Monthly Archives: September 2014

Bathroom Questions & Answers

As an activist at my college, I’m presently doing a petition for trans rights. Amongst other things, we call for more gender-neutral bathrooms. Our basic plan looks something like this:

  1. Remove gender markers from single-stall bathrooms.
  2. Have some sort of 50/50 arrangement for the planned new campus, where half the bathroom sites would be two gendered bathrooms, and the other half, one gender-neutral bathroom for everyone.

We’re far from a bathroom revolution.

But along the way, I get all sorts of questions. I wanted to share this because 1) some of the questions I get are plain funny and 2) maybe it will stop the less funny ones from cropping up.

Yes, these are all actual questions I actually got from actual people. Many times, in fact,

In which bathroom do you go?

The boring answer is: “The women’s bathroom. I don’t have a problem myself.”

This is quite a personal questions. I also get other personal questions like this, about my genitals, my old name, the time since I started my transition/I knew I was trans, etc. I understand this one, in a way. I’m out there, doing trans stuff, so they probably guess I’m trans. And I’m telling them that some trans people don’t have anywhere to pee, so they might start thinking: “Well, she looks like a woman, but she has bathroom issues, because she’s trans, so where does she go?” So yeah, OK.

Also, I know some trans women who look no less like women than I and do have issues with bathrooms. So I’m fine with that, at least while I’m publicly presenting as an educator.

What is more dangerous is the follow up question :

Well, what’s the problem then?

Mainly, it’s all the others. I do this for my friends, in a way. I’m doing this for my friends who don’t pass so well and have been subject of assault, for my non-binary friends who don’t have a bathroom, for my pre-transition friends who feel bad whenever they have to go in the wrong bathroom. And for all these other people I don’t know who have the same issues as my friends.

And it’s also that my own safe-access-to-bathroom privilege card is revoked when I don’t wear makeup, as I developed this weird complex where not wearing makeup makes me feel insecure. It’s because I once was in my friends’ position, some time ago.

Similarly…

I know Bob, he’s trans, and he never told me he had any problem.

Great! What does this change for my aforementioned friends?

Another issue is the “told me”. What do you know about Bob’s life? Maybe his transition was a more difficult than now? Maybe he doesn’t talk about his daily toilet issues to people who can’t help in any way?

What you ask for will cost a fortune!

We ask for new signs on bathrooms, and for an innovative bathroom scheme for an unbuilt site. What’s so costly? If anything, building one larger bathroom instead of two smaller will be less expensive.

I understand that we live in a climate of austerity, but no need to wave that as a grave menace.

Also, some people do check if an institution has gender-neutral bathroom before applying there. Get one or two more trans students through this, and voilà! you’ve paid for all our projects.

How many of you are there?

No idea.

How many people use wheelchairs at my college? I have no idea, and you have no idea. No one has any idea, yet they still have accessible bathrooms built for them, as a matter of accessibility.

Gender-neutral bathrooms are a matter of accessibility for all my friends, not some act of whim.

Are gender-neutral bathrooms safe?

This generally means “Aren’t women gonna be RAPED if we don’t put them in separate bathrooms from men?” No, they won’t, not anymore than they are now.

First, if one is set on raping someone, putting a person-in-a-dress sign on the door won’t stop them. So that’s that.

Second, and most importantly, this argument reeks of rape culture and heterosexism. Why should men be incapable to control themselves? Even if they can’t, can’t gay men already rape other gay men in men’s bathrooms?

Third, where gender-neutral bathrooms already exist, they don’t attract rapists, only people who have natural needs to satisfy. There are few of these bathrooms, to be sure, but there are some. People use them without any problem.

And fourth, we don’t even advocate removing all gendered bathrooms. We just ask for more gender-neutral ones, mostly single-stall to start with.

So you want to build a third bathroom for trans people?

No, to the contrary.

A third bathroom for trans people would mark them as trans. It would stigmatize them as something “other” than male or female, whereas many of them are male or female. Finally, it would put a big “I’m trans” flashing sticker on their heads for the good of transphobic people, who may treat them differently afterwards, or attack them on the spot, or wait outside to harass those who go in and out, etc.

We want gender-neutral bathrooms where everyone would go. We don’t want one more bathroom, but one less.

