How not to stop the transrace/transgender comparison

Meredith Talusan in the Guardian explains why Rachel Dolezal’s identification as black should not be compared to Caitlin Jenner’s gender identity: “the fundamental difference between Dolezal’s actions and trans people’s is that her decision to identify as black was an active choice, whereas transgender people’s decision to transition is almost always involuntary.” Dolezal is getting trashed for her assertion of blackness, while, with the exception of Elinor Burkett in the Times, Jenner is only getting trashed for what some take to be her excessive femininity–most seem accepting of her decision to live openly as a woman. Talusan, like some other activists, are trying very hard to ensure that all the opinion about Dolezal doesn’t contaminate Jenner’s media moment.  But facile explanations like Talusan’s are doing more much harm than good. Case in point–Adolph Reed rightly makes mincemeat of her argument and then concludes: “the transrace/transgender comparison makes clear the conceptual emptiness of the essentializing discourses, and the opportunist politics, that undergird identitarian ideologies.” It’s too bad that Reed, such a brilliant thinker, assumes trans politics and claims to identity are always/only based the most simple minded versions of trans essentialism. But he’s getting that not just from Burkett, but from representatives of the trans community like Talusan. Newsflash–social theory in general and trans theory in particular didn’t end in 1980. We can do better than serve up these sad little cliches from the 1970s like the one that says that natural characteristics are involuntary, cultural ones a matter of choice.  But this tendency has (at least) two progenitors–the medical model of transsexuality and second wave feminism.

Disappearing women

In her most recent column, “Who Has Abortions?,” Katha Pollitt  says, “We can, and should, support trans men and other gender-non-conforming people without erasing women from the fight for reproductive rights.”  I agree.  I’ve got a draft of quite a few fragments and links for a long blog post on feminism and trans politics–on reproductive rights, on women’s colleges, on how TERFS have derailed real conversations about feminism in trans communities, and on the outsized role those on the trans-masculine side of the gender spectrum play in setting out the official gender line for trans politics. I’ve not had the time to pull it all together, so instead, I’m just posting bits and pieces.  Pollitt’s column today prodded me into posting the first bit.

But yes, I think Pollitt is right on this one.  Here’s part of her explanation:

The real damage of abolishing “women” in abortion contexts, though, is to our political analysis. What happens to Dr. Tiller’s motto, “Trust Women”? There was a whole feminist philosophy expressed in those two words: women are competent moral actors and they, not men, clergy or the state, are the experts on their own lives, and should be the ones to decide how to shape them. It is because abortion gives power specifically to women that it was criminalized. How did Selina Meyer put it on Veep? If men got pregnant, you could get an abortion at an ATM. Restricting abortion is all about keeping women under the male thumb: controlling women’s sexual and reproductive capacities is what patriarchy is all about. Indeed, that women should decide for themselves is controversial even now. Although the Supreme Court ruled decades ago that men were not entitled to be notified if their wife was planning to end a pregnancy, some polls show large majorities of Americans believe husbands have a right to know. Once you start talking about “people,” not “women,” you lose what abortion means historically, symbolically and socially.

I think it’s entirely possible to point out that it’s not just women who become pregnant and still keep in focus the bare political fact that abortion rights and access are gender issues, that it’s almost only women who get pregnant and who need abortions, and that abortion rights and access are under assault all over the US precisely because it’s primarily a “women’s issue.” Obviously abortion access shouldn’t be restricted by gender identity and providers should clearly communicate this in the messaging. Trans men need to know they can access to these services.

That said, taking “women” out of abortion rights rhetoric,  putting “vagina” on the list of unacceptable words, has the faint reek of misogyny.  Pollitt doesn’t call it by that name, but she writes:

But a feminism that can’t say “women”—or “vagina” or “sisterhood” or even the cutesy “ladyparts”— is cutting the ground from under itself. It’s not just about slogans like “the War on Women“ or “Stand with Texas Women, “ important as they are and challenging as it would be to replace them with gender-neutral language that carried the same emotional charge. How do you even talk about women’s being underrepresented politically, or earning less than men, or being victims of rape and domestic violence? In an era where politics is all about identity, as a tool for organizing and claiming public space, are women about to lose theirs?

