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09 May 2007 @ 07:16 pm
long rant about "transgenders" questions  
This is about an email exchange I had today that captures some themes I’ve been thinking about. First, I got an email from the reporter from “UCLA Today” who is doing a profile of me for the paper. We did an interview yesterday. Today she writes:

To: Spade, Dean
Subject: Question
Do you think you might answer one more question:
Considering all you have told me about the discrimination transgenders
face in so many arenas, why did you decide to live openly as a
transgender? Cyndy

I forwarded it to my friend, Rolan, saying:
"Spade, Dean" <spade@law.ucla.edu> wrote:
i have absolutely no idea how to answer this question.

Rolan brilliantly responded:
UGH! How about this:
Dear Cyndy,
I'm not sure. Why did you decide to live openly as a woman?
Dear Cyndy,
I'm not sure why I decided to live in a way I am comfortable despite external sources of violence, coercion, and discrimiantion. Why do you have hair?
Dear Cyndy,
I'm not sure why I didn't trade in my sense of self to placate to rampant transphobia. Why did you decide not to kill yourself today?

For the last month this guy from the major legal newspaper of Southern California has been working on a profile about me and my work at UCLA that keeps not being run by the paper. He told me the editor he works under refuses to run the story unless it includes whether or not I’ve had “the surgery.” I have told him I will not reveal my genital status to the readers of this paper, and that I don’t think they any of the other lawyers and law scholars who get profiled to do so, so I don’t see why its necessary to my profile. The reporter was understanding, and kept re-editing the piece, trying to make the editor satisfied without describing my privates. Several times the reporter called to say the story would run the next day or week, and then it would run into the same problem and he’d come back to ask me more questions and add different info to the story, hoping to get it past the editor. I heard from him last week that it would run on Monday, and that he was leaving the paper to become a magazine writer. It didn’t run, and I’m assuming it won’t now. I was only really doing the profile because it’s the kind of thing that the place I work for right now is into (media coverage), so I don’t feel much loss of it being printed, and it probably would have made me cringe anyway, but I am pretty annoyed that I spent hours with the reporter, did two separate in person interviews and countless follow-up emails and calls, and my refusal to reveal what’s in my pants made that time wasted.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the explanations of trans identities and bodies that are required in all kinds of discourses about trans people, and what it means to refuse to participate in explaining myself or trans people in general. I’ve been giving public presentations of this new law article I wrote to law professors and other people (far) outside trans communities, and running into these various requests for explanations a lot. My mentor and I have gone back and forth about whether my article (or maybe every article I ever write?) needs a “trans primer” section where I help the reader understand the population. What is there to understand? That is my question. If I’m explaining a bunch of policies and laws that make it hard for trans people to get ID or Medicaid benefits, what kinds of background info are required beyond the impact of the policies, the reasoning behind the bad policies, the model for better policies and the reasoning behind that model? Reading law articles about trans people written by non-trans people has given me an eye to what is expected to be explained. People need to understand if/why trans people are human.

From the articles I’ve been reading, I’ve noticed a basic formula to these trans primer sections, which usually precede the analysis of law or policy the article focuses on. The point of these primers is “trans people are human.” To get to humanness, three key things are always cited: 1) intersex conditions exist, 2) some native American cultures had non-binary gender formations 3) studies show that trans people have “female brains in male bodies” or “male brains in female bodies.” I’m interested in thinking about the labor that each of these three pieces of evidence perform. How does the legitimacy and humanity of trans people get confirmed by a racist notion of the “ancientness” of non-binaristic gender through the (usually overgeneralized and inaccurate) portrayal of gender in native cultures? How do intersex conditions purportedly function as a “safe” articulation of the reality of gender variance? Why are inverted brains necessary to establish a basis for an article about, say, cases where trans people get their kids taken away from them or lose jobs for being trans?

