Saturday, November 29, 2008

Mixed feelings after No on 8

For those who’ve been sleeping since election day, or who still haven’t sobered up from the parties celebrating Obama’s victory, California’s Prop 8 passed. This means that same-sex marriages are no longer sanctioned by the California state government.


Prop 8 may or may not stand up for long. The court has already granted a review of the proposition (citation). Even the notorious Governator is saying he hopes the Court will overturn Prop 8 (citation). But for now, most gay people are feeling really let down. One woman I know says that all she wants to do since the election is watch TV and eat mac and cheese. The community is depressed and distressed about it.


On the Wednesday following the election, several gay and straight coworkers approached me during the day to process their sadness and disappointment about Prop 8. I was having feelings about it, too, but they were mixed feelings. In fact, I had mixed feelings about the No on Proposition 8 campaign all along, in the days leading up to the election as well as afterward.


Of course I felt disappointed, like many others did. I was disappointed in the election results, but I was also disappointed in myself for getting caught up in the campaign. You see, marriage is not my issue. I have strong mixed feelings as well as strong opinions about marriage in general and about marriage as a political priority for the gay rights movement. In the midst of the gay community’s mourning period following the election, I felt nervous about voicing my feelings and understandings about the issue. Now, I’m stepping up. I’m know I’m taking a social risk by even posting this, but I feel it’s important to voice a different perspective on the issue.


Here’s where I stand on marriage: I think it’s a bad idea. Not same sex marriage in particular, but marriage in general, as a governmentally recognized category of relationship. I think a person’s marital status is a ridiculous way to decide whether people are considered family, whether they get to share health insurance, retain custody of their kids, or seek citizenship, and how they are taxed.


Please understand that this has nothing to do with how people define their own relationships. If individuals want to be married, or religious communities want to recognize couples as married, they should go for it. I wish them well. I just don’t think that the state should have anything to do with it.


Further, I think it is ridiculous that the (relatively) mainstream gay rights movement – what some folks have taken to calling the homonormative community – prioritizes same sex marriage as a political agenda. I’m with them this far: so long as marriage is a prerequisite for certain rights and privileges such as those listed above, everyone should have equal access to it. But aren’t there more urgent issues? GLBT and queer youth make up between 20% and 40% of homeless, runaway and throwaway youth (citation). Transgender people in San Francisco, of all places, experience unemployment at a rate of 60% (citation) and live in poverty at a rate of 90% (extrapolating from citation combined with cost of living data for the area). Transgender women of color are routinely arrested for sex work, whether or not they are working, and confined in men’s prisons (citation, citation). And we’re putting our energy into marriage?


For that matter, there were initiatives on the California state ballot this year that I found even more nefarious than Prop 8. For example, Prop 4 to require parental notification for minor abortions, Prop 6 to increase penalties for gang-related drug offenses, and Prop 9 to decrease the frequency of parole hearings (citations). And we’re putting our energy into marriage?


Advocates of legalizing same-sex marriage will say that it’s not about marriage, but rather about the civil rights that go along with marriage. This argument makes a certain amount of sense. One primary difference between marriage and civil union is symbolic. Another is that insisting on marriage is a strategic step toward making sure that same-sex marriages can eventually receive all the privileges associated with marriage, which civil unions do not.


That word – privilege – is exactly why I think that it is about marriage, and not only about civil rights. When homonormative people advocate for same-sex marriage as a way to obtain to civil rights like access to healthcare, paths to citizenship, legal recognition of second-parent adoption and so on, they are speaking from a place of privilege. It is only from a place of privilege that marriage can be seen to guarantee any of those rights.


In our current foster care and child welfare system, poor parents of Color risk having their children taken away, even if they’re married (see Spade, “Compliance is Gendered: Transgender Survival and Social Welfare,” in Transgender Rights , eds. Paisley Currah, Shannon Minter, Richard Juang (2006) or this study for example). In our current economic system, poor people are denied healthcare, even if they’re married. In our current immigration system, transgender people may be denied paths to citizenship, even if they are married to a U.S. citizen (citation, citation). Need I go on?


In “Is Gay Marriage Racist?,” (Bailey, Kandaswamy, & Richardson, in Mattilda Bernstein’s That’s Revolting, Soft Skull Press 2004 & 2008) three panelists discuss some of the reasons many queer People of Color have not gotten on the same-sex marriage bandwagon. The gist of it for these panelists/authors is that they understand that marriage will not automatically create access to those rights and privileges that marriage activists claim to be after. They understand that healthcare, citizenship, and family integrity are privileges not only of heterosexuality, but also of race and class.


For all of these reasons, I have felt less attached to same-sex marriage campaigns than many of my peers and colleagues. From the time I first moved to CA in July, I felt bored and sometimes annoyed at the ubiquitous focus on marriage.


Of course, we didn’t exactly choose the battle. The theocratic right put an enormous amount of funding and strategizing into Proposition 8, and the No on 8 campaign was from the start a defensive one. I couldn’t blame people for getting caught up. Eventually I started to get caught up, too.


The Yes on 8 campaign was not friendly. They used the most blatant homophobic stereotypes to generate support for the proposition. The feeling of threat and sense of urgency associated with defending our community against these attacks was almost infectious. Even I started to catch it. I knew (and announced) that I would never get married even younger than I knew I was queer. And yet, as election day approached, I began to think something important was afoot, and that I needed to seize the moment. I donated a total of $200 to the No on 8 campaign – not much in the scheme of things, but a lot relative to my budget, and more cash than I have ever donated to any political or non-profit cause. I stood on street corner in Oakland in the pouring rain holding a No on 8 sign. I then left that sign in my car, for a whole week, not knowing how my neighbors might feel about the campaign, but knowing that many of them are still uncertain about my gender.


Even while I was feeling strongly enough to take some not-entirely-sensible risks for the campaign, I had mixed feelings about my participation. Of course I didn’t want Prop 8 to pass, but I felt kind of dirty working for marriage as if it were uncomplicated. I felt like I should not voice my critiques of marriage as an institution or the same-sex marriage movement – or of Obama, for that matter – because my concerns were secondary to the election. And that’s what I did. I kept my mouth shut, for the most part, and did my duty by the gay community. (I still have all my car windows.)


As soon as the election was over, the urgency of the campaign subsided for many gay people into anger and disappointment. I shared those feelings, but not their target. Rather than being angry at the Yes voters, and disappointed with the results of the election, I was angry and disappointed with myself, for getting caught up in a marriage campaign.


I have organized my life so that most of my energy beyond self-care is going to help causes I believe in, and believe to be both urgent and important. Marriage is not one of those issues. I am feeling angry with myself that I let myself get distracted.


And I’m also feeling scared – as I was before the election, too – that my homonormative brothers and sisters will not come back for me. I’m hopeful that Prop 8 will not stand up in court, and that soon enough we’ll get a ruling from the State Supreme Court saying this whole process wasn’t legal to begin with, marriage rights are restored, and it’s all okay again. And yet that hope is also my fear.


After marriage, then what? After the relatively privileged homonormative folks get over throwing lavish wedding receptions, will they notice that young people are still homeless, trans people are still getting imprisoned, poor people still lack healthcare, and the child welfare system is still racist?


The week after the election, after hearing me explain these arguments, two people suggested to me the following course of action: First, keep fighting for No on 8. Then later, after Prop 8 is repealed, give the gay people some time off to enjoy their long-awaited honeymoons. Then, go confront those people and convince them, by guilt or guile, to come back and fight for those left behind.


I get it, or at least I think I do. There was a moment we had a chance to seize. We didn’t get to choose the issue, because the theocratic right chose it for us. And if we all throw our energy in together, we can win, and then we can move on to the next fight.


But I’m scared. I’m scared those homonormative folks won’t be with me for the next fight. I’m scared they already decided that this is the last fight. I know that my fears are not all reality-based. I also know that I have seen this happen before.


I lived in Massachusetts for about ten years, both before and after same-sex marriage became legal there. At the time I was working (volunteering, really) in a queer youth center. The center was able to stay open largely because adult volunteers donated their hours to staff the center. As soon as it became possible to get a marriage license, many of our most reliable and beloved volunteers quit, in order to take time to plan their weddings. They literally prioritized picking out china patterns over putting energy into the community. Did they deserve a little something to honor their commitment to each other? Yes, I’m sure they did. Can I blame them for walking away from young people who trusted them to be a second family? Yes, I certainly can.


And then there’s ENDA. Many people including I have written about the ENDA/HRC debacles (citation), so I won’t go into it here. The point is, this fear is not from nowhere. History suggests that the privileged do not “come back” for the most marginalized members of their coalitions, at least not without a whole lot of prompting.


