Skepticism, faith and fearmongering

I’m frustrated. I just put together a draft post about how it’s hard for me, as a trans person who tries to be skeptical, to believe in gender identity. Now, television psychiatrist Dr. Keith Ablow has written that he doesn’t believe in gender identity, and uses that in an argument that children shouldn’t be allowed to choose the gender of the bathroom they use. And then professional troll Bryan J Fischer picks up on it, citing “the truth that we find in the Scriptures.” Great. Well, let me deal with these guys first.

Screen capture by Media Matters
Screen capture by Media Matters
There’s not much to say about Fischer. Despite centuries of trying, nobody’s yet found scientific proof of the existence of God, or Satan, or the “truth” of the Bible, or the effectiveness of prayer. If you’re going to believe in those, you might as well believe in gender identity, the True Self, the Authentic You, and the Two Spirits. Or not.

Ablow (who in happier days provided a national platform for Betty Crow to declare her transition) has an argument that’s a bit more challenging because it’s not so obviously faith-based. Yet, right at the point where he begins to challenge bathroom rights, he admits that “data is sorely lacking” to support the idea that if kids are exposed to other kids with female anatomy who are treated like boys it will “do harm to their own developing sense of self.” And yet he feels that the possibility is so strong that we need to protect kids from it.

Later he claims, with absolutely no supporting argument, that he doesn’t see “anything but toxicity from the notion of a person with female anatomy feeling free to use the urinal in the boys’ rest room while a boy stands next to her and uses one, too,” and warns that bathroom rights will create “completely unnecessary anxiety related to whether they should be doing some sort of emotional inventory to determine whether they’re really going to turn into men, once and for all, or find out they’ve been suppressing the truth that they’re actually women.”

There is a coherent argument in the piece: that it is a lie to say that the question of gender identity is settled to the point where we can simply take someone’s word about what their gender is. So far, that’s a solid skeptical observation: the whole business with uterine hormone baths and the bed of the stria terminalis is pretty shaky science, but trans dogmatists claim that it’s The Established Truth. It’s pretty strong to say it’s a lie; it’s more like wishful thinking.

Now, it is this “lie” that Ablow claims will harm the children’s sense of self more than the gender stuff. But if you think about it, that’s a really weird idea. Kids are constantly being lied to by adults about everything from the Easter Bunny to Moses parting the Red Sea. Did I miss the editorial where Ablow denounced the threat to kids’ sense of self posed by the myth of hairy palms? Where did he call for the impeachment of President Bush for “a powerful, devious and pathological way to weaken them by making them question their sense of safety, security and certainty about anything and everything” – this myth of the War on Terror?

It’s pretty clear that this argument about “a lie that can steal their ability to trust adults” is bullshit. Ablow doesn’t actually believe that adults lying to kids is that big a threat. His skepticism about trans dogma is just a fig leaf for his true concerns (completely unsupported by any evidence) that kids will catch the trans from their classmates.

A true skeptic who was genuinely concerned about this issue might call for a temporary moratorium on bathroom rights, but would want to see the issue explored as soon as possible. After all, it’s obvious that the kids who want to live as the other gender aren’t being well served by the current system. It’s a testable hypothesis, this idea that kids can catch the trans by being around other kids whose non-normative gender expression is tolerated by authority figures. You might expect that a freethinker like Dr. Keith would want to investigate this hypothesis. For some reason I’m skeptical.

The glamour of high heels

I wrote this a couple of weeks ago in response to a discussion about high heels and the patriarchy on Tumblr:

Yes, it is important to remember that high heels have all kinds of problems. In addition to the health problems mentioned, it’s hard to run away from predators in them. It’s hard to move nimbly at all, unless you have a lot of practice with them. Some people wear them every day and never manage to be graceful in them.

Riding a bike in heels is fine, especially with flat pedals.
Riding a bike in heels is fine, especially with flat pedals.
But there is that fantasy. When I’m sitting by the window and I hear heels clicking on the pavement below, I imagine a slim, elegant, sexy young woman outside on her way to an editing job at Conde Nast, or a fancy cocktail party. I imagine myself in those heels, strutting down the sidewalk, turning heads, instead of sitting at my computer grading homeworks or debugging code.

And then sometimes I get a chance to put on my own heels and go clicking down the sidewalk in Greenwich Village. At first I feel elegant and sexy and I see men and women looking at me, but are they looking because they think I’m elegant, or because they think I look silly? Are the heels making too much noise? I want to go faster but I can’t without worrying about slipping or losing my balance. Watch out for those cobblestones! One of my heels just got stuck in the subway grate. And then my feet start to hurt. I have to walk even slower. Can I still look elegant with my feet hurting so much? Fortunately the creepy guy who was following me and saying “hey baby” seems to have given up and gone away.

