Are men good now?

Oh, Christ Anna, he’s going to start reading poetry at us what do we do play dead? no that’s bears

Last month I was dancing with some friends at a local karaoke bar. Some guy started dancing with a trans woman friend of mine, in a very grabby, smothery kind of way. I could tell my friend wasn’t enjoying it, so I cut in and danced with her in a fun, Platonic way. I was presenting as a guy that night, and Mr. Handsy didn’t seem at all interested in me. Later in the evening, after my friend had gone home, I saw the same guy doing the same thing with another friend of mine, a non-transitioning trans man, and I cut in again with him.

Seeing my friends’ experiences brought back memories of feeling sexy surrounded by men on the dance floor, and then going back to my seat after those men’s hands slipped too far down along my dress. That, and memories of being followed by guys who said filthy things in my ear, and hearing from women about similar experiences, and worse.

There’s another class of gender interactions that doesn’t rise to the level of borderline assault that I saw on the karaoke dance floor, but that women find unpleasant and frustrating. It’s the kind captured by Rebecca Solnit’s essay “Men Explain Things to Me,” by Mallory Ortberg’s Western Art History series for The Toast, and by Nicole Gugliucci’s tweet about “hepeating.”

We trans women are accused of having an unrealistic view of women’s lives, and often with good reason. Many of us form our ideas about womanhood from a distance. We fantasize about becoming fictional women like Ariel the Little Mermaid, or celebrities with highly crafted media personas like Marilyn Monroe. We do have contact with real live women, but we are often uninformed about important aspects of women’s experiences. In our fantasy of women’s life it doesn’t hurt to wear heels, a short skirt will attract the right partner, we’ll always be taken seriously, and men will revere us.

When we have a taste of the special frustrations of women’s lives, it can give us pause. In my case, awareness of these realities contributed to my decision not to transition. The realization that living as a woman wouldn’t automatically resolve all the difficulties that just come with being human in the world led me to decide to continue living as a man most of the time.

When we lack that basic understanding of the daily experiences of women’s lives in our society, their actions in relating to men can seem puzzling at best, and often selfish or malicious. Why do they go to the bathroom in groups? Why don’t they just say no? Why do they dress sexy but then say no? We don’t see the bind that many women are in, forced to choose between attracting and rejecting, and punished both for pursuing partners and for not having a partner. Some of us don’t figure out the answers to these questions until we’ve been on the other side of the interaction.

It doesn’t help that from an early age we are taught to see women as particularly stupid and irrational in many ways. They aren’t, of course. Some people are in fact stupid, irrational, selfish or even malicious, and some of those people are women. It can be hard to distinguish that individual irrationality or selfishness from rational, even compassionate actions that are skewed by our misogynist social structures.

Now here’s the tricky part: all those minor interactions I mentioned, like mansplaining and hepeating and the courtship behavior mocked by Ortberg? The same principles apply to them. At an early age we are taught to see men as particularly overbearing and oblivious in many ways. Some people are in fact overbearing, inconsiderate, selfish or even malicious, and some of those people are men. It can be hard to distinguish that individual obliviousness or malice from conscious, even generous actions that are skewed by our misogynist social structures.

Why do men like to show off to women? Why do they keep calling after a woman says no? Why do they say they’ll call but then don’t? We don’t see the bind that many men are in, forced to choose between pursuing and waiting for a woman to defy convention, and punished both for showing off and for not competing aggressively enough.

Some people don’t figure out the answers to those questions without being on the other side of the interaction. Ortberg’s work in particular has always demonstrated a striking contrast between its keen insight for the experiences and feelings of women, and its shallow, judgmental understanding of the experiences and feelings of men.

When trans men have a taste of the special frustrations of men’s lives, it can give them pause. Trans men have spoken publicly about experiencing male privilege from the male side, and about how even men with firsthand experience of women’s lives and the desire for equality can be stymied by the misogyny entrenched in our social structure. One trans guy I talked to had been preoccupied with looking tough, both living as a woman and as a man, but was still shocked when he saw a woman cross the street at night to avoid him.

