Wednesday, January 21, 2009


I know the Christmas holiday has come and gone, and certainly my writing about my mini-vacation now seems a little belated, but I promise I will tie it into my brief discussion of recent events (i.e. the inauguration). Ever since I moved away from home (way back in 2005, nearly four years ago) I have never failed to return to visit my family for my birthday and Christmas, and each time I have returned, the place where I grew up begins to feel less and less like “home” to me. I don’t really know if this is due to my transition, or if it’s simply a symptom of growing up—either way I’ve begun to feel a distance growing between my family and their house and any comforting feelings of home. Just this past Christmas, for instance, my family treated me to a disturbing plethora of racist, ableist, and homophobic remarks—everything from laughing at stereotypes of Chinese people (my mother and sister), to my sister using “retarded” as a substitute for “stupid,” and my father’s condescending and patronizing comments about the LGBT community’s outrage over Rick Warren giving the invocation at Obama’s inauguration. The real kick in the teeth was my father, on Christmas morning, referring to Barack Obama as the antichrist. The entire holiday was marked with these sorts of bigoted expressions, and I began to wonder how is it that I came from this family; how is it my values and theirs are so tightly contrasted? Usually the black sheep is defined with somewhat undesirable characteristics, so how is it that this sheep is painted black with progressive attitudes? And maybe I just never realized how intolerant my family is, but I swear I had never seen this side of them before.

I remember on Christmas day my family was getting set to go to church. Yeah. Church. Just a few days prior the pope had not only announced that the Catholic Church was officially in opposition to a UN statement against the decriminalization of homosexuality, but he also declared in a Christmas message, that transsexuals are a destructive force to the ecology of man, linking us to a metaphoric destruction of the rain forests that are the souls of man. Needless to say, it was a huge sacrifice on my part to attend any Catholic services at all, let alone dress up in my nicest skirt. Nevertheless, because I know how much having the family at church means to my mother, I clenched my teeth and decided to go. This may simply be vanity on my part, but my mother right before church complimented my sister on her appearance while saying nothing to me. And dammit I was dressed nicer than she was to go to a religious ceremony in an organization that officially thought that I was a destructive force. Actually, no one in my family has ever once complimented my appearance since I began transition. In the past whenever I wore a collared shirt my mom would say, “You look handsome,” or “you look nice today.” And yet, here’s my mom saying my sister looks pretty, all while I sit back and pretend not to feel a glaring omission.

This has all got me thinking about what, exactly, constitutes a home, and what is the value of family. I suppose I’ve generally though of home as being (as a random free online dictionary phrases it) “an environment offering security and happiness; a valued place regarded as a refuge.” And what, then, is family? “Two or more people who share goals and values,” or so says the fabulous free online dictionary. Then comes the interesting question: do I have either of these things? The Christmas vacation has taught me that I no longer feel the house I grew up in is an environment of happiness or affirmation, and I certainly now doubt that my biological family and I have values or goals in common. Does this make me a homeless orphan with a biological family and a crummy apartment? I guess in a figurative sense, indeed, I am a homeless orphan, but my family has seemingly accepted me on some levels. Hell, they paid for my genital reassignment surgery, so how opposed to my sex identity could they possibly be?

It all falls back on acceptance—or maybe the better phrase would be “environment of support, respect, and affirmation” (because you know me, I like my language to be as precise and accurate as possible, dern it, even if this is only a blog that I don’t, generally, proof read). But I’m damn serious: this environment of SRA (as I shall now abbreviate it) is essential. Statistics say that 25% of LGBT youth are kicked out of their homes when they come out to their parents. Some 80% of youth experience verbal harassment in school because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. LGBT people have a suicide rate four times higher than the straight, cisgender, cissexual world. 50% of transgender people attempt suicide. I, for one, am not particularly a fan of statistics because one set of numbers invariably varies from source to source, but regardless these numbers are terrifying. However, I know I am part of the 80% verbally harassed. I am part of another 60% that have experience non-verbal harassment or violence. I am part of the 50% who have attempted suicide. I’m also part of probably another statistic (who’s numbers I do not know) of trans girls practicing self injury.