So I take the shoes off at the end of the day and my feet are sore for days. I’m glad I don’t have to wear those every day! I would get used to them to a degree, but never completely. Imagine if I had a job where they expected it? But in a few days I hear heels clicking outside my window again and I don’t think about how much of the attention was unwelcome. I don’t think about how physically painful it was to walk in them. I don’t think about how limited my movement felt. I just think about how elegant and sexy the wearer of those shoes must be.

The disconnect doesn’t just apply to the person who’s wearing heels. I fantasize about dating or kissing elegant women in heels, but I know plenty of women who wear heels that I have absolutely no desire to kiss. I’ve been on dates with women who were sexy, even elegant, but distracted and uncomfortable in their heels. I’ve been on dates with women who were sexier and more elegant in flats. I’ve gone on long, romantic walks that wouldn’t have been possible if either of us had been wearing heels. And I’ve had fabulous sex with women who’ve worn heels maybe five days in their entire lives.

That disconnect between fantasy and reality is a perfect example of glamour. It’s a fantasy that persists, sometimes in the face of massive evidence. It’s important to acknowledge it and examine it, but a massive guilt trip is not the way to stop it.

We don’t hold elections

After I posted my take on the “transgender/transgendered” debate on Facebook, a friend-of-a-friend who’s a gay man with some inside knowledge mentioned that in deciding to endorse “transgender,” his organization talked to representatives of several national transgender organizations. While that’s way better than nothing, it’s not enough information for them to be able to say “this is what the trans community wants.” These “leaders” don’t actually represent any of us. There is no way to find out what “the trans community” wants, because we don’t have a collective decision-making process.

old-voting-machine-adWhether it’s the “-ed” suffix, the space in “trans woman,” the use of the “cis-” prefix, the declaration of “transvestite” as taboo, the freakout over “princex,” generally the proclamation du jour of this term or that as being preferred, dispreferred, offensive, indispensable, etc. – it’s all one single person’s opinion, more or less well informed. If it gets picked up by two people, then it’s three people’s opinion. It never gets to be what “the trans community” wants.

None of these people asked me if, as a linguist, I approved of the term “cis.” Nobody asked me if, as a sociolinguist, I agreed that it would be good for trans rights to declare “transvestite” taboo. Nobody asked me if, as a trans person, I wanted people to use the space in “trans woman” to browbeat potential allies. I never got a ballot for the referendum, and I never got to vote for a rep to the Trans Grand Council.

More importantly, nobody sends magical owls to make sure that all the closeted transvestites and stealth transsexuals get their ballots. Nobody badgers the trans people who might be kind of busy with work, or raising kids, or next week’s model railroad exhibition, to make sure they take the time to register their opinions on the matter.

No, what we get are the voices of people who are thinking about this stuff all the time. Those who spend their hours on Tumblr and Facebook puzzling out the optimal arrangement of acronyms, affixes and punctuation to finally bring down the patriarchy. Those who collect dues with the promise of lobbying our elected officials to pass laws protecting us, and can’t stop thinking about it on their downtime. And of course, those who are in mid-transition and living with the trans nonstop and completely unable to think of anything else. Not exactly representative of all trans people.

So if you’re not trans, please do me a favor: the next time you read about the Words Not to Say on Buzzfeed, or get your ear bent by your buddy Kyle about how appropriative some punctuation mark is, or hear from the Legislative Director of the National Council on Trans Women-Gender/Rights that “trans” is exclusionary, please take it with a grain of salt. And if you are trans, the next time you get that great idea about How the Ampersand Oppresses the People, please use I statements. Don’t claim that you, or anyone, knows what “the trans community” thinks or wants or believes. We don’t hold elections, and we definitely didn’t elect you.

Why I prefer “transgendered”

The “transgender/transgendered” debate popped up tonight, first on a Q&A by Zinnia Jones (aka Lauren McNamara):

Point: The structure of “transgendered” suggests action, as if it were something you were subject to – that you are a person who has been “transgendered” and that is the reason why you exist in your present state. We wouldn’t say “gayed” or “lesbianed”.

Counter-point: Other words of similar construction, like “gifted” or “left-handed”, do not imply action, or that you’re only this way because you were subjected to something.

Meta-point: “Transgendered” bothers some people and use of it will lead to this coming up and distracting from whatever you were originally talking about. “Transgender” does not pose this issue. Therefore, use of “transgender” is preferred.

