The Roaming Ratchet
October 2020 – Great story on the CBC Ottawa site about non-binary mechanic Kai Dean of Merrickville. Dean has a mobile auto maintenance business called The Roaming Ratchet. They were responding to the sometimes negative experiences LGBT folks receive from auto garage shops. Good call. The business has been a great success so far.
(Last) thoughts on the gender binary
I wonder sometimes whether I’m the only trans person not obsessed with the gender binary. Yes, I know. If we could overthrow this oppressive structure we’ll destroy the patriarchy and all our problems will be solved. While it is comforting to think we have one diabolical enemy, fighting it is tantamount to tilting at windmills. It might be more prudent to regard it as something we need to live with, like a stubbornly persistent case of eczema.
To understand why, we need to define what we’re talking about. Here’s the wikipedia definition, which I think is fairly uncontroversial. “Gender binary (also known as gender binarism, binarism, or genderism) is the classification of gender into two distinct, opposite forms of masculine and feminine, whether by social system or cultural belief.” You can see how this causes us problems, but the “social system or cultural belief” part also explains why it is so stubbornly persistent. The gender binary is not a government that can be toppled. Social systems and cultural beliefs are not things that will be altered in your lifetime.
Maybe they don’t need to be. Maybe by fighting for our rights and being who we are, we are creating a space in which our reality can co-exist with the gender binary, something along the lines of the indigenous people’s Two Spirit traditions, for example. When people are allowed to live outside the gender binary, the grip it has on society is necessarily loosened. It permits those who grow up in it to opt out of it if they choose. It would still not, however, cause it to collapse.
Let’s be honest. Cisgender, heterosexual folks invest a lot of time and energy in being men and women. Traditional gender roles are constantly being reinforced through the media, religion, education, and politics. Indeed, the personalities of many men and women, and consequently their genders, roughly align with their sex. They enjoy the game of male and female, or they think they do. We may think gender reveal parties are stupid, but who are we to ruin their fun?
More seriously, gender roles evolved through time and many of them are highly misogynistic. That has of necessity created woman as a political category. It’s ironic that to fight against a social system in which they have been marginalized, women need to organize under the gender binary. It’s a frustrating, complex and ubiquitous force that overlays everything we do.
There is no simple strategy that will bring down the gender binary. In that sense, it’s pointless to rail against it. It is useful, however, to remind people of its shortcomings. There will always be refugees fleeing from its oppressive restrictions. That we’re living in a time when that is increasingly possible means our perseverance and small victories have made an impact. It may be appear impregnable, but trans and gender diverse people have shown that the gender binary is not beyond reform.
Trans activists in the US
October 2020 – The Guardian is running an intermittent series on trans activists and their leadership roles in many of the protest and justice movements in the US. The recent profile was about Emily Gorcenski, a data scientist who has been tracking and cataloguing white supremacist violence through her web site First Vigil. “Using court files and other public records, the anti-fascist researcher has catalogued hundreds of criminal cases, connected the dots of dangerous neo-Nazi networks, and revealed links that journalists and authorities have missed.”
The article also contains links to the previous stories in this series.
Bill to ban conversion therapy introduced
October 2020 – The Liberal Party has reintroduced a bill that would ban conversion therapy, the practise of attempting to alter people’s sexual orientation or gender identity. The bill was removed from the House of Commons agenda when the Liberals prorogued Parliament in August, and has the support of the NDP. While Conservative leader Erin O’Toole said conversion therapy was wrong and should be banned, he accused the Liberals of playing wedge politics to expose those in the Conservative caucus who would vote against it.
It’s a little rich of O’Toole to complain considering he courted supporters of “social conservative” MP Derek Sloan to win the recent Conservative leadership contest. During his run for the leadership, Sloan claimed the bill “promoted gender-reassignment surgery and criminalized conversations between parents and their kids.”
As long as the Conservative Party of Canada continues to welcome “social conservatives” with extreme views into their fold, the sincerity of their support for LGBT folks will be suspect. They appear more concerned about their own political fortunes than the well-being of LGBT people.
Review: Male Bodies, Women’s Souls: Personal Narratives of Thailand’s Transgendered Youth
The 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
This 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.