In the News…
The detoxification of American life continues. “Transgender service members will no longer be subject to the possibility of discharge or separation on the basis of gender identity,” the White House said. (January 25) Thank you, Joe.
I’m not sure why I’m supposed to feel outraged by this story on the CBC web site (January 24th) about a young trans man complaining that he was not allowed to play on the “girl’s” ringette squad. He made the difficult decision to come out as trans and then expected… what? That the world would bend to his will? I applaud his efforts to highlight ringette’s inclusion problem, which he says caters mainly to “higher-income, white cis [gendered] women”, but the ringette association didn’t allow cis boys to play in the girl’s league, why should they bend the rules for a trans boy? It occurs to me that he might be a little privileged himself. There are consequences when you come out as trans. Don’t be so naive.
Interesting item on The Guardian web site (January 23rd) about trans comedians and cancel culture. People like Dave Chappelle and Ricky Gervais who make transphobic “jokes” complain they are being censored while they make millions from appearing on Netflix. Meanwhile, as the article reports, trans comedians don’t get booked because they’re trans. Who’s being cancelled here?
Like Anna Piper Scott, I’m surprised people haven’t noticed that the “jokes” aren’t even funny: ““Honestly with transphobic jokes, I’m more offended as a comedian than I am as a trans person. They’ve been done to death. Every joke is like, ‘Oh, I identify as being a dog.’”
But we have friends out there too. Here’s Justin Willman’s two minute demolition of the anti-trans bathroom argument.
Who Do You Think You Are?
In the late 70s and early 80s, all the trans women I knew classified themselves as either being transsexuals or transvestites. Both terms were coined by sexologists and medical professionals earlier in the twentieth century. It seems absurd now that the range of trans experiences could be distilled into two categories, and even more absurd that we should so easily adopt these categories without questioning them but the terminology we used to describe ourselves reflected the time in which we lived.
What transsexual and transvestite really meant was ‘having surgery and living invisibly as a cis woman in a cisgender, heteronormative world” and ‘everyone else’. There was another term that we used at the time, but it was not common because it described someone who lived as their true selves without surgery or the aid of hormones (although some may have obtained them illegally). These people were transgender, but they were rare birds indeed. “Passing” was pretty well a necessity and if you weren’t doing it, you weren’t making a living. Not in a “respectable” fashion, in any case. Transgender as an umbrella term to define the entire community was not yet common, although it was gradually coming into use.
Many transsexuals resisted the word transgender. It was important when they presented themselves to the gatekeepers who determined whether or not they had surgery that they fell under the strict medical definition of transsexual and that they were not “everyone else”. In the 80s, some transsexual folks used the term as a form of empowerment in which they perceived themselves as being superior to those not sufficiently “authentic”.
“Transvestite” is now largely reviled among trans folks, and though in the 1970s it was generally assumed to mean ‘crossdresser’ its original definition was similar to what we’d now call ‘transgender’. It was coined by German physician and sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld (1868-1935) who wished to distinguish trans people from gays and lesbians, and to de-emphasize the pathological manner in which trans folks had until then been characterized. Hirschfeld believed that trans people lived on a spectrum and though the word in its etymology clearly refers to clothing, he emphasized that “clothing does not appear here ‘as a dead thing,’ that the kind of clothing a person wears is no arbitrary expression of a capricious whim but a form of expressing one’s inner personality, a sign of one’s disposition.”
The term ‘transsexual’ is now generally attributed to endocrinologist and sexologist Harry Benjamin (1885-1986), whose 1966 book The Transsexual Phenomenon was immensely important in outlining a care treatment for transsexual individuals. However Hirschfeld first used the term to describe those on one end of the transvestite spectrum who sought the help of medical professionals to live the life they wanted. Hirschfeld also shone a light on “female transvestites”, or what we’d call trans men, whose existence was of course widely denied for many years by people with an axe to grind. Hirschfeld’s pioneering book Die Transvestiten was – somewhat surprisingly – not translated into English until 1991.
Trans people were not initially in control of the terms that were used to describe them, and yet they had to take the good with the bad. We needed to be defined in order to advance our cause politically or move our lives forward personally.
We define ourselves now with an almost limitless number of terms. On the one hand, this is right and proper as people – trans and cis – express gender in a limitless number of ways. In another way, it’s also a little absurd.