It’s not just reproductive rights language that is fast being “de-gendered.” Women’s colleges are also being asked to get rid of that exclusionary category.  Many of us have long argued that women’s colleges need to admit trans women, regardless of the gender listed on their identity documents. And students who were admitted to women’s colleges as women and whose gender identity shifts during their college years need to be allowed to stay, and supported in their transition. But some of the discussions about changing who counts as a woman for college admission have morphed into an argument that everyone but cisgender men should be eligible to apply. Monica Potts, at the New Republic, says this is simply misogyny.

Feminist blogger and prison abolitionist Emma Caterine sees it differently. As she argues in a piece bluntly titled, “Trans Women are Not Agents of the Patriarchy”:

One of Potts’ main concerns is the push on women’s campuses to eradicate words like “sisterhood” from use. But this isn’t an example of trans activism, as Potts puts it, being “indistinguishable from old-school misogyny”; that’s just old-school misogyny disguised as trans activism. Trans activism fights to make a world that is better for trans people, and while trans men are an important part of that, the fight to make a place for themselves at women’s colleges has nothing to do with them being trans and everything to do with them being entitled men.

Trans women are on the precipice of being recognized as women at women’s-only institutions.  I don’t think it’s a coincidence that now is also the moment when those institutions are being asked to retreat from their historic mission of educating women.   It’s certainly not the intention of the activists calling for the all-but cis men rule, but the effect is to suggest that once trans women gain entrance, all bets are off, everything is up for grabs. The unstated but inescapable implication of all this–that trans women aren’t women.  That’s trans-misogyny.

What’s the wedge issue?

Last month I was talking with the amazing Amaya Perez-Brumer and other graduate students at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health. Someone asked me, “If same-sex marriage is the wedge issue for the gay rights movement, what’s the most divisive issue in transgender politics?”  A good question, and certainly there are real divisions about what should be prioritized, just as there has been in the LGB rights movement.

There are a number of  priorities, but what should top the list? If we want to make trans lives better, where should our resources be directed? In fact, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the National Center for Transgender Equality  asked that question on page 178 of their enormous 2011 survey project, “Injustice at Every Turn.” The policy areas most frequently by the survey’s 6450 respondents were:

Protecting transgender/gender non-conforming people from discrimination in hiring and at work: 70%

Getting transgender-related health care covered by insurance: 64%

Passing laws that address hate crimes against transgender/gender non-conforming people: 47%

Access to transgender-sensitive health care: 43%

Better policies on gender and identity documents and other records: 40%

Protecting transgender/gender non-conforming people from discrimination in housing: 26%

The right to equal recognition of marriages involving transgender partners: 25%

Passing anti-bullying laws that make schools safer: 21%

Transgender/gender non-conforming prisoners’ rights: 15%

The right of transgender/gender non-conforming people to parent, including adoption: 14%

HIV prevention, education and treatment:11%

Allowing transgender/gender non-conforming people to serve in the military: 7%

Immigration policy reform (such as asylum or partner recognition): 5%

This list gives some sense of the popularity of particular policy areas.  But the numbers fail to reveal a wedge issue, just significantly less interest in immigration, military service, parenting rights, incarceration. bullying. Even these least popular issues represent very different political positions–for example, prisoners’ rights versus the right to serve in the military.

I’m still thinking this through, but my first stab at an answer to this question was that there really isn’t a wedge issue. It’s not trans employment discrimination versus the plight of trans HIV positive people, prisoners, parents or immigrants.   The wedge is transgender itself. In that sense, it’s sort of an inverse wedge, if there can be such a thing.  So really not a wedge, but a wrong cramming together of people whose only commonality is that one way or another their gender didn’t turn out as expected, based on the sex they were assigned at birth. That “trans” or “transgender” purports to describe people who are so very  differently situated in relation to their vulnerability to violence, to incarceration, to illness, to homelessness seems like one of the more miraculous feats of identity politics.

More on this to come as I work these ideas out in the chapter I’m writing on incarceration, trans economicus and the freeze frame policy in the book.

CFP: Archives and Archiving, a special issue of TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly

Delighted to be posting the latest CFP for TSQ, a special issued edited by Aaron Devor and K.J. Rawson.