What is disturbing me most right now is not just that people write stupid things about trans people. I’m used to that. Most of what gets written confirms inaccurate stereotypes that trans people are defined by “sex change surgery” (whatever that is), that we should have to explain ourselves, that doctors know more about us than we do, that we’re pathetic victims, that we hate ourselves, that we’re all gender-conforming heterosexual patriots after transition, etc. What I’m really disturbed by right now, I think, is that the conversation I have with each reporter, the “trans primer” section of each article, the misguided things lawyers and policy makers and law professors say to me in my professional life are so identical in each instance. Maybe sometimes we think that people are uninformed about trans issues, or clueless. I think instead people have a highly rigid, crystal clear training on navigating the humanity/inhumanity of trans people, and that it is so coercive that its almost impossible not to mirror it back to them when doing advocacy. Its almost impossible not to get involved in the conversations about our legitimacy by trotting out medical authority and brain studies, to not explain ourselves when the questioner has the power to frame or erase our words, to not answer “well meaning” questions that reestablish our freakishness and the natural order of binary gender.

So I’m thinking about what a resistant practice of non-explanation means. I just finished working on a mutual interview with the maker of Boy I Am, talking about trans representation and this issue of sensationalism and explanation and hypermedicalization of trans identity. Here’s one thing I wrote in that interview about this:

“In terms of how I want to represent trans communities and see trans communities represented, I do have some new ideas about that recently. I think the thing I’d like to see most is for films, trainings, shows, speeches, panels and other public education tools to stop trying to answer the questions “Why are people trans? How do they feel about themselves? What are they like?” and start focusing just on “What are the obstacles to trans people’s survival and equality? What does discrimination look like? How can it be prevented?” I think that as soon as the first set of questions are in play, trans people are objects of fascination. We’re suddenly defending our very existence, participating in the assumption that we are strange, unusual, interesting, and, ultimately, that our humanity has to be proven and defended. When people attend trainings, film screenings, and events that attempt to make trans people human by explaining who we are and why we are this way we further entrench the objectifying method of viewing us that is already indoctrinates people who view us on Montel Williams or Jerry Springer and Law and Order. What we really want to be training people to do is to stop seeing trans people as rarified objects, to stop asking trans people inappropriate questions about our bodies, sexualities and life histories, to stop creating policies that demand trans people disclose genital status when non-trans people are never asked to do so, and to begin to be able to identify obstacles that they are participating in or creating to trans people’s equality and survival. This is a totally different framework for trans public education. It would include documentary film where trans people didn’t do the usual things, like talk about their childhoods and surgeries and put on make-up or binders in front of the camera, but instead where trans people, never having to explain themselves, talked about their issues with Medicaid or prisons or schools or shelters. The viewer would not learn the genital status of the trans subjects any more than they would learn it for the “experts” in the documentary. I think that the Sylvia Rivera Law Project’s movie, “Toilet Training” is one such documentary, and I think it is like that because it was made by trans people confronting a specific social issue. I give this same advice to the hoards of well-meaning “researchers”—usually graduate students—who contact me wanting to conduct surveys about how trans people see our bodies or how we have sex. They are interested in studying us to deconstruct gender and to demonstrate how we think about ourselves. I beg them to stop studying us and our existence and start studying the institutional obstacles and systemic oppression we face that is so under-described and under-discussed. Similarly, for people trying to sensitize their insitutions to trans people, I beg them to stop creating panels where trans people speak about our life stories, and instead create meaningful training curricula that help trainees analyze the specific obstacles to trans access within the institution. Its about moving away from defining and describing trans people, and toward defining and describing the concrete changes we need to end gender oppression. Seeing Boy I Am again, and dialoguing with you about it, has helped me get at this paradigm shift for trans public education materials that I’m hoping for. I think it is the next step in building trans political power, and in moving away from a medicalized gaze on the trans body/identity, and toward a political gaze from trans experience onto oppressive institutions.”

