Arson at the Montreal GRS Clinic is Terrorism

On May 2, someone started a fire at the Centre de chirurgie plastique de Montréal, the world-class clinic where Dr. Brassard & Dr. Bélanger perform gender reassignment surgeries for trans people, causing more than a hundred thousand dollars in damages and shutting down the clinic. Although the culprit hasn’t been identified yet, many are speculating that the arson was a hate crime targeting trans communities.

But it’s not a hate crime. It’s terrorism.

If it’s confirmed that the arsonist targeted the clinic because it provided body modifications to trans people, and that’s very likely, we should recognize that it’s not because they hate us. It’s because they want to scare us. It’s because they want services to be denied to us.

If it’s really about us, then it’s not blind hate: that fire was a precise strike directed right at our rights and our bodies.

Luckily no one was killed. Still, this will be a major disruption. Both vaginoplasty and phalloplasty require very long recovery time. Trans people from all over the world went to that clinic, especially for vaginoplasty. All the arrangment they did are gone: the plane they booked, the vacation time they took away from work, all that was for nothing. Although what I hear on the grapevine is that the clinic should be back up within a month, and please don’t quote me on this, I expect for many people the fire will create much longer delays.

And no matter what, we will now know that we can’t be safe there anymore. That the arsonist, or someone with similar goals, might strike back. Because now, trans health is a terrorist target, just like abortions.

No, I don’t think it’s random that it happens now. We just ended the most violent years for trans women, with dozens of murders in North America, and we’re still fighting teeth and nails against Canadian Conservatives and US Republicans trying to implement laws restricting access to bathrooms for trans people, from the Plett amendment here in Canada to House Bill 2 in North Carolina. While cis progressives celebrate trans celebrities on front pages of magazines, violence is fiercer than ever because of the climate of trans hypervisibility we live in.

As I said, there is a possibility that I’m overreacting. After all, they haven’t found the culprit yet, we don’t know their motive, and it could very well be something completely unrelated. But I’m pretty sure my gut feeling is right. And if it is, we can’t afford to merely say it’s a hate crime. Because what happened is what terrorism looks like.


3 Words That Are Killing Social Justice Circles

At a workshop I gave recently, I decided to do something pretty radical : ban three widely overused buzzwords.

While buzzwords in general are a weakness of SJW-types like me, most of them can be salvaged and still have something to give us.


Me giving the aforementionned workshop at Univertisity of Victoria 🙂

Intersectionnality, for instance, may be vastly overused to the point of losing its meaning, and it tends to be ritualized in the practice of listing ever longer numbers of oppression, but returning to the work of Kimberlé Crenshaw and to its use in black feminism always brings some fresh air into that word. This way, it is relatively easy to give it back its original meaning, rooted in the way that combinations of oppression and the unique conditions they create need to be recognized.

However, the three words I banned cannot be salvaged. Not only are they overused, not only have their virtues been diluted, but they have dangerous implications in the way they frame different issues.

Even though people using them come from good places, these words are hurting and are erasing huge swathes of experiences under a unified, buzzwordy glaze.

I propose we make an effort to remove them from our vocabulary, and enrich ourselves by exploring new ways to express the same ideas.

1. “Identify”

Now, I know that the idea of self-identification is super important. Giving people the right to frame their own experiences is powerful : after all, no one has a better expertise on you than, well… you.

However, not everyone is recognized this authority on their own experience. Saying someone “self-identifies as” establishes that there are different levels of truth for people to fit, a burden that usually falls mostly on the most marginalized.

Autistic people with an official diagnosis (especially one gotten during childhood) get to “be” autistic, where those who self-diagnosed are only “identifying” as autistic.

Cis people get to “be” men and women, where trans people only “identify as” male, female or non binary.

The most flagrant example of this is the new tendency to label women-only spaces inclusive of trans women as “Open to all women or people who identify as women”. What? Aren’t trans women women?

The lower truth value given to self-identification alone is even more obvious when you look at other uses of this word : for instance, when US newspeople talk about “self-identified” Republicans or Democrats in polls, they are telling us to take the data with a grain of salt, because they might not be real, i.e. registered, members of either party.

For people whose experiences and identities are not validated by outside power structures (for instance the norms relating to gender assignment, or medical power, etc.), saying they “self-identify” makes it explicit that we only have their word to take for it, and that we don’t think they meet the truth criteria for just “being” who they say they are.

2. “Empower”

The idea of giving more power to people is obviously great. However, the word “empower” has become so overused that it’s often hard to know what describing something as “empowering” actually means, besides “I like it”.

Most importantly, the focus on “empowerment” frames some frequently dismissed women’s issues in a very unsatisfactory manner.

Sex workers have to prove that the work they do is “empowering” them before feminists advocate for sex workers’ rights.

Muslims women must defend wearing their hijab as an “empowering” practice if they don’t want to be dismissed as submissive.

A girl wearing makeup must say that makeup “empowers”, lest she *gasp* reinforce gender stereotypes.

In all these instances, we ask women to prove that what they do is feminist enough to be valid, instead of accepting their experiences as they come and focusing on the rights and services they need.

The roots of this are clearly misogynistic, as more often than not, it is femininity that needs to be framed as “empowering”, while masculinity is considered okay by default. (Visibly masculinity is always empowering, is that right?)

Using individual empowerment to answer these charges is a very liberal way to discuss issues. By focusing on individuals, “empowerment” is ill-suited as a basis for collective action and for challenging structural factors at the root of marginalization.

Also, prioritizing “empowerment” forces people to frame whatever experiences they may have in proper feminist language, a translation that is not necessarily obvious for people who don’t spend less time in feminist circles. Proper wording sho
uld never be a prerequisite for having your rights defended.

The point is, all of these “empowering” things are valid. The only charge necessary to answer the bad radical feminism behind the exclusion of sex workers, hijab-wearing women, etc., is that it is misogynistic. Empowerment politics hides that misogyny.

3. Problematic

Whereas the last two were ambiguous, with a mix of good and bad features, “problematic” is really the most dangerous word in social justice circles.

Taking trans issues as an example, saying “transsexual” instead of whatever is the word du jour in trans communities is problematic, forcing trans women in men’s bathrooms is problematic, laws mandating surgeries for legal recognition are problematic, “gender dysphoria” being in the DSM is problematic, not problematizing the association between “male” and “penis” in is problematic, advocating cuts to trans healthcare is problematic, everything is fucking problematic.

Some of these exemples of “problematic” need to be denounced, other are symptomatic of overarching issues, others still are really open debates where many legitimate positions exist.

Describing them all as “problematic” levels everything into a “perfect”/”problematic” dichotomy that loses all sense of scale and consequence. If we can’t see the difference between using inadequate language in private settings and implementing discriminatory policies, we are setting ourselves up for some dangerous situations.

Using “problematic” as a standard focuses on the attainment of perfection, on showing that you have deeper understanding than someone else, with no reference to the context: who’s doing something, what position(s) of power they occupy or not, whether they have access to the intricate knowledge base of radical communities, what the real consequences of something are, etc.

This word is at the core of call out culture, a problem we have because we prefer showing ourselves better at the game of social justice than nurturing alliances or favouring education.

Instead of saying something is problematic, why not explain why it is? Can’t we see the difference between something that is violent and something that is inaccurate? Between dangerous and symptomatic? Between denouncing and educating?

Trans Visibility is Dangerous

I want to use this article basically as an outlet for me to vent about an idea I hear aaaaaaaall the time: that trans “visibility” somehow represents social change, that just talking about trans people, no matter how we do that, somehow contributes to putting an end to violence.

As you probably noticed, for the past couple of years we’ve been in a huge visibility buzz moment pretty much everywhere. First we had Laverne Cox in Orange is the New Black, and she’s pretty awesome, so that was good. Then, at some point, people started talking about Caitlyn Jenner, and then it started to be shit.

(By the way, at basically every trans 101-type workshop I’ve given in 2015-16, people mentionned Caitlyn Jenner and Laverne Cox. Those two are apparently the only two trans women who exist in the whole world.)

But yeah, right now is the time of celebrity-led visibility. Because yay! It’s the first time that a trans person is famous! … Oh wait, Christine Jorgens
was famous, and that was back in the 1950s.

I know! It’s the first time that trans characters are christine jorgensenfeatured in mainstream pop culture. If you don’t count Ace Ventura, because that was transphobic. And apart from the Candis Cayne character  in the mid-2000s I guess. Oh and there was that Kinks song in the 70s right?