This issue of TSQ will investigate practical and theoretical dimensions of archiving transgender phenomena and will ask what constitutes “trans* archives” or “trans* archival practices.”

While transgender-related experiences have long been captured by archives to some extent, the last few decades have witnessed an increased commitment to collecting trans* materials. Consequently, sizable trans* collections can now be found in a range of institutional contexts including grassroots archives, nonprofit organizations, and university-based collections.

Given this trend, myriad practical considerations that trans* materials present for archiving warrant further attention. What should or should not be included in trans* archives? What are the best practices for acquiring, processing, preserving, and making transgender materials accessible? Given practical limitations of space and money, how do we decide what to prioritize? And who decides? What are the implications for history when archivists make such decisions? How should archives negotiate ethical concerns specific to trans* archives? What relationship—if any—do trans* materials have to broader LGBTQ collections? What cataloguing tools are available and how do they obscure, distort, or make meaning of the lived experiences of trans* people? What are the benefits and limitations of using “transgender” or “trans*” as umbrella terms in an archival context? How are archivists and archival practices changed by the challenges of dealing with trans* materials? What role can digital technologies play in collecting and accessing trans* materials, particularly born-digital materials?

These practical considerations would be incomplete without a closely related theoretical exploration of trans* archiving. How, for example, are bodies representable (or unrepresentable) through archival documents? How can embodiment itself be considered an archive of memory and feeling, a sedimentation of social practices, a living medium for the transmission of cultural forms? What power do archives have in shaping popular understandings of transgender phenomena? How are researchers affected by their encounters with archival materials? How do archives steer researchers in particular ways with metadata, organizational systems, and finding aids? Can archives help construct community and personal identity? Does digitization inherently change trans* historical artifacts?

We welcome submissions of full-length academic articles on a wide range of topics related to trans* archives and archiving. Such topics might include:

• practical and philosophical considerations for developing transgender collections independently or within broader archives
• how transgender archival materials intersect with and depart from LGBQ archival materials
• critical reflections on working in trans* archives and/or with trans* archival materials
• sex, desire, and pornographic collections
• considerations of the body within and as represented by archives
• understandings of embodiment itself as an archive of affects, memory, practices, and social forms
• capturing lived experiences with archival artifacts and ephemera
• recontextualizing historical materials within the context of the archive
• affective encounters
• ethics of historical representation
• archival temporality and considerations of time and timeliness
• the role of archivists
• institutionality of government, state, academic, non-profit, and grassroots collections
• processing and interpreting trans*-related materials
• hidden collections
• archival language practices, cataloguing, and classification
• digital technologies within archives, digital archiving, and archiving born-digital materials
• intersectional identities
• access and accessibility
• archival activism

We will also consider for publication shorter essays, opinion pieces, first-person accounts, practical advice, how-to guides, or interesting archival documents. We encourage contributions from a wide range of authors including academics, independent researchers, archivists, and activists.

Please send a complete manuscript by October 15, 2014 to tsqjournal@gmail.com along with a brief bio including name and any institutional affiliation. The expected length for scholarly articles is 5000 to 7000 words, and 1000 to 2000 words for shorter works. All manuscripts should be prepared for anonymous peer review. For articles engaging in scholarly citation, please use the Chicago author-date citation style. Any questions should be addressed by e-mail to both guest editors for the issue: Aaron Devor (ahdevor@uvic.ca) and K.J. Rawson (kjrawson@holycross.edu). We plan to respond to submissions by early January, 2015. Final revisions will be due by March 1, 2015.

TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly is co-edited by Paisley Currah and Susan Stryker, and published by Duke University Press, with editorial offices at the University of Arizona’s Institute for LGBT Studies. TSQ aims to be the journal of record for the interdisciplinary field of transgender studies and to promote the widest possible range of perspectives on transgender phenomena broadly defined. Every issue of TSQ is a specially themed issue that also contains regularly recurring features such as reviews, interviews, and opinion pieces. To learn more about the journal and see calls for papers for other issues, visit http://lgbt.arizona.edu/tsq-main. For information about subscriptions, visit http://www.dukeupress.edu/Catalog/ViewProduct.php?productid=45648

Coal, Sex, and Democracy

Now that the semester is over, I’m beginning to catch up on bits and pieces of trans news that I’d marked for a closer look when I had time. One item that had caught my eye was a blog post from Jacobin about the guidelines issued in April by the Department of Education suggesting that transgender students are among the groups that Title IX protects from sexual violence. In the post, “An Unlikely Transgender Rights Vanguard,” Kate Redburn writes,

As welcome, and indeed necessary, as queer legal protections are, we should be cautious about endorsing the discretionary interpretation of law by agencies. There’s nothing to say that they couldn’t just as easily have had opposite findings in these cases, thus perpetuating legal discrimination without any input from Congress, the President, or the courts. As the court wrote above, it’s a subversion of the democratic system.

….In fact, Tuesday’s DOE announcement isn’t even the first time in the past few years that an agency has interpreted federal law to protect trans* and queer people without the cover of court precedent: A series of decisions at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission found that Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act protects against gender identity-based and gender presentation-based discrimination.

….When the Employment Non-Discrimination Act has failed to pass for nearly a decade, these advances feel like a rare step forward in the fight against transphobia. They also raise troubling questions about administrative discretion and authority.

I don’t agree with Redburn’s assessment (nor, by the way, do I agree that queer includes trans, but that’s a discussion for another day). Regulations and especially administrative guidance documents like this interpretation of Title IX are part of the political process, albeit one step removed, and they change back and forth as administrations change. And to me, it’s reasonable to interpret the language of Title IX, passed in 1972 (“No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance”) to include students whose gender identity or gender expression is not traditionally associated with their birth sex–i.e. transgender students.

But the DOE interpretation might not seem reasonable to everyone, and the larger argument that important political matters ought to be decided in the legislative arena has merit. Bringing those who haven’t made up their mind into the conversation can provide a better foundation in the long run.  Gayle Trotter, a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum, agrees with Redburn on this. In a discussion about the Title IX announcement,  she pointed out that people have difficulty accepting “the fact that our society has changed and our culture has changed….and part of it is because these edicts come down that are not part of the political process, that have not been debated, and people feel like they are left out of the debate.”

There is another area where the Obama administration has relied  on regulations, rules and guidance documents rather than legislation: climate change.  Just like LGBT friendly legislation, bills on climate change have gotten nowhere in the Republican led House. So just this week, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed regulations that would interpret the meaning of “air pollution” in the 1970 Clean Air Act to include greenhouse gasses. The resulting policy changes would be far-reaching, and I’m all for them.

But I’m waiting for Jacobin to publish a post condemning these new clean air regulations as subversions of the democratic process. If put in place, they would have a much greater economic effect than a letter to schools pointing out that if they fail to protect trans kids from being bullied or beat up at school, they might be violating Title IX.  If the democratic process only occurs in the legislative arena (I don’t necessarily agree), when is democratic deliberation required and when is it not?  Where’s the consistency?

 

ENDA Games update

My,  how times of changed. Yesterday, 64 Senators voted to pass the ENDA. Utah’s senior senator, Orrin Hatch, was among the ten Republicans who joined 52 Democrats and independents to vote in favor of the bill. In 1988, Senator Hatch had referred to the Democratic Party as “the party of homosexuals, the party of abortion.” And in 1999, Hatch managed to insert both feet in his mouth with this remark: “People of color can’t do anything about their color. But I do believe gay people have a choice to live within the legal rules or not. It’s up to them, they do have a choice, where an African-American has no choice with regard to the color of their skin.” The Times reports today that Senator changed his mind on ENDA at the behest of the Mormon Church.

ENDA Games

As the US Senate gears up for a vote on the Employment Non-Discrimination Act today–which would prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity in the workplace–the New York Times described Senators’ nervousness about the bill:

One senator recalled having to explain to a colleague that the legislation would not require insurance companies to pay for sex-change operations. Another spoke of phone calls from constituents who were convinced that their children could be taught in school by men wearing dresses. And conservative groups like the Family Research Council are warning their supporters that the bill would force Christian bookstores to hire drag performers.