The fact is that many trans men form their ideas about manhood from a distance, fantasizing about fictional characters or celebrities with highly crafted media personas. Nothing shows this clearer than Daniel Mallory Ortberg’s interview with Heather Havrilesky. Ortberg gushes about the glamour of Captain Kirk and Brendan Fraser and Deep Springs College. He talks about relationships and discussions with women and non-binary people and his parents as a unit and someone named Brook, but he never mentions having a face-to-face discussion with an identifiable man about what it means to be a man.

In this fantasy of men’s life, large muscles can be had with no effort or health consequences. Everyone admires a guy in a bowtie and a colorful shirt, no matter how short he may be. As long as a man’s intentions are pure, his authority will be respected. Everyone will recognize that he is thoughtful and caring, and no one will ever question his motives. In every interaction with women there is an obvious way to balance gender equality with our other needs and wants, and to see it all you need to do is pay attention.

When trans men lack that basic understanding of the daily experience of men’s lives in our society I have to question why they want to be men, just as I questioned my own desire to be a woman. Men unquestionably have privilege, and on a basic level of safety and economics a certain desire to transition is always understandable. But anyone who is not making a decision based on faith or survival owes it to themself to go beyond the fantasy and examine the realities of the choices before them.

Ortberg kinda sorta acknowledges this, in a response to a question from Havrilevsky:

Does it sometimes feel like you’re joining the other side, the enemy, MEN?
Yeah, like, I’m taking my skills and opportunities to Cleveland. Or like “Men are good now.” Or I’m going to fix something. Or what I’m doing is in some way a commentary on ways in which men and women relate to one another, or some kind of statement on the work I’ve done before, the position I inhabited as a woman feminist. Yeah, that’s been anxiety-inducing, especially because: Men as a group? Not fantastic. White men as a group? I don’t have a sense that I will be met with safety and joy on the other side.

First of all, white men as a group? We have not taken a poll on how to meet Ortberg when he finally decides he’s ready to interact with us. This is what has always puzzled me about Ortberg: he seems too well-read to confuse structural bias with collective decision-making, and yet he does confuse it even here, after examining gender for years.

Second, if so much of your past work has been about the ways in which men and women relate to one another, then yes, any public action you take that regards gender is a statement on that work and a commentary on those ways of relating.

Third, if men aren’t good, why become one? Because you’ve somehow mystically determined that it’s your destiny? That’s just as stupid as the Bible study teacher who somehow mystically determined that Ortberg’s destiny was not to wield authority over men.

Do I welcome Ortberg to manhood with safety and joy? Well, safety is a given. And I bear him no ill will for his prior work. When I first read “Women Having a Terrible Time,” I took it as one woman commiserating with and comforting others based on their limited experiences with these creatures called men. I’m okay if some women have an arms-length relationship with manhood. Whatever gets you through the night.

I have to say, in terms of understanding and empathizing with men, I kinda do expect more from a man. But as Ortberg continues to learn and experiences life as a man firsthand, I’ll be interested to see if he goes back and revises his work on gender relations, or builds on it in a way that recognizes the humanity of men. And yeah, he should probably have done that before he “started to access different aspects of medical transition.” In any case, let’s see how it goes.

For all the kids who are not Jazz

Rosey Grier sings "It's All Right to Cry"

For the past two years the Human Rights Campaign has sponsored national I am Jazz reading events, where people will gather in schools and community centers to read the children’s book by transgender teenager Jazz Jennings, as told to Jessica Herthel and beautifully illustrated by Shelagh McNicholas. As a trans person myself who was a gender non-conforming child I appreciate the intent behind the readings, but I frankly hate the book, and I really wish they would find something else to read.

Let’s think about what we want to accomplish by reading kids a book about transgender issues. First, we want to teach kids to accept and support any classmates who might be trans. Second, we want to give kids the understanding and good habits to accept and support trans people when they grow up. Third, we want to send a signal to any trans kids in the audience that they are accepted and supported. The HRC says as much in their press release.

So how does I Am Jazz do? Well, let’s start by going over the plot, such as it is. Jazz loves girly things, because Jazz is a girl in a boy’s body. Jazz has lots of friends who are girls, and they have lots of fun doing girly things together. In terms of plot, it’s no Cat in the Hat. It isn’t even Go Dog, Go! The only action is Jazz and her friends playing soccer, and that happens mostly off the page. Everything is static, habitual. Jazz is. She likes things. She has friends. She and her friends like to do things. The end.

