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.

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.

Definitions and protections

I’ve written before about how I would like to find common cause with other people who are critical of essentialist transgender ideology, but I get alienated by the nasty rhetoric that many of them throw around. A case in point is this article by Taylor Fogarty. I follow some people on Twitter who post good stuff, but they also tweeted approvingly about Fogarty’s article, which is

Fogarty begins with a reasonable attack on the concept of gender identity, which I have also roundly criticized on this blog as a faith-based argument masking a prescriptive set of identity-based behavioral expectations. She also critiques the “cotton ceiling” claims of some trans activists, which are not entirely without basis, but still very problematic, and deserving of a more nuanced critique.

The rest of Fogarty’s argument is based on a flawed understanding of how the law protects people from discrimination. It goes something like this: The law mandates punishment for people who hurt others based on their sexuality. In order to establish hurt, we need to define protected sexualities, and in order to do that we need to define sexes, all based on “objective fact.”

I am not a lawyer, but I know this isn’t the way the law works, and with good reason. My father was actually gay-bashed in the 1970s. He was a skinny guy with long hair, and he was waiting to cross Sixth Avenue at Waverly Place when he heard someone yell “Faggot!” and something hit him on the back of the head. He was knocked unconscious, but got stitched up at the hospital. The police weren’t interested, because at the time there were no hate crimes laws, and they didn’t have enough to go on for assault.

My dad was not gay. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, he just wasn’t. Neither was Ever Orozco, who was stabbed to death in Jackson Heights in 2013. But Orozco’s killer accused Orozco of blowing kisses at him, so he was prosecuted for a hate crime.

This is the way it should be, because the problem is not that these classes of people exist out there in some objective reality, and haters are picking one to beat up. The problem is that these categories exist in haters’ minds as threats, and therefore targets. They could construct a nonsensical category including Tibetans, Lutherans, plushies and maybe some Rotarians, and it would be just as destructive as any that Fogarty claims to be based on objective fact.

Fogarty’s logic is not the logic of the law. It’s the logic of fear, where the response to trauma is to divide the world up into the righteous, beleaguered Us and the nasty, savage Them, with strong laws and definitions protecting Us from Them. The idea that a straight man could be the innocent target of anti-gay violence has probably never occurred to her. She might find a way to say that they don’t deserve protections anyway, but maybe she’s better than that.

Don’t recommend Bailey either

If you read my blog at all, you know I have very little patience for transgender dogma. I don’t have much more patience for the Blanchard model either, but it seems to be the most popular alternative. Alice Dreger is right that my “community leaders” have been nasty to Ray Blanchard and friends, but she also seems to think that Blanchard’s theory is actually worth something. Last month I posted about the difficulties of coming out about transvestite sexuality, and I got a very nice email from someone who asked if that was the same as “autogynephilia.” I found the blog of a therapist who questions transition, and she recommends that parents of dysphoric children read Michael Bailey’s The Man Who Would Be Queen.

Of all the books I could recommend to an anxious parent, The Man Who Would Be Queen is one of my last choices. If you forced me to choose between that and a transition-cheerleading book I would probably throw them both in the pulping bin. It’s a nasty, polemical, judgmental screed that offers little hope to any trans people. And that, really, is the message I’ve gotten from the entire Blanchard camp.

Ray Blanchard developed his dichotomy between “autogynephilic” and “homosexual transsexuals” in the 1980s, based on work by Kurt Freund and others in the late 1960s and early 1970s,* when the primary mission of therapists working with trans people was gatekeeping. There was a real danger that people would make all kinds of body modifications, get fired from their jobs and ostracized by their friends and family, and wind up broke and destitute. They found that the “HSTS” were more likely to succeed in their transitions – and in those days that meant blending into society post-transition and being able to live “stealth.”

There was probably some value in the “HSTS/autogynephilia” dichotomy as a gatekeeping heuristic, just like there was some value in the “we’re all women trapped in men’s bodies” idea for getting people to relate to transgender ideas at all, but they’re both based on wild oversimplifications, ignoring a vast quantity of exceptions. Both camps have spun elaborate essentialist theories and spent the past thirty years searching for biological evidence to support those theories, and neither camp has come up with anything particularly satisfactory.

