LGBT access to housing

I saw a post on Facebook this week that mentioned difficulties that LGBT people may face with access to housing. It’s true that there are many LGBT people who are homeless or in precarious situations. That made me realize how minor any difficulties are in my own situation, and how well I’ve done in my life.

When I first moved out of my parents’ house, my college dorm was covered by the Empire State Scholarship of Excellence. After college I lived with my dad for a year while I saved up enough for a rental deposit. Through tech jobs and student loans I was able to afford my share of the rent in Brooklyn and other places.

When my kid was young I worked part time so I could be home with him and finish my PhD, and my wife’s income covered the maintenance and mortgage on our co-op. Now that I’m working full time again, I can afford to pay my share of housing expenses, and also my mother’s rent, if the need arises.

In 2014 our entire co-op board resigned after evidence of mismanagement surfaced, I was elected secretary of my co-op board, even after coming out as trans at the candidate night. In the same election, an out lesbian lawyer upstairs was elected vice president.

I’m telling you these tales of success and minor inconvenience to illustrate the fact that not all LGBT people struggle with access to housing, and to point out some factors that can make the difference between struggle and success.

The biggest factor is family acceptance. The vast majority of homeless LGBT youth are on the streets because their families either abused them or kicked them out. This is what Eyricka Morgan’s family did, and even when she got housing she had to live with a murderer.

The next factor is financial security, which is connected to family acceptance but not automatically. My family’s acceptance has provided me with a lot more financial security than I would have had otherwise. It helps that my family had financial help to give, particularly my grandfather’s savings from his fish market. On the other hand, some people are able to obtain financial security without help from family, and others are financially insecure despite family help.

A third factor is race. Again: it’s only a factor: my co-op board former vice president is Latina, and her wife is Asian. But Eyricka Morgan was black, and so are many other LGBT people who are homeless or insecure in their housing situations. We don’t have rigorous statistics documenting the effects, but we know that racist discrimination is common in housing. There may also be a greater tendency in some communities to practice “tough love” (really, brutal abuse) against children who do not conform to gender norms.

Visibility is another factor. When my wife and I have looked for housing, we looked like a straight couple. I’ve been out online since 1996, but if potential landlords and co-op boards have seen anything about my trans status, they didn’t mention it. Someone who is visibly trans when applying for housing would face more discrimination, especially in some places.

As with access to health care, these differences are important to keep in mind. I don’t need help getting access to housing, and a lot of other trans people I know are also doing fine. Any resources directed to us would be wasted. We need to target them better than just “LGBT.” We need to solve the problem intersectionally.

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Structure, agency, prejudice and who we have sex with

There are two great principles that a lot of us agree on: people shouldn’t have to have sex with anyone they don’t want to have sex with, and people shouldn’t be prejudiced. But what happens if someone doesn’t want to have sex with someone else out of prejudice? Arguments about this have been blowing up in my Facebook and Twitter for the past several months.

Fortunately, there is a way to combat prejudice without impinging on people’s right to say no to sex. All we have to do is separate structure from agency.

At the Lavender Languages conference in 2013 I attended a fascinating but disturbing talk by Brad Rega called, “‘No Queens, Chocolate, Or Fried Rice’: Anti-effeminate and racist discourse among gay men.” It was basically a depressing catalog of phrases used by gay men on hookup apps like Grindr to indicate all the categories of men that they are not interested in having sex with. Others have confirmed that this is common, as seen in the screenshot above, one of several posted on onehallyu.

The right to say no to sex is a matter of individual agency. The men posting these ads are exercising their agency. This may affect potential partners on an individual level, and that is unfortunate. On the other hand, there’s a case to be made that these effeminate and/or nonwhite men (and basically everybody else) are probably better off not having sex with such people.

If we think about why we really care that some guy doesn’t want to sleep with “fried rice,” it’s clear that we care at the structural level: it’s been shown that society benefits when people have contact with others who are different from them. People who aren’t prejudiced want to remove stigma from categories, and when people advertise their prejudices publicly, that contributes to the stigma.

Prejudices like these are also symptomatic of larger structural inequalities. These individual men may have all kinds of reasons for not wanting to sleep with “chocolate,” but the fact that so many men post these messages makes it clear that many of them are acting out of the same racist motives that lead real estate agents to lie to black people about the availability of apartments in some neighborhoods.

