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Review: Male Bodies, Women’s Souls: Personal Narratives of Thailand’s Transgendered Youth

SaoBraphetSongThe narratives in this book belie Western assumptions that Thai society is relatively accepting of transgendered people. The authors asked 12 students from Chang Mai University to write an essay about their experiences “with the goal of educating others about their lives as transgendered people in Thai society.” The resulting stories tell of bullying, sexual assault, rejection by families and a limited choice in careers. A universal trans experience, in other words.

Thai transgendered people, however, are situated in a conservative gender system that differs significantly from ours and necessarily affects how they see themselves. In Thai society, it is generally believed there are fundamental differences between the sexes. Women are expected to be chaste daughters, faithful wives or caring mothers. Women who show an interest in sexual pleasure and have multiple partners are ‘bad’ women. They represent a threat to the values of chastity and monogamy (and ultimately to male control). Men’s sexuality, on the other hand, “is seen as an instinctive and uncontrollable drive”, although this somehow coexists with the other male role model, the celibate Buddhist monk.

In most of these narratives, the writers place themselves firmly in this virtuous concept of womanhood. Gender expression and sexual attraction are not regarded as separate concepts and so it is assumed that Thai trans women are attracted to men. Unlike gay relationships, which are frequently characterized as lustful, they emphasize their need for an emotional attachment. Unfortunately this often leads to a sad resignation that they will never find love, as a “real” man will always prefer a “real” woman. It’s interesting that while most of their families disapprove of their identities, they still encourage them to adhere to “traditionally normative gender behaviors for ‘proper’ Thai women”. The trans women themselves believe that if they do so they will be better accepted by society. Several of the narratives express disapproval for their sisters who “are not at all good”.

It’s a fairly elaborate sex and gender system that is reflected in the terms used to define Thai trans women. Although they are commonly called kathoey, this is an ambiguous umbrella term that can refer to sexual practice as well as gender identity. Consequently it is applied to feminine gay men as well as trans women, and can have negative connotations depending on context. The polite term for Thai trans women is sao braphet song.

I enjoyed reading these stories from my sisters in Thailand. Despite our many differences, there are similarities also, not least of which is their struggle to live as themselves. Which of us would not be moved by Phi’s words: “It’s just that acceptance would be the best thing for us. It would certainly make me feel comfortable and happy. I deserve this because I’ve never done anything to hurt another person.”

The other commendable thing about this book is the care the authors took to conduct their study in an ethical manner. It’s encouraging to see that anthropology has come a long way since the profession vilified indigenous nations for their two spirit traditions.

Book review: Organizing for Transgender Rights

OrganizingThis book is a political science and sociological analysis of transgender rights groups, rather than a historical one. Its focus is mostly on national United States organizations, although some state groups are also referenced. The author studies the formation, proliferation and in some cases demise of these groups through interviews with their founders.

Some of the findings appear obvious initially. All the founders cited the oppression of trans people as their primary motivation to start their organization. However, as trans folks have been oppressed for a long time, this in itself was not enough to start a group. For an organization to be successful, it required the interaction of founders and other trans people and, to a lesser extent, allies. This was extremely difficult in the 1960s and 70s when so many trans folks were deeply closeted and tools of communication were limited.

What spurred the growth of organizations in the 1980s and early 90s were the numerous conferences that trans people in the US organized and which enabled people to meet and form relationships. Nearly all the founders cited conferences as an important impetus in group formation. Conferences required money of course and as much of the community does not have a lot of it, many of the founders acknowledged that they came from privileged backgrounds that insulated them from the worst of transphobic society and allowed them to organize.

The arrival of the internet was the great leveler. It allowed trans people people to communicate with each other directly and cheaply, and led to a proliferation of trans groups in the late 90s and into the 2000s. It also contributed to the formation of a collective transgender identity, which was essential to the formation of trans rights organizations.

A collective transgender identity is fraught with problems, however, and as the number of groups proliferated many trans people did not feel their interests were fully represented by broad, national groups. This gave rise to more narrowly focused groups who spoke for particular segments within the trans community; for example, Black, Latino, Youth and even trans folks working in police and fire services.

