Monthly Archives: May 2014

The Wrongful Dismissal of Social Issues

So I was on the Internet the other day and ended up in a discussion about privilege. Someone brought up an issue that isn’t normally considered a case of discrimination or oppression: heightism, or discrimination according to height. The response was generally not super positive. It was taken as frivolous, inconsequential and not worth the effort. They should just deal with it, because it’s diverting energy away from real issues. After all, we must work one step at a time, starting with the more important issues. And so on.

It is striking that the arguments used to dismiss height as a form of discrimination are the same as those used to dismiss other oppressions — even by the people who treated these other issues as serious, like sexism or racism. These arguments can be used against anything. I will first discuss how the logic behind all of them is flawed, which is also an opportunity to discuss privilege. This will be very rambly.

1) “It’s inconsequential, not worth the effort”

Who is to judge what is or isn’t of enough consequence? or worth the effort? All privileged people tend to assume the oppression of others is not significant or not important or not worth dealing with. If the group is very small (e.g. trans* people), people with privilege say it affects few people, so it’s not really worth it. If the group is very large (e.g. women), they often assume that it’s not a real problem, or that the problem is already solved, or that it’s just a question of time before it is.

2) “Deal with it”

This is very easy to say for privileged people. When you don’t have to “deal with it” yourself, it’s easy to say that others should.

Privilege is something that defines a position within a system. Privilege is experienced with regard to something, to a given attribute or experience. It is not an absolute (“Only Siths deal in absolute”). Lesbian trans women of colour with disabilities can experience privilege in other respects — passing privilege for instance, or being from a middle-class background. More importantly, even within a category, privilege can be a complex issue. For example, let us take the case of sexual orientation (and we’ll imagine it matches romantic orientation for the purpose of discussion). Homosexual people experience discrimination in general, but also some privilege with regards to bi/pansexual people, whose identity is not always recognized even by lesbians and gays. Bi/pan people, in turn, can experience conditional privilege while they are in a heterosexual relationship. Finally, asexuality is even less recognized than bi/pansexuality and asexual people are often completely excluded from basics discourses on sexuality, but asexual people are not generally target of violence and hatred, which is a privilege. So while heterosexual people are always in a situation of privilege, non-heterosexual people live both in oppression and in privilege with reference to other groups, but on different aspects.

The first obligation a given privilege carries is to listen to the people who don’t experience it and to accept their experiences as such. The second is to accept to correct the situation of oppression which grants one privilege, even if it means one has to lose this privilege.

By the way, the experiences of people from otherwise privileged groups need also to be recognized and acknowledged, once they understand their privilege. The most obvious example is men, but it applies to many other groups. Even though men as a category are privileged in a patriarchy, individual men and MAAB people can — and do — suffer from the system itself. Disadvantages suffered (and advantages enjoyed) by men are generally the consequence of the oppression of women or of gender as a system, so it contributes to the full picture of gender. Even advantages and how they are enjoyed can be instructive, to see how certain behaviours can be valorized by other people. Getting all points of view help to get a clearer picture on the system itself — not only to understand gender, but also how it interacts (or intersects) with other categories. This was visible in the case of height, because the experience of height in this discussion was differentiated between men and women. One might add the case of trans women, who are often much taller than other women.

3) “It’s diverting energy away from other issues”

Recognizing new oppressions takes nothing away from women or people of colour or any other group. It’s not Oppression Olympics. Identifying a new source of injustice doesn’t mean that it’s as intense or that it works in the same way. It just means it’s there. After all, there isn’t a supply limit on social awareness. Yes, it can be exhausting, but that’s because we live in a messed up society. All you have to do when you learn of a new issue is to remember that it’s there. All discriminations and oppressions benefit from being fought together — that’s the point of intersectionality.

Personally, I’m actively involved in trans* issues. It’s my number 1 priority, I go to meetings and stuff about trans* issues. But I’m also actively feminist, I care strongly about atypical neurologies, mental health and sexual/romantic orientation, and I do my best to be anti-racist (including postcolonialist concerns). As a historian, I’m interested in youth, so I’m conscious about age categories in the present as well because it’s often an issue. And when I perceived issues for people with disabilities in my other involvement, I tried to address them (e.g. when we’re fighting for gender-neutral bathroom, I make sure people in wheelchair can access them; when I’m discussing consent, I try to raise the issue of people with mental disabilities). Oh, and beyond the issue of money (I don’t have any), I try to fight my own classist tendencies as urban upper-middle class, which is hard sometimes. Acknowledging and taking into account all of these issues, or even adding new issues to the mix, doesn’t take me any more energy than taking care of the two or three I feel most strongly about. It deepens my understanding of them and ensures I won’t reinforce other oppressions accidentally. Sure, I’m not as active about what is less important to me (I leave that to other people, whom I support), but it doesn’t cost me anything to take care of other things at the same time, within other issues.