Have some courage! Go in your right bathroom!

Apart from the obvious flaw that non-binary people , well… don’t have a “right” bathroom… Do cis people need “courage” to go pee? Not as far as I know. And yes, it does take courage for trans people to go to the bathroom — and courage won’t be enough to avoid transphobic harassment.

I don’t believe in that! [More transphobic stuff]

Just because you don’t believe in our experiences doesn’t mean we don’t have the right to pee. It’s a question of accessibility, not belief. (No, I never convinced people who “don’t believe” that being trans was a thing to sign our petition. But I try, at least. Once, I sparked a debate between two friends this way. Yay!)

Police Violence, Invisible Disabilities, and Being Trans: My Story

In the Spring of 2012, there was a huge student strike protest movement in Quebec. In the following Fall, as a few associations decided to keep the strike going at my university, police intervened and crashed in, with riot control crew and everything. This is where our little story begins.

Now, imagine 2012-Me, before I had done much anything to be better in social situations, or even anything like an activist of anything. I had no friends because they were scary, no community to speak of at this very early point in my student involvement. I was even afraid of any kind of physical contact, or even spatial proximity. I would start being anxious if I had to sit next to someone in class.

It would have been hard to be less involved in the strike than I was. I went to one protest, and spent the whole time panicking because the person I was meant to be with was not there where is she she should be there how can it be that she not there what happened, etc., and because the crowd was so big I was overwhelmed and incapable of taking the much saner decision to run away.

At this point I was very early in my process of getting diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome. I had had the early “Now that I know, my life makes so much sense!” self-diagnosis phase almost a year before, and I had seen a psychologist during the strike. I hadn’t seen the neuropsychologist yet, however, so I wasn’t even close to getting any sort of official diagnosis.

I was also not that far away for my past of psychiatric shenanigans. Overall, I was doing quite well — I had been off meds for some time, and I was starting my third year full-time after my “bad period”. However, my anxiety issues were much stronger than they are now, which will be important.

Oh, and I was pre-transition and everything.

Does this make sense? Great. Let’s start with the story.

Getting Arrested

As I heard sirens coming from my university, I decided to go on campus early and see what was going on. When I arrived, I noticed policemen waiting to go in, which they soon did. I went away, then came back in the main building and noticed them on the second floor, where there was also a moderate crowd of students. I was intrigued, and want to see, but I just couldn’t move into the crowd. I had my book, so I sat outside the crowd, my back next to the wall, and read to keep my mind off the growing crowd. I slowly moved in, sitting nearer, then nearer, then even within the crowd, and so on. It took me several minutes, perhaps even half an hour, until I found a place in the corner where I felt more or less at ease, not too anxious, but with a view on the event. I kept on reading, raising my head from time to time.

At some point, policemen started moving, forcing everyone back. Since I was not giving my full attention (reading, not in perfect calm), it took me a moment to understand what was going on. But the crowd had moved quickly, and I became stuck between a crowd of policemen and a crowd of students. I had no way to go, and I was immediately surrounded by two policemen, still sitting in the corner with my book.

Basically, the first thing they said was something about my committing a criminal offense if I did not go away — something about being on someone’s property without permission. As a fairly pacific and lawful type, hearing the “Criminal Code” being used against me was not comforting, especially since I had done nothing wrong (indeed, I had done nothing at all). I asked what was going on, but they just kept on going about the Criminal Code. I did not understand what they meant — and in any case, the combined stress from the crowd and having policemen invade my personal space to intimidate me with threats of criminal accusations made me quite unresponsive and incapable to take in whatever information they gave me.

They never asked why I was there, why I did not go away, or what was going on. They just bullied me… and ultimately, grabbed me — which is a still big no-no these days, even when I’m in a good mood. They pulled me a few feet away and let me go, assuming I’d go into the crowd. Obviously, I didn’t — how could I, especially after all of this stress? I went away from the crowd and the police into the entrance to a classroom, and sat down again, seeking to escape all this in my book.

The police continued to err on the side of oppression. Although I was quite outside the perimeter they formed, I was apparently not where they wanted me. The same two policemen came again, with the same threats of “criminal offense”, and I had the same reaction of not understanding and panicking. This time, rather rapidly, they just put handcuffs on me and arrested me.