Hum… Hey, now I know! It’s the first time that a celebrity transitions while being famous, because that never happened before! … Oh damn, I had forgotten all about Lana Wachowski. Damn. Have, have trans people really been around since forever?

All this kidding aside, we are at a special moment of visibility. Not because this is anything new, it’s not, but because people are getting ready to listen, at least enough for rich cis people to think there’s money to be made off our backs. This moment of visibility is indeed helping in some ways: it makes people open to learn more about trans experiences, it pushes politicians to act about trans issues, it helps people find words to talk about their own blossoming trans lives.

And that’s kind of good. Education is a suuuuuper important thing, we really need solid material on trans issues to correct how normativity is enforced by society and institutions and to push us in new directions. We do need policies changes, and political action is important for that: if seeing Caitlyn Jenner on a Vanity Fair cover can be a reminder to public officials and politicians that yes, trans people need proper ID, that they need access to health care, that cops are harassing sex workers because of criminalization, or whatever other issue that we need to lead safe lives, well that’s good. That feeling when you see a trans person or trans experience and say that’s me, that was me along, I can finally make sense of all the things I felt for sooooo long – that feeling is amazing, and seeing more trans people helps share the news.

But this effect can be both for good and for bad. Because people can learn the wrong things, politicians can pursue the wrong policies, and exposure to unrelatable trans experiences doesn’t help people in their own path to transition.

Trans visibility reminds people that trans people exist. It increases the scrutiny everyone gets, it makes the line between being seen as trans and passing in stealth harder to cross because people are on the lookout for potential trans people. If no one knew trans people existed, it would be much easier for most trans people to pass. But since people do know we exist, and since we remind them that we do, they know we’re out there somewhere. And by seeing us on TV, they also get to know what to look for, they can know to look for the things that make us different from cis people even with hormones. The more they see trans people being labeled as trans, the more transphobic asshats can know that a deep voice, an Adam’s apple and small breast mean that that girl over there? She’s a tranny, let’s beat it up.

And no, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this year of “visibility” was also the most violent on record against trans women. It is not. Visibility comes with a backlash, and the most marginalized of our sisters are paying the price for every Caitlyn Jenner out there making reality TV shows.

It’s not a coincidence either that we’ve seen a strong push to make it illegal for trans women access to women’s bathroom in the past year throughout North America. After all, policy that takes trans people into account can mean two things : more inclusive policies, or overtly discriminatory ones. For every progressive politician out there seeing magazine covers who decides to make legal sex change procedures more accessible, there’s another one on the dark side making a plan to ban us from public spaces and to discriminate further against us.

That’s not new either. According to Viviane Namaste’s amazing book, the consequence of increasing visibility in Quebec in the late 1970s and early 1980s were increased denials of services. Because they knew trans people existed and had to be subject to legislation, the government issued a law to restrict access to legal sex change to post-op trans people and created a specific category to pay for SRS reimbursing an amount way below the actual cost of the procedures (so surgeons stopped doing it). Before then, trans people, their health care providers and their allies had been able to navigate the lack of guidelines to their advantage. The existence of clear, discriminatory guidelines put an end to accessible trans health care and created barriers to legal recognition.

Just be careful when you praise visibility, and remember that being more visible does not make us safer. Visibility is NOT the same thing as education, especially not good education, it is NOT the same thing as moving our political objectives forward, and it is NOT something we should pursue for its own sake.

Body modifications & body management for trans people

Because bodies (especially secondary sexual characteristics) are gendered, a lot of trans people need to modify their bodies as they transition. Cis people know that: every time they talk to us, they will ask a question about our bodies, centred basically about how we can magically embody “the other sex” or about whether or not we had “the surgery”. Obviously, they don’t know is that trans bodies are much more complex than this and of the wide variety of strategies trans people use to be amazing unicorns.


A few comments before we start

1) This list is not complete. People may use other body modifications or body management tactics, or use those I list here in other ways and with other meanings (especially if they want to project a non-binary gender expression).

2) Not all trans people will want body modifications. Some will want several items on this list, and some won’t want even one. Despite the normatively enforced paths that cis people expect, building on medical gatekeeping, there is no mandatory path going from hormones to (genital) surgery except as a trajectory imposed on some trans people by doctors & gender identity clinics. This is in part because the effects of these procedures are numerous and complex, especially because many of them cause temporary or permanent sterility (trans activists are often very strong believers in and activists for reproductive justice, because it hits very close to home).

By the way, readers from Quebec who care about reproductive justice: it’s really time you start talking about how the governement cut sperm/ovary preservation for trans people by sheer incompetence. I talked about it a year ago as a thing that was going to happen if nothing was done to prevent it. The Minister promised not to cut that and to keep the coverage, but we’re starting to get reports of trans women being refused access, so visibly he’s incapable of doing his job of not screwing over trans people by accident. It’s really an issue where we would have needed support and allyship, yet despite the (completely legitimate) feminist uproar about a potential reduction in access to abortion under Bill 20, nobody said a word about how the very same law unnecessarily sterilized trans people.

3) The reason I talk about trans body modification & body management (instead of, say, “trans surgeries” or “trans medical procedures”) is to dedramatize these procedures a bit. Most of them are also possible for and requested by cis people, sometimes for reasons that resemble those of trans people (because they too need to be at ease with their gendered bodies), sometimes for reasons that have nothing to do with gender. However, access to them is often more difficult for trans people (even when they are standard for cis people) because trans experiences are not recognized and because doctors & medical professionals make many of the decisions related to access to these procedures (i.e. they are the gatekeepers and decide who is or isn’t properly trans). I also think it is closer to the relationship trans people have with their bodies, and better shows the range of ways they will manage them.

4) This is not intended at trans people exploring their transition options. My point here is to tell cis people an idea of the range of possibilities that exist, with relation to the needs that trans people often experience and what is currently possible. I wrote it originally because I didn’t have the time to cover this topic in depth at a training I gave on gender to the peer support volunteers of the Centre for Gender Advocacy, an organisation I have a strong crush with.

To trans & questionning people reading this, I hope this effort will prevent some of you to be confronted to the awkward, inquisitive, even voyeuristic questions you might otherwise have gotten. I recommend you go to trans people around you or online (Youtube is an amazing resource) and to your local trans organisation if you want to know more about your options.

Now that all this is clear, let’s go 🙂

Hormones & hormone replacement therapy (HRT)

Hormones (mainly estrogen & testosterone) are a very important part of trans experiences. They can strongly masculinize or feminize one’s body in many complex ways. As most physical markers that allow people to gender adults are secondary sex characteristics (breast, beard, etc.) that normally develop under the effect of sex hormones, they can have a strong influence on whether someone is recognized or not as a woman or a man (and perceived or not as trans, with all the violence this can entail), just as they can be used to mark a non-binary body.

Before or during puberty, children can use hormone blockers to stop the effects of their naturally occurring hormones. It can be followed by HRT, but not necessarily. These only delay the effects of puberty to allow children to make their own decisions about their bodies. As we will see, many parts of the body are not affected by HRT after puberty, and can only be altered with surgeries or not at all. This is why it is so important for trans children to be given time to think about what they want for their body.

People who want to masculinize their bodies will use testosterone (often through injections). Amongst other things, it changes fat distribution to create a more masculine appearance, grows muscle mass, enlarges the clitoris, makes facial hair and other hair grow (but can cause baldness), and deepens the voice. It does not remove the breasts.

People who want to feminize their bodies often use estrogens and anti-androgens (to block testosterone). Amongst other things, it changes fat distribution to create a more feminine appearance, decreases muscle mass, decreases erections, and make breasts grow. It does not reverse baldness (although it stops the process), and it does not alter the voice.

Unless growth is not finished, HRT doesn’t affect the bone structure. For instance, trans men using HRT will often be much shorter than cis men, while trans women will be much taller and broader than cis women, with smaller hips. Although fat tissue on the face will move, it won’t change the underlying bone structure, so trans women will often have a very square-looking figure.

In addition to these visible changes, many trans people report complex changes in their emotions and sexuality. Many trans men report increased sex drive, for instance, while some trans women feel more in tune with their emotions and cry more often.

(Yes, the fact that trans people change this way when they start to take hormones is an uncomfortable truth for some radical gender constructivists who expects that gender stereotypes is all about socialization and that biology has nothing to do with anything. But let’s carry on.)

