In Colorado, lots of trans teenagers think of suicide

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment conducted a Healthy Kids Colorado Survey in 2015. Ann Schimke of Chalkbeat reports that the survey shows that transgender teenagers in the state are more likely to plan or attempt suicide than their non-trans classmates.

Unlike some surveys, this is based on an actual sample of 15,970 high school students in Colorado, with a 46% response rate. 2.2% of the kids (162) said they were trans, and 1.6% (118) said they were questioning their gender. 35% (57) of the trans kids said they had attempted suicide, and 14% (16) of the questioning kids said they had.

The reported rate of attempted suicide for the other kids is 7%. That’s 53 more high school kids in Colorado who say they’ve attempted suicide than would have if they hadn’t been trans.

I’ve got more thoughts on suicide, but the biggest thing is that we need to work on accepting kids who are trans. That doesn’t necessarily mean any body modifications. Just accepting would make a huge difference. I say that from experience.

At the age of 70, they chose to change their sex

Text and photos by Clément Bürge, New York, for Le Temps, June 26, 2015.

Translated from the French by Angus B. Grieve-Smith, New York, July 4, 2015.

In the United States, the transition of 65 year old former Olympic champion and current reality TV star Bruce Jenner has cast a spotlight on transgender seniors. But his case is far from unique: a growing number of people in their fifties, sixties and seventies are changing their sex. Contrasting portraits.

One day, Michael’s nine-year-old son looked up from his homework towards his father sitting on the couch. For several months Michael and his wife had been in crisis. “What you feel is never going to go away, Papa,” the son said, calmly. “It will always be in you.” That is the moment when Michael, stunned by his son’s words, understood that he would have to cross the abyss. The next day he announced to his wife that, shortly before he turned fifty, he would become a woman.

This choice was all the more difficult because, unlike people who change their sex in their twenties, Michael already had established a life for himself. “My career, my family, my friends, I was running the risk of losing everything I had gained up to that point,” explains Stephanie, the charming blonde that he has become.

Born Michael Battaglino in 1958, she knew from childhood that she was not supposed to be a boy. “I grew up in a very religious Italian family,” she says. “I did not know how to understand what I was feeling.” So Michael decided to get rid of Stephanie, becoming as masculine as he could. “I played football. I weighed 236 pounds.” With his college diploma in hand, Michael got married. And then got married again, and then a third time. “Each marriage ended in divorce after several years,” Stephanie explains. “My life was a lie.”

Today, the insurance vice-president feels better. Her bleached blond hair, purple dress and bracelets stacked on her right arm give the 56-year-old woman a youthful air. “For the first time in my life I feel like myself,” she says, grinding a salad with her square jaw.

In the United States, transsexual seniors are finding themselves in the spotlight for the first time. The sex change of Bruce Jenner, husband of the reality TV star Kris Jenner, made headlines. The Amazon series Transparent, which tells the transition story of a seventy-year-old, won several Golden Globes. In total, it is estimated that around 700,000 people in the United States suffer from what doctors call “gender dysphoria,” including a growing number of elderly people.

“Trans, gay and lesbian culture has always been oriented around young people,” says Vanessa Fabbre, an assistant professor at Washington University in Saint Louis, who has just finished her doctoral dissertation on the subject. “But today, people between fifty and seventy are also joining the movement.” These seniors often have not had any other choice than to wait for the twenty-first century to imagine a transition like this. For them, changing sex at a younger age was impossible. Growing up in a more conservative society than today, their condition was not accepted.

Since then, the internet has arrived and popular culture has evolved. Transitions are easier. Very often, retirement marks the beginning of the process, because the fear of being unemployed has been lifted. “Sometimes a health glitch like a heart attack can remind a person that they are mortal,” notes Vanessa Fabbre. “They begin to count the years they have left and decide to stop hiding.”

