“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.

What is transphobia?

You’ve all heard the Trans 101 definition: “irrational or persistent fears or non-acceptance towards people whose gender identity or expression differs from the gender they were assigned at birth. Transphobia can lead to direct or indirect discrimination or harassment in a variety of forms; the common theme is a misunderstanding of, or failure to respect, gender diversity.”

Are you ready for something more advanced – say, Trans 201? It’s all very well to declare that someone’s fears are irrational, and many of them sure are, but that doesn’t really tell us much about where they come from, so it doesn’t help us to stop it. We can only get true understanding through empathy and compassion. I count at least eight distinct reasons for someone to feel afraid of or hostile towards a transgender person. They all have different sources, and they all call for different responses. Lump them together at your peril.

  • Entitlement policing: the fear that someone is getting away with something they don’t deserve. This is behind bathroom anxiety and so much more. It’s even more intense if the self-appointed border guard believes that the transgender person in question needs to be made an example of, or else “they’ll all want one.”
  • Moral condemnation: the belief that transgender behavior is immoral and must be punished. Usually there is no reason given for this condemnation, it’s just written in a book somewhere.
  • Sissy discipline: the belief that “men” (particularly young ones) who refuse to accept male roles must be punished for shirking their duties.
  • Deception rage: anger based on a belief that someone has deceived you to gain something valuable from you, including but not limited to sexual gratification. This is a factor in many murders of transgender people.
  • Fear of unintended consequences: fear based on the belief that someone may be unintentionally putting themselves in danger, or making a choice they may regret.
  • Fear of shaming or retribution by association: the fear of being attacked for having loved, cared for or been intimate with a transgender person. This is a legitimate fear based on events such as the murder of Barry Winchell, Calpernia Addams’s boyfriend, in 1999. It is also a factor in murders of transgender people.
  • Fear of self-hatred: some people who are intimate with transgender people criticize themselves for it, especially if they believe that it means they are “gay.” They may further believe that killing their lover will somehow absolve them of “gayness” or demonstrate their rejection of it.
  • Fear of shaming or shunning of a transgender loved one, by others or even by oneself. Yes, some people attack their loved ones because they don’t want to feel obligated to attack them in the future. How messed up is that?

Do these make sense to you? Am I missing anything?

The Value of Being Out

Tonight I came across this interview about GLB issues with Barack Obama, and one passage in particular resonated with me:

A college professor of mine helped me to see the lives of LGBT people from a different perspective. He was the first openly gay professor that I had ever come in contact with, or openly gay person of authority that I had come in contact with. And he was just a terrific guy.  His comfort in his own skin and the friendship we developed helped to educate me on a number of these issues.

I, too, had an experience like that: a fellow student of mine who was willing to tell anyone and everyone that he was gay.  Steve wasn’t an authority figure (although I would meet plenty later), but still an example of pride and self-acceptance who inspired me to reexamine and discard my homophobia.  I had known many closet cases and “don’t ask, don’t tell” gay men, lesbians and bisexuals, and their own shame and fear had given me license to judge them.  I just couldn’t do that with Steve, and after a while I realized that I couldn’t do it with myself either.

This is the reason why I think we non-transition-track transgender people (transvestites, cross-dressers, etc.) should practice some verbal hygiene on the term “out” and stop using it to describe someone who cross-dresses in public settings that are still anonymous, and who doesn’t disclose their transgenderism to their family, friends, neighbors or co-workers.  Of course there’s such a thing as too much information, but there are times when people need to know that we’re transgender.

Clearly our next president benefited from the information he got from his professor, and more importantly, from his professor’s own self-acceptance and self-respect.  The gay and lesbian communities have benefited from Obama’s acceptance and respect.  If transvestites ever hope to be accepted and respected, we have to accept and respect ourselves, and be out of the closet.  And this kind of “out” has very little to do with clothes: we can be out to our friends and neighbors without them ever seeing us in a skirt, wig or maid costume.  All it takes is these three words, “I’m a transvestite.”  Could you say them to Barack Obama?  Could you say them, with pride, to a student who might some day be president?

Update. August 2009: I just discovered that Steve’s husband died tragically in March.  Steve wrote for Americablog about how some of his experiences afterwards highlighted the connection between being out, marriage equality and respect.  Last week, he wrote about how it related to his lexicography work.

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.

Be careful, you’ll put an eye out!

I just looked at this package in my cosmetics collection. It says,

Jean-Pierre Cosmetics
Eye & Make Up Remover
Cleansing Towelettes

It’s not a short-term glitch; that’s the official name of the product.

I had already used it when I noticed this, but I double-checked, and it didn’t remove any of my eyes. Whew! I guess it must actually be “face & eye make-up remover.”

Of course, I bought this stuff months ago. I knew exactly what it was when I bought it, and didn’t even notice the superficially-inaccurate description until a few minutes ago. Just goes to show that language communicates well even when it doesn’t follow the rules of logic.

Incidentally, it seems to be very effective at removing eye make-up without causing too much discomfort or drying my skin.  I’m satisfied.

Feelings or Actions, Condensed

I recently came across an interesting blog post about the MTA’s weird practice of having its commuter railroad conductors mark the gender of passengers on their monthly passes. My friend Donna has experienced this on the Long Island Rail Road, and last week a blogger named Bobby posted his experience from the conductor’s point of view. I posted a comment to Bobby’s blog linking to Donna’s post, but I couldn’t help adding a correction to another comment by someone named Laser72.

Laser72 had tried to gently correct Bobby for referring to his passenger as a “cross dresser,” saying that since the passenger had a monthly pass, she probably spent a significant amount of time as a woman, and therefore “transgendered woman” was more appropriate.

