Definitions and protections

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What microaggressions are and aren’t

A few years ago I was shopping for clothes at a chain store in New York City. I had already tried on several dresses, and had found a nice suit I wanted to buy. As I was handing my discards to the changing room attendant, she said, “You need to use the changing room on the third floor.”

I had a guess as to what that might be about, but it still hurt to get off the escalator and see that the third floor was all menswear. There was no way I was marching in to the men’s changing room in a skirt and makeup. I brought my dresses back down to the first floor changing room. When the attendant saw me she said, “Oh you’re back,” but she still led me to a room.

The winter before last I was in a different store, shopping for a coat, wearing full makeup and jewelry (see the photo above). I went up to the mezzanine, where most of the women’s clothes were. A salesclerk asked if she could help me, so I asked where the coats were. She told me the basement, so I took the elevator down to find only menswear. I went back up and found the women’s coats on the ground floor. I didn’t buy anything.

Instead I went to a different store and found a nice coat. When I got to the counter the clerk looked me up and down, gave me a big smile and said, “You look great, girl! Going out tonight?”

Last week I didn’t even want to go shopping, but my boots were a little too big, so I went looking for some socks. figured it was a good time to buy some of the over-the-calf socks that were in style this winter. I went into a store, but the only women’s socks I saw, a small display by the cash registers, were ankle socks.

I looked around, and found a sign saying that in the basement they had men’s clothes and women’s clothes. I went downstairs, and the only socks I saw were men’s socks. I was heading for the escalator when a salesclerk asked if she could help me find anything.

“Socks,” I said.
“Right over here.” She led me back to the men’s socks.
“Those are men’s socks.”
“Right. You wanted – oh.”

She saw the look on my face and immediately apologized. She asked a co-worker where the women’s socks were, and he told her upstairs, by the register. As she led me back there she explained that she only really knew her department. And she told me I looked very good.

These four experiences have really clarified my understanding of microaggressions. The first experience, being told to change on the third floor, was ambiguous until I saw that the changing rooms on the third floor were for men. Because there was no way to avoid that fact, the attendant’s order was not a microaggression, it was just plain aggression. It was a way for her to tell me I wasn’t welcome in her changing room.

The fourth experience, being led to the men’s socks, wasn’t aggression at all. Women shop for men’s clothes all the time: for themselves, and for their husbands and boyfriends and sons. The salesclerk thought that was what I was doing. It hadn’t occurred to her that I could have been misdirected by the signs. I reacted strongly because I had had two negative experiences before.

The second example, being sent to the basement, is a classic microaggression. As Taylor Jones explained so well, microaggressions require ambiguity and plausible deniability. If I had tried to report the clerk, I’m guessing she would have claimed it was an honest mistake, that she thought I was a man who wanted to buy a men’s coat. To this day I myself still sometimes wonder.

The third example, receiving exaggerated compliments when I was just buying a coat, is a type of interaction that has sometimes been called microaggression. I didn’t really appreciate it because it felt forced, and it felt like the clerk wouldn’t have complimented me that way if she hadn’t thought I was trans. But it wasn’t a microaggression, because there was no possible interpretation that suggested any intent to hurt me. I had the impression that the clerk was not just saying these things to close the sale and make me want to come back, but because she wanted to be nice to a trans person. Again, not ideal, but I’ll take it.

“Microaggression” is a useful term precisely because it is so specific. It covers behavior where the intent may be aggressive, but the speaker can plausibly deny having any such intent. It does not cover situations where aggressive intent can be easily established, or where there is no evidence of any aggressive intent. Including those situations dilutes the concept.

Stop using trans murders

Lots of people are talking about the New York Times opinion piece, “My Daughter Is Not Transgender. She’s a Tomboy.” by Lisa Selin Davis and the responses to it. I was particularly frustrated with a Medium piece from Chase Strangio. Strangio attacks Davis and her argument from several angles, but the worst is when he privilege-shames her and essentially accuses her of inciting trans murders.

