Were you looking at the woman in the red dress?

Film director Lana Wachowski, whom I associate most with the Matrix, has now declared her gender transition. I didn’t feel comfortable speculating when her transgender feelings were just a rumor, but now I can say that I see the Matrix as a deeply transgender movie. Blogger Hannah DuVoix finds a number of trans themes in the movie, but dissociation and glamour are the two that make the biggest impression on me. (There will be some spoilers here for those who haven’t yet seen it.)

The Matrix is dissociative. Dissociation is a psychological term for a particular kind of disconnect from reality, at least as others experience that reality. Dissociation can range from plain old field-independence to a deeply held belief that “my” body is not my own. One of its most extreme expressions is the dissociative fugue, where a person runs away and assumes a new identity, sometimes forgetting who they “really” are.

I refuse to speak for all trans people, but my own trans feelings have always contained an element of dissociation, and I’ve seen and heard it from others. A lot of my trans fantasies have involved some disconnection from my body. When I was younger I used to fantasize about moving to a different city and taking on a completely new identity for myself. Many trans people have done this, including the story of Holly Woodlawn as Lou Reed tells it in “Take a Walk on the Wild Side.”

In the Matrix, these dissociative fantasies are reality. When Neo takes the red pill, his entire reality is revealed to be an illusion, and he discovers his real body and the sensations that go with it. He is not just a programmer, “Mr. Anderson,” in a dreary world. He is something more, something where his “unreal” online identity is foregrounded.

The Matrix deals with glamour, and specifically the desire to own and control feminine glamour. After Neo first disconnects from the Matrix, Morpheus takes him into a training program, a sandbox where he can demonstrate how the constructed world works. He is distracted by “the woman in the red dress” (played by Fiona Johnson), who walks by, smirking flirtatiously, and then turns into an evil Agent pointing a gun at Neo.

When Neo leaves the training program, his new shipmate Mouse slyly confides that he created the woman in the red dress, and that she’s available for other encounters. It’s not exactly a secret that many trans people obsess over the glamour of their target gender, trying to discover and replicate its secrets.

In her speech to the Human Rights Campaign, Wachowski talks about spending hours trying on dresses in the wardrobe closet of her high school drama club. I have similar memories, and when I saw the Matrix I had spent the previous year and a half working on my own animated virtual women, one of whom was sort of blonde (and neither of whom turned out anywhere near as sexy as the Woman in the Red Dress). Like Mouse – and Wachowski – I had very good reasons for doing it, but those reasons don’t preclude others.

Again, I’m not saying that all trans people are dissociative or obsessed with the glamour of their target gender, but these are themes we hear from lots of trans people. I wasn’t entirely surprised with the rumors and later revelations about Wachowski, because I had recognized a kindred spirit.

Who owns “transvestite”?

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(P.S. See also Jeremy Feist’s take.)

“Gender identity” in the Violence Against Women Act

Recently, I got some messages asking me to press for transgender and lesbian, gay and bisexual inclusion in the Violence Against Women Act, a law that sunsets regularly but has just been reauthorized by Congress. The action alerts also talked about “gender identity,” and the definition that came to mind is this one from GLAAD, which is echoed in other definitions around the country: “One’s internal, personal sense of being a man or a woman (or a boy or a girl).”

Photo: UltraViolet.org
Photo: UltraViolet.org
I was concerned about the use of “gender identity” in this bill. Being white and middle-class I’m at relatively low risk, but there are other trans people from all ethnic and economic backgrounds who occasionally go out in public presenting as women, with male bodies unmodified by hormone or surgical treatment, and without a strong belief that we are women. We may be seen by others as women, as trans people or as gay men. We may be targeted for sexual assault, stalking or other violent actions based on those perceptions. A law that is based on the “internal sense” definition of gender identity would fail to protect us.

