To: Spade, Dean
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
I forwarded it to my friend, Rolan, saying:
"Spade, Dean" <firstname.lastname@example.org> wrote:
i have absolutely no idea how to answer this question.
Rolan brilliantly responded:
UGH! How about this:
I'm not sure. Why did you decide to live openly as a woman?
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?
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.