These are all signifiers of a grave lack of SRA. Watching a lot of the coverage of the inauguration the past few days I noticed one picture in which a man held a sign reading “Homo-sex is a threat to national security,” and I’ve likewise seen article popping up continuing to compare trans people to sex predators and the insane; I’ve seen people furious over Obama’s support of the LGBT community. It’s certainly obvious that there are people actively working against LGBT rights, but maybe the term “cultural warfare” isn’t as inaccurate as I thought. There are people who literally have devoted years of their life to making sure gay and transgender people are beat down and dehumanized. I certainly knew about this, but I guess it’s just now really, really
sinking in how profound their hate is:

Hate is the generic word, and implies that one is inflamed with extreme dislike.
We abhor what is deeply repugnant to our sensibilities or feelings. We detest
what contradicts so utterly our principles and moral sentiments that we feel
bound to lift up our voice against it. What we abominate does equal violence to
our moral and religious sentiments. What we loathe is offensive to our own
nature, and excites unmingled disgust.

How hate is above described is how they hate us. These images together with the apparent bigotry of my biological family has gotten me wondering about the availability of support, affirmation and respect, almost as if they are precious resources that are quickly being depleted, or as though they are rationed out only to those privileged few. But surely people have seen the inauguration of Barack Obama and heard his speech yesterday; there is still hope:

We remain a young nation, but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to
set aside childish things. The time has come to reaffirm our enduring
spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that
noble idea, passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise
that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full
measure of happiness.

If Obama is hailed by some as a messiah then it is only because our world has been so stripped of any hope; it is because never before has a US president offered us the hope of obtaining our “full measure of happiness.” In light of all the negativity and blatant hatred being hurled at the LGBT community, here is a ray of hope. Hope that we might finally be respected and regarded as equal human being. Hope that our identities may be affirmed and supported instead of cast down below, the dregs of society. Hope that we may soon find ourselves no longer homeless orphans.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Passing and Stealth: an introduction

It seems to me that no discourse on transsexuality is complete without analyzing the issue of “passing” and “stealth,” both of which are highly controversial topics, and, like other highly divisive subject, everyone seems to have their own take on the ethics, morality and importance of passing and stealth. Regardless of however you may personally feel about these subjects I am certain that everyone can recognize that issues of passing and decisions surrounding living stealth are unavoidable to a transsexual transition. So if these subjects are so complicated and so polarizing, why am I addressing them in my second blog? It’s almost as if I’m trying to drive prospective readers away by talking somewhat controversial topics from the get-go, but the reason I’m writing about passing and stealth now is simply an issue of my own narcissistic need for self-gratification (i.e. these are issues that I am currently wrestling with in my own life and, writer that I am, composing my thoughts through prose help me sort out my emotions).

The term “passing” has been historically used in terms of racial identity to describe an individual of one racial group who identifies with a different racial group, usually on the basis of appearance. More often, “passing” was used to describe an individual of mixed-race heritage who assimilated into the white majority. Harlem Renaissance writer Nella Larsen addressed this issue of trans-racial assimilation in her short fiction, Passing, chronicling the different experiences and social perceptions between two women, each of whom can “pass” for white. In this story, one woman, Claire, decides to pass herself off as a white woman, a decision which consequently allows her some of the social privileges of white women. Her friend, Irene—who can likewise pass for white—chooses to remain in Harlem, living in the black community in which she was born, and dedicating herself to racial uplift. While passing as a different race and passing in context of a sex transition are two very different actions, they each have some common risks, specifically that if someone passes for another sex or another race, if they are found out—if they are read to be anything other than what they are attempting to pass as—it opens the door for violence and discrimination. In Nella Larsen’s short fiction, Clarie, passing for white, marries a white racist and is thereafter forced into secrecy regarding her race, a condition carrying with it a high degree of repression and the high risk of violence.