Bobbi Swan, a blonde with a sepulchral voice, was born in 1930 in Buffalo, in the north of New York State. “In that era there was not even a word to describe what I was,” the 84-year-old woman remembers.
After finishing school, Bobbi Swan enlisted in the American army. She served in the Korean War and then built a career at Ryan Aeronautical. She worked there her whole life. “I would have ruined my career if I had changed sex earlier,” she explains. “Our main client was the U.S. Department of Defense.” Once she retired, she met people who found themselves in the same situation. She made her decision at the age of 71, traveling to Thailand for sex reassignment surgery.

But even after making their decisions, transsexual seniors face different challenges from their younger peers. Socially, the pressure may be heavier. “My friends all knew me as a woman for fifty years,” explains Dominic Don Gatto, a 63-year-old woman who became a man in his late fifties. “It was hard for some people to accept my transition after having known me for so long. Many of my lesbian friends didn’t want to see me any more once I became a man.” Strangers are quick to make judgmental remarks on the street. “The other day, some teenagers pointed at me and burst out laughing,” says Dominic Don Gatto, his arms covered with tattoos. “People already squint when they see a young trans person; imagine when they come across an old one.”

Physically, an older man or woman is also less able to handle a sex change. The body has become used to inhabiting a gender over the course of decades. For men, the shoulders will have widened and the voice deepened from years of exposure to testosterone. “They also lose hair on their heads and have more body hair,” explains Vanessa Fabbre. “It is more difficult for them to pass as women after a certain age.”
Monica Prata, a trained makeup artist, has made this challenge her career, as a consultant for men wanting to become women. “One of the biggest challenges is teaching them to wear clothing appropriate for their age,” she says. “You can’t wear a miniskirt or too much makeup when you’re seventy years old.”

The medical risks are also higher. “An older person will take longer to recover from an operation,” says Marci Bowers, a surgeon who specializes in sex changes. “Once the genitals are modified, a senior patient will have more difficulty regaining sensation in their sexual organs. It is not impossible for them to have orgasms after the operation, but it is more complicated.” Many patients are also wary of the effects of hormones at that age: “I recently decided to lower my testosterone dose,” explains Dominic Don Gatto, who sports a light beard on his smooth cheeks. “I worry too much about getting cancer or high blood pressure.”

The combined cost of cosmetic surgery, electrolysis, sex reassignment surgery, hormones and clothing changes can also take a toll on older people’s finances. Patricia Harrington, a tall blonde 63-year-old woman with laughing eyes, was ruined by her transition. “I used all my savings to pay for my operations,” says the former programmer. “I have no money left for retirement. I will work to the end of my life.” In contrast, a young trans person will have more time to restore their financial health.

The same bell tolls for Lorna, a 72 year old former piano teacher who underwent her final operation a year ago. “In total, it cost me $400,000,” explains this thin, chic grande dame. “I saved for fifty years for this.”

Little by little the situation improves. Today, ten states in the U.S. require health insurance companies to cover costs related to transition. When celebrities like Bruce Jenner discuss the issue, that may draw public attention to the problem. “What she did is fantastic,” says Stephanie Battaglino. “She has become a spokesperson for all transgender seniors.”

Unethical therapy

When 17-year-old Leelah Alcorn committed suicide on December 27, she left a note on Tumblr urging action to help trans people like herself:

The only way I will rest in peace is if one day transgender people aren’t treated the way I was, they’re treated like humans, with valid feelings and human rights. Gender needs to be taught about in schools, the earlier the better. My death needs to mean something. My death needs to be counted in the number of transgender people who commit suicide this year. I want someone to look at that number and say “that’s fucked up” and fix it. Fix society.

Some trans people have responded to Alcorn’s call for action with a petition to ban “the practice known as ‘transgender conversion therapy.'” Here’s how Alcorn described her therapy experience in an October posting to Reddit found by Cristan Williams:

I wanted to see a gender therapist but they wouldn’t let me, they thought it would corrupt my mind. The would only let me see biased Christian therapists, who instead of listening to my feelings would try to change me into a straight male who loved God, and I would cry after every session because I felt like it was hopeless and there was no way I would ever become a girl.

