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Trans is not a Costume

Hello friends.  Happy October!

For those of you who don’t know me personally, or semi-well, let me tell you a little factoid about me: I LOVE OCTOBER.

October is a great month. All of the following contribute to why I think it’s the best month of the year:

  1. My birthday is in October. Duh.
  2. Halloween is in October.  I have a deep, long love for Halloween– it’s my favorite holiday pretty much since birth. I was also supposed to be born on Halloween. It is also just a great f*cking holiday because it involves costumes, over indulgence, pumpkin art, and parties.
  3. It is called October because under the original Roman calendar, it was the 8th month of the year (before July and August were added– thanks Ceasar boys!)

IMG_7064I love October because Halloween, and I love Halloween because costumes. I delight in planning and executing my costume each year and anyone who knows me can attest that I tend to have some pretty good ones.  So imagine how bummed I was when I stumbled upon this photo in my Facebook feed today.

UGH. SERIOUSLY? SERIOUSLY.

This is super not okay.  Really, it’s not. Dressing up as pre-transition or post-transition Caitlyn Jenner (not as Bruce, because it’s pretty rude to Dead Name people) is not okay.  Spirit Halloween store (where the photo was taken) cannot try to make this okay by calling it “Celebrating an American Icon.”  Caitlyn Jenner is not one of the founding fathers or Abraham Lincoln, or any other “American Icon” folks dress up as for Halloween.  She is a living breathing person. She is a person who has had the hefty job of coming out as transgender under the scrutiny of the free internet-reality tv-loving world.

Yes, she is brave. Yes, she could be considered a hero. But you know and I know that is not what this Halloween costume is about.  If that were true, we would have Amelia Earhart and Harriet Tubman costumes for sale to the mainstream public, too.  No, this is about us collectively mocking Caitlyn by empowering cisgender men to emulate her.  We, as Americans, are so threatened by Caitlyn’s transition and our collective masculinity is so fragile that we must bring her down a notch in order to put ourselves at ease.  We must remind ourselves that she’s really just a man in a dress, right? We definitely must make her un-sexy– she was getting to hot for comfort.

And maybe, just maybe, on some level, it makes those who choose to don that costume feel a little bit softer, a little bit sexier.  If we pretend we are making fun of her, then it’s okay to be feminine and pretty, and we can have our cake and eat it too. I get it– sometimes doing something different, something forbidden is hot. But you know what?  If that’s it, then just buy any other female-designed costume in Spirit and get your kicks.  Be a sexy nurse.  Be a Bunny.  Be Catwoman (boy you know you want to put on that jumpsuit).

Don’t pretend to be a real, live trans person who has gone to great lengths to become her true self and to not be exactly what you want her to be, which is just some guy in a dress.  She is a human– even if she doesn’t care personally, there are trans kids out there watching you.  They see you laughing at her. They internalize it.  It hurts them.  Bullying is deadly for trans kids.  Suicide is common.  This normalizes mocking and joking about trans people.  It normalizes cruel jokes.  This. Is. Not. Okay.

If you know anyone contemplating this choice, please educate them. We must do better, and if everyone who knows better speaks up, we will. Be excellent to each other.

Rachel Dolezal is Not Like Me.

Unless you are living on another planet (or perhaps studying for the California Bar Exam), you’ve likely heard the story of Rachel Dolezal, the NAACP officer and college professor from Eastern Washington who, for the last decade, has apparently pretended to be an African-American woman when she is, in fact, white.

Dolezal has not only represented herself as a woman of color, but she’s based her professional career on this fact as well, even being paid to speak on the topic of race and her experience as a minority woman.

I am not even going to speculate here as to why she did what she did– I’m not a psychologist, which is what I truly think she needs. I guess I can understand why someone who was seeking attention somehow might think that pretending to be a minority would instantly give her a soapbox to speak on, but even this is hard to swallow.

What Dolezal did was selfish. She exercised her white privilege to decide to be a woman of color, and then took jobs at an institution of higher learning and the nation’s most well-known advocacy groups dedicated to advancing the rights of African-Americans. You know, jobs that probably otherwise would have gone to actual people of color.

In the aftermath of the Dolezal reveal, some people have been comparing her to Caitlyn Jenner. After all, if Caitlyn can be born into a different body and decide to transition as a way of expressing her true identity, then can’t a white woman decide that her true identity is that of a person of color, and then change her outside to reflect that reality?

The answer to that question is no.

1. First, trans people are still a persecuted minority.  Yes, African-Americans are too in many ways, but in many places in this country trans people have no legal protection at all. Some places are even still trying to create special laws just for trans people, like trying to tell us which bathrooms we can and can’t use.  Trans people can be fired, evicted, and any number of other terrible things just because they’re trans, which is something that our laws forbid when it comes to race (at least on paper).   Trans people also have a high incidence of suicide, because being trans is stressful and challenging and very much demonized in many places.  No one would pretend to be trans if they were not trans.

