Saturday, August 26, 2006

As Promised - A Hopeful Angle on MWMF

Didn't write this, either. As I wrote in a "comment" to the previous post, I am not very prone to hopeful writing (or thinking) about Michigan Women's Music Festival, or about trans issues generally. But I do feel better reading other people's hopeful thoughts.

I received this piece from Sailor J Lewis Wallace with no return address, but with a message to "forward/share this as you wish". So I am doing that. You can, too.

I do not agree with everything that Sailor says. But I do find Sailor's message both heart-warming and thought-provoking. I'll probably be posting a few of my own thoughts about MWMF within the next few days.

*Hi Everyone. I just got back from Camp Trans

I am so glad to have had the honor to be at Camp Trans (CT) and the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival (MWMF or the Festival) in Western Michigan this year. This year at MWMF/Camp Trans marked an important shift in the culture of the festival and CT. For the first time since official trans exclusion began at the festival in the early nineties, an out transsexual woman purchased a ticket and went into the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival without resistance from festival organizers or attendees. Another out transsexual woman gave a workshop on trans inclusion inside the festival for a group of about 60 womyn. In the meantime, the "Yellow Armbands", a group of feminist trans allies at the MWMF, organized within the festival all week for visibility of trans issues and inclusion of trans women. Across the street, Camp Trans had its own cultural festival of workshops, musicians, poets, trans and non-trans attendees of all genders, and celebrated its 16th year of protest and culture!

I wanted to write to folks in my communities because I know that this exciting news is going to travel fast and I wanted to personally share my views on some questions regarding the situation. I do not represent all of Camp Trans in writing this although I am an active member in that community.

*Did the trans exclusion policy change? Is trans exclusion over?

I am sure in the year to come that much discussion will ensue within the broader queer and feminist community connected to Camp Trans and the MWMF about the festival's longstanding policy excluding trans people and specifying MWMF as a space for "womyn-born-womyn" only.

Here is what I believe to be the bottom line:

Trans womyn attended the festival this year without harassment, and the policy is no longer being enforced, by Festival organizers or participants. As far as I know, Camp Trans will no longer be explicitly protesting the policy. Trans people and allies will be at both the Festival and Camp Trans next year because the majority of the womyn at Festival are open to the presence of trans folks at festival, open to the fact that the times are a-changin', and open to a deeper dialogue about feminism, transfeminism, oppression and inclusion in womyn's spaces. It won't be easy, but it is happening. After all these years of fighting and debating, the transphobic status quo that once supported excluding transwomyn from womyn's spaces is no longer as powerful. The written policy, the word of Lisa Vogel and the potential vehemence of a few transphobes at the festival, simply do not matter as much as they once did.

Transphobia in this womyn's community holds less weight now, and the tides are turning in this small corner of the radical world. If you are reading this, you probably have yourself to thank for
that, because you have probably been working towards that shift for many years now. Now is a time to celebrate, my friends. A weight is slowly being lifted and this is a gift to all of us who have invested time and energy into building feminist space for so many years. Trans womyn are womyn, and we hope they will finally be welcomed as such in the coming years at the Festival.

I think it's important not to frame this issue in terms of a Camp trans victory over the Festival, or an end to the Festival as it has been. This change represents a positive advancement in the
ability of different sectors of queer and feminist community to work together. It represents something positive for the future of both camps. It's time to celebrate that together.

*Okay, so why does this whole thing matter?

1. The festival matters: The Michigan Womyn's Music Festival is one of the largest and longest-standing radical, feminist, womyn's separatist spaces in the world. Festival leaders have been consciously excluding womyn who identify as trans from their space for about 15 years, leading to a huge and divisive controversy in feminist and queer communities all over the US
and some parts of the world.

2. Trans people matter: We are strong, amazing, influential people just looking for a place to be. Trans people negotiate a painful and direct marginalization on a daily basis to varying degrees in
this culture. For most of us, just as many lesbians have experienced for a long time, there is no place to go, very little support, and no such thing as "trans-friendly-anything" in the daily world we walk through. We are forced to isolate pieces of our identity and hide pieces of our past and present at almost all times, for many reasons. We spend so much time trying to prove our validity it's virtually suffocating. Transwomyn experience a double-edged sword within this, as womyn in the world who also have a unique and marginalized experience as trans.