Jazz is expertly drawn as a pretty girl who may inspire some desire in other girls: if I were open to having a trans friend, these girls will think, she might turn out to be like Jazz, and then we could be pretty and girly together. Herthel wrote that she was inspired to write the book when her daughters had just such a reaction on meeting Jazz. On the other hand, there is nothing here for boyish boys and tomboyish girls. They may be turned off by Jazz’s focus on all things girly, and anyone who might have been thinking of her as a messed-up boy ripe for bullying would not be deterred by anything they read in the book.

When I was a kid, I just wanted to be able to do whatever looked like fun, including dancing and playing with dolls and having tea parties as well as tree climbing and toy trucks (and not really soccer). I wanted to wear whatever looked cool and comfortable, including skirts and tights and barrettes and lipstick as well as baseball caps and jeans. I wanted to stay friends with the girls in my life, and I didn’t want to chase them as part of some bizarre dominance ritual. When I was a teenager I felt a desire to be a pretty, girly girl, but I didn’t necessarily want to give up being a boy, and as a young adult I chose to become and stay a man.

I’m having trouble imagining that a kid – or a parent, or a teacher – would be any more sympathetic to my wants or choices after reading I am Jazz than before. I didn’t want to be a stereotypical boy, but I didn’t want to be like Jazz either. When I was a little older, a part of me wanted to be like Jazz, but another part of me didn’t, and ultimately I’m glad I didn’t spend time as a girl in high school. Where is there anything like my life in I am Jazz? How does it even lead to people understanding me, much less accepting or supporting me?

In case you think I want to replace a ceremony that’s all about Jazz with one that’s all about me, it’s also hard to imagine that seeing Jazz being successful at being a pretty, girly girl would make kids more open to masculine-spectrum transgender or nonbinary kids, whether they’re transitioning or gender non-conforming. We need something that includes all of us.

The best thing I’ve ever read, or heard, on this subject is a book and record, and television special, that my sister used to play when I was a kid, Marlo Thomas’s Free to Be… You and Me. It has a ton of pieces that address all kinds of gender non-conformity, including a musical adaptation of another book, William’s Doll, sung by Alan Alda. In keeping with HRC’s earlier mission, Thomas said that ABC executives “wanted ‘William’s Doll’ cut, because it would turn every boy in the world into a homosexual — which isn’t such a bad idea.” (There is nothing at all about sexuality in “Wiliam’s Doll” – Thomas was joking.)

I’d love to see new books for kids about transgender issues, but until we have them, I’d be happy to take part in school and community readings of Free to Be … You and Me. “Boy Meets Girl” and “William’s Doll” are just as powerful as they were back in 1972. I’m guessing there are a lot of kids who could benefit from hearing a grown man sing “It’s All Right to Cry” in front of their classes. And the final lines of Dan Greenburg’s “Don’t Dress Your Cat in an Apron” really say it all:

A person should wear what he wants to,
And not just what other folks say.
A person should do what she likes to.
A person’s a person that way.

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.

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.

Don’t recommend Bailey either

If you read my blog at all, you know I have very little patience for transgender dogma. I don’t have much more patience for the Blanchard model either, but it seems to be the most popular alternative. Alice Dreger is right that my “community leaders” have been nasty to Ray Blanchard and friends, but she also seems to think that Blanchard’s theory is actually worth something. Last month I posted about the difficulties of coming out about transvestite sexuality, and I got a very nice email from someone who asked if that was the same as “autogynephilia.” I found the blog of a therapist who questions transition, and she recommends that parents of dysphoric children read Michael Bailey’s The Man Who Would Be Queen.

Of all the books I could recommend to an anxious parent, The Man Who Would Be Queen is one of my last choices. If you forced me to choose between that and a transition-cheerleading book I would probably throw them both in the pulping bin. It’s a nasty, polemical, judgmental screed that offers little hope to any trans people. And that, really, is the message I’ve gotten from the entire Blanchard camp.

Ray Blanchard developed his dichotomy between “autogynephilic” and “homosexual transsexuals” in the 1980s, based on work by Kurt Freund and others in the late 1960s and early 1970s,* when the primary mission of therapists working with trans people was gatekeeping. There was a real danger that people would make all kinds of body modifications, get fired from their jobs and ostracized by their friends and family, and wind up broke and destitute. They found that the “HSTS” were more likely to succeed in their transitions – and in those days that meant blending into society post-transition and being able to live “stealth.”