Even trans people who take hormones (not all do) can have contradictory opinions about their effects, and feel good about some and not about others.

Genital surgeries

Even though cis people talk about these as “the” surgery, there a quite a few procedures available that relate to the genitals & reproductive system. Until recently, in Quebec, these were necessary for legal recognition, and wanting them has been a criteria for access to other procedures. They still are in many other places. Obtaining them can be fairly difficult and costly. Here are some of them.

  • Hysterectomy: Removal of the uterus (and the ovaries).
  • Phalloplasty: Construction of a penis. This can be a very costly and demanding procedure, requiring several surgeries and tissue grafts that leave visible scars on other parts of the body.
  • Metoidioplasty: Releases the clitoris (which is often also enlarged by testosterone). This can be enough to provide some penetration during sex.
  • Vaginoplasty: Creation of a vulva and vagina, using the tissues that exist in the penis. Contrary to popular belief, this is not a “castration”: the procedure used in Quebec actually involves reversing the tissue from external to internal. For people who prefer that, there is also an option to not have a vaginal cavity (basically, creating a vulva without a vagina), which is less intense in terms of aftercare, but doesn’t allow penetrative sex.
  • Orchiectomy: Removal of the testes, which eases “tucking” (see below) and allows to stop using anti-androgens.

Even without surgeries, trans people have options here. For instance, trans men can use a packer to simulate the presence of a penis when clothed, or use a stand-to-pee to use urinals without a penis, while trans women can use “tucking” to hide their genitals. Or they might not. Tucking, for instance, can be very tricky and uncomfortable, and can reduce fertility (often, the testes are pushed inside the body, where the temperature is unsuited for sperm production), so some trans women will not bother.


Just a few examples to show the diversity of needs that exists:

  • Mastectomy: Because HRT doesn’t remove breasts, trans men will often get them removed surgically. If they don’t want surgery, or if they can’t access it, they can use a binder to hide their breasts.
  • Breast augmentation: Even with HRT, some trans women will develop smaller breast (especially considering that they might be very tall and broad) and will desire breast augmentation.
  • Electrolysis & laser hair removal: Because facial hair doesn’t disappear with hormones, trans women will often need to remove it with laser or electrolysis. Trans women may also feel uncomfortable with the hair they have in other parts of their bodies.
  • Facial feminization: As we saw, bones are not affected by HRT, so many trans women will try further feminize their appearance with surgeries to their nose, jawline, etc.
  • Voice: Trans people will often work to feminize or masculinize their voices, whether they take hormones or not, by changing the pitch of their voice, their airflow, their breathing, their speech patterns, etc. This is especially a problem for trans women, because the changes to the vocal cords occurring in puberty are not reversible. Trans women can also get surgeries to alter their vocal cords, but it’s a fairly hazardous process (the surgeon with the best reputation is apparently in South Korea).
  • Haircuts: Hair can have a lot of symbol meaning. For many trans people, cutting their hair short or starting to let it grow will be a part of their own path to transition (and being forced to cut their hair or to let it grow, part of their childhood traumas). Some trans women will also use wigs, either because of baldness, because they have shorter hair, or because they just like to. Those who have bald patches might also have hair grafts or pursue other ways to correct that.
  • Trachea shave (there is a fancy name but no one uses it): Removal of the Adam’s apple.
  • Makeup: Many trans women will need to wear makeup to hide their beard stubble if they don’t have (or have not finished) permanent hair removal. They may also want to feminize their features with contouring. Also, they may just like looking wonderful, which is a thing makeup does.

Before/after makeup. Makeup is fun!


Saw anything wrong in this list? Please tell me in the comments 🙂

Expériences incompatibles? Les personnes trans autistes dans les discours médicaux

Ce texte est inspiré par la présentation que j’ai faite le 26 août 2015 au Congrès internationale d’études féministes dans la Francophonie.

La relation entre autisme et genre est importante (et assez discutée). On sait très bien que l’autisme est plus facilement diagnostiqué chez les garçons, que la vision typique de l’autisme est normalement une jeune garçon, etc. J’aimerais contribuer à cette discussion en apportant une perspective trans sur la question du genre et de l’autisme, perspective qui me semble hautement nécessaire.

J’aimerais lancer la discussion à ce sujet en abordant quelques discours médicaux qui affectent les personnes trans autistes et la violence qu’ils contiennent. La médecine est une institution qui dispose d’une autorité immense et d’un pouvoir immense sur les vies des personnes trans et des personnes neuroatypiques, et il est important de savoir ce qu’elle dit sur nous. Et en vérité, ce que dit la médecine sur les expériences trans et sur l’autisme, c’est qu’on ne peut pas vivre les deux en même temps.

L’hypothèse de la testostérone prénatale

Pour commencer, j’aimerais parler de deux projets scientifiques actuels qui cherchent à établir l’origine ou la cause de l’autisme et des expériences trans (i.e., dans la recherche, le « transsexualisme », même si c’est un terme qui date du DSM-III). Ils sont entièrement distincts, donc je vais d’abord les analyser isolément avant d’en faire une critique.

Le premier projet scientifique est celui mené par les chercheurs de l’Autism Research Center de l’Université Cambridge, mené par Simon Baron-Cohen et ses collaborateurs dans les 20 dernières. D’après Simon Baron-Cohen, le cerveau est fondamentalement genré : les cerveaux masculins sont plus « systématisants » (c’est-à-dire aptes à analyser les règles d’un système) et les cerveaux féminins, plus « empathisants » (c’est-à-dire aptes à identifier l’état mental des autres et à répondre avec l’émotion appropriée). Par conséquent, il affirme que l’autisme est typique d’un « cerveau masculin extrême » très systématisant et avec des déficits d’empathie. Selon lui, il s’agit d’une différence fondamentale dans la structure du cerveau. Cette différence serait perceptible dans l’anatomie du cerveau, dans la mesure où les différences perçues entre les cerveaux masculins et féminins sont accentuées dans les cerveaux des personnes autistes. L’origine de cette différence serait l’effet de la testostérone pendant la gestation, qui transformerait à long terme la structure du cerveau.

Le projet scientifique sur les origines du « transsexualisme » n’a pas de centre aussi clair, même, de 1995 au milieu des années 2000, le cœur des postulats de ces travaux a été établi par des équipes basées à Amsterdam. D’après les chercheurs travaillant sur l’origine du « transsexualisme », l’identité de genre est fixée dans le cerveau. On peut la détecter en analysant les cerveaux des personnes trans : dans les zones où l’on perçoit des différences entre hommes et femmes cis, les femmes trans ont des cerveaux plus proches des femmes cis, et les hommes trans ont des cerveaux plus proches des hommes cis. L’explication donnée à ces différences est, encore, l’effet structurant de la testostérone prénatale, qui transforme à long terme la structure du cerveau.

Le postulat de base de ces deux champs de recherches est donc assez similaire, et les preuves qu’on apporte pour prouver l’importance de la testostérone prénatale. En plus des différences dans l’anatomie du cerveau, on présente généralement les mêmes preuves.

  • D’abord, le rapport en la longueur de l’annulaire et de l’index. Oui oui, je parle de la longueur des doigts, qui serait un indicateur extrêmement indirect de la testostérone prénatale. Cette preuve est moins mise de l’avant récemment, mais c’était l’une des premières à être avancées dans les deux cas.
  • Ensuite, on se sert des expériences des personnes intersexes (de leur identité de genre ou de la présence de traits autistes) pour justifier l’effet de la testostérone prénatale. Cependant, on ne mentionne jamais les violences dont les personnes intersexes sont victimes.
  • On établit aussi des liens avec des gènes liés à la production

La seule différence, pour les preuves utilisées, est le fait que Simon Baron-Cohen ont fait une série d’étude liant des traits autistes avec le taux de testostérone prélevé dans le sac amniotique. Aucune étude n’a lié les expériences trans à des taux d’hormones prénataux effectivement prélevé – en fait, le fait que le développement prénatal était normal est ce qui fait la différence, pour les médecins, entre « transsexualisme » et « trouble du développement sexuel », et donc de pathologisations différentes –, ce qui devrait être un problème fondamental…

Ces deux types de recherches sont très critiquées pour énormément de raisons, dont des problèmes méthodologiques, conceptuels et théoriques sérieux. À titre d’exemple, la distinction « systématisant/empathisant » est parfois un voile très faible qui cache des stéréotypes de genre : Baron-Cohen, par exemple, traite « jouer avec des camions » et des choses similaires comme étant des traits évidemment systématisants. Son test pour détecter des traits autistes, l’Autism Quotient, est basé sur des populations déjà diagnostiquées, mais comme le processus diagnostic est fortement biaisé et détecte mal les filles et les femmes autistes, il n’est pas surprenant que les hommes, par exemples, aient des scores plus élevés.