4) “One step at a time”

In a way, this is true, but only when discussing a single problematic. For example, before reaching the utopian society without gender, we have to think of ways to make sure women and trans* people live normal lives. On a smaller scale, going one step at a time can be a good tactical decision. At my college, I’m asking that we have the right to use the right name on unofficial documents, because it’s already like that at two nearby universities. Although it is one of our objectives, I’m not pushing as strongly for the right to have the right gender in our files, because it’s less of an issue — it rarely appears anywhere. I’m not at all talking about name on official documents (which could have the right name, because all the government needs is the right education code), because it would be more controversial.

However, this does not work when you mix different issues. Doing things in a given order does not mean that less problematic oppressions should be put on the side — in any case, who decides which oppressions are less important? We can’t create a hierarchy of social issues to do away with less important ones — we have to deal with each of them together, because fighting one oppression while reinforcing another is not really a victory. That’s the point of intersectionality.

The idea that we should go “one step at a time” is one I’ve seen very frequently about feminism. Generally, the argument goes something like “Women are very oppressed in this or that country, they don’t even have the right to vote, we must take care of that first before dealing with our petty Western issues.” Once again, this doesn’t work. Sure, as privileged Western feminists, we should support autochtonous feminist movements everywhere. However, we can do very little about people living halfway accross the globe, and whatever we would “do” would almost certainly be meddling in other people’s affair with an air of superiority, which is problematic from a postcolonialist perspective. This support does not prevent us from dealing with our local issues — those about which we can actually do something.

Registration and Publicity of Gender

There is some important movement in Quebec for trans rights: the Center for Gender Advocacy is suing the provincial government. One of the many points raised is mandatory gender assignation at birth and sex mention of identity documents, i.e. registration and publicity of gender. (I plugged my title in my first paragraph!)

Generally, if the government requests information to force it on your identity documents, it’s because it’s contextually taken as meaningful. The picture validates it’s your ID, the name provided gives a way to adress you (or it doesn’t, because it’s hard to change it, but that’s another issue). Other information serves other purposes — often discriminatory purposes. Date of birth is legitimate for some purposes because the law discriminates according to age (e.g. for buying alcohol or cigarettes, voting, etc.). More problematic were race and religion, which were also, at some point, registered and displayed on ID. The government took this as meaningful because religious or racial minorities faced heavy discrimination. When you create legal discrimination, after all, you must have a legal register of who should or should not be discriminated against. The most conspicuous example of this was Hitler’s Germany, which registered Aryans and non-Aryans using highly arbitrary criteria, same with religion, but it was not alone in registering this sort of information. The US did it, Canada too, etc. Early in the 20th century, racism was good form everywhere, and religion was often registered and publicly displayed on official documents.

The same applies to registration of gender: until recently, women faced important legal obstacles. Registering gender officially does the same as the other forms of identity registration: it creates a legal basis to know who should or shouldn’t be discriminated against. And it comes with a free gift: forcing the choice of gender at birth, which legitimizes gender assignment surgery on intersex newborn children, because yay, binary gender is better, etc.

Here, gender is thought as an unchanging and binary category. Although there are ways to change one’s gender, not only are they are far from obvious, but the overall system was thought without it. To give one example, here in Quebec, everyone has one long code for education purposes, called code permanent  (“permanent code” — yeah, I didn’t really need to translate…), which implies it cannot be changed, that its components are permanent, just as the code itself. It looks like this: LLLF-DDGM-YYXX — 3 first letters of your last name (L), first letter of your first name (F), date of birth (DDMMYY) including a gender marker (G) — 50 is added to the month for “Female” — and two random numbers (XX). (e.g., Bob Ryan, man, born May 5, 1986: RYAB 0505 8632; Catherine Tremblay, woman, born June 12, 1991: TREC 1256 9123). Remember, this is stated to be permanent. The ideology behind it states that no one  should be able to change their name or (binary) gender. By the way, it is displayed on pretty much all documents from educational institutions, so all my student cards, past and present, state my gender. So do report cards, bills, letters from the dean congratulating my good grades, etc. It’s everywhere.

