Tag Archives: transgender

A Very Good Place to Start: On Teaching for Respect

“Excuse me, ma’am?” I turned to see a woman approaching me as I sat working at Rao’s coffee shop. “Yes?” I said. “Can you please give me directions to (we’ll say it was La Veracruzana)?” I did, and she thanked me, acknowledged my “You’re welcome,” and turned and left. Clearly, she was either open or oblivious to the contrast between whatever it was about my appearance (hair? clothing? something else?) that had caused her to “ma’am” me and my baritone voice. Myself, at this point in my life, I respond naturally to either “ma’am” or “sir,” reasoning that in either case, someone is addressing me respectfully.

Respect is the key word here. It’s what underlies most successful human interactions, and what is most often missing when dysfunction takes over. It’s a firm underlying principle in each of my classes. I expect respect not only for each other (which they almost invariably show anyway) but also for fictional characters, reasoning that if we are generally talking about them as if they were real, we might as well carry it to the logical extreme.

Of course, respect for people who are transgender or otherwise gender transgressive is not an automatic given in this world. Indeed, as of 2012, transgender people were 28% more likely than cisgender people to experience physical attacks, and the situation was even more dire for trans women of colour, who make up a wildly disproportionate and depressing 87% of the cases where those attacks escalate to murder. (Bolles) Many white people who are members of or allied with the transgender community recognize and deplore this fact.

International Transgender Day of Remembrance takes place on Nov. 20 and once again, I attended the Northampton service. In welcoming us, Yohah Ralph acknowledged the difficulty and weight of the accumulated tragedy of over 220 transgender people having been killed this year, some of whom were never identified, some of whose families never knew or cared. He asked that, to keep the atmosphere from weighing us down too much, each participant in the service speak about their dream for the future. Most said their dream was for everyone, regardless of gender, to be able to live freely and without fear as their authentic selves.

That shouldn’t be asking too much.

The Stonewall Center of the University of Massachusetts was a co-sponsoring organization of this year’s TDOR, and the Director, Genny Beemyn, said that their own dream was that we wouldn’t be gathering together next year. They acknowledged that was virtually certain not to be, nor was it likely to be for many decades to come.

You may have picked up on the use of the pronoun “they,” and that is indeed Genny’s preferred pronoun. In Humanities 7 class one day, the question of whether “they” could be singular came up. Some students were firmly advocating that it had to be plural, while one other was quietly if hesitantly demurring. Thinking that she might possibly know a trans person (here in the Valley, the odds are definitely higher than in many parts of the country) who preferred the pronoun “they,” I stepped in to support her, stating that while “they” had traditionally been plural (this to acknowledge the good intentions of students arguing that point), people of different genders were in fact increasingly choosing to use it as a singular pronoun. She smiled back at me as several other students paused to give me a curious look. I nodded to affirm my statement, everyone relaxed, and we all moved on.

If we are truly to work toward a world that embraces people of all genders, it will be built through the gradual accumulation of respectful calls for respect, respectfully received. Hopefully, my students will help lead the way as they grow into adulthood and find their place in the world. It would not surprise me for a second if they do.

After all, living life as your authentic self is at the core of our mission, and respect is at the heart of each element of our honor code.

That is a very good place to start.

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Filed under Gender, In the Classroom, The Faculty Perspective, Uncategorized

Trans 101.5

Transgender Awareness Month comes right on the heels of National Bullying Prevention Month, and in many ways that makes sense, as transgender people are disproportionately affected by bullying (as with street violence). GLSEN reports that fully 82% of LGBT kids have had problems with bullying, 44% specifically due to gender identification (reported on the nobullying.com website). GLSEN’s 2013 National Climate survey is available by download for anyone who might be interested.

