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Trans info from the Ottawa Public Library

There is an informative blog about transgender issues and people on the web site of the Ottawa Public Library currently. (The above link goes directly to it, but it’s listed on the main page, left sidebar.) It’s essentially a Trans 101 course for those who don’t know much about us, with a welcome side trip into trans history that contradicts the mistaken notion that we only popped out of nowhere in the last number of years. There is of course the obligatory reference to famous American trans celebrities – Laverne Cox, in this case – but that’s to be expected when you’re living in a colonized country. (Don’t mind my griping. It’s a good piece.) Note also the excellent suggested reading at the bottom of the blog.

 

Cheers for figure skater Kaitlyn Weaver

Kaitlyn3Here’s a link to a CBC article that appeared June 12 regarding two time Canadian Olympic figure skater and World Ice Dance medallist Kaitlyn Weaver coming out as a queer woman. I was getting emotional reading the message she posted to her Instagram page and the pressures she was under to keep her sexuality a secret, but seeing her lovely smile and rainbow makeup made me happy. Then I read this bit and got emotional again:

This message is not complete without recognizing that I wouldn’t be able to share this message today without the generations of LGBTQ+ activists and in particular, trans women of colour, who have fought for the right to celebrate who we are today. Eternal gratitude.

What a classy woman. A Canadian champion to be proud of. Congratulations and best wishes!

 

Book review: Trans America: a counter-history

Can we even think of trans before trans? What is the prehistory of transsexuality and transgender? These are some of the questions this history aims to address.

TransAmericaAlthough this is a history of transgender in the USA, it begins – as all good transgender histories must – with the famous early European sexologists, particularly Magnus Hirschfeld and Havelock Ellis. Hirschfeld especially had a huge influence on Harry Benjamin, who in turn had a huge influence in the creation of medically defined trans categories during the 1950s. Barry Reay’s purpose in beginning with Hirschfeld and Ellis, however, is also to note the diversity of trans identities in the case histories of their subjects. He convincingly pursues this argument of diversity throughout the book, noting that the “transsexual moment” that followed Christine Jorgensen’s sex affirmation surgery (and which actually lasted about two decades) has been superseded by a recognition of the diversity of trans identities that have always existed historically.

Reay observes that the “history of trans… is closely linked to the birth of the homosexual.” The study of homosexuality influenced the way early trans people were viewed. They were often seen as people unable to accept their sexual orientation and who sought normalcy by living in the opposite gender to which they were assigned at birth. This view was common for some time, although this was not the way trans people presented themselves and even some clinicians reluctantly acknowledged that their patients did truly appear to be the gender they claimed to be.

In contrast to this narrow interpretation of transness, Reay presents some lively histories of early gender diversity. The history of Black, working class receptivity to gender fluidity in the 1920s and 1930s is especially interesting and was encapsulated in the lyrics of a Ma Rainey tune called Sissy Blues in which she caught her man “in a sissy’s arms”. As Reay notes, it “was her man’s infidelity that was the subject of comment, not his sexual identity or masculinity.”

Despite Christine Jorgensen, there was a wariness in the 1950s toward surgical solutions. This gradually diminished through the 1960s. By the mid-70s, about 20 major medical centres were offering treatment, although the criteria for surgery was heteronormative, based on the ability to “pass” as cisgender, and impossible without money.

Concurrent with this rise in a surgical option, was the proliferation of heterosexual transvestite groups, which presented a respectable “middle class decorum” that was “comparable to the reputable face of organized homosexuality presented by the Mattachine Society”.

The surgical solution didn’t decline because of the experimental nature of the early operations, although Reay includes some grisly, less than successful examples that would scare off many people. The decline came about mostly with the “Transgender Turn”, the period in the early 1990s when “the category ‘transgender’ represented a resistance to medicalization, to pathologization, and to the… medico-legal-psychiatric institutions.” Dallas Denny wrote that transgender “arose not from the medical community…but from the transgender community.” It was trans people embracing the diversity of trans identities, identities that always existed but were sometimes made invisible by the transvestite-transsexual model.

This is an interesting book. In a purported history of trans people, however, Reay spends a lot of time writing about people who don’t identify as trans. There’s far too much on drag queens and drag kings, and he dismisses the misogyny in drag far too easily. Trans women were present in the early decades of drag because they had so few places to express themselves, but “purists among the performers disapproved.” This is part of trans history, but I think he overstates its importance.