That doesn’t really get at the personal practice part of this, though. I’m still struggling with how to navigate my refusal to provide pat explanations of myself and my trans identity and experience to all the people who love to ask me. I feel like I’m engaged in a resistant practice of refused transparency and reduction of myself to the level of the “human,” but I’m not entirely sure what that means yet, or what all of its costs will be. I have to leave my office right now to go to therapy and refuse to explain my trans identity to the professional. More on this topic later, maybe. Who am I kidding? I’ll probably be talking/not talking about this for the rest of my life or until I abandon trans identity altogether to live alone in the woods.
Current Location: UC Sunnydale
locallibrarian on May 10th, 2007 02:03 am (UTC)
Can I live alone in the woods with you? And can we get cable there?

Seriously, though: I'm so sorry about Cyndy and the professional and all the rest of them. Hang in there, and thanks for writing.
mister discotheorybitch on May 10th, 2007 02:06 am (UTC)
People need to understand if/why trans people are human.

That is the most beautifully condensed precis of what is happening in all of those 'trans 101' sections. It's spot on. I'm so sorry you're feeling so frustrated. This is a great piece, and you rock. Feel better.

(And one day soon I will email you with a full update and we will talk aobut writing something together -- my life has been crazy since February, break-ups, housing crises, too many distractions. But soon!)
ultimate synthetic reactorcore bot#10984 aka naomimetasynthie on May 10th, 2007 03:17 am (UTC)
1) AUghghgughgh.

2) Man I'm going to barf and then kill some people.

3) Thank you for writing this, it's really good. I hope it becomes the nucleus of a paper about representations.

4) <3 <3
Lila Futuransky: romaine brooksheyiya on May 10th, 2007 04:39 am (UTC)
(This is Alexis, btw. Hi!)

I'm sorry about all the journalistic (and, for that matter, graduate-student-tastic) bullshit. But I wanted to thank you for posting this because it is such a powerful and amazing piece – your brief discussion of the 'trans primer' clarifies so much about the politics of explanation and the policing of boundaries of the legitimately 'human' around gender, race, class, ability...

I hope you won't mind if I link this over on my LJ, I think a few people on my flist would really appreciate your post.
cruciferouscruciferous on May 11th, 2007 06:43 pm (UTC)
its fine to link it.
i have also been thinking about it in terms of disability politics. might write more on that soon. interesting to think about who has to explain themselves, who feels comfortable asking (especially interesting to me when the state requires that you lay bare all your most intimate details like in disability benefits hearings and genital confirmation requirements for change of gender in various policies). interesting to think about this in the context of the people who are framing opposition to the war on terror in terms of "privacy." who has privacy? who expects privacy? eli clare pointed this out to me. he's a genius.
Gender Vertigode_cryptic on May 25th, 2007 07:41 am (UTC)
Hey there Dean, I have been wanting to read your post for a while, and finally i got a chance to. I am specifically responding to this answer you wrote to heyiya because the link you are thinking of drawing to disability made me think of this:
I absolutely understand and agree with your frustration, and chime in with your suggestions, however, I was wondering how about (maybe, some?) transfolks who might want to talk about their childhood, and their surgeries, and their humanness? The way in which the disability example made me think of this goes like: I am sure that during disability hearings there is little to no respect to privacy etc. because whoever will be granting rights/privileges "needs to know" or whatever, however, sometimes, during everyday interaction everyday people can engage in a semi-embarrassed looking-away from an amputated leg, for instance, or whatever other form of visible handicap, because they feel like they need to act like everything is "normal" and they should not look at someone's handicap not to make the person feel bad, let's say. But of course the disabled understand this act of "ignoring." And not every disabled person is happy about this, but this is my personal perception, I might be wrong. So, I wonder whether stopping to ask all those annoying questions of all transpeople altogether might look like such a gesture of "looking away" (instead of simply putting the focus elsewhere) and make some feel "ignored" or not acknowledged, or as if their stories do not matter? I am not sure how one get have the acknowledgement without setting the stage as a place where then transpeople have to engage in endless explanations and justifications of humanness but I wonder...
I need to think a bit more about this, but let me know what you think please, and hope you are doing well in England! Let's go to the beach again when you come back?

