Thursday, July 31, 2014

Transfeminism, Radical Feminism and Me

OK so I'm gonna dart between ideology and personal stories. Some fights are too big for us, but we still need to make them human, and show where they interact with actual people.

The other day, one of my tangential friends, read this article in the New Yorker
and commented that she leaned to the Radical Feminist side of this dispute.

I was aghast. I'm currently transitioning from male to … something, we'll see, I call it genderqueer or androgyne for now. So this is a topic close to my heart and life. And I have a side in this dispute. My run-ins in the recent past with Radical Feminism have been with some really foul parts of it, Janice Raymond and Cathy Brennan, for instance. What sometimes gets called TERF (Trans-Excluding Radical Feminism). And I recent read Julia Serano's impressive book Whipping Girl, detailing the Transfeminist side. But my friend always struck me as a decent person, I didn't think she'd fall for venom. What was going on?

So we had a couple of back and forths. My friend is leaning to the Radfem side, but certainly not convinced yet, and trying to research both sides of the debate. Eventually she found me this blog post
It was the first time I'd personally ever seen the Radfem side described without a lot of what seems to me like extra-hatefulness thrown in. I could see how someone might follow this train of reasoning and come to these conclusions. I thought maybe I was beginning to understand that position, instead of just reacting to it.

So I guess the person I'm trying to write this for is someone who is just coming to this fight for the first time and isn't really convinced by either side yet. I won't convince a committed Radfem, and I know it, and they probably don't convince very many Transfeminist folk either. But let's see if I can at least describe where I am for the benefit of the not yet committed. Read other stuff too and make up your own mind.

First caveat – this fight is old, and bitter, and full of acrimony. At least since 1979 the Trans-Excluding Radical Feminists and the Transfeminists have been extremely hostile to each other. As Transfeminists, Mari Brighe and Cristan Williams point out, and many Transfeminists blame Radical Feminists for sabotaging political and psychological acceptance of transgender rights in the early 1980s. It is not unusual for Transfeminists to view at least some strains of trans-excluding radical feminism as hate groups. And don't get me started on “doxxing.” Contrariwise, Radical Feminists often feel extremely hounded and bullied by Transfeminists. Bigboobutch is clearly highly annoyed at the responses she has gotten to previous posts. It's normal for both sides to accuse the other of trolling them. I am NOT trying to heap extra anger onto this fire. I'm actually trying to dampen it a bit. I think there are some radical feminists that are not worth the effort of trying to reach, but I'm coming to think there are others who are, and maybe some kind of dialogue beyond bitter words is possible.

Second caveat – I ain't little-miss-speaker-for-my-generation. That's folks like Jen Richards, Julia Serano or Cristan Williams, all of whom I admire greatly even if I don't always agree with them. Read them for the theory and the background and the journalistic skill. I'm just a schlubb writing a blog post, about ME and my experiences and positions. I don't even try to call myself a “woman.” But I think this kind of issue requires both high level theory overviews, and personal nitty-gritty amateur views.

Third caveat – the langauge used is very much one of the disputes. I'm going to use the language I'm comfortable with, because I'm me, but we'll talk more about this in a bit.

I think the best way to tackle the disputes is to look at some of the key questions.

Why Do Transfolk Want to Transition?

BigBooButch says
These readers are confusing me with this patriarchal society. It is society that tells little girls, “Oh, you can’t do that, only little boys can do that.” It is society that tells little boys, “Oh, you can’t do that, only little girls do that.” Carrying that forward then, transgenders go forth believing that, well, if I like to wear these clothes, do these things, love these people, then I must be the opposite sex trapped in this horrible body. I am not saying these things and making transgenders feel this way, society is.
What I am saying is: fuck the patriarchy and homophobia. Little girls should be allowed to wear what they want, roll around in the mud, play sports, play with “boys’ toys,” and dream about growing up to marry the princess and save her from the evil witch, all while still being little girls who aren’t conditioned to believe that the only way they can live these lives of which they dream is by “becoming” little boys.
What I am saying is fuck the patriarchy and homophobia. Little boys should be allowed to wear dresses and make-up and high heels, have tea parties, play with their Barbie Dream House, and dream about growing up and being rescued from the evil witch by their prince charming, all while still being little boys who aren’t conditioned to believe that the only way they can live these lives of which they dream is by “becoming” little girls.
It is society that convinces people that gender is innate and not a social construct designed to enforce sexual stereotypes that keep male/men/masculine above everything female/women/feminine. To give in to this conditioning doesn’t make you a non-conformist, it makes you the biggest sheep on the planet because you are helping the patriarchy to enforce these woman-hating sexual stereotypes called gender.”
Now I'm pretty sympathetic to this understanding, even though I disagree with it. The dynamic BigBooButch is pointing out, certainly seems to me to be part of why some people choose to transition. But I don't think it is the heart of the issue, and I think the heart of the issue is pretty hard to understand if you haven't experienced it yourself. If you think the ONLY way to live the kind of life you want is by becoming the other gender/sex, then yeah it looks like society being overly rigid and unequally oppressive about socially constructed gender roles is the problem.