In another part of the book, Reay advises against including people in other cultures who behave counter to their assigned genders under the trans umbrella, claiming it “colonizes” them. He includes here indigenous cultures and references Don Kulick’s book Travesti, which explores the world of Brazilian prostitutes who present as women, but do not consider themselves such. However, Reay has just written an entire book on transgender history and included endless examples of people who didn’t identify as trans. So why include drag queens, for example, and not Brazilian prostitutes who are, for all intents and purposes, living as women? It is not colonizing when you are employing the word transgender to describe a behaviour and not an identity. (Incidentally, Reay fails to mention that Kulick’s book is subtitled “Sex, gender and culture among Brazilian transgendered prostitutes.” Oops.)

At one point, Reay does ask, “Should transgender studies ‘dispense with identity as an analytic trope’”? His entire book leans toward describing it as a behaviour, but he never actually comes out and says so. If people are behaving in a transgender fashion, then it doesn’t really matter how they identify, and yes, you can include them under the trans umbrella.

Nonetheless, my quibbles with the book should not be viewed as a condemnation of the book itself. History is not history if it is not in some way contested. I thoroughly recommend Trans America: a counter-history. It is highly readable, thought provoking and informative.

 

More on celebrity (with a nod to Beth Ditto)

Days after writing my piece about Canadian trans musicians (below), I was thinking about celebrity and the possibility I didn’t give it the thought it deserved. Because I inherently don’t believe people should idolize celebrities, my first reaction to the CBC piece on Demi Lovato’s coming out as non-binary was contempt. The musicians I was celebrating, however, while not in the Lovato stratosphere, had their own small degree of fame. I wrote about them because I like when trans people get on with their lives and do stuff they’re passionate about, but I was of course also holding them up as a source of inspiration.

As if on cue, I stumbled upon a piece written by musician Beth Ditto which highlighted the lack of nuance in my thinking about celebrity. Ditto grew up in a small town in Arkansas with a Christian college that largely influenced the town’s thinking. When she saw Boy George on MTV – videos that were soon removed when the college pressured the cable company to cancel the channel – she saw possibilities: “I had a tiny window into queerness in my little developing brain. I took those moments and ran with them. They shaped my idea of what gender is and what music is.”

BethDitto
Photo: Sofia Sanchez and Mauro Mongiell / Trunk Archive

I tried to imagine myself in her situation. I grew up in the 1970s. They were very transphobic times and the idea that anyone in music would come out as trans was highly improbable. It was the era of glam rock, of course, but only a fool would think glam rock meant anything to trans people. Perhaps if I had a role model for queerness at the time, I would not now be so dismissive of the power of celebrity. It’s not going to change the world, but if it gives one queer person hope that they can escape their stifling world, then of course it has value.

Ultimately, however, you still have to put in the work. Beth Ditto had to go out and find people like herself. Boy George gave her an insight into possibilities, but she wasn’t fooled by the mirage of celebrity: “The media are giving us breadcrumbs to reflect the change they see in the world or to react to our activism.”

Beth Ditto is a smart woman. Her astute insights are from a book titled We Can Do Better Than This: 35 Voices on the Future of LGBTQ+ Rights, edited by Amelia Abraham. Her chapter is excerpted in an article in The Guardian.

 

Celebrity vs. Canadian trans musicians

The headline on the CBC website read “What Demi Lovato’s non-binary revelation means for the LGBTQ community”. It means nothing, I snorted. Nothing at all. Nonetheless, I dutifully clicked on the link and after reading an article entirely devoid of substance, it was clear to me this emphasis on celebrity is an empty hope indeed.

It’s not my intention to demean Demi Lovato by this. They’ve been open about their struggle and have always supported the LGBTQ community, including standing up for trans people by cancelling their concert in North Carolina in 2016 after that state passed its despicable bathroom law. I wish them well.

I must not get celebrity culture, however, because I don’t see why Demi Lovato coming out as non-binary would shift the thinking of the world and make it a better place for all of us.

I get my inspiration from the many working trans and non-binary musicians in this country. That they may not be so famous is no reflection on their talent. That they pursue their passion without making much money is a world more familiar to me than celebrity.