But as I said, there is a considerable difference between passing in a racial context versus a gender or sex context. Generally passing in relation to racial identity is seen often as an act of deception used to obtain some degree of racial privilege. The ethics of this are no doubt debatable, though given the context of fair-skinned black people passing for white in order to gain some—any—employment, the more valuable discourse would seem to surround the issue of racism and the imbalances of racial privilege. In terms of gender, however, the use of the term “passing” is very problematic for three reasons: first it suggests deceit, that the identity of the trans person is invalid—that their gender and sex identities and expressions are counterfeit. Second, the concept of “passing” is shame-based; it’s about hiding a secret you don’t want anyone to know about, it’s putting on a performance. Last, the idea of passing, in general, gives society a great deal of power in judging the worth and validity of an individual’s identity, as opposed to allowing the individual to self-determine their own value.

Queer Theory, starting with Judith Butler’s famous book Gender Trouble, is very much so attached to the concept of gender as a performance. Butler, when working on Gender Trouble admits to having been heavily influenced by Simone de Beauvoir’s book The Second Sex and her assertion that “One is not born a woman, one becomes one” in particular. In her reading of this text, Butler extrapolated:

Beauvoir’s theory implied seemingly radical consequences, ones that she herself
did not entertain. For instance, if sex and gender are radically distinct, then
it does not follow that to be a given sex is to become a given gender; in other
words, ‘woman’ need not be the cultural construction of the female body, and
‘man’ need not interpret male bodies.

Butler’s interpretation opens a gap between gender and sex—a gap which “leaves sex dispensable to the process of gendering” (Prosser, Second Skins) and suggests that gender is not a “narrative of ontology”—that a sexed body (e.g. female) is not necessarily the beginning and gender identity (e.g. woman) a distinct and final end point. Instead, this interpretation suggests that gender is not a narrative of one’s being, but rather a performance or an action.

It is, for Beauvoir, never possible finally to become a woman, as if there were
a telos that governs the process of acculturation and construction. Gender is
repeated stylization of the body, a set of repeated acts within a highly rigid
regulatory frame that congeal over time to produce the appearance of substance,
of a natural sort of being.

Alright, enough of the postmodernist jargon and verbose, dense discourse; what does this all mean? It is extremely easy to, as Butler points out frequently, misread her discourse in Gender Trouble, and therein interpret her assertion of gender’s performativity to mean a theatrical performance. Obviously, this has offensive implications as it connotes that a person’s gender identity or expression are fraudulent, that they are merely a farce. What Butler actually means by “performance” is that gender is something we do, somewhat in the same way a construction worker builds houses or a computer runs a program. Gender is a constant and necessary (i.e. we have no choice in the matter) production of certain gender-linked traits, and the kind of gender a person is socially permitted to construct around themselves is heavily regulated by taboos and prohibitions (e.g. men cannot incorporate wearing a dress into their gender construction because it is not socially allowed). This is really seen as the heteronormative gender view. A person who is heteronormative (taking a male/man/masculine example) is born male, constructs their gender as a man—closely adhering to the social rules for what men can and cannot do—and must, therefore, also be sexually attracted only to women.

This idea of construction and performativity is the crux of Queer Theory, and it is also one of the major issues I have with Queer Theory on the whole. Queer Theory concerns itself with deconstructing what is generally seen as “normal”—specifically around issues of sexuality, sex and gender. While the construction of the “male = man = sexually attracted to women” paradigm is shrouded in normativity, transgender seems to subvert and deconstruct the false normative construction of gender and sex. Furthermore, because sexuality is so often linked with gender roles (i.e. men are supposed to be attracted to women, women attracted to men) homosexuality becomes, itself, an act of gender transgression. This notion is clearly visible in various feminist writings, though the one that pops out the most to me is Monique Wittig’s famous claim that lesbians are not women. In a very real way the lesbian feminist writers who pioneered Queer Theory have a lot, politically, at stake in their own writings; through subverting the dominant paradigm and through casting gender and sex as social constructions, and by identifying queer transgender as the performance that highlights the construction of these rigid sex and gender rules, they in effect bring attention to the oppressive nature of the gender binary system and of the patriarchy at the same time they give themselves academic permission to be lesbian and queer and have gender expressions that may not strictly adhere to the norm. And that’s a good thing.