The thing is, transfolk, often do in fact lead lives that don't conform with patriarchal gender expectations even before they transition, and usually hang out with plenty of other folks who do. My best transmale buddy, did in fact wear what he wanted, play with boy toys, and lust after women, and hang out in lesbian circles, before he began transitioning to male. And it wasn't enough. Something ELSE inside of him still yearned for a more bodily masculinity. I'm not all that femme. I rarely wear dresses, make-up, or high heels. But I'm almost always wearing female clothes (often a mix of male and female clothes in fact). And I did that before I transitioned. I was living as a housewife for several years before I began transitioning. I knew extremely femmy guys, who led very feminine lives, but still thought of themselves as male, and didn't really want to transition. If what I really wanted was a femmy life, I knew I could have that, with difficulties and pushback, but without necessarily transitioning. But I always thought of my body as being more feminine than it actually was. I regularly had “ghost limb” breasts and hips. I felt a constant mismatch between my body and my identity. Don't get me wrong, the social role was part of it, and if I happened to be wearing female clothes, or acting socially female, that helped, but it didn't make the yearning go away. The yearning was more bodily than that. Julie Serano describes it as “subconscious sex.” She says that her experience is that something in her brain, “expected” her body to be female, even before she had done the medical tricks she could to feminize it. That fits my experience too. We often talk about this as “gender dissonance” or “gender dysphoria.” There are people who yearn for feminine lives, but not for particularly feminine bodies. People who live those yearnings out, instead of just suppressing them, are certainly transgressing patriarchal gender expectations, but my experience is that they usually still self-identify as their assigned gender. On the flip side, if you identify as a butch woman, instead of as a transman, great! That's cool. You'll get static for it from the patriarchy, but I'd like to try to be your ally. I think that's a perfectly fine way to live your life. But I think that being a transman is different from that, and there ought to be space for both. My experience as a transgender genderqueer is that it is something inside of me that yearns to be non-male in a bodily way, and that when I started feminizing hormone that made me feel sooo much better. It wasn't just that the hormones were part of the path to leading an idealized life, rather the hormones made me feel better right away. They quieted my gender dysphoria or gender dissonance. The science of transgenderism is still in early days, and is highly disputed. But my personal experience definitely lines up with the common theory that there is something in the brains or minds of transfolk that yearns for a bodily experience of a different sex/gender.

One of the big long debates in social science, and gender theory in particular is about the extent that gender and sex and sexual orientation and such are “innate” or “essential” vs “socially constructed.” Julie Serano's “Whipping Girl” has a couple of careful chapters on this if you want to read a lot, but the short version is that Transfeminism, and I personally, think the truth is a little bit of both. There are real innate differences between the genders, but with lots of variation, plenty of overlap, and lots of cultural overlay which is often designed to exaggerate the differences or privelege some aspects over others. There are plenty of women who can bench press more than I can, but yes, testosterone really does give an advantage on certain kinds of physical strength. Biological differences between the genders are part of the story here, but a culture that makes many women overly afraid of “bulking up” is also part of the issue. Sexual orientation is another good example. I think the science (and the experiential reports of folks) are pretty clear here, that there is something innate and biological about the urges and attractions that a person experiences, but that different times and cultures process this in different ways, and use different language and categories and social constructing get involved in the process of turning urges and attractions into labels, social circles and conscious identities. People don't “choose” to have lesbian urges and attractions and “orientation,” but they do choose what they are going to do about it, and how to make sense of it, and how to manifest it socially. If they choose to do their best to repress their sexual orientation, and live a celibate life for religious reasons … well that's likely to the a lifelong struggle. That is very much how I have experienced MY gender identity. It feels like there are innate things that I am constantly trying to suppress, or embrace, or cope with (all attitudes I've taken at different parts of my life). So, yeah, I disagree with rad fems that gender is completely socially constructed, or that trans people choose to transition for completely socially constructed reasons. I think that's only part of the issue.

What does Transition actually accomplish?

BigBooButch says

Since both FtM and MtF are misnomers, in that no female can magically turn into a male and conversely, no male can magically turn into a female, as both are biologically impossible; and since using the terms transman and transwoman seem to bring about the need of these individuals to “other” the rest of us by insisting on using the slur, “cis,” I have been looking for better descriptors when speaking about these individuals.
I have come to like the terms female transgenders for women who attempt to transition into some facsimile of “men” and male transgenders for men who attempt to transition into some facsimile of “women.” I also like the terms, F2Tg and M2Tg, which would mean female to transgender and male to transgender, respectively. Both have the same meaning, neither should be considered transphobic since they are more accurate depictions of what transgenders are actually doing with their bodies, and both sets of terms satisfy the need to move away from the idea that one’s biology can be somehow changed with medication and surgery.”

Ok I think the second big fight between Transfeminism and Radical Feminism is about what transition can actually accomplish. BigBooButch seems to think that sex and gender are quite distinct and that while gender is entirely socially constructed, sex is completely innate and non-fluid. And this was a pretty common understanding of how sex and gender work, and how to make the right compromises between innatism and social construction, so I can't fault her a lot for it, even though I want to disagree.

My position, which mirrors other Transfeminists pretty well, is that biology CAN be changed to some extent with medication and surgery, but not completely. But that “man” and “woman” even biologically, are broad enough categories to include transmen as men and transwomen as women. Female humans can turn into male humans, and vice versa, in certain cases, sometimes without medical intervention (as in some intersex cases), and sometimes with medical intervention (as for example, when trans folk transition).

My understanding of the biology of sex differentiation is that human sex is actually a dozen or more different biological criteria. That is, biological sex is made up of chromosomal sex, genital sex, gonadal sex, hormonal sex, secondary sex characteristics, wolffian-mullerian sex, brain sex, skeletal sex, and so on. And some of those are made up of even finer distinctions (certainly brain sex is). Often times these all line up. My mom is probably biologically female in the sense that she has female chromosomal sex, and genital sex, and gonadal sex, and wolffian-mullerian sex, and hormonal sex and so on. But there are lots of ways the picture can become more complicated. Sometimes the criteria are not so binary. Chromosomal sex comes in XY, and XX, but there are many other possibilities too, XXY, X0, XYY, etc. Hormonal sex has a very male pattern, and a very female pattern, but can have a bunch of in-between, or variant states as well. Or the biological criteria of sex might not all line up. Someone with fairly complete Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome, may well be chromosomally male, and have male gonadal tissue in their undescended testes, and lack womb development, but be genitally normal female, have a very female hormone profile, female secondary sex characteristics, female skeletal structure, female fat distribution patterns, and a very female brain. Such a person is likely to be assigned the female sex at birth and raised to believe they are female, and indeed to think of themselves as female. Even biologically, I think the right thing to say is that this person is a woman, and is biologically female. Because “biological sex” is a summary of a large number of other biological criteria. But it is true that this person is biologically “not completely female” or has a mix of male and female biological traits. Similarly, imagine a woman who is biologically female in all other ways, but has elevated androgen levels, and seeks an androgen-blocking medicine to minimize facial hair, or other secondary male characteristics from developing. No one would say that such a person isn't a woman, or isn't biologically female, even though biologically they have one criterion out of dozens that is a bit ambiguous rather than fully on the female side. Biological sex is a summary of many, many criteria.