However, display of gender markers on official documents is related to another issue: the fact that gender is thought to be public, not private. People take it for granted that gender is clearly provided for every single individual, either from biology (because many people assume gender and sex are the same thing) or gender expression (which is similarly offensive). This is one reason why most names are gendered: it allows an easy way to know where the person in front of you stands in the binary. The assumption that gender is obvious is why even people who know nothing about trans* issues feel that it’s offensive to ask someone’s gender, and will feel offended if asked. (Trans ally tip: Indeed it is. Ask for pronouns, not gender.)

Relatedly (and as a result), daily social interaction rely on gender. I already addressed the fact that terms of address are mandatorily gendered in another article, but language is problematic way beyond that. Terms of address are easily changed — as in Russian, where товарищ (comrade) became the standard term of address after the Russian Revolution –, but gender is often encrypted in the very grammar of the language. In all Indo-European languages (AFAIK), gender is a mandatory grammatical category: at least in some situations, you have to state someone’s gender in order to follow the language’s basic grammar. I’ll give a few examples from the languages I know. First, English, which is less problematic than other languages: the problem arises only in some nouns (king/queen, actor/actress, etc.) and in the third person (he/she, him/her, his/her). In French, however, virtually all nouns and adjectives are written differently by adding a final -e or a more complex suffix, and may be pronounced differently as well depending on context. They also require a different article. German, Spanish and Italian also differentiate gender in nouns with articles and suffix, but the difference is always both written and pronounced. And so on. The result of this is that if you want to say that someone is beautiful, for example, you will have to state what gender they are at the same time (fr. “beau/belle”, es. “hermoso/a”, it. “bello/a”; ge. “schön” has different marked endings depending on case). This only makes sense if gender identity is assumed to be outwardly displayed and visible, given as a public information, not an inner, private feeling.

Which is to say it makes none.

Now, apart from the theory, some concrete issues with gender registration and publicity. Mandatory gender registration means the state — and only the state — has the legal right to determine someone’s gender. As a result, it creates a mismatch, on official documents, between someone’s gender expression and their legal gender, which creates huge obstacle for trans* people who have to choose between being denied their identity and/or services or doing whatever the government wants. At the moment, this means medical procedures, amongst other things. Also, it forces doctors and parents to choose a category at birth, with the result that many intersex children go through surgery soon after birth to put them in either category.

There are valid reasons to know people’s gender at large: using the information to fight inequities. Basically, this means using the information for statistical differences between people from different genders, or else implementing positive measures to help marginalized groups access the workplace, etc. However, there are two main issues here. First, this sort of purpose does not require the information to be published on every piece of ID. It doesn’t even need the information to be registered at all. We know people of colour are oppressed and we can study that, yet we don’t need to have a racial marker on our driving licenses for that. Second, the way it is implemented at the moment does not reflect the reality of gender inequities. Right now, there are only two options, M and F, which allows to control male-female inequities, but even at that, it is very imprecise. What does it measure? Say, if your study on sexism controls for gender in this manner, do you know who are your women, for example? Some will be trans women, others will be pre-transition/transitioning trans men, still more will be FAAB (or even MAAB) genderqueer, and you may even have genderfluid people who, as they answered the question, felt more female than male. And that’s not even counting the issue of gender expression, which is meaningful in how even cis women experience sexism. With a binary gender question, do you really know what you’re measuring? Not only is asking gender in a binary mode offensive for trans* people — it is methodologically wrong. It’s not an impossible problem. In fact, there are ways to solve this.

I think the main issue is one of education. People widely assume that gender should be known and don’t know the implications of public display and registration. I know this is perhaps optimistic, but I have some hope that good-willing people will understand. I experienced this when I talked to a local prospective MP in my constituency (as it happens, she wasn’t elected), whom I interviewed to discuss trans* issues. She didn’t know much about them — trans* people were just blobed into the general LGBT umbrella and our issues were assumed to be the same as LGB people –, but when I explained, it went well. On the issue of gender markers, we went from “We must know someone’s gender for medical purposes” to “We should think about this” to “Maybe it’s not necessary in some instances”.

Oh, and because I mentionned it: “medical purposes” do not apply here. For most medical purposes, trans people are exactly the same as cis people, and men are the same as women. If I broke my arm, you probably don’t need to know if it’s a male or female bone. Trans* people do need to take medication every day, but so do most people in a hospital. And in the few instances where sex makes a difference, gender markers won’t always help with trans* people. Even in the easy cases, i.e. transsexual people, matters are not always clear. For example, a trans man may need to see a gynecologist (phalloplasty being what it is), like cis women, and may want medication to treat his receding hairline, like cis men. Trans women will need to check for breast cancer or (after surgery) see a gynecologist, like cis women, but their methods of contraception will never be the same: either the same as men or none at all.