A crossdresser is a man or woman who dresses up as the opposite gender on a more temporary basis, usually just for fun, or as a sexual fetish. A transgendered person is someone who dresses and lives as the other gender on a much more permanent basis, usually full time …

In response, I considered linking to my Feelings and Actions post, but I realized that that was way too in-depth and detailed for a casual blog reader to digest in one sitting.  I tried to write just a few sentences saying that I disagreed with Laser72’s categories, but Laser72 asked for clarification.  So now I’m trying to write something that’s shorter than the Feelings and Actions post, but still says enough.

The main problem with Laser72’s categories is that the terms don’t always mean those things.  They’re ambiguous, and that ambiguity causes problems.  For example, when people say that they’ve “always been transgendered,” they don’t mean that they’ve always dressed and lived as the other on a permanent or full-time basis.  They mean that there are particular feelings that they’ve always had, and it’s quite well documented that many people who say that they’ve “always been transgendered” have in the past dressed up as the opposite gender on a temporary basis, for fun or as a sexual fetish.   If these people have really always been transgendered, then it’s not just possible but common to be transgender and a cross-dresser.

The term “cross-dresser” is also problematic.  It was invented by people who cross-dressed but were uncomfortable with the term “transvestite,” which to them suggested cross-dressing just for fun, or as a sexual fetish, or even for prositution.  It was originally used to refer to anyone who dressed as “the opposite gender,” regardless of motivation.  Therefore, it could refer to transgender people, either before they start living full-time as their chosen gender, or when they dress as their birth gender temporarily, like Bobby’s passenger.

This is why I think it’s better to use terms like “transgender” and “fetish” for feelings and motivations, and terms like “cross-dresser” for actions.

Don’t you bring me down today

This recent article from Virginia Postrel helped me put my finger on what bothered me about Christina Aguilera’s song “Beautiful.” Or rather, the biggest thing that bothered me; Aguilera’s show-offy vocal stylings grated on me from the beginning, but it was really the lyrics that annoyed me. I just found out, from the Wikipedia article, that the music and lyrics were written by 1 of the former 4 Non Blondes, Linda Perry.

I’ve only just watched the video that I linked, since I figured I should watch something before I show it to you. Up to now, my exposure to the song has been involuntary; it’s been forced into my brain by our local Clear Channel pod. Aguilera does get props for including a drag queen in her video, but that idea isn’t new; in the liner notes for a Go-Go’s compilation I have, one of the members writes about how their (much more insightful) song “Beautiful” was inspired by a scene from a John Waters movie featuring Divine.

So what really rubs me the wrong way about this song is the assertion that “I/We/You are beautiful, in every single way.” In other words, everyone is beautiful. I’d kinda agree that everyone has something beautiful about them, but is everyone beautiful in every single way? Well, no. Adjectives serve to distinguish people, and when there is no distinction, the adjective becomes meaningless. If everyone were really beautiful in every single way, then no one would be beautiful, and beauty would cease to exist. But beauty clearly does exist in people’s minds, and very few people really think that everyone is beautiful in every single way.

Continue reading “Don’t you bring me down today”

Transgender Verbal Hygiene: Feelings or Actions?

I first posted this on May 6, 2006, and I’m surprised I haven’t reposted it here. Thanks to various people from the My Husband Betty Message Boards for helpful feedback.


In linguistics, there are many who frown on the idea of conscious control of language use, individual or collective, such as in the book published in 1950 called Leave Your Language Alone. People who try to control language are sometimes called prescriptivists, a term that conjures up images of stuffy grammarians writing pedantic articles about punctuation. However, in her 1995 book Verbal Hygiene, Deborah Cameron argued that there are all kinds of reasons to advocate or attempt language change, and some are good (eliminating sexist generic statements like “A good doctor talks to his patients”) and some are bad (using natural variations as shibboleths to discriminate against people from stigmatized ethnic groups). Cameron’s point is that the important thing is to be aware of the reasons and to subject them to an open decision-making process.

With that in mind, I have some things to say about the use of the word transgender. I am not doing this to discriminate or belittle people, or out of blind deference to tradition. I’m also not out to demonize anyone or blame anyone else for these problems. I have specific reasons for arguing against a current change in usage, and for a specific way of thinking about the term. I also want people to be aware of the effects of the language that they use, and the consequences of their choices. I’m going to be drawing on the field of lexical semantics, which itself draws on psychology, artificial intelligence, computer science and philosophy. Continue reading “Transgender Verbal Hygiene: Feelings or Actions?”

Some Transgender Principles

As I have time, I’m going to gradually migrate my writings from my old transvestite website to this new blog, revising and updating them in the process. I’ll also write new articles as the muse strikes me. Many of them will relate to this list of principles that I developed in 2005 and have been expanding since.

For the past two and a half years I’ve been participating on the (en)gender Message Boards, moderated by Helen Boyd, author of My Husband Betty, and her husband Betty Crow. It’s a really good group of people, with lots of interesting ideas about transgender phenomena, but over that time I’ve found myself saying a few things over and over again. This page is written in part to save myself some typing on this message board; the next time one of these comes up I can just link to Principle 3. Kind of like the joke about the comedians’ club.

Right now I’ll just write a little blurb for each principle. As time goes on I may expand them into full-fledged articles.

1. No one really knows what’s going on
Discussions about transgenderism are often full of generalizations: “Transgender individuals are like this,” or “Transsexuals are like this, but cross-dressers are like that.” The fact of the matter is that nobody’s done enough research to prove this, so everyone’s going on hunches. Unfortunately, hunches can often be wrong. The bottom line is that nobody has information beyond the people that they’ve talked to. Except in Sweden. Continue reading “Some Transgender Principles”