3. Unity matters: Spaces like Camp Trans and the Festival are meant to be a breath of fresh air for people who live lives that are stifled by this kind of marginalization. Ideally, they give us
strength to go back out in the world and engage in our fights for survival and justice. Many of us are part of struggle in various sectors of a left-wing progressive or radical movement to change the conditions of our lives and of many people's lives globally. Feminism and a struggle against heterosexism and transphobia are an integral part of building strength in this movement, and unity amongst womyn, trans and queer people and all feminists is about as important as it has ever been. We are living in a politically devastating time, fighting an uphill battle. It is desperately important right now to be fighting racism, transphobia, sexism, classism, and all forms of oppression that divide us within our movements, in order to build stronger unified fronts against the people who truly hate us, and hate all of us. The right wing in this country wants us to be divided, and they love that we fight with each other as much as we do. The divide between Camp Trans and the MWMF has long represented an extremely painful rift experienced by many womyn and trans folk, and the bitterness that is born out of never having a place of calm or a space to be slightly safer from everyday harassment. It is far easier, sadly, to tear each to shreds than it is to build inclusive, radical safer spaces, even for a week out of the year. The growing ability to build feminist space together and to challenge and overcome transphobic fear within this space is hugely important in a broader political context. This doesn't mean that oppressive attitudes within radical feminism are over, but it allows an example of a time when oppressive attitudes have been challenged and changed. The spaces we've been building for so long exist intact, and we grow stronger every year.

4. Healing matters: Even those who are uncomfortable with the idea of trans womyn at the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival must understand that this moment is a positive one, and one of healing. This uncomfortable moment will invariably mean growth. This piece of land and community of people in Western Michigan will support that growth to happen, for all who are involved. After seven years of participating in this fight, and ten years of connection to MWMF, I can say for the first time that I feel an immense amount of trust in Camp Trans and in the Festival. All I want is a space that is larger than a closet to chill in for a week. Gimme a field. Gimme some woods. Give it to me on my beautiful home turf of Michigan. And give it to my friends, who ARE WOMYN, who are feminists, who are part of this community.

*What should we be talking about in our communities and preparing for next year?

The rumor mill works fast and I have already heard bits and pieces of mis-information about what happened this year. Please don't focus too hard on the details of what exactly happened at
CT and especially at the gate of the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival. Very few people were present and therefore very few people can speak accurately to those details. INSTEAD Let's talk about how Camp Trans, the Yellow Armbands, and a plethora of other MWMF workers and attendees are looking forward to welcoming trans people onto the land next year, and beginning to truly work together to support the existence of another trans-inclusive womyn-only space. Let's talk about how happy this coalition of womyn and allies are, to be creating a more inclusive version of womyn's community that no longer excludes some of the most invisiblized and marginalized womyn who walk this planet. This is part of our path to healing, radical, feminist community, and Camp Trans is honored to be working WITH people from the festival to continue to create that, on both sides of the gate.

If you have been boycotting the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival because of its trans inclusion policy, next year is the year to GO BACK TO THE FESTIVAL! For MWMF to work towards a genuine, grassroots trans inclusion, trans people and allies need to be there in full force, starting next year, from now on. The womyn who have been pushed out of participation at Michigan because they could not accept Michigan's inherent transphobia need to be there next year, to support the hard work ahead. Trans womyn who have always wanted to go but never felt comfortable are going to start buying tickets. The policy didn't go away, but its message is no longer the most important message. This is a victory for Camp Trans and for the workers and participants at the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival.

If you have participated in Camp Trans in past years, or always wanted to go, GO BACK next year! Camp Trans needs feminist, anti-racist trans folks and allies to continue building a space in
those woods that can support political development, cultural festivities, and a continued relationship with the Festival as the Festival's gates open up to people who've been camping across the road. These coming years have been a long time coming and they are going to be some of the most challenging, and most celebratory years these spaces will see. Come on down and get a piece of the action.

*Congratulations everyone, we are real!

Five years ago at Camp Trans I think it was hard for most of us to imagine that things were really going to change, and change so fast. Many people gave up or stopped participating for personal or political reasons. If you are not able to be in Michigan for any number of reasons, celebrate. Talk it up. Start talking it up now and talk it up until next year. Camp Trans and anti-transphobia allies at MWMF have ushered in a turning of the tides, through a lot of real, concrete work. It didn't fall out of the sky; boycotts, educational campaigns, media work, and endless heartfelt conversations for many years have built this change. Tell everyone how proud you are that people in your extended feminist community have pushed a true paradigm shift in the last fifteen years. Keep on working for change in your communities and keep on believing that change is going to come, and it won't fall from the sky (how nice would that be?) - it will be created and cultivated by real people like us.

