Tag Archive: gender


A Trans Sex Guide

I’ve been sitting back on Forever the Queerest Kids these past few months as my life has undergone some transitions—graduation from college, the start of a new job (that I tolerate), an internship with an organization that makes me excited for the next 10 years of my life, and the move to a new apartment (to come next month).  But I haven’t forgotten about you guys!  I’ve also been slowly collecting material to talk about, important things that I hadn’t gathered my thoughts on yet.

So here we go.

Looking through my bookmarked FTQK pages, I found that I suddenly had a lot of material on trans issues, and trans sex particularly, which is awesome, because I spent so much of last year trying to integrate more trans-friendly programming into my college campus.  I’m always on the lookout for intelligent responses to the incredibly difficult issues trans people face daily.  Here are a few.

My girlfriend recently alerted me to a really cool PDF Brazen: Trans Safer Sex Guide written by Morgan M. Page and published by The 519 last year.  The PDF is pretty groundbreaking just by the fact that it specifically deals with Trans issues AND sex specifically, but I thought the particular subtopics covered were even more interesting.  There’s a lot of stuff in Brazen that you just wouldn’t find in a safer sex guide aimed at cis-women.

For instance, Brazen devotes sections of each topic to dealing with people who engage in sex work.  Because the PDF is aimed at people in Canada, where sex work is technically legal (although there are a lot of restrictions around the trade), Brazen deals speaks to sex workers on amicable terms. There are concrete, specific tips for keeping yourself safe in the trade (don’t wear scarves or necklaces, as they can be used to choke you if a date goes wrong) and a no-nonsense approach to keeping yourself safe.  While it’s frustrating and sad that trans women are pulled into sex work out of necessity in inordinate proportions, I’m happy to see Brazen deal with that reality directly.  I don’t believe I’ve ever seen sex work dealt with in a publication of this nature as anything other than among a laundry list of threats and potential missteps to a healthy sexuality.

Brazen also directly confronts the reality that many trans people are also recreational drug users.  Again, a sad and frustrating reality, and one that is NEVER dealt with in safe-sex guides for women.  Drugs and sex are very purposefully kept away from each other, in an effort to elevate the status of sex (by demoting drugs and distancing their combination in real life) at the expense of information.  Brazen makes very important points about mistakes people can make with drugs that are particular to trans situations.  EX: needles used for hormone injections are a different gauge than needs used for drug injections.

And on top of all that, Brazen does an incredible job of dealing with the nitty gritty of safety, like which activities put you at risk for which diseases, and how you can adapt condoms and other forms of protection to a trans or transitioning body.

Aside from safe sex, A Queer Chick, one of the columnists over at TheHairpin, had a great column back in march about navigating sex with a partner who has transitioned when you have never had sex/been attracted to that gender before.  She has great suggestions, like hanging out with dykes and watching queer porn, but the crux of her advice is strong for anyone, LGB, T or partnered with someone T, straight, queer, etc.

Don’t think about “how to have sex with a woman.” Think about how to have sex with your partner, your special beautiful sweet unique partner you’re crazy about. You don’t have to be a good lesbian, or any kind of lesbian at all. You just have to be with her.

And isn’t that how we need to think about trans issues in general?  That people are not their identity, but a unique individual who has come to their place in their own specific way?

But alas, it isn’t always that simple, especially for people who identify as lesbian or gay and fall for a partner who transitions to a gender that allows them to present as a straight couple.  Aja Worthy-Davis,who guestposted this article on Racialicious, writes eloquently on the subject.  She shows how complicated the intersections between race, gender, sexuality, and transition can be in a world where we wear our labels not only through our own actions and presentations, but through those of our partner.

I’m a queer Black femme prone to dating middle-aged divorced hippie White guys due in equal parts to my upbringing, my personality, and my personal baggage. He’s a Black man who has dated more than his share of middle-aged divorced hippie White lesbians. And (I guess this is the kicker) when we met in our staunchly Catholic high school over a decade ago, he was a girl.

…[When he transitioned] My personal life sped up to where I thought it would slowly lead, and my mind was so wrapped-up in the practical questions (Where will we live? When will we go to graduate school? Who will do the cooking?), that it totally bypassed the more personal introspective question about how it would change my personal and relationship identity to be perceived as straight and be with a Black man.

While it’s easy, in theory, to acknowledge that the transition has not changed anything of substance in their identities, the way that a trans man and cis woman are seen is very different than the way two cis women are seen.  And I think it’s legitimate for there to be an element of mourning for the cis woman—the way she expresses her sexual identity has been changed.  She will, to most strangers, be forever read as a straight woman, and there’s not a whole lot to be done about it.

So at the end of the day, it’s a little stickier than just, “Well, this is the person I fell in love with, not the gender I fell in love with.”  Transition will affect many aspects of your life, and embracing that takes a lot of thought and work personally.  From the outside, it’s very easy to sing Love Makes the World Go Round, but inside a relationship, it’s more difficult.  But I would argue, inside that relationship is a complexity and strength that is a lot richer.

boy in blue and girl in pink standing back to backI firmly believe that we do not give kids enough credit for their ability to navigate, question and deconstruct concepts that adults find incredibly confusing.  No, I’m not saying that it’s time to start teaching your four year old theoretical physics (although my dad loved to do that—unfortunately, I never really appreciated it…), but it does mean that we should question some of the basic assumptions about how we teach and interact with young children.

