomfortable ideals and inconvenient life experiences, and this is a blog with 3 followers.  So to all 3 of you, I leave you with this quote, which I rather like, but couldn't quite find a way to insert it into the blog post without an awkward transition, thusly:

Clinical psychologists Andrew Christensen and Neil Jacobson described three possible ways out of the emotional impasse.  ...    If it is only the perpetrator who apologizes and tries to atone, it may not be done honestly or in a way that assuages and gives closure to the victim's suffering.  But if it is only the victim who lets go and forgives, the perpetrator may have no incentive to change, and therefore may continue behaving unfairly or callously.  ...  The third way, they suggest, is the hardest but most hopeful for a long-term resolution to the conflict: Both sides drop their self-justifications and agree on steps they can take together to move forward.  Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson, Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me), page 210

Let us grant each other the grace to become our better selves.

Edit 1/26/14: I figured if I kept my eyes open, I'd find some other people saying similar things to what I'm saying, and sure enough here are a couple good blog posts:

Calling IN: A Less Disposable Way of Holding Each Other Accountable by Ngọc Loan Trần

On cynicism, calling out, and creating movements that don’t leave our people behind by Verónica Bayetti Flores

1. I highly encourage you to click that link and continue to read, as they describe an experiment wherein people generally rate the pain caused to themselves as more severe than the same degree of pain they themselves cause to others.
2. Regarding the Ron Lindsey mansplains the entire Women In Secularism 2 conference incident of June 2013.
3. I didn't save the convo, but here's one a friend recently had that was rather similar, except hers was even worse than mine.
4. That's a no-follow link, I'm willing to increase their hit counts.  Fortunately, the original RadFem Hub is no longer on the internet, but they managed to save plenty of their horribleness in their new archives.
5. Referencing note #3, I have friends who experience worse on a daily basis. Fuck yeah, Patriarchy!
6. As always, the person who wrote the CNN headline didn't bother to read the article.  But you should read the entire thing through.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Trans* Suicide Rates

For Transgender Day of Remembrance, let us remember that violence comes in more forms than direct physical attacks:

"A staggering 41% of respondents reported attempting suicide compared to 1.6% of the general population, with rates rising for those who lost a job due to bias (55%), were harassed/bullied in school (51%), had low household income, or were the victim of physical assault (61%) or sexual assault (64%)."

"Nearly half (49%) of black respondents reported having attempted suicide."

"[Non-binary/genderqueer people] are slightly more likely to have attempted suicide at some point in their life (43 percent) than [binary transgender people] (40 percent). Both of these figures strike a stark contrast against the 1.6 percent rate of suicide attempts over the lifespan for the general U.S. population"

So, for TDoR, I want to remind you that even if you feel like you don't matter to anyone in the world, you matter to us. Please remember that self-care is not selfish, that sometimes reaching out for help makes you the strongest person in the world. It may not "get better", but every time a trans* person lives another day, you have the satisfaction of knowing you've pissed off a fundamentalist simply for existing. 

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Going Where Gender Isn't

This talk was given to the Ethical Society of St Louis on November 10th 2013.

“The way you live without gender is you look for where gender is, and then you go somewhere else.”

I am the face that genderqueer wants you to see. Let me rephrase that. I am the face that you are willing to accept - that society is willing to accept as the proper vessel for my message this morning. I am a white, thin, educated, young person of female history - I’m wearing a bow tie. Bow ties are cool. For those of you who are listening online, yes, this is my voice. I know, it’s not what I was expecting either, but if Bruno Mars ever donates his vocal cords to charity, I’m first on the waitlist.

But what If my body were tall, angular, hair tied back to reveal an adams apple, lipstick applied expertly beneath a mustache, little black dress with a low-cut neckline that plunges down a flat chest... if you were to see that body walking down the street, that would probably strike most people as the punchline to a Monty Python cross-dressing skit more than a proud genderqueer person of male history. They don’t get to use restrooms in peace, have equal employment opportunities, be treated with dignity by medical professionals. Mothers shoo their children away from people like that, as my friends can sadly attest. Add color to that person’s skin, and they’re quickly demoted in the public eye to street walker, because what else could they be going about dressed that way? Perhaps their body is found dead, and the police close the case, because nobody important was killed, only a black “gay sex worker”.

My dramatic hypotheticals are no exaggeration either. Last week, a 13-year-old boy was suspended for wearing a purse to school. Also last week, an agender teenager fell asleep on the bus in California, only to have someone set fire to the skirt they were wearing in a self-professed crime of “homophobia”. This summer, the murder rate of transgender people increased to twice that of gays and lesbians, despite total numbers of trans people in the population being much smaller than cis LGB people.