Here then are some Canadian trans and non-binary musicians. I’ve already mentioned Beverly Glenn Copeland in another article, so let’s begin with the elder of the group, Michelle Josef.

Josef (born 1954) established herself as one of Canada’s leading session drummers, playing on albums by Prairie Oyster (from which she was fired), Long John Baldry, Sylvia Tyson, Big Rude Jake and Sharon, Lois and Bram, among others. In 1998, she received a Canadian Country Music Award for drummer of the year, and is a member of Canadian roots super group Hey Stella! (along with Lori Yates, Bazil Donovan and David Baxter).

Michelle
Michelle Josef with Hey Stella!

Josef issued the following statement in 2006 to the website sootoday.com regarding her firing from Prairie Oyster:

“My identity as a musician is as important to me as my gender identity and I knew that I was putting decades of hard work on the line. All has not been easy since then. When Prairie Oyster fired me they not only rejected me personally but they also created a statement that resounded loud and clear that said ‘It is not cool to be associated with a transsexual.’ They didn’t have to do this.”

Rae Spoon is a non-binary performer, composer, music producer, visual content producer/director and author. Over the course of a 20-year career – Spoon is only 40 – their music has ranged from bluegrass and country to indie and electronic. Spoon is also founder of Coax records, the purpose of which was to use “their experience as a marginalized artist to create more space in the music industry. They aim to build community where artists from lots of backgrounds can share their music on their own terms while learning how to support each other.”

Spoon is currently in recovery from cancer treatment, but has, with illustrator Gem Hall, just published Green Glass Ghosts, their first young adult novel.

LucasBorn in Mississauga, Ontario, Lucas Silveira founded The Cliks, and was their vocalist and guitarist. Before coming out as trans, Silveira played folk music, but shifted to rock after transition explaining that he felt freer to explore the “darker, more hard-core” side to his nature. He found that after his early success The Cliks hit a wall in which the “main focus wasn’t on my music. It was very much on my gender identity.”

Due to Silveira’s hearing loss and complications with tinnitus, The Cliks no longer perform. He is now a co-host on the TV series Shine True, available on OutTV and Fuse. Silveira has also written articles about transgender identity, and appeared in the documentary Sexing the Transman.

Ashanti Mutinta, better known as Backxwash, was the winner of the 2020 Polaris Music Prize for her album God Has Nothing to Do With this Leave Him Out of It. Born in Lusaka, Zambia in 1991, Mutinta moved to British Columbia at age 17 to live with her brother and sister. After moving to Montreal, she released her debut EP F.R.E.A.K.S. and then the follow up Black Sailor Moon. Her music blends elements of rap and metal. Because of uncleared samples from her Polaris prize winning album, it is currently available only as a free download from her Bandcamp page.

In an article on the CBC website updated in December 2020, she said, “I have talked to a few industry types, small and big. I essentially don’t trust a lot of them. I don’t want to be tokenized. I think from a gender perspective our experiences have smartened us up. People use the term ‘street smarts,’ but I think we got trans smart because, as trans people, we can tell when someone is being shifty.”

VileCreatRounding out this little journey through Canadian trans music is the fabulous duo known as Vile Creature. Hailing from Hamilton, Ontario, Vile Creature is an experimental doom metal band with “anti-oppressive and fantastical leanings”. It’s a bit extreme for me, but the vinyl version of their new LP Glory! Glory! Apathy Took Helm! is desirable if only because it’s pressed with the colours of the Trans Flag “blue with white and pink splatter”. A collector’s item, to be sure!

 

The Census: count me in!

For a few years when I was young, I was having a difficult time reconciling my trans identity with my working life. I cycled through a number of government jobs before the Public Service Commission finally decided maybe they shouldn’t continue hiring someone who keeps quitting on them. This realization on their part coincided with a period of high unemployment in Ottawa and served to deliver an important lesson to me: being trans was hard, but being trans and poor was even worse.

After a few years of barely scraping by, I learned that Statistics Canada needed clerks to process the mountain of paper census forms they had received following the 1981 Census. I first had to write a test to determine whether I had the intellectual ability to perform a boring job, but having successfully done so, I was awarded with much needed short-term employment. They called me a “casual employee”, which suggested they didn’t much care if I showed up or not, although of course they did. During the first day’s orientation session they advised us that “sleeping or attempting to sleep” was not acceptable. Okay, I think I can manage that. (I recorded this admonition with some astonishment in my journal that evening.)