But connecting [questioning gender expression] to the affirmation of trans young people in their genders is reckless and dangerous and wrong. Trans youth are dying because society is telling them, telling us, that we are fake. Trans women and femmes of color are being murdered because the impulse is to believe that trans-ness is fraudulent, that our bodies are threats.

Strangio is a white trans man, not a trans woman or a femme of color, so it’s disingenuous right off the bat for him to refer to “our bodies.” It is not typically bodies like his – or even bodies like mine – that threaten people so much they kill.

Strangio is technically correct that some trans women have been murdered because people thought they were being deceitful, but to simplify the cause of violence against black and latina trans women to accusations of fraud is a gross distortion of the problem. This violence is intersectional: it is mostly directed at people who are seen as nonwhite, poor, immigrant, transgender, feminine, “gay,” and sex workers. Nonwhite poor immigrant feminine gay sex workers who aren’t seen as trans face a level of violence that is barely distinguishable from that faced by those who are trans.

Nonwhite trans women are more likely to be poor and sex workers. Not because they’re seen as deceivers, but because many of them are already in financially precarious positions, and then their families tend to throw them out for wearing women’s clothes. This drives them deeper into poverty and forces them to choose between sex work and hunger.

When a john accuses a transgender sex worker of “being a man,” he’s not just accusing her of romantic deception (if even that), he’s accusing her of fraudulent business practices. Sex workers get killed based on smaller accusations.

Poor communities in the United States tend to be less accepting of homosexual relationships than middle-class ones, which puts pressure on anyone who might be seen being involved with a trans woman. If a man is seen as gay, that can lead to loss of social standing, ostracism and harassment. And if he’s seen interacting with a trans woman, people in those communities will label him as gay. Some courageous men stand up to that kind of attack, but many others will take it out on the trans woman.

Strangio comes to this with an agenda: he wants himself and every trans person to be able to assert a gender without being questioned. I too want to be able to wear a dress without someone shouting “you’re a man!” at me – or even targeting me with microaggressions.

But let’s assume we could bring about Strangio’s vision of the world, where everyone could simply state their gender and receive title to all the roles, spaces and relationships associated with it. Who’s to say that all the dissatisfied johns and intolerant parents out there wouldn’t just move the goalposts and say that it’s okay to beat or kill a sex worker who doesn’t advertise that she has a penis, or to cast out a child who abruptly asserts a new sex without asking?

Still, let’s assume that somehow by legislating acceptance of gender declarations we can somehow prevent nonwhite, poor and immigrant teenagers from being thrown out of their family homes and killed for being feminine and trans. They still may wind up as sex workers because they’re poor, and they still may wind up getting killed because they’re poor, nonwhite and/or immigrants. Strangio seems to hint that questioning people’s gender is tied up in white supremacy, but he doesn’t explain how.

This lecture on privilege was written by a white lawyer with a large readership working for a nationally renowned nonprofit, and widely shared even as he laments that his Medium page is “lesser-read” than the New York Times. If Strangio had really wanted to center the challenges faced by poor, nonwhite trans women, why didn’t he just link to a post by a poor, nonwhite trans woman? If he couldn’t find anything written in response to the article by poor, nonwhite trans women, why didn’t he encourage some of his nonwhite transfeminine friends to write responses and then promote them?

This is not about nonwhite trans women. My feeling is that Strangio finds the article threatening for any number of reasons, so he fights back by saying one of the worst things you can say in his circles: privilege. But here’s the problem: Strangio is a white professional man criticizing a woman, which is one of the most privileged positions you can be in. His trans background is not really enough to overcome the gender difference, and he knows it. So he invokes the sufferings of black and latina trans women.

Can we please not do this? We should absolutely be talking about the murders of trans women and femmes, and what we can do to prevent them. And on this issue we should be letting the people most affected speak, and listening to what they say, as much as possible. But we should not be dragging this issue into an argument between two assigned-female white professionals over a white assigned-female child.