There was probably some value in the “HSTS/autogynephilia” dichotomy as a gatekeeping heuristic, just like there was some value in the “we’re all women trapped in men’s bodies” idea for getting people to relate to transgender ideas at all, but they’re both based on wild oversimplifications, ignoring a vast quantity of exceptions. Both camps have spun elaborate essentialist theories and spent the past thirty years searching for biological evidence to support those theories, and neither camp has come up with anything particularly satisfactory.

My biggest beef with Blanchard, Bailey and friends is that as far as I’m concerned, they’ve done fuck-all to help me and other trans people to cope with trans feelings. I decided not to transition with no help from them, I came out of the closet a year later with no help from them, and I’ve spent the 21 years since figuring out how to live out and proud without transitioning. Where is their guide to doing that? It’s not there. All they cared about for decades was preventing me from transitioning (didn’t want to anyway), and attacking the Everybody Must Transition dogmatists.

I wish I could offer the therapist a book she could recommend to worried parents instead of Bailey’s book. For that matter, I wish I could offer a book that people could recommend instead of Julia Serano’s book. The problem is that the parents want certainty. They want a book that will tell them How Things Are, and What To Do. But the fact is that when it comes to transgender feelings we don’t know how things are. We don’t know what to do. We’re all fumbling blindly in the dark. The difference is that some of us are prepared to admit it.

* I had originally said that Blanchard developed his taxonomy in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Someone wrote to correct that. I regret the error.

Blacklisted!

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.

Owning Jessica Hambrook

In the wake of the Alliance Defending Freedom-sponsored bathroom bills being considered in many states, and passed in North Carolina, many people responded that there have been no documented cases of trans people assaulting women in bathrooms. I may well have been the first to point out, a decade ago, the conspicuous lack of news reports of any such assaults.

It’s important to be clear about what this fact means. It means that a tiny minority of rapes happen in bathrooms, trans women are a tiny minority of the population, and a tiny minority of us are rapists. A tiny minority of a tiny minority of a tiny minority means that there’s so little chance of this happening that it might as well be zero.

Here’s what this does not mean: that trans women can never be rapists. It does not mean that none of us has ever raped anyone. It just unlikely, especially in a public bathroom. There are a lot of other things to be worried about, like getting hit by a car on your way to the public bathroom.

We need to be clear on this point because there is always a chance that at some point, someone will get raped in a bathroom by a trans woman. In fact, there is a group of radical feminists who collect and circulate news reports of trans people harassing and attacking women and girls.

These lists are not a systematic investigation of these issues, and they do not constitute a sound argument for banning trans people from women’s bathrooms. The argument rests on exactly the same profiling fallacy currently being promoted by Donald Trump, Jr. But the incidents are well-documented, and if we ignore them or dismiss them out of hand, we look like liars.

In February 2012 a trans woman, Jessica Hambrook, was arrested based on reports that she sexually assaulted two women in two different homeless shelters in Toronto. Psychiatrists, no doubt working in the sloppy theories of Ray Blanchard, “concluded Hambrook is not transgender.” The Toronto Sun reported in February 2014 that she was locked up for life as a “dangerous offender,” based on guilty pleas in these cases and convictions in two previous ones. They apparently considered themselves freed by the psychiatrist’s judgment from the responsibility to treat her with any dignity, and consistently referred to her with a male name and pronouns. They printed a brief statement from the defense attorney admitting Hambrook’s crimes, but not addressing the question of her transgender status.

When challenged on the Hambrook case, trans activist Toni D’Orsay simply took the word of the psychiatrists that Hambrook “falsely claimed” to be trans. The rest of our “trans community leaders,” normally eager to defend one of their own and insist on the “correct” name and pronouns, has been silent on this issue, apparently unwilling to risk even the possibility that she is just as trans as they are, and might therefore taint all trans people with her crimes.

This is bullshit – and it’s exactly the No True Scotsman fallacy. Every population includes some people who are mentally ill, people who are sexual predators, and people who are criminals. It is preposterous to think that trans people are somehow immune to this. If this convicted serial rapist Jessica Hambrook is not “really trans,” there is a rapist somewhere who is. We discredit ourselves by ignoring this certainty, and the radical feminists are simply attacking us with the weapons we have handed them.