Case in point: gender.

I’ve been sitting on this article for several months, and every time I re-read it, I get giggly and smiley all over again.

“Hi I’m Alec are you the babysitter mommy said that we can go to the park if you want to and feed the ducks do you like legos?”

“Yep, hi, my name is Andy.” I said, kneeling down, “Let me talk to one of your parents first, ok?”

While I was saying this Alec was looking me up and down.

“Yeah ok, hey, Andy, do you use boy words or girl words, or the other words but I can’t really ‘amember them?”

I looked curiously at his mom, Amelia, who was busy tiding up the table.

“Oh,” she said, “he can’t remember the word pronouns.”

“Ah,” it clicked, “I use boy words. What about you?”

“I use boy words, too. Do you like legos?”

“Of course I do!”symbols for male and female

Alec, the star of this adorable article was raised not to equate gender presentation with gender identity.  Granted he probably doesn’t have the vocabulary to express these ideas, but at the heart of it, his behavior towards others reflects a nuanced and tolerant, thoughtful way of looking at gender.

At one point he asked his mom and she said, “Honey, do you remember what Aunt Sarah said to do if you can’t tell if somebody’s a boy or a girl?” he didn’t respond. “You ask.”

You. Ask.

You don’t guess or dance around the subject or hope somebody else clues you in or wait for another person to use a pronoun so you can use the same one. You ASK.

 

There’s an element of common courtesy to living your life this way—no frills, no guesswork, no assumptions or hurt feelings.  You just ask.  I can only imagine that Alec will grow up feeling much less constrained by the idea of gender himself, and feel free to experiment and explore his own identity, his likes and dislikes, and to define himself as a person, not as a boy or a girl.

pregnant woman holding blocks that say "boy"Unfortunately, most kids aren’t brought up this way.  Gender policing and gender messaging starts from birth and becomes so engrained into our psyches that it’s sometimes hard to disentangle our own feelings about gender from the messages we’ve been fed since we were born.  In this sense, it’s both easier and way harder for young kids to have meaningful conversations about gender.

On one hand, they are not authorities on the matter.  To a large extent, children rely on the structure and conditioning of their parents, teachers, family members, and other authority figures in their lives.  If those people are saying “Boys do this; girls wear that,” then it is incredibly hard for them to separate their own feelings from the opinions and conditioning of the important people in their lives.

On the other hand, children have had decades less of gender policing than their adult counterparts.  They may have experienced discrimination, but rarely do they fear for their lives or their livelihoods based on the way they perceive and present gender.  They are still malleable with their opinions, and open to the idea of contradiction.

So while it can be difficult to combat the harmful way gender is explained in our society, I think the work of Melissa Bollow Temple, of Jackson County, Wisconsin shows how important, and sometimes how simple breaking down those messages can be.

I taped up two large pieces of paper and wrote “Boys” on one and “Girls” on the other. …When we had two extensive lists, I read both lists out loud to the class and then studied them carefully.

“Hmm,” I said. “Here it says that Legos are for boys. Can girls play with Legos?”unisex bathroom sign

“Yes!” most of them replied without hesitation.

“I wonder if any of the girls in our class like to play with Hot Wheels?”

“I do! I do!” blurted out some of the girls. We continued with the rest of the items on our “Boys” list, making a check mark next to each one as it was declared acceptable for girls.

Then we went on to the “Girls” list. We started with baby dolls. Because we had just read and discussed William’s Doll, the children were OK with boys playing with dolls. “It’s great practice for boys who want to be daddies when they grow up,” I mentioned.

But when we got to nail polish and makeup the children were unsure. “There are some very famous rock ’n’ roll bands,” I said, “and the men in those bands wear a lot of makeup.” Some of the children gasped.

Then Isabela raised her hand: “Sometimes my uncle wears black nail polish.” The students took a moment to think about this.

“My cousin wears nail polish, too!” said another student. Soon many students were eager to share examples of how people pushed the limits on gender. Our school engineer, Ms. Joan, drove a motorcycle. Jeremy liked to dance. I could see the gears turning in their brains as the gender lines started to blur.

Conversations like these might be the most crucial to ensure that the children we raise grow up to be caring, compassionate, and empathetic men and women (and those who identify otherwise).  Working to blur the lines of gender early gives students critical thinking skills to challenge the messaging of media, consumerism, peers, and authority figures.  This generation can grow up to understand gender so much better than most of us do now.   And that will benefit more than just gender non-conforming and trans* people.  Because acceptance and critical thinking lends itself to a deeper understanding of people with all types of differences: disability, ethnicity, race, sexuality, and yes, of course, gender.

Stay cool, queer kids, and keep pushing for acceptance and dialogue in all areas of your life.

During my Sex, Gender, and Culture class last semester, I wrote a reflection paper on the idea of a genderless world and how possible/impossible/difficult it would be to achieve.  The idea seems much more relevant lately, as I’ve been finding numerous articles about parents and schools attempting to eradicate some of our most in-bred gender stereotypes through creative gender-neutral language and decision-making.

