In-Fighting Among Trans People

My sister recently sent me this very interesting article by Jen Richards on the topic of in-fighting in the trans community. We have both observed and talked about the phenomenon. While every community has issues with members not getting along, trans people in particular tend to pick on each other for… god, at this point nothing would surprise me. I’ve seen flame wars that erupted over whether you put a space between trans man and trans woman or whether it’s okay to write transman and transwoman*. Most commonly, though, the issue revolves around fights between people whose experiences of their transition were different; because one had intense physical dysphoria and another felt indifferent to their body but more comfortable socially after transitioning; because one person was fairly binary and one very genderqueer; because one was an FtM who resents the way MtFs dominate the trans narrative and the other was an MtF who resents the way FtMs fly under the radar and get slightly less murdered. There are even more examples in that article, and I’m sure anyone who has spent a fair amount of time in trans circles has their own stories.

I think the author described the phenomenon very well, but I’m not sure I agree with what she identifies as the cause. She suggests that queer white trans women are typically the most visible, and so they lead the narrative, but often they have little experience of overt oppression. The shock of the change is one they are ill equipped to deal with. Many do become wonderful advocates (love you Kate Bornstein!) but some do not, and the loud, ugly voices can drown out the others. This makes sense, but the reason I disagree is that most of the aggression I’ve seen has come from white trans men… but that might be just because I’ve mostly been exposed to trans men. So initially I discounted that, but then I thought, “well, maybe she’s overrating the number of vitriolic queer white trans women for the same reason.” Maybe if you polled any type of trans person, they would say their type is the worst, simply because they see plenty of the good and bad while the only other trans voices that transcend the boundaries are the most decent, level-headed ones. Or maybe not. I really don’t know.

Her post did give me another thought though; the trans movement may be at a disadvantage because of how much intersectionality is inherently involved. Intersectionality always complicates discussions of privilege and oppression. Most groups get to talk about intersectionality as a secondary issue. You can talk about the way society treats women, and come up with some things that apply across the board, and then get into how race, ability, economic status, queerness etc tweaks their experience of misogyny. This makes it easier to come up with a basic message and platform, and intersectionality can branch off of that. But if you are talking about trans issues, no less than three identities intersect.

First, there’s the gender identity itself. Depending on whether you are MtF/transfeminine or FtM/transmasculine, the rules you are raised with, the rules you need to get used to and the way people react as you present opposite to your assigned sex are all very different. Second, there’s orientation. Now, who you are attracted does not have anything to do with who you feel you are… except that society conflates the two so often that orientation inevitably becomes part of a discussion about gender identity, if for no other reason than to clarify. Furthermore, switching from gay to straight or vice versa is such a shift in dating worlds, it does become a significant part of many trans experiences. Even bisexuals have to tread some new waters. Finally, there’s binary vs non-binary. Do you feel wholly male, or was male just closer-enough, or are you not medically transitioning because even though you have “man days” being seen as a woman is comfortable enough that full transition isn’t worth the hassle? Do you fall outside of that spectrum completely?

Just imagine if every discussion of race had to also include gender and disability, with the latter requiring an intensive discussion of how disabilities can be invisible or visible, cognitive or physical, and include everything from your basic paraplegia or depression to something as rare and complex as progeria or Harlequin Ichthyosis? It would be so difficult for anyone to get even remotely close to honest, accurate representation of their unique combination of identities. Unless the situation was handled very openly and delicately, you would end up with a lot of people getting completely pissed at each other for hogging their spotlight.