Much Love to you all,
Sailor J Lewis Wallace
Michigan, August 2006

Friday, August 25, 2006

Michigan Women's Music Festival

I didn't write this, but I couldn't have said it better myself. I received it as a forward on a listserve and have not been able to identify the original author. When/if I do, I'll cite them.

NewsFlash: Michigan Women's Music Festival: Still Transphobic After All These Years

This just in. Lisa Vogel, owner of the Michigan Women's Music Festival reaffirms her right to determine who is a woman and who is not, as well as to define what transphobia is and what it is not, and to explain that to any trans women who might be confused as to whether or not they are being discriminated against when they are told they are not welcome at the Michigan Women's Music Festival.

Read all about it at http://www.michfest.com/ubb/Forum4/HTML/000890.html.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

on the occasion of skipping yet another friend's wedding

This weekend I am skipping not one but two weddings. One of them, I am skipping because it is very far away, and I can't afford to travel right now. The other one, I am skipping simply because I don't do weddings. Each time someone I love gets married, I struggle with whether or not to make an exception to the "don't do weddings" rule. This time I decided to stay home and write blog entries instead. So on this occasion of skipping two weddings in one weekend, I decided to republish this piece that I wrote the last time I did go to a wedding.

It takes the form of a few letters to and from my alterego, Duck. Duck is me, only more cynical and less tactful, if you can believe it. Everyone else is loosely based on combinations of various people I know. The situations described really did happen.

Dear Click,

Hey! I just got your message. Thanks for offering me a ride to Sadie and Sammy’s commitment celebration. That sounds really great, especially since my car’s in the shop and all. In fact, I’m looking forward to the drive down even more than to the party itself.

Does that sound mean? I don’t mean it to. It’s not that I don’t want to go to Sadie’s party, it’s just, I’m not too sure about commitment celebrations.

I mean, it’s hokey enough when lesbians have them, but for a heterosexual couple to have a “commitment celebration” seems like double-speak. It’s nice that they’re using inclusive language, I guess. But let's be clear, they are in fact married. Legally married. And not just in the friendlier corners of Massachusetts, either. Complete with federal tax benefits, their parents’ enthusiastic approval, and practically inalienable custody rights of any children that they might eventually have. So I don’t know why they bother to call their party anything other than a wedding reception.

I’m kind of afraid it’s my fault. No, seriously. I think I once told Sadie that I don’t go to straight weddings. It was right after the new law went into effect, and every lesbian I knew was suddenly frothing at the mouth over fabric samples and Hers&Hers champagne glasses. They were quitting their volunteer positions and ignoring their friends and generally acting like a bunch of socially-irresponsible honeymooning straight people. Needless to say, I was annoyed. Sadie probably asked me why I wasn’t into marriage activism, and I probably went off about it. I remember I told her I wasn’t even sure if I should go to all those lesbian weddings, since I don’t go to straight weddings if I can help it, and as far as I’m concerned it’s all part of the same patriarchal bullshit.

So I guess I kind of brought this on myself. I mean, I think she thinks I wouldn’t go to a wedding reception, and so she’s not calling it a wedding reception because she wants me to come. So now I guess I have to go. Even though I’m beginning to suspect that I’m being had. It’s probably just going to be a wedding reception that’s not called that. A rose by any other name still gives me an allergy attack. But, since I did kind of set myself up for it, I guess I’ll just pack down some allergy pills and try to make the best of it.

I just wonder what I should wear. I mean, what does a moderately-fashionable, low-budget, slightly flamboyant tranny-boy wear to a “It’s-Not-A-Wedding-Reception-We-Swear-It’s-Not” party? Are there rules for this stuff? Because if they taught that shit in charm school, I was definitely sick that day.

Cynically yours,
Duck


Dear Duck,

You can wear whatever you want. I’m going to. (Wear whatever I want, that is. Not whatever you want. That would be something.)

After all, it’s not like it’s a wedding reception or anything ;).

And anyway, if it is a wedding reception in disguise, at least there will be wedding cake. There’s nothing like a six-tier pile of excessively processed cane sugar to take the edge off a lousy party, eh?

Click


Dear Click,

You only say that because you don’t drink or smoke.

Duck

being a duck in public

Like many Jews (especially men and Reconstructionist women), I wear a yarmulke whenever I'm in shul. Lately I also wear one on Holy Days, including Shabbes, even if I'm not in shul.