So intersex people and transgender people are cases where the biological summarizing process runs into problems. Someone with complete Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome is almost certainly best thought of as biologically female, and someone with very mild Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome is probably pretty clearly biologically male. But there are cases of people with partial Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome, or in other situations like, Klinefelder Syndrome or 5-alpha-reductase syndrome, where the biology just doesn't summarize well as “basically female” or “basically male.” We often call such folk intersex. I'm not intersex, so I don't want to speak for them much, except to say that they illustrate some ways that biological sex can get complicated, and the fact that how one identifies and lives is often far more important than the complicated medical details of one's life. In the case of transgender folk, we seem at birth clearly enough falling into one sex that people assign us to that sex. But over the course of our lives we come to disagree with that assignment.

In many cases, including mine, we come to try to use medical tricks to alter our biology to be more in line with how we want it to be or feel it ought to be. There is a lot we can't change yet. If you don't have a womb, we can't give you one. We can't change your chromosomal sex. Skeletal sex changes very little after puberty. Various surgeries can do all kinds of things to change one's genitals, gonads, and various secondary sex characteristics. (Although it certainly is true that a surgically created neo-vagina is not exactly the same as a regular vagina, nor is a neo-phallus entirely similar to a traditional phallus). There are definate limits to what we can do. But it is just plain the TRUTH that “one's biology can somehow be changed by medication and surgery.” There are lots of ways to do it. I'm doing it. I'm changing many aspects of my biological sex via hormone replacement therapy (and a few other things), altering my hormone balance and many of my secondary sex characteristics. I may still be biologically male in some ways, but there are other ways in which I am just not biologically male anymore even at the level of sex rather than gender.

But in a sense, that's not the heart of the disagreement here. Even if a well-off transwoman is able to get a hold of and afford all of the hormonal and surgical tricks currently available, the body they have at the end of the process is not going to be entirely parallel to someone way at the female end of the biological sex continuum. You might think that they have made themselves into a “facsimile” of a woman rather than into a “real” woman.

I disagree. I think “woman” and “man” are broad categories that include lots of people and lots of biological possibilities, and I think that transwomen can be genuinely biologically women, and transmen can be genuinely biologically men. And as we'll see in the next section, I do think that who counts as a man or woman is not entirely a matter of biology. But even at the level of biology, I think many transwomen count as women. Look, most people never actually get around to checking their chromosomal sex, or getting the painful biopsy required to check your gonadal tissue. You could have a chromosomal sex at odds with your overall biology and not know it. When the Olympics used to require chromosomal sex typing, they would get a couple of people surprised by the results every cycle. Similarly, if you think that an infertile woman is not a “real” woman, because, say, they were born without a womb, or had to have it surgically removed for medical reasons, you are being an asshole, AND misunderstanding how biological sex works. Even before we bring intersex or trans people into the picture, the category “women” include lots of biological differences between people, who are nonetheless genuinely biological women. A woman who has had a hysterectomy, or a mastectomy and artificial breast replacement, has not turned themselves into a “facsimile” of a woman. So, too, when we think about intersex or trans people, you can have some female biological traits, but not all the classic female biological traits, and still count as biologically female. Because “biologically female” is a summary of a whole bunch of traits. And our medical technology is good enough now, that it is possible to alter your biology to the point that “biologically female” is the right summary of where you are now, even if it wouldn't have been the right summary at some earlier part of your life.

Who counts as a woman?

We make judgments about who is a man and who is a woman all the time in our daily lives. You look at a figure walking in the distance, and guessing their sex/gender is probably going to be one of the first things you do, perhaps even unconsciously. We make these judgments even without knowing fine details of their medical situation. Partly this is because of sexism. Our society encourages us to treat men and women differently in a variety of ways, many of which are pretty fucking unjust, which means that we have to decide early on whether to “code” someone as a male or a female.

Like all judgments we MIGHT revise this judgement in light of further information, but we resist doing so, (and resent it if we have to). We are likely to continue to treat someone as male or female based on our initial judgement of them. And we make the initial judgments largely based on clothes, and secondary sex characteristics, and outward appearance, and movement patterns, and often vocal patterns. Doing a biopsy of their gonadal tissue is usually not part of the process at all. “Woman” and “Man” are social categories at least as much as they are biological categories, and the two are definitely interrelated in complicated ways.
Me, I don't usually “pass” as either male or female. Most people look at me and start wondering what I “really” am. I don't claim to be a woman, but I might someday. Or maybe I'll always think of myself as in-between and neither-nor. But lots of transfolk “pass” very successfully (and non-deceptively) as their self-identified gender, on a regular basis. Julie Serano is a transwoman who people almost always treat as a woman, until perhaps they learn about her past. And indeed, she looks female, acts female, and has enough female biological traits, that I think a neutral observer (if such a thing were even possible) would classify her as female. She's not trying to trick anyone.

In the original article that sparked this whole discussion, entitled “What is a Woman: the Dispute between Radical Feminism and Transgenderism” Sara St. Martin Lynne said “This moment where we’re losing the ability to say the word ‘woman’ or to acknowledge the fact that being born female has lived consequences and meaning is kind of intense to me.”

I certainly don't want people to lose the ability to say 'woman” or to stop acknowledging that being born female has lived consequences. Folks that are assigned as female at birth, and folks that start getting counted as female later in life have LOTS of important lived differences. I hope us Transfeminists are never denying that. I just think that both folks that are counted as female at birth, and folks that come to be counted as female later on, can be legitimately called women when they are adults.

If someone wants to be treated as a man, and you won't treat them as a man, what rational excuse can you have? That men are better than women and this person hasn't “earned” being treated as a man? That's sexist bullshit. That may well tug on our subconscious because we live in a culture of sexist bullshit, but that is something that we should consciously resist any time we can. I think the same applies to someone who wants to be treated as a woman, but for some reason you won't. What you think they haven't paid their dues enough, they haven't earned the feminine pronoun? That's exactly the same kind of sexist crap. Ok, maybe you hesitate because you think women and men are fundamentally different and it just seems wrong or false to treat a woman as if they were a man. Well, the “fundamental differences” are real but small and probably exaggerated by our culture, but OK, even if so, how do you know this person is “really” a woman, even though they are claiming to be a man, and asking to be treated as one? Have you looked into their genitals, their brain, their heart, their life, their self? Are you a better expert than they are on WHO THEY ARE? Do you really think they are trying to scam you? Chat with them a bit. Try to understand their viewpoint. Is that really the vibe you are getting?