My catalog of woes

Here begins my catalog of woes. Please bear with it, because it has a point.

1. It was 1994 or 1995. I had just moved back to New York and was trying to figure out how to be comfortable with my transgender feelings. I had come out to my dad, and he had accepted them and agreed to let me live with him while I found work and saved up some money. I had also gotten over my adolescent homophobia and come to admire lesbians, gay men and bisexual people who were out and proud. I had heard about the New York Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center, and that they had a Gender Identity Project.

I went to the Center one day and was directed upstairs to the GIP office, where I was greeted by a woman. She didn’t introduce herself, but I later recognized her in photos as the founding Director of the GIP, Rosalyne Blumenstein. “Can I help you?” she asked.

“Well, uh, I’m transgender, and I wanted to know if you have any services for people who aren’t transitioning.”
“We don’t really have anything for cross-dressers, but there’s an organization uptown called CDI, Crossdressers International. They might be able to help you. Here’s their number.”
“You don’t have anything for people who aren’t transitioning?”
“No, sorry.”
“Uh, okay, thanks anyway.”

I didn’t go to CDI. I muddled through with the support of friends and therapists who didn’t really know about transgender issues. I left the city for grad school in 1997, and came back in 2000. I was living in a rough part of the South Bronx. I had a simple need that I thought the Center might be able to help with, especially since they had become the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Services Center.

2. I went back to the Center and told the receptionist I was transgender, and asked if they had a safe place where I could change my clothes. She said, “No, we don’t really let anyone change in the bathrooms because they make a mess.”

I thanked her and left, and was halfway down the stairs to the subway when I decided that wasn’t right at all. I went back upstairs and told the receptionist I was very upset with what she said and I wanted to talk to someone about it. She told me to wait, and after a few minutes a woman came out and led me back to a small room in the GIP offices. I explained the situation to her as she listened sympathetically, and then she told me that she didn’t have the power to change that policy because she was a counselor, but she would pass on my concerns to management. And no, there were still no other services available at the GIP for people who weren’t transitioning.

3. I eventually did go to CDI, and they were very nice and they did help me, but they were also very closeted and didn’t have much to offer someone like me who was largely out of the closet. They offered a safe place to change clothes, but their rates were way beyond my budget.

4. For a while I went to the transgender support group at Queens Pride House, but at one meeting another support group member told me I wasn’t really transgender because I wasn’t transitioning. The group moderator backed me up, but I felt stressed out rather than supported, so I stopped going.

5. In 2003 I made contact with Helen Boyd, who convinced Carrie Davis to get the Center’s policy changed to allow people to change clothes in the bathrooms. Helen also offered some support groups at the Center for trans people and their partners for a while.

Helen and her now-wife Betty ran a message board that I found welcoming and supportive for a few years, but it began to attract increasing numbers of transitioning trans people who were not content to simply discuss their personal reasons for transitioning, but to insist that it was their destiny – and the destiny of every true trans person – to transition. This implied that people like me who don’t transition are either not truly trans or not transitioning. When I objected to this, Helen and Betty refused to back me up, and told me to stop challenging the destiny talk because it was making other people uncomfortable. When I continued, they banned me from the message board.

6. A few years ago I started going back to the Queens Pride House group, which has been more supportive. At the last meeting, there was a new member who insisted that I “hadn’t really decided” who I was or what I wanted. Several of the other group members, including Pauline Park, the moderator and a founder of Queens Pride House, challenged this new member on her behavior, but it was still stressful and not supportive to be attacked this way.

And now, as I promised you, here is the point of this catalog of woes: To live as a trans person without transitioning is to be told constantly that you don’t belong, that either you’re not really trans or that you’re denying your true nature. If you object you’re ignored for as long as possible, and then called divisive and disruptive. Some trans people may say that they get that too, but at least they get a few safe spaces. Most services for trans people are entirely oriented towards transition, with a few exceptions that are oriented towards the closet.

And the point of that is that when people like Julia Serano claim that people who don’t transition or who detransition are a tiny minority, and that many of us don’t even identify as trans, it may not have anything to do with what trans people as a whole really believe or want. It may simply be that there is tremendous pressure to not be a trans person who doesn’t transition, and that we’re being pressured out of sight, and even out of existence. Serano has been around long enough that she ought to know this, but acknowledging it might give ammunition to people who say kids shouldn’t be allowed to transition as soon as they say they want to, so she just sweeps it under the rug. Thanks!