And besides, this isn’t a one-way exchange. I need the support of homonormative gay rights power structure, and they need me too. The homonormative folks can’t do it without the queers, trannies, and especially poor people and People of Color. Before the election, some of the homonormative folks who have tried to convince me of the primacy or marriage used arguments to the effect of "We don't have time/energy for a complex intersectional analysis, because that will distract from or prevent us from winning marriage right now." After the election, much rhetoric has been spewed and analysis offered to the effect that No on 8 lost because it failed to reach out to communities of Color. That demands the question, as one very clever person put it to me recently, “Would it have killed them to have an intersectional analysis?”


I’d rather not wait until after the honeymoons. I’d rather get people on my side now. I’d rather build understanding amongst our heterogeneous communities that we are all in this together. I’d rather know now that I am throwing down for marriage because we’re seizing a moment, and that not decades from now but immediately, the folks in my community who feel urgently about marriage and will benefit from it will also be throwing down for causes I believe in.


To build this understanding is not the work of an evening or a campaign season. This is the work of movement building, of coalition building, which in the ideal is also community building. I am hopeful and scared about this work. Right now, this is what I’m willing to throw down for. Are you in it with me?

Monday, October 27, 2008

How I got off the terrorist watch-list

draft 2

This is a draft and I am interested in editorial comments. Please do not share it (except by linking to this page) until it's finished.

I am particularly in feedback about the use of metaphor, which is definitely not my strong suit, and about how my analysis speaks or fails to speak to your experience. You can write feedback as a comment or email me.

After 9/11, I got stopped every single time I went through airport security. In the very beginning I got stopped twice in each airport – once at the regular screening point, and once again at the gate for an additional search of my carryon bags.

At that time most travelers – at least, most white, U.S. citizen travelers - were just getting used to being really scrutinized in airports. Everyone was annoyed at the long lines, and at having to remove their shoes and jackets. It seemed like overkill. It was overkill. But even in that context, my experiences with airport security stood out as notably ludicrous.

For one thing, the numbers did not add up. They told us that the second screening of carryon bags at the gate occurred for one in ten randomly selected passengers. I got selected ten times out of ten. For another thing, metal detectors didn’t seem to like me. No matter how hard I tried to remove any clothes with metal pieces, and any stray scraps of foil in my pockets, I always set it off.

After a little while, I got know the signs and procedures. When I picked up my boarding pass, I checked for the row of Ss across the bottom that meant I had to go through the special line. (It was always there.) Most of the people I shared the line with were white men in suits – business travelers. I figured they really had been selected randomly. There were also a few Arab, African and South Asian men, who looked accustomed and resigned to the extra scrutiny. I figured they had been profiled, selected because of irrational suspicions based on their presumed race, ethnicity, or religion.

In line, I removed my shoes, hoodie, cap, and belt and placed them neatly in plastic bins to be x-rayed. I shuffled through the metal detector, trying to look like my pants weren’t about to fall off. Because I was in the special line, officers would search my bags even if I didn’t set off the metal detector, but I hoped at least to avoid a personal screening (i.e. a pat-down).

The pat-down or wand-check (with a handheld metal detector) is not exactly a joy for anyone, and it can be particularly traumatic for transgender people. A few times, officers got into arguments about who should pat me down. The screening is supposed to be performed by an officer of the same gender as the person being examined, to avoid the appearance of inappropriate touching. The officers weren’t certain of my gender, and it seemed to stress them out. “Should you pat her down?” “No, I think you should pat him down.” “I’m pretty sure you should pat her down.” “Just pat him down please!”

Needless to say, I worked hard to avoid this situation. I took to flying in pyjama pants, so the rivets on my jeans wouldn’t set off the metal detector. I replaced my steel earrings with wooden ones. I even tried removing my Star of David necklace, which I almost never do. It’s a tiny pennant on a silver chain that’s hardly big enough even to count as metal, much less to set off a metal detector, but I was willing to try anything.

It didn’t matter. Inevitably, the metal detector went off anyway. At least once I think I really had succeeded in removing every discernable trace of metal, because the detector didn’t sound immediately. I took a few steps past it and felt a sense of elation – at last, I did it! No argument about my gender! No confused TSA agent fastidiously touching every inch of me with the backs of his or her hands! And then of course the detector went off. They must have a button back there, I thought. Just in case a freaky, suspicious-looking person like me fails to set it off on their own. They must have pushed the freak button.

I thought I had it all figured out. It was obvious to me why I was getting searched more often, and more intrusively, than most people I knew. I attributed the unequal treatment to those aspects of my identity that were most salient to me. I thought, “It’s because I’m young, because I’m poor, because I’m queer, because I’m transgender.” Actually, it was something else.

I found this out in 2005, traveling to Florida to be with my extended family. My boarding pass had the row of Ss like usual. In the special line, the TSA agent rattled off, “Remove your shoes and jacket and put any metal from your pockets in this dish …” and then she turned to me, realized I had already done all that, and commented, “You’re pretty good at this.” I noticed her for the first time them, because this was the most personable thing a TSA agent had ever said to me. She was a petit woman of South Asian descent, and the id badge pinned to her uniform had a Hindi name on it. It occurred to me that this must be an awkward job for an Indian woman to have, what with the rampant racial profiling of South Asians.

“I’ve had some practice,” I said. She nodded sympathetically. I handed her my id and boarding pass. She glanced at them and almost immediately looked up and said, “Gita??” Gita is my legal first name. In India, it is a very common name for girls. I had a moment of panic, thinking this was yet another gender confusion. Sometimes when people read me as a guy, they don’t believe my id is really mine.

“Yeah,” I said, because I couldn’t think of anything else to say.

“You don’t look Indian,” the TSA agent said. That caught me off guard. All of a sudden we were having a totally different conversation from the one I had thought we were having.

“Yeah, that’s true,” I said. I am white, after all. I’m sure there are some people in India who look like me, but the truth is my connection to that country is tenuous at best. My parents traveled there for a few months before I was born, and I know just enough Hindi to pronounce my own name. There’s no reason that I would “look” Indian at all.

“Huh.” The TSA agent shrugged. The moment was over, and she was all efficiency again. With her right hand, she typed something into her computer, while with her left hand she returned my id and boarding pass to me. “Have a nice flight,” she said.

On the other side of the check point, tying my shoes and trying to regroup, I puzzled over the exchange. I second guessed everything I had said, wondering what I could have done differently to be more friendly, or less suspicious, or … something. I knew I was missing something.

I continued puzzling over it for the entire trip, until I arrived at the airport for the return flight. I looked at my boarding pass and noticed: No Ss! I went through the ordinary, non-special check point, and lo and behold, the metal detector did not go off!

Up until that trip, I had been stopped every single time I flew for about four years. In the three years since then, I have never once been stopped by airport security.

I think I was probably right about the freak button. But I think they have another button back there, too. When the friendly Indian TSA agent realized I was not South Asian at all, but rather a white kid with a Hindi name, I think she hit the white button.

Peggy McIntosh writes of a knapsack of white privilege. The idea is that white people carry around a whole package of unearned advantages, which we may not even be aware of, that privilege us in a system of racism. McIntosh’s article has been described as groundbreaking for folks who do work around racism and other systems of oppression. I’ve found it useful as a teaching tool, but it always frustrated me on a personal level. When I first read McIntosh’s article, I wanted to understand that I had white privilege. And yet many of the specific examples on McIntosh’s list did not apply to me because I am disadvantaged by other systems of oppression – for example, because I am young (and young-looking), working-class, Jewish, queer, and transgender.

These other identities tend to mask my white privilege in many situations. One of McIntosh’s examples is “I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.” As a young-looking, poor-looking, gender-ambiguous queer kid, I was followed and harassed pretty consistently in stores. Now I don’t look quite as young or as poor as I did then, but I still get harassed from time to time because of gender. Another example from McIntosh’s list is “I can criticize our government and talk about how much I fear its policies and behavior without being seen as a cultural outsider.” As a Jew whose family has been impacted by McCarthyism, that one didn’t make much sense to me either. Many other of McIntosh’s examples apply to me only because they include phrases like “because of my race,” or “based on my skin color.” They describe privileges that are denied to me for reasons other than race. I could understand that I was white, and that these examples described privileges of whiteness, but it was hard to reconcile that with the fact that I did not have access to those privileges.