Cela dit, la critique de Simon Baron-Cohen ou des recherches sur le « transsexualisme » pourrait faire l’objet d’un livre en soi, et ce n’est pas mon propos. Ce qui m’intéresse, c’est les conséquences sur les personnes trans autistes.

Or, si l’on combine ces deux champs de recherches qui, avec la même démarche, apportent les mêmes preuves pour identifier le même mécanisme comme causant et l’autisme, et les identités trans, on voit qu’il est impossible d’être une femme trans autiste.

Avec ces études, une femme trans autiste aurait-elle un cerveau féminin ET un cerveau masculin extrême, causé par des taux simultanément faibles ET élevés de testostérone au même moment de la gestation. Au final, être une femme trans et une personne autiste serait impossible, ce sont des expériences incompatibles pour la médecine.

Pourtant, mon expérience, en ayant gravité autour de communautés trans et de communautés autistes, c’est qu’il y avait beaucoup de personnes autistes ou neuroatypiques dans la première et beaucoup de personnes trans ou non conformes dans le genre dans la seconde (Jack, 2012). D’ailleurs, deux études (de Vries et al., 2010, Stang et al., 2014), quoiqu’elles soient critiquables sur certains points, établissent de hautes prévalences de l’autisme chez les personnes trans et d’expériences variantes du genre chez des personnes autistes.

Ces théories élégantes ont des conséquences réelles et invalident les expériences des femmes trans autistes. Cette citation est très parlante :

I am constantly plagued by the thought that my identity crisis may just be a result of aspergers [sic]… It is crushing to hear that aspergers is characteristic of the male brain. (SleepingChrysalid, citée dans Jack, 2012)

Le résultat est un problème aussi, mais donne aussi à réfléchir sur ce qui les problèmes qui mènent la science médicale à atteindre des résultats qui concordent si peu avec la réalité.

D’abord, ces recherches se font en vase clos. Il y a peu de communication entre ces recherches, même si elles suivent la même démarche. Ce sont des champs complètement séparés qui se citent rarement.

Cependant, le cœur du problème est la marginalisation et la pathologisation des personnes trans et des personnes autistes. Comme elles sont considérées comme rares dans la population en général, les médecins se sentent autorisés de ne pas les tenir en compte dans leurs recherches (même si, en l’occurrence, le fait que la combinaison trans et autiste devrait être considérée comme significative).

De plus, comme être trans ET être autiste , les personnes trans autistes sont exclues des échantillons : dans les recherches sur les personnes trans, être autiste signifie qu’on n’est pas un sujet sain; dans les recherches sur les personnes autistes, être trans signifie ne pas être un sujet sain. Cela consolide l’isolation des chercheurs face à des expériences qui pourraient contredire leurs présomptions.

Descriptions médicales de personnes trans autistes

Dans la pratique clinique, cependant, on ne peut pas faire abstraction des personnes trans autistes, parce qu’elles sont là et il faut les traiter quand même. C’est ainsi qu’on dispose d’études de cas sur des personnes trans autistes et de deux études sur la « comorbidité » trans et autiste. Néanmoins, même dans cette situation, les médecins tendent à traiter l’autisme et les expériences trans comme incompatibles. Plus spécifiquement, ils considèrent que les expériences trans sont subordonnées à l’autisme, qu’elles en sont des manifestations.

Une première technique pour subordonner  est applicable aux homme trans, et est utilisée par Kraemer et al. (2005) :

As expected for AS [Asperger’s syndrome], we noticed over-developped logical thinking and accentuation of logical-abstract abilities, as well as an imbalance of low emotionality and a high level of instrumental, non-emotional attributes including activity, lack of emotionality and perseverance. These attributes are generally associated with masculinity and may have led to a subjective consciousness in our patient of being male. […] The extremely high level of masculinity can be interpreted as an additional compensatory effect to accentuate the biologically absent male side.

Taking this into account, we believe that, over the years, our patient has developed GID [Gender Identity Disorder] as a consequence of adopting male emotional and cognitive traits due to AS.

Comme l’autisme est considéré comme une condition masculinisante, il n’est pas surprenant, pour les auteurs, qu’une « femme » autiste s’identifie comme homme. Après tout, « elle » a un cerveau masculin.

Ce discours d’invalidation inspiré de Simon Baron-Cohen n’est toutefois pas applicable aux femmes trans. Pour elles (mais aussi parfois pour des hommes), on va plutôt réduire les comportements féminins comme des symptômes de l’autisme, comme des traits de l’autisme (pour une liste de traits, voir l’ASAN). Par exemple, on dira qu’« ils » aiment les vêtements féminins parce qu’« ils » sont attirés par les objets brillants ou soyeux, qui comblent mieux leurs différences sensorielles. Quand « ils » s’intéressent à leur apparence, c’est un intérêt spécial, un obsession. Quand « ils » exigent l’utilisation de bons pronoms ou d’être reconnus comme une femme, c’est un symptôme obsessionnel compulsif. Et au final, on explique que s’« ils » ne s’identifient pas au genre assigné à la naissance, c’est à cause d’une théorie de l’esprit défaillante, ou de difficultés d’adaptation sociale, ou à cause du harcèlement qu’« ils » vivent. Dans l’ensemble, être trans est placé dans le même registre que retirer les étiquettes des vêtements ou connaître les horaires de train par cœur.

Peu importe comment on s’y rend (en présumant une masculinité inhérente à l’autisme ou en faisant des comportements non conformes dans le genre des symptômes accidentels), on arrive au même résultat : les expériences trans ne sont pas valides en soi.

En vérité, même si elles parlent de personnes trans autistes, ces études ne permettent absolument pas d’accéder à leurs expériences. La situation est comparable à celle qui est décrite par les Subaltern Studies pour l’histoire indienne. Ici, comme les voix des femmes indiennes étaient cachées par (et dans) les discours oppressifs du , selon Spivak, les expériences des personnes trans autistes sont rendues inaccessibles dans les études de cas et elles sont entièrement transformées. Elles sont effacées par la superposition de plusieurs positions d’autorité dans le discours médical, qui constitue un regard cis sur des personnes trans, un regard médical sur un objet clinique, un regard neurotypique sur personne autiste, et, souvent, un regard adulte sur enfant.

Néanmoins, on peut trouver quelques traces de la violence médicale dans les documents si on les lit contre le grain et malgré le filtre dominant. Prenons cet extrait, à titre d’exemple :

Individuals with an ASD frequently received a GID-NOS diagnosis. GID-NOS appeared to be given when the cross gender behaviour and interests were merely subthreshold (mostly in children), or atypical or unrealistic. For example, an adolescent with ASD, who always had the feeling of being different from his peers in childhood, but had no history of childhood cross-gender behavior, became convinced that his feeling of alienation was explained by gender dysphoria. He had the hope that his communication problems would alleviate by taking estrogens. [Suivi d’un autre cas] (de Vries, 2010)

Ici, on utilise l’attente d’un parcours transnormatif (fondé sur des expériences neurotypiques) pour juger le parcours d’une personne trans autiste. C’est ce qui justifie le jugement de cette expérience comme étant « atypique » ou « irréaliste » et, comme l’indique un tableau dans le même article, un refus de traitement, car cette personne n’a pas été jugée « admissible à la réassignation sexuelle ». Pourtant, le fait de vivre autisme et identité trans ensemble et de voir la résolution de la dysphorie comme pouvant aider les problèmes dans les situations sociales n’est pas exceptionnel. La situation décrite ici est un cas de discrimination capacitiste, où les attentes capacitiste et neuronormative de la clinique de genre ont empêché à une femme trans d’avoir accès à du soutien dans sa transition.