In effect, I was arrested because I was on the autism spectrum and had anxiety issues. Not because the policemen discriminated against these, but because they assumed that I could follow the crowd and be in a crowd, that I was not disabled. That was despite coherent responses on my part indicating that I could not, and that I was stuck with no way to react, with crowds on both sides and overwhelming emotions crushing me. I was not asked about this, about how I felt, why I didn’t go away or join the crowd. Instead, I was arrested.

Custody and Aftermath

Being in a corridor with handcuffs was fairly unsettling, to say the least. Despite the presence of nice student activist, arrested with me, I spiraled down into a panick attack. I tried to tell this to the officers, asking if they would let me take my anti-anxiety meds — thus stating openly that I had anxiety issues and that I was having a panick attack. But I wasn’t allowed. “What if you committed suicide with your pills? We have to make sure.” What an answer, really. It was a bad moment. It lasted some time, perhaps an hour, perhaps more, you don’t remember these things clearly when you’re in a panick attack.

There was one small funny incident during my custody, however. One of the protesters was talking to the police about their serving the interests of the ruling class or something, and the police answerd that no, and a discussion about class ensued. Noticing a lack of conceptual rigour in the discussion and the opportunity for intellectual insight, I came out from the depths of my panick attack to say that they misused the concept of “class”, which had a specific definiton, and so on. This created an awkward silence, and I went back to my panick attack.

When I was freed at last (with no charge), the place where I was first grabbed was not within the police perimeter. Which raises the question of why I was arrested at all, but anyway. I finished my day as usual, trying my best to forget what happened.

The next day, I learned that a video of my arrest was now on Youtube (it has since been taken down). This created a lot of stress for me, as many people came to see me about this. In a few weeks, it had more views than this blog, by far. Yet my own coping strategy was to hide this and try to move forward. It took me months before I was able to really say anything about my arrest. Generally, I distracted the focus by talking about my “class has a specific definition” anecdote. I do feel better about this now, but I’m still unable to feel safe when I see policemen.

Being stupidly arrested made me realize that no one is safe. That even being a pacific bystander could lead to government injustice being brought to bear on you. In fact, it’s one of the reasons I decided to be more active and more public thenceforth.

Transition and charges

I’m writing this because recently, I heard of someone who was also arrested unlawfully during the 2012 strike, pressed charges and won in court. It reminded me of my own bad treatments, and of what happened to me. With all the internal changes I went through about this event and with myself, now, I would love to do the same.

However, how can I even press charges at all, after my transition?

My psychiatric record and my ASD diagnosis are under my old name. The people who arrested me and any witnesses will not recognize me. Whatever I do, my identity as a trans woman will be scrutinized publicly before I can even talk of the police’s lack of understanding and ableist biases. I do not want to go through this humiliation, especially while my ID isn’t normalized.

Although I was arrested because of ASD and mental health issues, it is because of my trans status that I cannot seek justice. So although I was never discriminated against as a trans person, in effect, my experience as someone with ASD and as a victim of police violence is erased because I am trans, because I know that as such, I do not have the same access to justice as others.

“Working for the Cause”: The Problem with Volunteering

Volunteering is wrong.

Okay, well, as someone who spends probably a good 10-20 hours a week to do volunteer work, I’m certainly not arguing that it’s wrong to do volunteer work. I’m saying that it’s wrong that all the great stuff we do that changes life should be for free. That changing the world be at our expense, not at that of the world we’re making better. That recognition our good day’s work should include a good day’s pay.

I want to make this very clear at the outset: volunteer work is work. Just like being a convenience store clerk, an administrative assistant, a senior exective at a bank, a teacher, a doctor, a stay-at-home parent. But unlike all of these, except the last one, you don’t get to live from it. I mean, money isn’t everything, but the rent needs paying. You need to get a living from somewhere.