I wholeheartedly agree that what Alcorn describes is a disgrace to the therapeutic profession, and that it should be stopped. The goal of any therapy should be to give the client a place to be heard and respected, to free them from repression, and to help them find the path that works for them. Biased, faith-based sessions where the only acceptable outcome is determined in advance is inhumane brainwashing, not therapy. If it takes a law to stop it, I’m in favor.

This image is not an endorsement
Photo: Barbara B. Shostak, Ph.D. / Flickr. This image is not an endorsement

That said, I have concerns about this drive to outlaw all “conversion” and “reparative” therapies. I want to make sure there is room for the kind of therapy that I want and need: therapy that helps me to live in the gender that I was assigned at birth.

As I’ve written before, I feel many of the same feelings that other trans people feel, but believing in a gender identity goes against my skepticism, and many years ago I chose not to transition. Over the years, with the help of several therapists and the support of friends and family, I have succeeded in losing a lot of my repression, but I still have to deal with those transgender feelings, and I will probably need to see therapists, at least occasionally, for the rest of my life.

My therapists have been supportive of my decision not to transition, and I am confident that if someone came to them wanting to transition, they would be similarly supportive of their decisions. Unlike the therapists hired by Alcorn’s parents, my therapists listen to me, and respect me.

I’ve never been to a gender therapist. From what I’ve seen and heard – from the therapists themselves as well as from other trans people – there are very few who have any idea how to help someone like me who’s decided not to transition. While they may pay lip service to the idea of not transitioning, they seem to see their job as helping trans people jump through the hoops necessary for transition. What happens if a trans person changes their mind about transition – or decides to detransition? Are they simply declared to be “not really trans after all,” and left to fend for themselves?

Gender therapy is better than “conversion” therapy, because it doesn’t impose anything that the client doesn’t want, and it’s better than the “gatekeeping” practices that were prevalent for the late twentieth century, but it is still a biased situation where the only acceptable outcome is determined in advance.

We trans people need therapy, and we deserve a range of options where we can find support for the path we choose. We do not need therapy that is just another way for parents to repress us, as Leelah Alcorn described her “Christian” therapy. But we do need support for those of us who have chosen to live without transitioning.

We still exist!

I had some doubts that a drag queen could do justice to the story of Casa Susanna, but I should have known better than to doubt Harvey Fierstein. He is, really, one of us and a gifted, sensitive storyteller, as I should have known after watching Torch Song Trilogy. The actors assembled for Casa Valentina may not be transvestites, but they are seasoned professionals, and they captured the reality of our lives (including the gender fog). I recognized a bit of myself in every one of the transvestites, and was reminded of many others I’ve met at various gatherings. It’s up for three Tony Awards: Best Play, Featured Actor (Reed Birney) and Featured Actress (Mare Winningham, who as Rita expertly draws out the ironies and contradictions in the feelings of the transvestites around her).

As I told Reed Birney, it is hugely important that he and the rest of the cast are doing such a great job telling our history.  Thanks to my friend Alice for giving me a chance to meet him!
As I told Reed Birney, it is hugely important that he and the rest of the cast are doing such a great job telling our history. Thanks to my friend Alice for giving me a chance to meet him!
Anyone who has any interest in transgender issues should see this play. Fierstein tells about a critical point in our history that reverberates today, culminating in a great line from the character of Charlotte (Reed Birney), a stand-in for Virginia Prince: “Fifty years from now, when homosexuals are still scuttling about as the back-alley vermin of society, cross-dressing will be as everyday as cigarette smoking.”

The irony, of course, is that it is us transvestites who are still scuttling about, while homosexuals are more everyday than cigarette smoking. We took pains to distance ourselves from gay men, and in particular drag queens, and look what that got us. We distanced ourselves from “sex-changers” and eventually “transgenderists,” as Prince came to call herself, as well. Now we’re still in the closet, while they gain more acceptance every year.