Take, to start, Storm, a now six-month old child in the Witterick and Stocker household (covered in this article) who is being raised genderless.  Zir parents’ decision not to disclose Storm’s gender has received a barrage of criticism for being an unrealistic approach to parenting which will leave Storm unable to interact normally with zir peers and will ultimately confuse and alienate the child.

I’ve seen a number of people’s reactions to this article, and what I find most striking is the difference between Storm’s parents and the general public’s assessment of how well children are able to self-navigate the world of gender.  I’ve heard many comments from people who believe that removing parents’ guidance about gender will inevitably confuse small children and become unsustainable as the rest of the world reinforces gender norms outside of their parents gender-neutral bubble.

I think there are three different ways to look at this kind of problem.  The first is to accept that enforcing gender neutrality has to be a life-long commitment, wherein parents cannot be the only outposts for this teaching.  This is the thinking that has introduced Egalia School in Sweden, which uses the Swedish neutral pronoun “hen” to refer to all students and guests, and calls them “friends” instead of “boys” and “girls.”  You can read from the AP about their carefully arranged plans for playspaces that deconstruct gender stereotypes and allow young Swedish children to learn about their gender in a free and non-assumptive way.

Now this approach is legitimate and groundbreaking in its own right for the way it expands the scope of gender-neutral parenting into a whole new realm by adding a peer group with which gender neutral-raised children can interact.  I imagine this goes a long way in helping children relate to one another and explore gender as a supportive group without worries about bullying, misunderstandings, or negative reinforcement from peers or teachers who do not understand a progressive parent’s objectives in gender neutral child-rearing.  Kids can grow up using gender neutral-pronouns with their friends, dressing in counter-traditional ways, and expressing themselves with the support of their friends.  However, the problem with this line of thinking is the limit of scope.  If you don’t live in Sweden and have the substantial money and connections to get your child into Egalia, there aren’t a whole lot of options for your child.  You must, like Witterick and Stocker, face raising a gender-neutral child on your own.

Which brings up the second way of looking at this parenting conundrum.  Critics argue that by raising a child without introducing zir to the concept of gender norms will actually CAUSE gender confusion for the child later in life.  If maladjusted to the way that society treats gender, children may not be able to distinguish between their own unique perception of self-identity and the how it relates to these norms.  This school of thought focuses, I think excessively, on the idea that gender neutral parenting is trying to “eradicate gender,” a process which they claim is both impossible and a distinctly misdirected aim. The primary claim here is that gender creates structure in our world, and there are positive effects of teaching boys and girls how to act in accordance with these structures.  It makes the world run more smoothly.  If small children are not taught how to blend into these larger sub-groups, chaos ensues as gender collapses on the superficial feet it was built on.

However, I have a number of objections.  I agree that the objective of erasing gender is foolish.  Gender does offer structure and a sense of identity that is crucial to many people.  But gender-neutral parenting is not an attempt to erase gender.  It is a way of postponing the judgments of gender (what clothes to wear, what toys to play with, what professions to strive after- don’t believe me, see what an average parent says about a boy wanting to be a hairdresser when he grows up) and allowing children to grow up free to express themselves as they wish.

Gender-neutral parenting is also an exercise in acceptance of trans and gender non-conforming people (who, incidentally, I imagine don’t all believe in the erasure of gender either).  If a child can grow up and grow into any gender role that ze feels fit for, it prevents years of torment and judgment aimed at children who don’t fit the conventional standards of behavior, AND prevents the alienation and loss a parent often feels when their child announces that they want to transition, or to be start living life as an opposite/different gender.

Now the third school of thought regarding parenting suggests that regular ol’ boys and girls who are raised gender neutral will somehow be maladjusted without the introduction of gender roles early on in their lives.  I have only this to say: children as much smarter than you give them credit for.  Many trans-identified people note that they have known as long as they could remember that the body they had did not match the self they felt inside.  They were capable, at the tender ages of 3 and 4, to pick apart the difference between gender and sex in regards to their own personal identity.  Witterick and Stocker’s first child, Jazz, exhibits an even more nuanced understanding of his own gender, differentiating gender identity from gender expression: though he often wears dresses, keeps his hair long, and loves the color pink, he very strongly identifies as male, and requests that his mother tell his camp councilors that he is a boy.  This shows that Jazz understands not only his own internal conception of gender, but recognizes how gender norms influence how he is perceived by others.

My proposal is that Jazz is not an unusual child.  If given the opportunity, I imagine many, if not most, children are capable of the same understandings and navigations of gender.  With support and guidance from parents who help their children uncover and navigate a very gender-biased world, I honestly believe this style of parenting is legitimate and sustainable.  After all, we were all picked on in school for being different in one way or another.  If we grew strong from it, if our parents explained to us why other kids bully and why we should never stop being ourselves, shouldn’t we pass these values on to our children?

The Butch is Back!

I have complicated feelings about butch/femme identities in lesbian relationships.  On the one hand, I find the contrast incredibly sexy- I have a hard time aesthetically appreciating lesbian couples where the partners look too similar to each other.