In an age where definitions of different genders are becoming as fluid as some people’s sense of gender itself, it can be hard to keep up with the latest terms. For starters, (biological) sex is not the same as (social) gender, and 1-2% of people are born neither female nor male but rather intersex. Additionally, even though “transgender” refers to someone whose gender identity differs from that assigned to them at birth, not everyone who might fit that definition automatically chooses to identify as transgender. Moreover, though some transgender people (such as noted teen activist Jazz Jennings, here in an interview with Katie Couric) feel they were always girls trapped in a boy’s body or boys trapped in a girl’s body, not all transgender people feel that way or even identify within the gender binary. Partially blurring the binary are bigender people and androgynes, and within the Native American tradition, two-spirit people. But other transgender people might identify as polygender, agender, genderqueer, or just plain nonbinary, and still others avoid terminology altogether. Some may have a stable gender identity while others might be more fluid. Facebook, as many people know by now, offers a menu of over 50 gender choices, and even then, it is not 100% comprehensive.

Currently, among the most common pronoun choices used by trangender people are he/him/his, she/her/hers, they/them/theirs, and ze/hir/hirs. As with gender itself, though, there are a wealth of pronoun choices that exist. The only way to know what pronouns a transgender person uses is for them to tell you. It’s certainly okay to politely ask; many colleges routinely do so now during Orientation and in the day-to-day of their offices.

Because of the acronym “LGBT,” people often assume trans people are not heterosexual, but your gender actually has nothing to do with your sexuality. Transgender people can be heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, pansexual, polysexual, asexual (both romantic and aromantic), and any other variety of sexuality of which you can think.

In a recent talk at Mount Holyoke on her life as a trans woman, Jennifer Finney Boylan told listeners, “Let your story be known. It’s impossible to hate anyone whose story you know.” Ms. Boylan walks the talk, having published a number of beautifully written and at times painfully honest books on her life including the iconic She’s Not There: A Life in Two Genders and the sequels I’m Looking Through You: Growing Up Haunted: A Memoir and Stuck in the Middle With You: A Memoir of Parenting in Three Genders. For people looking for books for younger readers, Luna by Julie Anne Peters is the fictional story of a transgender teen told from the point of view of her younger sister, and I am Jazz, written by Jazz Jennings along with Jessica Herthel and based on Jazz’s own life, is the story of a transgender girl written for elementary-age children. As transgender people are becoming more visible, so too are choices of good books about transgender people becoming more common.

Though I don’t personally identify as transgender, I do have a vague sense of what it might be like. My own gender expression, as I’ve written before, is essentially a projection of my authentic self, kept as free of gender typing as possible, into a heavily gendered world. In that world, some people see me and greet me with warm and genuine smiles. Others laugh out loud, cringe with discomfort, or look me over with disgust. Still others simply treat me as they would any other person. The result is that I sometimes feel both relaxed and on guard. Relaxed, because I’m comfortable both with the look and with the effect of shaking up gender norms. On guard, because I never know when things might suddenly and without warning turn ugly.

Those emotions should be incompatible.

Patriarchy is why they aren’t.

So in the end, as with so much in this world, it all comes down to respect. Respecting each other’s personal sense of our own gender identity and the associated gender expression we choose. Respecting the terminology we each choose to use. Respecting the possibility of good intentions behind the occasional slip-up. And ultimately, respecting our joint and fundamental humanity.

No matter what gender we might be.

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Filed under Feminism, Gender, The Faculty Perspective

Cringe-Worthy

Three years ago, when working on my annual Martin Luther King Day piece, I wanted to connect his dream that children in the U.S. might “one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character” to similar dreams for social justice for other axes of diversity. As it happened, once we had published the piece and I had spoken in housemeeting, a discussion emerged on Twitter about whether or not these very kinds of connection were appropriate or appropriation. Concerned, I wanted to seek out opinions, and seized on an interchange between two of my friends, John Spencer and José Vilson, to bring up the question. I emerged from that short discussion believing that I needed to focus more specifically on racism in any future Martin Luther King Day speeches, and I believe I have done so for the most part (20122013 (less so) – 2014). But in the process of reacting to that 2011 post, I added another cringe-worthy moment to a long and ever-growing list.

However much I might have tried to disguise it to myself at the time, what I did was unfair to José and John, and perhaps especially to José as a person of colour. Through my actions, I was making them responsible for teaching me rather than going out and educating myself. In the process, in other words, I was not being an effective ally in the anti-racist fight for social justice, however well-intentioned I may have been. I’ve tried never to do that again – which is not to say there haven’t been other cringe-worthy moments since. Hopefully, though, they are at least becoming fewer and further between.

