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.

gein000I 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.

Gender solidarity is a kludge

The other day on Twitter, someone posted about “that knowing look” that women exchange when a man is talking down to them. This is the mild end of a spectrum of actions that women take out of solidarity with each other, from looks through accompanying each other to the bathroom, through friendship to full-on man-hating separatism.

Added February 7: In a speech endorsing Hillary Clinton for President yesterday, Madeleine Albright said “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other.” According to Maureen O’Connor she has been saying this since at least 2004. It’s a striking example of the kind of problematic solidarity I’m talking about.

In contrast, Erica Violet Lee gives examples of situations where solidarity may well have been the best available course of action – in part because of solidarity among men.

The problems they are responding to are a hundred percent real. From disrespect to discrimination to harassment and rape and murder, women are systematically oppressed in our society. This is a matter of social structure, not agency, but the structure exerts its oppression on women in large part by enabling and encouraging people to take action against them, and the vast majority of those actors are men. It is thus not surprising that in many circumstances women trust each other more than men.

It is also not specific to gender: members of oppressed groups have always tried to show each other solidarity. Black people share knowing looks, gay men walk each other home, Deaf people form friendships, Jews form separatist communities. Sometimes these measures work, sometimes they don’t.

When solidarity fails, it’s because people fail to realize that it’s a kludge, a statistical bet on the effects of these social structures. It’s because they mistake the structures that encourage people to dehumanize others and behave like assholes with the prevalence of actual psychopaths and assholes. They forget that God (or Odin or Krishna or whoever) has carefully sprinkled assholes and psychopaths throughout the population, so that they are represented among Black people and gay men and Deaf people and Jews and trans people and yes, even women.

Solidarity also fails when people fail to realize that the structure does not affect everyone equally. Of course, many people are smart enough to adjust their solidarity to take into account edge cases and intersectionalities. One well-known example is when women include gay men among their “girlfriends” – but absolutism fails here too, as many people have observed that there are gay men who are just as misogynist as any straight man.

Like any kludge, gender solidarity can be incredibly useful. But like any kludge, it works best when we know its limitations, use it sparingly, and try not to think of it as a stable long-term solution to our problems. See also: segregated bathrooms and gender roles.

The role of family rejection in anti-trans violence

In 2013, in response to the murder of Islan Nettles, I talked about how a saner approach to sexual relationships between men and trans women, and between men and other men, would do a lot to reduce the number of murders of trans women, particularly poor trans women of color. There was another trans woman killed in the area that year whose story was a bit different, and pointed to another factor that makes a big difference.

Almost two years ago, Eyricka Morgan was killed in a boarding house in New Brunswick, New Jersey. News reports say that she was arguing with a man who also lived in the boarding house, and when the argument got heated he stabbed her in the neck with a butcher knife. Unlike the case of Islan Nettles, there is no mention of any sexual attraction between her and the suspect. It may have just been one of the many kinds of arguments that happen between any two people who live in the same house.

The question I had was why this argument turned violent. There is nothing in the reports to suggest a reason, other than that this was the second fatal stabbing of 2013 in New Brunswick. It may not have had anything to do with the fact that she was trans. These things happen to non-trans people – a point that deserves its own blog post.

Still I wondered whether things would have been different if Morgan’s living situation had been different. What if she had lived in a different neighborhood? What if she had had her own apartment, or shared a house with people she knew and trusted?

It seems likely that Morgan lived in the same boarding house with that murderous young man because she couldn’t afford a safer living arrangement. To understand why that might be, listen to Morgan herself (Part I, 25:30) describing why she left her family home in Newark at the age of fourteen or fifteen: she was regularly beaten by her grandparents and uncles. Later in the panel (Part II, 25:28) she said, “I missed a lot of years of my youth due to something that I did, so I wasn’t really around for my youth years.” If I understand her correctly, she’s saying she spent time in juvenile detention.

So what might Morgan’s life have been like if she had felt safe in her own home as a teenager? Being homeless is a huge drain on a person’s time and energy, and being incarcerated is a huge setback. What could she have accomplished if she hadn’t had to deal with that during those critical teenage years? Would she have been able to finish college on time? Would she have been better prepared for the adult job market?

We know that connections are very valuable when building a career. What might have happened if Morgan had not been cut off from all her family connections? Could her grandmother and her uncles have connected her with jobs if they hadn’t driven her away?