cruciferouscruciferous on May 25th, 2007 01:44 pm (UTC)
hi! yes, interesting point. i think that what i'm trying to get at is the overdetermined nature of putting certain people's bodies and identities and lives under a microscope while others remain unmarked, uncontested, unquestioned, requiring no defense or explanation. certainly, there is a vital role for talking about the experiences, lives, bodies, identities of people whose oppression includes these fascinated questions and gazes, and i don't want to argue for silence about that stuff. instead i'm trying to think about motivations for questions, entitlement to answers. when i do trainings for lawyers, i tell them to ask themselves rigorously before they ask a trans person a question about their body, sexual practices, or family history "is this relevant? do i actually need to know this to do my job for this person?" i think this helps them to take a step back before asking an invasive question on auto-pilot because culture has trained them to ask it. people often respond by saying "how do i know when i can ask that then?" and i urge them to err on the side of not asking and allowing the trans person to disclose it if they want to. some people are really excited to talk about these aspects of their lives in certain contexts, but its the disproportionate amount of asking certain questions to certain types of people, and the inherent judgements involved in the answers (like knowing that lots of people are asking a trans person for their genital status because they want to decide if this person is "really a man" or "really a woman") that is so problematic. i think that trying to imagine how we could refuse to participate in these predictable dialogues and confessionals is what interests me here, not closing down conversations about trans bodies and experiences, but moving away from these scripts that reinforce oppressive ideas.
england is so fun! i'm living in a tiny beach town that is beautiful and the law scholars i'm hanging out with are so smart and inspiring. its great. yes, let's go to malibu A LOT during july and august. i want to be on a first name basis with the sea lions.
baddecionmaker on October 21st, 2007 09:09 am (UTC)
thank you for this great post. your suggestion of a shift from "what are transpeople like and why?" to "what are obstacles/discrimination etc.?" is really helpful and makes so much sense. that shift, and the whole rest of this post, made me think more about exactly why some conversations in which i was talking to other non-trans people and attempting to be an ally seemed frustrating and not right.

also thank you for distilling the humanness argument so starkly. that kinda helps articulate the wall that i sometimes feel myself running up against when trying to be a helpful ally/good friend - the wall of how society has taught me to question the humanness. and to place trans struggles/experiences in this whole different realm from other struggles and experiences, that even if i may not have had them, i can figure out how to react to them in a way to be a decent friend. even though i've complicated/taken these things down in theory, the toxic shit still pops up in my ways of thinking.

on the link to disability politics and a "resistant practice of non-explanation" - yes please! i have a fairly invisible, fairly non-stigmatized disability. i find myself explaining and justifying my choices often, and sometimes i don't even realize that it isn't something i have to do, or think about why i feel the need to do it. i used to be really into explaining. to everyone, all the time, any time. i still often enjoy discussing it and explaining things, and certainly prefer that to silence or not being "out" with my condition or someone tiptoeing around afraid to ask. however, i've become a lot more guarded/indignant about explaining what i want when i want, the first step of which was just figuring out that maybe i didn't actually want to be open to all questions at all times. my politics have changed, but also i think i just got sick of explaining, and realized why it was problematic (also i think i liked attention better when i was 11 then i do now :-).
A Wandering Hobbitredbird on May 10th, 2007 12:26 pm (UTC)
Well said
heyiya sent me here.

You are, of course, absolutely right. Further thought, of perhaps theoretical interest: some of this seems to connect to earlier anti-feminist comments about women who insisted on doing work that was, at whatever time and place, coded "male," that discussed not the justice of letting them work in any job they were able to qualify for, or whether they would be better paid as mechanics than as nursemaids, but at best whether this was work the person had been drawn to since her childhood, and often their allegedly "masculinized" bodies or mannerisms.
cruciferouscruciferous on May 11th, 2007 06:45 pm (UTC)
Re: Well said
i didn't know about that discourse on that issue. can you point me to writing about that?
A Wandering Hobbitredbird on May 11th, 2007 10:55 pm (UTC)
Re: Well said
Um. I'd have to try hunting it down; I have no references handy. (This is the downside of 30 years of wide-ranging reading, and not much note-taking.)
blue_bracesblue_braces on May 10th, 2007 12:30 pm (UTC)
Its about moving away from defining and describing trans people, and toward defining and describing the concrete changes we need to end gender oppression.