My issue, however, is how this view of Queer Theory marginalizes transsexuals at the same time it exploits their apparent gender transgressions. Throughout Queer discourse, nontransgender expression is devalued as an oppressive system in which individuals cannot freely express their own, natural transgender queer expressions, thus elevating transgender queer expression as a sense of “higher purpose.” I see, immediately, two problems with this way of thinking. First, in using transsexuals as reference to gender’s constructed nature, it insinuates that transsexuals are males/men who become women or female/women who become men. In actuality, though, sex is not that simple. I would argue that sex has several subcategories, including: gonadal (testes vs. ovaries), genital (penis vs. vaginal), genetic (X vs. Y), hormonal (relative estrogen vs. androgen concentration), psychological (gender or sex identity), and phenotypic (secondary sex characteristics). To a large degree, these traits are influenced by a persons own biology and are minimally affected by culture. Transsexuals generally regard themselves as have the body of one sex with the mind of another, and as such their cumulative sex is somewhat mixed; it’s inaccurate to say a trans woman used to be a male or a man, and many transsexuals would argue that they were not ever really the sex they were assigned at birth. Hence, the part of their existence that was a “construction”—a “transgressive performance”—was that period in which they lived as the gender they were assigned at birth, and not their actual transition. In fact, the transsexual experience is often manifested as a normative expression. Because normative gender expression is associated with an oppressive connotation in queer theory, transsexuals have often been attacked for “upholding and worshiping the oppressive gender binary.” And while I want to attack this assumption as a queer-elitist position, I need to get back on topic. My real issue with Queer Theory, which Jay Prosser so elquently expressed in his book Second Skins, is what the theory ignores:

What gets dropped from transgender in its queer deployment to signify subversive
gender performativity is the value of the matter that often most concerns the
transsexual: the narrative of becoming a biological man or a biological woman
(as opposed to the performative of effecting one)—in brief and simple the
materiality of the sexed body.

There comes a point where abstract discourse simply breaks down and become irrelevant. It’s easy to extend Queer Theory to claim that transsexuals are really just “feminine men” and “masculine women” and genital reassignment surgery and other sex-based surgeries amount to self mutilation, just as, under the assumption of gender performativity, it is easy to suggest that passing does not matter—that no one “passes.” (You didn’t think I was going to get back to the subject of “passing,” now, did you?) It’s certainly easy to take that position is you are cissexual, but to understand the importance of “passing” to a transsexual it is necessary to understand that our goal in transition is to become and be recognized or treated as the sex to which we identify.

The above two videos highlight in many ways the importance of passing. Certainly on one level there is the issue of safety; feeling as though not being accepted as the sex one presents leaves them open for violence. This is best seen in the first video in which Angela recognizes anger and hate in the voices of those who read her as a “tranny” or a man. In the second video, Jamie discusses another aspect of passing: the desire for something as seemingly simple as verification of identity. Jamie is constantly confronted with people who, not necessarily in a violent manner, question the validity of her identity and her claim to womanhood and femininity. Is it too much to ask to simply be able to live in a manner reflective of one’s own identity?

In this video, Leith (riftgirl) comically mocks the whole absurd dilemma of “passing.” She suggests that following Polonius’ advice (“To thine own self be true”) and self acceptance is essential to transcending the issue, and to some degree she may be correct, assuming safety is no longer an issue. Certainly the issue of safety surrounding passing is enmeshed in what Queer Theory describes as a rigid and paranoid adhering to heteronormative, cis-normative constructs of gender. There’s a reason the facial feminization surgery industry is doing so well—a reason why Dr. Ousterhout and Zukowski will never be out of work until the day they retire. Beyond the safety issue is another layer of wanting to see one’s self and wanting to be recognized by others according to what—until transition—is a largely internalized identity and self-perception. Insofar as others’ perception of me as male or female, boy or girl, is concerned, I really don’t have a lot of say. Party of what will inform others of my proper gender and sex is my physical appearance. Do I have broad shoulders, broad chin and jaw, flat chest, facial hair, narrow hips, etc; or do I have breasts, slim shoulders, soft rounded face, and wide hips? These are phenotypic cues that are immediately apparent to others, all of which I have very little control (unless I shell out $40K for facial feminization and even more money for what limited body shaping procedures may be available). Other gender cues depend on the way I dress, on physical and vocal mannerisms and quality, and in my thought patterns. These all can be altered—some more readily than others—to results in what may or may not be an artificial rendition or construction of my gender identity and expression. However, my control over how people read my gender and sex isn’t much in my own control outside of limiting with whom I choose to socialize. Assuming one is in a position to surround one’s self with an accepting, supportive community and assuming that one’s level of social “passability” does not put them at any greater risk for violence than anyone else (huge assumptions to make, I realize), the only avenue left—potentially the most importance avenue—is one’s ability to “pass” to one’s self.

