The pronoun conflict

I know a lot of people who have pronouns.  Sometimes these are pronouns they want to hear used to refer to them, but often the pronouns that matter most to them are the ones they don’t want to hear, pronouns that hurt them, that trigger unpleasant feelings.

I do my best to keep track of these, avoid the triggering pronouns and use the affirming pronouns.  I would do this under any circumstances because it’s basic human decency. I also have feelings about pronouns, and I appreciate when people use the ones I find affirming and avoid the ones that make me uncomfortable.

There’s actually a big difference between the way I want to hear pronouns and the uses I described above, and that puts us into potential conflict over pronouns.  Some people only have one (or maybe two) set of pronouns that are always welcome.  For me, there are times when I want to hear “she” pronouns and anything else will make me uncomfortable, and other times when I want to be referred to with “he” pronouns and other pronouns would feel weird.

If you met me, how would you know which pronouns I want you to use at that time?  I try to make it easy for you by giving you lots of gender cues.  If I’m wearing a dress and makeup and speaking with typical women’s language features, that means I want “she” pronouns, but if you see my beard stubble and I’m wearing clothes you would find in the “men’s” section, I want to hear “he” pronouns.

There are other ways of handling pronoun use. I’ve talked with some people who vary their gender presentation like me, but still want to be referred to with only one set of pronouns regardless.  They may wear a dress and makeup one day and wear pants and speak with a deep voice the next, but still want to be referred to with the same pronouns.

Other people may consistently present gender cues that are typically associated with one gender while wanting to hear a pronoun that’s typically used to refer to people of a different gender.  As always, I’m happy to do what I can to help them feel validated and avoid triggering them.

The conflict comes when people have gone beyond simply asking for the pronouns they want to hear and made generalizations about all trans people.  The first rule I heard was to ask all trans people for “their pronouns.”  The obvious flaw there soon became apparent: asking only trans people for their pronouns highlights a person’s transgender expression and may out them to other people.  And as I mentioned, some people may be presenting gender cues typically associated with one pronoun but want to be referred to with different pronouns.

The rule was then modified to asking everyone for their pronouns, whether or not there is anything noticeably unusual about their gender presentation.  Some trans people I know have said that this arrangement is not satisfactory, because they are not out to everyone about their gender, and would prefer to let others assume the pronouns to use based on their gender presentation.  If someone asks them their pronouns directly, they may feel like they are faced with the choice of lying by stating their closeted pronouns or outing themself by stating the pronouns that feel best to them.

For me it doesn’t work to tell people my pronouns, because people almost never ask that question of the same person more than once.  The last thing I want is to have someone use “he” pronouns for me when I’m wearing a dress.  If someone asks me my pronouns when I’m in “guy mode,” and I tell them “he pronouns,” how do I make it clear to them that I don’t want them to use those pronouns if I’m in “gal mode” next time?

I could try to explain about my genderfluid expression, and sometimes people are genuinely interested and we have a valuable discussion.  Other times they’re simply interested in what they need to do to avoid giving offense, and sometimes they seem to be indicating, “I see that you’re doing something unconventional with gender, and I want to support and affirm you.”

The last two speech acts are perfectly valid, but in those cases it feels like it would derail the conversation for me to try to explain that those pronouns would not necessarily be the right ones next time.  I try to just say “my pronouns match what I’m wearing,” but I get some confused looks. So this exhortation to “ask people their pronouns” has made things more difficult for me.

This pronoun conflict is part of a pattern that I’ve observed many times: there’s a group of influential trans people who mistake their circle of friends for the entire population of trans people.  They come up with something that works for them and take to their platforms to demand that their solution be applied universally.  In this case it was “Normalize asking people their pronouns.”

Every time this happens, I hope that the next time people will approach whatever problem they find with more humility and care, release a proposal where more trans people can review it, and wait for feedback.  I’m encouraged that some people seem to be listening to the semi-closeted transitioners, if not to genderfluid people.  I guess we’ll see what happens!