((that being said, my straight, cis parents look so similar they are often thought to be brother and sister, and they are darn attractive people and a cute couple, so there are exceptions))

On the other hand, I dislike how that dichotomy of gendered identity in couples can play into the hands of people who completely distort conceptions of gay relationships, gender identity, and queerness to ask inane questions like “Who is the man in the relationship?” (um, last time I checked, we were both women, and I really hope it stays that way…)

Which is why I LOVE this piece that was written on the Made of Words blog for Sugarbutch’sButch Symposium.  I’ve recently come to follow some amazing bloggers who are participating in the Butch Symposium and writing about Butch identity and all the complexities that come with it, which has made me fall in love with butch (and femme) identities all over again, for the incredibly complex picture of sexuality (and genderfuck) that they represent.  In this piece, the blogger is femme and writes about her experiences dealing with stereotypes about her girlfriend’s butch identity. 

According to common wisdom. I’m supposed to be a huge pillow princess.  Complete bottom.  Love, love, love penetration with the biggest, most realistic cock ever in the history of cocks.  That common wisdom comes from the same people that ask “So…who’s the dude?” when trying to figure out how my and Jae’s relationship works. …If the above is true about me, then the following is true about Jae:  she’s the dude.  She’s got the biggest, most realistic cock (which she packs everywhere) and she can caulk the tub while fucking me at the same time.  She is always on top and calls me her girl and has a touch of chauvinism to her.

This is precisely the kind of distorted conceptions I am talking about, and it has much to do with the ideas I presented in Christmas and Gender Stereotypes back in December.  People love to conflate gender with sexuality and vice versa, and then further conflating those gender roles with sexual roles, which doesn’t work in straight relationships, nor in gay ones.  (I won’t go on a tirade about how your boyfriend asking you to fuck him in the ass is not an indication that he’s gay, but suffice to say that this is a prime example of one such wrongful association of gender and sexual roles in straight society).

When it comes to lesbians, people love to assume that butch women are also dominant sexual partners, primarily because they have first associated butch-ness with masculinity, and that same sexual assumption is packed into straight relationships too.  But if you separate out these “linked” dichotomies, you get a much fuller picture of what “butch” means.

Holden, at the Packing Vocals blog, eloquently explains one of the facets of butch that ze identifies with (I use ze as the pronoun because Holden identifies as genderqueer as well as butch, which is another bit of vocabulary unpacking you should consider when reading zir entire piece here):

“The Butch gentleman is chivalrous in an innate way, socialised as female she has an instinctive ability to care for her lady and others around her. She conforms to the accepted notions of being a gentleman but simultaneously her very nature is non-conforming. The butch gentleman has the guts to buck against society while maintaining (to a high standard) some mainstream societal values. She is gentleman performed in different way, more controlled and thought out, deliberate and not just because it’s expected. She anticipates rather than reacting to the needs of others and is almost one step beyond good manners. She will endeavour to control her emotions and hide her feelings, but unlike the English gentleman in the right hands it will all come flooding out.”

I think this is a brilliant explanation of one variety of butch, because, as Holden points out throughout this same entry, there are many different ways that a butch identity can be enacted, beyond simply how one dresses or styles her/his/zir hair.  I’ve written about similar thoughts related to femme identity expression that are more personal, which you can refresh yourself about here.

Most importantly, Holden sums up:

“Butch for me is having the strength to be true to the inner voice which guides me while ignoring outside influences which try to dictate how I should be. It’s the name for all the feelings and desires which have been with me since birth. It’s the label that most completely captures the essence of who I am and who I want to be.”

Butch identity can be beautiful in its completeness if you have the strength and vision to shape it, rather than allowing society’s expectations and understandings do the shaping for you.  Butch is deconstructing the contradictions that binary-style genderism has created about simply being yourself.

And whether you identify as butch, femme, a power dyke, a chapstick lesbian, a boi, or something in between or in combination, that’s advice we all can take to heart.

Rent

Anyone who knows me knows that I love the musical “Rent.”  I’m a musical-fan in general, but Rent is a standout for a number of reasons, not the least of which being its incredible score and vocal casting.  There is simply too much talent in that cast to ignore.

Now, I will put out there that I have not seen the Broadway show, only the movie (for financial reasons, mainly), so any and all comments are directed at that version, but nonetheless, I have a problem.  And it pains me to have a problem with Rent, because it has done such an amazing job showcasing the vibrancy and interconnectedness of individual lives, of embracing what the rest of the world might consider sinful bohemianism – drugs, stripping, the struggle with AIDS, being LGB, and most importantly, perhaps, the trans community—in a way that is both humanizing and entertaining.

I was especially taken in by Angel, the drag-dressing transwoman who falls in love with Collins, and eventually succumbs to AIDS and dies, but not without providing the inspiration and reminders of love that keep her group of friends together.