What if you don’t have a gender identity?

I believe that President Obama, Attorney General Loretta Lynch and Acting Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta sincerely want to help all transgender people. I commend their courage for doing what they think will help. But I’ve read Lynch and Gupta’s remarks and read the brief that Gupta’s office filed in response to the North Carolina lawsuit over bathroom access, and I’m feeling worried. Where do I, and all the other genderqueer and genderfluid people, fit in this? Will we be left out?

Paragraph 31 from the brief defined gender identity as ” gender identity, which is an individual’s internal sense of being male or female.” Paragraph 36 states, “Gender identity is innate and external efforts to change a person’s gender identity can be harmful to a person’s health and well-being.”

That’s great for someone who lives through childhood as a girl, transitions in high school and lives the rest of their life as a man. It’s great for someone who lives as a boy and then a man, and transitions to living as a woman during a midlife crisis. It’s especially good if they are comfortable interpreting their feelings of discomfort, desire and excitement in terms of innate brain genders despite the shaky science involved in those constructs.

Paragraph 36 is less great for someone who doesn’t want to be pigeonholed into any gender, or for someone who feels like they’re in between, or a mix of genders. It’s not so good for someone like me who sometimes feels a desire to be a man and sometimes a woman, who sometimes feels uncomfortable with on gender, or the other, or both. It’s especially bad if we’re skeptical of any kind of pat answers, especially about gender.

There is a straightforward case against North Carolina’s HB2 law: just as it’s illegal to deny a person public accommodations or require her to wear a skirt because she has the legal status of “female,” it’s illegal to deny a person the right to use the women’s room because she has the legal status of “male.” It’s a pattern of sex discrimination.

I can understand why Lynch and Gupta don’t want to use the straightforward argument, though, because it makes a bald-faced case that people should be allowed to use whichever bathroom they want, even if they’re not trans. Gupta doesn’t think the American people are ready for that. Instead, here’s how she puts it:

Transgender people are discriminated against because their gender identity does not match the sex they were assigned at birth. H.B. 2 denies transgender people something that all non-transgender people enjoy and take for granted: access to restrooms consistent with their gender identity.

For years, whenever anyone talked about “gender identity” I just thought of it as some weird feeling that trans people who transition full-time have. But then people started insisting that everyone has a gender identity, and that because I chose not to live as a woman full-time I must have a masculine gender identity. They’re wrong; I don’t. I just dress like a guy most of the time because it’s the easiest thing to do. It’s not just me, either: I’ve known people who’ve transitioned and don’t have a gender identity.

Nobody knows what my gender identity (or lack thereof) is unless I tell them, and yet they do occasionally discriminate against me, like when the woman in the Burlington Coat Factory on Sixth Avenue sent me to the men’s changing room. She had no idea whether my gender identity matched the sex I was assigned at birth; she simply decided I was a man despite the fact that I was wearing makeup and a skirt, and discriminated against me based on her judgment.

Similarly, the people who confront trans people for their choice of bathroom have no idea what gender identity their victims have. They aren’t discriminating based on a gender identity mismatch, they’re discriminating based on their gender classification. I can’t believe that on some level Gupta and Lynch don’t know this.

I don’t want access to restrooms consistent with my gender identity, and I don’t think most other trans people do either. I want access to restrooms consistent with my gender expression. It’s pretty simple: if I’m wearing makeup and heels, I want to go into the bathroom where people with makeup and heels go. If I’m not wearing makeup and have visible facial hair, I want to go into the bathroom where people with no makeup and visible facial hair go.

I don’t vary my gender expression for fun. I do it because through many years of experience I’ve concluded that my mental health suffers if I don’t. My need is just as real, and just as unchangeable, as any other trans person’s. I’m just not confident enough in my understanding of my own mind, or in the state of neuroscience, to assert that this is a result of some innate sense of self.