The one thing I really want to add is that we do still exist. From reading the reviews of the play and commentary inspired by it, you might think that a black hole swallowed us all up in 1963, with our bouffant wigs. The one exception is Playbill, which quotes Fierstein: “What grabbed me was: Why did they get cut out of our world? Why aren’t they part of our struggle? We get rights. They don’t.”

I had read some of the reviews before I went. I told the bus driver I was going to see Casa Valentina, and he mentioned he had heard good things about A Raisin in the Sun. Later in the conversation I told him, “Imagine if people were talking about A Raisin in the Sun as though black people only existed back in 1961?”

No, we do still exist, and the vast majority of us are still deep in the closet. And here’s where you come in. You can help us to come out. You can make a safe space for us.

Chances are that someone you know is a closeted transvestite. When I came out of the closet, it was a huge relief to hear people say things like this:

  • It’s okay if you wear women’s clothes.
  • It’s okay whether you like men or you don’t.
  • It’s okay whether you believe you’re really a woman or you don’t.
  • I won’t laugh at you.
  • I won’t fire you.
  • I won’t kick you out.
  • I won’t leave you.
  • I’ll still love you.

It would have been even better if they had said those things before I came out. Maybe you can say them, for your friends and family and employees and tenants and neighbors to hear. Maybe if enough people say them, we won’t feel so afraid any more.

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.

When Amtrak misgendered Chelsea Manning

Via Lectraerror on Tumblr, Amtrak has started a website called “Ride With Pride” to reach out to LGBT passengers:

Amtrak believes in diversity. For us, it’s more than a corporate buzzword. It’s an appreciation for all people. We believe every great adventure begins with an amazing experience. Our goal is to provide that experience, time and time again. It doesn’t matter who goes along for the ride.

I’m glad to hear that, but they’ve got their work cut out for them. I immediately thought about Chelsea Manning’s trip on Amtrak in 2011, and went back to re-read what she told Adrian Lamo. When one conductor saw the name “Bradley” on her ticket, he intentionally misgendered her in a way that made her uncomfortable:

(03:17:04 PM) bradass87:i went on leave in late january / early february… and… i cross-dressed, full on… wig, breastforms, dress, the works… i had crossdressed before… but i was public… for a few days

(03:17:33 PM) bradass87:i blended in….

(03:17:34 PM) bradass87:no-one knew

(03:18:06 PM) bradass87:the first thing i learned was that chivalry isn’t dead… men would walk out of their way and open doors for me… it was so weird

(03:18:19 PM) awww.

(03:18:51 PM) bradass87:i was referred to as “Ma’am” or “Miss” at places like Starbucks and McDonalds (hey, im not a fancy eater)

(03:19:35 PM) bradass87:i even took the Acela from DC to Boston… whatever compelled me to do that… idk… but i wanted to see my then-still-boyfriend

(03:20:01 PM) bradass87:i rode the train, dressed in a casual business outfit

(03:20:36 PM) bradass87:i really enjoyed the trip… minus the conductor

(03:21:06 PM) bradass87:as he asked for my ID, and clipped my ticket… he made a fuss

(03:21:24 PM) that sucks =z

(03:21:26 PM) bradass87:“Thank you, MISTER Manning…”

(03:21:31 PM) asshole

(03:21:35 PM) him, not you

(03:21:41 PM) bradass87:i know

(03:21:53 PM) bradass87:it was… an experience i wont forget…

(03:22:36 PM) bradass87:i mean… 99.9% of people coming from iraq and afghanistan want to come home, see their families, get drunk, get laid…

(03:22:56 PM) bradass87:i… wanted to try living as a woman, for whatever reason

(03:23:14 PM) bradass87:obviously, its important to me… since there were plenty of other things i could’ve done

(03:23:23 PM) Overall, how did you feel about your sojourn?