It’s interesting to speculate on why in Canada we have had very few national, exclusively trans organizations. We undoubtedly had many local groups organizing local events, but I don’t recall any national trans conferences in Canada in the 1980s and 90s. Even now, well into the age of the internet, I find it difficult to name one national trans organization. For the most part, Egale and strong regional activists have represented our interests well.

Perhaps that’s as it should be. We are a country of regions. I suspect maintaining unity in a national trans organization would parallel the problems we have in keeping the country together politically.

Organizing for Transgender Rights is a little repetitive in its findings, but anyone interested in the formation and survival of trans rights interest groups would find it an informative read.


Disgrace at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights

It is difficult to imagine a more bitter betrayal than that perpetrated on vulnerable communities by the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR). In June, employees and former employees charged that discrimination, sexual harassment and racism were endemic in an institution whose stated mandate is “to enhance the public’s understanding of human rights, to promote respect for others, and to encourage reflection and dialogue.”

The CMHR is in Winnipeg.

Staff also alleged that they were forced to censor LGBT content for visiting religious groups. Museum management clearly believed that the rights that we fought long and hard for weren’t that important, and could be conveniently erased at their discretion. Helen Kennedy, executive director of Egale Canada, was appalled: “We believed in them. This is the highest institution for human rights in this country and they betrayed us, they betrayed our stories,” she said.

John Young, who as CEO was responsible for the management of the museum, evidently thought that his senior managers making a mockery of the institution’s prime directive was not that serious an offence. Just a flesh wound, a minor bump in the road. Although earlier this year he stated he would like to stay on as CEO, when the allegations emerged he munificently decided that perhaps now he’d leave at the end of his term in August. After some howls of outrage and no doubt pressure from the Board of Trustees who realized the museum of which they were in charge now had zero credibility, he changed his mind and decided to leave in June.

When the allegations were made, which were confirmed in a report issued this past week by an independent mediator, the museum did what all federal institutions do. They struck up a committee. They clearly needed to demonstrate they were doing something, but it invites derision that a museum of human rights would need to create a “diversity and inclusion committee”. That’s your mandate! When hiring managers for your institution part of the job description should be “has demonstrated a commitment to human rights”, and that in the subsequent interview the job applicant should be asked to expand on this theme. But no. Apparently Human Resources didn’t think this was important, despite it being the reason for the museum’s existence.

Isha Khan has been hired as the new CEO of the museum. She begins her job on August 17, and has stated that her priority is to re-establish trust with the public, stakeholders and staff. No kidding. I wish her well, but a disgraceful betrayal of this magnitude isn’t easily forgiven or forgotten.

 Book review: Trans Power

TransPower1There were times while I was reading Trans Power, by Juno Roche, when I thought I might yet learn to like this book, but those moments never lasted very long. This is not to say that the book is without its worthwhile bits, only that getting to them is often a tiresome slog through Roche’s self absorption. And in the end it doesn’t really amount to very much.

In the introductory chapter Roche reveals she went through transition but afterwards could not find her “value within the word ‘woman’. It just isn’t happening, and now it’s mine to own it still makes no difference.” (I use the pronouns “she” and “her” because she is identified that way on the book jacket.)

Fine, I thought, then you’re non-binary. But no, that doesn’t suit her either: “I wish I could simply say ‘I’m non-binary’ but I’m tired of being in direct opposition to something I don’t even believe in.”

And so that’s how Roche arrives at the word “trans” as our final destination. “I want only to be known as trans; not woman, not man. Woman or man, for me, muddies my transness. Femme or masculine muddies my transness.”

Her experience is certainly one way of living a trans life and advances the political position that pride in being trans is an effective weapon against patriarchy. The problem is her self absorption leads her to believe that her personal epiphany is the route for all of us. She pretends that it is an all inclusive philosophy – “this isn’t a ‘binary trans blame game’, she claims – and yet she always follows that with a but; as in, “but the more fluid the gendered identity, the more questions it asks”. The book has too many such unsupported statements. (The one that had me groaning was, “the gender binary is a broken, harmful construct being kept alive by a few people”. That would be a few billion, I think.)