Today I took a closer look and discovered that this fight actually is relevant to people like me. The Violence Against Women Act, originally passed in 1994, provided grants for nonprofits and government agencies to run programs aimed at preventing violence against women and providing support for women who are victims of domestic and sexual violence.

The expanded version of the law passed by the Senate last year, but rejected by the House of Representatives, and then passed this week by both houses of Congress, includes new protections that weren’t in the original bill. Overall, it includes “dating violence” and “stalking” as eligible categories of violence in addition to “domestic violence” and “sexual assault.” It also includes provisions for “men, women, and youth in correctional and detention settings.”

One part that relates to transgender and LGB victims is the definition of “underserved populations.” There are grants for organizations working with underserved populations.

UNDERSERVED POPULATIONS.—The term “underserved populations” means populations who face barriers in accessing and using victim services, and includes populations underserved because of geographic location, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, underserved racial and ethnic populations, populations underserved because of special needs (such as language barriers, disabilities, alienage status, or age), and any other population determined to be underserved by the Attorney General or by the Secretary of Health and Human Services, as appropriate.

Another section expands the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968 to include support for the following:

developing, enlarging, or strengthening programs and projects to provide services and responses targeting male and female victims of domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, or stalking, whose ability to access traditional services and responses is affected by their sexual orientation or gender identity, as defined in section 249(c) of title 4 18, United States Code

In section 249(c) of the hate crimes law is where we actually get a legal definition of “gender identity,” and it turns out to be very different from that given by organizations like GLAAD:

the term ‘gender identity’ means actual or perceived gender-related characteristics

This definition is much broader than the “internal sense” definitions, but does a better job of delineating the class of victims who are underserved, and who are often actually denied services when people perceive them as “queers” or “trannies,” with no knowledge of their internal sense of gender.

The people who refuse to investigate or prosecute crimes against transgender people don’t give a rat’s ass what internal, personal sense of gender those transgender people have. If I (or someone like me who’s black or Mexican) get bashed and a cop won’t write it up, telling the cop that I really don’t have an internal, personal sense that I’m a woman isn’t going to get me any better treatment. That’s probably why the definition in the hate crimes law didn’t reference a sense of gender, and why this expanded Violence Against Women Act doesn’t either.

A final note: in the spirit of the Delhi protesters who said “Don’t tell your daughters to stay at home, instead teach your sons to behave,” I like this program in the new Violence Against Women Act:

ENGAGING MEN AS LEADERS AND ROLE MODELS.—To develop, maintain or enhance programs that work with men to prevent domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, and stalking by helping men to serve as role models and social influencers of other men and youth at the individual, school, community or statewide levels.

Why HRC, GLAAD and TLC’s advocacy hurts the transgender community

Today I got an email from the Human Rights Campaign saying, “Tell ABC: Your new comedy is no laughing matter.” It’s about this new television show called “Work It.” HRC says,

As part of their winter line-up, ABC is releasing a new comedy called “Work It,” featuring two men who dress as women in order to get jobs. The problem is that the premise reinforces false, hurtful stereotypes about transgender people. This kind of programming only mocks those who don’t adhere to society’s gender norms. Tell ABC’s president to can “Work It” now.

The link in HRC’s email goes to a petition asking ABC “not to air a show that reinforces negative and damaging stereotypes about transgender people.” On their website, HRC says that their president Joe Solomonese “contacted ABC Entertainment Group President Paul Lee today to request a meeting to discuss the very real challenges transgender Americans face in the work place – with the goal of ensuring “Work It” can be a light-hearted comedy that doesn’t belittle or mock these obstacles; or reinforce negative and potentially damaging stereotypes.”

With a little googling, I found a trailer for the new series, and articles at The Wrap and the Hollywood Reporter. These both said that not only HRC, but the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Discrimination were up in arms about the new show.

On GLAAD’s website, I found a blog post attempting to explain “Why ABC’s New Sitcom Work It Hurts the Transgender Community.” That blog post linked to a Huffington Post article by Mark Daniel Snyder of the Transgender Law Center saying, “We owe it to our constituents to speak out anywhere we see an injustice, no matter how big or how small.”