2. Rachel Dolezal is not expressing her “true self,” the way transgender people are. Transgender people aren’t “pretending” anything– if nothing else, they’re attempting to be their most authentic selves. I’m not pretending to be a trans man, I AM a trans man.  Drag performers “pretend” to be another gender.

3. Dolezal’s costume is one that she can take off or put back on as she pleases, whenever it gives her the greatest benefit. When you’re trans, you’re trans when it’s easy and when it’s hard and there is no way to switch this up.

4. The world needs people to be allies and sympathizes, not imitators and appropriators. Both racial and sexual minorities need folks who passionately identify with our struggle to sit right where they are and say “I don’t think this is okay and neither should you” to all the other non-minorities in the room. Pretending to be one of us destroys credibility and distracts from the conversations that need to happen instead.

How to Talk about Transgender People

I have seen lots (and I mean101 LOTS) of positive outpouring of support for Caitlyn Jenner after her big reveal yesterday. This is heartening and gives me so much hope for the future for trans folk in this country, and eventually the World.

We can’t just talk about trans issues and trans people. We have to talk about the way we talk about trans issues and trans people. The ACLU did an excellent piece today that highlights why we shouldn’t let the conversation stop with discussing how fabulous Jenner looks, without also discussing how hard it is for 99% of trans people to ever attain that level of care.

I’m here to address how the words we choose when talking about trans people affects the tone of conversations and impacts the way trans people are seen by non-trans people (also called cisgender people).

Here are some tips about what to say, what not to say, and things to think about when you’re having a conversation about, or with, a trans person.

Vocabulary

This article does an awesome job of explaining relevant terms like sex, gender, transgender, transsexual, cisgender, sexual reassignment surgery, etc.

Friendly Tips for Interacting With Trans People

  • Don’t assume a transgender person’s sexual orientation
    Gender identity is not the same as sexual orientation. Sexual orientation is who we are attracted to. Gender identity is about our own personal sense of being male or female. There are straight and gay trans people just like there are straight and gay cisgender people.
  • Don’t guess if someone is transgender just by looking
    Transgender people all look different. They may or may not appear “visibly trans.” You should assume there may be transgender people at any gathering. If you meet someone and you are generally not sure what their gender identity is, you can respectfully ask them “What is your preferred gender pronoun?” See below.
  • Don’t assume someone is a he or she – listen first
    If you’re not sure which pronoun to use, listen to people who know that person well. If you need to ask the person what they prefer, start with yourself. “Hi, I’m Joe and I prefer the pronoun he or him. What about you?” If you accidentally use the wrong pronoun, apologize with sincerity and move on.
  • Don’t ask what their “real name” is
    For some transgender people, being associated with their birth name is a source of anxiety. Respect the name they currently use. If you know the person’s birth name, don’t share it without his or her permission. Likewise, don’t share photos of someone before his or her transition without permission, and don’t ask to see any photos either.
  • Don’t assume everyone knows
    Be careful about outing someone. Knowing a transgender person’s status is personal. It is up to them to share it.
  • Don’t ask about a transgender person’s genitals, surgical status, or sex life
    You wouldn’t ask a non-transgender person about these issues, it’s just as inappropriate to ask a transgender person about these things.
  • Don’t offer backhanded compliments or “helpful” tips:
    • “I would never have known you were transgender. You look so pretty.”
    • “You look like a real woman.”
    • “She’s so gorgeous, I would never have guessed she was transgender.”
    • “He’s so hot, I’d date him even though he’s transgender.”
    • “You’d pass so much better if you wore less/more make-up, had a better wig, etc.”
    • “Have you considered a voice coach?”

Thanks for listening, friends! Be most excellent to each other.

Caitlyn Jenner’s Coming Out is a Double-Edged Sword

Unless you live under a rock, you probably know that today1433176861_caitlyn-jenner-lg (1), Caitlyn Jenner made her debut in this month’s issue of Vanity Fair. In a 22-page feature, Jenner appears relaxed and comfortable (not to mention gorgeous– thank you, Annie Liebovitz) in her new skin.

First, I have to say bravo to Ms. Jenner. Coming out as a trans person is hard to do, no matter how supportive your family and friends are. I can’t imagine what it must be like to be such a public figure and have so much scrutiny directed toward you, during what is surely some of the most difficult time in a trans person’s life. Transitioning is a strange, long process that can, at times, be anything but graceful. Yet Jenner has handled the whole thing with ease.