It's a little bit ironic to wear a yarmulke all day on Shabbes, while I'm skipping shul. I never run into anyone else who's wearing a yarmulke, because of course, they're all in shul.

I do it not for religious reasons, but out of a sense of personal and political obligation to make myself visible as a Jew. Several generations of my family have worked hard not to be visible as Jews, and I'm trying to break that habit.

Being publicly Jewish on Shabbes gets me into a lot of - let's say interesting - conversations with gentiles (non-Jews). For example:

"What's that on your head?"
"It's a yarmulke."
"A what?"
"A yarmulke."
"Oh, a yarmulke. Are you Jewish?"

...which reminds me of the old camp game, "Do you want to buy a duck?" "A what?" "A duck." "Oh, a duck. Does it quack?" and so on.

Or this one, with a guy in a laundromat just a few weeks after the last Pope died:

"Is that a yarmulke you're wearing?"
"Yes ..."
"Are you Jewish?"
"Yes..."
"Did you see the Pope's funeral on TV?"

...which made me think, maybe we mean different things by "Jewish"? Maybe he's confused about why the Cardinals wear skullcaps? Maybe he think's the Pope's expression of sympathy for Holocaust victims makes him every Jew's best friend? Maybe he forgot that Polish Catholics on the whole were never friends to the Jews, since long before Hitler.

But this latest wins the prize. I was sitting on the Commons with two gentile friends. Out of nowhere, an older guy approaches, rubbing the top of his head and saying in halting English,

"You Jewish?"
"Yes..."
"I have most sympathy for the Jews. Number one."
"Uh-huh..."
"You know Matisyahu?"

Oy vey.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

class stuff

(This piece is also available at Enough.)

I’ve been thinking about class and community. I’ve been thinking how hard it is to build cross-class community. Lots of stuff comes up in my cross-class relationships. Stuff about money of course, but really, it’s not just the money. There’s stuff about talking, stuff about eating, stuff about dressing. There’s stuff about how close you stand and who you touch and how far in advance you make plans. There’s stuff about how often you do laundry and who has your spare key and how you feel about the kids on the corner.

And also, there’s stuff about stuff. Who has good stuff and who has crappy stuff. Who has lots of stuff and who has just what they need. Who goes and buys the stuff they want, and who just kind of assumes that they can’t afford to, or that they don’t really need the stuff anyway. Who shares their stuff, who borrows stuff, who gives stuff away.

One thing I notice is that I feel really awkward accepting stuff that my friends are giving away. I feel … exposed, kind of, as if everybody’s going to look at me and just know that my new stuff is someone else’s hand-me-downs, and judge me for it.

And this is weird, because I didn’t used to feel embarrassed about hand-me-downs. When I was a kid hand-me-downs were no big deal. It was just how you got clothes. It was kind of exciting actually, like a little party, when some friend of my mom’s would bring over a pile of clothes for us to go through. We’d sit and have tea, try stuff on, decide who looked best in it, and who could use it best. The difference is, mom’s friends were working folks just like us. They might have had a little extra sometimes, or they might have had a growing kid that was bigger than me. They might have bought something at a yard sale hoping it would fit, and found out it didn’t. So they shared. Sometimes we had extra too, and we gave our hand-me-downs to the same people who gave us theirs.

These days most of the folks I hang up with are middle class or upper-middle class. They often have extra stuff, or at least, they seem to have a lot more than I can imagine one person needing. I have extra sometimes too, but it’s a different kind of stuff. The stuff my friends give away is high quality stuff. And because their extra stuff is so good, I’ve convinced myself that my extra stuff is so crappy that no one would possibly want it. I’m not sure if it’s true or not, but it makes the whole exchange feel uneven and shaming.

I remember the first time a college friend gave me a tee shirt that didn’t fit him anymore. I hadn’t realized there were different grades of tee-shirts. I guess I knew tee shirts could be cotton or not cotton, and they could be printed well or they could be printed with that crappy shiny stuff that was big in the ‘70s. What I didn’t realize was that some tee shirts were double-weave, heavy-duty, reinforced hems and embroidered. All that for just a plain tee-shirt, with one stripe across the chest. This plain blue tee shirt with one white stripe must have cost as much as my best shoes.

And it didn’t even fit me. I felt offended that my friend would think I’d want his cast-off when it didn’t even fit me right. But I also felt like, how could I pass up something so much higher quality than anything else I owned?