I don’t particularly feel that this show is harmful to transgender people. I’ll explain my reaction in more detail later, but for now I want to focus on the advocacy messages.

Note that in the HRC website and email, and the statements in the media, we do not hear from a single trans person. HRC president Joe Solomonese is not transgender, and I’m pretty sure that neither is GLAAD Acting President Mike Thompson or Matt Kane, their Associate Director of Entertainment Media. The transgender Huffington Post bloggers who’ve discussed this issue, Emerson Whitney and Mark Daniel Snyder, are both female-to-male, as is Transgender Law Center Executive Director Masen Davis, quoted in the Advocate.

It took a lot of digging to find any public statements by male-to-female transgender people, and there was a negative one by Kelli Busey and one withholding judgment by Jillian Page. The only expert on transgender workplace diversity I know of, Jillian Weiss, has produced a single tweet, “@kellibusey I like your guest post on care2.”

What I find a lot more disturbing than yet another crappy sitcom is reading pronouncements by a bunch of gay men and FTMs about what MTF transgender people feel and think and want, at best referencing yet another problematic convenience-sample survey, without a single MTF voice to be heard. Do Joe Solomonese and Matt Kane and Mark Daniel Snyder know any MTFs? Emerson Whitney at least quoted Kelli Busey; why couldn’t Mike Thompson or Mason Davis?

I’ll tell you what hurts the transgender community. It’s the pretense that we are united by anything other than the hatred we get from outside. It’s the idea that we all care about the same things, feel the same way, react the same way. It’s the constant stream of shoddy convenience-sample survey reports that allow some gay guy who read The Celluloid Closet or some FTM who read Marjorie Garber to set themselves up as authorities about What Hurts the Community. It’s the idea that this is a problem ABC can solve by meeting with Joe Solomonese instead of, say, an actual transgender person, maybe even an actor or producer.

I’m thinking of starting a petition.

A critical opportunity in transgender research

The Department of Health and Human Services has just made a big announcement: they will begin collecting data on LGBT issues, including transgender issues. The goal is to document disparities in health care, as well as plain old disparities in health, so that they can be addressed in the future. The plan is to have two roundtables on “gender identity data collection” with “key experts” this summer and fall, and then the “Data Council” will present a strategy next spring.  The department will also collect public comment in various ways, one being through a website called regulations.gov, which is currently down.

If done right, this could be a tremendous help to understanding transgender issues.  “The first step is to make sure we are asking the right questions,” HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius told the Washington Post. “Sound data collection takes careful planning to ensure that accurate and actionable data is being recorded.”  As I’ve written before, current research on transgender feelings and actions is severely hampered by the lack of any kind of representative sample.  Just to give you a quick sense, here are ten very basic questions that nobody knows the answer to:

  • How many transgender people are there?
  • How common are the various transgender thoughts, feelings and beliefs?
  • How common are transgender actions like cross-dressing, body modifications, and “soft mods” like shaving?
  • How common are transgender name and pronoun changes?
  • How common are part-time cross-living and full time transition?
  • How often are sexual activities part of transgender activities?
  • How common are diseases and destructive habits among transgender populations?
  • How many transgender people are in long-term relationships?
  • How often are various subgroups targeted by violence and discrimination?
  • How satisfied are transsexuals twenty, thirty or forty years post-transition?

Unfortunately, transgender research is dominated by two camps, the pathologists who make unfounded generalizations based on case studies of their own patients, and the social service providers who make unfounded generalizations based on service recipients, Internet surveys and word of mouth.  Neither of them seem to have understood the idea that while convenience samples can provide the basis for many useful existential statements, prevalence statements based on unrepresentative samples are worthless.