My position is that who counts as a woman, and who counts as a man is often an easy call. When it gets tricky though, it is hard for me to trust anyone more than the person who is claiming to be a woman or a man. OK, maybe if I think they are are working on a scam, but that is just SOOO not the vibe I've gotten from the transfolk I have known.

If you think someone honestly thinks of themselves as a woman or a man, why would you want to disagree with them? Ok maybe you're their parent or lover or physician and want to make sure they've thought about it enough and examined all the angles, and are trying to help prevent them from making a mistake. And yes, detransition and regret do happen sometimes. It's not like it is impossible to be mistaken. But everybody's gotta live their lives, they have to make the best choices they can, they have to make their best guesses about who they are and what is going to make them happy. If someone says please count me as a woman, or as a man, in all seriousness, I don't think there is any good reason not to.

Sometimes you get a religious version of this worry instead of a radical feminist one. That people “really” are male or female, and can't change that, and that it is offensive to try, and that we should treat people as they “really” are. Well, if there is some fundamental truth here, then it would take perfect epistemology to get to it. Perhaps the person “really” is male, even though they outwardly seem female for part of their life. Or perhaps the reality is more complex than our simplified concepts can get at. God or an omniscient being of some kind might know what sex we “really” are and treat us as such. But humans have to guess based upon the evidence and self-reflection and such that we are capable of. And it just seems badly arrogant to me to think you know what sex or gender someone really is, better than they themselves do.

Even if you want a more restrictive criterion for who gets to count as a woman, than anyone who seriously asserts they do, there are lots of criteria you could use less essentialist than “you will always be the gender you were assigned at birth.” Maybe you want to make sure someone has lived as their target gender for at least a year, or that they have started hormones, or even that they have had some surgery. I think these are over-restrictive, but they are sometimes compromises between Transfeminists and other views. The vast majority of legal jurisdictions (outside of the Islamic world and Africa, and even in several of those cases), acknowledge that humans really do sometimes transition from male to female and vice versa. If you think that once someone is assigned female at birth then they are always “really” female, or vice versa, then every major medical organization disagrees with you, and nearly all legal jurisdictions. The people who are still on your side of that particular debate are conservative Muslims, some conservative Christians, and some radical feminists.

Some Radical Feminists will accept a formerly male assigned person as female, but only after they have had major genital surgery. The mantra “penis is male” gets thrown around a lot. And regular folks who haven't thought about transgender stuff a lot, also often come to the table believing that the genital surgery is the key dividing line between who should count as male or female. This is wrong, but it's very understandable. Being male or female is an amalgamation of tons and tons of different things, social, biological, interpersonal, psychological, and so on. And genital shape is a biggie, but it isn't really a central issue. It is hard and rare to be a woman with penis, or a man with a vagina. But it does happen, and I know people who do it. Who you have sex with, and how exactly that sex works is really more an issue of sexual orientations and sexual preferences than of genital shapes. I don't really have an argument here, and many people don't believe me, but genital shape isn't a magical dividing line between male and female any more than chromosomal sex is, or sexual orientation is. I do find it mildly chuckle-worthy that radical feminism's over-emphasis on genital shape, can wind up making them literally more phallocentric than their opponents on this issue.

Who counts as a woman? I think the best standard we can have for day-to-day purposes is “anyone who upon serious reflection, beleives they count as a woman.” And I guess if we disagree, then we disagree ...

Who should be allowed in women-only spaces?

But many times the real motivation for these worries is not about who should count as a woman or a man in some abstract or legal or theoretical sense, but who should be allowed into women's restrooms, or changing rooms, or womyn's music festivals. And when we get to this practical level we are trying to balance a bunch of different etiquette issues.

From the trans side, let me tell you that this is a constant headache or worse for us. I am not welcome in either gender's restroom or changing room. Occasionally a place will have a gender-neutral bathroom (usually called a “family” bathroom), and those are handy. But I'm always scared when I enter either gender's public restroom. I often try to “hold it” rather than use public restrooms (and one of the side effects of my t-suppressor meds is that I have to drink more and urinate more than before). I change at home before and after going to the gym, because I know I'll be unwelcome in either changing room. I haven't been beaten up over restroom use yet, but I have other trans friends that have. Trans people complain about the bathroom problem to each other a lot, I am not at all alone here.

But contrariwise, many women see restrooms and changing rooms, not just as a place to use the facilities, but as a place to retreat from all things male. If they see someone they perceive as male, (whether the person is male or not, I've known butch ciswomen who were mistaken for men in bathrooms and given the riot act) it can seriously harsh their retreat. In fact, if the person is a rape or abuse survivor, they might find perceived masculinity in a place they thought was “safe” particularly triggering. The safety argument has always rung hollow to me. Transpeople are in far more danger in bathrooms and changing rooms than other people are in danger from us. Similarly, I'm sure that some people felt “safer” when they were confident that the restrooms and changing rooms they used were all white too … On the other hand, our society is soooo damn dysfunctional on anything having to do with rape, and rape culture is so terribly pervasive, that it is very easy to sympathize with people wanting a temporary break from it, or even just the vague sense that they have a break. In male bathrooms ... well male bathrooms have extremely rigid social codes, there are unspoken rules about talking, and looking and who takes which stall or urinal or sink when. Sometimes, it's possible to take advantage of these rules to not be noticed at all, but if something goes wrong, men are often willing to get belligerent (or uncomfortable), about slight mess ups of the unspoken rules. Sigh... I don't really want to make other people uncomfortable, I just want to pee, wash my hands, maybe occasionally touch up my make-up. I know I'm no danger to you, and not really male, but you don't necessarily know that, and the dumb theories that transwomen are all motivated to transition because of sexual deviance don't really help the issue. Trans people have the legal right to use the bathroom they are presenting as in every state, and in many states have the right to use changing rooms too (other states it isn't clear or gets case by casey). I think we have the moral right too. But I also think that we shouldn't always press that right, when we have other decent options, because we don't want to be creating unnecessary fear or discomfort. Hopefully over time people will come to realize that transwomen are no more scary than any other random woman in the bathroom, and that transmen are not trying to flout the rules of the bathroom, they just wanna use the closed stalls more often than other men.