Recently, Piers Morgan invited Janet Mock, a trans woman of colour, onto his CNN program to talk about her book Redefining Realness: My path to womanhood, identity, love, & so much more. The Tuesday night interview, in his mind, went well, but when Ms. Mock saw the final version (they had pre-taped the interview four days previously), she went on Buzzfeed to air her concerns. This ignited a brief but intense Twitter war which ended up with her agreeing to come back on the program Wednesday. On that program, Mr. Morgan asked her the following question:

Here’s what I want to learn. I don’t want this to be an ongoing issue that I have with the community of which you’re such a great spokesman and advocate. I want to learn why it is so offensive to actually just say that you grew up as a boy and you then, because you’ve always felt that you were female, you had surgery to become a woman, to become a real woman, as you say in the book. Why is it offensive?

“Why is it offensive?” Well, Mr. Morgan. Let’s break down your question. First, you refer to Ms. Mock as a “spokesman.” Then, you state she grew up as a boy. Then, you characterize her surgery as the moment she became a woman. Finally, you rephrase and say “a real woman.” In other words, first you misgendered her, then you misgendered her again, then you characterized her surgery as a “becoming” rather than a stage along her life path, in the process focusing attention on her genitals rather than her personal sense of identity, and finally you implied that everything she did and felt before her surgery was somehow fake.

Beyond all that… Mr. Morgan could have avoided every single mistake in that question simply by consulting the readily available GLAAD Media Reference Guide – Transgender Glossary of Terms. That, too, is part of the problem. It only would have taken him a few minutes, and could have changed the entire tone and direction of the interview. But – as I had done with José – when someone who professes to be an ally places the onus for their education on the oppressed person, that is not being an effective ally. When someone who is trying to be supportive of an oppressed person focuses on their personal hurt at being accused of having been (however unintentionally) insensitive, that is not being an effective ally. When someone who is trying to be supportive of an oppressed person repeatedly interrupts and talks over that person, not really seeing or hearing them, that is not being an effective ally. When one repeatedly states – during and following the interview – that the oppressed person should be grateful for being allowed a forum for her voice, that is not being an effective ally. And when one tweets, “As for all the enraged transgender supporters, look at how STUPID you’re being. I’m on your side, you dimwits,” well, that too is not being an effective ally.

One of the moments when Piers Morgan talks over Janet Mock without really hearing her is when he brought up an article that appeared in Marie-Claire about her life’s journey entitled “When I Was a Boy.” His point was that he should not be blamed for using a similar phrase when those were her own words. Her point, which he never once acknowledged, was that those weren’t actually her own words as she didn’t write that title. Furthermore, when I Googled “Janet Mock” and “Marie-Claire,” I quickly found an article written by Ms. Mock reacting to the piece and stating in part, “But I do wish I could change one thing in the piece: the term “boy” which is used a few times. Overall I’m fine with it because I was born in what doctor’s [sic] proclaim is a boy’s body. I had no choice in the assignment of my sex at birth. I take issue with the two instances in the piece: The first instance proclaims, “Until she was 18, Janet was a boy,’ and then it goes on to say, ‘I even found other boys like me there…’ My genital reconstructive surgery did not make me a girl. I was always a girl.” Had Mr. Morgan taken the time to type four words into a search engine, he would have been able to avoid that egregious mistake.

Or, again, had he actually listened to her saying “Those were not my words.” rather than repeating back at her “Those were your words.”

What could have been a learning opportunity for Mr. Morgan appears to have been thoroughly squandered through his focus on his own feelings, his sense of being personally wronged, his sense of being in the right regardless of what anyone else says. Whether or not he likes it, that is his privilege speaking. Male privilege. White privilege. Class privilege. I don’t entirely blame him – our culture incorporates and inculcates an embedded sexism, racism, and classism, and he can’t help but have been shaped by it.

But he can help how he chooses to react to it.

That’s something we all can help. As we work together, each of us absolutely unique individuals, to build a better world, examining our reactions to our culture needs to become part of our work.

Even – perhaps especially – including the cringe-worthy moments.

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Filed under Current Events, Gender, Women in media