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Feminine expression, not “feminization”

The author singing "La Isla Bonita"

Last year I wrote about my ongoing project to develop and explore my ability to express femininity with my voice. I discussed how important it is for me to create an auditory impression that matches the visual impression I create with clothing, makeup and hairstyle. I was a bit taken aback when I saw the word “feminization” in the name of a file prepared for me.

I want to be clear: I’m completely satisfied with the professional who used the word. I explained why I didn’t feel the word “feminization” worked for me, and they apologized and changed it immediately. I understand why they used it: “voice feminization” seems to be emerging as an industry standard word. I’m writing this to share my explanation of why that’s a bad idea, and why we should use a term like “feminine expression” instead.

First of all, having followed transgender discourse for over thirty years, my first mental association with “feminization” is “forced feminization.” I’m not out to yuck anybody’s yum, but forced feminization is not something I’m interested in, and I don’t think anyone wants to associate a service like voice training so closely with a relatively niche sexual fetish.

Beyond that, “feminization” implies a permanent transformation, that my voice would be changed from masculine to feminine. That may be an accurate depiction of what some trans people want. But as I discussed previously, I’m not transitioning from living as a man to living as a woman.

I’m genderfluid, which means that my gender expression may be feminine one day and masculine the next. I love the masculine parts of myself as much as I love the feminine parts, and I don’t want to give any of it up. I had as much fun singing “Sixteen Tons” today as I did singing “Manic Monday” a few days ago.

So please, don’t talk about helping anyone “feminize” their voice. Just say you’re helping them develop their feminine vocal expression. That’s inclusive: it applies just as well to people like me with fluid gender expression as it does to people who want to permanently abandon masculine vocal expression. What’s not to like?

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Trans people, monsters and the Rocky Horror Picture Show

From the "Wild and Untamed Thing" number, Riff Raff and Magenta prepare to end Dr. Frank's mission

Several years ago I wrote about how I learned the word “transvestite” when my sister first went to see the Rocky Horror Picture Show. I also learned all the songs, because my sister bought the soundtrack, but I didn’t see the movie until I was in college.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show is, after all, a literal horror show, and I’ve never been able to enjoy horror, no matter how much of an ironic pastiche it is. From the weird photo book that I flipped through at our family friends’ house, I knew it contained murder and other violence. Because of that, I never tried to find a way to attend the local screenings.

In the middle of my second year of college, as a result of some poor decisions on my part, I found myself looking for a dorm room. There were only three rooms available, all with another person already living in them.

One of the rooms was occupied by a Rocky Horror fan, who played Brad in the local production. He had decorated the whole room with Rocky Horror posters and kink paraphernalia, including handcuffs hanging from the bedpost and a whip attached to the wall. I suspected he thought that would scare off any potential roommates. I was still in the closet, so I didn’t tell him that an actual transvestite was moving in with him.

As it turns out, we got along great. We didn’t become close friends or stay in touch, but we enjoyed the semester and watched Rocky Horror several times on his dorm VCR, and he eventually brought me to the midnight screening to have my cherry popped, and invited me to eat with the local cast at Denny’s afterwards. He even showed me the little-know, very 80s sequel, Shock Treatment, which he also had on tape.

Watching Rocky Horror and Shock Treatment multiple times, and listening to the soundtracks, and discussing them with my roommate, I came to realize that, even though it may have started as a throwaway gag, the movies are actually a pretty deep meditation on gender, glamour, clothing, sexuality, entertainment, fiction, science, medicine, mental health, predation, deception, power, violence and horror.

I was not terribly surprised to learn, several years later, that Richard O’Brien, the creator of Rocky Horror, is transgender. A number of other trans people have flagged him as problematic for, among other things, saying in 2016 that “You can’t be a woman. You can be an idea of a woman.” I agree that that statement is problematic, largely because, following Germaine Greer, he restricted his claim to people who were assigned male at birth. If he had made it about everyone, he would be in company with Judith Butler and maybe even Simone de Beauvoir.