The tricky thing here is that structural problems emerge out of thousands, if not millions, of individual acts of agency. It can be tempting to push back on every single one of these; in fact, this is basically what we’ve been taught to do since Leviticus. But that’s not the best way to solve structural problems. Because human beings are complex dynamic systems, and human societies are complex dynamic systems of human beings, there are many other ways, some of them quite counterintuitive.

Here’s an example: as far as I can tell, none of these guys have a code word to tell Grindr they don’t want to sleep with Irish men (“No corned beef”?). This is not because they love Irish people, but because any remaining prejudice against them is minor and not particularly active in gay hookups. This suggests that if we can end general prejudice against black people, Asians and effeminate gay men, those phrases will disappear from Grindr.

Of course, ending prejudice against black people is great – it’s not like some of us haven’t been trying to do that for centuries! But that timeframe just shows how futile it is to think we can accomplish this by pushing back against “No chocolate” comments – at best it would drive the racism underground.

Is it wrong, then, to publicly shame people for posting their racist sexual preferences? No, I don’t think it is. It may impose a certain amount of decorum in these spaces. If that’s what you’re after, go for it.

On the other hand, we have to agree that these racist guys should be absolutely free to exclude anyone from their dating pool. Don’t think that shaming a bunch of gay men will make a big difference in the underlying racism. If that’s what you want to change, get in touch with others who are working on it, find out the true vulnerabilities of this structure, and put your effort towards things that are actually effective, like dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline. We can absolutely honor sexual autonomy and combat racism at the same time.

And yes, I may be talking about gay men and racism here, but I’m also talking about transgender issues.

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Are men good now?

Oh, Christ Anna, he’s going to start reading poetry at us what do we do play dead? no that’s bears

Last month I was dancing with some friends at a local karaoke bar. Some guy started dancing with a trans woman friend of mine, in a very grabby, smothery kind of way. I could tell my friend wasn’t enjoying it, so I cut in and danced with her in a fun, Platonic way. I was presenting as a guy that night, and Mr. Handsy didn’t seem at all interested in me. Later in the evening, after my friend had gone home, I saw the same guy doing the same thing with another friend of mine, a non-transitioning trans man, and I cut in again with him.

Seeing my friends’ experiences brought back memories of feeling sexy surrounded by men on the dance floor, and then going back to my seat after those men’s hands slipped too far down along my dress. That, and memories of being followed by guys who said filthy things in my ear, and hearing from women about similar experiences, and worse.

There’s another class of gender interactions that doesn’t rise to the level of borderline assault that I saw on the karaoke dance floor, but that women find unpleasant and frustrating. It’s the kind captured by Rebecca Solnit’s essay “Men Explain Things to Me,” by Mallory Ortberg’s Western Art History series for The Toast, and by Nicole Gugliucci’s tweet about “hepeating.”

We trans women are accused of having an unrealistic view of women’s lives, and often with good reason. Many of us form our ideas about womanhood from a distance. We fantasize about becoming fictional women like Ariel the Little Mermaid, or celebrities with highly crafted media personas like Marilyn Monroe. We do have contact with real live women, but we are often uninformed about important aspects of women’s experiences. In our fantasy of women’s life it doesn’t hurt to wear heels, a short skirt will attract the right partner, we’ll always be taken seriously, and men will revere us.

When we have a taste of the special frustrations of women’s lives, it can give us pause. In my case, awareness of these realities contributed to my decision not to transition. The realization that living as a woman wouldn’t automatically resolve all the difficulties that just come with being human in the world led me to decide to continue living as a man most of the time.

When we lack that basic understanding of the daily experiences of women’s lives in our society, their actions in relating to men can seem puzzling at best, and often selfish or malicious. Why do they go to the bathroom in groups? Why don’t they just say no? Why do they dress sexy but then say no? We don’t see the bind that many women are in, forced to choose between attracting and rejecting, and punished both for pursuing partners and for not having a partner. Some of us don’t figure out the answers to these questions until we’ve been on the other side of the interaction.

It doesn’t help that from an early age we are taught to see women as particularly stupid and irrational in many ways. They aren’t, of course. Some people are in fact stupid, irrational, selfish or even malicious, and some of those people are women. It can be hard to distinguish that individual irrationality or selfishness from rational, even compassionate actions that are skewed by our misogynist social structures.