Ali Edwards expanded on it for her transgenderscience Tumblr:

All excellent points. To add a linguistic angle:

Adjectives with -ed endings tend to express emotions and feelings. “I am frightened,” “That is amazing,” etc. Adjectives with -ed were also almost always originally verbs (to frighten, to amaze). In fact, that’s why “gifted” has the -ed — it’s built of the old verb form of to gift.  

Transgender is not a verb. You can’t “transgender” something. A lot of transphobes believe you can, (“These durn libbruls are gonna transgender my boy if we don’t stop ‘em!”), but you can’t. 

Transgender is an adjective, though, and as Lauren pointed out it describes a “state.” Like most adjectives that describe qualities of a noun, it doesn’t take a suffix. The sky is not “blued,” it’s “blue.” The glass is not “half-fulled,” it’s “half-full”. My mom isn’t “femaled,” she’s “female.” And I am not “transgendered,” I am “transgender.”

For a real linguistic angle, let me as a linguist endorse the explanation of my friend Pauline Park (who is not a linguist):

Adding an ‘ed’ to a verb to create an adjective is in fact a very common construction in English, and the fact that an adjective is created from a verb doesn’t mean that it isn’t an adjective. Similarly with ‘transgendered.’ When we talk about people, we ordinarily say that they are ‘gendered,’ using an adjective created by adding ‘ed’ to ‘gender.’ It would be both grammatically incorrect as well as bizarre to say that a child is ‘gender,’ while it makes perfect sense to say that a child is ‘gendered.’

Now, I do use ‘transgender’ as an adjective to describe certain entities that are abstract, such as ‘transgender law,’ ‘transgender studies,’ and ‘transgender community,’ because it is the people — not the law, the studies, or the community — that are transgendered. So it is not at all inconsistent when I refer to myself as a ‘transgendered woman’ and also as a ‘transgender activist,’ because in the latter case, it is I who am transgendered, not my activism. Similarly, NYAGRA is a transgender organization, not a ‘transgendered’ organization, because an organization itself cannot be transgendered, only its members.

Trousered, not pantsed.
Trousered, not pantsed. And yes, this spot in my apartment has good lighting.

Expanding on Pauline’s perspective, and on Jones’s counter-point, there are lots of nouns that get “verbed” (Calvin and Hobbes, 1993) and then have -ed added to make them adjectives, like “armored, varicolored, half-timbered, leisured, trousered.” There’s no implication of action. You can’t transgender someone, but neither can you leisure, varicolor or trouser them. (You can pants them, but that’s something else.)

To Jones’s meta-point: Yeah, people are ignorant about language. Sometimes it’s a distraction, and you use the terms they want and move on. Sometimes (especially on Tumblr) language is the focus of discussion, and that’s the time to bring the science.

Two points: (1) Note that both Jones and Edwards use the passive (“is preferred”) and similar constructions in their prescriptions, to deflect attention away from their roles and onto the wishes of the amorphous community. (2) Note that Edwards (who is not a linguist) cites no linguistic papers for her “linguistic angle.” I don’t either, and neither does Jones, but there’s a huge contrast between this post and her heavily-linked posts on biology and psychology.

In fact, it would be nice to get the perspective of an actual trained morphologist on this. Anybody want to go there?

Finally, anyone who thinks that these “-ed” adjectives are an insult? Well, they sound like very gifted and cultured people.

The feelings we don’t all feel

I used to think I didn’t have body dysphoria. I definitely don’t have it the way some people report it. For example, here’s a famous description from Lydia K.:

So you run your internal gender_check and get nothing as a response:

you@body# gender_check

Return code is zero, nothing is printed out, everything is all good, and you think “I have no idea what these people are talking about, there isn’t anything here.”. When a trans person runs their gender_check they get a slew of errors, a spewage of various issues that need to be addressed

IMG_2772No, my nervous system doesn’t randomly run a “gender check” and come back with an error. By and large, I’m satisfied with my genitals. It can be a pain (literally!) to tuck them out of sight when I’m presenting as a woman, but they fit my usual male presentation. I think they’re pretty nice looking, and fun to play with, and chicks dig ’em (okay, my wife digs ’em). If I woke up without them one day I’d make do, but otherwise they’re not going anywhere and I’m fine with that too.

I do actually feel dissatisfied with my body. Primarily it’s a weight issue, because for most of my life so far I was on the slim side. Then in my late twenties I got the “middle-aged spread.” I felt fine through all the childhood growth changes and a full male puberty, but it was the weight that felt foreign. Ever since I was about 27 I’ve looked in the mirror and thought, “that’s not me, that doesn’t belong there.” I’ve lost a little weight over the past few years, but a lot of it has come off my legs. I look great from the waist down, but sometimes my shoulder-to-hip ratio really jumps out at me in the mirror and in pictures, and I feel frustrated and discouraged.