(03:25:50 PM) bradass87:idk, i just kind of blended in… i didn’t have to make an effort to do so, it just came naturally… instead of thinking all the time about how im perceived, being self conscious, i just let myself go… …well, i was still self-concious, but in a different way… i was worried about whether i looked pretty, whether my makeup was running, whether i spilled coffee on my (expensive) outfit… and to some extent whether i was passing…

(03:28:12 PM) bradass87:but i went to get gas… and bought cigarettes (i know, need to quit)… and the man asked to see my ID… so i did… and he about had a heart attack… he couldn’t hold himself back, he looked up and down twice… and gave me this look like… WTF, it is the same… handed it back to me… and tried to keep himself composed… so i wasn’t worried about whether i was passing as much, because he had no idea whatsoever

(03:28:55 PM) i smoze zero to five a day myself.

(03:29:44 PM) bradass87:but the point was, i guess my face is androgynous enough that i can pass with ease

(03:30:11 PM) bradass87:my prominent adams apple is the only issue i was concerned about

(03:30:26 PM) bradass87:so i wore a turtleneck, and had collar up with my coat

(03:30:29 PM) yeah, i’d say that re. the former.

(03:30:38 PM) which i find cute.

That’s the relevant part, but the whole logs are worth reading.

We’re not talking like the conductor couldn’t tell and made a guess. Manning was wearing business casual women’s clothes and makeup, and said that everyone else who saw her called her “ma’am” and opened doors for her. This guy saw a man’s name on her ticket and chose to make a big deal of it. That’s not cool.

And from this we can conclude that if Amtrak really wants their customers to Ride With Pride, we need to know that that kind of treatment won’t be tolerated. Contact information for a trans-friendly ombudsperson would be a big step.

Green eyes

I was glad to see Janet Mock writing about the shame that many men feel for being attracted to trans people. As she points out, this shame is based in fear, and the fear is real. She describes a torrent of negative comments directed at DJ Mister Cee in response to a revelation Wednesday that he had tried to have sex with a trans prostitute, and lists a number of other entertainers who have been publicly shamed for actions as simple as posing for a picture with a trans fan. I’ve got problems with the way that a number of people are trying to spin the incident with Mister Cee, including Mock, Bimbo Winehouse and Mister Cee himself, but that’s for another post.

DJ Mister Cee.
DJ Mister Cee.
Tonight I want to focus on Mock’s vision of trans acceptance. It’s an incomplete vision, but it has far-ranging implications, so it deserves to be explored. It begins with her moving story about disclosing her trans status to her boyfriend, and his decision to accept her, which you should definitely read if you haven’t already.

Mock goes on to say that her boyfriend Aaron is constantly challenged by others on his love for her:

Our relationship is marveled at largely because most people do not believe that a man like Aaron should have to “compromise” his heteronormative social standing by being with a trans woman or a woman who is not “real.”

It is rare for an openly trans woman – no matter how “passable” or attractive she is – to have a man who openly loves her, who has an unabashed desire to be seen with her, who proudly stands beside her — despite the stigma and other people’s curiosities and inappropriate questions. Those questions regarding Aaron’s sexuality are constant and fraught with assumptions that this essay can’t begin to unpack, and for a man less secure it can be difficult navigating these questions, especially if you also perceive the women you’re attracted to as shameful, as less-than-human objects you must keep secret at all costs.

She then articulates her vision:

It’s important that we begin truly accepting trans women as who they are, women. We are not objects to have secret sex with, to discard and to laugh at on the radio or the gossip blogosphere. We are worthy of being seen and are not dirty or shameful. Until we begin checking how we delegitimize the identities, bodies and existence of trans women and stigmatize the men who yearn to be with us, we will continue to marginalize our sisters, pushing them further into socially-sanctioned invisibility, left in the dark to fend for themselves with men who are don’t have the space to explore, define and embrace their attraction to various women.

As Mock acknowledges, her “passability” gave her some advantages in dating, but she wants other “trans women” to have the same advantages regardless of passability. When she says, “their attraction to various women,” she’s imagining a culture where transness is seen as just a possible trait that a woman can have, like green eyes or broad hips or freckles, and attraction to trans women is a simple matter of taste. I want to explore this vision and move a little past the scenario of her relationship with Aaron and the scenario of DJ Mister Cee and Bimbo Winehouse, to this scene of flirtation:

PAUL is hanging out with his friends, Steve and Dave. They’re laughing, chatting, catching up. All of a sudden PAUL stops for just a brief moment as he catches sight of a woman he’s never met. He slips away from his friends and goes to chat with her. After a few minutes he returns.