My job with the Census was the beginning of my long road to recovery from trans induced poverty.

We worked in the low, flat annex behind the R. H. Coats tower at Tunney’s Pasture. It was a vast, open space with desks lined up row by row like in the opening scene of the Billy Wilder film The Apartment. At these desks sat the hundreds of clerks processing your census forms. I had evidently done well in the mathematical portion of the test because I was placed in a small unit of 12 people set aside from the rest of the hoi-polloi. We received bundles of forms from the other units and our job was to add the numbers. After we had counted, we passed our bundle to another person in the unit who verified the count. It wasn’t a taxing job, but it demanded accuracy.

Our unit was composed of a housewife or two, a retiree, a few nerds, a pot head, several mid-career unemployed, and me, and for some magical reason we all got along famously. It was one of those rare occasions in life when the stars align and people with whom I thought I’d have nothing in common turned out to be some of the most interesting people I’d met in a while. We enjoyed each other’s company so much that at the end of our term our supervisor held a party at her house. Everyone came, and those with partners dragged them along too.

I still have the appraisal my supervisor handed me at the completion of the job. The quality of my work was deemed “fully satisfactory”, although my quantity fell to “satisfactory”. As a Virgo, I value accuracy over speed and so was not disturbed by my evaluation, particularly as in her written note she deemed me “an asset to the operation.”

CensusManAs a reward for my fully satisfactory service to the nation, I was presented with a pin. It’s a clever design that incorporates the maple leaf into the figure of a man holding up his right arm as if wanting to be counted. I don’t believe there was a similar pin of a woman so despite the motto for the Census that year being “Count me in!”, women could be excused if they wondered if that meant them too.

How times have changed! May 11th was Census Day in Canada, and if you’ve filled out your form you will have noticed that trans people are being counted this year. The exact question is “What was this person’s sex at birth?” This is followed by the helpful explanation that sex “refers to sex assigned at birth”, before the questionnaire moves on to the second question: “What is this person’s gender?” As this was likely to elicit a big “What?” from a significant portion of the Canadian population, Stats Canada felt obliged to provide another explanation: “Refers to current gender which may be different from sex assigned at birth and may be different from what is indicated on legal documents.” Not only are your choices male and female, but if neither of those are suitable you also have an option to “please specify” another.

What I loved best about this, however, was that if your gender didn’t align with your sex assigned at birth, you got an extra “verification” page. I laughed when I saw this. It was an “okay, maybe you didn’t understand the last question. Just to be sure we’ve got this right, you are female now but were assigned male at birth. Is that right?” I could imagine the folks at the Census arguing about this. “You know, we should really put a verification in because a lot of folks might not have a clue about what we’re talking about.” As I learned when I worked for the Census, accuracy is paramount.

I’m sure some portion of the trans population will be somehow offended by these questions. I don’t have much faith that any government program to help trans folks will come from it, which is the most cited justification for having a census, but I’m all for being counted. I want to know how many there are of us, and am glad Statistics Canada wants to know too. We should have a little faith that our information will be protected and will be used in a positive manner.

Very few other countries count trans folks in their census and, perhaps surprisingly, several that do are less progressive than Canada. A quick internet search reveals the only other countries that included trans or third sex people were Pakistan (2017), Nepal and India (2012). England and Wales included a voluntary question in their 2021 census that asked “Is the gender you identify with the same as your sex registered at birth?” I believe, however, any statistician will tell you that voluntary questions are largely useless.

So, count me in for 2021!

CensusHat
Here’s another relic from my time at the Census. One of the women I worked with knitted this outrageous hat for me from leftover wool which she presented to me when we were finished. I was speechless. Note the “Count me in!” fellow she knitted into the ear flaps! No, I haven’t ever worn it, but I’ll keep it forever. It brings back fond memories of a smart, funny and kind lady, interesting fellow employees and a work experience that rescued me from poverty.

Trans anger

“How can it be that the continuing anger of the trans community keeps surprising me?”

Jill Soloway, creator of the television series Transparent, first encountered trans anger when they cast cis man Jeffrey Tambor in the role of the parent who comes out to his (her) family as trans. In She Wants It, the book about the series and Soloway’s journey from straight mother of two to identifying as queer and non-binary, they relate how by season four trans people were involved in every part of the production. And yet Soloway, despite becoming close to many of the trans people working for them, was still often startled by the anger that surfaced when they discussed the series.