At this point it looks like the roundtables will be heavily influenced by social service providers who only pay lip service to the limitations of their research.  The Plan says, “While HHS is in the beginning stages of developing data collection on gender identity, many researchers (e.g., Williams Institute at the University of California Los Angeles and the Center for Population Research in LGBT Health at the Fenway Institute) have been working on such data collection for several years.”  The Williams Institute produces reports like “Bias in the Workplace” (PDF), an important summary of numerous studies investigating workplace discrimination that repeatedly acknowledges that the studies are based on convenience samples – and then goes ahead and repeats percentage results as though they meant something.

The Fenway Institute employs transgender health advocate Emilia Dunham as a Program Associate, and she also hosted a webinar on the issue.  It seems quite likely that she will be one of the experts at the roundtables.  But in an otherwise solid article for Bay Windows presenting these changes at Health and Human Services, Dunham uncritically repeated several of these unsupported percentages.

There is a very short list of Experts who I think should be on these Roundtables.  The strongest research into transgender issues has been qualitative research: listening, reading and introspection, finding existential statements but not making unsupported claims of prevalence.  I’ve said before that the best qualitative researcher in the transgender community is Helen Boyd, author of My Husband Betty.  At Helen’s recommendation I’ve also read a few things by Raven Kaldera that have been pretty good, particularly his post on female transvestites (which has somehow disappeared from his website).

There is only one person out there who has ever collected data from a representative sample of any transgender community, and that’s Niklas Långström of the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden.  He’s not focused on the transgender community, and he’s associated with the pathologist Kenneth Zucker (who is not someone we want involved), but he does know how to do a national survey, and it would be worth every penny for HHS to fly him over from Stockholm for the Roundtables.

If they can’t get Långström, then I want to be on that Roundtable.  I don’t have a degree in psychology or public health, but I did take an elementary course in statistics, and I learned what you have to do in order to make a generalization.  But what matters more than any qualification is that I care about doing this right.  If they can’t find anyone else who does, I want to be there.

Am I missing anyone? Are you doing quality quantitative research? Please let me know.

Glamor, Horror and the Trans Fatale

A couple of years ago I recommended to you Virginia Postrel for her insightful discussions of glamour, and argued that they’re relevant to transgenderism and transvestism.  Now Postrel has started a new blog focusing on glamour, as part of a new book she’s writing on the subject.  This is definitely good stuff.

Growing out of a discussion of whether a McCain presidential campaign ad aims to present Obama as the Antichrist, Postrel has a great post about the relationship between glamour and horror.  She writes:

While horror comes in different forms, some decidedly unglamorous (e.g., Alien, Saw), a lot of horror, including vampire tales, depends on glamour: What starts out as beautiful and alluring is revealed to be terrible and life-destroying–and by then it’s too late. Witness not only the vampire but the femme fatale, especially in her 19th-century form. Glamour promises escape and transformation; horror replaces escape with entrapment.

(With regard to gross-out “horror” movies like Saw and Friday the 13th, I’d say that they’re more appropriately called “terror movies.”  Sadly, that term has now been appropriated by the terrorism frame, but before that there were some insightful discussions of the contrast between terror and horror.)

This explanation of horror helps me to understand some of the various “trans fatale” movies (Dressed to Kill, Homicidal, M Butterfly): if the idea of the femme fatale plays off of men’s fears of unexpectedly strong women, then the trans fatale has the glamour of being beautiful and alluring, but are even more threatening because they can be imagined to possess the physical strength and aggression (and ability to rape) of men.

Going further, it seems connected to the “trans panic” that some men have claimed: they believed they were kissing a vulnerable woman, and on discovering that the person was male they were overwhelmed with the fear that they had been seduced and would be raped or killed.  This is often, horribly, used to justify beating and even killing the trans person.  Of course, a male who is small or slim enough to pass as a vulnerable woman usually has no more strength than a woman that size, and any trans woman on hormones probably doesn’t have much ability or desire to penetrate a man, but reality plays very little role in any of this.