In this video, Aragonpr, takes a fairly controversial stance on the issue of passing; it’s a long video and she says a lot, much of which I have already covered in this blog, but nonetheless her message can be a very difficult one to swallow. The difficulty I see rests on two parts:
1) the importance of not denying a transsexual self or history, as doing so is tantamount to being dishonest about one’s own self and life and “performing psychological surgery” that dramatically compromises the quality of a transsexual’s character. She brings up the character of Max in “The L Word,” and how his coworkers may regard him as male and as a man, but that does not translate to an acceptance of Max as a person. This is a paradox many transsexual people face: identifying as a sex other than the one they were assigned at birth seems impossible to reconcile with having a transsexual past (i.e. how can I be a female girl when I was born male, raised as a boy and had a transsexual experience; doesn’t that negate any claim I have to femininity, womanhood, and femaleness?). And this is where the issue of stealth comes in. Were I to live in stealth, to erase the past—the sex assigned at birth, the transition, etc.—is to erase a part of who I am. While I may feel all the trans baggage is weighing me down and preventing me from living as myself, what I am really bumping up against is the paradox of having been born male, but now existing as female and as a girl. Currently I am positioned in a tug of war with my trans history—a struggle situated with a bottomless pit between me and my past, whichever loses is lost forever—I can either live as a female girl and obliterate my past and this experience that has defined a good part of my life, or I can let my past negate my current identity. But notice in this struggle that everything exists in absolute terms with no grey area.
2) The arbitrary criteria an individual may set up to gage their own passability. It is hugely important to realize that as human beings we tend to place value and meaning on everything, gender not excluded. If I look in the mirror and see my face as having masculine features, and having seen that if I associate those masculine traits with an invalidation of my identity, then it is because I gave those features that much value. Whether or not that value and that meaning are accurate or helpful is questionable. The question of passability comes down to challenging our own value systems and how we assign meaning to the term “pass” as well as to our own identity.
It’s easy to let the voice of the cis-normative, heteronormative world stereotypes cause us to internalize false or suspect value and meaning in regards to gender. Thoughts like, “I’m ugly, I have male features…I’m a boy, who am I fooling? I suck and no one will love me…I will never be who I am inside,” are results of internalizing those values and meanings, and it is our task to essentially shut those voices up, to challenge and redefine what, exactly, our own individual values and meanings are.

Those voices—the misconceptions and unhealthy values and meanings we internalize or arbitrarily assign—what Natalie in the above video metaphorically refers to as her “Trans Monster”—are what must be struggled against. I’m reminded of Albert Camus’ “Myth of Sisyphus.” Sisyphus is damned to eternal and futile toil; he must roll a huge rock up to the top of a mountain, only to have the rock roll back down to the bottom whenever he reaches the top. Specifically, Camus was interested in what Sisyphus may have thought as he walked down the mountain after the rock, seeing all of his labor gone to waste. Camus suggests that it is at this moment when Sisyphus is aware of the absurdity of his fate and the lack of hope of ever finding reprieve. It is this consciousness and acceptance of his fate, Camus suggests, that places Sisyphus above his fate; that acknowledging the “crushing truth” of his situation is enough to render those truths less unbearable. In this way, Sisyphus owns his own fate. The transsexual struggle with passing—at least passing to one’s self (i.e. self-acceptance and self-actualization)—is very similar to Sisyphus’ struggle. We have to accept our unique history, accept our lives as they are, paradox and all, and it is only through the accepting of this fate and condition and through forgiving ourselves of whatever “shortcomings” we may have thought we were guilty of—it is only through this that we discover our world and our fate is our own, and life is purely what we make of it.