Wednesday, March 19, 2008

NYT on FtMs at Women's Colleges

Thanks to the six people who forwarded me this article during the 3 days I was out of town. You can stop now. And since y'all thought it was good enough to send me six copies, I thought I should at least read it and have something to say about it.

It's not bad, as far as mainstream media articles on trans stuff goes.
Overall, the article is sympathetic. The author, Alissa Quart, puts her foot in her mouth way less than most journalists who write about trans issues. She refers to the students she interviews by the pronouns they prefer, which is a small but unfortunately rare victory.
She does seem to struggle a bit with some of the emerging language around trans identities, mostly in that she defines each term as if it has a unitary, broadly accepted definition. (They don't.)
Also, I believe Quart oversimplifies the issue of bathroom access on college campuses by equating bathrooms that are "open to all sexes" with ones that are "trans-friendly." In my experience, campus bathroom access campaigns address many factors, including location, cultural climate, and ADA accessibility as well as whether bathrooms are sex-segregated. Most of these campaigns do not ask for all bathrooms to be made sex-neutral, because the prospect of eliminating sex-segregated restrooms triggers both reasonable concerns and unreasonably heated backlash. I feel nervous that Quart's unclarity on this point may serve as an excuse for some non-trans students, alumnae or faculty to rise up in hostile opposition to a request that trans students are not, in fact, making.

Many trans people (and well-meaning allies) tell me that I should complain less about imperfect but kind media stories such as this one. In a climate of pervasive ignorance, the argument goes, any media coverage about trans issues is a good thing. I disagree. Last year's debacle around the NYC guidelines for changing one's legal gender are an example. The change (to eliminate the surgery requirement) was about to go through without a hitch, until the story broke, in a NYT article ridiculously titled "New York Plans to Make Gender a Personal Choice." Policy makers got embarrassed and backed out of their support for the change. The rule stayed the same.
Unfortunately we are in a climate where public sentiment is not on our side. Many people in the U.S. do not believe that trans people deserve basic human rights. (See this handout for some specific stats.) This is changing, but slowly - too slowly for a community whose lives are at risk because of little details like the requirements for changing the sex on our ID cards.
So, is Quart's article good for trans people? It remains to be seen, but I would guess not. As a NYT writer, Quart reaches a huge audience. Many of those readers will be moved to see trans people in a more sympathetic light because of this article. Most of them will probably go about their lives the same as they did yesterday, neither harassing trans people nor doing much to be allies. Many other readers - particularly, I imagine, non-trans women with connections to women's colleges - will be outraged. Those are the readers that are likely to take action. Quart may never know the backlash that her well-intentioned article triggers, because it won't be directed at her. Instead, women's colleges with significant trans populations will be bombarded with calls from alumnae and parents. Trans student leaders, and sympathetic but ill-equipped administrators, will scramble to clean up the mess.
I look forward to finding out that I'm wrong about that.
If you have any stories about how this article has been received at your campus, I'd love to know.

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