Category Archives: trans
CN Lester’s Trans Like Me, out this summer in the U.S. from Seal Press, adds another strong voice to the growing chorus of trans authors writing about the trans experience from their own, uncompromising perspectives. Written in an accessible style, but heavily backed up by research, this book is not a trans memoir, but it does blend Lester’s own experiences as a non-binary trans person with observations on media, culture, medicine, and the law. Though the book jumps between a number of topics, I found a cohesive theme throughout around the question of who controls the trans narrative—and what they choose to keep or leave out.
Tomorrow Will Be Different, and so will this memoir, written by trans activist Sarah McBride about her experiences since coming out in her senior year of college. I generally avoid trans memoirs, since the genre has become rather predictable and honestly a little depressing. But this book breaks out of that mold—though Sarah doesn’t shy away from discussing her experiences as a trans person, she also doesn’t conform to the genre. Her story is more a tale of coming into politics as a young adult, learning to balance professionalism with the authenticity of identity-based storytelling, and battling cancer as a young couple than it is a traditional trans memoir. She sprinkles in the statistics and legal realities of trans people throughout to educate the casual reader, but it’s really just a story, told by a bold and heartfelt young woman who’s been through way more than anyone should have to before reaching the age of 30.
Tear-jerker warning: a lot of what Sarah writes about in this book is the ultimately tragic love story of her and her late husband, Andy, another trans activist who died of cancer a few years ago. I don’t know if folks who didn’t know Andy will do quite as much crying in airports as I did while reading this, but as a friend and former coworker of Andy’s, I was terribly struck by how the intimate version of the last couple of years of his life written by his wife aligned with my own experience of Andy as a person. Bright, fiercely dedicated, and hillarious, Andy was a hard worker whose efforts were instrumental in getting trans health care protections put into law, but he was also just an awesome person and I wish I’d been closer with him in his life. It was a little surreal to read about what was happening in Andy and Sarah’s private life as I was making bad oral sex jokes with them on Facebook and offering to teach Andy to sign if his tongue cancer made speech difficult. Even those who didn’t know Andy, I think, will have a hard time not getting emotional when they learn through Sarah what a sweet, romantic nerd he was, and how dedicated he was to improving trans peoples’ lives.
I don’t really know Sarah personally, but I feel like I do after reading this book. Some of her experiences ring so true for me, as she goes from terror around coming out to pleasant surprise at the positive reactions to political activism and ultimately pride in herself as a transgender person. I am so, so happy to read about kids like Lula who ask a question like “What’s your favorite part of being transgender?” as if there’s nothing unusual about it. I admit that I’ve sometimes been fiercely jealous of trans kids, but I think part of it is that, like Sarah, I look at them and see the authentic kid I could’ve been, if I were born just a little bit later. I’m happy that I’ve been even a tiny part of the national trans movement that has made their experiences possible.
And it’s the feeling of community of that movement that I think Sarah best brings to light in her account. DC can feel like a bubble sometimes, but the trans and queer movements really can be like a big family at times. Behind the big trans policy announcements of the last few years, there are spectacular people working tirelessly even as they go through their own struggles of bullying and bad breakups and figuring out family life. Even though I don’t currently work in the movement, I feel that I have a home there, and I’m happy to know that such awesome people are working to protect my rights even in terrifying political times. I’m also so happy to read a white trans activist like Sarah giving full credit to the trans folks of color who are much more marginalized and usually can’t get a book deal or the kind of spotlight that she has. She’s clear that while her own story is valuable as a tool for activism, she stands on the shoulders of giants whose names most of us will never know, and I can feel her commitment through her words to changing that world from a position of relative privilege.
I wish I didn’t have to be writing this in 2017, but there’s still disagreement, even among those who vocally support trans people, around whether trans surgeries are really medically necessary. To me, this is an obvious “yes,” but perhaps it’s harder for those who don’t experience dysphoria to understand, so let’s try an analogy.
It’s been several years since I spoke openly about my birth assignment. I stopped doing it, initially, because it’s none of your g-d business. It also confuses a lot of cis people not to have a birth assignment to work with. They need to know “which way” you’re trans, to fit you into at least a birth assignment binary, and that feels shitty to me. This not only doesn’t serve non-binary folks like me, but it also is an imposition of a colonial white binary gender system on lots of people whose gender never was assigned to that system. It erases gender diversity on all sorts of axes. And I get really uncomfortable when even trans people start talking about ourselves more along “AFAB/AMAB” lines than in terms of our actual genders.
But despite that, there is some relevance to birth assignment, particularly when we’re talking about transmisogyny. When I stopped talking about my birth assignment, I enjoyed that not everyone could guess it correctly, particularly those who hadn’t met me in person. It made it more difficult to lump me into a preconceived trans pile. My hope, I think, was that in the confusion someone might trip, fall, and land on my actual gender, but of course that rarely happens. Most people couldn’t pick my gender out of a lineup, because I don’t fit a lot of scripts. I don’t present in a way that consistently announces my femmeness, nor do I spend much time hanging around with assumed-female-at-birth white genderqueers. I don’t identify as transmasculine or androgynous. But I do benefit from the privilege of being assumed female both at birth and in most of my life. I don’t experience transmisogyny or the potential violence that my assumed-male peers do.