A handful of McIntosh’s examples of white privilege are true for me, and that’s how I started learning about white privilege. But even once I knew what to look for, I rarely saw it operating in my life. The concrete, everyday examples that make The Invisible Knapsack so compelling just didn’t apply to me. I knew that I had white privilege in an abstract sense, and I tried to increase my awareness of race playing out in everyday interactions. Still, my primary experience was that of being targeted as untrustworthy, un-valued, or an outsider, because of identities other than race.

These were the kinds of experiences that were most salient to me, and these were the kind of explanations I turned to when I realized I was being targeted in airport security. The effects of other systems of oppression don’t negate my white privilege, but they do make it even more difficult to put my finger on ways in which I personally benefit because of my race. In this case, my attention to these other factors distracted me from noticing that I was being mistakenly targeted because someone perceived me as non-white.

I still think that classism, adultism, transgender oppression and probably antisemitism play out for me in airports. But they are not as central in that context as race is. I was put on a list of some kind, set aside to be particularly hassled in the airport, because I had a South Asian name. I was taken off the list when a South Asian woman noticed I was white.

McIntosh calls her knapsack “invisible” because white people usually don’t notice the privileges we have as being related to whiteness. We may assume that everybody has them, or that they are results of our own personal effort or merits. Even though white people often don’t notice our own white privilege playing out (sometimes even when we try to), the fact of our whiteness – the fact of our membership in the category of “white” – is not invisible. In order to be afforded those privileges, we have to be recognized, by other people and by systems (banks, police, schools, etc.), as white. Rather than a knapsack, it’s more like a tiny transmitter that sends out constant signals wherever we go, saying, “white person. white person. white person.People around us may be conscious or unconscious of the signal, but either way they know to treat us like white people.

I was a white person before and after 9-11, but sometimes the signal was jammed. Because of my other identities, and in this case because I have a South Asian name, my privilege was obscured not only to me but to the system. The TSA failed to recognize me as white and therefore did not afford me the white privilege of being considered above suspicion. On the contrary, I was racially profiled as a presumed South Asian and, I can only guess, put on some sort of list to receive extra scrutiny.

Ironically, it took an Indian TSA agent to see through my unusually opaque knapsack. Despite my whiteness signal being jammed by an Indian name and a “special” boarding pass, she noticed that I was white. She pushed the white button, and the system ceased to suspect or even to notice me. And that is the essence of privilege. I didn’t do anything wrong to get on the watch list, and I didn’t do anything right to get off it. All I had to do was show up and be recognized as white.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Funny/"Ha Ha" vs. Funny/Oppressive

My buddy C likes to distinguish between funny/"ha ha" and funny/"oppressive." People so often confuse the two. If I say, "There were two dozen clowns in a VW bug. It was so funny!" that's funny/"ha ha." If I say, "Isn't it funny how the TSA stopped bothering me after they realized that I'm white?" that's funny/oppressive. I might still laugh at it, but it's not laughing with joy. It's laughing so as not to be overwhelmed by the wrongness of it.

I thought of this today when I found myself drafting an email to a friend with the subject line "Want to hear a funny story about gender?" It was sort of funny/"ha ha," but the more I let myself vent about it, the more I realized it was also about an oppressive underlying situation.

The story is this: I recently wrote a book review for an academic journal. Today I got an email from the publisher asking me to do final proofs on it. That means, to go over it for any typos or other very minor edits that are needed before publication. The copy editor provided a list of "queries" for me to look at. Queries mark places where the editor saw a problem and wanted me to provide or approve a correction. This time I got very few queries - four to be exact.

The funny part is that two of the four queries concerned my pronoun! As usual, I used third-gender pronouns in my author bio. There are two pronouns in this three-sentence version of the bio, and the editor had marked both of them. The first query read "Change ze to he." The second read, "Change? ze to he?"

Oops! I explained briefly and referred the editor to my article in the same journal from a few years ago, which includes a lengthy footnote about third gender pronouns, for a similar reason.

So what kind of funny is it? Is it funny/"ha ha"? I have to admit, it is a little. I did laugh with a little bit of joy when I imagined the editor's confusion upon finding the second "ze" and having to doubt whether it was really a typo.

It's also funny/"really, people?" because it does not cease to be bizarre to me that I have to have outside citations to prove that third gender pronouns are legitimate. I actually use these words in conversation on a daily basis, and I am understood in my community when I do that. This has been true in my life for about 8 years. Still, they're not real to a mainstream publisher unless I can provide citations. I generally shy away from reading ethnographies of people like me - talk about funny/oppressive! - and literary references don't count for much unless you're writing about literature. So to my publisher, these words do not exist.

If that's bizarre, then I'm not even sure what the adjective would be for the fact that in this case I can legitimize my use of third gender pronouns for myself by citing ... me! The reference I provided the editor was an article on queer theory, which I wrote and this same journal published only two years ago.

And if any of you were wondering, this is a perfect example of why I'm not in a doctoral program right now. Academia, and perhaps academic writing in particular, seems to encourage those who are deeply engaged in it to give up the skill of noticing reality when it punches them in the nose without a citation - a skill which I prefer to retain.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Dilemmas of Invisibility and In-Between-ness

A paper I wrote several years ago, for a grad school class on historical foundations of social justice education. It's always creepy for me to re-read old writing, since how I wrote it then is never how I would write it now. Nevertheless this paper seems particularly relevant for me right now, as I'm in a new city, getting to know the trans community here - and over and over again, I am astounded and dismayed at how strongly people cling to normative identity logic even as they advocate for the rights of trans and queer people whose very existence challenges and disrupts that logic. This paper reminds me of some of the very good reasons people cling to normative identity, and also of why I dislike it so much.

(With recent additions in orange.)


“One of the first things we notice about people (along with their sex) is their race. We utilize race to provide clues about who a person is. This fact is made painfully obvious when we encounter someone whom we cannot conveniently racially categorize – someone who is, for example, racially ‘mixed’ or of an ethnic/racial group with which we are not familiar. Such an encounter becomes a source of discomfort and momentarily a crisis of racial meaning. Without a racial identity, one is in danger of having no identity.” (Omi & Winant, 1986, italics in original, my underlining)

Without a racial identity, one is in danger of having no identity. Of all our class readings so far this semester, this provocative assertion from Omi and Winant’s “Racial Formation” is sticking with me. At first I struggled with it. What can it mean to say that a person could have no identity? From an individual perspective, a person without an identity seems almost a contradiction in terms. But Omi and Winant are writing from a social perspective and, as I contemplated this passage, I began to see that it speaks volumes not only about the experiences of individuals caught outside of categories, but also about the formation and maintenance of these categories.

Race and gender are so fundamental to the structure and function of U.S. society that, without a racial identity and a gender identity, one becomes invisible, silenced, unrecognized, and unacknowledged. Omi and Winant speak of the momentary crisis of meaning that may occur when we encounter someone who we cannot easily classify. The encounter shakes the borders of our racial and gendered landscape and we often work hard to resolve the mystery in a way that maintains those borders. We may perform mental gymnastics trying to justify force-fitting the person into a category that’s not quite right, or we may write hir [1] off as an exception or a freak.

On the other hand, for the person who doesn’t fit into racial or gendered categories, the crisis is not momentary but constant. Every momentary crisis that someone else has about hir is a reminder of hir in-between-ness. It is not so easy to write oneself off as an exception. When someone doesn’t have a racial or a gender identity, others have trouble seeing/recognizing hir, and ze may even have trouble seeing/recognizing hirself. In order not to be caught with no identity, ze must belong to a racial and a gender category that makes sense to hirself and others. Many people who are caught in this dilemma try to resolve it by force-fitting themselves into a new or established category that others can recognize, even if the category is not quite true to experience, or is so broad as to be practically meaningless (e.g. Asian, Latina/o, Bi/Multiracial, Bisexual, Transsexual, Transgender). This is not to say that these categories are meaningless to everyone who uses them, only that some people may claim an identity that is not quite what they mean, but that at least means something.[2]

For example, Ekins & King observe the importance for transsexuals and transvestites of “adopting an identity which makes sense of things” (p. 101). They detail four characteristics that transsexuals and transvestites reference to explain, and perhaps to defend, their identity: reality/centrality, pervasiveness, permanence, and inherence. They also mention, almost in passing, that transsexual and transvestite identities can only be defined in reference to normative binary gender. What Ekins and King fail to point out is that a transsexual or transvestite identity must “make sense of things” not only to the person who claims that identity, but also to others – in this case, to the gender-normative or non-trans gaze. The characteristics that they list as common to these trans identities are also true of normative, binary gender identities. Being a man or a woman, like being transsexual or transvestite, is considered central and pervasive to one’s identity, permanent, and inherent.