Many parents believe that it is part of their job to police the gender expression of their children, to make sure the boys grow up to be men and the girls grow up to be women. This probably comes from ancient tribal anxieties. The prescription is usually “tough love,” in the form of corporal punishment or verbal abuse.

Can we all agree now that this “tough love” doesn’t work? I’ve met trans people, and gay men, who’ve grown up with it. They didn’t stop being trans or gay. Some of them left home, like Morgan. Others just learned how to hide it. The “best” were able to suppress it. None of them could have “given it up” however badly they wanted to.

If we want to prevent murders like Eyricka Morgan’s, we need to stop parents and grandparents rejecting their kids for being trans or gay. We can fund homeless shelters and outreach programs; I’m sure they help a lot. But Morgan had outreach programs; they’re not enough.

Somewhere along the line, Morgan’s grandmother was taught that if you have a “boy” who wants to act or dress feminine, you should beat the kid, and if they still do it then it’s okay to let them run away and sleep on the streets. She passed that message on to her children – Morgan’s uncles.

In contrast, the first thing my parents did was to make sure I knew that they would always love me, and that I always had a place to stay, no matter what I wore or how I talked.

We need to stop sending parents and caregivers the message that a girly boy is something to be ashamed of. We need to support parents and grandparents who support their kids. That is something we can do to stop people murdering trans people.

Unethical therapy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When my dad made a transgender movie

When I was a kid my dad, who was a sound engineer, told me how he had worked on a movie with an actress who was really a man. I believe those were the words he used. He said, “She looked and sounded just like a woman, but she had to take a break and shave around five o’clock.”

It’s hard to know how much things like this affect your thoughts, but the story stuck with me, and it was probably swimming around in my head when I started thinking that life might be a lot easier if I didn’t correct people when they thought I was a girl. It went in there with Holly Woodlawn’s cross-country gender change in “Walk on the Wild Side,” Princess Ozma, a girl named Patrice in my elementary school who bore an uncanny resemblance to a boy named Donavan at my summer camp, Bugs Bunny, and any number of madcap comedies where a boy disguises himself as a girl.

sombfa1Years later, after I developed a habit of wearing women’s clothes and came out to my father about it, I asked him for more details about the movie. He didn’t remember it quite that way. It turned out that the actress in question was Candy Darling, an associate of Holly Woodlawn’s in Andy Warhol’s Factory, and the movie was called Some of My Best Friends Are… It was an ensemble piece about gay life in Greenwich Village, set in a single bar on a Christmas Eve, and was released three days before I was born.

When the film came out, Vincent Canby unfavorably compared it to The Boys in the Band, which I haven’t seen, while noting that it “may well be more accurate.” Citizen Kane it ain’t, but it’s not horrible. Candy Darling’s performance in the film was straight dramatic acting, unlike her campy performances in Warhol’s movies. And my dad didn’t tell me that she played a transvestite who was attacked for being trans.

I looked up Some of My Best Friends Are… last night and discovered that someone had put the scenes with Candy Darling on YouTube. My dad was right that she did pass well; I was a bit envious. I was also impressed at how well the director, Mervyn Nelson, captured the feeling of gender fog, even if it was a bit over the top. But I found the bashing scene very disturbing. I’ve never been comfortable with movie violence, but the fact that the character Karen was attacked in part for passing so well, in a bar full of men who tried and failed to protect her, was particularly upsetting.

Things may be better now than they were in 1971. More people are out of the closet, and gay bars are probably safer for transvestites, at least for those of us who are white and middle class. But for those who are poor or nonwhite, things are still dangerous. At least ten trans women have been killed this year in the United States. The character of Karen survived being beaten; how many people survived a similar beating this year?

If you want to change things, here are two ideas: (1) make sure everyone knows that you don’t think we should be beaten or killed, and (2) leverage intersectionality to make life safer for trans people who are poor, nonwhite, sex workers or perceived as “gay.”

6 ways you can use intersectionality to help stop trans murders

You’ve heard (I hope) that the vast majority of trans people who are killed are male to female living in poverty, and many are sex workers and immigrants. Here in the United States, most of the dead are black or Latina, and often both.

intersectionality1This is intersectionality at work: if they were just poor, or just female, or just seen as gay, or just nonwhite, or just immigrants, or just employed illegally, or just sex workers, or even just trans, their risk of being murdered would already be higher than a non-trans straight white middle-class legally employed male American citizen.