O’Brien takes a much more compassionate and supportive position than Greer or any other TERF. I would even say that his character of Dr. Frank N. Furter is a direct challenge to the way that mainstream media (like Psycho), and even mainstream psychologists, characterized trans people at the time. Dr. Frank is a monster – an alien who uses gender, sex appeal and science to destroy individual humans and human culture, to feed his ravenous sexual appetite.

I’m guessing that O’Brien read these alarmist depictions of trans people and saw in them an echo of the monsters in the space operas he loved from the fifties, some of which were based on older works like Frankenstein and Dracula. He combined them into a parody where the monster was a transvestite who didn’t care much about world domination, only about sexual conquest.

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Gender expression in the voice

The author singing "Somebody to Love" by the Jefferson Airplane

A few nights ago I passed a fun hour at the “Covers and Karaoke” event that one of my local LGBTQ organizations puts on every other week. I’ve been attending this event for a few years now; for the past year, to avoid spreading the COVID-19 virus it’s been done over Zoom.

This karaoke event is open to anyone in the LGBTQ community and regularly attracts people representing every letter of that acronym, but recently it seems that attendance has mostly been people who are interested in transgender expression and other forms of gender non-conformity. That includes the principal organizer, who’s a trans man, and my genderfluid self. It pleases me to see this.

For years I’ve noticed how we trans people tend to focus our gender expression on visual appearance, including clothes, hair, padding and body modifications, and neglect our other four senses. In particular, many of us neglect the gendered aspects of how we sound. A colleague of mine in linguistics, Lal Zimman, has documented this fairly extensively in interviews.

It’s understandable that we would tend to avoid dealing with our voices, because it’s hard work. Not that buying clothes and getting hair removed (or added) doesn’t take effort, but expressing gender in our voices differently takes years of practice. After all, it took years of practice for us to develop the gendered voice patterns we have.

As a linguist and a student of languages I’ve always been interested in expressing my genderfluidity through language. Decades ago I decided that I would not transition to living full-time as a woman, and I’ve come to think of my response to transgender feelings not as steps toward a goal, but as a lifelong activity, like collecting stamps or playing music.

In 1996, when there were very few professionals who specialized in training people in gendered language expression, I hired a vocal coach for some lessons, but for years I didn’t really have anyone to practice with. My vocal coach used song to help me practice, which fit right in with my own philosophy: I had used song to help myself learn French and Portuguese, and to teach French and English. I tried karaoke a couple of times, but singing in an open bar full of strangers felt too exposed for gender experimentation.

When I learned that many karaoke bars offered private rooms, I realized that this could provide a more protective environment. In November 2014 I organized a karaoke party in a private room with other members of the transgender support group at Queens Pride House. It was not an official Queens Pride House event, but all the attendees of the first event were group members.

From then through January 2020 I organized trans karaoke events roughly every three months. At first I envisioned that we would build up to large public events, but I discovered that it’s better not to let the events get too big. A successful karaoke event can be just two friends, but once the group gets bigger than eight or ten, some people might only get a chance to sing once an hour.

I also realized the value of diversity. The transgender support group at Queens Pride House includes a broad diversity of trans and gender-non-conforming people, with all kinds of gender assignments from birth, gender identifications and gender expressions, not to mention a wide variety of racial, ethnic and class backgrounds. It’s particularly valuable for people who’ve been socialized as boys and men, with testosterone changing our voices from puberty, to discuss and share experiences with people who’ve been socialized as girls and women and changed their voices with testosterone later in life or not at all, and vice versa. We get a similar value from listening to each other sing and from singing together.

There is also value for trans people in singing and talking with people who don’t identify as transgender. When I organize a trans karaoke event I almost always invite at least one friend who’s not trans in any of the usual senses, although even those friends may be gender non-conforming in various ways. It helps if they’re good singers, and thus good role models for some of the trans attendees, but a little enthusiasm can be even more valuable than skill.

A few years ago I got an email that a different organization, the LGBTQ Network, was hosting karaoke nights at their center a short walk from my apartment in Queens. These events are not specifically transgender-focused, but they always attract a sizable number of trans people.