Now here’s the tricky part: all those minor interactions I mentioned, like mansplaining and hepeating and the courtship behavior mocked by Ortberg? The same principles apply to them. At an early age we are taught to see men as particularly overbearing and oblivious in many ways. Some people are in fact overbearing, inconsiderate, selfish or even malicious, and some of those people are men. It can be hard to distinguish that individual obliviousness or malice from conscious, even generous actions that are skewed by our misogynist social structures.

Why do men like to show off to women? Why do they keep calling after a woman says no? Why do they say they’ll call but then don’t? We don’t see the bind that many men are in, forced to choose between pursuing and waiting for a woman to defy convention, and punished both for showing off and for not competing aggressively enough.

Some people don’t figure out the answers to those questions without being on the other side of the interaction. Ortberg’s work in particular has always demonstrated a striking contrast between its keen insight for the experiences and feelings of women, and its shallow, judgmental understanding of the experiences and feelings of men.

When trans men have a taste of the special frustrations of men’s lives, it can give them pause. Trans men have spoken publicly about experiencing male privilege from the male side, and about how even men with firsthand experience of women’s lives and the desire for equality can be stymied by the misogyny entrenched in our social structure. One trans guy I talked to had been preoccupied with looking tough, both living as a woman and as a man, but was still shocked when he saw a woman cross the street at night to avoid him.

The fact is that many trans men form their ideas about manhood from a distance, fantasizing about fictional characters or celebrities with highly crafted media personas. Nothing shows this clearer than Daniel Mallory Ortberg’s interview with Heather Havrilesky. Ortberg gushes about the glamour of Captain Kirk and Brendan Fraser and Deep Springs College. He talks about relationships and discussions with women and non-binary people and his parents as a unit and someone named Brook, but he never mentions having a face-to-face discussion with an identifiable man about what it means to be a man.

In this fantasy of men’s life, large muscles can be had with no effort or health consequences. Everyone admires a guy in a bowtie and a colorful shirt, no matter how short he may be. As long as a man’s intentions are pure, his authority will be respected. Everyone will recognize that he is thoughtful and caring, and no one will ever question his motives. In every interaction with women there is an obvious way to balance gender equality with our other needs and wants, and to see it all you need to do is pay attention.

When trans men lack that basic understanding of the daily experience of men’s lives in our society I have to question why they want to be men, just as I questioned my own desire to be a woman. Men unquestionably have privilege, and on a basic level of safety and economics a certain desire to transition is always understandable. But anyone who is not making a decision based on faith or survival owes it to themself to go beyond the fantasy and examine the realities of the choices before them.

Ortberg kinda sorta acknowledges this, in a response to a question from Havrilevsky:

Does it sometimes feel like you’re joining the other side, the enemy, MEN?
Yeah, like, I’m taking my skills and opportunities to Cleveland. Or like “Men are good now.” Or I’m going to fix something. Or what I’m doing is in some way a commentary on ways in which men and women relate to one another, or some kind of statement on the work I’ve done before, the position I inhabited as a woman feminist. Yeah, that’s been anxiety-inducing, especially because: Men as a group? Not fantastic. White men as a group? I don’t have a sense that I will be met with safety and joy on the other side.

First of all, white men as a group? We have not taken a poll on how to meet Ortberg when he finally decides he’s ready to interact with us. This is what has always puzzled me about Ortberg: he seems too well-read to confuse structural bias with collective decision-making, and yet he does confuse it even here, after examining gender for years.

Second, if so much of your past work has been about the ways in which men and women relate to one another, then yes, any public action you take that regards gender is a statement on that work and a commentary on those ways of relating.

Third, if men aren’t good, why become one? Because you’ve somehow mystically determined that it’s your destiny? That’s just as stupid as the Bible study teacher who somehow mystically determined that Ortberg’s destiny was not to wield authority over men.

Do I welcome Ortberg to manhood with safety and joy? Well, safety is a given. And I bear him no ill will for his prior work. When I first read “Women Having a Terrible Time,” I took it as one woman commiserating with and comforting others based on their limited experiences with these creatures called men. I’m okay if some women have an arms-length relationship with manhood. Whatever gets you through the night.