Because this is what we have to deal with in trans spaces, people who want to be included end up feeling vulnerable and neglected in the very place they went to feel safe. Some of them take it out on other trans people, and a vicious cycle emerges.
I do think there is one bright aspect to this issue. It is true, I think, that trans advocates tend to be more bitter, vitriolic and in-fighting-y than other social justice groups. But I also think that when they aren’t like that, they are some of the best groups out there. In trans advocacy, the learning curve is steep, so you either grab up the nastiest tactics of activism and use them to get revenge on everyone who you think is hurting less than you, or you learn quickly to be truly sensitive and accepting of everyone.
I’m not sure how to end this, so I’m going to blatantly steal. This is from Jen Richards’ conclusion in that article linked above; “There is no simple solution to these issues. Which isn’t the point. Truly supporting trans people will require education and patience. It will require an effort to know us and our issues well enough to make informed decisions… There is a crisis facing trans people, and the response will need to be as intersectional, sophisticated, and persistent as the causes. There doesn’t need to be a singular trans movement to rise to that challenge.”
Well said. Good luck to all of us.
*I think the space looks better, but people, let’s not lose our heads over this. Especially if the context is “um, hi guys, I’ve felt really awkward all my life and I think I might be a transman… I don’t know what to do nobody I know is trans somebody please help I’m 17 btw.”
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Toxic Communities

Trigger warning for emotional abuse

This post over at Amusing Nonsense left a bitter taste in my mouth, but not because of anything he said. Word by word, everything he said seemed pretty accurate and made sense. It’s just that it was a defense of New Atheists, and my sister’s two abusive exes were the first New Atheists I ever met, and that association, for me, will probably always be there.

The comments over there are consistently excellent discussions. On that particular post, a recurring topic was whether or not atheists are in danger of falling into the same traps of groupthink and extremist, mindless passion as most other groups. I don’t think it’s a danger; it’s an inevitability, because I have never met a political subculture where some factions didn’t fall into this trap. Feminists, liberals, queer communities, social justice advocates… every one of these groups that I (proudly) belong to has also contained rather sizable groups of people who I just have to avoid because of horrible petty bullshit.

In all of these cases, I have heard defenses that a person’s feminism/atheism/Christianity/-ism of choice had nothing to do with their overall shittiness, and thus shouldn’t reflect on the group they are a part of. For the most part, I agree with this. Any sufficiently large group will contain some awful people, and the group as a whole shouldn’t necessarily be blamed for this. However, I want to go a little deeper.

When you have someone clever, mean spirited and engaged in some sort of movement, they can often find ways to twist an ideology to serve their own purpose. For example, a New Atheist behavior I frequently saw was using religion as an excuse to separate a newly-deconverted atheist from their former friends. Religious people often come from circles where nearly everyone they know is religious. Often some former friends will cut a friend who lost their faith off, but usually some people will be interested in maintaining a respectful friendship. New Atheists can shame a lowercase new atheist for still having religious ties, or belittle their remaining religious friends to their faces and take said friend’s offense as proof that they are intolerant of atheists and bad, bad people. This is a classic predator tactic; cut the victim from their former support network, so they have no one to help them and may even be completely dependent on the abuser. In certain politically idealistic communities, it is common to have a reflexively derisive attitude towards those unenlightened outsiders, so this kind of behavior may not even be noticed as unusual, while some shy newcomer is being harassed or even beaten up behind closed doors.

Again, this is not a problem of ALL NEW ATHEISTS ARE EVIL!!! It’s an example of how even a good idea can be twisted. (Good ideas like “atheists should be as free to be open about their lack of belief as Christians are about their having-of-belief, and also religion should either get out of the public sector or be willing to share the space with everybody. And that’s actually everybody, not ‘epic Nativity scene plus a menorah in a corner somewhere’ everybody.”) And the trouble is that while communities are great at recognizing abusive tactics when they are shrouded in an ideology that isn’t theirs, they are terrible at recognizing the exact same tactics when the language used is their own.

So what’s the solution to this? I don’t think there’s a perfect one that will eliminate this happening ever. That would be like expecting weeds to not show up in your garden. You can spread down some mulch to minimize it, but sooner or later something will pop up. The only solution is to be aware that it happens, even in your garden. If you’re somebody who has the power to weed, then make sure you check for weeds.

And for those who don’t have that power, let me tell you what I wish somebody had told me and my sister. If you like the ideals that get passed around in a group, but often find yourself feeling belittled, bullied and ignored, or if you’re not but you feel like you constantly have to live up to high standards of behavior in order to not be treated that way, that means you’re in one of those weedy subgroups. Leave. It’s okay. If these ideas are as awesome as you think they are, somewhere out there is a group where people live those ideals without being total assholes.