My biggest beef with Blanchard, Bailey and friends is that as far as I’m concerned, they’ve done fuck-all to help me and other trans people to cope with trans feelings. I decided not to transition with no help from them, I came out of the closet a year later with no help from them, and I’ve spent the 21 years since figuring out how to live out and proud without transitioning. Where is their guide to doing that? It’s not there. All they cared about for decades was preventing me from transitioning (didn’t want to anyway), and attacking the Everybody Must Transition dogmatists.

I wish I could offer the therapist a book she could recommend to worried parents instead of Bailey’s book. For that matter, I wish I could offer a book that people could recommend instead of Julia Serano’s book. The problem is that the parents want certainty. They want a book that will tell them How Things Are, and What To Do. But the fact is that when it comes to transgender feelings we don’t know how things are. We don’t know what to do. We’re all fumbling blindly in the dark. The difference is that some of us are prepared to admit it.

* I had originally said that Blanchard developed his taxonomy in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Someone wrote to correct that. I regret the error.


I’ve been writing this blog since 2006, and for a while it seemed that my readership was growing steadily. I joined Twitter in 2009, and Tumblr in 2013, and later that year I made a separate Twitter account for personal and political tweets. I saw people retweeting and reblogging my work. But at a certain point the number of retweets, reblogs, mentions and comments that my posts got abruptly dropped. Since then most of the responses I get are from regular readers or Facebook friends.

This is not entirely a bad thing. I know that a lot of what I write is controversial, and some transitioners even find it offensive. I’ve had a couple of unpleasant experiences, on Reddit and on Facebook, with people sharing my work with a hostile audience, and it is not necessarily valuable. I don’t really want to reach people who have closed their minds to my ideas, whose only response will be unthinking hate, and who will use the opportunity to find ways to dismiss my arguments.

The main reason I write is simply because I have ideas, thoughts, words in me that want to get out. I read things that other people write, and if I don’t write down my own thoughts in response, I tend to get more confused about the issues and forget my earlier thoughts.

But I also write for others, for trans people who are deciding whether to transition, for trans people who have decided not to transition and can hopefully benefit from my experience, and from various kinds of allies. I want to continue to reach them.

What’s frustrating is that it could be due to people simply not appreciating my writing anymore. I find myself wondering whether I’ve gotten so out of touch with other trans people that nobody agrees with me at all. Or possibly worse, that what I say is complete gibberish to them.

I’ve occasionally read things about a Twitter blacklist, a plugin that will load a centrally maintained list of Bad People and filter their tweets out. Now, I believe in blocking people; there are too many trolls out there. But blocking should always be done on a case by case basis. Group blacklists are a huge abuse of power.

It crossed my mind that I might have been put on some blacklist. This is a good place to point out that I have not done any of the things that are normally invoked to justify keeping a blacklist. I have never harassed or stalked anyone. I have never threatened anyone with discrimination, much less violence. I haven’t called anyone slurs based on race, gender, religion, sexuality or anything else. The worst things I’ve said to anybody are probably “fuck you” and “you’re an asshole” in the midst of heated arguments. If that’s what it takes to be on that blacklist I’d expect half the world to be on there.

I got some confirmation for my suspicions last year, when the LaLa Zannell, a staffer at the Antiviolence Project retweeted the claim that “Stonewall was started by trans women.” The claim bothers me because it is invariably used to foreground transition track trans women, excluding the trans women at Stonewall who chose not to transition. The word “trans women” didn’t exist then; they all called themselves queens or transvestites, regardless of their transition status.

I tried to engage with the people repeating that claim on Twitter, and at first I was engaged, if with suspicious contempt. But then all of a sudden LaLa Zanell retweeted a tweet from an anonymous account, responding to another, private anonymous account, claiming that I had “priors,” so that it was okay to block me.

