A Skeptical Trans 101

I was very honored that the members of the AURA club at Fairleigh Dickinson University invited me to give a Transgender 101 talk last Wednesday for their Pride Week. Looking over my Skeptical Trans 101 page and imagining how someone in college today would read it, I realized that I’ve learned a lot since I originally wrote it almost four years ago, so I updated it. Here’s the new version:

Why it’s okay to be skeptical about transgender politics, while still being respectful:

  1. As Jamison Green said, “There is NOT one way to be trans.” A story about a single person won’t tell you about everyone.
  2. Lots of people hide their trans beliefs, feelings and actions. We don’t know about them. Anything about transgender issues that contains “most,” “all” or any percentage is probably wrong.
  3. We don’t hold elections. Any person talking to you about their transgender beliefs, feelings or actions is not authorized to speak on behalf of anyone else.
  4. Brain science is not at a point where it can tell us anything reliable. Anything about transgender issues that talks about specific parts of the brain is probably wrong.
  5. People are not reliable – about transgender issues or anything else.
  6. Most people desperately want to be normal, and are willing to lie to themselves and everyone else to feel normal. Anything that makes anyone look normal is probably wrong.
  7. Your beliefs – about gender and everything else – are your own. Don’t let anyone tell you what to believe.

How we use gender:

  1. Every society we know of assigns people to genders. Usually this is “man” or “woman,” depending on the way their genitals look at birth. Some societies have a third gender that involves a combination of the roles of the male and female genders.
  2. Most people have the habit of classifying everyone they meet into one gender or another. Often this is reflected in aspects of language such as pronouns. Some languages, like French, even assign gender to inanimate objects.
  3. Classifying people is a means to an end. Classifying people by gender is a way to figure out whether a person will be safe, a good mate, a good worker, or even someone vulnerable. There will always be many exceptions.
  4. Every society we know of reserves certain roles, spaces and relationships for the exclusive use of one gender or the other, such as jobs, bathrooms and marriages. In these situations, gender is always a shortcut for some harder-to measure criterion, like strength or the ability to bear children.
  5. Every society we know of has gender expression: ways that people identify themselves as one gender or another. Some of these are behavioral, involving habits of speaking or moving. Others involve clothing, accessories and grooming.
  6. Many people fight over gender categories, particularly over who gets any benefits associated with belonging to one category or another, and who gets to speak for one gender or another.

How we react to gender:

  1. Everyone has feelings about their gender. Many people have gender dysphoria: discomfort with the gender they were assigned.
  2. Many people have transgender desire: a desire to be a gender different from the one assigned to them.
  3. Some people experience gender fog: an intense excitement associated with a significant gender event.
  4. Everyone has beliefs about their own gender. Some people have transgender beliefs that conflict with other people’s expectations.
  5. Some people take transgender actions: they are assigned to one gender but take on expressions, spaces and roles that conflict with other people’s expectations. These gender expressions may include modifying their bodies in various ways.
  6. These transgender actions are not new. We find them described for every society, in every time period.

Some bad news about gender:

  1. Some people attack other people for taking transgender actions.
  2. Some people reject their own children for transgender actions.
  3. Some people discriminate against people for taking transgender actions.
  4. Some people commit suicide over the intensity of their transgender feelings, or actions.
  5. Some people take transgender actions and then regret them.

If you have transgender feelings or beliefs:

  1. There is NOT one way to be trans. Base your decisions for your actions on how you want to live your life, not on a category.
  2. Gender fog can impair a person’s ability to make decisions. Avoid making long-term decisions while in a gender fog.
  3. You don’t need to change your gender classification to come out as transgender.
  4. It’s good to experiment with gender, but some experiments can change you permanently, and others can give you unreliable information.
  5. If you’ve decided not to change your gender classification, be aware that taking certain actions might undermine that decision.

How to respect gender:

  1. You will meet people who have strong feelings about their gender. Be sympathetic.
  2. You will meet people whose beliefs about their gender differ from yours. Respect their beliefs, and expect that they will respect yours.
  3. You will meet people who express gender differently from the way you expect. Respect them. Live and let live.
  4. You will meet people who want you to address and refer to them as a different gender than you might otherwise. Honor their desire.
  5. You will meet people who you would normally assign to one gender, but who want to take on roles and spaces that your society reserves for a different gender. Respect their wishes and accommodate them as much as possible.
  6. You will meet people whose sexualities interact with gender in unfamiliar ways. Respect them.
  7. You may be tempted to say something negative or mocking of transgender feelings or actions. Think about how that might be heard. Think about your fellow human beings.