In 2018 I joined a karaoke group that is not explicitly transgender, and made friends within the group. In late 2019 and early 2020, with the support of a friend from this group, I got up the courage to go to the main bar of a local karaoke venue in a skirt and sing with the general public. This was a fun and rewarding experience, and I hope to continue doing it again once we’re safe from the virus, but I think the years of small private gatherings were very helpful in getting me to the point where I felt comfortable doing this, and I hope to keep doing those as well.

In the fall of 2019 I started taking singing classes. I told my teacher, Kristy Bissell, that I’m genderfluid and want to develop my ability to sing “women’s” songs. I said that I’d love it if I didn’t make people cringe by singing out of tune, and I’d be happy if they admired my voice, but I’d be satisfied if they heard me and said, “that woman sounds awful!” She’s helped me to sing beautifully, in tune and in a feminine way – even over Zoom.

After we closed the karaoke bars in March 2020, I organized a few karaoke get-togethers via Zoom, but my friends and the other support group members were not as motivated, so we gave up after a month or two. I discovered Twitch Sings and then Smule, two apps that allow you to sing karaoke and post recordings online, even creating multi-track recordings with collaborators. And I’m very happy that people have continued to attend the online karaoke and open mic events organized by the LGBT Network.

Since I’m genderfluid and non-transitioning it’s important for me to continue to develop my masculine gender expression, and that’s true for the voice as well. My natural vocal range includes some of what’s traditionally considered baritone range, and it feels good to sing a song written for men like Brad Roberts or Leonard Cohen. I contributed a video to a promotional series for the LGBT Network “Covers and Karaoke” events, and since the events are scheduled for Friday evenings I chose “Friday I’m in Love” by the Cure.

I’ve discovered that singing “guy” songs also helps my feminine vocal expression! At some trans karaoke events there were times when I felt like my voice was really not working on the “women’s” songs I wanted to sing. I took a break and sang a song by an assigned-male transgender songwriter – like “Sweet Transvestite” from the Rocky Horror Show or “Karma Chameleon” by Culture Club – and using my “chest voice” freely for a few minutes really helped me to regain control over my voice.

As Jamison Green said, there is not one way to be trans, and I respect and support people who have no interest in expressing their gender variance through their voices. I do find it fulfilling to use my voice to explore my gender and find ways of speaking that match my outfits. And I’m glad to have company along the way.

If you’re trans and looking to develop your voice, I hope to get a chance to sing with you at a bar or event once it’s safe again. Until then – and maybe after – you can join me on Smule.

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Talking about trans without getting stuck

A colleague recommended an interview on the French History podcast with Rachel Mesch, who is Professor of English and French at Yeshiva University, on her new book Before Trans: Three Gender Stories from Nineteenth-Century France. Since I’m trans and I’ve been studying nineteenth-century French literature, it’s right up my alley!

Of course, the big thing I noticed was that Dr. Mesch and podcast host Gary Girod kept getting stuck in the muck of categorizing people. Mesch profiled three nineteenth-century authors who were assigned female at birth, but presented a masculine identity to the world at times in their lives. Were any or all of the three authors transgender? Were they women? Were they men? Were they feminists? Were they gay? Were their husbands gay?

As my colleague knows, I’ve argued that categorizing people is almost impossible and tends to cause more problems than it solves. Transgender issues become so much more understandable if we stop trying to categorize people and instead talk about feelings, beliefs and actions.

On the level of actions, Mesch makes it crystal clear: Jane Dieulafoy and Rachilde not only dressed in men’s clothes of the period, but obtained an official “permission de travestissement,” which apparently was only a thing for people assigned female. Rachilde and Marc de Montifaud wrote under male identities. In terms of beliefs, also, Mesch tells us that Rachilde wrote that she didn’t think of herself as female.

Mesch describes how all three authors wrote about the three major transgender feelings, as experienced either by themselves or by their fictional characters: gender dysphoria (when a person feels discomfort living in their assigned gender), transgender desire (a desire to live as a different gender from the one assigned at birth) and gender fog (an intense excitement connected to the anticipation, experience or memory of transgender actions).