Again, note that I did not attack or threaten anyone or any group. Zannell and friends were challenging a historical account of Stonewall, and offering an alternative. I was doing exactly the same thing.

That was clear evidence of my name on some blacklist that could be used by people to decide whether to block me. I suspected I was also on an informal blacklist, but I had no evidence until a few months ago I came across a tweet shared by a fellow linguist and trans woman who follows me on Twitter. The author of this post, also a trans woman, talked about using these group blacklists in the past and renouncing the practice:

I saw this tweet from my professional Twitter feed, where I mostly talk about linguistics and try to keep political tweets to a minimum. I logged in to my personal account and discovered that I was indeed blocked by the author of that blog post. I tweeted this information to her from my professional account, and she happily removed the block. Neither of us remembered having any interaction with the other, so it is clear that I am indeed on an automatic blacklist.

What is most disturbing about these blacklists is that there is no due process, no opportunity for redress, and not even any notification to people who are placed on one. Even the people who use these blacklists are never told anything about me. One day I am visible to them, the next I am gone.

Even the informal blacklist that Zannell and friends used was a complete mystery to me. The tweet she retweeted came from an anonymous account that blocked me. The evidence of “priors” it referred to was from another anonymous account whose tweets were private. There was no way for me to see the evidence against me, and no opportunity to respond or refute it.

It is perfectly fine for individuals to block anyone they don’t want to interact with. It is also appropriate for Twitter or even organized groups to block or ban repeat offenders, with due process, transparency and accountability.

It is much worse to have hidden blacklists maintained by anonymous administrators, with no procedures for recourse or accountability. And it is even worse to have such hidden blacklists applied automatically, with the user being unaware of the people they have blocked. It is a recipe for disappearing people that a totalitarian dictator would be proud of.

What I find most disturbing is that LaLa Zanell worked for the Antiviolence Project at the time. Zannell may have been junior staff member at the time, but when I alerted the organization about this activity there was no response. This lack of interest, and the fact that Zannell has been promoted twice since then leads me to wonder whether AVP as an organization would ever adopt a blacklist.

Would there come a time when I could be beaten up, and try to contact AVP to report it, only to be ignored? I hope not. I’d like to get some reassurance from them.

I wrote most of this post a few weeks ago, but I’ve been avoiding finishing it until tonight, because it was painful just re-reading the nasty tweets from Zannell and her anonymous friends, and even more painful being reminded that there are thousands of people out there who won’t even get a chance to read a little of what I write, so they can decided for themselves whether to read more or not.

What moved me to finish the post and click “Publish” was the recent controversy over fake news in the US election. I’ve had a lot of thoughts about the election and about the fake news, but I haven’t posted anything because I haven’t had any answers. Tonight another fellow linguist and data scientist posted a dataset of “fake news” gathered from websites flagged by Daniel Sieradski’s “BS Detector” software, which relies on a list of domains that “was somewhat indiscriminately compiled from various sources around the web.”

At this point I don’t think I need to spell out for you why I think Sieradski’s methods are a bad idea. Yes, I understand why group blacklists are tempting. But they don’t work, and they are open to serious abuse. I’ve spent my life supporting independent media organizations, going back to when I used data science to fight Rush Limbaugh’s misinformation in 1995. I don’t want to see small media providers snuffed out because “this blacklist is better than nothing.” It’s not. I’m serious.

Coming out as a transvestite

On this National Coming Out Day, a lot of it feels so old news. I came out in 1996 – over twenty years ago! And yet I’m still uncomfortable talking about my sexuality. I say the word “transvestite,” but I don’t stress what it means. I posted a version of this last year as a private post on Facebook, but I’ve been afraid to put it in a blog post, or even a tweet – afraid that if people find out it will destroy any credibility I have as a trans person, destroy my social life, and make people not want to hire me.

On some levels it seems like we’ve made such strides in terms of openness and acceptance of sexuality, and on other levels it feels like we’re stuck back in 1950 or even 1880 and haven’t moved an inch. Even in terms of trans acceptance, we’ve made progress, but only at the cost of a lot of us denying our sexuality. Is that really progress?