This similarity is not a coincidence. For one thing, transsexual and transvestite are both terms that come out of the medical community, not out of a trans community. They were developed by gender-normative male doctors as part of a mechanism of social control to make trans folk more comprehensible and manageable within a binary gender system. Transsexual and transvestite provide new possibilities of location within a binary gender system, but they do not challenge the structure or the terms of that system.

For another thing, the identities of trans people are scrutinized and contested by non-trans observers. If the non-trans observers find a trans person's identity inadequate, they may punish the individual both directly an indirectly, most notably in the form of anti-trans violence which is all too common. Often the perpetrators of such hate crimes get off with light sentences using the "transpanic" defense - by arguing that, when they realized the person wasn't "really a woman" (or man), they became so distressed that they had to respond with violence. What's worse is that these defenses often work. In a real sense, both in law and in practice, people who are seen to transgress gender without adequately convincing others of their normalcy as members of one of the two socially sanctioned genders are no longer afforded the basic rights of citizenship (see e.g. Cabral & Viturro, 2006) or indeed what are usually considered to be "human rights" (Thomas, 2006). To be without a recognizable gender identity is to be without a human identity.

When people who find themselves positioned outside of social categories have the opportunity to construct our own new categories without such direct manipulation from institutions of social control, do the categories still reproduce the rules of the system in question? In other words, is it possible to create new categories of gender or racial identity that do not reflect the fundamental characteristics of the extant categories? To go back to Omi and Winant, a person in danger of having no identity needs an identity that is comprehensible not only to hirself, but also to others. A gender identity that does not follow the basic rules of normative gender identities – such as the four characteristics outlined by Ekins and King – is not a gender identity at all, it’s something different. To take another example, a racial identity category in the U.S. that does not reference physiognomy and heredity in some way is not a racial identity at all. To construct such an identity would require, at the outset, intense intrapersonal work and integrity. Then it would require convincing many others of the legitimacy of the construction.

The larger question this is coming to is how can we change oppressive structures of social categorization? Social categories, including but not limited to racial and gender identities, are defined, contested and redefined according to the cultural and political requirements of the moment. Often they are defined hierarchically. Sometimes the categories themselves are oppressive, even regardless of hierarchy. Yet we need racial categories in order to function socially, or else we are in danger of having no identity, of disappearing.

For clarity’s sake, let me make an admittedly simplistic example. Imagine a world in which there is no racial hierarchy. In this world, people of every racial group have equal resources, access, and opportunity, and everybody really is “color blind”. But there are still racial categories, and they still mean something (although something without value judgment). Because there are categories, there are still some people whose categorization is uncertain. In this imaginary world, race as a system of categorization is still oppressive, even though the hierarchy has been removed.

The only way to eliminate racism is to eliminate both the hierarchical organization of racial categories and ultimately the categories themselves. The only way to eliminate sexism is to eliminate not only the hierarchy of men over women, but also the entire system of gender categorization – that is, the concept of gender itself. The only way to eliminate heterosexism is to eliminate the normalization of heterosexuality and the othering of other sexualities, but also to break with the concept of sexual orientation entirely. But as I learned the hard way, identifying as “I don’t believe sexual orientation is a valid concept” is not a productive way to start a conversation. We need to break with these categories, but in the meanwhile, we need to hold onto them, lest we disappear.

Perhaps the struggle of genderqueer identity, for example, is to gauge when it is safe to give up gender identity without disappearing. In the meanwhile, we hold onto just enough of it to get by on, while slowly discarding some characteristics, like permanence and inherence. Indeed, the genderqueer community seems to be moving in this direction. However, I have seen many genderqueer individuals “relapse” into more binary gender logic as they leave sheltered communities such as some colleges and have to deal with more and more “momentary crises”. We are still far from the point where we can or should abandon gender.

"Transgender" and "genderqueer" as identity labels do little to challenge the structure of the traditional gender system. It's not that they aren't radically outside of & in opposition to it - in many ways I believe they are. But they are not generally recognized as gender categories, and in fact their failure to conform to the basic structure of gender (permanence, inherence, biology, etc.) makes it unlikely that they ever will be. However the transgender rights movement has in many cases recognized the futility of inscribing one more gender category as a strategy for social change. Legislation to protect the rights of transgender individuals rarely names transgender people as a protected class, but rather refers to "gender identity" and "gender expression" as protected categories (Currah, 2006; Thomas, 2006). This much broader approach is promising legally in that it inscribes protection for all people to explain and display their gender in a variety of ways. However legislative advances do not automatically lead to cultural change. It seems to me that passing trans-inclusive nondiscrimination statutes has only a limited effect on the interpersonal level, where many trans individuals are still unrecognizable and seen as inhuman. We know that anti-trans violence is no less deadly for being illegal in a few jurisdictions, and so most of us enact identities on a daily basis that are less radical even than the nondiscrimination statutes - and for some of us, less radical than how we actually understand ourselves to be.

The example of sexual orientation may be more promising at this point. Since it is not a necessarily visible identity, I think many people have succeeded in giving up sexual orientation in favor a political identity of queer. Queer does not follow any of the same rules as sexual orientation identities: it’s not inherent or permanent, is sometimes central, and has nothing to do with the gender of the person or hir partner(s).

I have no illusions that I have answered any questions in this paper. Instead, I hope that I have raised some in a way that others can understand: Why do people sometimes claim identities that are not true to experience? Why do new categories seem to reproduce many characteristics of established categories? When are systems of categorization oppressive, even without the element of hierarchy? (For that matter, is there such a thing as a system of social categorization without hierarchy?) What would it entail to move beyond the need for race, gender, or sexual orientation as a classification? Finally, how do these questions apply to some contemporary situations?


Ideas for this paper were drawn from:

Cabral, M. & Viturro, P. (2006). (Trans)sexual citizenship in contemporary Argentina. In Currah, P., Juang, R. M., and Minter, S.P., Transgender Rights (pp. 262-273). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Currah, P. (2006). Gender pluralisms under the transgender umbrella. In Currah, P., Juang, R. M., and Minter, S.P., Transgender Rights (pp. 3-31). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Ekins & King (1998), “Blending genders: Contributions to the emerging field of transgender studies”

Link, A. (2002). “Vision.” In Nestle, Howell, & Wilchins (Eds.), Genderqueer: Voices from beyond the gender binary (pp. 86-89). LA: Alyson Books.

Omi (1999), “Racial identity and the state: Contesting the federal standards for classification”

Omi & Winant (1986), “Racial formation”

Thomas, K. (2006). Afterword: Are transgender rights Inhuman rights? In Currah, P., Juang, R. M., and Minter, S.P., Transgender Rights (pp. 310-326). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.



[1] In this paper I use gender neutral or “third gender” pronouns to refer to hypothetical third persons. This avoids gendering my example, or distorting grammar with the plural “they”. Gender neutral pronouns are ze for the subject pronoun and hir for the object and possessive pronouns, as in “I heard from hir yesterday, and ze’s really happy in hir new home.”

[2] As I re-read this paragraph, I realize that I am falling into the same trap many of our readings do. When I spoke of the theorist or the observer, I used “we”. When I speak of an individual in between identities, I use the third person. This is not quite honest to my experiences, since I am often in the position of causing crises of meaning for others. Yet I imagine a reader who is not used to thinking of hirself as in between or as a cause of dissonance, and so I try to relate to this imagined reader by relegating myself to the position of academic observer, rather than that of an “other”.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Taking My Knapsack of Privilege through Airport Security

or, "How I got off the terrorist watch-list"
or, "She pushed the white button"

This is a DRAFT and I am interested in editorial comments. Please DO NOT SHARE it (except by linking to this page) until I'm done with it.

After 9/11, I got stopped every single time I went through airport security. In the very beginning I got stopped twice in each airport – once at the regular screening point, and once again at the gate for an additional search of my carry-on bags.

At that time we were just getting used to being really scrutinized in airports. Everyone was annoyed at the long lines, and at having to remove their shoes and jackets. It seemed like overkill. It was overkill. But even in that context, my experiences with airport security stood out as notably ludicrous.

For one thing, the numbers did not add up. They told us that the second screening of carryon bags at the gate occurred for one in ten randomly selected passengers. I got selected ten times out of ten. For another thing, metal detectors didn’t seem to like me. No matter how hard I tried to remove any clothes with metal pieces, and any stray scraps of foil in my pockets, I always set it off.