Sure, free work “for the cause” has its compensation. It’s really great fun and everything, personnally, I love doing all these amazing things — but shouldn’t all work be rewarding in itself, or at least not totally alienating? And you’re contributing to making the world better, which is great, but you can eat a “world made better” when your fridge is empty. You can put a “Volunteering” section on your resume, but what a line on a CV is worth varies greatly, and it’s sort of abstract. Obviously, there are semi-concrete rewards like involvement scholarship and special prizes, but really, these are worth more in prestige in paying the bills. (Just for the fun of it, compare excellence scholarships with involvement ones. A friend of mine won a departmental prize for her grades, worth $4500. I won a fairly significant one for my LGBTQ involvement in a Canada-wide contest, and it got me about half that amount.)

What’s problematic is not the fact that people agree to work for free, it’s that the world-changing business revolves around masses of unpaid workers, whose work is justified through various discourses that deny that we actually do work.

We are the stereotypical ’50s housewives of the world, working for no reward but occasionnal pats in the back and the optimistic knowledge that our family — sorry, our community is better because of the stuff we do. That’s reward enough for the things we do. I mean, it’s not real work, right? And just like these stereotypical housewives, we depend on someone else’s money, or work part- or full-time on top of everything.

These two paragraph from The Switch‘s Kickstarter were inspiring for me to read:

Why so much? The first reason is that we’re paying everybody involved with the show a fair wage. Artists deserve to be paid. Actors deserve to be paid. Trans people deserve access to meaningful employment. Too often people are asked to work for exposure, or for the good of the community. That’s not fair and it’s not sustainable. We’re paying everyone what they deserve.

That’s right. Why should housewives work for free?

Demanding to be able to live in dignity from what we do isn’t asking to be a mercenary of the Cause. It’s just a request for recognizing work as work.

The logic behind volunteering is that “the cause” is worth more than us, than our ability to have lives that don’t depend on our being overworked all the time to the breaking point. We, volunteer activists, are the cannon fodder of The Cause. Yes, I think it’s worth it, but that’s besides the point.

The fact that most “good works” involve doing work for free also means that almost all our world-changing business is done by relatively privileged people, by people who can afford to do this. People from the upper-middle class. People with a supportive partner, or with supportive parents. People like me, who can afford to surf some time on their research scholarships (while slowing down their actual research). People won’t don’t live through several (or at least not too many) compounded oppression, who are not too heavily marginalized. As a consequence, the people who fight and the people they fight for are not the same people, or not exactly. And as a result, the most “difficult” cases are often mostly forgotten, while relatively privileged people and their issues are at the forefront.

Even amongst the privileged few, the fact that activists must lead double or triple lives (one for the Cause, one for the bills, and possibly one for themselves) directly affects the quality of the work we do. When Joan had to cancel her coming to the meeting because of a last minute emergency at work, Roy forgot to buy the material we need for tomorrow’s event and Jenny is so tired from working 12 hours straight she’s only half present, how can we change the world?

There are few easy, immediate solutions. The organisms that would like to pay people for their work generally don’t have the money, and the people and corporations that do have the money don’t make it a high priority, either because they don’t care about our better world, or because they don’t know that it is achieved through unpaid work. And by the very nature of what we do, the people we help normally can’t afford to pay us anyway. The government could do more by giving more budget to community organisms or by giving out more bursaries and money prizes for community work, but under the new religion of Austerity, that’s not gonna happen.

As an activist and organizer of stuff, the only measure I know is to make sure everyone gets something official-sounding to put on their CV, a title, a symbolic money prize, anything — but as we know, this doesn’t pay the bills. And of course, I also make sure that any significant work I do shows on mine.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have three different organizations to coordinate for free, a full-time semester to manage, and my flat is a complete mess. See ya when my summer debts are paid.

Right Name, Wrong Name: Acknowledging Trans Identities

One major issue for trans* people is getting their right name accepted and recognized, in day-to-day use and in official contexts. Having people use the correct name is an important step for us, and having other people (and the government) decide not to is an common feature of our experiences and oppression.

But first, let’s pause the trans* issues and talk about names in general. Just bear with me for a few paragraph — the juicy trans* stuff is coming up.

All names are strongly connoted

Cis or trans*, everyone’s name is important. Despite the existence of a few gender neutral first names, naming is one of the many ways gender is assigned at birth, one that is more total, more complete than the M and F on the birth certificate, or even the set of clothes and the painting schemes chosen for a child. Names are used all the time, while sex markers are not (problematic though they are); names are more or less stable, while pants or skirts and walls can change at will. And in some languages, the first and the last name are gendered: Maria (f) Sharapova (f) is daughter to Yuri (m) Sharapov (m).