The largest group of beneficiaries of the bill would be gay, lesbian, and bisexual people who face discrimination in the workplace. While the percentage of the population who could be labelled “transgender” is classified information–those who know are sworn to secrecy, I hear–I do know that the percentage of GLB people dwarfs it. Still, all of the comments above focus on gender.

It was a thirty year project for activists to convince the Human Rights Campaign and ENDA’s legislative sponsors to keep gender identity in ENDA.  For too long, the common sense wisdom was that fears like those expressed above would “kill the bill” and that, when push came to shove, it would be necessary to jettison gender identity to save sexual orientation. That’s why in the past at key legislative moments a gay realpolitik prevailed, one that pitted the Human Rights Campaign against transgender communities and allies. At one point in 2007, over 300 organizations signed a letter to press Congress (and effectively HRC) to not advance legislation that left out transgender people.  That didn’t stop Representative Barney Frank from dropping gender identity from the bill that year. “Unfortunately, in 2007 we still had the ‘ick’ factor when people were confronted with transgender,” Frank told the Times yesterday. But in this legislative session it seems that HRC and ENDA’s supporters in Congress are serious about keeping gender identity* in the bill.

Of course, right now it’s all moot–while ENDA is about to pass in Senate today, it’s not expected to move at all in the dysfunctional House this session. But getting a gender identity inclusive bill through the Senate is truly a big deal.

I was motivated to write this post because reading the Times story I couldn’t help but notice how the fears of Barney Frank and earlier iterations of HRC were borne out by the comments from legislators. And, after a little poking around online, I was also struck by how easily it is to quell those fears. Staffers at the Human Rights Campaign are working round-the-clock to counter the “misinformation” circulating among Senators and some of their constituents.  On HRC’s  FAQ sheet, we learn that:

Nothing in ENDA prevents an employer from maintaining otherwise-lawful gender-based dress and appearance standards, so long as an employee is allowed to follow the standards consistent with his or her gender identity. Of course, requiring men and women to conform strictly to stereotypical views of male and female roles may violate Title VII as a form of sex discrimination. It would not, however, be a violation of ENDA.

Employers allow employees to use the restroom and other facilities segregated by sex that are consistent with the way an employee presents in the workplace. If a transgender employee is transitioning genders on the job, that employee and the employer work together to ensure that the employee has access to the appropriate facilities.

In other words, ENDA would not protect “cross-dressing” in the office. If it  ever passes in its current form, the bill would not mandate particulars of insurance coverage, like “sex change surgery.”  And while those “transitioning genders” would get to use some sort of restroom–everyone poops, according to Taro Gomi (actually, I guess there are exceptions because HRC explains that “most everyone” uses the restroom during their workday)–that restroom might not be the men’s room, or the women’s room, but another facility. The bill text doesn’t specify when “transition” is over. If the bill were to become law, that would be decided later in regulations promulgated by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Passing ENDA in the Senate is a real victory, a momentous step forward.  Perhaps if (or when?) voters toss out the louts in the House who almost had the US default on its debt, they’ll be replaced by representatives who also happen to be more favorable to LGBT rights.

But it’s something of a loss as well. It’s a loss that the fears of legislators about different kinds of gender crossings could be so easily accommodated in the qualifications, caveats, and rules yet to be written. And that conformity doesn’t reflect gender conformity so much as the logics of the workplace: to use norms or rules constrict expression of any kind (headscarves, turbans, wrongly-gendered clothes), to mark difference whenever possible  (manager vs. workers, men vs. women vs. “transgender” bathrooms), and to not pay for stuff whenever possible (retirement benefits, health care of any kind, “sex change surgery.”)

________________________________________________

*Gender identity is defined in ENDA as “the gender-related identity, appearance, or mannerisms or other gender-related characteristics of an individual, with or without regard to the individual’s designated sex at birth”

Paisley Currah

Author of the forthcoming United States of Sex

a paper bird

Un pajaro de papel en el pecho / Dice que el tiempo de los besos no ha llegado

Gender Strangers

Theory and Practice for Queer Life.

Unlawful Entries

Author of the forthcoming United States of Sex

Corey Robin

Author of The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin

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