Because I immersed myself in it when I was young, “the continuing anger of the trans community” doesn’t surprise me. I grew up in transphobic times when we had no say in how we were being portrayed. I considered most of what I saw as a form of hate against me and people like me, and I raged against it. That I had no place to express my anger only made it worse. I lived in a state of perpetual rage until it became a threat to my mental well-being.

I suspect my experience of anger isn’t far different from that of other trans people, maybe not so different from that of other oppressed groups. In Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, Shylock addresses the antisemitism he’s experienced by asking “if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that.” It’s human nature to lash out at our perceived enemies, but for trans people our anger seems at times to rise to another level. And it is not often our friend.

There are both political and personal reasons for that.

While righteous anger can feel cathartic, and it may even for a time motivate us to try to change the world, at some point we need to let it go. Changing minds is done the slow, hard way by calm reasoned argument not by hurling abuse. I know this is hard. You need to have the patience of a Zen Master to transform your rage into persuasion and explanation, but that’s what we need to do.

Transphobes know our anger, maybe better than we do. The Wild Women Writing Club claimed the reason they were using pseudonyms in attacking Torrey Peter’s novel Detransition Baby (below) was “because of the threat of harassment by trans extremists.” They make their transphobia sound reasonable and make us sound like the ones filled with hate. It’s an effective strategy, and yet our anger ensures that we keep falling into their trap.

When you’re in a rage, you’re not being rational and you say some regrettable things.

Let’s be clear. The oppression of women is the original sin of all oppressions. Women are our natural allies against the patriarchy. That some women don’t see that should not be a reason to fling invective at them. All women need to be respected. Our fury is no excuse for our behaviour.

This is where our anger crosses over from damaging us politically to damaging us personally. We hold onto it because we feel its righteousness and because no one can take that away from us. It becomes part of us, but it hurts people too, and it’s not something we should cherish.

When you’ve nurtured your anger for some time it is not something you can drop when you finally decide you’ve had enough of it. It doesn’t work that way. It seeds itself in you. When it’s not serving you any longer, you can’t just root it all out. Part of the rage that almost consumed me when I was young is still lodged somewhere in my psyche. At this point in my life, it serves absolutely no purpose. When it rises again it distorts my reality and disturbs my peace of mind. I’m old enough that it is no danger to my well-being, but I loathe this remnant of my youth, this transphobic wound that has taken so long to heal.

I have no illusions that this little essay on trans anger will change anything. Trans people are always in somebody’s cross-hairs and we’re tired of it. You give as good as you get. We would, however, do much better with more light and less heat. We would be wise also to heed Michelle Obama’s advice: “When they go low, we go high.”

 

Triple Echo and Notes from the Underground

I’ve been taking another vacation from being trans lately and so thought I’d scan another issue each of Triple Echo and Notes from the Underground (NFTU) in between planning and digging in my garden.

I was a little reluctant to upload this issue of Triple Echo from September 2000 as I violated someone’s copyright by stealing the art for the front cover. I couldn’t help it. I had no money to hire anyone and couldn’t draw myself, but I needed something to illustrate the first episode of ‘Tara Taylor – Transwoman!” and it was perfect. I get a laugh reading this comic again. It had so many possibilities to deliver social satire, commentary and criticism from a trans perspective. Oh well. Maybe a talented trans artist can take it a step further and resurrect it into a graphic novel sometime.

There’s other good stuff in this issue too. I used to buy old sexology books whenever I could find them and I condensed their stories on trans folks in an article called ‘Tall Tales and Old Warriors’. “Old books on sexual behaviour are fascinating historical documents,” I wrote, and this issue of Triple Echo can now be regarded the same way. So much has changed for trans folks since this was published.

Triple Echo v2 no4

The issue of Notes from the Underground I uploaded takes us further back to 1995. There were only three issues in volume 8 and they all had a tabloid news feel to them. (The headline in this issue reads ‘Sexual Sadists Who Murder’.) If I recall correctly, this approach as well as the fact NFTU was being distributed in stores, wasn’t universally well received by the membership of Gender Mosaic. It may have been why the editor left after only three numbers. Nonetheless, these issues reflect how dynamic the group was in the mid-90s. There’s further evidence of this in the note from the Bylaws Committee Chair which mentions how unruly the meetings had become. Passion may be difficult to contain, but it’s still preferable to indifference.