Social clubs, and concerts and places like that which are limited to one gender are a slightly different case. No body really NEEDS to see this concert, or join the Boy Scouts, the way that we do sometimes need to use a nearby restroom, despite our planning. And clubs and social venues are by and large within their legal rights to exclude people on all sorts of bases, including gender, or even more restrictive gender based criteria. If a concert wants to only allow in “womyn born as womyn” in most states they can, and probably ought to be allowed to. But why exactly would you want a restriction like that? Famously the Boy Scouts of America have been very regressive on LGBT inclusion, while the Girl Scouts of America have been equally progressive on the same issue. The Girl Scouts say if a child identifies as a girl, and their parents present them socially as a girl, then they are girl enough to be a girl scout. If a country club wanted to restrict it's members by race, well, even if it was legal, most people ought to avoid a country club like that. Where this gets tricky is in places aimed heavily at gay or lesbian culture. Here there are legitimate reasons to want to restrict things to one gender, although even there many clubs, concerts, bars and such that choose not to, but merely to use social pressure to make folk that aren't appropriate for the venue feel uncomfortable. But you know what? A lot of transmen were deeply involved in lesbian social scenes as butches prior to coming out as males. A lot of transwomen are attracted to women or already partnered with women. And queer women certainly are sometimes attracted to transwomen or to transmen. Similarly a lot of transwomen had strong ties to male gay culture prior to, during or after transition. I haven't personally known a lot of transmen attracted to other men trying to participate in gay male culture, but I've known a few, and I'm told that that happens a fair bit too.

I don't have much opinion on the Michfest case, and don't know a lot of details. But one of the groups I was involved with had a case last year where a transman was competing in a competition traditionally limited to gay males, and there was some dispute about whether transmales were “male enough” to qualify. The judges disqualified the contestant, and there was an uproar, and a few weeks later the rules were formally clarified to explicitly allow transmen, and the people in charge apologized and expressed that they were trying to keep the traditional gay male vibe of the contest and had misjudged what the constituents of this little sub-culture actually wanted. (I haven't talked to the contestant since, I wonder what, if anything, they did to apologize to him). Michfest can have their womyn-born-womyn policy, and contests can limited themselves to cisgender people if they want, but I hope that lots of people of goodwill will be turned off by a club or concert or contest's decision to do so, and will look elsewhere for their culture. And this does seem to be happening. I know I personally was heartened when I saw that the Indigo Girls, who I've long admired, decided to stop going to Michfest.

Historically, radical feminism has had a lot of ties with lesbian culture. And it makes a lot of sense to try to create lesbian spaces. And since a lesbian might have a bi girlfriend, or someone might still be in a questioning stage and want to check out the venue for the first time, often such spaces are open to even women that are shaky on whether they identify as lesbian. So in a lot of ways, I suspect the more moderate and sane parts of the fight between Transfeminists and Radical Feminists are really about whether and when to allow transmen and transwomen into traditionally lesbian spaces and clubs and bars and venues. And whether to allow at the level of etiquette and welcome and social pressure, at least as much as at the level of rules or legalities. And in many cases there is a generational old guard/new guard dynamic that is at play, with younger folk being far more welcoming of trans people, and older folk being far more suspicious. I don't claim to be a lesbian yet. (I'm trying to learn the culture some. My wife and I are taken as lesbians more and more often, and it gets a little closer to true all the time). It would be easy to resent me, and people like me as privileged men trying to steal lesbian culture and poach in on the last sanctums protected from men. Sigh... I get that. I do. I'm just trying to make sense of my life and live it as best I can. Trans folk aren't going away, you have to deal with us. If you deal with us with meanness, it reflects on you, and slowly fragments the LGBT alliance, such as it is, a little further. I don't have the answers for how exactly lesbian culture should respond here. I certainly am more likely to go where I feel more welcomed, and I have a sense of which venues are more trans-friendly than others, and I know that non-transfolk who have trans friends pay attention to such things too. But if you want to make us feel unwelcomed, because you want places where you don't have to interact with us … well there are honorable ways to do that.

What is the right language to talk about all this with?

So BigBooButch, objected to the terms MtF and FtM, and thought of the term “cis” as a slur, and regularly refers to transgender folk as “transgenders.” Sheila Jeffreys in her book repeatedly refers to transwomen as “he.” The term for a genital surgery associated with transition, can be anything from “genital mutilation” to “sex reassignment surgery” to “sex confirmation surgery” depending on one's political allegiances here.

Look trans terminology is a mess. There are a whole lot of terms, and they change from decade to decade, and often make distinctions that the uninitiated don't know how to make sense of. I often have to direct well meaning trans-allies to glossary pages like this one For example, the term “transvestite” is not polite in the US (use “crossdresser” instead), but is still polite and non-derogatory in England and Australia and other parts of the English speaking world. And there are even good (complicated) reasons why. Further, trans folk can often be more sensitive about word choice than cis folk are (I use “cis” as a non-derogatory term, and hear it used by others as such. I'm not really sure why BigBooButch thinks it's a slur; one more thing we disagree about, I guess). I suspect it's a side effect of the gender dysphoria/gender dissonance. I'm pretty flexible about what pronouns someone uses for me, or which names they call me, but if you call me “sir” it is going to seriously bug me all day. Even if I know you mean well, or are required to use sir/ma'am by your boss. It just hurts, and makes me feel dumb, and failurey, and hopeless. People screw up pronouns and names all the time, even when they are trying. One common experience is that it is the people who have known you longest, and thus may be in some ways your strongest allies, family and old friends, that have the most trouble switching names and pronouns. But it is usually very easy to tell who is trying to be respectful and who doesn't give a crap. And that is the heart of the terminology issue. If you are trying to be respectful, even if you happen to say the wrong thing, people involved can usually tell. And if you aren't even trying to be respectful, that will show too.

