Good research: Three trans communities in New York City

In November I was annoyed with a couple of statements by Sel Hwahng, but after re-reading this article he co-authored with Larry Nuttbrock, I’ve decided that it’s really solid research and should be read by anyone who’s interested in public health – or trans politics in general.

The Silver Swan, a popular hangout for “White cross-dressers” in the mid-00s.

As I discussed in my earlier post, several years ago I participated in a study where I went to a storefront every month or so, gave a blood sample, and talked with a researcher for a while. Usually it was a fairly repetitive series of short-answer or Likert questions, but there were a few discussions that were more open-ended. Larry Nuttbrock was the principal investigator on the study, and I’m one of the “White cross-dressers” that he and Hwahng are talking about.

Re-reading the article, I see that it was really only two lines that bothered me:

These cross-dressers explained that because of their desire to maintain a traditional masculine gender role and hide their transgender status, they often did not undergo transition, hormonal supplementation, or surgery until well into their 40s or 50s. Transition often occurred after a domestic breakup, when they could be more out as transgender.

It was definitely true that some of us really wanted to transition but felt trapped by commitments to work and family, but not all of us by any means. I personally decided that I didn’t want to transition years before I got married and had a child, and I haven’t changed my mind about it. Most of the other people I met in that scene showed no interest in transitioning. But this is relatively minor.

Judging from media reports and health research, you might think that the trans population is either all HIV-infected prostitutes or all sexy young transitioners. I schlepped down to Avenue A every month and got pricked with a needle so that people could see another way to be trans. Hwahng and Nuttbrock show that here in New York there are at least three ways to be trans. They found that life was very different for us White cross-dressers than for Asian sex workers and members of the House Ball community.

According to Hwahng and Nuttbrock, House Ball members, almost all from Black and Latin American backgrounds, were more likely to engage in survival sex work and to have little power to refuse sex or to insist on condoms. Members of my White cross-dresser community were largely able to avoid sex work if we chose, so “when White cross-dressers did engage in sex work, it was almost always for recreational purposes.” The Asian sex workers in the study had an intermediate level of power, often being able to insist on condoms and working in hotels and apartments instead of on the street.

Given these different circumstances, it’s sadly not surprising that our risks of HIV infection are vastly different. In another paper co-authored by the entire study team, they didn’t have enough data about the Asian sex workers, but they reported that “HIV was 3.5% among Caucasian Americans compared to 49.6% and 48.1% among the Hispanics and African Americans.”

It’s important to note here the limitations of the study. Nuttbrock and his colleagues were able to investigate these three trans communities, but they were aware of others:

The study also identified additional groups, including the following: low-income, immigrant Latina(o) sex workers of Central and South American origin who solicited in Queens; low income, immigrant Latina(o) sex workers who solicited in Manhattan; and low-income, immigrant South Asian transvestites in Manhattan, Queens, and New Jersey. Not enough data had been gathered at this writing, however, for detailed analyses of these other populations. Some study participants did not fit any of these ethnocultural contexts but did not constitute large numbers and were thus considered outlier data.

This is really key. We don’t know what we don’t know. There could be some population of wealthy South Asian transvestites that completely swamps all three of the other groups numerically, but that was invisible to Hwahng and Nuttbrock because they meet in secret in luxury condo towers. Not that likely, but nobody really knows. I’ll close with a great quote from the report:

To understand the complex, interlocking behavioral and sociostructural determinants of health that often remain hidden within the geographic location of the New York City metropolitan area, it is thus imperative to examine as many divergent ethnocultural transgender communities as possible.

The kind of coming out we need

Last month I highlighted some good research done by Lal Zimman at the University of Colorado, where he found two conceptions of coming out among trans people that were very different from the way the term is used by lesbians and gay men. In the comments, my friend Caprice Bellefleur hit on the next point that I was going to make: that there’s a fourth way that coming out is used.

There is a further complication about the use of the term “coming out” among trans people. Many, especially those who identify as crossdressers, use it to mean the first time they appeared in public in their alternate gender. They may not have disclosed anything to anyone.


In keeping with Zimman’s use of the letter “d,” with declaring a gender transition and disclosing a transgender history, I’ll talk about non-transitioning trans people displaying non-normative gender expression.

Zimman explicitly excluded crossdressers from his definition of “transgender,” acknowledging its use as a euphemism for “transsexual,” but when I met him in February I was there to advocate rejecting that sense of the word, based in part on the fact that there’s so much overlap. Many of his “transgender people,” particularly on the feminine spectrum, identify for years as crossdressers, and in fact the “declaration” he described is a performative speech act that, in the eyes of many trans people, is enough to allow someone to pass from “umbrella trans” (or even “just a cross-dresser” or “just a lesbian”) into “really trans.”

(I honestly don’t know much about coming out for queens and butch lesbians. I do know that for some gay men, coming out allows some feminine self-expression, and similarly allows some masculine expression for lesbians, but I’ve heard that that is still stigmatized by many people, gay and straight.)