After a little while, I got know the signs and procedures. When I picked up my boarding pass, I checked for the row of Ss across the bottom that meant I had to go through the special line. (It was always there.) Most of the people I shared the line with were white men in suits – business travelers. I figured they really had been selected randomly. There were also a few Arab, African and South Asian men, who looked accustomed and resigned to the extra scrutiny. I figured they had been profiled, selected no more “randomly” than I.

In line, I removed my shoes, hoodie, cap, and belt and placed them neatly in plastic bins to be x-rayed. I shuffled through the metal detector, trying to look like my pants weren’t falling off my tush. Because I was in the special line, officers would search my bags even if I didn’t set off the metal detector, but I hoped at least to avoid a personal screening (i.e. a pat-down).

The pat-down or wand-check (with a handheld metal detector) is not exactly a joy for anyone, and it can be particularly traumatic for trans people. A few times, officers got into arguments about who should pat me down. The screening is supposed to be performed by an officer of the same gender as the person being examined, to avoid the appearance of inappropriate touching. The officers weren’t certain of my gender, and it stressed them out. “Should you pat her down?” “No, I think you should pat him down.” “I’m pretty sure you should pat her down.” “Just pat him down please!”

Needless to say, I worked hard to avoid this situation. I took to flying in pyjama pants, so the rivets on my jeans wouldn’t set off the metal detector. I replaced my steel earrings with wooden ones. I even tried removing my Star of David necklace, which I almost never do. It’s a tiny pennant on a silver chain that’s hardly big enough even to count as metal, much less to set off a metal detector, but I was willing to try anything.

It didn’t matter. Inevitably, the metal detector went off anyway. At least once I think I really had succeeded in removing every discernable trace of metal, because the detector didn’t sound immediately. I took a few steps past it and felt a sense of elation – at last, I did it! No argument about my gender! No confused TSA agent fastidiously touching every inch of me with the backs of his or her hands! And then of course the detector went off. They must have a button back there, I thought. Just in case a freaky, suspicious-looking person like me fails to set it off on their own. They must have pushed the freak button.

I thought I had it all figured out. It was obvious to me why I was getting searched more often, and more intrusively, than most people I knew. I attributed the unequal treatment to those aspects of my identity that were most salient to me. I thought, “It’s because I’m young, because I’m poor, because I’m queer, because I’m transgender.” Actually, it was something else.

I found this out in 2005, traveling to FL to be with my extended family. My boarding pass had the row of Ss like usual. In the special line, the TSA agent rattled off, “Remove your shoes and jacket and put any metal from your pockets in this dish …” and then she turned to me, realized I had already done all that, and commented, “You’re pretty good at this.” I noticed her for the first time them, because this was the most personable thing a TSA agent had ever said to me. She was a petit woman of South Asian descent. She looked tired. The id badge pinned to her uniform had a Hindi name on it. It occurred to me that this must be an awkward job for an Indian woman to have, what with the rampant racial profiling of South Asians.

“I’ve had some practice,” I said. She nodded sympathetically. I handed her my id and boarding pass. She glanced at them and almost immediately looked up and said, “Gita??” Gita is my legal first name. In India, it is a very common name for girls. I had a moment of panic, thinking this was yet another gender confusion. Sometimes when people read me as a guy, they don’t believe my id is really mine.

“Yeah,” I said, because I couldn’t think of anything else to say.

“You don’t look Indian,” the TSA agent said. That caught me off guard. All of a sudden we were having a totally different conversation from the one I had thought we were having.

“Yeah, that’s true,” I said. I am white, after all. I’m sure there are some people in India who look like me, but the truth is my connection to that country is tenuous at best. My parents lived there for a little while before I was born, and I know just enough Hindi to pronounce my own name. There’s absolutely no reason that I would “look” Indian at all.

“Huh.” The TSA agent shrugged. With her right hand, she typed something into her computer, while with her left hand she returned my id and boarding pass to me. “Have a nice flight,” she said.

On the other side of the check point, tying my shoes and trying to regroup, I puzzled over the exchange. I second guessed everything I had said, wondering what I could have done differently to be more friendly, or less suspicious, or … something. I knew I was missing something.

I continued puzzling over it for the entire trip, until I arrived at the airport for the return flight. I looked at my boarding pass and noticed: No Ss! I went through the ordinary, non-special check point, and lo and behold, the metal detector did not go off!

Up until that trip, I had been stopped every single time I flew for about four years. In the three years since then, I have never once been stopped by airport security.

I think I was probably right about the freak button. But I think they have another button back there, too. When the friendly Indian TSA agent realized I was not South Asian at all, but rather a white kid with a Hindi name, I think she hit the white button.

Peggy McIntosh writes of a knapsack of white privilege. The idea is that white people carry around a whole package of unearned advantages, which we may not even be aware of, that privilege us in a system of racism. McIntosh’s article has been described as groundbreaking for folks who do work around racism and other systems of oppression. I’ve found it useful as a teaching tool, but it always frustrated me on a personal level. When I first read McIntosh’s article, I wanted to understand that I had white privilege. And yet many of the specific examples on McIntosh’s list did not apply to me because I am disadvantaged by other systems of oppression – for example, because I am young (and young-looking), working-class, Jewish, queer, and transgender.

These other identities tend to mask my white privilege in many situations. One of McIntosh’s examples is “I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.” As a young-looking, poor-looking, gender-ambiguous queer kid, I was followed and harassed pretty consistently in stores. Now I don’t look quite as young or as poor as I did then, but I still get harassed from time to time because of gender. Another example from McIntosh’s list is “I can criticize our government and talk about how much I fear its policies and behavior without being seen as a cultural outsider.” As a Jew whose family has been impacted by McCarthyism, that one didn’t make much sense to me either.

These are the kinds of experiences that are most salient to me, and these were the kind of explanations I turned to when I realized I was being targeted in airport security. The effects of other systems of oppression don’t negate my white privilege, but they do make it even more difficult to put my finger on ways in which I personally benefit because of my race. In this case, something far stranger occurred. My attention to these other factors distracted me from noticing that I was being mistakenly targeted because someone perceived me as non-white.

I still think that classism, adultism, transgender oppression and maybe antisemitism play out for me in airports. But they are not as central in that context as race is. I was put on a list of some kind, set aside to be particularly hassled in the airport, because I had a South Asian name. I was taken off the list when a South Asian woman noticed I was white.

I was carrying my knapsack of privilege the whole time, but it wasn’t obvious. They usually aren’t, to the people carrying them – most white people find it difficult to see the privileges that we have. But usually the knapsacks are at least clear enough that the system knows to treat us like white folks. In my case, the contents of my privilege knapsack were obscured by my other identities and by having a South Asian name.

But that TSA agent saw right through it. She x-rayed my knapsack of privilege, and saw that I was white, and she pushed the white button. And that is the essence of privilege. I didn’t do anything wrong to get on the watch list, and I didn’t do anything right to get off it. All I had to do was show up and be white.

This is a DRAFT and I am interested in editorial comments. Please DO NOT SHARE it (except by linking to this page) until I'm done with it.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

First Things First

This past Tuesday I had the privilege to participate in and present at a small conference/training day for adults who work with GLBTQ youth. The workshop I facilitated focused on supporting transgender and "gender variant" youth (their language, not mine). It was the only session focused specifically on trans issues; all the other workshops lumped the T in with GLB and Q.

Toward the end of the day I was chatting with the keynote speaker, a successful academic who does community-based research on GLBTQ youth and their families. I asked her a couple of questions about trans issues in her research. All of her responses could be summed up as "We don't know, because we didn't analyze the data on trans youth, and that's not our focus." I don't blame her, I guess, but on a personal level I felt disappointed.

Then she politely returned my interest in her work, and asked me what it was like to be a consultant on trans issues here in Western MA. I reminded her that it is still legal to discriminate against trans people in MA, and explained how that makes it difficult to tell organizations that they must/should be welcoming of transgender people. I said I enjoy my work as a consultant, but that part of the reason I'm self-employed at all is that most workplaces are hostile or at best clueless about trans issues, and therefore I have found I'm nearly unemployable except in trans-specific jobs.

She responded, "Oh, well you're such a great activist, you can fix that!"

Ouch.

It struck me that the speaker was not particularly comfortable with my being there as a trans activist. She does a lot of good work on behalf of GLBTQ youth, trying to improve their situations so that they can make free and healthy choices. And yet when a young(ish) trans person says, "I'm here in this room, doing this work with you, in part because I have gotten totally screwed over as a young trans person and this was one of very few paths open to me," she tries to change the subject.

"Be an activist," she says, "and it will be all better." And through her words I also hear, "Don't talk to me about how bad it is. It's not my department."