I took the shirt, and wore it for a few years. Even with all that wear, it’s still in pretty good shape. I guess you get what you pay for. Now the shirt’s in my give-away bag, waiting to be taken down to the shelter. I take my extra stuff there, because I think none of my friends would want my stuff, especially twice handed-down stuff.

I know I shouldn’t feel ashamed about accepting good stuff from friends who can afford to give it away. Actually I think it’s very just and appropriate to get stuff that way. I mean, as long as we’re living in a grossly unjust economic system, it’s more just that they should give it away to someone who uses it, rather than just throw it out. And I guess it’s more just that they should give it to someone who couldn’t afford something as good, rather than give it away to someone just as rich who really doesn’t need any more stuff. And I guess it’s more just that I get free stuff from people who can easily afford it, rather than from people who work hard to have just a tiny bit of extra once in a while. And I guess it’s more just that I give my extra stuff to the people at the shelter, rather than to people who, like me, have enough even if they don’t have much extra.

But somehow, giving stuff to strangers doesn’t feel quite as good as sharing with friends. Sharing used stuff amongst people with similar means feels like … well, it feels like sharing. It doesn’t feel like charity. It doesn’t feel shaming. It doesn’t highlight a power relationship. It feels ordinary. It feels … can I say natural?

“Hey, my tomatoes came ripe all at once, will you take a bag full?”

“Kenny got a big buck the first day of hunting season. Do you want a few pounds of venison?”

“The new hens just started laying, and we got all kinds of eggs, here have some.”

The kind of sharing I remember … It wasn’t about having extra exactly, it was more about natural waxing and waning. The seasonal rhythms of rural working-class life required that we share. And the other, less predictable cycles of layoffs and draughts, big jobs and bumper crops also encouraged us to share. When we shared our extra, we didn’t assume that there would always be extra, or that the sharing would always flow the same direction. We all gave stuff away, and we all accepted stuff when others were giving. It was a way of spreading around the luck.

Later, when I was first out of school and living in working-poor queer youth community, we also shared that way. When someone didn’t have a place to stay, they’d stay on my couch. But it didn’t feel uneven because I knew I might someday need a place, and I knew if they had a couch they’d share it. When someone got a pay check, and it was a bad week for some others, they’d buy dinner or groceries for everyone. That’d be their whole pay check, but they trusted that the next week, someone else would buy. Everyone had times where we couldn’t afford food, but between us we were always fed. We shared so freely because we had so little.

Lately I’ve caught myself thinking that middle-class people don’t know how to give stuff away. That the problem is that unless you’ve been that poor, you don’t realize how much you can live without, so you don’t realize how much of your stuff is extra. I think that’s true, but I also don’t want to let myself off the hook. It’s not just that my middle and upper-middle class friends don’t give stuff away as freely. It’s also that I don’t accept stuff as freely from them. If I thought maybe next week, or next month, I’d be the one with extra, then it would be easier. But if I accept stuff from my upper-middle class friends, I have to realize that I’ll probably never reciprocate. And politically, that’s fine with me. But relationally, it doesn’t feel right.

I am trying to trust that we enter into friendships and stay in them for good reasons. I am trying to believe that I am reciprocating, not with stuff but with all of myself that I bring to these relationships. I am trying to remember that my friends wouldn’t offer me stuff if they resented the exchange or felt embarrassed about it. I am not entirely convinced about these things, but I am trying. And I’m also trying to grow a bumper crop of tomatoes. Because that is something I can share with anybody. That’s a kind of sharing I understand.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

HIV, Circumcision, and Vaginal Microbicides

I work in HIV prevention. Part of my job is to run drop-in hours at a little storefront in a little town with not much foot traffic. Sometimes, I put out the "open" sign and no one drops in. Then I have to find something useful and relevant to do with my time.


So today I'm being useful by watching a live webcast of the plenary address at the world AIDS conference in Toronto. (See http://www.projectinform.org/.) Dr. Gita Ramjee, a researcher from South Africa just suggested that one element of HIV prevention should be male circumcision. I kid you not. In clinical trials where adult men were randomly assigned to be circumcised or not, acquisition and transmission of HIV was reduced 60% in the circumcised group.


Don't panic! This is only a first clinical trial. No one is proposing implementing mass circumcisions at this time. However there are three additional clinical trials underway, and if they have similar results, we may see such campaigns before long.

Obviously, being uncircumcised does not necessarily put you at high risk of HIV infection. After all one can still use a condom! But in parts of Africa, adult circumcision seems to be more socially acceptable than condom use. Whoa, right? Some guys would rather have their foreskins removed, than use a rubber.