Therein lies the problem. Jenner, as a wealthy, famous, politically conservative white person transitioning, has it relatively easy. Transitioning so publicly runs the risk of furthering the Dominant Trans Narrative, which is that the trans person has the means and the opportunity to medically transition and thus, a “trans person” is someone who has made physical alterations to their body and “passes” as their true gender at all times.

So, Jenner’s coming out is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, increasing visibility for trans people is a good thing. I mean, Jenner was a major household name for many years. We know her as an Olympian, a that person who was on a Wheaties box. An American Hero. Also, Jenner’s transition story shows a very real struggle that spouses, children, and friends can have when a loved one comes out as trans. Plus, having a high-profile, professional athlete transition in the public eye is amazing. This past year has brought transgender people some really awesome exposure via Jenner, Laverne Cox (who wrote an excellent commentary on Jenner’s big reveal here), Janet Mock, Aydian Dowling, and more.

The negative thing about the very public nature of Jenner’s transition is that all of Jenner’s wealth and political capital buys her the best care, the best therapy, and the most insulation from the struggles that most trans people, especially trans women of color, experience every day. I will not speak for trans women of color, but if you’re interested, there is some really good commentary here and here.

Jenner’s transition timeline is not representative of most trans people’s experience– I worry that it creates in the general population an expectation that her transition is what transition is supposed to look like, and people who do not look like Caitlyn Jenner are not real trans people.

I hope that folks following her story recognize these things, but I am fearful that they do not. The reality is that trans women, particularly trans women of color, are murdered at an alarming rate. Trans people, particularly trans women, suffer from high rates of homelessness, unemployment, and harassment on a daily basis.

To her credit, Jenner has acknowledged, both in her interview with Diane Sawyer and in Vanity Fair, that her experience is privileged and that many, many trans women are not as fortunate. The fight is far from won, and I just hope, hope, HOPE that our society and all you dear readers recognize this, too.

We are off to a good start in 2015– but we have many miles left to travel. Thank you for joining the journey.

Trans* is not One Story

People ask me frequently what it feels like now to “be in the right body.” This question always throws me off some, for a few reasons. One is that I never really felt like I was in the wrong body, per se. Another reason is that I can tell this question is a symptom of our culture’s fixation on the dominant trans* narrative, that is, the story of a Person-Who-Always-Knew-Something-Was-Wrong. I bet if you ask most people to describe what it means for someone to be trans*, they will articulate some version of this:

Person is born. At a young age, Person begins telling the world “I’m not a This, I’m a That!” Person starts acting out on their desires to be a That. Person struggles with unhappiness until at some point, Person’s Parents pursue therapy/treatment, and then Person gets to live as they wish.

While that story line may indeed describe a good number of trans* folks, it is certainly not the only way to be trans*. It took me 10 years to realize that trans* means different things to different people, and that yes, you can still be trans* even if you didn’t think you were born in the wrong body when you were 3 years old.

I am incredibly lucky to be transitioning when I am. I have this realization almost daily– every time I see a news feature or a Facebook post, I realize how much more accepted being trans* is in most parts of the US today than it was 10 years ago when I first contemplated this whole process. At the time, I was living in TX and I knew exactly 1 trans* person. His name was Eli and he had, from what I could gather, a pretty tough go of it. His experience played heavily in my decision not to pursue gender transition physically for a long time.

But also a huge part of that delay was that I bought into the myth that there is only One Trans Story. In hindsight, it is of course pretty ridiculous to think that, as a queer person who had seen lots of different types of other queer people, that I believed that being transgender was much less fluid. But I did– and not really knowing any trans* folks, how was I supposed to know any different. I was, for the most part, okay with my body from a dysphoria standpoint. I wasn’t crazy about my chest, but that’s mostly because boobs got in the way of sports and other things I enjoyed. I am happy with the original plumbing I have been given, so no real issues there. My dysphoria exists in the smaller details– the amount of muscle I could build, the way my clothes would hang, the types of dress and mannerisms I was expected to have. It took a long time of getting to know a lot of other trans* folks before I realized that my feelings about my own identity were just as worthy of the trans* label as those young kids that go on Oprah to talk about being trans*.

I am grateful every day for the exposure that I see trans* issues getting in media. But I also wonder why none of that exposure really focuses on the variety of trans* experiences. I wonder if the reinforcement of the dominant One Trans Story isn’t actually, in some way, harming all those folks out there that might feel uncomfortable with their assigned gender, but don’t fit the mold of the Person-Who-Always-Knew-Something-Was-Wrong?

I am hopeful that the conversation will become more nuanced as time passes, as more trans* folks gain their voices and can speak to their experiences. But we are still a long ways away. So if you’re reading this, consider yourself exposed to a little slice of variety under the trans* umbrella, and please speak up if you hear someone saying that there is only one way to be trans*. 🙂