Genny Beemyn and Susan Rankin conducted one of the largest surveys of US trans folks, which they published in a book called The Lives of Transgender People. Their problem was that people used different terminology, but were often describing the same identities. Or they were using the same terminology but were describing different identities. How do you make sense of this? Some of the survey participants even refer to themselves as “tranny”. Tranny is now regarded as a derogatory term for trans folks, although somehow I can’t get too worked up about it. Other people are wary of the word transsexual because it presumes that all trans people seek surgery or that medical treatment defines what it means to be trans. This is ridiculous, but I sometimes feel like I’m walking on eggshells, worried that what I call you may somehow offend.
I’m not sure whether all this is useful anymore. In the book The Trans Generation, one of the youths described themselves as “a demi-polyromantic, polysexual, gender-queer individual”. It’s nice that you know yourself so well, but there’s a good possibility that next week you’ll be someone else. We are too contradictory to be static beings.
After a while, our quest to define ourselves precisely starts to sound like navel gazing, or a game we’re playing while we wait for the important stuff that matters in our lives to get resolved. Cis men and women express their gender in many different ways, but they still consider themselves men and women. Maybe it’s enough just to be trans.
Join the Transgender Media Lab and Transgender Media Portal project in 2021
Carleton University / University of Ottawa (Ottawa, ON, Canada)
MA Fellowships – February 1, 2021
MA Transgender Digital Privacy and Security Analyst – March 1, 2021
The Transgender Media Lab (TML) at Carleton University investigates the aesthetic, political, and cultural work of audiovisual media created by transgender, Two Spirit, nonbinary, intersex, and gender-nonconforming filmmakers and artists. As part of that investigation, the lab is building the Transgender Media Portal, a collaborative digital tool that will enable new ways of analyzing these works and their circulation while making information about them available to trans arts communities and the public.
MA: Transgender Media Lab Fellowship (x 2!) – Deadline: February 1, 2021
We are seeking two MA students to conduct original thesis research on some aspect of transgender, Two Spirit, nonbinary, intersex and/or gender-nonconforming film- and video-making in Canada or the United States and to contribute to the development of the Transgender Media Portal. Host program: Film Studies at Carleton University. For more info on this position, visit: https://carleton.ca/transmedialab/2020/tml-ma-fellowships/
MA: Transgender Digital Privacy and Security Analyst – Deadline: March 1, 2021
We are seeking an incoming MA student to design and analyze approaches to digital privacy and security for the Transgender Media Portal. Host program: Human-Computer Interaction at Carleton University. For more information on this position, visit: https://carleton.ca/transmedialab/2020/privacy-and-security-position/
These positions are run in collaboration with the Humanities Data Lab at the University of Ottawa and the Security and Privacy Interactions Research Lab at Carleton University. Questions? Feel free to reach out to TML director Laura Horak at email@example.com.
Books! We Have Books!
What’s a girl to do in the middle of a lockdown in the worst part of a pandemic but read and buy books. Here are summaries of a few I’ve acquired lately through purchase or borrowed from the Ottawa Public Library.
The Transgender Studies Reader, edited by Susan Stryker and Stephen Whittle
I’ve wanted to buy this volume for some time, but was put off by how expensive it was. I finally found a more reasonably priced copy and am glad I did. Transgender studies as an academic exercise took off sometime in the 90s and this volume is like a survey course of important texts. It is a collection of 50 essays or chapters from books that have largely framed the discussion around trans issues. It begins with a selection from Richard von Krafft-Ebing’s 1877 book Psychopathia Sexualis, includes a chapter from Janice Raymond’s 1978 transphobic book The Transsexual Empire and concludes with a contemporary essay by Richard M. Juang that argues that “anti-transgender discrimination and violence are often accompanied by racial and ethnic discrimination, and conversely, that situations interpreted as instances of racial and ethnic injustice often also involve a policing of gender and sexual boundaries.” Each chapter is introduced with a contextual analysis by one of the editors. So much to think about in this valuable book!
A follow up volume, Transgender Studies Reader 2, was published in 2013. It’s expensive too, but to judge by the quality of the first volume it’s worth having. My search for a reasonably priced copy begins.