How to help:

  1. Some people spin myths about transgender feelings, thoughts and actions. Some of the most destructive myths are spun by people who are trying to help. Be skeptical, while still being respectful.
  2. There is NOT one way to be trans. Don’t assume everyone with transgender feelings will take the same actions.
  3. Dealing with transgender feelings is hard. Offer support (but not advice unless asked).
  4. We hear lots of nasty things about people who violate gender norms. Say a few nice things.
  5. Some people attack people who violate gender norms. Protect people from these attacks, and speak out against attacks.
  6. Some people discriminate against people who violate gender norms. Help balance that out.
  7. It’s hard for people to find love. Consider loving someone who does gender differently.


I’ve been writing this blog since 2006, and for a while it seemed that my readership was growing steadily. I joined Twitter in 2009, and Tumblr in 2013, and later that year I made a separate Twitter account for personal and political tweets. I saw people retweeting and reblogging my work. But at a certain point the number of retweets, reblogs, mentions and comments that my posts got abruptly dropped. Since then most of the responses I get are from regular readers or Facebook friends.

This is not entirely a bad thing. I know that a lot of what I write is controversial, and some transitioners even find it offensive. I’ve had a couple of unpleasant experiences, on Reddit and on Facebook, with people sharing my work with a hostile audience, and it is not necessarily valuable. I don’t really want to reach people who have closed their minds to my ideas, whose only response will be unthinking hate, and who will use the opportunity to find ways to dismiss my arguments.

The main reason I write is simply because I have ideas, thoughts, words in me that want to get out. I read things that other people write, and if I don’t write down my own thoughts in response, I tend to get more confused about the issues and forget my earlier thoughts.

But I also write for others, for trans people who are deciding whether to transition, for trans people who have decided not to transition and can hopefully benefit from my experience, and from various kinds of allies. I want to continue to reach them.

What’s frustrating is that it could be due to people simply not appreciating my writing anymore. I find myself wondering whether I’ve gotten so out of touch with other trans people that nobody agrees with me at all. Or possibly worse, that what I say is complete gibberish to them.

I’ve occasionally read things about a Twitter blacklist, a plugin that will load a centrally maintained list of Bad People and filter their tweets out. Now, I believe in blocking people; there are too many trolls out there. But blocking should always be done on a case by case basis. Group blacklists are a huge abuse of power.

It crossed my mind that I might have been put on some blacklist. This is a good place to point out that I have not done any of the things that are normally invoked to justify keeping a blacklist. I have never harassed or stalked anyone. I have never threatened anyone with discrimination, much less violence. I haven’t called anyone slurs based on race, gender, religion, sexuality or anything else. The worst things I’ve said to anybody are probably “fuck you” and “you’re an asshole” in the midst of heated arguments. If that’s what it takes to be on that blacklist I’d expect half the world to be on there.

I got some confirmation for my suspicions last year, when the LaLa Zannell, a staffer at the Antiviolence Project retweeted the claim that “Stonewall was started by trans women.” The claim bothers me because it is invariably used to foreground transition track trans women, excluding the trans women at Stonewall who chose not to transition. The word “trans women” didn’t exist then; they all called themselves queens or transvestites, regardless of their transition status.

I tried to engage with the people repeating that claim on Twitter, and at first I was engaged, if with suspicious contempt. But then all of a sudden LaLa Zanell retweeted a tweet from an anonymous account, responding to another, private anonymous account, claiming that I had “priors,” so that it was okay to block me.

Again, note that I did not attack or threaten anyone or any group. Zannell and friends were challenging a historical account of Stonewall, and offering an alternative. I was doing exactly the same thing.

That was clear evidence of my name on some blacklist that could be used by people to decide whether to block me. I suspected I was also on an informal blacklist, but I had no evidence until a few months ago I came across a tweet shared by a fellow linguist and trans woman who follows me on Twitter. The author of this post, also a trans woman, talked about using these group blacklists in the past and renouncing the practice:

I saw this tweet from my professional Twitter feed, where I mostly talk about linguistics and try to keep political tweets to a minimum. I logged in to my personal account and discovered that I was indeed blocked by the author of that blog post. I tweeted this information to her from my professional account, and she happily removed the block. Neither of us remembered having any interaction with the other, so it is clear that I am indeed on an automatic blacklist.

What is most disturbing about these blacklists is that there is no due process, no opportunity for redress, and not even any notification to people who are placed on one. Even the people who use these blacklists are never told anything about me. One day I am visible to them, the next I am gone.

Even the informal blacklist that Zannell and friends used was a complete mystery to me. The tweet she retweeted came from an anonymous account that blocked me. The evidence of “priors” it referred to was from another anonymous account whose tweets were private. There was no way for me to see the evidence against me, and no opportunity to respond or refute it.

It is perfectly fine for individuals to block anyone they don’t want to interact with. It is also appropriate for Twitter or even organized groups to block or ban repeat offenders, with due process, transparency and accountability.

It is much worse to have hidden blacklists maintained by anonymous administrators, with no procedures for recourse or accountability. And it is even worse to have such hidden blacklists applied automatically, with the user being unaware of the people they have blocked. It is a recipe for disappearing people that a totalitarian dictator would be proud of.