What to do When You are Skeptical of Someone’s Transition

Every trans person, when they start their transition, has to deal with at least one person who doesn’t quite buy it. Someone will think it’s a phase, or a plea for attention. This is overwhelmingly unlikely to be true. Less than one percent of people who transition go on to regret it; of that number, many don’t even regret it because they are not really trans, but because of the overwhelming prejudice trans people face. I once knew a trans woman who had tried to transition earlier and had to detransition because of how shitty people were. When I met her she was in her fifties and transitioning for the second time.

So it’s a bit surprising that during the year I began my transition, not one but two of my friends also began to identify as FtMs, and then changed their minds. This shaped a lot of my thoughts around this issue, so I thought I should share the story, and what I learned from it.

The first thing I think people should know is that who actually transitioned and who didn’t spectacularly failed to line up with the conventional trans narrative. Hailie and Madison (not their real names) were both significantly more masculine than me. Hailie was a classic butch lesbian, deep voiced, athletic, fond of beer and belching. She had her first crush on a girl back in kindergarten. Madison was bisexual and punkishly androgynous. I am sensitive, shy, artistic and exclusively attracted to other men. I had a lot more people shocked at my coming out as trans than either of them, yet I’m the only one who was really transgender.

Lesson one; you don’t know. There is no way to tell from the outside whether somebody is really transgender or not.

A consequence of the first point is that of the three of us, I received the most resistance to my transition. I was actually kicked out of my house, and stayed with Madison’s family until I could afford my own place. Madison’s family was a little nervous, because she was famous for identity crises, but they were still fully willing to feed, clothe, shelter and love her, as well as provide her access to gender therapy and transition services. Hailie’s family was much the same; nervous but willing to be supportive.

Lesson two; there is a school of thought that says the best way to help trans people is to be a gatekeeper. You need to put a lot of obstacles up to make sure they aren’t just confused or whatever. Insert something vague about tough love here to justify making people prove they are really transgender. That’s bull. People in a supportive environment can still figure that they aren’t really trans. People who are trans don’t need to be picked on.

So what did happen to make Madison and Hailie realize they weren’t trans? Well… mostly nothing. They experimented with gender for a little bit, and they figured it out.

Hailie had been assaulted and raped a short time before she came out as trans. Her sister was worried that this was some big unconscious fight to avoid thinking about the rape, rather than an honest transition. When Hailie insisted this wasn’t the case, her sister backed off.

For a few months, Hailie went by a boy’s name and male pronouns. Then she quietly told me that she was having second thoughts. Then, a while later, she said she wanted to go back to female pronouns. A little while after that she said her sister had been right. Hailie had felt dysphoric because of the physical trauma she had just been through. She had needed something other than the rape to worry about. She wasn’t trans. Honestly, I can think of worse ways to deal.

Madison’s story is a little more complicated. Have any of you ever had the experience of being accused of causing drama, or known people who were accused of it when they were trying to draw attention to legitimately awful stuff? Did that experience make you think that people need to just stop making that accusation, because it seems like it’s only ever used to silence people with real problems? And, after thinking this for a while, did you ever run into somebody who would milk every drop of sympathy to their own advantage, who always had to have the biggest crisis in the room, who was every “you’re just causing drama for your own ends” accusation made real? And you tried really hard to be compassionate, but inside you’re just screaming “you! It’s all because of you! We could just ban the word drama entirely and take everybody in the whole world seriously, if it wasn’t for asshats like you!”

Yeah, I didn’t realize it at first, but after living with her for several months, that was Madison. At first I was hopeful that gender dysphoria was the thing that was wrong with her all along, and being trans would solve all the things, but I did start to suspect something when the only thing she ever did to transition was talk about it. We picked out our new names and talked excitedly about them. I did the work of finding out how to legally change one’s name and print all the documents out. I printed out two copies and left one out for Madison. It stayed on the fridge with a magnet for months and was eventually thrown away. She got her letter from a therapist that would give her access to hormone therapy, and the name of a good clinic. I got my prescription filled as quickly as possible. She never did. Her transition only existed when she was coming out tearfully to somebody, at which point she could use their sympathy to control them, of course.