This, dear humanists, is the violence of genderqueer invisibility, and that which is hidden in the shadows can be dehumanized without recourse. Of the 6,450 people who responded to the 2008 National Transgender Discrimination Survey, nearly ⅛ identified as “a gender not listed here”, that is, their gender is neither man nor woman. (I want to take a quick moment to point out that this number does not include transgender men and transgender women, on account of trans men and women being men and women.) “‘Genders not listed here’ have significantly higher educational attainment than their peers who did not have to write in their gender. . . Nonetheless, ‘genders not listed here’ are living in the lowest household income category at a much higher rate than those who [selected a binary gender].” Of particular note to us here in St Louis, respondents in the midwest and the south were less likely to identify as a non-binary gender. I can tell you from my personal experiences interacting with hundreds of genderqueer people online, that regional disparity is a direct result of the necessity to fit into a binary box for survival in places that are not tolerant of gender diversity.

According to the National Transgender Discrimination Survey, those “genders not listed here”, those who are neither woman nor man, also have a significantly higher educational attainment than our cisgender peers [cisgender being someone who is not transgender], but skew much poorer and younger than our binary trans brothers and sisters.  In much the same way that living in the midwest gives us pause to living our authentic selves, coming of age in an era where we have access to internet communities of others like us can also give us the strength to know we are not alone.  But what is the cost of authenticity?  Non-binary and genderqueer people are more likely to avoid medical care for fear of discrimination, and as a result are more likely to not know our HIV status, and when we do know, our HIV-positive status is at a higher rate than other trans* people.  We’re more likely to avoid help from the police, because we’re more likely to be harassed by the police.  We’re more likely to have been sexually assaulted at any point in our lives, including childhood.  We’re less likely to have lost a job due to bias, but we’re more likely to seek a job in an underground economy in the first place.  And - perhaps not surprisingly, after all this - we’re more likely to have attempted suicide than our binary trans sisters and brothers.

We keep waiting to be seen, to be heard, to be told that our rights matter and our humanity is valid.  When Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was struck down, Dan Savage announced that transgender people could now serve openly. This assessment was sadly incorrect, and the trans members who serve in our military at twice the rate that cisgender people do were forgotten, our pleas for justice drowned out by the celebration for LGB people. Two years later, and Chelsea Manning still has to claw her way toward basic access to female-appropriate health care. In 34 US states, it is still legal to discriminate against transgender people in the workplace. Several of those states have protections for sexual orientation, such as Missouri affords those LGB people working in the public sector. But when trans people ask to be included, we are told to wait our turn. And we’re still waiting.

In recent news, just last Thursday the US Senate passed the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, or ENDA, which would provide employment protections on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.  ENDA has been introduced almost every year since 1994, and similar bills have as well, going back to 1974.  In 2007, protections for trans* people were finally added, only to be dropped again, to give the bill a better chance of passing.  This is the first time the bill has been passed in a chamber of congress which included protections for LGB and T.  However, Speaker Boehner has said he plans on blocking this bill, so we still can’t rely upon its passage to protect the equal access to employment rights for trans* workers in all the United States, nor would it address many of the other much-needed protections we need in addition to employment rights.

“The way you live without gender is you look for where gender is, and then you go somewhere else.” When I first read that statement by Kate Bornstein, I was struck by both the profound necessity for me to follow that path, and by the sheer impossibility to do so successfully. “The way you live without gender is you look for where gender is, and then you go somewhere else.”

“Which pronouns do you prefer?” I am asked, as is the right thing to do when in doubt. “It doesn’t matter,” I used to lie, afraid I’d be accused of trying to change the world. “Oh you should definitely call me by gender-neutral pronouns,” I would say, enthusiastic that I’d found someone to change the world with me. “Using ‘he’ is fine,” I now admit, having grown weary of changing the world by myself.

“The way you live without gender is you look for where gender is, and then you go somewhere else.”

I stand with my young child and face two doors, knowing what I need can be found behind both, aware that choosing one over the other is to publicly declare my deepest political allegiances. I casually make my way through Door #1, hoping nobody will notice. “Sir” I look up, and realize she’s looking directly at me. I’ve been found out. “Sir, you want to be over there,” she commands as she points directly toward Door #2, valiantly defending the innocence of the flock of preschool girls we’re both surrounded by. We go into the other room without a fuss. My child peers into a nearby urinal with suspicion. “Mommy, what-” I swiftly brush him into the nearest stall before he can utter any more incriminating words, not knowing how to explain to a preschooler that there is no Door #3 for people like me.

One thing I found as I began navigating society from an explicitly genderqueer frame of reference was that if there were any role models, they were rare to be found.  In looking into the history of the movement, I discovered that this was because the genderqueer community, by that name, was barely reaching 2 decades in age. This isn’t to say we’ve just invented the concept - I know genderqueer people in their 50s and beyond - but as a self-named social/political movement, we’re just getting started.

So who are our role models? Where can we find clues on where we’ve come from, to help ground us as we look forward to where we’re going? When I first tried to answer this question years ago, I was hoping to find binders full of genderqueers all over the internet. But what I mostly found were androgynous fashion heros like David Bowie and Tilda Swinton. I felt like I was floundering for a bit. “You mean we all have to figure this out on our own?”  Well... yes.