Rent doesn’t address the issue of Angel’s identity directly, but it is alluded to in artful ways, that reveal the cis world’s difficulty in understanding trans people and the multifarious ways they negotiate gender.  Most telling is when Angel’s friend Mark stumbles over words when he delivers Angel’s eulogy, occasionally referring to her as a “him,” but then correcting himself.  Angel is made complicated in the same way she is made human, by dressing primarily in outrageous drag, yet taking off her wig during support group sessions and while performing out on the street for spare change.  She and Collins use the terms “king” and “queen” to gender themselves in the song, “I’ll Cover You,” yet other songs continuously refer to Angel with male pronouns.

This is where I start to have trouble with Rent.

I will admit that I didn’t catch this until just today, while I was cooking up a storm and playing the Rent soundtrack on my laptop, but I started hearing a lot of “him” and “his” and “he” in songs I know were speaking about Angel, and these were songs that were reverent and loving, not humorous ones like “La Vie Boheme,” (A and B)  which poke fun at gender and sexuality by turning around negative or incorrectly applied words like “trisexual, faggot, or lezzie” to reclaim agency.  No, these were songs like “Halloween,” where Mark wonders about the fate that led all his friends together:

“Why did Collins pick that phone booth back where Angel set up his drums?”

And “Goodbye Love,” where Roger, frustrated with Mark, who has invoked Angel’s death as a reason to learn from mistakes, says,

His death is in vain.”

Now this is where I get confused.  While Mark has set some precedent in the movie of being bad with gender pronouns, Roger has never had this problem.  And perhaps most disconcertingly, Collins, mourning Angel’s death, says in the same song, only lines earlier,

“Can’t believe he’s [Angel] gone, can’t believe you’re going.”

Collins has always referred to Angel by her preferred gender, as in the song, “Today 4 U,” where, upon introducing Angel to his friends, says,

“And you should hear her beat” (referring to Angel’s rad drumming)

Collins is also her lover.  Why in the world would he screw up Angel’s pronoun usage now, when he’d never done so earlier in the movie?

I have 3 potential theories here.

  1. Pronoun usage is inconsistent because of poor editing and oversight by Larson and his production crew.  This seems highly unlikely, as there are hundreds of people who worked on this movie, and the Broadway show before this movie.  At some point in the rigorous editing, rehearsing, and production process, someone would have noticed this.  I’m 90% sure that this was not the problem, although Occam’s razor suggests it is.
  2. Each individual instance of incorrect reference has its own contextual reasoning behind it: Mark, who has had little interaction with trans people in general, makes pronoun mistakes out of discomfort with the contradicting language.  He “knows” Angel as being male-bodied, and thus, often forgets to address her as a female.  Roger, angry and upset, and Collins, distraught and mourning, make their respective pronoun mistakes in the song “Goodbye, Love” because of their emotional rawness, making the “details” of Angel’s gender less important.  This seems nuanced enough to be unbelievable to me.  Don’t get me wrong- Rent is a groundbreaking and deep movie, but it does not probe identity questions enough in the rest of the movie to assume so much nuance on this particular issue.
  3. I have interpreted Angel’s identity incorrectly, and ze actually considers zirself as genderqueer or something of that ilk, and has alerted zir friends in some heart-felt moment off-camera that ze doesn’t give a flip what pronoun they use to address zir.  This does seem consistent with some of Angel’s behaviors, like taking off zir wig at the support group meeting, and playing drums dressed as a male.  However, one may also note that Angel always carried zirself in a feminine way, never mixes male and female clothing, dances in a way that is considered predominantly feminine, and only dresses as a male in “stress situations” (homelessness, sickness in the hospital, and the support group), which indicates that zir priority remains performing female (if not identifying as such) in most situations.  Even when Angel removes zir wig at the support group meeting, ze waves by curling her fingers in towards her palm, rather than with her whole hand, indicating that ze is still maintaining facets of female-ness, even when she is not dressed exclusively feminine.  For these reasons, I can’t say the term genderqueer fits quite right, yet I’m not sure what might be better.

Regardless of which of these potential explanations are true (or if all of them are wrong), Angel’s character in general gives us a lot of questions to ponder about trans/genderqueer people.  How much should one read into physical behavior in gendering a person?  Should we, as observers with limited information on a given character, allow ourselves to gender that person at all?  Is it safe to say that all of us understand gender and its manifestations differently?  How does and how should that affect the way we view entertainment?  How much can we assume about an author or director or producers intensions about gender when they are dealing with queer characters/subjects?

All of these questions blur the lines of agency- do characters have thoughts?  Do actors form the way a character is interpreted (theirs or their co-workers)?  Do writers occasionally place flaws like these in their work to provoke just such discussion and analysis of our modern conceptions of gender?

I wish- truly, madly, deeply- that I had the answer to any of these questions.  But unfortunately I don’t.  And perhaps that’s my real problem with Rent.  There is no conclusive or succinct answer to these queries in the script, and I don’t know if that was intentional or not.  I will probably never know.  But as James Thurber once said, “It is better to know some of the questions than all of the answers.”  Rent is just trying to remind me.

Trans________

I think for anyone who has read even 2 articles on this blog can tell you, I love talking about sexuality.  Especially how the practices and viewpoints which make up our psyche affect our interactions with language, with other people, and with ideas about normativeness and privilege.  So I was more than ecstatic to take Sex, Gender, and Culture, an anthropology class at American University as a way to satisfy a general education credit and a major requirement for International Studies!