Ce n’est pas la seule forme de violence . Dans d’autres articles traitant d’enfants plus jeunes, on voit des traces de normalisation des comportements genrés considérés inappropriés par les médecins. Parfois, on perçoit que les médecins avaient l’espoir que des médicaments psychotropes règleraient le « trouble de l’identité de genre » de leur patient. Aussi, non seulement les articles mégenrent systématiquement les personnes trans (homme avec trouble de l’identité de genre pour femme trans, femme avec trouble de l’identité de genre pour homme trans, référence au sexe assigné à la naissance lorsqu’on ne dit rien sur l’identification, etc.), mais on voit souvent les médecins prendre le parti de ceux qui ne respectent pas l’identité de la personne trans décrite : demander les bons pronoms est décrit comme une « habitude », une chose à propos de quoi on peut faire « entendre raison ».

On voit aussi que la violence existe, sans qu’on en voie les formes, dans les résistances des personnes trans aux « traitements ». Par exemple, lorsqu’un médecin dit que son patient n’avait pas une bonne compliance aux traitements, ou lorsqu’un autre dit qu’une patiente a quitté la clinique de genre afin d’obtenir hormones/chirurgies ailleurs bien qu’elle ait été éligible, on voit des traces des réactions des personnes trans autistes aux discriminations qu’elles vivaient auprès des médecins.


Les discours dominants cis ont des conséquences sur les personnes trans, sur les personnes autistes, et sur les personnes trans autistes. En ce moment, la médecine traite les expériences trans et autistes comme incompatibles en légitimant des recherches qui invalident les identités des femmes trans et en subordonnant systématiquement les expériences trans à l’autisme dans des études de cas.

Ces discours méritent une réponse qui devra venir tant des communautés trans que du mouvement pour la neurodiversité. Nous avons besoins de communautés qui réfléchissent à l’accessibilité de leurs espaces de part et d’autre.

Surtout, nous avons besoin de partager les expériences des personnes trans autistes, écrites comme acte de résistance face au regard médical qui les transforment pour les accommoder à son capacitisme et à son cissexisme dominateurs, et comme outil pour la validation de toutes nos identités contre des institutions qui les disqualifient.

The Canadian Passport in 2015: A Document of Canadian Nationalism

I took a look at my Canadian passport the other day, and what I saw was a very telling document for understanding this nationalism and its foundations, and especially of how it was shaped as a matter of policy under the Harper government.


Outline of the document

The Canadian passport has 36 pages, not including the covers. Pages 1-4, 36 and the covers are mostly filled with administrative things (personal data, instructions and so forth) with a plain background, or with gratuitous maple leafs here and there. There isn’t much to say here, except that everything is bilingual, with English always first and French always second.

Pages 5-35 are for stamping visas and contains representations of important Canadian symbols. This is where the ideology starts. And perhaps as a sign of the more ideological and less functional nature of this section, the bilingualism scheme changes: here, the first language (French or English) changes in alternance.

This is the full list of what is represented:

  • 5: I can’t read the description on mine because it’s obscured by an observation on the whole page, but the image seems to be a feather an inukshuk, probably meant as an acknowledgement of First Nations.
  • 6-7 : “Samuel de Champlain, Father of New France”, with a boat, a map of New France and a statue of Champlain.
  • 8-9 : “The Fathers of Confederation”, with a picture of the Conference of Quebec (or Charlottetown?). It also contains two quotes, neither of which is translated, but they’re equivalent: “… a great nation – great in thought, great in action, great in hope, and great in position. Rt. Hon. Sir John A. Macdonald” on p. 8, “le temps est venu pour nous de former une grande nation. L’hon. Sir George-Étienne Cartier” on p. 9.
  • 10-11 : “The Last Spike, 1885”, with two pictures of the Canadian Pacific railway being completed.
  • 12-13 : “Canada’s North”, with a map of the Canadian North, including dots for the cities of Whitehorse, Yellowknife, Iqaluit and Alert, and with the path of the expeditions of “Joseph-Elzéar Bernier, explorer” from 1906 to 1913.
  • 14-15 : “Canada’s Prairies”, with corn on the foreground, then a big train, a silo and several oil rigs.
  • 16-17 : “Pier 21, Halifax—historic gateway to Canada”, with a picture of said pier and ships.
  • 18-19 : “Centre Block of Parliament, Ottawa”, which is self-descriptive, with the quote : “Parliament is more than procedure; it is the custodian of the nation’s freedom. Rt. Hon. John Diefenbaker
  • 20-21 : “Niagara Falls”, self-descriptive.
  • 22-23 : “Canadian National Vimy Memorial, France”, with said monument and a close shot on Mother Canada crying, with the quote : “… in those few minutes I witnessed the birth of a nation. Brigadier-General A.E. Ross
  • 24-25 : “The City of Quebec, founded in 1608”, with Quebec City’s historic centre.
  • 26-27 : On the left, “North-West Mounted Police, 1873-1904”, with an old picture of the latter, and on the right, “Royal Canadian Mounted Police”, with a modern picture.
  • 28-29 : Respectively “The Grey Cup” and “The Stanley Cup”, with said cup and kids playing football and hockey.
  • 30 : “Nellie McClung, from the statue of the Famous Five”, with said statue, pictures of the Famous Five in the background and McClung’s We Are Persons.
  • 31 : “Statue of Terry Fox, Marathon of Hope”, with the statue and a car in the background.
  • 32-33 : “Billy Bishop, V.C., First World War flying ace”, “HMCS Sackville, Second World War”, “Canadian infantry, Korean war” and “National War Memorial”, self-descriptive.
  • 34-35 : “Cape Spear, Newfoundland and Labrador”, and “Bluenose”, self-descriptive.

And as the quotes show, given that they all use the word “nation”, the images are chosen to evoke a sense of nationalism. Some of them are, on the whole, fairly benign (Niagara Falls and children playing hockey come to mind), but some are not. Let’s unravel them, and Canadian nationalism under Harper at the same time.

Let’s build Canada, by Jingo!

Canadian nationalism is militaristic. And why wouldn’t it be?

The First World War, and especially the battle of Vimy, is one of the most important founding moments of Canadian nationalism, and one that most contributed to define it as something different from just a province of the great British Empire or something like that in the very minds of British Canadians. So let’s talk about this.

The period leading up to the First World War was dominated by the most dangerously militaristic ideology that can be thought of. Every state is Europe was built as a war machine. Every. Single. One. Germany often gets the most flak for this, but it’s kind of unjustified, because no one was any better. This general climate, more than the anecdotes of the summer of 1914, caused the disaster we know. The military was a major institution of this time, and so most nations that defined themselves (that is, all nations, because nations are in constant redefinition) brought forward their military successes (or dead generals) to define themselves, to say something about who they were. Now, extracting national/protonational pride from military history is nothing new, but the intense emphasis we see in the Belle Époque on military achievements was symptomatic of how insane this period was under the surface, and this has lasting consequences.

Two examples:

  • In France, schools in the age of revanchism (and still later) would have a word to say about any moment when saying they were fighting Germans in some way or other sounded vaguely plausible, even if that wasn’t meaningful in context (battle of Bouvines) or if they weren’t really fighting Germans at all (wars against Charles V: He himself was Flemish, ruled from Spain and mostly fought France in Italy, but hey, he was also Holy Roman Emperor and Archduke of Austria, so it counts, now be mad that we lost Alsace-Lorraine). From 1871 to Vichy and beyond, “historic” hostility towards Germany was one of the foremost defining feature of French nationalism, one that deeply influenced foreign policy, education, economy and armed forces (and really, that’s pretty much everything government did then, that and managing colonies). They kind of shifted emphasis eventually, I guess they found out that teaching their children to hate their most important EU partner wasn’t good policy.
  • In the United States of America, the War of Independence is obviously a defining moment. It is used constantly as part of the USA’s founding myth, in which General Washington (who named a city and a state) plays an important part. For instance, the fact that he didn’t somehow name himself king after the war (a fairly low standard of exceptional moral conduct, if you ask me) led to building him as a Cincinatus-like figure that fed the idea that America was supposedly not militaristic and full of freedom and doves or something. It is true that they didn’t have a huge peacetime standing army like all Europe did (mostly by lack of need), but look at the regularity they showed at naming their victorious generals as presidents just after their most important wars (Washington after independence, Grant after the Civil War, Eisenhower after WW2) and tell me they were so peace-loving.

Take any country, it’ll be mostly the same thing, with variations. One example would be the British with Trafalgar and Admiral Nelson — the British like thinking of themselves as a naval power and a free country, so they emphasized a naval leader who defeated the “tyrant” Napoleon.