Black on Both Sides: A Racial History of Trans Identity, by C. Riley Snorton
This book expands on the theme of Richard M. Juang’s essay in The Transgender Studies Reader. It identifies “multiple intersections between blackness and transness from the mid-nineteenth century to present day anti-black and anti-trans legislation and violence.” It is an academic book published by the University of Minnesota Press, but in reading the introduction I found the language was mercifully free of the jargon that so often turns academic books into boring sludge.
Transgressive: A Trans Woman on Gender, Feminism, and Politics, by Rachel Anne Williams
A collection of essays from a trans-feminist perspective that “explores issues surrounding gender, feminism, and philosophy and challenges misconceptions about trans identities.” I’ll be reviewing this in the future.
Others of My Kind: Transatlantic Transgender Histories
I love books that have photos of trans people from the past. They make me wonder what their lives were like and how they faced their struggles. This large format book has more than 180 images, including many previously unpublished photographs. It documents how trans people were proactive in “bringing their needs to the attention of medical experts for more than 100 years.” “By exchanging letters and pictures among themselves they established private networks of affirmation and trust, and by submitting their stories and photographs to medical journals and popular magazines they sought to educate both doctors and the public.” It seems these brave souls faced their struggles in much the same way we are doing now, albeit through different mediums.
This is a new book which the good folks at the Ottawa Public Library (OPL) were quick to order. Four copies, in fact. I recommend you put a hold on one if trans histories interest you. I generally don’t buy books that are available at the OPL unless they’re important ones that a respectable trans library should have. This is one of them, I think.
NFTU Digital Library
I have uploaded four more issues of the Gender Mosaic newsletter Notes from the Underground (NFTU). I hope eventually to have the entire run available. NFTU was published from December 1988 to December 2004. It is a record of the voices of Ottawa trans folks over 16 now distant years. Here is the list of uploaded NFTUs thus far.
Book Review: The Trans Generation: How Trans Kids (and Their Parents) Are Creating a Gender Revolution, by Ann Travers
This is a good book. It is based on interviews with 19 transgender kids and 23 parents from the US and Canada, with the overall sample consisting of the experiences of 36 kids ranging in age from 4 to 20. Not all parents in the study were initially supportive, but their reluctance to accept their kids’ trans identity was sometimes due to fear for their kids future. Once reality set in, they became – whether they liked it or not – “accidental activists” for their children.
Despite a greater understanding and acceptance of trans people, trans kids still live in a state of precarity. All life is precarious, but precarity “involves social positionings of insecurity.” Modern neoliberal states govern by “imposing precarity on part of the population, but not so much that it results in insurrection.” What this means for trans kids is that there is some help, but it’s piecemeal and many less privileged trans kids are left out.
The coping strategies trans kids employ are familiar: invisibility, trying to fit in (otherwise known as “sucking it up”), living a double life, self harm or suicide, gender non-conformity, and transition. Where the latter two are possible, it is largely due to activist parents and a sympathetic school, but even under these favourable conditions, transphobic teachers and bullying are not uncommon. The bathroom and gym class are still sources of deep anxiety. Sympathetic teachers mess up. There is a story here in which a teacher outed a trans child thinking it was a sign of sensitivity and support when in fact it just put a target on his back.
Many “good” schools will address the issue by making dispensations for individuals without challenging the gender system itself. This leaves many other kids who may be experiencing gender issues on the margins and choosing invisibility as a survival strategy. “Transitioning the environment” is preferable to transitioning in schools because it allows kids to explore gender non-conformity without necessarily following the medical model of transition. Travers is careful to note that this is necessary for some trans kids, but as their study reveals several of the kids interviewed would have been more comfortable living non-binary or gender non-conforming lives had they been presented with that option.
Children who transition before puberty are able to achieve a “more ‘normal’ and satisfactory appearance” than would someone who has transitioned as an adult. Passing privileges certain trans people over others and does not challenge the gender binary. Some of the young people interviewed live in rural areas where resources for trans kids are non-existent, or were in low income households where the parents could not advocate for their kids like more affluent parents could. This leaves many trans kids to fend for themselves. It can be a cold, hard world out there.
The Trans Generation explores all these complications . The chapter on the parents includes a discussion of the effect having a trans child has on siblings and the extended family. Having a trans kid is very much a family affair and it’s traumatic when not everyone is on board. It’s not easy telling the grandparents they can’t visit if they continue to deadname their grandchild. The gender work that these parents do benefits all kids – cis and trans – but it is tiring and takes its toll.