So far, I’ve been loving the class, but yesterday our conversation delved into the realm of performance transvestitism (which I already dislike the term for, as “transvestite” has a very negative connotation in society and is often used as a pejorative way of lumping gender non-normative people together).

Regardless, we dove in, and I tried my best to play along, inserting gender-sensitive definitions wherever I could, but the conversation inevitably overwhelmed me as my instructor accepted glossed-over explanations of very complicated gender concepts and the students absorbed nothing (in addition to not having done the reading- an excellent piece about drag performance in the home and in relation to Carnival in El Salvador). At one point, attempting to draw the distinction between transgendered people and “transvestites,” the professor asked the class to define a transgendered person- a concept we had fleshed out earlier in the semester- and they could come up with nothing better than “a person who wants to be the opposite gender.  *sigh*  Really?  Is that the best we can do?

Frustration mounted in me, but it came to a boil when the professor, in an attempt to focus the discussion on gender performance instead of gender identity, wrote the word “Tranny Prostitutes” on the board and then crossed it out, illustrating that this phenomenon was not what we were talking about.  I’m still at a loss for when, in an academic environment, it would ever be appropriate to use that phrase, except to deconstruct how horribly offensive and inaccurate it is.

The problem is that cis-gendered people are horrifically ill-educated about gender and the different ways that gender non-conformism occurs.  Transgender, transsexual, transvestite, transitioning, gender non-conforming, gender non-normative all mean the same thing, if they’ve even heard the words.   The use of the word “tranny” in everyday conversation is just one more example of this: rather than recognizing the word for what it is (a nasty way of referring to non cis-gendered people), people just see it as a shortened word, a harmless abbreviation.  Asher Bauer, whom I’ve featured before, talks about this concept brilliantly in his article, The T Word.  Ze further goes on to say how the term tranny is disproportionately placed upon trans women (biological men who dress/live as women), and in that regard he is spot on.

My professor implied, through the use of the phrase “tranny prostitutes” two inappropriate things, both of which stem from the poor intersection of sex and identity: one, that the sexualization of transgender or transitioning women is not legitimate; and two, that said sexualization can only occur within the bounds of “bad industry” such as sex work.  By pairing “tranny” with “prostitute,” he unconsciously equated the connotations of the two words.  AKA- prostitutes are bad, and trannies are bad, therefore tranny prostitutes must be REALLY BAD.  Ignoring the vilification of sex work, which bothers me equally but isn’t relevant here, the association made is that trannies can only be sexual when they are prostitutes, as if that is the only sphere in which they are acceptable.  Coming back to Bauer’s point, this critique only seems to apply to trans women, as trans men are excluded from discourse about prostitution altogether (despite the fact that the industry exists, the same way there’s a market for straight and gay male prostitutes).

I know that this isn’t the way my professor actually meant his comments, but the juxtaposition of his words was not an accident: it betrays a cultural misunderstanding and vilification of  trans and gender non-conforming people.   So lets all take a moment to run through our vocabulary list and consider the ways in which we oversimplify our understandings of sex and gender.  If you haven’t taken a look yet, I’ll direct you to Susan Stryker’s “Transgender Terms and Concepts,” which is in the downloadable blog articles box to the right of this post.  Educate yourself.  Watch the associations you make in speech, and apologize when you slip up.  We don’t vilify the people who make mistakes, only those who refuse to learn from them and become better.

Stay cool, queer kids.

In a Bind

One of numerous difficult aspects that comes with the territory of being a transgender or gender non-conforming biological female (to unpack that, I mean a person born with female characteristics like breasts and a vagina but who does not feel that he/she/ze is a woman) is the issue of secondary sex characteristics.  A lot of trans and gender non-conforming people do not feel comfortable with the body parts they’ve been given, so there’s now a decent market of products to help you alter that body- with chest binders, padded underwear and bras, etc.

The awareness of the need for these items and also an information sphere surrounding them has led to intriguing “do-it-yourself” pieces like this gem from Carnal Nation, A Butch Girl’s Guide to Chest Binding.

HOWEVER, there’s a really intriguing split between trans/gender non-conforming (GNC, for now, since this is getting long to type) who feel the need to bind and alter their bodies, and those who are comfortable living in them…at least for the moment.  I can’t claim to speak for these people, but I will direct you to a really interesting blog, That’s What Ze Said, written by a GNC person (who considers hirself to be “female-influenced”  in gender identity).  Said article explaining the concept of being ‘female influenced’ is here, and introduces us to the idea that one can acknowledge aspects of female-ness that apply to ourselves, but simultaneously reject the social framework which then makes us “female.”

“The fact that I, along with most everyone else in society, have been trained to see my body as female influences my life in so many ways. It affects how I think about myself. By being raised female I internalized a lot of messages sent to those with my assignment….The important differentiation between being female-assigned and female-influenced is how I see myself. I like having a connection to female-ness. Many transfolks do not hold any attachment to their assigned sex, but I do. Whenever I feel the need to distance myself from “female,” I feel part of me being erased. It’s too much a part of my experience, past and relation to body.”