In truth, the Great War was a defining moment for most colonies, and one that accelerated the process that would lead to decolonization after WW2. Colonies expected something out of the effort to put into fighting for their overlord. So it isn’t surprising that colonial nationalisms said a lot about the nation’s achievements in that war. Australia and New Zeeland used the ANZAC landings at Gallipoli for this, Canada has… Vimy Ridge.

While most nationalisms get some fuel from military history, the fact that Canadian nationalism first started to define itself in this very militaristic era has consequences. It means that any vaguely signficant military action instantly became a “founding moment” of some sort. And since British Canadian nationalism was, in this era, highly tied to the British Empire, Vimy Ridge is one of the few moments that fueled this nationalism from the start and that don’t sound completely anachronistic nowadays (a monument to the Boer War in South Africa would not sound right, for instance). While nationalisms are constant plays on memory and forgetfulness, this does mean that this military image will always come quickly to anyone wanting to push forward Canadian nationalism, and it does something to make this nationalism very militaristic.

This is how we got two pages and a quote for the Vimy Ridge Memorial, and why we also have 6 more pages containing military messages, obvious or not. The most obvious ones are those without the war memorial and the assorted military things (a single man, a naval vessel, the whole army) from three wars (WWI, WWII and Korea) and three branches of the armed forces (air, army, navy) and I’ll get to the Mounted Police later, but I fill I need to justify the last two: “Canada’s North”.

Sure, this one also counts as a general “yay we’re a big country let’s include all of it!” thing, but it also contains several messages that are not so harmless.

First, of the four cities that get to be mentioned, only one, Alert, is not the capital of a territory. It’s Cold War military base set up as far North as possible in order to detect potential incoming missiles and planes from the USSR. It’s why it’s called “Alert”. Putting a military base alongside territorial capitals as one of four signficant locations in the entire North is telling.

Second, while Stephen Harper’s Canada is climate sceptic when oil is involved (we’ll come back to that), he’s suddenly very aware of it when you tell him of a potential Northwest Passage. “Sovereignty of the Arctic” is one of Harper’s catchphrases. He uses it to justify increased military funding and beef up nationalism. So this message is actually very present. Like post-’71 French school maps giving special status Alsace-Lorraine, forcing children not to forget it, the passport contains a reminder to defend the Arctic. And no, I don’t think that it is a coincidence to see Alert and the Arctic in there while our foreign policy in Ukraine is as aggressive as it is and while the only thing that moves Harper to do anything even mildly pro-LGBT was the fact that it would insult Putin.

Third, the very idea of showing a Canadian “exploring” the area is anything but benign. It’s a reminder that this area is Canadian. Especially given that the history of “exploration” of the world is, in fact, that of European colonialism. But once again, I’ll say more later.

The global focus on the military is hardly surprising, given that Canada is has lived for almost ten years under a starkly conservative government that kept to the right-wing orthodoxy of austerity and military spending. Harper’s understanding of public history is that it should promote the state and its military success. The “War of 1812” saga of bizarre, overfunded commemorations is as much a testimony of this as is the cuts to Park Canada’s other historical sites.

And sure, not everyone agrees with the effort by Conservatives to tie Canada to the military, and we have our “Canada is peaceful” pride fueled by how Pearson championed the creation of UN peacekeeping, for instance. But the strand of Canadian nationalism that was founded on violence and war for the glory of the Empire (since then replaced by “democracy” or something) is older yet, and far from dead.

Better of Both Worlds: Bilingual, Multicultural, and White

Bilingualism and multiculturalism are two very significant values that found Canadian identity, especially since the Trudeau era. Which is interesting, because they’re quite contradictory ideas, but anyway.

1) The idea of Canada as country founded by two peoples, French and British, is a very old myth of French Canadian nationalism. British Canadians didn’t quite see Canada like that after Confederation (to them, the right to speak French was more a privilege extended to existing minorities than a principle they wanted to extend), but it filtered through, especially under PE Trudeau, just as French Canadian nationalism partly morphed into Quebec nationalism and started to feel less fond of Canada, bicultural or not. The representation of Champlain and Quebec city (4 pages no less for New France!), the parallel quotes from George-Étienne Cartier and John A Macdonald are obvious symbols of how the idea of “two founding peoples” and integrated into the ideology of Canadian nationalism. And the Canadian coat of arms on the first cover reinforce this message.

2) Still, biculturalism and bilingualism are not so obviously accepted as such. A first criticism is the fact that Canada, French or English, didn’t spring up ex nihilo: even European racists know that it was founded by the dispossession of Native peoples. So this forces Canada to awkwardly add a third “founding” nation, First Nations.

I say “awkwardly” because that’s there’s no other way to describe it. It’s a very obvious failure at basic respect. It’s whitewashing, pure and simple.

Sure, the first visa page is a symbol of First Nations. Okay. I mean, Niagara Falls gets a full two pages, but First Nations are first I guess. So that’s something. And people like me who have limitations on their passport have a huge sticker hiding everything. Yeah. That’s super inclusive.

But past that stereotype of a message? Nothing. Or possibly worse that nothing.

Because not only do you get very little about First Nations (to be precise, there is actually not a single First Nation person in the whole document, only these two generic “symbols” cramed in one page), several other pages are dedicated to… how we oppressed them.

I already mentioned “Canada’s North” above, but I think I need to expand, because “exploration” and “discovery” have always between colonialist words. And I don’t even need to go back to Spanish so-called “explorers” like Colombus, Pizzaro and Cortes, who “explored” and plundered the West Indies, Peru and Mexico, or to Portuguese slavers that took Black people from newly “explored” Africa to “explored” Madeira and, later, to “explored” Brazil, just as Portuguese pirates went into the just “explored” Indian Ocean. I mean, I could, the passport clearly points in that direction with no less than four pages on the first time we stole Native lands (first Samuel de Champlain, then Quebec City), but I feel that’s too easy. Let’s follow a more recent explanation.

In the 19th century, as Canada was founded, the Royal Geographic Society was the institution that recorded the “exploring” that happened in the name of British science in British colonies, because white spaces were horrible. (The fact that people already lived in these “white spaces” and doing fine was irrelevant to the Royal Geographic Society.) In “exploring” expeditions, usually, one or few white people who did nothing but hold knowledge or something were accompanied by huge numbers of not-white people who took measures, guided them in areas that they knew by heart (as I said, people lived in these places, explored or not), carried their lunch, etc. Yet weirdly, the White person always got the credit. Sometimes, the local people didn’t want strangers coming in, so the explorer went all the same, but illegally, only white laws matter anyway. Sometimes, the explorer found various “archeological” treasures in the explored areas, so he stole them and they ended up in the British Museum. And, surprise of surprises, the Colonial Office and the Army, well, they were very interested in the information explorers brought back, so they took notes. And don’t you know? They tended to follow “explorers” on their heels.

But much more directly clueless-to-horrible are representations of the history of the Canadian West.

First, you have the North-West Mounted Police/RCMP, which was founded in the aftermath of the Metis rebellion because Canada wanted to be able to answer any threat from the people who lived in the territory they recently acquired and were starting to colonize. And answer they did, with force, little more than a decade later, as they quelled the North-West rebellion.

Second, there is the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway. Not only did this railway help send troops to quell said North-West rebellion, but it was built in order to better colonize the West. Colonization wasn’t a thing that “happened” by itself, it wasn’t an “accident” of Canada either. It was, from day 1, the entire point of Canada as a project of the British Empire. The constitution planned for Canada to buy what would become Rupert’s Land and the North-West Territory, and one of the reason the main proponents of Confederation, Ontario and Quebec, wanted it was to expand their territories and take control of what had been Hudson Bay Company land. And that’s what they did, to the northwest for Ontario and straight north for Quebec, as the Federal government forced First Nations to cede their lands in unfair treaties.

Big, state-championed infrastructure projects like the Canadian Pacific railway (or, in Quebec nationalism, hydroelectric projects like the Manicouagan complex) were nationalistic and colonialist symbols of how we appropriated territories, of how we colonized them – and, on the flip side, of how we dispossessed Native peoples. And no, I don’t think they’re gonna take a feather and an inukshuk as compensation.