There are eight chapters that follow this introductory one and they consist of interviews with various trans folks. I like learning about other trans experiences and so found some of these chapters interesting. Unfortunately, Roche persists in inserting herself into them. At the end of one, she must have listened to the transcript and realized how ridiculous it was because she observes, “I like that this morning it felt like they interviewed me.” That’s because Roche didn’t ask them questions; she only went on and on about her personal epiphany and tried to get them on board. As an interview, it was an abject failure.

In another chapter she asks the interviewee, “how do we reframe trans?” only to be told the glaringly obvious, “I think how we reframe it is to sit down and wonder what our goals are as people and to decide what we want from gender.” Well, duh. That’s not reframing. That’s the essence of being trans, and that’s precisely why I often found this book irritating.FemFeel3

I don’t think any trans person should “reframe” themselves for some nebulous political philosophy that will supposedly bring down the gender binary and destroy the patriarchy. As an oppressed group, we are necessarily political, but our journeys are deeply personal. The two things are very different, and I reject Roche’s imposition of the political on the personal. I’m glad she’s finally found her truth, but it fails as a political manifesto because it ain’t my truth. I’m a trans woman and perfectly happy being one.

I have more faith in the power of trans people as they are than Roche does. Changing the world doesn’t happen overnight. We don’t need to adopt a pure trans identity stripped of all gender (as if that were even possible) to subvert the gender binary. Trans people are changing it the slow, hard, painful way, the only way true change ever happens. We are changing it by living our lives in ways that are true to ourselves, by fighting for our rights and by being proud of who we are. It is our very complexity that proves the point Kate Bornstein makes in one of the interviews that the world is a gender polynary.

This book is a mash up of the personal and the political, padded by the interviews that make up the middle of the book and which aren’t especially well done. It gives the impression of being the second book that the publisher demanded and was in the author’s contract to write. A disappointment. 

Things transphobes say

After I wrote my piece on JK Rowling, I started thinking about other things that transphobes say. It didn’t take me long to remember one from my own life that I later discovered was a relatively common reaction from family members or people close to you when you announce your transition or even simply that you’re trans.

“Someone has been influencing you.”

It’s a strange thing to say. Clearly they’re not trying to change your mind. Insulting you is hardly the best opening to a reasoned argument. Or do they even know that they’ve just said you are so weak willed you are easily manipulated into changing your gender and that they know you better than you know yourself?

Political history reveals the purpose behind this odd response. Accusations that outside agitators are influencing the common people is a time worn strategy that has been used by both autocratic and democratic regimes to discredit protest movements that challenge existing power structures. During the civil rights movement in the southern United States, for example, state authorities blamed communist infiltrators for inciting protests. This removed the agency of Black folks and deflected attention away from legitimate anti-racism movements. Autocratic regimes blame mass protest against their abusive governments on foreign influences for the same reason. In recent years Russia, Ukraine, China and Venezuela have all employed this stratagem. (The United States is usually the default country in this context.)

The image of former Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu looking baffled when people started jeering him is a reminder of how those with power over others are prone to self delusion.

The purpose, therefore, is to remove your agency as a trans person. It’s so transparently transphobic that it’s hard to understand why anyone would think it credible. I suspect people who respond in this way are, however, controlling by nature and probably believe what they say. They are like the dictators and autocrats so deluded by their own grandiosity that they refuse to accept that the little people would have any interests that don’t align with theirs.

There are numerous ways transphobes try to discredit trans folks, but their strategies are surprisingly predictable. It’s just the same old lying shit oppressors have used for generations. 

Trans woman love

In the early 1990s when I was heavily involved with Gender Mosaic, I’d get occasional unexpected visits from members going through a trans crisis. They told me that they loved their wives and their kids, but occasional episodes of crossdressing were no longer enough to keep their life in balance. They realized their identity ran much deeper than their clothes, and it was becoming increasingly difficult to maintain the facade.