1995-05 Vol 8 No 2

 

Book review: Detransition, Baby – a novel by Torrey Peters

Torrey Peters’ novel Detransition, Baby is nothing if not a deep dive into what it means to be trans. It’s somewhat remarkable that she manages, without derailing the book’s narrative, to explore in various depth of detail: racial and gender passing, trans “chasers”, detransition, autogynephilia, women’s roles, trans femme misogyny, facial feminization surgery, how cis people treat trans folks, suicide, HIV, and sex. Plenty and plenty of sex. What keeps it all afloat is Peters’ psychological insight into how people behave. This depth of characterization makes the reader want to know what happens next, a sure sign that Peters has succeeded in her primary job as a novelist, which is of course to tell the story.

The plot itself hangs on a fairly preposterous idea. Reese, the main character, is approached by her ex-lover Ames with a proposition. Ames detransitioned from being Amy and has just made his current lover pregnant after believing himself to be sterile from the estrogen he’d been taking. Freaked out over the idea of being a dad, and knowing how much Reese wants to be a mom, he suggests Reese help raise the future child as another mom in an as yet undefined family relationship. He hasn’t told his pregnant lover Katrina about his plan yet, to which Reese responds, not surprisingly, “You come up with the most fucked-up shit.”

Peters makes all this believable by relating the back stories of each of her central three characters. Soon the preposterous idea starts to sound less preposterous, as a theme of motherhood works its way into the book through the characters’ lives. Here’s where Peters’ strength as a novelist shines. We know these characters by the end of the story and care about what happens to them, despite them not always being likeable. Indeed, one of the people in the novel for whom I often had little patience was Reese, the trans woman at the centre of it, who seemed always to find it hard to do the right thing.

Peters, however, is as fearless in how she depicts her characters as she is in wading into controversial territory. A trans woman writing about cis female sexuality may as well be painting a target on her back, and indeed after being nominated for the Women’s prize for the novel, Peters was targeted by a group called the Wild Women Writing Club, who (anonymously) called the novel “misogynistic” and “a work of sissy porn suffused with hatred of women”. Detransition, Baby requires a more careful reading than they were obviously willing to give it. There’s a line in the book that explains this, and indeed much of the transphobia directed towards trans women: “A nimble mind can always uncover the politics to justify its own selfishness.”

Besides her psychological insight, Peters has a knack for delivering an arresting phrase that will make a word loving reader smile. Detransition, Baby is an accomplished piece of fiction.

 

Arresting Dress: An investigation into crossdressing prohibition law

Prior to the California gold rush, San Francisco was a small coastal settlement of about 800 hundred residents whose greatest claim to fame was its fine port. Gold changes everything, however, and within two years the population had swelled to 35,000 residents, most of them male. This “peculiarity” of the population gave the town a wild frontier aspect. Prostitution, gambling, drunkenness and corruption were rampant. So was crossdressing.

The scarcity of women made crossdressing largely socially acceptable. In dances organized in the mining camps, some men took the role of women by simply wearing large colourful patches on their clothes. When proper feminine clothing was available, the crossdressing was more elaborate. Young George Dornin, who later became a Republican member of the state legislature, recounted in his memoirs a Fourth of July same-sex dance in which he was “made presentable as a young lady” and danced the night away. It is difficult to imagine a current politician admitting to such an adventure.

Sooner or later, however, San Francisco’s rambunctiousness had to be reined in. A vigilante committee was struck up to purify the city of corruption. By 1862, a number of “good morals and decency laws” were enacted and tucked within them was a prohibition against crossdressing. It would stay on the books until 1974.

This prohibition was a convenient catch all under which the city authorities could regulate all kinds of behaviour and “problem bodies”. Amid the backdrop of mass migration, the ideology of manifest destiny, the Conquest of California during the Mexican-American war, and the end of the gold rush, there were numerous intersecting cultural anxieties coming together. Crossdressing during this period was seen as a confusion of cultural meanings and the law was designed to sort them out.

The most obvious target was of course the trans population. Some trans folks argued they were not crossdressing at all, but were wearing their proper clothes, a reasonable argument in the current century but which evidently didn’t impress the judges in the nineteenth. If caught, they risked being sent to jail – for the wrong gender, of course – or even sent to a psychiatric institution.