Yet names, chosen at birth or inherited from the family, say more than just gender. They tell us a lot about the parents — who they are, what is their place society in terms of class, what language they speak or where they come from, perhaps even their religion or their favorite piece of fiction — and, by extension, they tell us about the child’s background. Sometimes, when there is a lot of ethnic hatred, people from an oppressed minority group will choose a new name instead of using a culturally connoted one. This may either denote a desire for affiliation into the dominant culture, or be an attempt to avoid discrimination. In this situation, using the birth-assigned name instead of the new name may expose someone to rejection, harassment and violence. Godwin example of the day: using an undercover Jew’s real name (say, Eli Steinberg, or Rosa Cohen, or some other name of the sort) in 1944 Germany may very well cause their death.

In day-to-day interactions, someone’s name is like the basic way to identify them. It’s a defining part of identity. Using the wrong name for someone means you forget who they are: involuntary omission means you don’t consider them important; voluntary omission or use of the wrong name is an attack. A few fictional example:

The Order of the Stick: **Prequel book spoiler alert** In the prequel book Start of Darkness, high priest Redcloak uses this pseudonym with Xykon because the sorcerer would forget his (unstated) real name, but would remember his red cloak. Indeed, Xykon forgets everyone’s name. Redcloak’s brother (named Right Eye by Xykon because his left one was cut) is insulted at this, and continues to call him Big Brother. But when Redcloak betrays and kills him, his last words are: “Goodbye, Recloak” — signifying that he only sees him as Xykon’s minion now and disowning him as a brother.

Yes Minister: In season one, Hacker’s advisor, Frank Wiesel, always has his name mispronounced as “Weasel” as an insult by the civil servants, especially by Sir Humphrey. However, when Hacker and Humphrey want to shut him up by corrupting him into going on a QANGO, Humphrey says his name correctly: “‘Mr. Wiesel’, I said!” — a line that only serves to have him say the right name, as a display of respect.

Satyricon: During the famous banquet scene, one of the guests lauds a certain Safinius: “How pleasant he was when returning salutations! He gave everyone his name, like one of us”, i.e. he didn’t need a slave to give him the names of the people he met. His knowledge of people’s name was a sign of his proximity, of how he cared about ordinary people.

So how is the name a trans* issue?

Many trans* people change their first name as part of their transition. Some trans* people also change their last name. Other trans* people don’t change anything because they have a gender neutral name, or because they have a non-binary identity that wouldn’t be recognizable by any name we use, or because of other reasons. Still, on the whole, choosing and starting to use a new name is an experience the majority of trans people have in common.

The basic reason trans* people change their name is because their old name doesn’t match their identity. What this mismatch means in terms of identity varies according to the individual. For most, it is part of their gender expression, as it tells other people in which category (M/F) they should be; for a few, it is a way to tell other people they fit in neither. For some, their name is a way to break with their older, pre-transition self; for others, it is a hidden identity finally allowed to break through. For those whose family was less than accepting, their name can be a way to express their independence, their autonomy in their life and identity. For many, it is a part of their identity they feel very strongly about. And for the majority of us, it is also a way to avoid the stigma and discrimination that comes from being trans*, as having a gendered name different from our expressed gender identity can reveal trans* status and create unpleasant, even dangerous situations.

Not using a trans* person’s chosen name is a way to tell them you don’t acknowledge who they are, and to deny them their identity. It’s fairly impolite and unfriendly, even mean. It also exposes them as a trans* person. Seeing a woman’s ID with the name John Smith immediately marks her as a trans* person, forcing her to come out and explain why the ID and herself don’t communicate the same gender. Using her old name before other people does the same thing. Because she must now be trans* publicly, she is in danger of having services denied, of being harassed or attacked, or of having her identity further denied by other people. Using the wrong name is not just impolite and dismissive: it’s plainly dangerous.

When I explain to cis people why using the right name is important, I often say something like this:

Let’s say that you, Bob, were always called Jennifer, no matter how often or how hard you ask to be called Bob. Even though in you look more like a Bob than like a Jennifer, it’s still Jennifer. On your ID, on your school records, on every paper you have at home, you’re still. And you can’t change it without going through a long and difficult process. That’s what it is to be trans*.