Together, though, these risks multiply, and even reinforce each other: if you’re female, or trans, or nonwhite, or an immigrant, you’re more likely to be poor, and if you’re poor you’re more likely to work in the “informal economy,” including sex work. If you’ve immigrated in violation of the laws or work in the informal economy you’re under constant threat from law enforcement, and if you’re seen as poor or nonwhite or gay or female, you’re more likely to face discrimination when it comes to police protection and employment. It’s also harder to get a good education when you’re poor, which makes it hard to get work. If you can’t get a good job you get poorer, and the cycle continues.

A large amount of anti-trans sentiment is related to anti-gay sentiment. The real solution is not to convince people that MTF trans people and the men who have sex with us aren’t gay, but to make it okay for us to be seen as gay. It should be like being mistaken for Irish when you’re really Scottish in the US today: a minor inaccuracy that’s annoying at worst.

We can use intersectionality to solve these problems too. If we could bring murder rates for nonwhite, poor and immigrant trans women down to those of white middle-class trans women we’d eliminate most of the killing. If we could bring the rates for African American trans sex workers down to those of non-trans, non-sex-worker African-American women it would be a huge improvement.

With that in mind, here are some intersectional ways to help stop violence against trans people:

  • Break the cycle of poverty. Adequately fund public education.
  • End racial discrimination. Enforce equal opportunity laws.
  • Help immigrants. Create an immigration policy that makes our country welcoming again.
  • End sex worker harassment. End the use of condoms as evidence for prostitution.
  • End violence against women. Speak out against rape culture and domestic violence. Examine your own actions for ways that you might commit or condone such violence.
  • End homophobia. Support respect, dignity and equality for gay men, lesbians and bisexuals.

Which of them is easiest for you to start working on? Which is hardest?

We are not safe around us

I’m reading The People of Sparks with my kid, and it’s a concise, believable depiction of prejudice: how it arises and how to defuse it. We’ve evolved in tribes, and we have a strong tendency to take tribal solutions to danger and conflict. Someone’s dangerous? Well, he’s not one of us. She’s not one of us either, better watch out for her!

When we find out that x percent of crimes are committed by y people, our immediate reaction is to avoid all y people. It doesn’t matter if these crimes are committed by a small percentage of y people, better to avoid them all. It’s a completely normal and understandable response, and sometimes when you’re under attack it’s the best you can manage, but as DuPrau shows us, it’s often the absolute worst thing you can do.

There are “women’s spaces,” because women fear men. There are whites-only suburbs, because white people fear black and Hispanic people. There are people who avoid contact with anyone who isn’t LGBT, because they fear straight people.

Then there are the numerous posts on Tumblr about “cis” people, as if our danger comes entirely from without. Posts about what trans men do to trans women, as if trans women didn’t do the exact same things to other trans women.

If you’re feeling backed in a corner and assailed from all sides, then go ahead and make whatever generalizations you think will protect you. But if you’re not, if you’ve got at least some breathing room, I encourage you to take a deep breath and look around. Because the truth is that safety does not lie with “us.” No matter how you define “us.”

There are trans women who rape. Trans women who kill. Trans women who inject each other with silicon. Trans women who play shitty coercive games. Trans women who keep other trans women from getting the help we need.

Non-trans women? Yeah, some of them rape and murder and exclude other women. Gay men? Lesbians? Yeah. White people? Hell yeah. Rich people? You bet.

We are not safe around us. Is anyone safe, then? Well, nobody’s completely safe, but some people are generally okay. How do we find them? Well, that’s tricky. The best way is to observe them, from a distance at first and then gradually closer if they go for a while without doing anything dangerous.

In other words, the best way that anyone’s ever found to determine whether someone’s safe: let them earn your trust. Despite what we’d like to believe, there are no shortcuts.

The big tent and the Day of Remembrance

In my family, when we celebrate Passover we often have non-Jewish friends join us for dinner. Enjoying their company in an overtly Jewish context helps to defuse potential prejudice, and the specific activity of the night, the retelling of the story of slavery in Egypt and our exodus from it, gives them the opportunity to condemn the slavery and in turn reaffirm their tolerance for us and our different practices.

I should point out here that I’m actually not that different from our guests, being half-Scottish and pretty well assimilated. Like most American Jews, I don’t do much outside of Passover and Hanukah. My Jewishness is much more a matter of cultural heritage than religious belief. I checked online and this inviting non-Jews is apparently a relatively new tradition: there are some people who believe that non-Jews should never participate in a Seder, because it involves sacrificial lamb meat. The rabbinical consensus seems to be that since the Romans destroyed the Temple there’s been no such thing as true sacrificial lamb, and Paschal lamb is just a tasty symbol.