The book has a chapter on supportive healthcare and concludes with a discussion on the way forward. Travers notes that while the gains LGBT folk have made in the last while would have been unimaginable several decades ago, “we see binary gender normativity restabilizing itself” to accommodate transgender people. Only privileged, passing trans folks are allowed into the party while “racialized, impoverished, and non-binary-conforming trans kids are denied recognition and care”. LGBT folks are doing better, but “legal and policy reform often leaves structures of oppression untouched.”
The solution is to create the gender revolution cited in the subtitle. Travers identifies four key tasks, among them pressuring social institutions and spaces to create room for kids to determine their own gender identities within a wider range of possibilities, striving to ensure that gender affirming health care is available to all, targeting damaging gender systems and ensuring the most precarious trans kids are at the centre of all our social change efforts. If we focus on the most precarious, then the privileged benefit too.
Travers has a holistic view of social change that strives to leave no one out. It is laudable even as it is difficult to achieve. It is a socialist approach that might be a hard sell in the current political atmosphere, especially in the United States.
Trans Generation is, nonetheless, a sensitive, well researched book on what can be a contentious topic. It is well worth reading.
Canadian Trans Activists
A while ago, I read the acknowledgements at the back of a book written by a Canadian trans person in which he thanked a bunch of American trans celebrities and activists, and a few Canadians (recognizable mostly for being writers) for the work they’d done for trans folks. My first thought was, you’ve got to be kidding me. The people he thanked are undoubtedly fine people, but they had very little to do with whatever rights trans people have in this country. These were secured through the hard work of Canadian trans activists slogging away in the trenches.
I don’t blame him for not knowing these people. We live in a semi-colonized, regional country where one part often doesn’t know what the other part is doing. We rarely celebrate regional heroes nationally, particularly if they’re trans. This was the impetus behind compiling a directory of trans activists in Canada, past and present.
This is a huge job, and if someone has already assembled such a directory elsewhere please let me know so I can save myself the trouble. The plan, however, is to start with these 10 biographies of interesting people whom you may want to know and keep adding. I have a working file of names of Canadian trans activists whose biographies need to be researched before I can add them to the directory. I’m sure I’ll be adding to the list as I learn more about who’s out there doing what.
Ideally this directory will include trans folks doing the work in smaller centres around the country. Their list of accomplishments may not match those of their colleagues in larger cities, but they more than compensate for it by their courage. Theirs is often a thankless task done with minimal support.
The first biographies were selected mostly because I wanted to get this project going as soon as possible and I could locate the information easily. I’ve added links for further reading and, except for entries for deceased activists, dated when I added the biography into the directory.
Here are 10 Canadian trans activists you may want to know. When I’ve add more biographies, I’ll also post them on the main page of the site.
Book Review: Rupert Raj Dancing the Dialectic
The subtitle to this book does not lie. Rupert Raj was the trailblazer for trans activism in Canada. He has been a writer, publisher and gender consultant, and a mental health practitioner to the larger queer community, and he’s done this in four Canadian cities: Ottawa, Vancouver, Calgary and Toronto.
Born in Ottawa in 1952 to an East Indian father and a Polish mother, Raj lost both parents in a car accident when he was 16. At age 18, he had himself admitted to the Royal Ottawa Hospital. Here he encounters several transphobic psychiatrists before he is eventually referred to a sympathetic clinical social worker with some knowledge of transsexualism. She directed him to the book Transsexualism and Sex Reassignment, by Dr. Richard Green and Dr. John Money. Finally finding a way forward, he flew to New York in 1971 to be prescribed testosterone, his brother having to sign for him as he was only 19. He had top surgery at age 20, but given the state of bottom surgery for trans men at the time, that procedure had to wait. Despite living and appearing as a male, his legal status with all associated documentation would not be changed until 1978.
Returning to Ottawa from New York, he decides “to educate the world about transsexuals.” Considering the transphobic times, he embarks upon his activism with fearlessness, but is mostly operating alone. Over the years he would discover that his enthusiasm wasn’t enough to overcome the lack of support he had. He often held low paying jobs, and with few people helping him, and no chance of government or corporate support the inevitable result was burnout, which Raj suffered on several occasions throughout his activist career.
(Raj’s early activism in Ottawa can be found on the Ottawa Trans History page of this website.)
