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.

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Legally Me: The Struggle of Officially Redefining Yourself

FullSizeRender (3)About two weeks ago, the State of California, through a LA Superior Court judge, granted my legal name and gender change. I was very emotional when I finally got my hands on the certified copy of the court order. This was what I had been waiting for.

I filed my petition for a name and gender change back in February. I would have done it sooner, but the filing fee in LA Superior Court is $435, and I was still catching up on bills and debts following my graduation from law school and the following 5 months without income.

So I filed in February. All the websites I had read on the subject of filing a name and gender change made it clear that the petition would take about 6 weeks to process and grant. The state would have to clear my paperwork, and then run a criminal background check to make sure I wasn’t changing my name and gender to run away from any parole duties or anything like that. So I filed my papers and paid my fee.

The nice clerk at the name change calendar took my paperwork and stepped away from her desk to look at a series of calendar pages that were posted on the wall. I got an uneasy feeling when she skipped over March, April, May, and June, and walked all the way over to the end of the year. She made a mark on a page, and then walked back.

“December 12th” she said. My mouth fell open. I’m not even sure if I made a sound, but all I could think inside was “NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!”

I must have had some obvious reaction because she looked at me and said “Sorry, the judge that hears these petitions can only do one day a week. After you wait the required time for the criminal check, December is the next available time on her calendar.” I asked her if it was possible to try another court, maybe one not so busy. She told me that CA law requires you file such a petition in your home court. I was suddenly actually sad I didn’t live in Orange County anymore– I happened to be, she told me, at the busiest court in the State of California.

I was crushed. I also filled with dread, thinking about how hard the next 10 months would be still walking around with a female ID and everything else. I already was growing a beard and had my voice drop an octave–I couldn’t imagine how difficult it would be to explain that my ID was me after a further 10 months of testosterone!

I went back to my office and told my supervising partner what happened. “That’s absurd. You cannot go another 10 months with the wrong documents. You need this changed now, before you spend too much more time building a professional reputation under the wrong identity.” He suggested we file a motion to accelerate my hearing date in the court ex parte (meaning, you go in on your own without being scheduled by the court).

“You write the motion and draft a declaration for you and one for me. I’ll be your attorney. We will go fight this.” he said.

I did everything he asked, and compiled all my documentation of my transition– my coming out letter to my office, my diagnosis, my therapist letter, my doctor’s affidavit, and proof that I passed a criminal background check before joining the Bar. We went in the following Thursday and the judge agreed to accelerate my date to May.

I was ecstatic. Still, it was 3 months away, but 3 was much better than 10. And the whole time I kept thinking to myself: this is so screwed up.

What would I have done if I wasn’t a lawyer? I mean, I understand legal crap, and I could barely fill out all the paperwork for the petition. I can’t imagine how a non-lawyer would manage. And a non-lawyer wouldn’t even know that you can go in ex parte and ask the court to do something.

The law for name and gender changes in CA definitely does not reflect the needs of the community that process is designed to serve. People who are changing their name and gender are transitioning, usually. Not all trans people take hormones or have surgery. But many do. It’s only been 4 months since I filed my petition and I already look much different– fuller beard, bigger build, deeper voice. After 10 months I would have been some giant, beardy dude with an ID that said “Anna.”

I had already begun to receive push back from people about my ID not being me– bouncers, cashiers at the grocery store, the TSA… but people not wanting to serve me was one thing. I couldn’t imagine the safety hazard that comes from having an ID and a physical presentation that do not match. Especially for people like trans women, who are already often subject to high levels of harassment, violence, and even murder.

The legal process of transitioning does not in any way line up with the physical process of transitioning in other ways, too.

For example, up until a year ago, trans people changing their names and genders had to publish a notice in a public news paper for 6 weeks announcing to the whole world what they were changing their name/gender to and from. I had a friend who transitioned 20 years ago, and published his notice in a Korean-language only news paper, out of fear that his employer would learn his plans to transition. It finally dawned on the legislature that maybe making trans people put their business out in public was a safety hazard, and so thankfully that requirement did not apply to me. Still– are you kidding me?

Another example is the requirement that a doctor testify that you have “transitioned” at the time of your petition. I actually had my petition delayed two weeks because my doctor originally wrote that I was “transitioning,” rather than saying I had “transitioned.” This made total sense to me– after all, how can I have already transitioned if I haven’t changed my name and gender marker? The judge took issue with the “-ing” instead of “-ed” and actually made me get a new declaration from my doctor.

This requirement is completely ignorant of many facts about being trans, like
even if one has the financial resources to physically transition, this can take years. I mean, I will be going through major surgeries and such for the next few years at least. And I will be on testosterone for the rest of my life. Surely the legislature cannot assume that one will go through allllllll of that before having an ID that conforms to their gender expression? It also places a huge emphasis on the medical aspects of transition, where many trans people don’t go through medical procedures at all. Or the fact that a name and gender change is part of the transition,thus it cannot already be done before the petition is granted.

Luckily, my doctor didn’t have a problem re-writing mine, but he could have easily refused to do so because what the court wanted was technically not accurate.

So finally, after much hassle, I got my paper. I was filled with joy. Filled with relief. Filled with frustration at how hard it was to get there. And honestly, a bit filled with dread about the next 6 months of bureaucracy and updating my identity everywhere else.

I am sure this is not the end of my struggle to legally become myself. I decided to volunteer with some legal aid students to run a hotline where other people struggling with the process can contact attorneys for help, so I can put what I have learned to work helping others.

Dating While Trans

Following my last post, some folks have asked how I navigate dating as a trans person. I have thought a lot about how to respond in a thoughtful way, while still maintaining some control over just how much, with whom, and when I share such thoughts. This article captures a lot of what my experience has been thus far.

My solution is to say this–
1. remember, gender identity and sexual orientation are separate from one another, so trans folks could be interested in any array of partners; not all of us were “gay” before we identified as trans;
2. technology has generally benefitted trans folks who are dating, because it allows you to put yourself out there from the beginning, which saves time and some awkwardness at the very least;
3. technology still has a way to go before trans folks will be fully served by it; this article explains that better than I can;
4. I have learned that I need to give people more credit when it comes to their open-mindedness about who they date;
5. communication is everything.

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.