Of course I don't know what kind of "incentives" were offered to the men who took part in this study, or how much of a choice they had. It may be that participating in this clinical trial was the most lucrative job opportunity available to them. That's a whole nother issue. But, still. Whoa.

The researchers like circumcision as a prevention method because it does not rely on "compliance." Condoms are way more effective than circumcision (~98% vs. ~60%) if people use them correctly every time, but that doesn't actually happen. In real life, with typical compliance – that is, with people using condoms imperfectly and only some of the time – their effectiveness is around 85%. That rate comes from U.S. studies, and the rate may be much lower in many parts of Africa, where there are significant cultural barriers and pressures that prevent people from using condoms consistently. (See e.g. http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=20601085&sid=a7pqF4l1xg4w&refer=europe, http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5548540.)

Nevertheless, I am overwhelmed by the idea of using circumcision, a basically irreversible surgery (and you know I have more to say about circumcision) , as a form of disease prevention. It just seems like this can't be a good first choice. But then, I guess if I lived in a place where 50% of adult women are already infected, as in some communities in sub-Saharan Africa, I might be ready to consider such extreme measures.

And actually, thank goodness, circumcision is not the only hot new prevention method in the works. The researchers at this conference, particularly Dr. Ramjee, are also very big on vaginal microbicides. These are substances like Nonoxynol-9 which, when inserted into the vagina, kill microbes such as HIV and other STIs (sexually transmitted infections). N-9 is actually a horrible microbicide in that it is highly toxic, so much so that it causes vaginal or anal irritation and bleeding and may actually increase the risk of HIV prevention. Don't use it!


So the researchers are now looking at other microbicides that they hope will be less toxic, more HIV-specific (so that they don't disrupt the normal, healthy balance of bacteria and other organisms that live in the vaginal and digestive tracts), not systemically absorbed (that is, they should only affect the part of the body you apply them to), and that do not act as contraceptives (so that women can choose to get pregnant while still reducing their risk of HIV infection). There are many clinical trials with various microbicides being conducted in Southern and Western Africa, in India, and in Philadelphia. I'm thinking cautiously about these medications for now (see my previous post on the new HPV vaccine). Yet, they may offer a relatively safe and effective HIV prevention to people who have few other options, and who are otherwise at appallingly high risk.


For more information on sexual health and HIV/AIDS, check out these web sites:

http://www.pplm.org/

http://agi-usa.org/

http://tapestryhealth.org/ (in Western Massachusetts)

http://www.projectinform.org/

http://www.unaids.org/

And, stay tuned for more thoughts on circumcision.

New HPV Vaccine and Bat Mitzvah Celebrations

A few weeks ago I received a message through a listserve that disturbed me. It was posted by Rabbi Arthur Waskow, an activist as well as a religious leader whose work I respect enormously. In this case however, we disagree. Rabbi Waskow's posting celebrates the release of the new HPV vaccine, and uses it as an opportunity to urge congregations to adopt new sexual health curricula as part of Bar/Bat Mitzvah training. He also suggests that congregations might require the HPV vaccine as a pre-requisite for Bat Mitzvah (for girls) but not for Bar Mitzvah (for boys). This is my response. (I apologize for the binary language. Try to ignore it. I was not aiming to get into a discussion about transgender and intersex issues with the Rabbi at this time.)

Hello Rabbi Waskow,

I got your message about the new HPV vaccine through the Jewcy (West) listserve. I know it's been a while since you sent the message, and we (Jews, and anyone else paying attention) have had a lot else to think about in the weeks since. Still, the message brought up a lot of thoughts for me, so I decided to respond.

I work in HIV prevention and general sexual health education. I agree it is so important to begin talking with kids about the dangers and pleasures of sexual activity from a young age. I applaud your suggestion that bar/bat mitzvah training be taken as an opportunity to talk with kids about their own sexual health, and to invite them to take responsibility by participating in decision-making about their bodies and health, such as the decision whether or not to be vaccinated for HPV as well as Hepatitis B (now reccomended for all babies and teenagers).

However I also have some critique of your message that I'd like to share with you. The first thing is that I don't think the new HPV vaccine is unqualified good news. Here's why -

I'm sure you're familiar with the history of the birth control pill - how at first it contained such high doses of estrogen that it led to long-term complications including cancers in some women, and how only years later did the medical establishment notice the problem and move to change the formulation to something safer. In the decades since then, several birth control methods have gone on and off the market because their safety is not well-established and their side effects are not well understood. The IDUs are one example, as well as Norplant, and I will not be surprised if Depo-Provera is next. So one layer of my discomfort with the new HPV vaccine is that it is a fairly new medication, being marketed only for women (although as you point out men also get HPV). Based on the history I've outlined, I have learned to distrust most medical treatments that are marketed only toward women, because I don't trust the medical establishment to take women's health seriously.