The reason I’m telling you about our tradition of sharing Passover is to note that we do not challenge the separate identities of our non-Jewish friends. We do not ask them to believe in our god or pray to him. We do not ask them to believe the plagues and miracles. We don’t give them a hard time if they fail to use the proper forms of addressing our god, including capitalization.

We simply ask our friends to accept the historical aspects of the story, and to reassure us that they do not approve of enslaving minority populations. We give them the opportunity to reaffirm their acceptance of us as friends and neighbors, deserving of respect and equal treatment.

I propose that we as trans people do the same with the annual Transgender Day of Remembrance. This is a day (November 20), when we talk about those of us who have been killed, for being trans and presenting as women, and often for being poor at the same time, for not being white, for being immigrants, for loving men and having sex with men.

We trans people are diverse, but we have a lot in common with each other and with lesbians, gay men and bisexuals. Among our family, friends, spouses and lovers, there are many people who share goals with us. Those are the people we want to have by our sides when we are fighting for our goals, celebrating our lives, or supporting each other. Like most trans people I know, there are times when I want to be treated like my target gender (a woman), with the appropriate pronouns and facilities. These are the people who are most likely to treat me this way.

The problem is that a lot of trans people treat alliances like they’re black and white. You’re with us or you’re against us. You believe in essentialism and determinism, and you support our entire agenda, or you’re worthless. I understand why people use these ideological tests to screen allies: someone who doesn’t believe that we’re even provisionally women (or men) is likely to bargain away some of our rights. You don’t want to depend on people who don’t really share your goals.

The key is that alliances are never permanent, and if you act like they are it’ll get you into all kinds of trouble. An alliance is not absolute trust, it’s just a recognition of shared goals. When you’re dealing with goals that aren’t shared, the alliance is meaningless.

As I wrote before, there is a large number of people who believe that we shouldn’t be killed for being trans. Not killing us is an idea with broad appeal. A lot of those people will not be on board with free surgery on demand, or birth certificate changes, bathroom rights or even using our preferred pronouns. But they are on board with not killing trans people. If we don’t let them show it, that’s our loss.

We should follow Incohate Erica’s principle of nihil de nobis sine nobis: feminine spectrum trans people who are poor, nonwhite, immigrants and sex workers should be at the center of any Day of Remembrance activities. They, not me, not other bloggers and authors, and not the leaders of mainstream service and advocacy organizations, are the ones most at risk, and they should be doing most of the talking. And their loved ones, who also suffer greatly, should share center stage.

We trans people who are not most at risk should participate too, out of solidarity and because every once in a while one of us gets killed too. Our dependable allies should be there too. But on this day, and on this day most of all, we should reach out beyond our normal alliances and build new alliances around the shared principle of not killing us.

This year Queens Pride House will be observing the Day of Remembrance a day late, on November 21. I will attend, and I have made the case to other members of the support group that we should reach out beyond our normal comfort zone to people who are on board with not killing us, but maybe not much else. I hope you will consider doing the same. If you’re not trans, check with your local Day of Remembrance organizers to see if you’d be welcome. And consider writing a blog post or an editorial that will reach people who might not normally think about this issue, making it clear that you don’t think anyone should be killing us. They need to hear that.

Come jump on the “Don’t kill trans people” bandwagon!

The killing of Islan Nettles in July followed an all-too-typical pattern: a man classified her as a woman, found her attractive and flirted with her. He then reclassified her as “a man,” fought her and killed her. In response to this terrifying event, I’ve told you about two alternative visions for this type of scenario. In Janet Mock’s vision, everyone accepts all male to female trans people as women, that status as is never questioned, and the man never feels any desire to attack her. In Desmond Child’s “Dude (Looks Like a Lady),” people may see trans women as men, but we can still be attractive, and there is no shame for any man who is attracted to a trans person.

Those are definitely the best alternatives, and I pefer the second, but there’s a third one. It isn’t as good, but it’s still better than what happened to Nettles. It’s simple: nobody should die just because they’re trans.
Outcomes2
Here’s my vision: A man sees a trans woman and is attracted to her. He reclassifies her as “a man,” and loses interest in her. Maybe he even feels angry and calls her names. Maybe he even attacks her physically. But he doesn’t kill her.

This is what happened with Lewis Dix, Jr. and B. Scott. Dix called Scott a “faggot,” and Scott was right to give him hell for it. But Dix stopped there. He didn’t attack.