This is a great post, D, and I would love to link to it in my LJ if you would be ok with that. If you're ok with it, let me know if you'd prefer I link to it in a friends-only post, or if it's ok if I link to it in a public post.
monstrosity: fingersmonster_grrrl on May 10th, 2007 01:43 pm (UTC)
I'm also here via heyiya.

It's so incredibly frustrating to have to explain the basics, over and over again...and that people think it's okay to make trans folks do that education. My battle cry in all situations of anti-oppression education is "Do your own work!" Seriously, there's enough literature out there these days that you can get the basics by visiting a website or two or picking up a book.

If I was doing an interview with someone about, say, music, I wouldn't ask them about the basics of a scale or the treble clef or whatever. I would do some research so that I could ask intelligent questions.

I would also love to link to your post, if it's okay with you. Let me know.

Oh, and re: genital status - I had the horror of watching someone say to a friend of mine, "I need to know if you have a penis or not so I'll know if I can be attracted to you." It simultaneously blew my mind and broke my heart.
cruciferouscruciferous on May 11th, 2007 06:46 pm (UTC)
you can link it however you want. i'm sure i'll cringe when i read some parts of it later, but that happens with everything i write. do you know that feeling? i guess i should be more compassionate and recognize that everyone's analysis changes over time. but sometimes i just cringe. but their is not telling which things i've written, in the future, will elicit that response.
blue_bracesblue_braces on May 15th, 2007 05:01 pm (UTC)
i'm sure i cringe when i read some parts of it later, but that happens with everything i write. do you know that feeling?

I do know that feeling, yes. And I find that giving compassion to oneself about stuff like that is the hardest! In the case of this particular writing, I see it as a conversation starter, not a conversation ender. And that's what makes it a good piece of writing!
timothyheavyleg on May 10th, 2007 10:56 pm (UTC)
yes to resistant practice of non-explanation. i actually had an interesting talk with my mother about this recently, she was surprisingly on-point.

i have more to say but no time. i'd be interested in talking more about it in the future though.

oh and that article you emailed -- do you want typos pointed out? just cause i noticed a few. (it's just as good as i remembered your talk being, and so useful. also having the descriptions of different models for organizing on paper is really useful.)
loudestyellerloudestyeller on May 11th, 2007 03:46 am (UTC)
(and this is a second Alexis)

I think this is implicit in what you're saying, and it doesn't get to the personal part - but the category of "the human" has always been a category based on the exclusions that define it. When I look at these calls to justify trans existence within the frame of the human, to me they're always functioning in fact to deny transgender humanness (because calling the question, in this case, always means that the answer's "no"). They're also re-inscribing the category as the only thing that really matters, and calls to the human are super freighted with a particular rights discourse that is also about race and class.

So the thing that is important to me about the refusal to play the game is largely that it attempts to elide/refuse the particular categorical violences that have been associated with stabilizing who counts as human and who does not. I think that's why it makes newspaper editors etc so unhappy.

Now, the other thing is that there are real ways that claiming human-ness from historically derogated positions has disrupted the category itself in really important ways (I think of the sanitation workers in Memphis holding up signs: "I am a man" - challenging the middle-class whiteness of personhood). Sometimes getting to the level of the human is an attainment, not a reduction to something more basic. It would be interesting to think about the difference between humanness and personhood.