Another layer of the issue is that many of these dangerous birth control methods were (and still are) marketed primarily to certain kinds of women. Homeless women and others living in extreme poverty as well as women of Color are pushed to take Norplant or Depo rather than pills or other safer, lower-dose birth control options. The reasoning put forth by providers is that these women may not have the literacy or organizational skills to use pills correctly and consistently. Yet, knowing how oppression works, I distrust a system that reccomends one form of birth control to middle class white folks, and another, riskier one to poor people and people of Color. The HPV vaccine also is being marketed heavily toward people who are labeled "high risk" because they are poor and/or because they are people of Color. That makes me worry even more about the safety of this product.

At this point, I am not reccomending against people taking the vaccine, if they consult with a physician they trust and decide that's the best course for them. However I won't reccomend for it, either. I certainly would not approve of a synagogue requiring the vaccine for Bat Mitzvah students (but not Bar Mitzvah students?), since this takes away young people's right and responsibility to make decisions about their own bodies in an informed and consensual way. To me this is the opposite of using Bar/Bat Mitzvah training to get young people engaged in taking responsibility for their own health.

Finally, on a slightly different issue, I am confused by your focus on young women and not young men. As you point out, males do carry HPV infection and sometimes have symptoms from it. You emphasize men's role in transmitting HPV to women, who typically suffer more drastic long-term effects. This emphasis assumes heterosexuality, and also leaves out some important points about men's health. HPV can lead to rectal cancer in both males and females, as well as cancer of the penis in males. To put the emphasis and responsiblity only on girls seem unfair, sexist, and ultimately ineffective.

I believe that sexual health problems, including HPV, are always community health problems. The surest way to protect young people (and everyone!) from HPV and other sexually transmitted infections is with universal prevention education, aimed at giving people the skills, information and support they need to make their own informed choice and implement it. I emphasize universal because I think educating half the population is less than half as effective as educating the entire population. Risk for HPV is afterall behavioral, and making responsible long-term decisions about sexual behavior requires not only knowledge but also ongoing support from friends and role models. People are most likely to make and stick to responsible decisions if the decisions are their own, and if their peer group understands and respects the reasons for those decisions.

This is why I love your suggestions that sexual health education be an integrated part of Bar/Bat Mitzvah classes! What I object to is the idea of mandatory vaccinations (or any mandatory behaviors), and the unequal responsibility placed on girls and not boys.

I hope my thoughts have been useful to you. I continue to respect your work and appreciate your postings to the Jewcy list. I'll be very glad to read any response you might have.

v'Shalom,
Davey

Monday, August 07, 2006

what people should know about the trans job market

Lately I have had several very frustrating conversations with well- meaning people who did not understand why being transgender might make it hard to find a job. Then, last week, I discovered this job announcement on an FtM listserve. I think it makes a telling illustration. I have left out some specifics to preserve the dignity of this obviously underresourced organization.

Here is an excerpt from the job announcement:
"[An organization that focuses on trans and intersex education] seeks an Executive Director to oversee the organization’s operation and programs, raise funds for operation, and handle the administrative responsibilities. This is a full-time (approx. 40 hrs/wk) volunteer position with a stipend of $100 per week."

No folks, it's not a typo, they want an E.D. for $100 per WEEK.

Aside from the obvious, let me highlight some of what makes this job announcement almost offensive in its absurdity.

First, I should clarify that this is the only announcement for a trans-specific job in education that I have come across, ever.

Second, to contextualize the $100 per week stipend, I will tell you that the city in which this organization is located is among the 5 most expensive U.S. cities to live in.

Third, who can volunteer for 40 hours a week? This is not a rhetorical question. As far as I can think of, three kinds of people can do this:

  • People who are incredibly rich, and can afford to work without pay.
  • Students who can get academic credit for their work, and who are being financially supported through school by their families. Since they're students, they probably have no long-term commitment to the organization or the community.
  • People who are incredibly poor and have no hopes of finding a better job, or who receive public services, such as SSI/Disability, that they can't afford to lose by getting a paid position.


Trans people are far more likely to fall into the last category than either of the first two.