Dick/Mamie Ruble claimed not to have any sex at all, and challenged the judge to locate femininity on their muscular body. “I couldn’t pass for a woman anywhere, even if I tried,” they said. (Physical examinations were sometimes necessary to ascertain which sex the authorities were supposedly dealing with.) Ruble was declared insane and assigned to the Stockton asylum. They remained there for 18 years until they died of tuberculosis.

The law effectively encouraged people to look for crossdressing criminals. One trans woman who had been jailed and fined but escaped the asylum continued to wear women’s clothing at home. She was harassed by neighbours who peered through her windows and reported her to the police. The law applied only to crossdressing in public, however, so she was saved from further prosecution.

Some other cultural anxieties playing out at the time were the women’s dress reform movement in which early feminists asserted the right to wear clothing that was ostensibly assigned to men only, and an influx of Chinese immigration.

Crossdressing law was a local innovation, but by the end of the nineteenth century it crossed paths with federal immigration controls. Chinese women who had been smuggled in and enslaved as prostitutes, for example, were seen as typical of all Chinese women. Chinese men who were often obliged to take on “women’s work” were portrayed as less than men. Gender deviance and deceit was linked to Chinese newcomers thereby establishing supposed gender normativity as a precondition to national belonging.

This view of society’s response to gender non-conformity takes Arresting Dress beyond the scope of a narrow investigation into crossdressing prohibition laws in San Francisco into larger territory. As author Clare Sears notes, the “law’s exclusionary effects continue to reverberate today. Questions of who can lay claim to public space, for example, re-emerge in police actions that profile poor transgender women as sex workers and frame homeless queer and transgender youth as public nuisances.” An interesting read.

 

Directory of Canadian Trans Activists

I’ve added two more names to the Directory of Canadian Trans Activists. I started this project in December 2020. It will likely be a while before it’s as comprehensive as it should be, but I remain undaunted and will continue adding biographies as I find the time.

Christina Strang

(b. ca. 1976) Consultant, researcher, social worker, author.

Part of the Toronto TS/TG community services sector since 1998, Strang’s work is community based and focuses on youth, lower income, street-active, homeless, and sex working trans people.

Coordinator of the Meal Trans program at the 519 Community Centre until 2002. Founded Trans Youth Toronto, a community-based program directed by and for trans youth. Principal researcher with the 519 TS/TG HIV/AIDS booklet project which worked with trans sex workers in Toronto to develop an information and resource campaign targeting TS/TG people involved in the sex trade. Titled The Happy Transsexual Hooker, it was Canada’s first safe sex resource for trans sex workers and trans women.

Gemma Hickey

(b. October 1, 1976) St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador. Bachelor of Arts in Religious Studies (2003), Memorial University of Newfoundland. At Memorial, they served as General Director of LBGT-MUN (now Sexual and Gender Advocacy)

Hickey is non-binary. Their transition was the subject of the 2017 documentary film Just Be Gemma which aired on CBC Television and the Documentary Channel.

Campaigned for LGBT rights through involvement with Egale Canada (serving as president in 2005), PFLAG Canada, and Canadians for Equal Marriage.

Received one of the first non-binary passports issued by the government of Canada, which uses the letter “X” for gender. In 2017, Hickey became the first person in Newfoundland and Labrador, and one of the first in Canada, to receive a non-binary birth certificate.

Awarded a Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal in 2012 for their contribution to LBGTQ2 rights in Canada. In 2017 was named a Newfoundland and Labrador Human Rights Champion for their longstanding commitment to human rights protection, particularly for LGBTQ2 people.

 

Trans stories through photography

I have been adding titles to what I have ambitiously named the Ottawa Trans Library and hope this project may yet get off the ground after the pandemic. It occurred to me I was getting bogged down with too many books on transgender studies, however, and so have added more fiction and poetry by trans folks and several titles that celebrate the trans spirit. I’ve just received two marvelous photo books that do just that.

OnChrisThe first is On Christopher Street, with photos by Mark Seliger and an introduction written by Janet Mock. Christopher Street is in the heart of New York’s Greenwich Village and the book is a collection of black and white photos of trans and non-binary people. The subtitle to the book is Transgender Stories, but there is little text and the stories are mostly in the photos. Even so, it’s a wonderful collection.