um. sorry that got all long.
cruciferouscruciferous on May 11th, 2007 06:54 pm (UTC)
yes, the pain in writing what i wrote is that i don't feel like i usually have much of a choice about whether to engage in the "we are human" rhetoric because trans people are dying of not being human. so when i go do a training at a discriminating institution, i can't tell the people "do your own homework, go read books about trans people," i have to be thankful i'm even getting in to talk to the discriminators, recognizing that a trans person's ability to be housed or something is riding on it, and still recognizing that i think trans 101 trainings are really problematic and 2 hours of me talking about what discrimination looks like may not make enough difference. i do work my trainings around obstacles rather than explaining trans people. i provide no definitions of terms, and instead focus on clearing up myths, like that trans people need surgery to be "real," that trans women are a threat to other women in sex-segregated facilities, that the discomfort of people already accessing the institution is not an okay reason to exclude, etc, and try to train them on spotting discrimination. still, who knows what it really does?
i've also been talking a lot with my friend morgan about how the quest for "humanness" in the US right now is tied up with the prison industrial complex, so that when lgbt people want to be human we pass hate crimes to say "name us as human by making the machine that deprives people of human status work for us." this is, of course, a horrendous nightmare, creating a politics of queer/trans liberation that uses the courtroom and the prison as a site of this liberation. gag me. trying to think about how to strategically navigate these things...how to recognize the sometimes essential need to engage these discourses of humanity, find moments of resistance, and recognize the costs.
loudestyellerloudestyeller on May 12th, 2007 12:35 am (UTC)
Maybe another way to think about the approach you're taking - another reason I think it's really generative - is that it's *enacting* a practice of understanding trans people as (at least) human, and proceeding from there. So the refusal to detail genitalia, for example, is a technology for shifting the assumptions people in these institutions are coming in with.

I got some hope reading the (kind of uneven) collection that came out in Canada not too long ago Transforming Feminisms - the lawyer in the Vancouver Rape Relief case talks about how had she not found herself representing Kimberly Nixon she could imagine herself staying with an anti-trans radical feminism consonant with the RR line. It reminded me of the various ways people change.

But that connects to how the addressing the "justice" system/PIC in terms of humanness is part of the personhood question - maybe when people are deprived of legal personhood through felony convictions, e.g., they lose a felt humanness? I don't know. That's a really important point about what's wrong with using the system that deprives us of the status of the human as a validation of our humanity. It is a nightmare.

In much western philosophy, the realm I'm most familiar with, entry into the space of the human has been understood in terms of socially-situated embodiment, the aesthetic, indeterminacy, and freedom. Categories of personhood have been ways to codify that space and render its indeterminacy determinate - and this is one reason that it still is worthwhile to work with both of these categories. But it's grinding work, for sure.
likethearkliketheark on May 11th, 2007 04:46 am (UTC)
eliding referred me here. I thought I would share a (heavily edited) letter I just had published in the Boston Globe Magazine on precisely this issue.
heartrate1978 on May 13th, 2007 08:40 am (UTC)
Leading a visible and viable life so often means being the teachable moment for others. Literally embodying it.

It's rare to be able to treat the onslaught of those moments with anything approaching grace. It's rarer still to be able to claim such moments as your own and teach what you want people to learn, rather than answer what they think they want to know.

You're doing it with honesty and struggle and dignity that belies the characterization of your resistance as "refused transparency." It seems more like chosen truth--what's in your pants or on your chest or in your endocrine system is certainly verifiable, but knowing those facts doesn't get us any closer to answering why trans people continue to suffer abuse and death from institutions of power every day. And, in the end, which inquiry truly makes us more human?
nixwilliams on May 28th, 2007 02:38 am (UTC)
heya, referred here by theorybitch.

your criticism of 'trans primer' stuff has been really helpful to me in re-framing how i approach giving papers, talks, lectures, etc. to non-trans groups (or people who aren't that knowledgeable about trans stuff). in a lecture i gave to a third year class last week i was able to simultaneously give the 'trans 101' introduction, critique the various parts that make it up (intersex conditions, different cultural instances of gender variance), and question the introduction as a whole. so, thank you!

i wonder if you'd mind if i link to this post from my blog?
(Anonymous) on August 12th, 2008 03:34 pm (UTC)
I found your site on technorati and read a few of your other posts. Keep up the good work. I just added your RSS feed to my Google News Reader. Looking forward to reading more from you down the road!