The part that bothers me most is my belly. My shoulders and ribcage have also grown since then, which is perfectly normal for adult men, but I miss the time when my shoulders weren’t much broader than those of the average woman my height. And yes, I know that there are XX, women-raised-women with my shape, but most of them don’t have deep voices and big hands and thick facial hair to deal with too.

So yes, sometimes I do feel uncomfortable having broad shoulders and a penis, but only when I’m actively thinking about presenting as a woman. Otherwise I have the same body dysphoria that a lot of formerly thin people have.

Does that mean I’m not trans? Far from it. I still periodically feel a desire to be a woman, and sometimes I feel sad when I’m not seen as a woman. There are lots of trans people like me who don’t have heavy body dysphoria, and many of us have quite satisfactory transitions.

So in addition to the feelings I have, which I described in this post, we can add that some people have this “gender check” type of body dysphoria. Just not all of us.

You’ll notice that in my last post I used “I statements,” talking about the feelings that I personally feel or have felt. I don’t claim to know what “a trans person” feels, unless that trans person is me. Lydia K. doesn’t know what “a trans person” feels either unless that trans person is her, and I wish she’d stop pretending she does.

The feelings we feel

I’ve talked before about how counterproductive it is to talk about the trans (or anything) in terms of categorizing people, and recommended instead that we talk about our transgender feelings and beliefs, and the actions we take in response to those.

Here, then, is a first attempt at cataloging transgender feelings. Essentially I’m writing down feelings associated with transgender events or thoughts, or with trans people. If I’ve written about that feeling before, I’ve tried to link to that post. This is not meant to be an exhaustive list, just a starting point. Please feel free to point out any that you think I’ve missed.

I recently wrote that everyone’s actions are non binary in that they cross somebody’s line between men and women. Trans feelings are similar: as I write down the feelings I’ve felt and heard and read about, I realize how many of my friends and family have had similar feelings. Not all trans people have all these feelings.

It’s important to remember that feelings aren’t always logical. They’re responses to things that happen to us. Sometimes they’re rational, and sometimes they aren’t. That’s okay.

A lot of these feelings are superficial. That’s in part because I’ve focused on specifically transgender feelings, and some of them are superficial. It’s not that I don’t have deeper feelings, it’s just that those feelings are more universal and less trans-specific.

  • Sometimes I feel sad. I feel sad that when I’m naked and I look in the mirror I don’t see a beautiful woman. I feel sad that I don’t always see a beautiful woman when I’m wearing women’s clothes, and sometimes I don’t even see someone who looks like a woman. I feel sad when I hear women admiring each other’s clothing or grooming, but I’m afraid to tell them about my own women’s clothing or grooming, let alone show them. I feel sad when I see women being admired, but I don’t see any reason for anyone to admire me.
  • Sometimes I feel frustrated. I feel frustrated when I spend an hour on my makeup and am told to try on clothes in the men’s changing room. I feel frustrated when I’m in a room full of women who are attracted to women, and none of them show an interest in me. I feel frustrated that I have to spend an hour on makeup before I can look in the mirror and see a woman.
  • Sometimes I feel anxious. I feel anxious about being a man, because men are the dangerous ones. I feel anxious about being perceived as a man in a dress, because people are rude to men in dresses, and often hurt or even kill us. I feel anxious about attracting people that I’m not attracted to. Sometimes I feel anxious about just plain being noticed.
  • Sometimes I feel longing. I long to be sexy, to be attractive, to be stylish. I long to be admired, to be loved, to be accepted.
  • Sometimes I feel desire. I want to be a woman. I want to wear women’s clothes, to be seen as a woman. I want to be accepted in women’s roles, with the status of woman. I want someone to tell me I look pretty, or sexy. As Rick Nielsen said, I want someone to want me.
  • Sometimes I feel sexually aroused. I feel aroused when a sexy person desires me. I feel aroused when I look in the mirror or at a picture of me, and see someone who looks sexy. I feel aroused when I wear sexy clothes. I feel aroused when I imagine myself looking sexy.
  • Sometimes I feel excited. I feel excited about people seeing me as a woman. I feel excited about people admiring me. I feel excited about trying on new clothes. I feel excited about losing weight.
  • Sometimes I feel happy. I feel happy when my gender presentation looks good. I feel happy when I get comments on my looks.

I would be very surprised if any of you reading this feel the exact same mix of feelings I do. That’s normal. We’re all snowflakes. There is no one way to be trans. But from conversations I’ve had and descriptions I’ve read, I know that a lot of you have similar feelings. Please do let me know if there are feelings you’ve had that I haven’t covered.