Her parents handled it perfectly. Instead of obstructing her transition, they gave her responsibility over it. She had a part-time job, and with her parent’s insurance she could afford to use pay for co-pays and fees to change her name herself. She had a driver’s license and could drive to doctor’s appointments herself. They gave her all those responsibilities.

Lesson three; if obstruction is the worst of both worlds, responsibility is the best of both worlds. A genuinely trans person will see responsibility as a wonderful gift and act of trust (provided you aren’t giving them so much “responsibility” they don’t have a chance to actually transition. This level will vary depending on the age of the trans person, but you know, use common sense). For a person who isn’t trans, realizing they like the idea of transitioning more than the work of it can help them figure it out.

And, piggybacking on that, lesson four; I think probably most people who think they are trans for a while, when they aren’t really, are in some way either a Hailie or a Madison. Either they are going through something else that is awful and need some understanding and respect, or they are that once-in-a-while asshole… in which case what they’re really after is for you to not understand them, so they can blow up and use that to control you. Show them understanding and respect from the start, and they’ll have nothing to work with. They’ll have to move on to something else.

I don’t know how people realize what their gender identity is, any more than I know how you know you’re in love, or that your new house feels like home. And I say that, having been through all those experiences. I just know that when you know, you know, except once in a while you think you know but you don’t. But hey, those moments of not knowing that you don’t know are just part of being human, and they don’t generally last as long as really knowing you know. You know?

Anyway…

I wonder at how afraid we are to let people experiment with their gender identities. There’s no harm in it. I think obstructing experimentation causes a lot more confusion than just letting people play around, not to mention pain for people who genuinely transgender.

So in case I wasn’t clear, if you aren’t sure whether or not someone’s transgender, just respectfully back off. You might be right, you might be wrong, but either way it’s their job to figure it out.

Meandering Thoughts on the Baltimore Protests

April 25; I get a text from my best friend saying that if I see anything on the news about the Baltimore riots, she and her coworkers are all safe. She works on the historic ships at the Inner Harbor, and they are close enough to smell the smoke through the ship’s walls. But they are locked up in the Taney, behind steel doors, and they will be fine.

April 26; I check in to verify that she is okay. She is, and we talk about woolly mammoths for a bit. Apparently there were pocket populations that lived until after the pyramids had gone out of fashion. We both love this fact.

April 27; There are helicopters and the national guard and a 10 pm curfew is instated. Lots of places are closing down, including potentially the museum. Among her coworkers, places to stay are offered so everyone has the opportunity to sleep where they feel safe. My friend will be coming home for the time being. I’m happy for her; sad for all the people who can’t come home to safety, because their homes are where the rioting is happening.

April 28; My friend has entered the stage of ranting about the inaccuracy of the coverage, partly from the news but also from the world of Facebook and Tumblr. I decide its time to begin seriously researching what has been going on. I am aware of the basic facts, but I have deliberately kept myself from learning details for the time being. This is not from callousness; just the opposite. I sometimes find myself too affected by events in the news, particularly when I have no ability to change them. I like to wait a bit and prepare myself; rather like someone waiting to read a book until the whole series has come out so they don’t have to wait on a cliffhanger. For a long time this oversensitivity has kept me out of the news world entirely. I’ve been working on changing that.

April 28-May 1st; I immerse myself in information. My sorrow is amended; I am not only sorry for those who live in the rioting, but those who have lived in fear and frustration and anger for so long before the protests ever began. Intellectually I am aware of not only the murders of young black men, but also the problems of poverty the African American community has faced for so long, but sometimes the heart needs to be reminded of old news. I become angry at the news on the one hand and Tumblr on the other, who both seem determined to fixate on the rioters, a split-off minority of the protesters. Peaceful marches formed the bulk of the action, yet the media fixates not on the murdered young man they were marching for, not the damage and neglect the people in the projects have been living in, but on this one instance of angry outburst.

This video seems to sum up the problem, as Deray McKesson eloquently tries to redirect people’s attention to the issue, while Blitzer asks him to apologize, over and over again, for the property damage, even after he already has acknowledge that he does not support it.