Anyway, I’m a transvestite. And yes, that means I’m transgender. Are you a transvestite too? Happy National Coming Out Day!

Owning Jessica Hambrook

In the wake of the Alliance Defending Freedom-sponsored bathroom bills being considered in many states, and passed in North Carolina, many people responded that there have been no documented cases of trans people assaulting women in bathrooms. I may well have been the first to point out, a decade ago, the conspicuous lack of news reports of any such assaults.

It’s important to be clear about what this fact means. It means that a tiny minority of rapes happen in bathrooms, trans women are a tiny minority of the population, and a tiny minority of us are rapists. A tiny minority of a tiny minority of a tiny minority means that there’s so little chance of this happening that it might as well be zero.

Here’s what this does not mean: that trans women can never be rapists. It does not mean that none of us has ever raped anyone. It just unlikely, especially in a public bathroom. There are a lot of other things to be worried about, like getting hit by a car on your way to the public bathroom.

We need to be clear on this point because there is always a chance that at some point, someone will get raped in a bathroom by a trans woman. In fact, there is a group of radical feminists who collect and circulate news reports of trans people harassing and attacking women and girls.

These lists are not a systematic investigation of these issues, and they do not constitute a sound argument for banning trans people from women’s bathrooms. The argument rests on exactly the same profiling fallacy currently being promoted by Donald Trump, Jr. But the incidents are well-documented, and if we ignore them or dismiss them out of hand, we look like liars.

In February 2012 a trans woman, Jessica Hambrook, was arrested based on reports that she sexually assaulted two women in two different homeless shelters in Toronto. Psychiatrists, no doubt working in the sloppy theories of Ray Blanchard, “concluded Hambrook is not transgender.” The Toronto Sun reported in February 2014 that she was locked up for life as a “dangerous offender,” based on guilty pleas in these cases and convictions in two previous ones. They apparently considered themselves freed by the psychiatrist’s judgment from the responsibility to treat her with any dignity, and consistently referred to her with a male name and pronouns. They printed a brief statement from the defense attorney admitting Hambrook’s crimes, but not addressing the question of her transgender status.

When challenged on the Hambrook case, trans activist Toni D’Orsay simply took the word of the psychiatrists that Hambrook “falsely claimed” to be trans. The rest of our “trans community leaders,” normally eager to defend one of their own and insist on the “correct” name and pronouns, has been silent on this issue, apparently unwilling to risk even the possibility that she is just as trans as they are, and might therefore taint all trans people with her crimes.

This is bullshit – and it’s exactly the No True Scotsman fallacy. Every population includes some people who are mentally ill, people who are sexual predators, and people who are criminals. It is preposterous to think that trans people are somehow immune to this. If this convicted serial rapist Jessica Hambrook is not “really trans,” there is a rapist somewhere who is. We discredit ourselves by ignoring this certainty, and the radical feminists are simply attacking us with the weapons we have handed them.

My catalog of woes

Here begins my catalog of woes. Please bear with it, because it has a point.

1. It was 1994 or 1995. I had just moved back to New York and was trying to figure out how to be comfortable with my transgender feelings. I had come out to my dad, and he had accepted them and agreed to let me live with him while I found work and saved up some money. I had also gotten over my adolescent homophobia and come to admire lesbians, gay men and bisexual people who were out and proud. I had heard about the New York Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center, and that they had a Gender Identity Project.

I went to the Center one day and was directed upstairs to the GIP office, where I was greeted by a woman. She didn’t introduce herself, but I later recognized her in photos as the founding Director of the GIP, Rosalyne Blumenstein. “Can I help you?” she asked.

“Well, uh, I’m transgender, and I wanted to know if you have any services for people who aren’t transitioning.”
“We don’t really have anything for cross-dressers, but there’s an organization uptown called CDI, Crossdressers International. They might be able to help you. Here’s their number.”
“You don’t have anything for people who aren’t transitioning?”
“No, sorry.”
“Uh, okay, thanks anyway.”