But there is also the issue of ideological bias in our terminology. I call transwomen transwomen, because I believe they are trans and they are women. BigBooButch calls the same people “male transgenders” because she believes they are not women (and not the more normal phrase “transgender males” for reasons I'm not sure of. Certainly the GLAAD style guide, considers using “transgenders” or “a transgender” as a noun rather than “transgender people” or “transgender male” where transgender is an adjective, to be problematic. Maybe BigBooButch is being informal, or maybe she's intentionally trying to be impolite). Point is, the language is question-begging. Both mine and hers. And it betrays one's ideological affiliations to varying degrees. And there are further complexities. I like the term “gynephile” for myself (since I'm sorta partway between being a het male, and a lesbian female, and it captures both). But the term is most at home in and strongly associated with Blanchard's theories of transgenderism, which are pretty offensive to me and many other transfolk, so I don't feel comfortable using what would otherwise be a useful word.

So at the end of the day I don't really know what the right way to talk about all this stuff is. Try to be respectful. Be mindful of the quirks and preferences of the people you are actually interacting with. Learn as much detail as you need for your level of interaction with transfolk. Use the terms that have the ideological baggage you are most comfortable with. Even if you disagree with Transfeminism, if you can do so politely rather than being intentionally rude, it will probably gain you more sympathy from folks that are still on the fence about the genuine debates.

So that's my spiel. Truth is, that as much as I'm in a weird place gender-wise personally, I'm really pretty moderate on a lot of gender issues. People should do what they honorably can to try to be happy in our brief little lives. For a lot of people that's probably something pretty conventional with maybe a bit of edge to try to change things for the better. I'm just not a radical about Feminism or anything else. So I probably disagree with the Radical Feminists on lots of other things too, but these are the few places I think I can say something vaguely productive.    

Thursday, June 10, 2010

June 10 - A.A. Day

Story: June 10th, 1935 is the traditional day of the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous. The story goes that “Bill W” and “Dr. Bob” were both alcoholics searching for ways to cope with their problems. Both of their real names are matters of public record, but by tradition they are called Bill and Dr. Bob, or variants of these names. Both had had partial success with medical treatments for alcoholism, and partial success with religious approaches to dealing with alcoholism. “Bill W ” had become convinced that spirituality was part of the solution, as was medicine, but that the other element he personally needed to stay sober was the caring support of other alcoholics who were trying to do the same thing, who had been there, who somewhat understood. So Bill W. searched discretely for another alcoholic to share his troubles with, and found Dr. Bob. Now, Dr. Bob was skeptical at first, but rapidly became friends with Bill W. Indeed, Bill moved into Dr. Bob and his wife’s house.

They talked about what worked and what didn’t, what helped them stay sober and what wasn’t quite right. Dr. Bob returned to drinking heavily at a medical convention, but when he got home Bill W. rode him to return to sobriety. They made plans to take their proposals for alcoholics mutual support groups on the road. On, June 10, 1935 Dr. Bob had the last drink of his life, a single beer to steady his hands for performing surgery. June 10, 1935 has become the traditional date for the founding of AA, because it was the first time the AA approach WORKED, the first time that the combination of spiritual surrender and mentorship by another recovering alcoholic was used intentionally to allow an alcoholic to remain sober the rest of his life.

Shortly, there after Bill W. and Dr. Bob began targeting other alcoholics for their planned treatments, and Dr Bob’s home became a kind of center for alcoholics, in Akron OH. The method wasn’t exactly the 12 steps at first, and indeed they thought of it largely in terms of the ideas of the Evangelical Christian Oxford Group. Before long, Bill W. moved back to New York and established a group there as well. By 1937, Bill W.’s group in New York and Dr. Bob’s group in Akron were working quite differently, and Bill W’s group was coming into increasing friction with the Oxford Group. Eventually there was a split, the Oxford group understood this as Bill W. quitting, but Bill’s wife claims they were kicked out. Nonetheless, Bill W.’s group continued, focusing solely on alcoholics rather than a mix of spiritual problems, and accepting practicing Catholics, or others whose religion wasn’t quite in line with the Oxford group. By 1939, the Akron group split with the Oxford Group as well, and both groups agonized about how to spread their method more broadly. Bill W. proposed a grand plan involving writing a book, sending out paid alcoholic missionaries, and setting up a recovery center, which went against several of the spiritual principles of the Oxford Group. The 18 alcoholics still with the Akron and New York groups took a vote, and in the end approved the writing of the book by 1 vote, but refused to fund the more elaborate plan.

Bill W was the primary writer at first, and was working to secure various sources of funding. He succeeded in getting a little funding from John D. Rockefeller Jr., but did not receive the millions he hoped for, for the recovery center and professional ex-alcoholic missionaries. Rockefeller argued that the power of Bill’s method was one man carrying the message to another man out of goodwill and having been there, and that money would ruin the spiritual power of the approach. Yes, "man," AA was all male at first. By 1939 the “Big Book” was published, it was entitled “Alcoholics Anonymous” and was over 400 pages long. Bill had expanded the initial draft of 6 steps into 12 steps, somewhat modeled on the 12 apostles. In 1939 AA had around 100 members in 3 cities, and the book did not sell well. But things did slowly pick up. AA started publishing a newsletter. In 1946, Bill W developed the “twelve traditions” to help govern individual AA meetings. By 1950 there were 100,000 AA members, and soon Narcotics Anonymous was created as the first AA spin-off group. By the 70s there were a million AA members. Today it is estimated that there are over 2 million AA members, and there are over 100,000 official AA meetings, in 150 countries.