I mean, thanks for the vote of confidence. Truly, I'm glad you think I can change the world. But the compliment was almost totally overshadowed by the way it functioned to avoid acknowledging the emotional context of the problem. It's like saying, "It's no big deal that your community is totally downtrodden and disenfranchised. Just work real hard on your activism, and one day (maybe) you can be part of the regular job market."

On top of being tactless, the comment was also nonsensical. It doesn't usually work that way. People who are downtrodden and disenfranchised, who are living in poverty and being treated badly, don't have time or energy to show up on picket lines, to write letters to their congress people, or to be there for each other in a healthy, functioning community. They may not even be able to be there for themselves.

Instead of "Be an activist, so you can be employed," I'd like to be telling trans people, "We'll help you get employed, and then when you have some stability in your life, you can make your own decisions about being an activist."

In my personal philosophy, I tend toward the assumption that anyone who's not being an activist is not pulling their weight. I think it's my responsibility to be an activist because I'm a human who's conscious of my surroundings. However, it is not my responsibility as a trans person to do activism on trans issues because trans people are oppressed. Trans people have no particular moral responsibility to be activists, any more than people in general do. And like people in general, trans people should be able to come to activism of their own free will, because they see a need for change, and not because their immediate survival depends on it.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

queering yr anti-zionism

The issue of Zionism, non-Zionism, anti-Zionism, etc. is one of the few areas of my own politics about which I rarely have fun, make art, get lewd, or feel able to take a joke. My thanks to this guy, whoever he is, for helping make resistance to Zionist expansionism sexy. Wish I'd seen the ad when it was still current!

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

More on Protest at Smith

A Smith student who attended the protest wrote this excellent piece, commenting on the distinction between interfering with free speech and interfering with academic decorum ... or as I put it to some Smithies I chatted with after the protest, between breaking the law and being impolite. Enjoy.

(Hope the links works. It's to a facebook note, and facebook's weird.)

Right, so the facebook link doesn't work cause you need to have a facebook acct and be my friend BUT here's a link that does!! ~anonymous

Friday, May 02, 2008

Damn Lesbians!

For all those queer women, etc. who don't happen to like the word Lesbian, you have allies in Greece. From MSNBC:

Greek islanders seek to reclaim term ‘Lesbian

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Protesting Homophobic Speaker: What I saw & Lessons learned

Last Tuesday I was privileged to witness and participate in actions organized by Smith College students in protest of lecturer Bryan Sorba coming to campus. Sorba was invited by the college's Republican Club (or, he invited himself and asked the Republican Club to reserve him a room - opinions vary). His thesis is that people are not born gay, but that rather it's a lifestyle choice, and that it's a choice against (his) God, and that therefore gay people don't deserve civil rights.

There's been a lot of conflict amongst Smith students (and alums) about whether and how students should have protested the event. A small part of this conflict centers around whether Sorba's really all that bad, and most of it centers around what forms of protest/disagreement would have been appropriate.

As to the question of whether he's really that bad: he is. If you need to discover it for yourself, you can see some of his writings here - though I'm loathe to give his site more traffic. Among his published opinions are that Islam is inherently violent and anti-intellectual; that everything good in Western (sic) society, including science, is a result of Christian values; and that wealth inequality is a good sign (!), because it means that some people aren't living in squalor like presumably everyone was
before Protestant capitalism. And that's not to mention the homophobic stuff.

Several alums, writing to the LGBTQ Smith Alumae listserve, argued that as long as Sorba's work is academically sound, then it should be allowed as a part of a vibrant academic environment. The thing is, his work is not academically sound. It is full of bad writing, internal contradictions, and sometimes statements that are demonstrably untrue. More on that below.

Since pretty much anyone who reads my blog probably agrees about Sorba and his views, I'll stop wasting pixels with that and move on to the interesting part: What should we have done? I said above that Smith students organized a protest, but actually, "organize" might be too strong a word. The events surrounding the lecture came together at the last minute with no central organizing body and no formal leadership. This has its pros and cons.

Here's what I saw happen:

Students decided to protest the event in a variety of ways. Some staged alternative events at the same time, such as a "love in" where students went to cuddle, smooch, study for finals, and be affirming of their various sexual orientations. Others decided to be visible at the event itself. Plans for protests at the lecture included simply being visibly queer (by wearing rainbows, fairy wings, etc.), turning chairs around and causing Sorba to lecture to the audiences backs, and holding signs. A few people brought pots and pans to bang on, but this was not part of any organized plan that I know of.

The part of the organizing that most deserved that name involved what students planned to say to Sorba. Many, perhaps most, of the students who gathered to protest had the intention of witnessing Sorba's entire talk and then asking pointed questions intended to highlight the inconsistencies and ridiculousness of Sorba's argument. In other words, they were going to engage with Sorba in the way that's customary at academic lectures. Students researched Sorba ahead of time so they'd know what issues were likely to come up. (Perhaps more preparation than they do for their classes, or at least more preparation that
I ever did for an undergraduate lecture!) One student with a background in bible studies volunteered to be the designated repudiator of faulty biblical references. It was, I thought, and admirable example of students pooling their intellectual acumen to prepare for the kind of fight they're good at - the rational, abstract, academic kind.

For the first 15 minutes or so of Sorba's lecture, many of the students in the room did just that. At one point, rumor has it, Sorba quoted Magnus Hirschfeld in support of Sorba's claim that people are not born gay. A student blurted out - interrupting, but who can blame her? - "But, Hirschfeld was gay!" Sorba said, "No, he wasn't." The student replied, "Yeah, in fact his Institut was burned down by the Nazis." Sorba said, "That's not true," which of course, it is. That exchange seems to me like exactly the kind of victory Smith students would want. If it sounds dry, chalk it up to my inadequate description. The pleasure that students at an elite school get from showing-up someone in their chosen field of study is at least as pleasurable, albeit in a different way, as a good picket or chant.

It's my opinion that the rest of the lecture would have gone in pretty much the same vein, if all the protesters had been allowed into the room. After all, that was the only solid plan that had been made. I suspect that at some point, Sorba would have said something even more reprehensible, for example something that seemed to advocate violence, and at that point the banging on pots would have commenced, and Sorba would have been drummed out in a way that even the stuffy foremothers of Smith College past would have been proud of.

However. What happened instead was that the lecture was held in Neilson Browsing Room, a medium-sized parlor (I can think of no other word) in the front corner of Neilson library. Public Safety officers determined the room to be "at capacity" about 20 minutes before the lecture was to begin, and stopped letting people in.
Some self-designated leaders of the protest approached the folks in charge of the lecture, including college staff who were present, to ask if the event might be moved to a larger venue. They were told that it couldn't.

The room was packed with protesters of the sit-backwards and ask-pointed-questions crews. The hallway was likewise full, making it difficult for students to get in and out of the Browsing Room or the Library itself, which distressed the librarians. The steps of the building were writhing with milling protesters, and the embrasures of the windows were packed with students literally climbing on each other (and happily consenting to be climbed on) in attempts to see and hear what was going on inside. There was also a quiet stake-out in the reference section adjacent to the room's rarely-used back door.

In other words, the room was surrounded on four sides by people who came expecting a protest. All the plans had assumed that everybody would be in the room where the lecture was happening. As it happened, barely half of us fit inside. The folks on the outside (I was one of them) were at loose ends, itching for a protest, but with no plan, and no leader to look to for a new plan. At first we piled into windows trying to hear what Sorba was saying. Some people shouted, "Turn up the mic!" but it was all the way up already.

What can I say? We were bored. It was chilly. Someone started up a chant. That was a good idea, because it kept us warm, but it didn't have much to do with the original plan. Some people ran an errand to one of the Co-op houses to get more pots to bang on. Eventually, someone got the windows open. Students started climbing through the windows. Public Safety officers tried to prevent this, but there were more windows than public safety officers. I heard (but could not see because as a sometime contractor for the college, I opted not to climb through the windows) that some folks ended up marching in tight circles around the podium itself, chanting and holding signs.

After about 20 minutes, Sorba said he was going to take a break, and would come back "after the anarchists leave." Public Safety officers escorted Sorba out the back door into the library. Students hiding in the stacks overheard the officers telling Sorba that he should leave, because the event was a disruption to the library. Sorba never got back to the podium.

When it became clear that Sorba was not coming back, a student from the Republican Club, which had hosted the event, stood up and declared tearfully, "I have an announcement. You won, but what did you really win?" The other students burst into cheers and pot-banging. Gradually they dispersed to cuddle, study, smoke cigarettes (sad but true) and eat ice cream. Some people called it a victory. Other people called it an embarrassment.