As I said before, I’m not really happy with these three uses of “coming out.” To put this in perspective, there are several advantages that the “gay” kind of being out confers on the individual and the community:

  1. The dishonesty and self-denial necessary to be closeted tend to be habit-forming and have a corrosive effect on character
  2. The same habits of dishonesty and self-denial have a corrosive effect on the tenor of group interactions.
  3. Large numbers of gay men, lesbians and bisexuals being out contribute to safety in numbers.
  4. It’s easy to dehumanize people when you can pretend they’re not there, but it’s a lot harder when you know someone.
  5. It’s easy to hate people when they feel ashamed of themselves, but it’s harder when they have self-respect.

The two forms of “coming out” that Zimman describes (declaring and disclosing) fulfill all these characteristics, but they are only available to people who choose to transition and genderqueer or genderfluid people. Someone who has the exact same thoughts, beliefs and feelings but decides not to transition or change their primary gender expression has only the display form of coming out available to them. When people display they are visible in public as trans people, but in clothing and accessories that they normally don’t wear, and with makeup that changes their appearance. They may not be recognized by people who know them in their primary identity. Most importantly, they don’t use the same name. How is anyone supposed to know that the Tiffany Sparkle that they met at the dance club last Friday is the same person as Bob from Accounting?

This means that displaying has only one of the four advantages of coming out, the “safety in numbers” advantage, and that only when people are actively cross-dressing. There may be some feeling of liberation in this, but it is fleeting, and at all other times they still have to hide and to deny their true feelings. And while they hide, others are unaware that people they know are “one of those” and know that all these people are so ashamed of themselves they don’t want their true names known.

I seem to be the exception here. I decided not to transition in 1995, and I decided to come out in 1996. I came out “gay style,” by putting up a website and telling my co-workers. I didn’t start wearing dresses to work; I just told people. And when a trans-related topic came up, I came out again as necessary.

I’ve reaped three of the four benefits of coming out. I’ve felt hugely better being able to talk about this important part of my life, and knowing that all these people know and are still treating me with respect. I’ve used it to build bridges in my community and break down walls of hatred and mistrust. But I don’t get the benefit of strength in numbers.

I don’t know any other non-transitioning trans people who’ve come out the way I did, and that’s a shame. Because there are a lot of closeted trans people out there who don’t seem to know that it’s possible to come out this way. The only way they see out of the closet is to disclose a gender transition. That’s not right.

Who owns “transvestite”?

Courtney O’Donnell blogs about media representation of trans people, and serves a useful watchdog role. It’s possible to go overboard with that, and normally she recognizes it. Last September she wrote, “As for ‘transvestite’, some have made it know they find this word offensive, too, however, I’m also aware that it’s usage as an umbrella term is rather widespread — particularly in the United Kingdom. I’d be curious to hear what trans people from the other side of the pond feel about the term.” Last week in a post about Rosalinda Rebolledo, she asked whether Rebolledo’s story counted as “transgender news.”


In a post today, O’Donnell goes overboard. The actress Gwyneth Paltrow, who’s actually less silly than a lot of Hollywood people, was asked by USA Today, “But seriously, how can she look so fresh the day after partying until near-sunrise for the Met Gala?” Paltrow replied, “Are you crazy? I’m like RuPaul! I have so much makeup on. Foundation! Last night, I was literally a transvestite.”

(Don’t even start on the “literally.” That battle is lost, people. We’ve got plenty of words that mean “in the real world, not metaphorically or metonymically.” Use them, and forget this one.)

O’Donnell created an image saying that Paltrow “Ridicules Trans People,” and writes, “Trans people are not objects to ridicule. While it may appear to be a thoughtless comment by an ignorant person, however, a celebrity of her stature yields quite a bit of influence among her fans, so she’s going to have to own up to committing this very public blunder. I wouldn’t go so far to say Paltrow is transphobic, but she in dire need of education. If we can get her to apologize, she can redeem herself and send a bit of good PR our way.”

A lot of O’Donnell’s commenters said she was making too big a deal of it, to which O’Donnell replied, “Remember, those that do violence against trans people do not check for labels — crossdressers, transvestites, transsexuals — trans people are all one and the same to them. Being mocked in the media by a celebrity, no matter how slight, normalizes this behavior. While readers are free to give Paltrow a pass, I’d like to think I’m helping ensure that mocking trans people isn’t so easily blurted out during interviews anymore.”

I’m not really sure what ignorance Paltrow is exhibiting, let alone mockery, and what kind of “education” O’Donnell has in mind for her. Beyond that, though, where does O’Donnell get off policing the word “transvestite”? It’s clear from her September post that she doesn’t identify as one, and doesn’t understand the nuances of the word. Why not leave it to someone who does?
IMG_0535When I was a cute young thing I didn’t need to wear any makeup at all. But at 41, I’m not just a transvestite but an aging transvestite. I have to spend an hour slathering the stuff on just so that I don’t see my beard shadow in the mirror. It’s a pain in the ass, and it’s kind of nice to know that People‘s “Most Beautiful Woman” has to put up with it much more often than I do.

I don’t feel at all ridiculed by the comparison. I don’t feel mocked by someone who wears a lot of makeup pointing out that we do too. I don’t see how it could encourage people to violently attack us. In fact, I feel sympathy and validation from Paltrow.

I’d appreciate it if O’Donnell and (any other non-transvestite activists) could back off from the term “transvestite” and focus on whatever flavor of trans she identifies with. If we want her help, we can ask for it. And actually, if she wants to give a signal boost to this effort, that’d be nice.

(P.S. See also Jeremy Feist’s take.)