So here’s what I want to know, Attorney General Lynch: if I don’t have a gender identity, innate or otherwise, and I’m not prepared to assert that my state is innate, do you still stand with me? Do you stand with the genderqueer person who doesn’t really pass in any bathroom, and decides which is the safest on an ad hoc basis? If I got arrested in a women’s room in North Carolina, in makeup and a dress, would you do everything you could to protect me? Or is safe access to restrooms only for people with a gender identity?

Update: Cristan Williams points out that the Justice Department is suing North Carolina because they received grants under the Violence Against Women Act that are conditioned on states not discriminating on the basis of gender identity. But as I pointed out shortly after the Act was reauthorized in 2013, the definition of gender identity is “actual or perceived gender-related characteristics,” which is a lot more inclusive and effective than the faith-based definition. So why are Lynch and Gupta using a definition of gender identity that’s so radically different from the one in the law?

Owning Ed Gein

You may remember that Jos Truitt wrote a post about reclaiming the character of Buffalo Bill, the villain of Silence of the Lambs, as trans. AntBreach responded, “If you want to reduce stigma against trans people, why would you insist one of cinema’s most gruesome horror villains was trans all along?” As I said in my previous post, Buffalo Bill may not have been transsexual, but that just means he was a transvestite, which is still a way of being transgender. And because the character was a caricature of transgender desire, I said on Twitter that he was trans the same way Amos and Andy were black. The same is true for Doctor Elliot in Dressed to Kill.

I still don’t like the idea of “reclaiming” Buffalo Bill or treating him as any kind of hero, even to the extent he reflects any kind of transgender reality. But I do think we should own the very real trans person he was based on, Ed Gein.

Ed Gein confessed in 1957 to killing two women and making (or attempting to make) suits and masks out of their skin, as well as skin taken from corpses buried near his mother in the local cemetery. He was found not guilty by reason of insanity and died in an asylum in 1984. His story is not only the basis for Buffalo Bill, but for Norman Bates in Psycho and Leatherface in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. We get three fictional serial killers for the price of one real killer.

It needs to be said that Gein committed horrific crimes and is not a suitable hero or role model for anyone, anywhere, ever. But that doesn’t mean that he wasn’t transgender. He was, everyone knows he was, and we look like fools for pretending he wasn’t.

AntBreach’s question speaks to a fundamental misunderstanding of how stigma works, one that is unfortunately all too common. When confronted with a negative association, one response is to simply reject the association. “Trans murderer? Well, no, that person wasn’t really trans!” This is bullshit. It doesn’t work when cyclists, or Jews, or members of any other group try to whitewash themselves and pretend that they don’t have any murderers, or rapists, or bad people. Everyone knows deep down that it is well-nigh impossible to have a group that big with no murderers, and on some level they see through the bullshit. It’s the same thing with transgender murderers, rapists and plain old mean people.

The case of Ed Gein (and the caricatures based on him) is particularly challenging because he wasn’t just a trans person who killed. His crimes were colored by his transgender feelings. They are transgender grave robberies and transgender murders. But there are a lot of killers whose crimes are colored by their gender experiences and their sexualities. Jeffrey Dahmer and John Wayne Gacy committed gay murders. Gary Ridgway’s and Ted Bundy’s backgrounds as straight men colored their crimes. Female serial killers tend to kill husbands, children or elderly people in their care.

Gein’s transgender actions do not mean that the rest of us trans people are likely to commit those kinds of crimes. Gein was also diagnosed with schizophrenia and psychopathy, and those of us who don’t have either of those are a lot safer to be around. There is no evidence that murderers are any more common among the trans population than they are among the general population, and I haven’t heard of anyone else who has done what he did with corpses.

The way to deal with stigma is not to deny negative associations, but to acknowledge them and move on, and drown them out with positive and neutral associations. Why yes there are transgender murderers and rapists, but there are also brilliant transgender comedians, artists, composers, authors, film directors, computer programmers, scientists, teachers, athletes – and on and on. And there are trans people who are not particularly monstrous or particularly brilliant, but are just people like Joe down the block who goes out once a month in a wig and heels, and Liz at the coffee shop who likes to wear neckties all the time. There are trans people with enough love in them to drown out all the hate that people like Gein bring.

So yes, Ed Gein was trans. So are lots of people who aren’t murderers. Let’s see some more movies about them. Maybe some day we can even have a horror movie where the killer’s crimes aren’t colored by any transgender feelings – but our pretty, spunky heroine is a transvestite.