I have to say, in terms of understanding and empathizing with men, I kinda do expect more from a man. But as Ortberg continues to learn and experiences life as a man firsthand, I’ll be interested to see if he goes back and revises his work on gender relations, or builds on it in a way that recognizes the humanity of men. And yeah, he should probably have done that before he “started to access different aspects of medical transition.” In any case, let’s see how it goes.

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For all the kids who are not Jazz

Rosey Grier sings "It's All Right to Cry"

For the past two years the Human Rights Campaign has sponsored national I am Jazz reading events, where people will gather in schools and community centers to read the children’s book by transgender teenager Jazz Jennings, as told to Jessica Herthel and beautifully illustrated by Shelagh McNicholas. As a trans person myself who was a gender non-conforming child I appreciate the intent behind the readings, but I frankly hate the book, and I really wish they would find something else to read.

Let’s think about what we want to accomplish by reading kids a book about transgender issues. First, we want to teach kids to accept and support any classmates who might be trans. Second, we want to give kids the understanding and good habits to accept and support trans people when they grow up. Third, we want to send a signal to any trans kids in the audience that they are accepted and supported. The HRC says as much in their press release.

So how does I Am Jazz do? Well, let’s start by going over the plot, such as it is. Jazz loves girly things, because Jazz is a girl in a boy’s body. Jazz has lots of friends who are girls, and they have lots of fun doing girly things together. In terms of plot, it’s no Cat in the Hat. It isn’t even Go Dog, Go! The only action is Jazz and her friends playing soccer, and that happens mostly off the page. Everything is static, habitual. Jazz is. She likes things. She has friends. She and her friends like to do things. The end.

Jazz is expertly drawn as a pretty girl who may inspire some desire in other girls: if I were open to having a trans friend, these girls will think, she might turn out to be like Jazz, and then we could be pretty and girly together. Herthel wrote that she was inspired to write the book when her daughters had just such a reaction on meeting Jazz. On the other hand, there is nothing here for boyish boys and tomboyish girls. They may be turned off by Jazz’s focus on all things girly, and anyone who might have been thinking of her as a messed-up boy ripe for bullying would not be deterred by anything they read in the book.

When I was a kid, I just wanted to be able to do whatever looked like fun, including dancing and playing with dolls and having tea parties as well as tree climbing and toy trucks (and not really soccer). I wanted to wear whatever looked cool and comfortable, including skirts and tights and barrettes and lipstick as well as baseball caps and jeans. I wanted to stay friends with the girls in my life, and I didn’t want to chase them as part of some bizarre dominance ritual. When I was a teenager I felt a desire to be a pretty, girly girl, but I didn’t necessarily want to give up being a boy, and as a young adult I chose to become and stay a man.

I’m having trouble imagining that a kid – or a parent, or a teacher – would be any more sympathetic to my wants or choices after reading I am Jazz than before. I didn’t want to be a stereotypical boy, but I didn’t want to be like Jazz either. When I was a little older, a part of me wanted to be like Jazz, but another part of me didn’t, and ultimately I’m glad I didn’t spend time as a girl in high school. Where is there anything like my life in I am Jazz? How does it even lead to people understanding me, much less accepting or supporting me?

In case you think I want to replace a ceremony that’s all about Jazz with one that’s all about me, it’s also hard to imagine that seeing Jazz being successful at being a pretty, girly girl would make kids more open to masculine-spectrum transgender or nonbinary kids, whether they’re transitioning or gender non-conforming. We need something that includes all of us.

The best thing I’ve ever read, or heard, on this subject is a book and record, and television special, that my sister used to play when I was a kid, Marlo Thomas’s Free to Be… You and Me. It has a ton of pieces that address all kinds of gender non-conformity, including a musical adaptation of another book, William’s Doll, sung by Alan Alda. In keeping with HRC’s earlier mission, Thomas said that ABC executives “wanted ‘William’s Doll’ cut, because it would turn every boy in the world into a homosexual — which isn’t such a bad idea.” (There is nothing at all about sexuality in “Wiliam’s Doll” – Thomas was joking.)

I’d love to see new books for kids about transgender issues, but until we have them, I’d be happy to take part in school and community readings of Free to Be … You and Me. “Boy Meets Girl” and “William’s Doll” are just as powerful as they were back in 1972. I’m guessing there are a lot of kids who could benefit from hearing a grown man sing “It’s All Right to Cry” in front of their classes. And the final lines of Dan Greenburg’s “Don’t Dress Your Cat in an Apron” really say it all:

A person should wear what he wants to,
And not just what other folks say.
A person should do what she likes to.
A person’s a person that way.