STEVE: So, did you get her number?
PAUL: Oh yeah, I got it. She’s cute, right?
STEVE: Eh. She’s got green eyes. I saw them as soon as she looked up.
PAUL: So? That’s a bonus! Green eyes are hot.
STEVE: They don’t do it for me. Not into green eyes.
DAVE: I’m not that into green eyes either, Steve, but did you see her smile? With a sweet smile like that her eyes could be purple for all I care.
STEVE: Whatever. She’s all yours, Paul! Maybe tonight I’ll find me a nice brown-eyed girl.

Replace “she’s got green eyes” with “she’s trans,” and you have Mock’s vision for men flirting with trans women. The men see trans women as just a kind of women that some guys like. Liking trans women doesn’t make the guys gay. There is no danger of humiliation, discrimination, or physical attack. There is nothing for them to fear.

The setup for the scene may be familiar to you, because it’s based on what happened right before Islan Nettles was murdered. This is another way the story could have turned out, if the culture had been different.

As I said, I have some problems with this vision. I’ll talk about them later. For now, I think it’s very positive that someone – Janet Mock – has articulated an alternative to murder, a vision of how things could be better. That’s important.

More on the vigil for Islan Nettles

On Wednesday I went to a vigil in Harlem for Islan Nettles (pronounced [i’lan]). Earlier this month, a young man named Paris Wilson saw Nettles as an attractive woman and flirted with her. He then decided that she was “really a man” and felt humiliated in front of his friends. He attacked her, first verbally and then with his fists, hitting her until he smashed her skull. She died a few days later.

"This is not going to happen again… we're going to get some justice" -Delores Nettles
“this is not going to happen again… we’re going to get some justice”
-Delores Nettles. Image: NY1
It was important for me to go to that vigil. This is a danger that I face, as someone who may sometimes be seen as a man in a dress. As a white person who lives in Queens and goes out in Manhattan, my danger is much lower than those faced by nonwhite people who live and go out in poor neighborhoods, but I deserve better, and people like Islan Nettles deserve as much safety as I do.

I was moved to see Nettles’ mother, sister and uncle stand on stage and demand justice for their loved one, with the silent support of many other family members. I was gratified that politicians like Scott Stringer and Inez Dickens helped to get space in Jackie Robinson Park at such short notice, and then stood with us in the crowd instead of dominating the stage. I was glad to see lesbian and gay religious leaders call out their colleagues for their lack of support. I appreciated seeing nonwhite trans women like Chanel Lopez and Laverne Cox take the stage for justice and safety.

There were aspects of the event that concerned me. The event was run by relatively gender-conforming lesbians and gay men, who might not have been able to completely appreciate the specific dangers faced by black trans women like Nettles. There was an older queen who was presented as a friend of Nettles, but their relationship wasn’t entirely clear to me. Was she Nettles’ gay aunt? Or just an acquaintance?

Overall I came away heartened to see that many people coming together for justice and safety. I’ve occasionally worried, if I were murdered, how many people would care about some trans person? Seeing hundreds of people at this vigil was a bit reassuring.

There were a number of trans people in the audience who were heckling the stage. Some said, “Let the trans people speak!” Some corrected gender references made by people on stage, yelling “she!” when someone said “he,” and “woman!” when someone said “man.” This has become a major issue, and I’ll write about it soon, but I wanted to give some background first.

Something to bring people together

It was a moving experience this evening to attend the vigil for Islan Nettles, who was brutally murdered in Harlem on August 17. I fear for my own life sometimes, even though I know that the risk I take in being publicly transgender as a white person who’s seen as male most of the time is nothing compared to the risk to black and Latina trans women, who make up the vast majority of trans murder victims in the United States.