Early October 2011, Kate Lovelady gave a platform address on The Leaders We’ve Been Waiting For. The description on our podcast page merely describes it as “new ideas gathered by her sabbatical”, but I’m going to spoil the ending for you: we’re the leaders we’ve been waiting for. And it all seemed so warm and inspirational at the time, but I made the connection after a bit that this is what the genderqueer community is already doing. We look around, wondering who will take this movement out of our hands and take it where it needs to go, and as we search, we see the faces of our siblings looking back at us. It’s always been us, going where gender isn’t, together.

So who are we? What are the human faces of genderqueer? Let me start with some of the more creative responses given by those “genders not listed here” when allowed to write in their own on the survey I mentioned earlier: “gender rebel”, “best of both”, “jest me”, “birl” spelled like mix of boy and girl, and my personal favorite, “trannydyke genderqueer wombat fantastica”.  I also conducted my own survey, in preparation for today. I wanted to know what genderqueer people have to say to humanists: what you are encouraged see in us, what you can take initiative to do for us. I got a couple dozen responses which you can read in more detail on my blog entitled “Nerd is my Gender” [click here to read].

The responses were as varied as the individuals who responded, but a common thread ran throughout: a plea for society and for the humanist community to stop precluding our existence. Imagine, if you would, that if it were a matter of daily life that when you introduced yourself to people, they responded with “oh… well what did your parents name you?” rather than a friendly “nice to meet you.” Or if you said you had gotten married, they responded with “well, which state were you married in?” or “is your husband gay?” rather than a hearty “congratulations!” Imagine if you lived in a world where, essentially, you don’t exist to most people, and then you decide to be brave (or stubborn) enough to keep digging your heels in the sand and say “no, you don’t have a space on your form for my gender” or “no, you don’t have a restroom for my gender” or “no, your laws don’t include people like me” or “yes, I do need access to that medical treatment” or “yes that is my real name”. Imagine if you had to keep doing that over and over again, every time you met a new person at the Ethical Society, at the DMV, at the Shop n Save, and often with people you’ve known for months or years too, who suddenly develop “pronoun amnesia” when they’re around you. And then you have to get up the next morning, and find a reason to face all that again, to not join the 41% of us who attempt suicide in our lifetimes.

One of the more important ways we can take gender diversity for granted, and one that is surprisingly easy for everyone to fulfill, is by making the “gender” option on forms a fill-in-the-blank. Every time your form says “check one: M or F”, a kitten dies. Stop erasing us. Instead of the “select one: Mr, Mrs, Miss, Dr, Rev” etc, make it fill-in-the-blank. If every option available for me to chose is going to be a lie, I might as well pick the most fun lie. Doctor Semler? Reverend Semler? The Honorable Semler! That has a nice ring to it. And I’ll have you know, the Ethical Society member directory is literally the only place on the entire internet where I’ve encountered a fill-in-the-blank option. I get mail from the society delivered to Mx Andy Semler, and it makes my day.

Another common thread among survey responses was to please be proactive in making our communities safe for gender diversity.  Have explicit gender-inclusive policies already in place even before the first person complains about an issue. It’s going to take a while before some of us trust you enough to admit that we’re not living life inside the gender binary. For many of us, this is why we may need a sign to feel safe before we out ourselves as genderqueer.  We wait until we hear the code words of inclusivity. One way you can do this is by being explicit that anyone can use whichever restroom they feel more comfortable using, despite their physical appearance or whatever you think they may have underneath their clothes, and make sure the members who frequent the establishment are aware of that. If you have single-user restrooms, don’t label them with a gender at all. For example, our restroom in the nursery wing is gender-neutral. (It is also kept behind lock and key half the time, to my dismay.)

Try not to gender-label any other places or events either, if it’s not absolutely necessary. Insert inclusive language into your casual conversation, such as saying “this activity is for all genders” or the more simple “this activity is for everyone”, instead of the exclusive phrase “boys and girls”.  If you have a men’s club or a women’s club, include invitations to all people who wish to participate in a masculine or a feminine space.  We want to be written into your lives, and for some of us, this may be the first chance for us to finally feel recognized as fully human. “The way you live without gender is you look for where gender is, and then you go somewhere else.” Let that “somewhere else” be where you are, opening your arms to us.

One of the happiest moments for me was when I sat down with my 6-year-old to explain to him that I’m not a woman or a man, that my gender is queer. He was excited. “Sometimes you get to be a boy with me? Wow!” We discussed how that “mommy” and “daddy” are terms for women and men, and that we need a name for me that works for us. Now, I know a lot of parents say this, but I really do have the best kid in the world. He calls me “sweetie”.

Kate Bornstein, in all her infinite wisdom, didn’t quite get this one right for me, I think.  The way I live without gender is I look for where gender is, and then I go somewhere I am loved.