This forces us to do a little bit of mental legwork in teasing apart the difference between gender identity and gender association.  A female-influenced person can have a gender identity which is neither male nor female, but still embrace

male and female associations- like womanly curves or masculine confidence and stature- without fixedly ascribing them to their identity.  They can take on and accept those associations when it feels right to them, and reject them when it does not.  I think this is an important construct to understand not only for cis-gendered people (those that are lucky enough to beborn with a body that fits our understanding of our own gender) who want to know and understand Trans and GNC people, but also for young people who are coming to realize that they are trans or GNC, but feel conflicted about their bodies.  You don’t have to want gender reassignment surgery to be trans.  You don’t have to feel an alienation from all things male and female to be GNC.  There are elements of both genders that can resonate for all people, but it is everyone’s job to better understand the manner in which gender binds us as a construct and to be mindful that it not restrict our thinking about friends and coworkers.

No Comment

I’m going to call this my I-have-nothing-to-say-about-this-article-but-you-should-read-it-anyway post.  Below is essentially a dump of a few articles I’ve bookmarked which are interesting, but I don’t have any particular insight into.  Take a-look see, and educate yourself as desired.

A clever article from the Scientific American about masturbation and why its an awesome function of our species.

An article from Carnal Nation about the pronoun dilemma and how it extends to other gendered aspects of our language, like the words “girlfriend” and “boyfriend, ” even when the couple is straight.

Another Carnal Nation publication about Hijras, the trans/genderqueer “third sex” of Pakistan and India, whose rights are still being violated by police on a regular basis.

A shocker here- The Daily Beast explains how Lesbian Bed Death is a total exaggeration and is far from exclusive to lesbians.

Finally, an article about abortion hypocrisy– how women who picket abortion clinics find they need an abortion after all, get one, and then continue to abuse the center which provided them with care.  I’d really love feedback on this one, especially from pro-life readers, because while these people are clearly the exception and not the rule, I would like to know how you responded to the article.

Did you ever “play doctor” when you were a kid?  Ever get caught?

I love this exchange between a mother and her doctor published by Carnal Nation about young kids’ sexuality.

The door was closed.
Did you knock?
No. She’s never closed her door before.
Oh. I guess the closed door meant something to her.
They jumped when I walked in.
Well, you interrupted them.
They looked guilty.
Since your attitude was that you “caught” them, I guess they felt “caught.

The full exchange is here: http://carnalnation.com/content/58503/98/catching-your-kid-playing-doctor

The brilliant thing about this conversation is the way it puts kids behavior into a conscious context.  5 year olds know things.  They learn and understand the world based on millions of sources of input, including TV, advertising, conversation they overhear from parents (and their parents’ friends!), and through playmates.  Children do not remain blank slates forever, and parents do not selectively insert ideas and practices into their absorbent brains as they so choose.

So it’s perfectly normal that children play doctor, that they are curious about social rules that have been instilled in them without any explanation.  “No, don’t touch Jimmy there.”  Well, why not? “Because he’s a boy, and we don’t touch little boys there.”

Face it, parents are really bad at giving explanation for these seemingly senseless social rules that they inflict on their children, so their kids are bound to utilize their own means for understanding them.  Well, if doctors can look and touch little boys there, maybe I just have to be a doctor and I’ll figure out what’s so weird about that. The game is a research method- a tool for understanding biological and social ideas that are very difficult and awkward to spell out to a small child.

Playing doctor might be sexual…and it might not be.  The curiosity of young children knows no bounds, and maybe discoveries from playing doctor lead to other “socially unsavory” games like playing “married,” yet once again, this isn’t always a bad thing.  If children are able to explore their own bodies and sexualities when they are young and in a safe place, without the shame of embarrassment or the need to hide their practices, they’ll grow into healthier functioning adults.

And that’s a pretty good prescription for a 5 yr. old, isn’t it?

As the daughter of a nurse midwife and a pharmacist, you could say I live in a “medically privileged household.” My parents can treat burns, diagnose tonsillitis, prescribe antibiotics, and generally serve all medical needs short of major surgery.  But even in my modern, medically-knowledgeable family, there were giant holes in the information I received about sex, sexuality, and identity.  And despite my mother’s 25 years as a nurse-midwife, working tirelessly to help women understand their bodies and how to care for themselves, she was frustrated by her inability to help when I told her that sex was painful and unpleasant for me.  She referred me to a sex therapist, scheduled me an appointment at her old practice, the Midwife Center (which is one of the last accredited outposts of holistic health in the US), and did everything she could to help me.  Considering how progressive and proactive a stance my mother took still without result, you can only imagine how such a story unfolds elsewhere.

The problem for me, it turns out, wasn’t just physical- retroverted cervix aside…- it was also mental.  My pain derived both from internal mental pressure (to orgasm, to enjoy sex, to NOT BE SUPER AWKWARD- which failed **I will note that my mother DID address this!) and from a lack of sexual attraction to my partners.  Medical doctors and therapists had both asked me “Well, are you aroused?  Is entry painful? et. al., but they were unable to tease apart the psychological constructs of romantic attraction from sexual attraction.  Because, hell, I wanted to have sex- just…not with men, it seems.  Anyway, point being that the people I asked weren’t able to help me because they didn’t have the background in the mental and emotional aspects of sexuality and identity- they only have the medical.