In terms of gender categories, I’ve argued that it makes much more sense to treat “woman” and “man” as radial categories in the tradition of Wittgenstein (1953), Rosch (1973) and Lakoff (1988). Were Dieulafoy and Rachilde men? I’m guessing their tailors appreciated the business. Were they women? They were ineligible to vote. You can go on to various contexts where the categories mattered in their lives, and you can apply the same principles to the categories of “feminist” and “gay.”

Mesch describes her own conscious decision to refer to all three authors consistently with “she” pronouns, but as a linguist what I’m interested in is the gender of the pronouns and adjectives they use to refer to themselves. In particular, Mesch tells us that people regularly wrote to the two masculine pseudonyms of de Montifaud, Marc de Montifaud and Paul Erasme, under the impression that they were writing to someone who hadn’t been assigned female at birth or lived as a woman. I assume that when writing under those two identities, de Montifaud used gendered language consistent with their masculine names.

What I’m curious about is whether de Montifaud or the other two authors used masculine gendered adjectives or pronouns to refer to themselves when addressing people who knew they had been assigned female at birth and raised as women, and if so, at what points. Mesch did not address this in the interview, but she may in the book.

Mesch tells Girod that she felt a bit apprehensive writing about people who she considers to be transgender in some sense without identifying as trans herself. From the interview it sounds like she did a very respectful job. I’m sure some trans people will object to her use of “she” pronouns for the authors, but otherwise I didn’t hear much to object to.

One area where not being trans may have held Mesch back is in her respect for the dominant narratives in trans politics. As a trans person it’s easier for me to challenge those dominant narratives than it is for Mesch who needs to show respect for trans culture. Slightly easier, at least.

One way that it’s important to challenge those dominant narratives is in their insistence on categorizing people: as trans or not, as men or women or nonbinary. One of these narratives is that in the past people were confused about trans stuff and had weird categories. Often these categories were imposed on trans people by outsiders who hated or patronized us. Now we have these categories for people, and things are finally right with the world.

Mesch does not challenge this view of progress, and as she describes the ontological struggles that some of these authors went through as they tried to fit themselves into their view of the world, she seems to imply that they would have had an easier time if they had our 2020 categories for gender and sexuality available to them.

Sadly, as a trans person who’s lived through the past thirty years of categorization debates and who regularly talks to people dealing with trans feelings, beliefs and actions, I don’t see any evidence that people these days find it easier to understand what’s going on with their lives. As a scholar of the nineteenth century I’m sure Mesch knows that historical progress is rarely linear, and sometimes it goes backwards.

In this post I’ve already argued that the dominant trans practice of categorizing people is hugely problematic. I’ve laid out my own alternative practices, but it’s possible that the systems used by the authors Mesch studied were in some ways superior to the system she was taught, and even the one I’ve articulated.

A final note: Mesch says that “it was hard to find people who are French historians or French literary scholars who felt really that they knew trans studies enough to speak to these issues.” It’s been hard for me to be recognized as a scholar of French literature, language or history, or of trans studies. Like many people, I worked hard to get a doctorate and taught as an adjunct professor for years. I applied for many full-time jobs, and didn’t get called for a single interview. So now I work as a web developer.

If we really want to be able to find knowledgeable trans scholars, we need to give them work. And that may mean hiring a trans scholar instead of someone you went to grad school with, or yet another student of that famous scholar, or someone with a degree from a fancy university.

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What I want from Lyft

Screen captures of Lyft profiles for Angus Grieve-Smith and Andrea Grieve-Smith, with gendered photos

This year, all Pride Month I got Pride-themed Facebook ads from Lyft that say, “All expressions of gender identity are valid.  That’s why we’ve added a range of pronouns to the app #TwoIsTooFew. ” Some of my friends might call this an empty corporate gesture, while others might appreciate it.  I have to be honest: it doesn’t do that much for me.

I don’t have a single set of preferred pronouns.  As a genderfluid person, I want people to use the pronouns that go with what I’m wearing: “she” if I’m wearing a skirt and makeup, “he” if I’m wearing pants and have visible beard stubble.  I also have different first names that go with each gender presentation.