Nettles’ killer could have stopped at name-calling. Or if he didn’t stop there, he could have stopped after a punch or two. Even if he was too drunk or too much of an asshole to stop, his “crew” could have stopped him. They could have said, “It’s okay, we get it, you’re not gay.” they could have said, “This is a human being who doesn’t deserve to die.”

I know, it doesn’t seem like a lot. I wouldn’t be satisfied with “just” being called names and beat up. But it would be better than what currently happens to black and Latina trans people.

The thing is that there’s a large constituency for not killing trans people. A lot of people don’t think we’re women. A lot of people don’t think we’re sexy. Some people think we’re sinners. Some people think that any man who’s attracted to us is gay, and that being gay is bad. These people may disapprove of us in all kinds of ways, but they don’t think we deserve to die.

This constituency for not killing us is largely untapped. On stage at the vigil for Islan Nettles were her family, three trans people, and some lesbians and gay men. Attending were people from the entire trans spectrum, and straight allies, including several politicians. Besides the politicians, what I didn’t hear about were “thought leaders” in broader African-American culture beyond LGBT subcultures: clergy, musicians, actors, athletes.

Who are the people that Nettles’ killer and his “crew” listen to? What if they said, simply, it’s not okay to kill someone because they’re trans? What if we asked them, nicely, to say it now? Not to say “trans women are women,” not to say “it’s okay to be gay,” and not to say anything negative about us either. Just “Don’t kill trans people.”

How many of them would sign a statement? How many would appear in a public service announcement? How many would perform in a music video or television episode?

Don’t get me wrong. I want more than this. I want people to treat me with respect. I want people to treat those who love me with respect. I want to be treated like a woman when I present as a woman. I know you want those things too.

I’m not giving up on what I want, and I’m not telling you to give up on it either. Laverne Cox argues that it’s the same problem, that we need those things to be safe, to be alive. The actions of Robert Wace and Lewis Dix, Jr. show us that that’s not true. People don’t have to endorse our entire program before they can treat us like human beings. They don’t need to agree with us about anything else to speak out against the violence. Let’s get them to do it.

Who will sing the black “Lola”?

This weekend I was talking with a bisexual friend, and I described Janet Mock’s vision of a world where trans women will no longer be killed because everyone will see them as women. My friend didn’t even let me finish before she put her finger on one huge problem with Mock’s idea: it only applies to a small subset of potential victims.

Vince Neil, the dude in question.
Vince Neil, the dude in question.
As we’ve seen, this exact same scenario – boy meets girl, boy decides that girl is “a man,” boy is afraid someone will call him “gay,” boy attacks girl – doesn’t just happen with “trans women.” It happens to people like B. Scott, including when he identified as a gay man, and it happens to people like Bimbo Winehouse, who identifies as a man but wants to be seen as a woman part of the time. It happens to people who aren’t even presenting as a woman. It even happens to guys who aren’t gay at all but simply are mistaken for gay, like Ever Orozco, who was killed earlier this week. It’s pretty clear what the problem is: men lose status if someone thinks they’re gay, they’re afraid of that, so they try to prove they’re not by attacking the person they were attracted to.

What my friend objected to was that Mock’s vision doesn’t do anything about the underlying problem. It doesn’t make it any easier for potential targets who really are gay or straight men and don’t wear women’s clothes. It doesn’t make it easier for people who identify as cross-dressing men. With its relentless hammering on the “trans women are women” dogma, it doesn’t even help people who are viewed and accepted as woman but are reluctant to claim that category for political reasons. It just attempts to draw a charmed circle around people who are willing to claim the status of “woman,” and those who are attracted to them. And of course it doesn’t protect any of us from the violence that is regularly directed at women.

Now I want to look at another vision of a better world. There was a fascinating article by Sue Kerr about the story behind the Aerosmith song “Dude (Looks Like a Lady).” I remember when that song came out. I wasn’t an Aerosmith fan, and i didn’t listen to the lyrics. The refrain sounded like a distress call, the video was boring, and I didn’t want to be a dude that looked like a lady. I wanted to be a lady, or at least a girl. I changed the channel whenever it came on MTV.