Now, I’ve never benefited directly from AA, but I’d wager I know plenty of people who have. Part of what interests me are the personal characteristics of Bill W, and Dr. Bob. Yesterday I praised experimental charity. Both of Charles Dickens experimental charities worked only passingly well. They probably weren’t wastes of money, but neither were they heavily imitated in later years. But Dr. Bob and Bill W. struck upon a model for charity that was fairly novel at its time, and has worked extremely well and been widely imitated since. But they didn’t strike upon it all at once. The idea of group psychological counseling cropped up in several places in the 1930s, including another of my heroes Jacob Moreno. AA got it largely through the Oxford Group, a group spiritual and religious practice. Similarly the medical model of Alcoholism as mental disorder rather than moral weakness, predates AA, and the idea clearly got to Bill W via one of his earlier doctors, Dr. Silkwood. But the model, not of doctors helping alcoholics, or religious professionals helping alcoholics, but alcoholics helping each other - that was novel. Similarly, the 12 step format was a spiritual path that is reminiscent of, but isn’t exactly like, earlier Christian ideas of humbling and healing. Similarly it was more than a decade after AA’s founding that it developed the 12 traditions, the rules of anonymity, neutrality, non-professionalism, openness and so on, that explicated the model for how AA was going to work at the group level, rather than just at the personal level. The 12 traditions are a sociological innovation, at least as much as the 12 steps are a spiritual one. And Bill W., himself, disagreed with several at these at various points of the story. The alcoholics group he ran in 1935 was only open to alcoholics who were still sober and had already undertaken a serious surrender to God, rather than open to anyone at all that is trying to recover, as specified by the third tradition. Bill W. argued strenuously against traditions 7 and 8 when he was looking for financial support from John Rockefeller in 1937. AA, evolved, changing many times in its first few decades. Bill W. was amazingly willing to let it evolve. Another good example is political neutrality. Bill W. himself was quite conservative politically, but he wanted AA to stay out of politics, to be as open to all alcoholics as possible. He continued even after founding AA, to be very open to new possible spiritual or medical approaches to treating alcoholism. He participated in medical experiments with LSD, under Aldous Huxley in the 50s, and studies on niacin in the 60s. He was interested in spiritualism and parapsychology, his house had a "spook room" where he and his wife used the Ouija board and conducted seances. He believed that the spirit of a 15th century monk named Boniface helped him write the book “Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions.” Much of that was later swept under the rug, but my point is that he was very open and innovating, intellectually and spiritually.
Bill W. was undoubtedly a terribly flawed individual. He drank his way to flunking out of law school. He was a failed stock speculator in the 1920s. There is decent evidence that he cheated on his wife with 3 or 4 AA members after AA started letting in women. After he gave up alcohol, he smoked like a chimney, (starting that AA stereotype, Dr. Bob forbid smoking at the early Akron meetings …) and he died of emphysema. But he kept trying, and he was flexible in his approach. He was also supremely humble, building his success on humbling himself at the beginning, calling on others to humble themselves, seeking to structure his organization in ways that would insure continued humility, writing genuinely heartfelt praises to the value of humility that are quite unique in 20th century literature.
Dr. Bob, who took his last drink on that June 10th, was never the humble leader, or writer, or theorist that Bill W was. But he, too helped forge AA in the early days, and he was the personal sponsor of over 5000 recovering alcoholics during the last 30 years of his life, and was by all accounts an amazing sponsor.

I am grateful for all the lives saved, and improved by AA.
I am grateful for the many spin off organizations to AA.
I am grateful for the pluralistic model of recovering victims helping other recovering victims, rather than the hierarchical model of superiors descending to aid their inferiors.
I am grateful for the spiritual searchers dedicated to looking for ways to apply the spiritual to solving the problems of today.
I am grateful for flexible minds willing to try new things and adapt and experiment.
I am grateful for the humility of the 12 traditions, seeking to minimize organization lest the organization be suborned
I am grateful for skillful use of neutrality, understanding when to be open to many political positions, or religious positions, or walks of life.
I am grateful again and again for everyday heroes of self-reform.

Other Notables for me for today
The births of b. of Howlin’ Wolf(musician), Judy Garland (actor), Maurice Sendak (children’s author), Kim Deal (Musician, Pixies Breeders), Elizabeth Hurley (actor)
The martyrdom of Giacomo Matteotti, the last real opponent of Fascism in Italy. The death of Alexander the Great, Marcus Garvey (controversial racial theorist), Bernard Williams (2003, philosopher, promoter of virtue theory, I’ve used his textbooks).

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

June 9th – Charles Dickens Day

When I taught philosophy, one stunt I pulled occasionally, was to have my students write a short essay on which fictional character they admired most and why. I remember being gobsmacked by one very surprising choice, Ebenezer Scrooge. Here, the student argued, is a man that with much difficulty managed to perceive his failings, and set his heart to earnestly mending his faults. I can’t think of Dickens without remembering this essay, and as it turns out it has echoes in his own life.

Charles Dickens was one of those rare authors that combine lasting critical acclaim with stunning popularity in his own time. His novel “A Tale of Two Cities” is still the best-selling book of all-time, originally composed in English. (The Bible, Quran and works of Chairman Mao dust it, for example). He is still the best-selling all time author in English, although J. K. Rowling is getting close. Much about his life and works is well known, and well explored, but I want to meditate a little on it anyway.

His dad was thrown into debtor’s prison when Charles was young, and he was reduced to a fairly working-class life. Charles had an education in a crappy school with the occasional side jaunt to working in a shoeshine manufacturing factory. He eventually became a junior law clerk, and then a journalist, then a journal editor and novelist. His first novel brought him immediate fame, and by the age of 30, he had published 5 novels (only one of which I’d heard of), and was famous enough that during his trip to the US, they threw a ball in his honor in New York, and he visited President Tyler at the White House. He spent the whole of the rest of his life writing novels, and giving public readings of them, frequently as part of literary tours. Most of his novels were published in monthly or weekly installment in popular journals of the day, before being reprinted in whole as novels. Social reform and social commentary was a long abiding theme of his work, and once he was famous he was involved in trying to create new forms of charity that would not suffer from the problems of existing charitable institutions, such as the “Urania House” that was funded by the richest lady in England, and run largely by Dickens. On the other hand, he and he wife Catherine “separated” when he was 45 and lived with a much younger woman named Ellen Terman, whom he seems to have spent the rest of his life with. The split was bitterly painful too, some of the children sided with Charles and some with Catherine, and even Catherine’s sister Georgina took Charles side rather than hers during the split. Charles Dickens was one of the early members of “the Ghost Club,” a London based paranormal investigation club founded in 1862, which appears to be the first of its kind. He also survived a major rail crash in 1865, but managed to keep his name out of the papers. He died in 1870, at 58 after a series of strokes.