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Beyond faith-based debates

I follow some transgender activists on Twitter, and since I don’t subscribe to transgender dogma, I follow some “trans critical” or “gender critical” activists as well. I don’t expect to agree with anyone completely, but I like to find some community with others. Lately I’ve been disheartened by how much I’ve been disagreeing with all sides.

What bothers me more than the disagreement is that the takes on transgender feelings and actions are so uninteresting. The “gender critical” people are fighting to save “girls who believe they are boys,” while the trans dogmatists are fighting to save “authentic selves” from “conversion therapy.” Many of the “gender critical” activists is that they’re only concerned about a recent increase in “transtrenders,” and don’t want to get in the way of transition for “people who are really trans.” Meanwhile, some of my biggest fans get a hard-on talking about mythical “attractive HSTS,” who put all the big fat ugly hairy late-transitioning trans women to shame with their mutant femme beauty.

I follow some therapists who livetweet transgender-focused mental health talks and conferences, and those all focus exclusively on people who transition. For all these professionals, the thousands of people with transgender feelings who have decided not to transition, or have detransitioned, or haven’t decided whether to transition, seem to simply not exist. The first time they encounter someone with trans feelings may be when they’ve decided to transition, but everyone reports struggling with feelings for years before going to therapy. If the therapists only see them once they’ve made their decision the system is clearly broken, but nobody seems to acknowledge that.

All this screaming and pontificating and triage is based on a common faith that you can divide the world into real men and real women – and many also agree that there are real trans men and women, and maybe even real nonbinary people. But they all believe that these categories are fixed at birth, and transition is the exclusive destiny of the real trans people. Even the Blanchardians who concede that “AGP” people may benefit from transition do it begrudgingly, with a sense that it goes against their true nature as men.

As someone who practices skepticism and mainly wants to see people lead happy and healthy lives, all these faith-based debates and practices seem beside the point. We could transition all the AGP fakers and misguided butch teens tomorrow, and never transition any of the attractive HSTS and true trans men, and as long as they all led happy, satisfied lives I wouldn’t give a shit. Even setting aside the fact that these faith-based categories don’t correspond to anything I’ve seen in the world, I have actually seen people who would probably be put in the “not really trans” categories who were as satisfied as anyone with their transitions, and people who would be put in the “really trans” categories who struggled, doubted and detransitioned.

I don’t second-guess anyone’s decision to transition or not, but I tell everyone that the most important criterion they should use when making their decision is which gender they can realistically envision as hosting the happiest, most fulfilling life. In the end, everything else is bullshit, and nobody should consider transition without doing this basic visioning exercise.

But when I go on Twitter or Reddit and see the same faith-based screaming and pontificating, I feel like I’ve walked into the Council of Nicea and everyone’s yelling about whether Jesus is the same entity as God or not, and all I want to say is, “wow, what do you think about what Jesus said about how if you only salute your brothers you’re no better than the tax collector?”

I’m sick of hearing from people who already know it all and want to beat everyone else over the head with it. I want to follow people on Twitter who care about everyone who’s feeling trans feelings, regardless of what stupid category they’re in, and who’s trying to help them. I’m particularly interested in people who are finding ways to deal with these feelings without transition, but I’m really looking for compassion – and not just compassion for brethren. I hope there’s some out there!

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A world ruled by women

Everyone understands trans men. They see a world where men earn more, have more power and more options, and in some societies have legal rights over the bodies and futures of adult women. It seems straightforward to reject membership in an objectively oppressed class in favor of membership in a more powerful one.

People also sometimes understand why someone would want the status of women temporarily, to hide themself or their power, even to trick someone else. They have a much harder time understanding any other reason: why anyone would want to be lower-status, lower-power?

In practice there are several reasons why people might want to be women, given the choice. One I’ve never heard discussed is that when some of us first felt that desire, we lived in a world where women were powerful.

When I was a boy, I woke up every day in a house owned by my mother. I went to school, where my teachers were all women, and so were the Cub Scout den mothers. I went home and the house was often dark until my mom got home from work, because my big sister was still at school, in track team activities. When we were younger she locked herself in her room, leaving me to amuse myself. That was better than the times she insulted me or even pushed me around.