Hey Lyft marketing department: what would be cool for me is the ability to create a profile for each gender presentation: one that says “Andrea” with “she” pronouns and a picture where I’m wearing makeup, and one that says “Angus” with “he” pronouns and a picture with visible stubble.  I’d be fine if they were linked to the same passenger score. Really, I just want the drivers and my fellow passengers to treat me in an appropriate way for whatever gender presentation I’m using, no surprises, no questions.

As you can see in the featured image, I was able to change my profile name and picture twice in less than five minutes, so I appreciate that (Facebook will only let me change my name once every sixty days). I set my pronouns to “Prefer not to say.” But how about storing two names and photos? That way it’s clear I’m not trying to fool anyone.

Actually, that’s what I want from the government too.  For example, I’d like two NYC ID cards, one for each gender presentation. I know someone with two credit cards, one for each gender.  This makes sense for a genderfluid lifestyle, right?

I know a lot of people with genderfluid presentations who would appreciate multiple profiles or cards.  For some reason it doesn’t come up when people are offering app upgrades or new city services. And I think that’s because most of the people who claim to represent “the trans community” are binary transitioners, incapable of imagining that anyone else in the community could have different priorities than their own.

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Moderating anticipation

As I’ve written before, one of the signature transgender feelings is gender fog: an intense excitement around a significant gender event, along with a narrow focus on that event, lasting up to three weeks. This is important because it can feed dysphoria: for me in the past, focusing so much on gender, and on a different gender presentation, made the rest of my life seem like an uninteresting distraction from the exciting gender stuff. But that’s an illusion: you can’t live a long, fulfilling life that’s nonstop exciting gender stuff. You need more sustainable sources of pleasure.

The workaround that I’ve developed for this is relatively simple: I space my significant gender events out in time. Through trial and error I’ve found that if I leave at least six weeks between events, there is time for me to get over the feelings of gratification after the event and turn my focus to other aspects of my life, like my work, my family and my research, before beginning to anticipate the next event. Sometimes I’ve been a bit surprised to discover that I also find those things interesting, and even exciting at times.

I’ve encountered another challenge with gender fog: insomnia, particularly in the anticipatory stage. On occasion I’ve had several sleepless nights in a row, just thinking about what I planned to do, where I was going to go, and what I was going to wear. It’s not good to lose too much sleep, especially when you need to be alert for other activities.

The workaround I’ve been using for that has been to try and avoid planning any significant gender event, and instead try to decide that I’m going to go out with a feminine gender presentation on the spur of the moment. Sometimes I’ve even faked myself out, telling myself that I probably would go to a different activity, and then changing my mind at the last minute.

That has helped me avoid some of the insomnia, but it has made it hard to share these events with friends. Several times in the past few years I’ve contacted friends at the last minute, but they’ve all been busy. One activity I’ve been particularly interested in is transgender karaoke, but it’s very hard to get three or more people together for karaoke on short notice.

This past time I stumbled on something that worked fairly well: I organized a karaoke event three weeks in advance, instead of one or two weeks. My friend Alex invited me to a picnic, and he and a number of others at the picnic expressed interest in karaoke, so we set a date.

I had a bit of difficulty sleeping for a couple of nights right around the time I announced the karaoke get-together, but then I pretty much got over it and started paying attention to other things going on in my life. I slept fairly well every night from then until a couple of nights before the outing, which is fairly normal for me.

It’s hard to draw any firm conclusions from this one instance. This was a particularly anxiety-provoking outing, because it was the first time in fourteen years that I appeared in a skirt in my own neighborhood. In addition, there were a number of other things that caused me to lose sleep. My two-year job (extended for three months) came to an end, and I was anxious about the prospect of finding new work – especially since my name is publicly associated with being trans. My family and I adopted a new cat, who spent the first few nights affectionately head-butting me in the face as I tried to sleep. Given all these things, it’s surprising that I got as much sleep as I did, even without the gender fog!

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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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