So, lessons learned:
  1. Have a plan. Have a backup plan. Have designated leaders to make on-the-spot calls.
  2. Know the rules. In the middle of the protest, someone turned to me and said, "What leeway does public safety have here? Can we get arrested for forcing our way into the room?" and nobody knew the answer.
  3. Have a goal to refer back to when making last-minute decisions and/or declaring victory. Was the goal to embarrass him? To make him leave? To be a visible presence? To affirm our sense of our own goodness as queers? Or what?
  4. Have a position statement that clearly lays out all the issues, sets the terms of the debate, and does not rely on the opponent's own publicity to dig its own grave. I can't believe how much breath was wasted saying, "Well, is saying that people aren't 'born gay' necessarily homophobic?" That was the rhetoric that got around most quickly, because that was the title line of Sorba's own materials. It's not nearly the most offensive thing he says. Protests need to have a clear target, and Sorba makes a good one, but only if we highlight what we believe to be offensive about his message, not just repeat the language he's using.
  5. Be organized. By which I mean, have an organization! Of the three GLBT-based student organizations that have been active at Smith, one is small and floundering, one is trying to restart, and one is totally defunct. This event highlighted the need for ongoing organizing on GLBT issues, so that the community wouldn't be caught off-guard when something like this comes up, and so that a leadership structure would be already in place.
  6. Form, maintain, and draw on strong coalitions. There are student groups at Smith that have expertise in organizing protests. They weren't involved in this event at all. Later, students pointed out that a) this isn't the primary issue those groups work on, b) there aren't many students with that expertise, and they're tired, and c) the huge number of queers who showed up to protest Sorba rarely show up to anti-war protests, or indeed to anything that's not queer-specific. Coalitions go both ways. We need to show up as queers at events that are not only for us. And more people should have those skills so that we're not relying on a few over-extended perennial organizers.
Finally, even though I learned good lessons about how not to run a protest, I'm not disappointed about how it went down. It wasn't the best way we could have won, but it sure wasn't bad, especially for something that came together on barely a week's notice while most people were busy studying for their finals.

As one alum pointed out to me: We literally drummed him off the stage! How often do activists get to celebrate a victory as dramatic as that? Let's learn from our mistakes, yes; but let's also not forget to enjoy our successes.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Pronoun Project

Dear friends,

I am working on a writing project about what makes it difficult for some people to use the correct pronouns for trans people. I would like to invite you to contribute your ideas & experiences to this project, by letting me interview you for about 20 minutes. You do not have to be trans (although you could be) or a particularly skilled ally (although you could be). If you have ever been in community with a transgender or gender-transgressive person, or where transgender issues were discussed, and if you know what I mean by "pronoun," then I value your perspective and would love to talk with you.

This is not research in the academic, human subjects review board kind of way. I am thinking of it more as journalism. I hope it will result in a short article that I will publish in a general audience context, and/or self-publish on the web. The article will conclude with a series of exercises that people can do to help them become more proficient at using gendered language respectfully. Drafts of these handouts will be your thank you gift for consenting to be interviewed.

This project came about because, in the course of my work as a consultant and educator on transgender issues, I hear the same questions over and over again. One of the common ones goes something like this: "We're all very trans friendly here. The main challenge we have is that, even when we know which pronoun a trans person prefers, we keep using the wrong one anyway. We try, but... it's hard."

People who say this are well intentioned! They really want to call someone the right pronouns, and yet, they keep slipping up. In this project I am taking people at their word that "it's hard." I have some ideas about what exactly might be hard about it, and thus what people might be able to do to work through it. The purpose of the interviews is get a range of perspectives on people's learning processes around using the right pronouns for transgender or gender-transgressive people. For folks who are transgender or gender-transgressive, I am also interested in hearing about your experiences of how people use language about you.

If you're interested in participating or have questions, please email me.

Peace,
Davey

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Panelspiel on Violence Against GLBTQI People

This is draft 2 - March 26.


This is for a 20 minute panelspiel to be given this coming Thursday. Comments are welcome anytime, and they are especially useful if received by Wednesday night. (Bloggish niceties, like links & better html formatting, will be inserted later when I have time to do it.) Thanks ~D

Good afternoon. My name is Davey. I am an alum of the Social Justice Education Program at UMass, Amherst, and now I work as a consultant providing trainings and workshops about social justice issues, primarily focusing on trans/gender issues and issues related to class/classism. I am also a writer, and in my spare time I have a day job making water color paintings on silk clothing.

Today I’ve been asked to talk about violence against people who are GLB and transgender. I think this is an aspect of “gender violence,” as this forum is titled, that’s often missing from conversations about violence in communities and on campuses. In particular, it’s often missing from conversations about sexual assault and intimate partner abuse, which is the area in which most of my antiviolence work has focused.

We tend to speak of these as “women’s issues.” In fact that’s part of the story of how I came to be invited to be part of this forum. Someone wrote a message to a listserve that I’m part of, raising the issue of “violence against women.” What the person said was smart and important and totally valid, but the term “violence against women” just grates on my nerves. So I wrote back to the list saying, “Actually, it’s not only women that are targeted by sexist violence and sexualized violence.” After I wrote that, about a half a dozen people approached me to discuss the issue, and next thing I knew, the CRC asked me to be on this panel.

So, when we talk about sexual assault and intimate partner abuse, we often say “violence against women” as a shortcut. Most of the people who speak publicly about these issues are working out of women’s centers and came up through the women’s movement. Even when that’s not the case, many if not most people who do work around sexual assault and intimate partner abuse are working from a binary and heterosexist framework, where the problem is heterosexual men’s violence against heterosexual women, often their partners, and where the underlying explanation for this violence is sexism.

This is an important framework and a useful one. I am not suggesting that we throw it out. However it is vital that it not be our only lens, because that leads us to ignore other manifestations of violence and other underlying factors.

Heterosexual men’s violence against heterosexual women is a major issue, and sexism is a major underlying cause. In fact, I would argue that sexism also is an underlying cause of much of the interpersonal violence committed by men against men, by women against women, and by anyone against GLB, trans, queer and intersex people. This makes it all the more crucial that we not ignore these other manifestations of violence, which also stem from sexism, but which don’t match the assumption of hetero men’s violence against hetero women. If we’re committed to ending the violence that stems from sexism, we have to acknowledge all the forms that violence can take.

So, I don’t want us to take the shortcut of saying “violence against women,” when what we mean is something much more specific – such as “heterosexual men’s violence against their heterosexual women partners” – or something much more broader – such as “violence whose function is to perpetuate sexist power relationships amongst people of all genders.” With phrases like that I can see why we might want to take short cuts. But let’s make sure what we know what we mean by those shortcuts.

You might be wondering why I care so much about the language we use. They’re just words, right? Here are some of the reasons it matters to me:

-It matters because women also commit violence. If the model we’re using to understand violence doesn’t account for that, then the model is flawed.

-It matters because sexism is not the only underlying cause of violence. I’d highlight racism, classism and imperialism as some others that we had better not ignore.

-And it matters because men, trans folks and people who are intersex also experience violence directed against them.

A movement against violence must honor all of these experiences, must provide services that are accessible to all survivors of interpersonal violence, and must incorporate all of these perspectives into our overall understanding of what violence means.

One thing that gets in the way of this conversation is basic ignorance about the experiences of GLB, queer, trans and intersex people. In a moment I’m going to rattle off some statistics for you. First I’d better define some of the terms that I’ve been throwing around already. I don’t mean to provide authoritative definitions. These are how I am using these words for our purposes today.

-When I say GLB, I mean gay, lesbian and bisexual.

-When I say transgender, I mean person whose gender identity or gender expression differs significantly from what is expected of them in their culture, and for whom this difference is central to their identity and/or a significant part of their everyday experience.

-When I say intersex, I mean anyone whose physical body is not easily classified as simply male or female.

-When I say queer, … Well, there just never seems to be a good time to talk about what I mean by queer. Now certainly isn’t the time. I’ll just say, queer is a term that is highly loaded and politicized, whether it’s used as hatespeech, or as a positive term of empowerment. It is endlessly useful and endlessly fraught. Queer is the word that speaks truest to my identity and experience, and so I tend to use it a lot. If it happens to slip out during this talk, what I mean is all of us folks who are targeted by homophobia, heterosexism and transphobia regardless of how we identify.

So, now let’s talk statistics (read whichever ones seem most relevant based on feel of the group and what panelists have said already):

Hate Crimes: Hate crimes statistics are ridiculously unreliable. Nevertheless, it might interest you to know that the FBI recorded 1,195 crimes motivated by homophobia in 2002. 72 of these occurred in Massachusetts. (Crimes motivated by homophobia are not actually part of the federal hate crimes statutes. The FBI is required to keep track of them, but nothing happens as a result of a federal crime being classified as a homophobic hate crime.)