There were men, but they didn’t have much power. My mom had moved us a hundred miles away from my dad, and had a boyfriend who didn’t want to take care of us. Later she threw him out and dated a guy who turned out to be a liar. Some of my mom’s friends were nice, and so were our next door neighbor and my elementary school principal and janitor, but none of them had much responsibility for me.

Even our cat, with her maternal energy, felt like an authority figure. There was one point, in between my mom’s boyfriends, when we also had a female dog, so I shared the house with four females.

Of course I knew that men treated women badly. I saw it in the way my father ogled waitresses, and heard the contempt in his voice when a woman disagreed with him. I saw it in the way boys chased girls in the elementary school playground. I heard it from my mother and my sister and my mother’s friends.

But I could also see my father’s loneliness after having rejected lots of worthy women and alienated all the rest. I could also see that boys who chased girls, whether physically on the playground or metaphorically in bars and parties, were not much happier. And it seemed that all the men I knew were in some way responsible for mistreating women, but at least some women managed to live free of guilt for mistreating men.

In my teens, my mom settled down with a man who treated everyone decently and showed me new possibilities in life. A few years later I spent some time moving in the world, being seen as a woman. Not very much time at all, but enough to get a taste for how women are treated on a regular basis. I also heard more from women about their experiences. I decided not to live full-time as a woman.

Once that decision was made, you might expect that I would no longer feel any desire to be a woman. But I discovered that things were not so simple. I continued to imagine myself as a woman, and occasionally to go out in the world as a woman.

One reason is that it is difficult to live in our society in any gender, and deciding to live as a man did not wipe away the bullshit that we put on men. And it turned out that once I had imagined that womanhood could be an escape from that bullshit, I kept thinking about it.

It seems the habits of thought and action that I had begun when I was a teenager had gathered too much momentum. If I tried to stop the actions, the thoughts kept coming back. If I didn’t act on the thoughts, it felt like I was denying myself.

You can be aware that women are treated as second-class, know about the bullshit women put up with, and still feel a desire to be a woman. When you’re a boy of ten or eleven surrounded by teachers, mothers and older sisters, it can still look like an improvement. This is just one of the ways that our lives are influenced by decisions that made much more sense when we were kids.

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Everyone has the right to say no

I have been asked for my opinion on the debate over whether it’s okay for lesbians to preemptively restrict their sexual partners to people who fit their definition of women, in particular excluding anyone who has a penis. The bottom line is that everyone has an absolute right to control their own sexual activity, and to say no to sex with anyone, under any circumstances.

People also have a right to decide who they want to flirt with, to date, to fantasize about. Everyone has an absolute right to exclude any individual or group from their pool of prospective romantic partners, for any reason.

To be honest, it would be hypocritical of me to say anything else, because I am pretty much only attracted to women. Not on principle, and not with a specific definition of woman that anyone else would agree with, but that’s what turns me on. None of that really matters at this point, because I haven’t been sexually active with anyone other than my wife since before we were married, and I’m very attracted to her.

This issue is particularly important to me because I was touched, without my consent, as a child. But it is something that everyone should care about, because it is a matter of physical and emotional autonomy. Even beyond the individual level, if we cannot all feel safe in our bodies, what effect does that have on our society?

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Dysphoria, misgendering and semantic frames

Part of the Frame Description of a Hotel Room

Body dysphoria is a feeling that there is something wrong with the configuration of the body, apart from any documented physical conditions. It is often contrasted with simple gender dysphoria, but some people instead portray gender dysphoria as a symptom of the same underlying condition. As I wrote a few years ago, there is an argument that body dysphoria is an innate “medical condition” deserving special protection. In that post I discussed multiple cases of body dysphoria appearing in adulthood, which contradict the idea that it is always innate.

So if not everyone with body dysphoria is born with it, how did those people get it? There is an alternative explanation for body dysphoria, based on the theory of semantic frames, that body dysphoria arises when gender dysphoria and transgender desire interact with the world. There is no reason to believe any of them are innate.

I also want to note that body dysphoria seems to be frequently triggered by the presence of others, or at least by people imagining how others would see them. The symptoms of body dysphoria – shock and distress – bear a strong resemblance to the feelings that many people feel when they are misgendered – classified by gender in a way that contradicts their intentions. The explanation that I give for body dysphoria also explains the reactions to misgendering. In fact, they are the same reaction, only with different triggers.