History isn’t your thing? Maybe you’ll prefer recent news. There are two pages on that, called “Canadian Prairies”, with not only the corn that was grown on the land Canada took from First Nations, and not only the aforementioned railway (or another, similar one), but with what looks like an oil train on that railway and with oil rigs. Oil rigs! If anything is typical of Harper, it’s oil. “Let’s be proud of our natural resouces” is a not an atypical nationalistic message in general, but the choice of oil instead of maple syrup or whatever is significant of the Conservatives’ emphasis on exploiting Alberta’s oil deposits, especially the very polluting tar sands.

And who’s fighting on the front line against exploiting this oil because of environmental consequences?

First Nations.

And who is on the receiving end of massive political retaliations from the Federal government because of this?

First Nations.

So much for feathers and inukshuks.

3) At the same time, Canada is also multicultural because of immigration, because of colonizers who came later than other colonizers. That corn we grew on stolen land, it was grown by recent immigrants that were not necessarily British or French. And throughout the 20th-century, Canada got quite a variety of immigrants. Multiculturalism is official policy and national pride. Hurray us! And there are two pages to celebrate that history: “Pier 21, Halifax —  historic gateway to Canada”.

Yet how did we succeed, in our multicultural nationalism, not to include a single person of colour? Not one? Nope. Not one.

(Okay, maybe one of the kids playing football is black and has white gloves, and maybe he’s white and has black sleeves, but it’s not clear, and anyway “black people can play sports in Canada” is fairly mediocre.)

Let’s go back to the railway.

As Canada built the Canadian Pacific, it received a large influx of immigrants from Asia who worked on said railway. As the railway was finished, they stayed in Canada, especially in British Columbia, were they were met by racism. The same pattern repeated itself with later railway projects, and just… in general, because people in China and in Japan, especially, wanted to come to Canada (maybe they weren’t briefed on how racist we were), and some people welcomed them as cheap labour. But most were just, just racist. As a result of the racist pressure of White people fearing the “Yellow Peril”, Canada set up racist immigration against China. In the early 20th-century, the reason the Federal government didn’t extend the courtesy to Japan was that the British Empire was actually allied to Japan (oops), and besides, Japan was actively going to the school of the West, so it wasn’t as “uncivilized” as China, or something like that. Didn’t stop BC from being racist though. And when Japanese foreign policy went against Canada’s in 1941, well, we interned all Japanese immigrants and took their stuff.

It’s already kind of awkward to choose two pictures with only white men to represent the railway which so many Chinese immigrants died building. I guess tombs don’t make good photo ops as railway executives? Yet the fact that they couldn’t think of any instance of Canadian history that wasn’t all about white dudes is absolutely symptomatic of how “multicultural” our country is.

Like the Ford T, in Canada, you can have any culture you want – so long as it’s white. Or at least whitewashed.

Only Token Feminists Allowed

I talked about “white”, now let’s talk about “dudes”.

On the bright side, there ARE women in the passport. Wow! And even feminist achievements.

On the less bright side… I probably shouldn’t have used a plural.

The passport has a page with the statue of Nellie McClung, with, in the back, pictures of her “We Are Persons” and of the Famous Five. Yay! Feminism! This is a reference to the person’s case, in which the Privy Council ruled that women were, in fact, persons, and thus allowed to occupy public office.

Still, I don’t think that putting feminists (or a feminist) from a century ago who obtained victories for women’s rights is perfect. It’s a step ahead of what the passport does to First Nations (i.e. we’re recognizing that we were wrong at some point), but it feels like the message is less “look at the thriving feminist movement we have in Canada” than “here, we have achieved equal rights for women”.

(Arguably, there is another woman, the allegory of Canada crying her sons who died in Vimy Ridge. It’s pretty thin though. Being an allegory is probably the best way of being represented in public art, by the way. Until fairly recently, any woman in an official sculpture or painting was either an allegory, a Greek goddess or the Virgin Mary.)

See, Canada, when we say we want more women in history, we don’t necessarily mean that you should look at the few women who did History-worthy things despite living under patriarchy and make tokens out of them. I mean, yes, do that too, past women are erased by later male historians because they think they’re not important, and it’s part of the problem. But it’s not all the problem. What we mean is that not only did women have a hard time achieving notoriety in a patriarchal society, not only were past historian sort of misogynistic, but the entire field of was is worthy of being part of History and of Nation is twisted by patriarchy, that the experiences of women are excluded of these constructs because of how they are defined and by whom. So finding women who did historical things is only part of the solution (and it’s tokenizing at best). The other part, the important part, is to change how we look at the past, and what we look for in the past. And, in this case, of what we represent of the nation.

Because yeah, manly men building trains, manly talking about liberty in Parliament or founding Canada in conference rooms, manly men defeating Germans, Communist and Metis (oops), manly men discovering New France and the North, manly boys playing sports, and so on… Do you see that the pattern is not just that these men are men, but that the activities that these men do (sports, wars, politics, building railways, whatever) are or were done in majority by men? That even your single non-allegorical woman is in there because of how her record can be oriented towards traditionally male activities? That this is because we are at least socially framing these activities as masculine, and sometimes economically, politically and legally as well, and that this creates enormous barriers for women who want to take part in these activities? And can you see that coding these activities as masculine is also why we care about them as we build our national values and histories? And that if we only care about activities that are coded masculine, well it’s no surprise that we only end up with men in our history books?

Sure, Nellie McClung, okay, fair enough. That’s a start. But we could still do better than giving only one of 40 pages to a woman. We should be able to go beyond this.

Use your imagination. You can show girls playing hockey, and you can show girls doing stereotypical girls things too, because girls do that in Canada. You can show families of settlers in the Prairies instead just corn and oil, because most families have women. If you need dudes, you can show Dr Morgentaler with women (your pro-life party base might be upset, but it’s for a good cause). You can even put pictures of nurses in your endless war commemorations for all I care. I mean, it’d be super nationalistic, it wouldn’t correct the other oppressive nonsense I mentioned above, but at least it would start correcting that patriarchal bias of yours, and it wouldn’t be worse than whatever other bullshit ideology you’re giving us now already.

Now, given that I live in Quebec, I’m also exposed to another ridiculous nationalism. I don’t think that either is better than the other, but I do feel Canadian nationalism is not viewed in the same light, at least in Quebec — that we fail to recognize various elements like these as parts of the same nation-building project as was started in 1867, with only superficial additions (like recognizing First Nations and women) that don’t quite fit the overall mix. I hope this will help correct the score a bit.

What Makes a Woman? – Transwering the Question

The New York Times recently published an opinion piece taking a critical about Caitlyn Jenner and the transgender movement. The article does make some good points on gender essentialism in the current hype on Jenner. However, it is much more significant for what it leaves unsaid, and for how it misses the forest of cis people framing the discussion for the tree that is Caitlyn Jenner.

Now, before I answer the article itself, I have a point to make: The whole “Caitlyn Jenner” media circus is NOT something that says much (or even anything) about trans communities and trans activism. At this point, all I see is the media overhyping over one privileged trans woman. Trans people, in general, seem to be relatively apprehensive of what’s going on. We have no control over that media hype and where it will be going. There are big concerns about how representative this experience is and of how it will benefit us to have a rich, old, white trans woman act as our spokesperson. We shall see.

Also, some quick comments: The article varies between using Caitlyn real name and her dead name, and frequently misgenders her. Don’t do that. Also, the thing about chromosomes producing penises and vaginas in some systematic way is only partly true, insofar as some of those penises and vaginas are not the result of anything chromosomal, but of doctors who practice surgeries on newborn intersex children without consent. Finally, the article seemed fairly dismissive of the experience of trans men. I apologize if the lack of attention trans men get in the article, combined my own bias as a trans woman, transfers to my answer. I tried to avoided that, but I can’t promise I succeeded.

So first, yes, I’ll say right out of the gate that what Jenner says is essentialist. No question here. As the article observes, she resorts heavily to the wrong body narrative, one which is very appreciated by cis people as a way of describing trans experiences, but far from consensual in trans communities.

However, most women’s understanding of their womanhood is essentialist too, and linked to their body, and especially their external sex organs. Indeed, woman = vagina and man = penis is basically legally enforced in most places, and only partly corrected years after the fact for some trans people when they get genital surgeries (very few countries allow legal sex change without surgeries). I don’t know that reducing women to their vagina is so much more progressive.