Is there such a thing as legible identity privilege?
This thought was tumbling around a lot in my mind for a while, particularly in discussions of what it means to be femme and presumed as female, but also when cis folks would ask me about assuming pronouns when you’re “pretty sure you know” someone’s gender versus when it’s unclear.
As a starter, I’ll say that if there is a legible identity privilege, it’s certainly not anything like as strong as other privileges such as being white. As a white non-binary person, I am less vulnerable to violence and harassment than any black or brown person, full stop. I explicitly reject any arguments that white non-binary people make around “binarism” putting them in a riskier place than a black trans woman, for example. See b. binaohan for why that’s fucked up.
But considering this as its own possible thing, I have a few thoughts. One is that, like “passing privilege,” this has a lot to do with specific cultural context and how other people perceive you. The two are also related. A trans man who is presumed to be a cis man might experience “passing privilege” alongside legible identity privilege, because he “passes” for a cis man and also “man” is a legible identity. Conversely, a trans woman who doesn’t conform to particular beauty standards and expectations might not “pass” for a cis woman, but could have a legible identity in cultural context–it is clear to most people around her that she intends to be read as a woman, and she is a woman.
Here’s my current theory of how the medical establishment thinks about gender identity and transition:
- Gender is pretty abstract. It’s more of a decision to group oneself in a certain way than a concrete provable fact. This is a problem.
- We can’t just let anyone who wants to medically transition. How would we know who “qualifies” if we just let anyone who believes themselves to be male or female access medical care for that gender? Transition would be rampant! (Or something.)
- Since we need a requirement to access medical care, masculinity or femininity might as well be the requirement. It’s easiest to quantify your gender in medical terms if you present as masculine or feminine. Femme trans boys and butch trans girls are just confusing.
- Don’t even get us started on those genderqueers–especially those who aren’t interested in a more androgynous. What do they even want? What kind of dysphoria could they possibly be experiencing? There is very little to be sympathetic to, here.
Now I know there are empathetic medical professionals, professionals who understand the difference between identity and expression, and those who don’t think of trans people as requiring a certain level of tragedy and pity to medically transition. But sometimes, it feels like the profession is stacked against us.
Fact: this blogging thing never does get easier.
I keep hoping that consistent posting will one day become natural, that I’ll be able to write and schedule posts every weekend, but that is just not a thing. I’m being honest with myself about emotional and mental labor, and the fact that this world we live in doesn’t give us enough time to heal and just be present outside of our paid working hours. I’m also realizing that as an ADD adult, my attention span will never stick with a particular project for more than a month or two, and that’s okay.
This blog isn’t going anywhere, though. I have a post scheduled for this coming week, in fact, about a really fantastic book I want you to read. I’m just acknowledging that I’ll probably never follow the best practices of posting regularly and self-promoting, that there will be spurts of activity and then months-long gaps as there have always been. But I’ve also been blogging for more than ten years in some form, so I think that’s likely to stay.
There’s another fact in here, which is that I’m not totally comfortable being “a voice” in activist spaces when we don’t as a community acknowledge the labor of people of color who are doing most of the work here. I recently wrestled with the question of whether to write a book about non-binary gender and ultimately decided that I am not the person to write that book right now–because I don’t have the time and energy to do a full, comprehensive survey of non-binary people, focused on the voices of people of color, and the world just doesn’t need a white centered 101 to non-binary identity. I also think that if I do write that book in the future, I likely can’t in good conscience do it without a co-author of color. Since I don’t have collaboration/social spoons right now, I’m instead stepping back. If you’re hungry for queer voices, I recommend you start with checking out black girl dangerous and proceed from there.
As this post goes live, I’ll be sharing a talk at AlterConf DC called “5 Simple Steps for Trans-Inclusive Data.” This talk originally crept into my brain as an idea for a very long blog post, and as I was preparing to cut that idea down to twenty minutes with Q&A time, I decided to also execute the original plan, since I can’t possibly say everything I want to about how to make data more trans-inclusive in fifteen minutes.
The post that follows is a detailed guide of specific steps you can take to make whatever data you work with more trans-inclusive, building off of the talk content. Skim through the list below and use any tips that you find applicable! I’m drawing from my experience working with member and donor data at national non-profit organizations, but you can apply this advice to any kind of human-centered data you collect including data on customers, employees, patients, survey respondents, and app users. My starting point here is that trans people can show up in any data set, and so it’s important to address the needs we have around privacy, comfort, and affirmation not as a special population but as a regular part of data strategy. Rather than othering trans people, consider our experiences an opportunity to improve your data collection, storage, and analysis practices for everyone!
If you’d like to hear more after reading the tips below, check out my speaking page for more information. I’m hoping to do more “dataqueer” talks and workshops in the future.
I finally got my iPhone to successfully play Invisibilia, a much-lauded new podcast from the producers of This American Life. Overall, I really like the show, but I was disappointed and even a bit disturbed by the story in “The Power of Categories” focusing on Paige, a bi-gender person. It’s hard to put a finger on exactly why I feel this way. The hosts cover Paige’s story sympathetically, and seem to have done their research. It’s for the most part a scientific take on the topic. But maybe that’s why, as a genderfluid, genderqueer, non-binary person who can’t quite even pick one word to describe my gender, it rankled me.