One speaker remarked on the hundreds of people gathered and said, “It shouldn’t take something like this to bring people together.” This resonated with a thought I had when I arrived in Jackie Robinson Park: when was the last time there was such a big gathering of LGBT people in Harlem? When was there such a large trans-friendly space there? When was there so much overt (if silent) official approval for a transgender event?

For years, people from Harlem have had to take the subway downtown to show their gay and trans sides. In 2013, with crime at historic lows, this should not be necessary. Harlem should be a place where trans people can be free to dress as we want, without being attacked.

The vigil was just a few blocks from where Nettles was beaten to death by Paris Wilson. It made me wonder whether Wilson and his friends would have felt quite so threatened by Nettles – and so confident in attacking her – if they saw more support for trans people from their community leaders. Would a regular, positive, trans-friendly event have made a difference, and could it make a difference in the future?

Then I looked over at my friend Brendan Fay who was standing nearby, and I realized I had proof that these positive events work. Fourteen years ago, Brendan got frustrated with the homophobes who refused to allow the Irish Lesbian and Gay Organization to march with a banner in the Fifth Avenue Saint Patrick’s Day Parade. He organized the first annual Saint Pat’s for All Parade in my neighborhood, and has been helping run it ever since. And it’s been bringing the neighborhood together.

Another friend and neighbor of mine is a devout Catholic, who saw the parade as an attack on Catholics. After he wrote a letter to a local newspaper a few years ago complaining about the parade, I spoke to him privately and told him that I’m a transvestite (yes, I used that word) and that when I moved to Woodside from the South Bronx I worried that I would feel just as unwelcome here as I did there. For me the parade changed all that. I saw all my neighbors, of all sexualities and genders, coming out to watch the parade, and I felt like they accepted me. I felt like I belonged.

I told my friend that I saw the parade as a celebration for the whole neighborhood, not just for LGBT people. I said that he and his friends would be welcome to march in it. He asked, “Could I march with a pro-life banner?” I thought that would be a little too divisive, and Brendan confirmed that it would be, but that Catholic organizations with unifying messages were welcome.

Recently, when I posted on Facebook that I was feeling frustrated with certain trans “community leaders,” my friend wrote this comment: “All I can state here is that you have done more to bridge the divide between trans people and the rest of society than any one I have known or met, turning people from prejudice to understanding of the complex issues involved, so rather than be upset at you, I hope praise will be in the offering.” High praise indeed, but I had help from Brendan and everyone else who organized the parade.

This year, in the supermarket, on the day of the parade another neighbor made a comment about “them” getting married, and I told her that I was a transvestite, and that much the parade made me feel welcome. Her face changed, and she answered, “As well you should!”

I hope that Harlem can learn from the successes that Brendan and I have had in Woodside. I hope they can have positive events that bring the community together: trans and non-trans; gay, lesbian, bisexual and straight. I hope that community leaders (and that includes religious leaders, and not just the LGBT ones who were a strong presence at this vigil) can take part and bring people together. We all deserve to feel safer, and black people deserve to feel as safe as anyone else.

Hands off my umbrella!

I was first referred to Monica Roberts for her explanations of why RuPaul doesn’t count as trans. A few months later I asked a gay black man about trans self-identification in black communities, and he pointed me to Roberts.

I was, honestly, more convinced by the assertion (I don’t know if it’s true or not) that RuPaul rejects the term “transgender” for himself. Whether or not he counts as trans, I think Roberts made a strong case that he is not a prototypical black trans person, or an appropriate community spokesperson. It seems like she wasn’t content with that, and insisted on excluding RuPaul completely from the category of trans. She has now taken it upon herself to do the same for another person who is not even claiming to speak for trans people, B. Scott.

I first heard of Scott last night when someone reposted a blog post of his on Tumblr; apparently he’s an entertainment journalist who does news, commentary and interviews on his blog, as well as a YouTube channel and podcast, but has branched out into more established media.