The second book is To Survive on this Shore, with photos by Jess T. Dugan and text by Vanessa Fabbre. It’s a compilation of colour photos of older trans folks. (They define “older” as 50 plus; I thought 50 was the new 40!) Here are two sample photographs from the book.

John, age 69, had a psychologist assess him when he was going through extreme depression during his college years. The psychologist was astonishingly astute considering the era. He told John, “You have a male mind and personality in a female body…And it’s going to make your life difficult and you need to be aware of this.” That awareness helped him navigate a difficult life until he finally transitioned at age 63.

ToSurvive-John

The second photo from To Survive on this Shore is of Tracie, age 65. Tracie came out in the LGBT community of San Francisco in the early 70s when attitudes toward gender expression were fairly open minded. The bad old 80s came along, however, and she found temporary peace in drugs and alcohol. After a stint in jail, she joined an LGBT recovery program and began her long journey to acceptance. She works at the Family Health Center in support services. “As an African American trans woman, I have beaten the odds,” she says.

ToSurvive-Tracie

 

To Survive on this Shore, by Jess T. Dugan and Vanessa Fabbre is published by Kehrer Verlag, Berlin.
On Christopher Street: Transgender Stories, by Mark Seliger and Janet Mock is published by Rizzoli, New York.

 

A dose of inspiration

CBC’s As It Happens recently reported on the passing of 99-year-old trans woman, pilot and World War II veteran Robina Asti. Asti’s remarkable life of positivity, hope and generosity is recounted by Lambda lawyer Dru Levasseur, upon whose life she had a profound impact. When Asti was 92, she enlisted the aid of Lambda Legal’s Transgender Rights Project for help in securing survivor’s benefits that had been denied to her by the US Social Security Administration. Not only did she receive her benefits, her challenge prompted the Social Security Administration to change its policy regarding transgender spouses.

Her story is told in part in a moving Lambda documentary.

 

Uterus transplants for trans women?

A paper in the journal Bioethics presents a case that research trials should consider including transgender women as possible candidates for uterus transplants. The first successful birth after a womb transplant in a genetic woman occurred almost seven years ago. Since then, the procedure has seen significant clinical advances and over 60 uterus transplants have been performed resulting in at least 18 live births. It is the only temporary transplant in medicine, as the uterus is removed following pregnancy. Babies are always delivered via caesarean section.

The lead author of the paper, Dr. Jacques Balayla, says there isn’t an ethical reason for trans women being denied the procedure, although he acknowledges there would be social and religious objections. Although still only theoretical, the implantation of a donated uterus and gestation in the body of a trans woman should pose no physiological barrier if various conditions are met.

It’s quite the can of ethical worms we’ve opened up. Being predisposed to trans rights, I was intellectually in favour but also admit to being uneasy initially. (If I had these reservations, just imagine the howls from religious fanatics accusing doctors of “playing god”.) Technological advances usually proceed without much forethought, however, and I’d rather the medical profession consider these things now. I suspect there is a screening process for cis gender women for this procedure and that the same process would no doubt apply to trans women. It’s a very small subset of the population in either case, and the health and future of the child should be the paramount objective.

This discussion might be already be overtaken by news that Israeli scientists had successfully gestated hundreds of mice inside an artificial womb. Artificial wombs that “liberate” women from childbirth may be coming sooner than we think. It’s a Brave New World out there.

 

Mansplainers and other men to avoid

I once had a man explain something to me that I’m sure I knew more about than he did. It took me a minute to figure it out, but it suddenly dawned on me. “Holy shit! He’s mansplaining!”

MenToAvoidAs a visible trans woman, I didn’t expect it to happen to me. To mansplain something he had first to accept me as a woman, which of course pleased me, but then he turned around and patronized me for the same reason. It took me a minute to get my head around this.

In her hilarious little book Men to Avoid in Art and Life, Nicole Tersigni takes on the mansplainers, sexperts and patronizers by inserting her own captions into classic works of art. As the book blurb says, “less qualified men will dish out mediocrity as if it’s pure genius”. The long suffering looks on some of the women’s faces in the art she’s selected suggest women’s frustration is universal and timeless. The only problem with the book is the men who need it most are the ones least likely to read it. I also have a feeling they wouldn’t get the jokes.

MenToAvoidSample