On the flip side, activist-minded people, white and black, speak as if the fires and damage were nothing but a righteous crusade and nobody was affected but wrongdoers. My friend supports the protests completely, and was still locked up, with her black manager and several other black coworkers and friends, all terrified together. My friend passed a CVS and a 7-11, all smashed to pieces, where she knows the employees to be almost entirely young black men. This was not District 11 attacking President Snow’s peacekeepers. The rioters were not heroes targeting nobody but the damned.

And yet, perhaps sometimes you need a little broken glass to make your point properly heard. McKesson, in the video above, says it well. Broken windows can be fixed when broken spines cannot. You don’t have to condone something to understand it.

Humans love simple situations, but life rarely gives them.

Today; as I’ve researched all of this, a question keeps running through my mind. What can I do to stop this? How can I help?

I don’t have an answer that I like. I don’t have the ability to snap my fingers and end racism. I am neither a police officer nor anybody with any authority over the police. The only thing I can do is express my sorrow and desire for change. This feels incredibly inadequate.

Still, as I read more and more, I realize that even though its inadequate, it is what I can do, right now. I know that the essence of protest is simply people expressing their sorrow and desire for change, and change does come from protest. And I realize that I have a blog, small though it is, and I have yet to publicly speak on this issue that I truly do care about. I’ve been stopped because “I don’t think I’m very important” and “I’m white so I don’t have the right to speak” and “I don’t have anything original to say.”

Well fuck that. Sometimes there’s nothing original to say because the truth is painfully obvious. So here it is.

In our country, human beings are dying, unarmed and defenseless. They are dying because they resemble our popular stereotype of a criminal more than their murderers do, and they are dying without receiving any justice after their deaths. This is fucking wrong, and it needs to stop.

Permission to be Human?

Let’s imagine you had a friend who was really into learning things and making the world a better place. Let’s suppose that friend happened upon some people who seemed to have some really important things figured out. So, in the interest of gaining knowledge and doing good things, your friend decided to hang out with those people for a while. Later, they came to you with some misgivings.

“I like what these people are saying, but there’s this one person who everybody looks to as the leader, and frankly, he’s mean. Like, he won’t just tell people he disagrees with them and why, he will also tell them they are shit, worthless, terrible human beings and they need to go die. Sometimes he says this to people who are solidly against him, but he will also say it to people who are basically on his side but disagree with him on a few issues. He will even say it to people who are making accidental newbie mistakes.”

Your reaction to that would probably be, “wow, that’s not okay.” If your friend told you they decided to bail on the group based simply on that, you would probably support that completely. You care about your friend. You don’t want them to be treated badly. Those don’t sound like good people to be around.

But let’s suppose your friend doesn’t want to do this. Suppose your friend still really thinks there is awesome stuff in this group, and would rather move away from that  particular section of it, hopefully into a place that is kinder and less toxic. If the ideas are good, that is true regardless of the behavior of the people preaching them, right? Isn’t it better to try to leave aside the bad and accept the good?

It’s a tall and difficult order, but a good thing to do if you can pull it off, so you wish your friend luck. Later on, you check in about how this project is going.

“Um, so-so,” they say. “On the one hand, I’m still learning a lot of good stuff. Also, I’ve found a lot of people who think the way I do, who think that guy from before was unreasonable and petty and mean, and they don’t listen to him either.”

You sense a but, so you supply it. “But….?”

“But he’s really, really far from the only one out there. I mean, people who talk like him are everywhere. I always have to be really careful and watch what I’m saying, because I never know when somebody is going to pounce on something I’ve said, maybe something that I had no idea was wrong, and they make me feel like total shit. And sometimes I think I didn’t deserve it in the first place, like I’m being misunderstood or maybe what they are saying isn’t quite right. But usually when this happens I can’t talk to them and get some clarity, because any questions are seen as confirmation that I’m just a bad person to begin with. Sometimes I say, ‘okay, thanks for educating me’ even if I don’t quite get it, because I want to get out of the conversation.”

“That really sucks.”

“Yeah. But I still feel like this group has good stuff to offer, both to me and the world in general. And I’m realizing some of this is just an inevitable part of how the world works. There are trolls in every group.”

“So you still want to consider yourself part of the group?”

“Yeah, I do.”