I didn’t go to CDI. I muddled through with the support of friends and therapists who didn’t really know about transgender issues. I left the city for grad school in 1997, and came back in 2000. I was living in a rough part of the South Bronx. I had a simple need that I thought the Center might be able to help with, especially since they had become the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Services Center.

2. I went back to the Center and told the receptionist I was transgender, and asked if they had a safe place where I could change my clothes. She said, “No, we don’t really let anyone change in the bathrooms because they make a mess.”

I thanked her and left, and was halfway down the stairs to the subway when I decided that wasn’t right at all. I went back upstairs and told the receptionist I was very upset with what she said and I wanted to talk to someone about it. She told me to wait, and after a few minutes a woman came out and led me back to a small room in the GIP offices. I explained the situation to her as she listened sympathetically, and then she told me that she didn’t have the power to change that policy because she was a counselor, but she would pass on my concerns to management. And no, there were still no other services available at the GIP for people who weren’t transitioning.

3. I eventually did go to CDI, and they were very nice and they did help me, but they were also very closeted and didn’t have much to offer someone like me who was largely out of the closet. They offered a safe place to change clothes, but their rates were way beyond my budget.

4. For a while I went to the transgender support group at Queens Pride House, but at one meeting another support group member told me I wasn’t really transgender because I wasn’t transitioning. The group moderator backed me up, but I felt stressed out rather than supported, so I stopped going.

5. In 2003 I made contact with Helen Boyd, who convinced Carrie Davis to get the Center’s policy changed to allow people to change clothes in the bathrooms. Helen also offered some support groups at the Center for trans people and their partners for a while.

Helen and her now-wife Betty ran a message board that I found welcoming and supportive for a few years, but it began to attract increasing numbers of transitioning trans people who were not content to simply discuss their personal reasons for transitioning, but to insist that it was their destiny – and the destiny of every true trans person – to transition. This implied that people like me who don’t transition are either not truly trans or not transitioning. When I objected to this, Helen and Betty refused to back me up, and told me to stop challenging the destiny talk because it was making other people uncomfortable. When I continued, they banned me from the message board.

6. A few years ago I started going back to the Queens Pride House group, which has been more supportive. At the last meeting, there was a new member who insisted that I “hadn’t really decided” who I was or what I wanted. Several of the other group members, including Pauline Park, the moderator and a founder of Queens Pride House, challenged this new member on her behavior, but it was still stressful and not supportive to be attacked this way.

And now, as I promised you, here is the point of this catalog of woes: To live as a trans person without transitioning is to be told constantly that you don’t belong, that either you’re not really trans or that you’re denying your true nature. If you object you’re ignored for as long as possible, and then called divisive and disruptive. Some trans people may say that they get that too, but at least they get a few safe spaces. Most services for trans people are entirely oriented towards transition, with a few exceptions that are oriented towards the closet.

And the point of that is that when people like Julia Serano claim that people who don’t transition or who detransition are a tiny minority, and that many of us don’t even identify as trans, it may not have anything to do with what trans people as a whole really believe or want. It may simply be that there is tremendous pressure to not be a trans person who doesn’t transition, and that we’re being pressured out of sight, and even out of existence. Serano has been around long enough that she ought to know this, but acknowledging it might give ammunition to people who say kids shouldn’t be allowed to transition as soon as they say they want to, so she just sweeps it under the rug. Thanks!

What if you don’t have a gender identity?

I believe that President Obama, Attorney General Loretta Lynch and Acting Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta sincerely want to help all transgender people. I commend their courage for doing what they think will help. But I’ve read Lynch and Gupta’s remarks and read the brief that Gupta’s office filed in response to the North Carolina lawsuit over bathroom access, and I’m feeling worried. Where do I, and all the other genderqueer and genderfluid people, fit in this? Will we be left out?

Paragraph 31 from the brief defined gender identity as ” gender identity, which is an individual’s internal sense of being male or female.” Paragraph 36 states, “Gender identity is innate and external efforts to change a person’s gender identity can be harmful to a person’s health and well-being.”