One word I’ll toss around a lot in this article (and blog in general) is sex positivity.  Carnal Nation’s Carol Queen wrote a wonderful article, “Elements of Sex-Positivity,” on what exactly this means, but in essence, sex positivity is a lot like how it sounds: positive enforcement of safe, consensual exploration of sex.  Sex positivity is about open-mindedness.

Sex positivity means you acknowledge that sex is, or could be under the right circumstances, a positive, healthy force in anyone’s life… even if it isn’t right now. Those circumstances may not be the same for everyone (though some may be universal, like consent), but they include things like access to information, support, condoms (if relevant), a loving (or at least friendly) partner, healing from past negative sexual experiences like rape or abuse, privacy, enhanced self-esteem, etc.

Unfortunately, most doctors don’t get this lecture in med school.  They can tell us about STDs and how conception occurs; they can detail fetal development and diagram our anatomical anomalies, but they can’t explain the way our bodies react to things our minds find arousing.  Doctors are completely in the dark when it comes to our body-mind interaction and the complexities of gender and attraction.

Another fantastic Carnal Nation article gives A Sex Prescription for Doctors, because as it stands now, the medical profession is ill-equipped to handle the multitude of ways we think and feel about sex.

..There are about a jillion physicians who don’t know the first thing about sexual products, masturbation, the clitoris, what the foreskin would do for a man’s sexual pleasure if it weren’t removed by circumcision, what sexual effects hormone replacement therapy is likely to create in a menopausal woman (or the effects of hormones in a transgendered man), and all the other tens of thousands of sex or gender questions people might have for their physicians.

In terms of sexual behavior, teens and even adults have become their own teachers.  They have jumped into uncharted waters to explore because society has refused to give them real, comprehensive, sex-positive guidelines.  Can you imagine how a story like mine might have differed if our gynecologists, instead of asking if we were using birth control, started by asking if we were ENJOYING sex?  And god forbid, if we actually had the relationship with our medical care providers that a conversation as such would seem normal!

When I hit puberty, my PCP recommended an inane book akin to those used for middle school health classes- I was nearly in tears.  I couldn’t verbalize how insulting, how demeaning her suggestion felt to me.  It seemed as if she was telling me that I didn’t know my own body.  I’d had the lectures on hormones and secondary-sex characteristics.  I understood my body, but I had NO IDEA what to do with it.  And frankly, I don’t think my doctor knew either- if she did, she certainly wouldn’t tell me.

This going-in-blind model, created by a lack of health care provider knowledge and patient-doctor dialogue, instills constant guilt in teenagers- guilt they often carry into adulthood.  Now that’s hardly the model we want for a well-adjusted, sex-positive society!

And the story only gets worse as we begin to touch the tougher questions, those that approach before we become teens, before we begin to think for ourselves.  Issues of gender identity often arise as early as 3-4 yrs. old.  If a preschool boy insists on wearing dresses and playing with dolls, what will a doctor tell the parents to do?  Most, even in today’s relatively progressive society, will tell them to put him in overalls and take the dolls away.  They don’t have comprehensive training in these issues.  They simply know what seems normal or abnormal to their sociological paradigm, and that’s no basis for a medical or psychological decision at all.

The Edge DC wrote a piece recently called “When is Too Early to Change Genders?” which puts this struggle into perspective, especially considering the harassment, disrespect, and often familial disapproval that transgendered teens are subjected to.  On top of that, most health care providers have little, if any experience dealing with transgendered and/or transitioning kids, much less with gender non-conforming kids (outside of the gender binary completely) who may be feeling (but unable to express) states of being which English hasn’t even termed yet.  How can responsible caregivers diagnose and help kids and teens who understand their gender in a way science and medicine haven’t caught up with yet?

The only effort I’ve seen so far made towards rectifying these problems has been through the National Sex Forum and the Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality’s SAR series.  SARs, or Sexual Attitude Restructuring program, is described by one of its leaders Amy Marsh as “an immersion course designed for sexologists and other helping professionals. The idea is to leave your comfort zone, discover your buttons, process all kinds of things you’d never thought you’d see or even hear about, and come out the other side with a better understanding of the really enormous range of human sexual behavior”

SARs run through the gamut of sex-related materials, from porn to erotic fiction to Good Morning America investigative specials.  Though amazing for their focus, the extent to which SARs cover issues of gender identity and expression however, is limited (probably because they’re two separate things, duh), and I don’t know of any professional organizations or workshops which do.  Of course, my knowledge in this area is, again, sorely lacking. I apologize to any trans readers out there- I suck at finding gender identity information.  Boo.

My mother, in talking to me about my blog, said “It’s crazy how your generation knows more about these issues than people who’ve been having sex for way longer.”  And that is both true and unfortunate.  Overall, despite the success and growing scale of SARs, the medical world (and society in general) still has a lot to learn if they want to help a new, younger, more open generation deal with their sexual and developmental health.

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