Okay then. Based on the things your friend has said, this group does have some good stuff to offer, and you’ve met some of the nicer members. They really are fantastic people. But you still worry a bit about your friend.

Then the day comes that your friend comes to you in tears. “I posted something online. I just saw some people talking about the live action Mulan movie, and how important it was that the cast be Asian, not whitewashed like The Last Airbender. I agreed with that and didn’t really have anything to add. But then some people started talking about how the actors absolutely must be Chinese, how some people being considered are Korean or Filipino or Japanese and that’s just the worst bullshit ever. I thought, ‘it would be pretty cool if the cast was Chinese, but I think it’s also possible that the actors who give the best auditions happen to be of a different Asian ethnicity, and if that happens it won’t be the end of the world. It will still be a step forward for diversity and a great opportunity for under recognized Asian actors.’ So I said as much. I was so afraid of how people would respond, it took me thirty minutes to write even though it was just a few lines, and I’m still shaking.”

“What happened?”

“Nothing yet. Maybe nobody will notice it. But it could get spread far, and I’m scared I’ll get slammed, even though I’m pretty sure I’m right. And you know what drives me crazy? Let’s say I’m totally wrong. It’s possible. I’m not infallible. But even if I am wrong, I am wrong about an incredibly minor issue, yet I fully expect someone to rip me to shreds.”

You already pretty much know what’s coming next, because you’ve heard these rants before, but your friend is still really worked up, so you let them go on.

“And you know what else? I’m mad that I’m hoping nobody notices. Because I want to be somebody who expresses my opinion and gets to participate in the discussions, but I’ve been really quiet for so long. I’ve been quiet because I’m afraid if I make a single mistake, somebody is going to pounce on me and tell everyone else to ignore me because I’m total worthless shit. I want to be able to say what’s on my mind. I want to be able to make mistakes and learn from them. When I make them and somebody points it out, I want to feel free to thank them but maybe not agree that it’s a mistake right away. I want to mull it over for a while, explore a few different angles, and then when I finally say ‘I was wrong’ be saying it because I really believe I was wrong, not because I was scared to say otherwise. I’m never going to be perfect, and I’d like that to be okay.”

When they finally wind down, you say, “write about it. Write all that down, and share it.”

“But they’re just going to say I’m trying to shut them down, that I’m using their anger as an excuse to silence them. Which is a real problem, and I fully support anyone’s right to feel angry, I’m just sick of looking over my shoulders for fear that opening my mouth will get me attacked. I don’t know how to explain the difference between those two things.”

“If its wrong for you to silence them for their anger, is it right for their anger to silence others? If you have a duty to respectfully listen to their beliefs, do they not have a duty to respectfully listen to others?”

Here’s probably a good time to de-mysticize the metaphor. I am the friend. I am also mostly the person listening to the friend. I’ve been having these conversations inside my head for years. In the last part, though, where the person listening is actually my boyfriend (I’m sorry, I swear I won’t become one of those bloggers who mentions their significant other in every single post, he’s just the source of that last quote and I had to credit him). The group is the nebulous entity known as social justice activists; those fabulous people who really do battle every day to improve the lives of everyone, to educate people about important and under-recognized issues, and who often demonstrate the best of human kindness in their day to day lives. And also all those trolls, many of whom have extremely large followings and have somehow turned a message as positive and edifying as “go educate yourself” into an ugly putdown. Many of them have gone through phases of being one or the other. They are human beings, after all.

I feel like posts like these usually end with a call to action and a detailed battle plan that will lead us all to Utopia. I’m not going to do that, because I don’t have a solution. I still think some of the problem is just human nature. Still, if there’s one thing I’ve learned from hanging out in social justice-y circles, its that if you assume a problem is just engrained in human nature, you will never fix it, but if you start a conversation you might find solutions that surpass your most optimistic expectations. I’m not the only person out there talking about this issue. I talked to another friend before posting this, and they later sent this to me. So I’m skeptical about this problem disappearing, but optimistic about it getting better.

In any case, solving the problem is not sole point of this post. The point of this post is quite selfish. The point is that I was scared to post the Mulan bit on Tumblr, and I’m scared to post this, and I don’t want to be someone who lets my own fear of others’ anger silence me.