Deconstructing glamour with reality is actually an effective comedy technique, and this can explain why so many people find cross-dressing funny.  Since men have many of the traits that are considered unattractive in women (hairy, sweaty, big bellies), but more commonly and to a greater degree, a cross-dressed man can produce just enough cues to project the image of a glamorous woman (long wig, long legs, short skirt) before shattering that image with a hairy belly.  The humor is a bit broad for my taste, but it clearly works for many people, as shown by the enduring popularity of Benny Hill and Martin Lawrence.

The first pregnant man?

Sometimes trans dogma can be funny when it paints itself into a corner.  Here’s an example from the current news about Thomas Beatie.  Beatie is a transman who just gave birth to a baby girl.  This Metafilter thread claims that he’s “first legally transgendered man to become pregnant.”  This is just one of the many Bogus Transgender Firsts.

Back in 2004 there was a transwoman who claimed to be the first transgender delegate to the Democratic National Convention.  A little googling revealed that there was a trans Carter delegate in 1976, and possibly a trans delegate to the 1968 convention.  Ever since then I’ve been skeptical about Transgender Firsts.  Some transpeople, despite paying lip service to the idea that transpeople have been around forever, seem to think that history began some time around 1998.

Metafilter user Grapefruitmoon managed to assert the notion that Beatie is the First Pregnant Transgendered Man even while linking to an article in the London Telegraph that contradicted this claim.  A little bit of thought suggests that this Transgender First is highly unlikely.

We know that people have been cross-dressing and cross-living for thousands of years, and expressing feelings that could broadly be considered transgender for about as long.  Many transgender people claim them as spiritual forefathers and foremothers, even though if Henri III were alive today they’d probably bounce him out of the support group for not taking hormones.  If you want to claim that the Abbé de Choisy or Billy Tipton were trans, you’d guess that there have been transmen for as long as there have been men.

In the essentialist point of view, transgenderism begins in the womb, if not in the genes.  Along these lines, if you accept someone as transgender they are eternally transgender, whether they’ve had any body modifications or not.  This is always a source of laughs when people who were “heterosexual cross-dressers” last week all of a sudden become eternally transgender, provoking a desperate flurry of revisionism.  More to the point, if you accept the notion of Eternal Transgenderism, not only was Beatie a man his entire life, but so was everyone who can be corralled into the Transmen Through History exhibit.

Reading through some of the lives of pre-testosterone-injection transmen, it seems that most of them began to live as men quite young.  A cursory search doesn’t turn up any record of any of them having been pregnant, but there are plenty of transmen who are attracted to men, and plenty of others who’ve tried to conform and live as women for part of their lives.  There are also, shamefully, transmen who’ve been raped.  Whether or not it was something he desired or intended, it seems pretty likely that some transman must have become pregnant some time in the past.

I’d even venture to say that Beatie is probably not the first transman married to a woman who can’t bear children.  I could imagine a transman who passed as a man for years, married a woman who knew his secret, and then found himself in a situation like Beatie’s.  I can imagine this transman conceiving a child in one way or another, arranging to go on a trip somewhere with his wife, living as a woman for long enough to deliver a healthy baby, and returning as a happy father and mother.

Just because I can imagine something doesn’t mean it happened, and I don’t know of any documented case of a transman becoming pregnant before Beatie.  Maybe it never happened, but it’s irresponsible to keep claiming “firsts” without making any attempt to actually check whether something is the first.  Beatie was quite likely the first pregnant transgender man to be featured on Oprah, but history was old before Oprah.

Grapefruitmoon could possibly get around this by using the phrase “legally transgendered man.”  But I don’t know of any legal certification for transgenderism.  There’s clinical diagnosis, but I don’t know if Beatie has one.  Beatie has legally changed his gender, but before the era of birth certificates it was possible to do that by simply passing for long enough to establish an identity.

There is a word for what Grapefruitmoon meant: “first known.”  This provides some protection, at least.