I wished I had some comfort to give them, but I could see no way out of a dilemma that was sure to cause someone serious pain. Trans lives are full of wrecked marriages and bitter feelings, some of which could have been avoided had not we been forced in the past to make compromises we couldn’t keep.

I say forced because the gender gatekeepers of that era kept many of us from our true path. In the early 90s I too would have plunged myself into such a situation. I was infatuated with a woman at the time and obliged as I was to live as a man, I thought I should make the best of it. No matter how uncomfortable I was in my own skin, I kept pounding that square peg into the round hole determined to make it fit. I was deeply attracted to this woman and we were good together and I too was ready to subsume my trans life to her cisgender one.

Fortunately for me, it never happened. Knowing I was trans made her fearful. I can’t blame her. We were on opposite sides of the same gender fence. She didn’t think she could live with my being trans while I was terrified of having my identity subsumed by a cisgender lifestyle. The only difference was I was willing to make a go of it; she was not.

She was the last woman for whom I would have made that sacrifice. After that my relationships with women became more fraught. I realized they often liked me for the things I didn’t like about myself. No matter how much I told them about being trans, my living as a male dictated what expectations they had of me. They were prepared to tolerate a bit of discreet crossdressing as long as I behaved as a regular male otherwise.

I was tired of it. It was easier being alone. To paraphrase country musician Miranda Lambert, I’d given up on love, ’cause love’d given up on me.


During this time I had a good friend with whom I’d often share drinks and dinner. Sharon had struggled long and hard to live as a woman but was now ready for her next challenge: finding love. She had never been in a loving relationship and felt the lack keenly. She didn’t much care if her lover was male or female as long as they were honest and true. This is a challenge for most people and more so for trans folks, and Sharon had lost all confidence in it ever happening. In an article for Notes from the Underground (v. 5 n. 3 pg. 7), she wrote, “I cannot be loved intimately in an emotional and sexual way because my gender identity makes me unacceptable to most people.”

Although a pessimist myself, I couldn’t accept that no one would find my kind and generous friend lovable. Sharon backed up her statement by grouping people into categories and why they found, or would find, her gender identity unacceptable. She supposed, for example, that a lesbian would find her suitable only under two conditions, “that I have had SRS [sex reassignment surgery] and that my vagina is functionally and aesthetically correct and that she does not feel that my having been born male negates my claim that I am a woman.”

Her argument wasn’t wrong for the most part, especially in 1993, but it also reduced people and their complex sexualities to categories, and ignored the many people who reside at the interstices of these groups. Our chances at love have increased if only because many people now refuse to be categorized.

Unfortunately, trans women’s experiences with men don’t seem to have improved much since 1993. Sharon likened it to being “used sexually much like an inflatable doll or a Penthouse magazine.” This brought to mind a recent article I read by Kiley May in the  Huffington Post.

Although Ms May is now in a relationship, she summarizes the dilemma of many trans women. There are online apps that make it possible for men to connect with trans women, but most meetings take place furtively. Cisgender men are always asking for discretion and secrecy. “What will it take for trans-attracted guys to overcome their unfounded shame and thirst for discretion?” the article sub-head asks.

Ms Riley suggests that it stems from “internalized stigma, transphobia and homophobia”, but as serious as these things are they are just symptoms of a pervasive patriarchy that oppresses most of the world’s population. Heterosexual cisgender men can be such cowards. If they think something will endanger their privileged spot in the patriarchy – like falling for a trans woman, for example – they don’t dare challenge it. No stand by your woman for these guys. The old boys club keeps them meekly in line.

The trans woman love landscape is littered with wrecked marriages, alienated children and unworthy cisgender boyfriends who are best kicked to the curb. A young trans woman friend of mine who found love with a trans man told me this was the solution, and maybe she was right. It sometimes seems like we’re the only ones who understand and respect each other.

Perhaps the true measure of how well trans people are accepted in society is, paradoxically, how readily we are accepted in our intimate relationships.