What I find most disturbing is that LaLa Zanell worked for the Antiviolence Project at the time. Zannell may have been junior staff member at the time, but when I alerted the organization about this activity there was no response. This lack of interest, and the fact that Zannell has been promoted twice since then leads me to wonder whether AVP as an organization would ever adopt a blacklist.

Would there come a time when I could be beaten up, and try to contact AVP to report it, only to be ignored? I hope not. I’d like to get some reassurance from them.

I wrote most of this post a few weeks ago, but I’ve been avoiding finishing it until tonight, because it was painful just re-reading the nasty tweets from Zannell and her anonymous friends, and even more painful being reminded that there are thousands of people out there who won’t even get a chance to read a little of what I write, so they can decided for themselves whether to read more or not.

What moved me to finish the post and click “Publish” was the recent controversy over fake news in the US election. I’ve had a lot of thoughts about the election and about the fake news, but I haven’t posted anything because I haven’t had any answers. Tonight another fellow linguist and data scientist posted a dataset of “fake news” gathered from websites flagged by Daniel Sieradski’s “BS Detector” software, which relies on a list of domains that “was somewhat indiscriminately compiled from various sources around the web.”

At this point I don’t think I need to spell out for you why I think Sieradski’s methods are a bad idea. Yes, I understand why group blacklists are tempting. But they don’t work, and they are open to serious abuse. I’ve spent my life supporting independent media organizations, going back to when I used data science to fight Rush Limbaugh’s misinformation in 1995. I don’t want to see small media providers snuffed out because “this blacklist is better than nothing.” It’s not. I’m serious.

When you’re the insult

Radical feminists have been critical of transgender beliefs and actions for years, going back at least to Janice Raymond in 1979. Trans people have had various responses to these critiques, from acceptance to outright demonization, and sometimes including substantive, thoughtful critiques of radical feminism. Frequently, arguments between trans activists and radfems degenerate into vicious name-calling and worse.

Third Way Trans has a compelling explanation for these fights: “this debate is not really about a scientific question, but it is about an emotional need, and both groups contain a lot of people that have been traumatized, particularly by men, and both need safety. However, these needs are also fundamentally incompatible in some ways which leads to the current impasse.”

I’m not interested in getting into arguments where either side is dehumanizing the other, so I’ve generally avoided the issue. At one point I did try to make common ground with some FTMTF detransitioners, but when those conversations turned into dehumanizing attacks on me I gave up. I found out last night that back in January the radical feminist blog GenderTrender reposted an entire post of mine without asking or telling me, for the sole purpose of mocking me and other trans people.


The thing is that there are certain aspects of the radfem critique of trans beliefs that I agree with, and others that I find at least thought-provoking. I am open to discussions with people who are willing to show me basic respect and empathy, not scream at me and definitely not laugh at me behind my back.

Joel Nowak, a MFTM “retransitioner,” is someone I respect and doesn’t do dehumanizing, so I took it seriously when he recommended the website of Ms. Hell Bedlam. Sadly, after reading Hell Bedlam’s site, I found it to be just as essentialist and dehumanizing as all the other radfem critiques, even if it does have the advantage of succinctly stating all the main points in a single location.

I had a hard time getting across to Joel the main thing that bothered me about Hell Bedlam’s site. After all, she says that she doesn’t hate the good transsexuals! I’m not one of those misogynistic essentialists who wants to speak over feminists, so why should I take offense?


No, I’m not. I’m not the target of Ms. Hell Bedlam’s rage at all. I’m something much worse to her: I’m what she accuses the “anti-feminist trans activists” of secretly being: one of those “middle class white males with a cross-dressing fetish and great love for their penises,” a “be-penised cross-dresser.”

Wait, you may be saying. I thought Hell Bedlam’s site was all about trans woman who claim the right to unilaterally change the language and talk over feminists. What do cross-dressing, fetishes and penises have to do with these things?

The answer is nothing, it’s a complete non-sequitur. From what I can tell, Hell Bedlam brings it into the conversation (along with a long page about Ray Blanchard’s moronic “HSTS/autogynephilic” typology and lots of examples of transvestite erotica) primarily because the two things that upset transgender dogmatists the most are “You’re a fetishist,” and “You’re a MAN!”

I am not offended by either claim, because I freely acknowledge that I am both a man and a fetishist. I love my penis as much as I love my left arm or my right eye, or any other part of me. But I am offended by being so dehumanized that I’m not even a demon, I’m just the insult that Hell Bedlam uses to hurt the trans dogmatists.

First post

I’m writing this blog because every so often I’m moved to write something about transgender issues, and people don’t seem to take plain ol’ websites very seriously any more. It’s a place to post these things and organize them. I hope you’ll find these writings interesting and useful.