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.

It's only fair to share...Share on Facebook
Facebook
Tweet about this on Twitter
Twitter
Share on Tumblr
Tumblr

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.

It's only fair to share...Share on Facebook
Facebook
Tweet about this on Twitter
Twitter
Share on Tumblr
Tumblr

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.

It's only fair to share...Share on Facebook
Facebook
Tweet about this on Twitter
Twitter
Share on Tumblr
Tumblr

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!

It's only fair to share...Share on Facebook

Facebook

Tweet about this on Twitter

Twitter

Share on Tumblr

Tumblr

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.

It's only fair to share...Share on Facebook

Facebook

Tweet about this on Twitter

Twitter

Share on Tumblr

Tumblr

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.

It's only fair to share...Share on Facebook

Facebook

Tweet about this on Twitter

Twitter

Share on Tumblr

Tumblr

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.”

So what does this have to do with transgender feelings, beliefs or actions? 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 confront these fantasies with a real 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 people who’ve lived as men 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 inherently 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.

It's only fair to share...Share on Facebook

Facebook

Tweet about this on Twitter

Twitter

Share on Tumblr

Tumblr

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.

It's only fair to share...Share on Facebook

Facebook

Tweet about this on Twitter

Twitter

Share on Tumblr

Tumblr

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!

It's only fair to share...Share on Facebook

Facebook

Tweet about this on Twitter

Twitter

Share on Tumblr

Tumblr