The obvious things to say about Dickens involve his social commentary. Dickens was a liberal’s liberal and wanted people to understand what life was like for the less fortunate. He was keenly interested in how people could fall through the cracks of the social system, and was always looking for ways to patch the cracks, as well as to point them out. He was a fierce opponent of poverty and of social stratification, and worked to “humanize” people who occupied various marginal positions, such as prostitutes or criminals. He tackled the legal system in one novel, and corrupt patent offices and unfettered market speculation in another. Karl Marx said of Dickens that he (and other Victorian novelists like him)
"...issued to the world more political and social truths than have been uttered by all the professional politicians, publicists and moralists put together..."

Charles Dickens is also one of the most famous Unitarians of England, well kinda. He was born and raised as an Anglican, but had little patience with Anglicanism as a young adult. When he first visited the US, in 1842, at age 30, he met and interacted with a number of Unitarians, whom he found both humorous and impressive. He makes fun of them in his novel Martin Chuzzlewit. In his own notes to himself, he writes of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essays that they contained "much that is dreamy and fanciful," but also "much more that is true and manly, honest and bold." Back home in England, he began attending the Essex Street Unitarian Church several times, and then took a pew at the Little Portland Street Unitarian Church. According to Dickens, Tagart, his minister, had "that religion which has sympathy for men of every creed and ventures to pass judgment on none." Dickens wrote to Unitarian Harvard professor Cornelius Felton, "I have carried into effect an old idea of mine and joined the Unitarians, who would do something for human improvement if they could; and practice charity and toleration." He remained a Unitarian for around a decade, and it’s not that hard to see its influence on him. During this time, he wrote the Christmas Carol (and most of his other Christmas work), as well as several of his other novel. This is also the part of his life where he was involved in running experimental forms of charity. He also wrote a purely religious book “The Life of Our Lord” that was intended only for his children. It was read aloud in the family every Christmas, and he begged that the manuscript never be taken out of the house or given to publishers, although it was published in 1934, after the death of his last surviving son. The book begins
“My Dear Children, I am very anxious that you should know something about the History of Jesus Christ. For everybody ought to know about Him. No one ever lived who was so good, so kind, so gentle, and so sorry for all people who did wrong, or were in any way ill or miserable, as He was.”

By the 1850s, a form of Anglicanism called “Broad Church” had developed that emphasized Latitudinarianism, and what we would call religious liberalism. Dickens, returned to the Anglican Church, but remained friends with many Unitarians including his ex-minister, to his death. He accepted Darwin’s theory of Evolution, had an interest in Biblical criticism, and when the curate at his Anglican Church was replaced with one he found dull, he just stopped attending.

In many ways, Dickens is the creator of the modern version of Christmas. Historian Ronald Hutton (who I like a lot on many fronts), argues that the current state of observance of Christmas in our culture is a result of a mid-Victorian revival of the holiday spearheaded by Christmas Carol, and I agree. I’ve written elsewhere about the many subtle changes in our understanding of Christmas represented by Dickens vision, but here are a few points. Dickens imagined a family centered celebration of generosity, rather than a church-centered or community-centered celebration, and he wedded the commercial message and the religious message together as intimately as he could.

Another interesting story about Dickens involves his anti-Semitism and racism. A lifelong champion of misunderstood underdogs, it’s nonetheless possible to find evidence of racial bias against Eskimos, Indians, and Jews in Dickens corpus in various ways. But most interesting to me is his anti-Semitism. His early work Oliver Twist, has an impressively vile villain named Fagin, a Jew, who runs a gang of child pickpockets. Fagin seems to have been based on Ikey Solomon, a real criminal that Dickens interviewed while he was a reporter. Nonetheless, the portrayal of Fagin, who is frequently refered to in the novel simply as “the Jew” does not seem free from bias. In 1854, the Jewish Chronicle asked why "Jews alone should be excluded from the 'sympathizing heart' of this great author and powerful friend of the oppressed." Then in 1863, one of Dickens friends, Eliza Davis, wrote to Dickens complaining to him about his portrayal of Fagin, and arguing that he had "encouraged a vile prejudice against the despised Hebrew", and that he had done a great wrong to the Jewish people. What is interesting to me, is that he responded to the criticism. He halted the printing of the book version of Oliver Twist, and altered the wording on the sections that had not yet been sent to the typesetters. Then in his next novel he made a caricaturishly good Jewish lady, named Riah (friendship in Hebrew), and at one point gives her the line: "Men say, 'This is a bad Greek, but there are good Greeks. This is a bad Turk, but there are good Turks.' Not so with the Jews ... they take the worst of us as samples of the best ..."

I remember keenly a discussion I had with my father as an adult, when I described a black girl I had had a crush on in high school, but never worked up the guts to ask out. He said that he didn’t know how he would have reacted if I had, or if he would have been able to act honorably. I said, c’mon you’re not a racist or anything. And he said, oh yes I am. I have been all my life. It’s part of how I was brought up. But as an adult, I’ve struggled against it, and tried to hide it from you kids because I didn’t want you to grow up to be be racists too. That’s kinda how I see Dicken’s anti-Semitism. He has it, and it isn’t really that hard to see if you look. But he’s embarrassed by it, he tries to cover it up, or make up for it, when he can perceive it. He was trying to grow beyond it.

I am grateful for Christmas as a holiday of family celebrations and generosity.
I am grateful for Scrooge’s example of self-reform.
I am grateful for Dicken’s tireless work to humanize all classes of society and shed light on where social systems are failing.
I am grateful for people who fund and direct experimental charities, looking for new ways to deal with societies flaws.
I am grateful for serialized narratives as an art form, from Dickens to comic books and TV shows.
I am grateful for religious toleration, where people of different beliefs work together for mutual goals.
I am grateful for the inner urge to reform our own flaws, the secret good side of embarrassment

Other Notables for me for this day
Donald Duck’s debut, Joseph Welch stands up to Senator McCarthy during the 1950s.
birth of Johnny Depp and Natalie Portman, death of Tsukiyoka Yoshitoshi (last master of Ukiyo-e)