The FBI does not track hate crimes based on gender identity or gender expression. However some trans people are trying to keep track of them: The Remembering Our Dead website currently lists 358 people who were murdered since 1970 because they were trans. This is almost definitely a drastic underestimate, since police departments have no obligation to report these as hate crimes, and since trans people who aren’t “out” as trans are unlikely to be counted.

Schools: Looking at all “sexual minority youth” as one group, the Massachusetts Youth Risk Behavior Survey (2005) found that 13% had skipped school because they felt unsafe, 44% had been bullied (compared to 23% of heterosexual non-trans students), and 14% had been threatened or injured with a weapon at school; in addition 35% had experienced dating violence and 34% had experienced or sexual contact against their will.

Another study, which looked at transgender youth separately, found that among those who were enrolled in school, almost 90% reported feeling unsafe in school, more than half report being physically harassed, and 35% report being physically assaulted in school because of their gender expression (Kosciw, 2002).

Sexual Assault: (First ask people to guess) With regard to sexual assault, gay men and lesbians are more likely to be raped than heterosexuals; in addition they are more likely to be raped by a stranger, often as part of a physical assault motivated by homophobia[1]. From the few studies of sexualized violence against transgender people, they appear to be at even higher risk.

Percentage of population who report having been forced to have sex at least once:

All men, regardless of sexual orientation:

7%[2]

Gay men in particular:

12%1

All women, regardless of sexual orientation:

22%2

Lesbian women in particular:

31%1

FtM transgender people:

55%[3]

MtF transgender people:

68%3

“Sexual Minority” Youth in Mass. Schools

34%[4]

(Ask people to guess what the reasons might be. Fill in if they don’t come up with: Homophobic stranger assaults; young people getting in unhealthy hetero relationships to prove their straightness; young people disconnected from family therefore living in unsafe shared housing or on street; young people feel isolated in general therefore more vulnerable to pressure from partners, etc.)

Across all of these groups, perpetrators are believed to be 90%-95% non-trans hetero me. I feel I can’t say that without also re-emphasizing that men are also victimized by sexual assault. The statistics are unreliable due to underreporting, but my best guess is that any given man is at least as likely to have been victimized by sexual assault as he is to ever commit a sexual assault.

Intimate partner abuse: Intimate partner abuse is a pattern of violence over time such that one partner in an intimate relationship maintains power and control over another. About 1/3 of hetero women are abused by an intimate partner at some point in their lives. This same proportion is true for lesbian women and gay men. It’s estimated that the number for hetero men is way lower, but since hetero men are probably unlikely to report this kind of experience, we just don’t know.

Economics: GLBTQI people are more likely to be living in poverty than heterosexuals. For example, one recent study of trans-identified folks found that 15% were employed full time, 35% were employed part time, and the remaining 60% were unemployed or were employed illegally (i.e. doing sex work or selling drugs).

I would define this level of impoverishment as a form of violence in itself. But that’s not the only reason I bring it up: I hope it’s obvious that people who are doing sex work are at extraordinary risk of sexual assault, and are also unlikely to report assaults or receive support services because of the legal risk. In addition, engaging in criminalized work puts these individuals at high risk of imprisonment, and people who are imprisoned are at tremendous risk of sexual assault with very limited access to support services.

Barriers to Reporting: Finally, when GLB and queer and trans and intersex folks do experience a sexual assault or any kind of interpersonal violence, they face unique barriers to reporting or disclosing about their experience and seeking support. First of all, as we know, most services for survivors are designed by and for non-trans heterosexual women. Some programs are actually closed to GLB, queer, trans and intersex folks. Others have names that may be heard to imply that. And even when a program wants to be welcoming, staff members don’t always know how to assist survivors who don’t fall into the usual priority population of non-trans hetero women.

In addition, similar to other marginalized communities, GLB, queer, trans and intersex survivors may distrust service providers in general. How many of you are familiar with the story of Tyra Hunter? She was a 24 year old transsexual woman living in DC. She was injured in a motor vehicle accident. EMTs arrived at the scene of the accident and started to help. Tyra had lost consciousness during the crash, and was just waking up when they arrived. While examining her to assess the extent of her injuries, one EMT discovered that Tyra had male genitals. At that point the EMTs stopped providing treatment. Instead they stood around for a while making intensely derogatory comments. Then they took her to the hospital where she continued to receive inadequate care. She later died as a result of her injuries.

I don’t think this represents a typical experience with emergency medical staff. I hope it doesn’t happen every day. But I know it happened that once, and most trans people also know about it. This story is still circulating in trans communities, partly because it’s so horrific, and partly because almost all of us have our own smaller-scale horror stories to tell about interacting with doctors, social workers or police who did not have our best interests in mind.

That story is particular to trans folk, but certainly intersex folk have similar well-founded reasons to distrust service providers, and some GLB folk do as well, depending on where and when they came out. So even prior to interacting with service providers, a GLB, trans or intersex survivor may assume or fear that providers won’t be helpful.

And in many cases they’re right. GLB, trans, queer and intersex survivors who report a sexual assault or intimate partner abuse risk being re-victimized by the system in a variety of ways. For example:

-they may be asked to explain the physical details of the assault in greater detail than one would ask of a non-trans female who was assaulted by a male;

-they may face blatant homophobia or transphobia from service providers;

-they may be arrested (especially if the survivor is a trans woman, because police may assume she’s a sex worker);

-trans and intersex survivors may receive inappropriate medical care if providers are confused about their sex or gender. For example they may not offer EC (emergency contraception to a trans man who they perceive as male, even though he may need it.

I’m sure you all are full of depressing statistics for now. I know that I am. I said before that ignorance of the facts is one thing that gets in the way of this conversation. So now you have some facts, and if you want further information along those lines, there are handouts available in the back, including one about barriers to reporting (in general, for marginalized populations, and for trans folk in particular).

In closing, I’ve been asked to talk a little bit about what we can do to improve the situation. Mostly, I want to hear from y’all about what you’d like to see happen. It’s your campus. I will sign off with two quick suggestions, though. One of them is abstract, and the other is more concrete.

First, the abstract thing: We can all get really clear about what we mean when we’re talking about these issues. What do we mean when we use shortcuts like “violence against women” or “gendered violence”? When we say “sexual assault,” what are we imagining? Are we imagining a stranger assault by a non-trans hetero man against a non-trans hetero woman? And if so, let’s disrupt those assumptions. When we say “safety,” what exactly are we imagining safety feels like? How exactly are we imagining safety happens?

The concrete thing is: We can improve resources, services and general understanding about violence against GLB, trans and intersex folk on this campus. We can do this by funding great trainings for staff and students, so that survivors who do choose to disclose an experience of violence find caring and competent support. We can train not only EWC staff, but also the folks at counseling services, at UHS, and in Residence Life. In my dreams, we can fund these trainings so well that staff will actually get paid to attend them rather than having them tacked on to their already full workloads.

I look forward to hearing your other ideas, as well as any questions or comments you might have for me.


(If someone asks about women’s spaces:)

The issue of “women’s space” is hugely complicated, so here are just a few things I want to make sure to leave you with. First, when I say that rape crisis services and intimate partner abuse services should be accessible to men and to GLB, trans, queer and intersex folk, I don’t mean that “women’s only” spaces must be eliminated. I think there is a role for gathering a group of people who share a very specific identity and set of experiences, such as being non-trans heterosexual women who’ve experienced abuse at the hands of non-trans heterosexual men, for the purpose of healing together. I’m not trying to take that space away from you. I want you to have that space. My question is, can’t there be space for me too?

Second, when people advocate for “women only” spaces, the explanation that they usually give is that these spaces are safer. How do we know that? Are we sure? In my experience, non-trans heterosexual women are entirely capable of doing violence against each other and of enacting sexism against each other. So when we talk about safe space, I want us to be explicit – safe for whom? Safe from whom? What about these spaces makes them safe? And how can we make all spaces safer? Certainly having some “women only” spaces is one way to promote healing and safety, and it is one good option to have. But it is not the only option, and it is not a panacea for sexist violence.


[1] http://www.morris.umn.edu/services/ViolencePrevention/Lgbt%20sexual%20assault%20pamphlet.pdf

[2] http://www.janedoe.org/know/website.ma.sa.pdf

[3] Clements, et al., 1998

[4] Mass. Youth Risk Behavior Survey 2005