The way I’ve presented the concept in the past is that body dysphoria is a feeling of discomfort with the body, specifically the idea that there is something wrong with the body, that the way it appears is not the way it truly is or should be. By contrast, I’ve defined gender dysphoria as a discomfort with gendered expectations imposed by other people. I’ve also tried to separate gender dysphoria from transgender desire, the desire to be seen and accepted as a member of a different gender. Many people experience all three feelings, but some people only experience one.

Continue reading “Dysphoria, misgendering and semantic frames”

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The importance of being hombres

On Facebook someone posted a while ago asking where in Queens there were bars showing RuPaul’s Drag Race. The answer was a bar called Hombres.

At gay bars and other places explicitly marked as male spaces, you’ll often find not just drag fans but drag queens, transvestites and other non-transitioning trans people. You will also find that when we get home from these spaces we usually take off the makeup and falsies and look a lot like men. Sometimes we change into guy clothes before we leave the bar. Sometimes we wear guy clothes the whole time.

This guyness extends to other environments. We usually present as guys at our day jobs, when we’re doing laundry, and when we go hiking. Interacting with the world as women is a relatively small part of our lives.

This is often used by transitioned trans women to deny that we are trans, and thus to deny us a voice in transgender politics. In 2014 there was a heated debate over who had the right to declare words like “tranny” taboo. RuPaul and other drag queens saw the words as either not particularly offensive or ripe for reclamation, while a group of transitioners saw them as potent slurs.

The transitioners were used to having the upper hand in these verbal hygiene debates by virtue of ideologies of linguistic self-determination, in which only members of a group have standing to determine which words are appropriate names for the group and its members, and which words are offensive. But the drag queens had long been considered part of the “transgender umbrella” with equal standing to transitioned trans people.

The transitioners’ response was to redefine “trans women.” Zinnia Jones wrote a petition stating that “Cisgender male drag queens are assigned male at birth, and they neither consider themselves to be women nor live as women in their everyday lives. Unlike trans women, they are not the ones who regularly face the consequences of widespread transphobia and transmisogyny, and they are not confronted with the fallout of normalizing transmisogynist slurs.”

It’s highly debatable whether people who regularly go to drag bars face less transphobia than people who are out during the day, but victimhood wasn’t originally part of the definition of transgender, and it shouldn’t be.

It’s also not clear that drag queens don’t consider themselves to be women. I’ve never been to Hombres but if it’s anything like the gay bars I’ve been to, chances are that inside you’ll probably hear all the drag queens, and even some of the more masculine-presenting people, referred to with “she” pronouns and in Spanish, feminine adjectives.

This may occasionally be a mockery of femininity, but most of the time it is a response to a simple desire to be classified as women in a particular situation. Some people have observed that it is relatively common for people to spend months or years living as men and performing in drag shows, and then later transition to living as women, for a variety of reasons.

That is only part of the story. Many drag queens and other trans women have decided that we don’t want to transition. When people are allowed to be free with our genders, we choose what works for us, from one column or another. Drag queens go to bars called Hombres and answer to “she.” I buy nylons for women and razors for men. I have friends who buy jackets for men and bras for women. Everyone mixes and matches on some level.

So are we transgender? Are we trans women? The key fact in my mind is that many of us experience one or both of the key feelings of gender dysphoria (in our case, discomfort living as men) or transgender desire (wanting to live as women). The fact that we cope with these feelings without adopting a full-time identity as a woman or modifying our bodies does not mean that we don’t feel the feelings.

If you force us to choose one gender and stick with it, we will probably say we’re men, and there’s a good reason for it. We’ve got these bodies and we’re not changing them, and on some level we’re used to living as men. We probably also know, maybe from firsthand experience, that being a woman is no picnic either.

If you know that you’re not going to transition, and you’re going to spend eighty percent, ninety percent of your life or more interacting with the world as a man, and if someone forces you to choose whether to think of yourself as a man or a woman, it makes sense to choose man. That means your internal self-image and your external self-image match for most of your week.

So yes, we call ourselves men, but that is because our binary society pressures us to choose men or women. It does not mean that we’re always happy being men, and it doesn’t mean that we wouldn’t choose both if we could, or whichever one fits at the time.

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