Anyway, I think my point is made: No, there is no point for a central registry of gender. And there is even less point in what it involves now — the public display of binary gender taken as permanent.

Transgenderism as a Choice

The idea that being trans* is a choice, a conscious decision, is a powerful and very harmful myth. I already alluded to this issue in another article, but without going into the details.

First, I’d like to clarify something. By “being trans*”, I mean that your gender identity is different from your birth assigned gender. Being trans* is an objective category in that it does not require self-identification into this category. The same applies to being cisgender: if your birth assigned gender and gender identity match, you’re cis, and that’s it.  As an objective category, being trans* is the direct consequence of gender identity. For example, I identify as a woman, but since my identification as a woman is different from my birth assigned gender, I am also trans*. To establish a sort of parallel, it is like being White or a person of colour: whether it is part of your subjective sense of identity or not, you are in that category and have different experiences from people in the other. Of course, different issues are involved, but I think it helps to understand. To conclude on this, being in either objective category does not mean that subjective identification will follow: for example, some trans people don’t identify as trans, and most cis people do not know the word exists.

Another little distinction I would like to establish is between gender identity and gender identification. Maybe there are better words, but I don’t know them. By gender identity, I mean the underlying impression of one’s gender. By gender identification, I mean the process of expressing and defining gender identity. Gender identity and gender identification may or may not match.

In fact, the first choice trans* people do is their gender identification: am I agender? genderqueer? female? male? transgender? bigender? pangender? transsexual? queer? a trans woman? a trans man? non binary? something else? People with similar experiences of gender may use entirely different words to describe themselves, and even the same person with the same underlying gender identity may use different words if they come to understand their own experience in a different light. There is also a choice to be made when using these words in context: to give a quick example, I strongly identify as a woman and less so as a trans — I am more a woman than a trans woman –, but when I’m within the trans* community or doing trans* activism, my identity as trans will be stronger and better asserted.

But the most important choice, which encompass the latter, is transition, i.e. asserting a gender different from that assigned at birth. It is a really difficult choice involving several other choices. In addition to wanting to transition at all, one also has to decide what this transition implies: Social transition? Legal? Physical? And what in each case? What name? What pronoun? What asserted gender identification? What gender expression? Hormones? Legal or black market? Surgeries? Which ones? And so on.

However, all these choices are built upon a stable bedrock: gender identity, following the meaning I gave above (“the underlying impression of one’s gender”). The choices I mentioned do not change gender identity, although they may help to understand it. In my opinion, you can’t really know what you gender identity is in the abstract, but you can know your feelings with regards to your gender by introspection and by trying new things to see how you feel with them.

What happens is that the more something matches gender identity, the more happiness and well-being will result; and if it does not match gender identity, the result will be gender dysphoria. A FAAB with a female gender identity will be fine from the start in many ways. A FAAB with a non-female identity, on the contrary, may use a variety of tactics to deal with it: they may do nothing at all, but they may also proceed to a transition — for example, by asking for neutral pronouns, by presenting a masculine gender expression, yet keeping their original name, or by taking hormones and requesting surgeries, presenting as androgynous and using a clearly masculine name. Some of these decisions will work, and some will not, but the closer each decision will be to their gender identity, the better one will feel with regards to gender. (This does not mean that transition is necessarily the right decision for the only reason that it will create a better match with gender identity. Feeling great in one’s gender but being abandoned by all one’s family and friends and losing one’s job is not necessarily a change for the better.)

As such, it is misleading to frame transgenderism as a choice. Transition may be a choice, but dysphoria is not. If there is a choice, it is a choice between misery and transition (which may also be miserable in its own way). Gender identity itself is not a choice. The only decision available is how you deal with it in order to lead a satisfactory life.

Misogyny or Transphobia? A Trans Woman’s Dilemma

The other day, I was walking on the street. It was past 8 PM, after dark, on a week day. Suddenly, I hear a group of noisy people. There are about half a dozen men in a building entrance, apparently having fun. One of them approaches, walks in my direction and stop in my way, on the sidewalk, while the others watch. When I get nearer, he addresses me, in a voice that’s impossible to correctly describe — it was certainly scary, in a creepy way. I thought this could not end well, there’s no way this doesn’t lead to some sort of harassment. But suddenly, one of the group said: “Fuck, it’s a transvestite.” Everyone started to laugh.