The backstory is interesting, though: songwriter Desmond Child told SongFacts about a conversation with Steve Tyler: “He got the idea because they had gone to a bar and had seen a girl at the end of the bar with ginormous blonde rock hair, and the girl turned around and it ended up being Vince Neil from Motley Crue.” Tyler came up with the line, “Dude looks like a lady” and eventually shared it with Child, an out gay man who had been hired by their record label to improve their songwriting. Child liked the line so much he made it the title of the song. Here’s the kicker:

And then Joe (Perry) stepped in and said, “I don’t want to insult the gay community.” I said, “Okay, I’m gay, and I’m not insulted. Let’s write this song.” So I talked them into the whole scenario of a guy that walks into a strip joint and falls in love with the stripper on stage, goes backstage and finds out it’s a guy. But besides that, he’s gonna go with it. He says, “My funky lady, I like it, like it, like it like that.” And so he doesn’t run out of there, he stays.

Note that the narrator is attracted enough to go to bed with her, even though he continues to classify the stripper as a “dude,” and says “Ooh, he was a lady.” I wouldn’t be surprised if Child based it on a friend or acquaintance.

Both the real and fictionalized stories bear some resemblance to the Kinks’ 1970 hit “Lola,” which I heard a lot on the radio. It’s never been my favorite Kinks song, but I did listen to the lyrics. The narrator is ambivalent about how to categorize Lola – there’s the famous line “I’m a man, I’m a man, and so is Lola,” but he uses “she” pronouns throughout.

The backstory to “Lola” is just as interesting. Dave Davies recalled that he was inspired by a party at the home of band manager Robert Wace. “In his apartment, Robert had been dancing with this black woman, and he said, ‘I’m really onto a thing here.’ And it was okay until we left at six in the morning and then I said, ‘Have you seen the stubble?’ He said ‘Yeah,’ but he was too pissed [intoxicated] to care, I think.”

Contrast “Lola” and “Dude Looks Like a Lady” with another song from the eighties, Tone L&#333c’s “Funky Cold Medina.” In the third verse the narrator gives the eponymous aphrodisiac to sexy Sheena, but to his surprise, “Sheena was a man!”

So I threw him out, I don’t fool around with no Oscar Mayer wiener.
You must be sure that your girl is pure for the Funky Cold Medina.
Know what I’m sayin’? Ain’t no playin’ with a man.
This is the eighties, and L&#333c is down with the ladies, no joke.

(As I was putting this post together I came across another post by Andrea James that also mentions “Funky Cold Medina.” James hits on some good points, but I want to go in a slightly different direction.)

“Lola” explores the ambiguity of gender and ends by categorizing Lola as a man, but the final message emphasizes her humanity and the narrator’s affection for her, implicitly concluding that there’s nothing wrong or unmanly with being attracted to a “man,” especially if you’re really plastered. “Dude Looks Like a Lady” echoes the alarm over the stripper’s unexpected dudeness, but ends by affirming her ladyhood and sexiness. In “Funky Cold Medina,” thought, Tone L&#333c responds to Sheena’s manhood with callous rejection (but not violence).

“Lola” and “Funky Cold Medina” both explore the question of what it means to be attracted to a “man.” The narrator of “Lola” is naive and inexperienced, and Lola in fact offers to “make you a man,” by giving him his first sexual experience. Whether or not this happens is left to the listener’s imagination, but the narrator eventually concludes that he can be a man even if Lola is too. Tone L&#333c makes it a point to reassure everyone that he’s “down with the ladies.”

It’s hard not to notice that African Americans are vastly overrepresented in any list of trans people murdered in this country. Correlation is not causation, and it’s important not to discount factors like poverty, discrimination and civic neglect, but I think everyone agrees that American black culture is more intolerant of homosexuality and transgender actions than white culture.

What if a few male black cultural leaders – singers and rappers, but maybe also athletes, politicians and religious leaders – followed the lead of white guys like Dave Davies and Steven Tyler, and black women like Tyra Banks? What if a famous, respected black man spent some of his cultural capital to tell the world that he thinks trans people are sexy, and he’s not afraid of anyone finding out?

I know how this might sound to some people, but I’m not saying “do this because white people do it.” I’m saying give it a try because it might be working for us, just like the Kinks and Aerosmith saw that the music developed by African Americans was more fun and expressive than their own and gave it a try. It’s got more evidence of success than Janet Mock’s magic circle of fiat womanhood.

I think DJ Mister Cee and his boss Ebro Darden have shown enormous courage and humanity, and I think people will respond to that. I’m looking forward to the first black “Lola” to top the charts. The guy who makes that will be gold. After all, Steven Tyler and Dave Davies enjoyed years of success after these songs, and are regarded today as elder statesmen of rock. Tone L&#333c? Well, what’s he done since 1991?