Finally, this position does not come with any health benefits. This could be a problem for any employee, but I think it’s particularly ironic for a trans person working in a trans organization. Trans people in general, and poor trans people especially, are disproportionately likely to need physical and mental health treatment - because of trauma related to transphobia, because of inadequate or harmful medical care in the past, and because the medical system all but requires us to be in therapy if we want any kind of physical transition.

Therefore, here is my re-interpretation of the job announcement:
"Wanted: Trans folks to do trans education, shit pay, rapid burnout. We know you want this job, because who else is going to hire you? - Your community has a 60% unemployment rate (http:// www.sfbg.com/40/24/cover_trans.html) even in one of the most trans- friendly cities in the world (which is the only place where they even attempt to measure trans unemployment rates). Besides, at this job you will have a restroom you can use safely, and most people will probably call you the right pronoun at least some of the time. Sure it doesn't come with health insurance, but let's be real - health insurance doesn't cover trans-specific care anyway, or even trans-friendly care a lot of the time. What do you have to lose?"

I want to be clear that I'm not trying to disrespect this organization. That's why I didn't name them or their location. I'm sure that the organization is in as much of a bind as most trans people are. It is very difficult to get funding for trans-specific projects. For example, many state departments of public health have line items specifically for women's health initiatives or men's health initiatives. Who funds trans people's health? Some relatively progressive private funders have grants specifically for programs that empower young women, or that do violence prevention work with young men. Who funds programs for young trans people? No wonder this organization is looking for volunteer labor from within the community!

If neither the job announcement nor my commentary on it convince you, check out this handout from the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, showing factors that lead to trans people being disproportionately in poverty: http://srlp.org/documents/disproportionate_poverty.pdf

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Queer profiling in the Financial Aid Office

At my school, graduate students can get almost a free ride if they have a graduate assistantship. (That’s because we have an awesome union – GEO, UAW local 2232 - http://people.umass.edu/geo/.)

Trouble is, it’s not easy to find these mythical assistantships.

One time, when the tuition bills were coming due and I still didn’t have an assistantship, I went to the graduate financial aid office to ask what my other funding options might be, if I couldn’t get an assistantship. I went in looking pretty ratty, too, because I had just gotten out of work and was all paint-stained. I thought about going home to shower and change first, but the office is only open until five, and I got off work at 4:30, and besides it never hurts to look a little bedraggled when you’re asking for financial assistance.

At first the people at the front desk hassled me for a few minutes about how anyone should be able to find an assistantship, especially with work study funding, and basically why wasn't I looking harder. Then their supervisor came out, looked me up and down and said, "Have you tried the EveryWoman’s Center or the Stonewall Center?"

I did not say, "Am I wearing a fucking sign?"
I did not say, “I'm here about my financial aid, not my sexual orientation."
I did not say, "Hey, maybe that's why I can't find a fcking assitantship!"
I just left.

Shows what they know, because those two Centers are broke, too, and haven't hired any grad assistants in years.

All's well now, because I graduated and got a job. Stay tuned for more recent stories about job searching as a queer tranny.

Intro Stats meets Dykes to Watch Out For

or, why I shouldn’t take night classes
with apologies to Alison Bechdel

(These are actual notes I took in an actual night class about survey research methods. I don't know how closely they relate to what the prof was actually saying, but I did get an A so they can't be that far off. If you don't know much about statistics, and none of this makes any sense at all, you can look it up in Wikipedia. And if you think my examples are out there, you should see what the Wikipedia folks came up with.)

null hypothesis: we are not in a relationship.

alternative hypothesis: we are not not in a relationship; there may in fact be a relationship going on.

data you can use to reject the null hypothesis: her panties in my underwear drawer. his skim milk in my fridge, and my whole yoghurt in his. the u-haul brochures that keep showing up in our mailboxes. our white shirts dyed pink by my red hanky.

type one error: erroniously rejecting the null hypothesis. this type of error is particularly embarassing. "Dude, I can't believe I said that. I totally thought they were in a relationship."

type two error: erroneously failing to reject the null hypothesis. this type of error is less embarassing, though no one's quite sure why. "Dude, I am certain they are not in a relationship. There is no evidence of a relationship. Surely it's just random chance that they keep disappearing together."

power (statistical): how savvy is your relationship-dar? and how hot are you when you're the dyke that always knows first?

significance tests: "They are totally a couple, p<.001." or, "They may be in a relationship, but it's not a significant one, and if we were to retest in six months we might find no relationship at all."