The problem with being a trans woman is that whether your trans identity is recognized or not, you will experience discrimination.

In my example, there are two times. In the first time, I am passing, taken as a cis girl, and men see me as a sexual object or a weak person, someone to whom they should express their dominance. In the second time, I am not passing, taken as a “transvestite” (i.e. a boy in a dress), denied my basic identity and object of slurs. In the first time, my identity is recognized, and I am target of misogyny; in the second time, it is denied, and I am target of transphobia.

This is not anecdotal. In fact, one of the few ways to know you are treated as a woman by strangers is when they act in a sexist manner with you. This is obviously ambiguous, as the experience of sexism comes to be seen as a positive moment of recognition.

In my personal experience, the most frequent show of sexism I’ve had was men holding doors. For the record, in general, I think it’s polite to hold the door for other people if it’s practical. In fact, I do it all the time (before and after transition, to men and women). The problem is that how men (I didn’t notice a difference with women) react to me is totally different now. I’ve had men refuse to cross doors I was holding — not just hesitation not to hit each other, complete refusal despite clear signals on my part –, and other men hold the door for me while I was quite far away and wait till I am through. I notice the difference.

I also receive more comments on my appearance (from men and women) than before. Personally, I don’t mind getting compliments on my appearance. In fact, sexism aside, they are expected, in that I put a lot of effort (and money) into looking good, so it’s normal that I do and that people notice it. Compliments contribute to my happiness — it means I’ve succeeded something. Similarly, discussions about makeup, clothes, hair, etc., are characteristic of female social interactions, so, as a trans woman, being included in them is very validating — even though the fact that it’s important for women and not men is the result of patriarchy. Do I think it’s problematic that men’s appearance is not important when women’s is? Yes — on both counts. From a more global perspective, it reflects sexist attitudes against women, how women have to look nice and follow a very specific view of beauty, how they are seen as irrelevant and subordinated to men, how they are objects rather than subjects. But from a more individualistic perspective, I think it’s sad that men who attempt to look nice, e.g. for a social event, are unlikely to have their efforts validated. Finally, will I feel the same when how I look will interact with how I am perceived as a historian? I don’t think so. Anyway. I digress.

Yes, all those are instances of people being nice, but being nice doesn’t mean it’s not sexist, and doesn’t mean it’s neutral of consequences. Even “benevolent” sexism can have real consequences.

I’ve talked a lot about being recognized as a women, but what about being denied your identity? Apart from slurs and attacks or obvious misgendering, it’s relatively rare to know that other people don’t see you as a woman in your daily life. Personally, I am very obviously presenting as female, so I imagine that people who clock me for whatever reason have at least the impression that I may not be a man, and if they have minimal decency, they will just avoid the issue. I get more stares than before, but that may well be because I’m a woman, not because I’m trans. However, there is one situation where people sneakily misgender me while being nice/neutral.

In Quebec, for a given level of intimacy, the greeting protocol looks like this: if two men greet, they shake hands; if there is a woman (two women or a man and a woman), they kiss each other on both cheeks (“faire la bise”). (I feel uneasy with this tradition, it has a vague smell of sexism. I don’t know why, it just feels wrong, beyond the gender differentiation.) So you see where this is going: if a man sees me as a woman, he will move to kiss me on the cheeks; if he doesn’t, he will present his hand. For the moment, I’m mostly getting handshakes, which is hurtful because I’m not treated as a woman.

Another interesting instance of this alternate experience of sexism or transphobia was my parents’ reaction to my transition. It took them some time to recognize it, but one of the ways they used to accept me as a woman was to use sexist discourses. “You’re a woman, and women keep their place clean.” “Now, you will have to learn to cook.” And so forth. I don’t blame them, for the record, but it’s significant anyway. It’s the reverse of the harassment example I gave earlier.

As a trans woman, I have two basic options: marginalization as part of my target gender or marginalization for my gender trajectory. And the sad thing is, it depends entirely on other people, on whether they see me as a woman or as a trans person. I’d prefer sexism a hundred times. At the moment, as an early transitioner, I actively want my identity to be validated, and if validation only comes from sexism, so be it, I will welcome every sexist crap you can throw at me (so long as my security and physical integrity is not at stake). Also, I feel a stronger identification as a woman than as a trans person. But I can’t decide. My only influence is how I work up my femme presentation. Once I’ve put makeup and put on my cutest flowered dress, it’s up to other people to settle my own dilemma: Will it be misogyny or transphobia?