Scott identifies as a “proud gay man,” but his public persona is so high-glam femme that he is often perceived as a beautiful woman. At least one man felt embarrassed after trying to flirt with Scott, and lashed out in an immature way.

The current controversy started in June when Scott had been invited to appear at the 2013 BET Awards Pre-Show. He claims that at the last minute, after extensive wardrobe negotiations (people do this?) and interviewing one guest on camera, the BET staffers told him his outfit “wasn’t acceptable,” ordered him to change, and then told him he was being replaced for the rest of the pre-show.

Scott is now suing the network for “discrimination on the basis of gender identity, gender expression and sexual orientation.” In yesterday’s blog post, he wrote,

Over the years my love muffins and strangers alike have questioned me about my gender identity. What IS B. Scott? As a society we’ve been conditioned to believe that a person has to be ‘exactly’ this or ‘exactly’ that. Biologically, I am male — as my sex was determined at birth by my reproductive organs.

However, my spirit truly lies somewhere in between. It is that same spirit that has allowed me to become so comfortable in my skin, choose how I express myself, and contributes to how I live my day-to-day life.

Transgender is the state of one’s gender identity (self-identification as woman, man, neither or both) not matching one’s assigned sex (identification by others as male, female or intersex based on physical/genetic sex). [source]

It is by that definition that I accept and welcome the ‘transgender’ label with open arms.

Makes sense, right? Scott self-identifies as “somewhere in between,” which counts as “neither or both,” and doesn’t match his assigned male sex. But that’s not enough for Monica Roberts:

Roberts’ reaction is really problematic. What bothers me the most is that she is prescribing and delineating appropriate transgender actions. It’s not enough for Scott to appear in heavy makeup, long hair and women’s clothes and shoes every time he is in front of a camera. He has to take hormones, declare a transition, and adopt a name that Roberts approves as feminine enough.
tg definitions1
As I wrote back in April, there are at least three conflicting definitions of transgender. Roberts is saying that in order for her to consider him trans, Scott has to follow her prescriptions.

Another thing that bothers me is that Roberts is not only claiming the right to define transgender, but the right to define the umbrella. The “umbrella” definition of transgender is an inclusive one that brings in drag queens and anyone else who’s remotely gender-variant. As umbrella proponent Jamison Green famously said, “There is NOT one way to be trans.” Many prescriptive trans advocates explicitly reject the umbrella, many (like GLAAD) switch between the umbrella and their prescriptions, but Roberts claims that the umbrella is her prescriptions.

In a subsequent blog post, Roberts clarified that she worried that this identification was purely a legal strategy, and that Scott was only “embracing the transgender umbrella after resisting it for years.” “Until I get and see more evidence that B.Scott’s embrace of the transgender umbrella is genuine, permanent and not just related to this legal case, call me skeptical.”

Roberts knows a lot more about American black culture’s attitudes towards transness than I do, but I would be surprised if a gay black man who grooms himself like a woman and is often perceived as a woman would face very much less discrimination and harassment than a transitioning black trans woman. How often is Scott really able to draw on his male privilege?

Based on her reactions to RuPaul, my guess is that Roberts is worried that with his large following, Scott could emerge as a powerful trans leader and spokesperson without transitioning, eclipsing her own influence and those of other transitioned black trans people like Janet Mock* and Laverne Cox. Personally, I would welcome an influential non-transitioning trans person of any race to the cause. Any creative responses to trans feelings would be a relief from the relentless hormones-surgery-name-change drumbeat put out by Roberts, Mock and other trans spokespeople. And the transition buy-in that Roberts values so much doesn’t stop her from being divisive and exclusionary.

But regardless of whether you trust Scott to be true to the trans community, Roberts’ heavy-handed prescriptivism should alarm not just advocates of transgender inclusivity, but also feminists of all stripes. And her claiming the right to not just define transgender but to take the transgender umbrella away from us is just uncalled for.

(*Update: In this sympathetic interview, Janet Mock makes it clear that she’s not into that kind of boundary policing.)