Oh, and with the same principle, I also made this birth certificate for our Premier Philippe Couillard (if he were trans), whose government still hasn’t put in application the new legislation for legal sex change without surgery:

Premier Couillard's Trans Birth Certificat

Translation of the interesting bits: Copy of Birth Certificate of a trans person. First name(s): Sylvie (No proof of hormone therapy)Sex : Female (She is still fertile, change declined). [Beneath: Mr. Couillard, this is what your birth certificat would say if you were trans under your government.]

Though these are telling thought experiments of what it means to be called the wrong name as a trans person, in truth, what it means to us is even stronger, in ways privileged people can’t fully understand. Our birth-assigned name is also the preferred named of cissexism, that of hesitant parents, of dismissive former friends, of harassing colleagues, the name demanded from all the uncooperative administrations of the world, the name associated with all the bad experiences we live through because of our gender misassignation. It is attached to trauma and suffering. As a consequence, just as we care much more about correct use of pronouns than cis people, we feel very strongly about what name is used to talk about us.

Asking for a trans* person’s birth-assigned name digs into their past — sometimes a past full of suffering and misery they’d rather leave behind — for something they’d prefer to hide because of the trauma it caused and causes them. What are you gonna do with it? It’s really none of your business to know under which name you should imagine your best friend Marco as his pre-transition self — quite a morbid form of curiosity, really. And asking for it to share the news is even worse. In the hand of transphobic people, someone’s birth name is a weapon to deny who they are, or to look for information on their old self (e.g. pre-transition pictures). It’s especially problematic, even dangerous, when journalists publish it as another piece of information for their brilliant masterpiece of media work (#sarcasm) that will stay as a piece of record forever and be readily available online. Here, listen to what Calpernia Adams has to say on old names — in case you found me extreme or something on this, notice how her opinion is even stronger than mine. Sure, that’s not everyone’s experience, and some trans* people don’t feel strongly about hiding their old name, especially when they are not far along in their transition, but it’s still not a very polite thing to ask for — if a trans* person you know feels fine with telling their old name, let them do so themself.

Now, I don’t know how it’s done everywhere in the world, but in most places (except cool countries like the UK and Argentine), you can’t just ask the government to use your correct name. Here, in Quebec, we need at least to be on hormones or to have had some sort of surgery, and to acquire costly proofs of a gender dysphoria diagnosis — that is, before the wheels are put in motion, because it takes almost a year of bureaucracy to get everything sorted out. Not everyone wants hormones or can have access to them, so this is discriminatory. Oh, and if you’re still minor, you need parental support, which is far from guaranteed for some people. By forcing people to use a name that might put them in danger until arbitrary criteria are met, government institutions take an active part in sustaining transphobic discrimination. In addition, having The Government use the wrong name gives everyone else the lead in denying your identity — whenever someone sees your ID, they may decide to use the name they read there. Individuals are sort of okay at using the right name anyway, but institutions are not, “because it’s the law”. This sort of excuse allows them to dismiss trans* people’s demands as impossible by transfering the blame on the government (which, most of the time, does not actually forbid anyone to use a trans* person’s name). As a consequence, it’s almost impossible here to get any sort of official recognition without going through the full government procedure — so without hormones, you are without protection and recognition.

Whenever I think of government records, I remember Orwell’s 1984. Oceania’s government proceeds from a subjective epistemology where Truth is what is recorded by the government. In a sense, as I know as a historian, what is recorded from the past becomes what is true: without direct, immediate knowledge of something, we must rely on indirect, mediated evidence, such as government records. What the government does by not recognizing our names is to hide trans* existences, forcing as it does their histories and identities to fit its cissexist mould. It is deciding our identities by statute to create its own subjective Truth — despite our objective, lived identities and names, and despite the real dangers this decreed Truth creates for trans* people.

In a nutshell, just use our names. We use yours, do the same. Anyone doing otherwise is contributing to transphobia and creating a climate that excludes and endangers trans* people. No one should be limited to who the government says they are. And the government should care for people’s asserted identities, not for its intact records.