That’s great for someone who lives through childhood as a girl, transitions in high school and lives the rest of their life as a man. It’s great for someone who lives as a boy and then a man, and transitions to living as a woman during a midlife crisis. It’s especially good if they are comfortable interpreting their feelings of discomfort, desire and excitement in terms of innate brain genders despite the shaky science involved in those constructs.

Paragraph 36 is less great for someone who doesn’t want to be pigeonholed into any gender, or for someone who feels like they’re in between, or a mix of genders. It’s not so good for someone like me who sometimes feels a desire to be a man and sometimes a woman, who sometimes feels uncomfortable with on gender, or the other, or both. It’s especially bad if we’re skeptical of any kind of pat answers, especially about gender.

There is a straightforward case against North Carolina’s HB2 law: just as it’s illegal to deny a person public accommodations or require her to wear a skirt because she has the legal status of “female,” it’s illegal to deny a person the right to use the women’s room because she has the legal status of “male.” It’s a pattern of sex discrimination.

I can understand why Lynch and Gupta don’t want to use the straightforward argument, though, because it makes a bald-faced case that people should be allowed to use whichever bathroom they want, even if they’re not trans. Gupta doesn’t think the American people are ready for that. Instead, here’s how she puts it:

Transgender people are discriminated against because their gender identity does not match the sex they were assigned at birth. H.B. 2 denies transgender people something that all non-transgender people enjoy and take for granted: access to restrooms consistent with their gender identity.

For years, whenever anyone talked about “gender identity” I just thought of it as some weird feeling that trans people who transition full-time have. But then people started insisting that everyone has a gender identity, and that because I chose not to live as a woman full-time I must have a masculine gender identity. They’re wrong; I don’t. I just dress like a guy most of the time because it’s the easiest thing to do. It’s not just me, either: I’ve known people who’ve transitioned and don’t have a gender identity.

Nobody knows what my gender identity (or lack thereof) is unless I tell them, and yet they do occasionally discriminate against me, like when the woman in the Burlington Coat Factory on Sixth Avenue sent me to the men’s changing room. She had no idea whether my gender identity matched the sex I was assigned at birth; she simply decided I was a man despite the fact that I was wearing makeup and a skirt, and discriminated against me based on her judgment.

Similarly, the people who confront trans people for their choice of bathroom have no idea what gender identity their victims have. They aren’t discriminating based on a gender identity mismatch, they’re discriminating based on their gender classification. I can’t believe that on some level Gupta and Lynch don’t know this.

I don’t want access to restrooms consistent with my gender identity, and I don’t think most other trans people do either. I want access to restrooms consistent with my gender expression. It’s pretty simple: if I’m wearing makeup and heels, I want to go into the bathroom where people with makeup and heels go. If I’m not wearing makeup and have visible facial hair, I want to go into the bathroom where people with no makeup and visible facial hair go.

I don’t vary my gender expression for fun. I do it because through many years of experience I’ve concluded that my mental health suffers if I don’t. My need is just as real, and just as unchangeable, as any other trans person’s. I’m just not confident enough in my understanding of my own mind, or in the state of neuroscience, to assert that this is a result of some innate sense of self.

So here’s what I want to know, Attorney General Lynch: if I don’t have a gender identity, innate or otherwise, and I’m not prepared to assert that my state is innate, do you still stand with me? Do you stand with the genderqueer person who doesn’t really pass in any bathroom, and decides which is the safest on an ad hoc basis? If I got arrested in a women’s room in North Carolina, in makeup and a dress, would you do everything you could to protect me? Or is safe access to restrooms only for people with a gender identity?

Update: Cristan Williams points out that the Justice Department is suing North Carolina because they received grants under the Violence Against Women Act that are conditioned on states not discriminating on the basis of gender identity. But as I pointed out shortly after the Act was reauthorized in 2013, the definition of gender identity is “actual or perceived gender-related characteristics,” which is a lot more inclusive and effective than the faith-based definition. So why are Lynch and Gupta using a definition of gender identity that’s so radically different from the one in the law?