Some highlights of his activism after he left Ottawa include the creation of the Foundation for the Advancement of Canadian Transsexuals (FACT), which was eventually to have several branches across Canada, and the publishing of Gender Review from 1978 to 1981. In 1982 he wanted to focus on trans men so started Metamorphosis, which he incorporated the following year as the Metamorphosis Medical Research Foundation, the goals of which were to educate trans men on the latest medical developments about phalloplasty and to secure funds for medical-technological research. A Metamorphosis newsletter followed and was succeeded by a 24 page quarterly magazine.
It’s remarkable how many national and international connections he made considering this activism was done pre-internet. Needless to say, he did a lot of letter writing. This was important work, however, as resources for trans men at the time were scarce. It’s notable too that he managed to do so much while still being semi-closeted. The cisgender world he worked in knew nothing of his trans activism, although he didn’t seem much concerned about being discovered since he appeared on the popular American talk show Sally Jesse Raphael. (He was disappointed by the sensationalist tone of the program, which focused on what the producers saw as the “exotic” aspect of trans lives and minimized the serious challenges trans people faced.)
Raj covers so much ground in the first half of the book that it moves along at a kinetic pace. After he acquires his degree (Master of Arts in Counseling Psychology), his activism shifts to conferences attended, papers published, and lectures delivered and this part of the book starts to read a bit like a laundry list of accomplishments. This is not to diminish them. His counseling became an important part of his activism, and finally provided him with a job that paid reasonably well. As a narrative it begins to drag, however. There’s an editor’s caveat at the end of the preface which suggests she may have suggested a different edit, but the decision to have Raj deliver his story “frankly uninhibited” was also not without merit.
In the epilogue to Dancing the Dialectic, Raj writes that he saw his memoir as, among other things, “an educational resource”. I think this is the best way to approach the book. It is packed with interesting and useful information and stories about trans activists in Canada, the US and Europe, past and present. The copious notes at the end of each chapter are themselves worthy of study. The book has no index, however, which handicaps its usefulness. Nonetheless, this is a must have reference for anyone interested in the history of trans activism in Canada.
Raj received numerous awards over the years for his service to the community. In 2013 the Rupert Raj fonds were housed in The ArQuives (formerly the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives). He has lived in Vancouver since 2017 where he continues his activism, primarily in the areas of the environment and animal liberation.
Things transphobes say (no. 3 in a series)
“There are so many of them now. It’s a trend.”
This is the voice of cisgender privilege. Privilege means you can trot out your ignorance and other privileged people will accept it as fact. Privilege means you can forget all those years that trans and non-binary folks could not find a job or were fired from the ones they had. It is being blissfully unaware of the effects ridicule, bullying, beating and killing have on a population. They think we weren’t here before because they didn’t see us before. It never occurs to them – or they willfully ignore – that our survival depended on our invisibility. The invisibility we were once forced to endure is weaponized against us now that we’ve become visible.
As with most things transphobic, calling us a trend is to take away our agency. The subtext is clear. You don’t know yourself. You are a dupe to the prevailing winds. There are undoubtedly lost souls out there who don’t have the analytical skills to know who they are. I feel sorry for them, but transphobes see an opportunity in this. In order to protect confused cisgender folks, they push trans people under the bus of their professed compassion.
Children are undoubtedly susceptible to influence, but trans kids know early on who they are. They are willing to endure abuse, bureaucracy, medical frustrations and the relentless challenges of transgender living to be able to live as they see themselves. Contrary to what many cisgender people seem to think, it is not an easy road and kids who are not trans will find it difficult to maintain the commitment. They may declare themselves non-binary instead, but why should that be a reason for alarm?
There is a website in the UK called Transgender Trend. The people behind it claim they aren’t transphobic. They are only there to save the children. They sent out “information” packages to schools that were branded “disingenuous and deceitful” because they claimed with no factual evidence that it was better not to affirm trans children. In 2018 they had to apologize for producing anti-transgender downloadable stickers for parents and suggesting kids could decorate their notebooks with them. Nice folks. It is hard to maintain a facade of virtue when your heart is impure.
Transphobes don’t want to see us. Their philosophy is we need to oppress them or there will be more of them. Preservation of the gender system is more important to them than the well being of trans and non-binary people.
Notes from the Underground
I have uploaded three more PDF issues of the Gender Mosaic newsletter Notes from the Underground (NFTU). The complete list of uploaded NFTUs can be found here.