In truth, the reason the “female brain in a male body” and “wrong body” narratives exists is that they’re accessible and understandable to cis people, and it is so because it caters to cis people’s essentialism, unlike other trans narratives. When we say we don’t fit in boxes, people say that 99 % of the people are men or women and we should accept that and dismiss us as gender revolutionary. When we say we’re on a path of self-discovery, people tell us it’s cute, but that it’s not really serious enough for the structural changes we want. When we say that we’re not sure our birth-assigned gender is right, but we really prefer being referred to as a woman, we told that we should wait a bit until we’re really sure. When we say we prefer dresses to pants, we’re told we’re just cross-dressers really. When we say that our transition has anything to do with sexuality, well then it must be a fetish. When we say gender as a system sucks, but we’d be happier to wade through it in this other position, we’re told it’s too extreme and that we shouldn’t be so political. And so on.

But when we say we’re born in the wrong body and we’ll commit suicide if we don’t get genital surgery or some such, everyone understands and throws at us the hormones we want.

Media example: Miley Cyrus recently stated that they[1] identified as genderqueer. No one cared, even though doing this whole media circus on Miley Cyrus, if they consented, would have actually been innovative. (Contrary to what journalists say sometimes, trans women’s personal and intimate experiences are absurdly over-reported. Their struggles in a misogynistic and transphobic world, meh, not really.)

Oh, and for the record, who decides to validate these narratives or not? Not trans people. Cis people. Doctors who deny services to people who are not trans enough for them. Journalists who frame all stories on trans people as a journey for genital surgery. Parents. Friends. Coworkers. Feminists. Civil servants. Bank officials. Everyone who listens and reacts to our stories, and dismisses them if they’re not satisfied that we’re trans enough.

It’s a real problem. Google “transnormativity” if you want. Here’s my take on that by the way. Here is what I think of the wrong body narrative, while I’m at it.

No story will work as well as a full-blown “wrong body” narrative. Even though it’s a lie. Even though it’s a bad way to describe part of an experience. Even though it’s essentialist.

With all this baggage, no wonder some people, like Caitlyn Jenner, use it to describe what they live through.

Why do you blame trans people for saying essentialist things when people marginalize us when we don’t?

Why don’t you blame all these cis people for only understanding essentialism?

As for the “brain” thing specifically, this position is argued for and defended strongly by an entire field of scientific enquiry trying to show that women and men have different brains, and that trans women have brains that resemble those of cis women (same thing with trans men’s and cis men’s brains). When the article creates an opposition between a male researcher blamed for sexism and a trans woman acclaimed for the same assertion, it is a false one. The truth is, there are quite a few scientists who put forth the idea that men and women have different brains. They do not get fired or criticized, far from it. They get published. They get funded. This kind of research is alive and well, and one important part of it is research on trans people. In the past twenty years, there have been dozens of research papers arguing that the brains of trans women are, as Jenner said, more female than they are male. The hubris of scientist here is such that a study argued, last year, that there is an “observable and measurable biological basis of gender identity”, a difference that would be explained by hormonal differences in utero[2]. This research is, of course, very flawed, and many trans people are critical of the results on theoretical, ethical and methodological grounds.

But the point is: this research is made mostly by cis men for other cis men to read and debate, just like the research on trying to find differences between men and women.

Why do you blame a trans woman for repeating what cis men in positions of authority tell her?

Why don’t you give voice to trans people who are critical of this kind of research on trans people? They exist. They are numerous. And they agree with you on saying that there is no such thing as a female brain.

Sure, Jenner’s understanding of her femininity may be crude. It may be essentialist. It may sit on knowledge that is flawed and sexist. Sure. But who makes this research saying women and men have different brains and that trans women’s brain resemble cis women’s brains? Cis people. Who set gatekeeping criteria on access to hormones and surgery legitimizing some experiences while forcing others into marginalization? Cis people. Who writes the articles on Jenner’s transition? Cis people. Who invalidates all trans experiences that do not rely on essentialism? Cis people. What we see in the media hype over Jenner is not the feminist failings of the trans movement, it is a case study of how cis people frame our discussion on gender.

This article also forgets something very important: Trans activists ARE on the frontlines of the feminist movement. The reason trans men are asking for more inclusive language in reproductive rights activism is not just because they want to be PC and trans men can technically bear children – it’s because they DO bear children, they DO get pregnant, and they DO need access to abortion, and they DO fight for access to service, alongside cis women. And, most importantly, it’s because cissexism IS a barrier to access to reproductive health services.

We are there with cis feminists in the fights you find important (trans women also hit the glass ceiling, as I mentioned, but we also believe in making more things gender-neutral), and our own fights are things that radical cis feminists seemingly forgot that they could do. You know, that “dismantling the patriarchy and abolishing gender” objective that you have? Well, whereas quite a few cis feminists say this as a sort of mantra and follow up with no specific action that could “abolish gender” except applying intellectual critique on diverse objects, trans activism strives for systemic changes that would weaken the gender system, like removing the obligation for children to be assigned a legal gender or removing gender segregation in bathrooms, based as it is on rape culture and heterosexism. Funny you didn’t think about that.

In fact, here in Quebec, as we asked for the very moderate demand of facilitating access to legal gender change, where were the cis feminists? Yes, some were in the background, in feminist organisations that champion trans rights and put forward our voices, but most were nowhere to be seen, and a few were fighting against us and, in effect, for the patriarchy.

Your truth is not Jenner’s truth, but to be honest, neither is it the truth of most trans women, who rarely get the luxury of being on the covers of magazine just like that. Do you want our truths? You should. Because they include suffering through business meetings with men talking to our breasts. They include discovering that our male work partners’ check are larger than ours. Misogyny is a thing trans women also experience.

We also fear rape. We also fear to be attacked at night. Only for us, we have to fear not only the misogyny, but also the transphobia. And really, the misogyny hurts, but the transphobia, it kills you. Literally. Every year, hundreds of trans women get murdered, most of them trans women of colour. So yeah, I am afraid at night as well. Very afraid. Always afraid.

Now, your truth also includes bodily experiences. Obviously, trans women don’t live the same (though some of those are relatable to some of our truths – surprise periods on the subway remind me of beard covering makeup going away in the rain and revealing your shadow, or of tucking failing while you wear a tight dress, things that are not only embarrassing, but actually dangerous, because they expose us to violence). But is that really the fundamental and defining experience of womanhood? I don’t see how turning us into walking uteruses is any less essentialist that the “female brain” or the “wrong body” nonsense.

See, there is a major contradiction: when trans women say that hormones and surgeries are part of their own, personal path to womanhood, it’s insulting to women who are somehow reduced to their collective breasts and vaginas. But when someone organizes an event called “A Night of a Thousand Vaginas”, which effectively reduces a thousand women to their vagina, that’s perfectly okay?

(Sidenote: As it was an event on reproductive rights, I agree that in this case, it was appropriate, specifically because reproduction is indeed about body parts, not womanhood. But I digress.)

It is weird that the article criticizes the first, which is really nothing more than a statement by trans women about their own body and their own experience, and defends the second, which is applied to a collectivity of people.

This would help resolve the apparent paradox the article puts forward: trans activists want self-determination. On the one hand, self-determination mean that you have the greatest authority, so people are welcome to describe themselves as men, women, neither, both or something else. On the other hand, it also means that no one should define someone else’s experience, and so we don’t like it when cis people slab collective labels on us without consent.

To conclude, I would like to say that yes, we hear some problematic things in the trans communities from time to time. But you cis people should have plenty enough of privileged people to put in their place for essentialism already without making a marginalized group your priority. As it happens, all the valid criticism I saw in the article (“wrong body narrative is essentialist”, “research on female/male brains is flaw and sexist”, “is it really right for trans men to be in women’s colleges?”, and so on) are things we already discuss in trans communities. We’re already taking care of that, and of much more too.

I recommend that instead of unleashing all the conventional hostile arguments (because there was not a word of originality in that article, all of these arguments, trans communities have been addressing them for years as transphobic feminists lob them at us), you listen to our voices and let us debate these problems amongst us.

[I’ll put links when I get the time. In the meanwhile, if you think some voices from trans communities are particularly important on one point or another, don’t hesitate to share them in the comments 🙂 ]

[1] I do not know whether they’ve provided prefered pronouns, so I’ll play it safe and use “they”

[2] Kranz et al. (2014), White Matter Microstructure in Transsexuals and Controls Investigated by Diffusion Tensor Imaging. The Journal of Neuroscience 34(46), p. 15474