Ottawa Trans Library opening Sunday May 29th!
You’re invited to the opening of the Ottawa Trans Library (OTL) this Sunday, May 29th from 12 to 5pm. We are located in Hintonburg, at 1104 Somerset St. West just before it curves into Wellington Street. There’s nothing invisible about our location. We are on main street Ottawa, accessible by major bus routes and the nearby LRT (a small hike).
The OTL has a collection of trans related books for loan and a free library of non-trans books to take home, keep or share. But it is more than just access to books and the internet. It is a safe, community space for trans and gender non-conforming people, as well as the LGBTQ+ community in general. We will undoubtedly be interacting with the Hintonburg neighbourhood also.
Many people believe that everything is on the internet now. It’s not, really, but beyond that this view undervalues the importance of libraries as social spaces. They are an example of the third spaces that are necessary to community building. I don’t hear Ottawa clamouring for a trans library, and I don’t know how far this project will go, but as an amateur historian, former librarian, and sometime writer, books have been central to my life. Why must book loving trans people be denied the pleasure of a good library? A good library holds our history, our culture, and our stories. It’s a place of research and thought, but of discussion and community too.
I’ll be meeting and greeting this Sunday and so we won’t be lending books that day, but I hope you can come visit us, browse the books, meet some people, and imagine the possibilities for the space. We will be open initially only three days a week (Sunday 12-5, Wednesday 3-7, and Friday 3-7), but the space will be open other times for programming and ideas from the trans community. Hope to see you Sunday!
The photos below are from May 17th, and earlier. Come see the finished library this Sunday!
May 9: Coming Soon! Ottawa Trans Library!
I rented a space and have been fitting up the Ottawa Trans Library (OTL).
The Ottawa Trans Library will be a community space for trans and gender non-conforming people, a place where (to borrow a phrase from Janet Mock) “you don’t have to shrink yourself”. As well as a lending library of trans and gender books, it will have a free library of non-trans books, WiFi, and a coffee and tea station. I’m the librarian, but the space is for you to use socially and, I hope, imaginatively.
This project has evolved considerably since I first conceived it pre-pandemic. I was initially going to rent a hole in the wall where trans folks interested in books could meet, but the community deserves more than a hole in the wall. The OTL is on a main street in a funky Ottawa neighbourhood. It will be visible, as we ought to be. While primarily a community space for trans and non-binary people, all LGBT+ folks are of course welcome. I expect we’ll also be engaging with the neighbourhood in which we’re located.
This is very much a Field of Dreams, build-it-and-they-will come project. It is not sustainable in its current funding model since I won’t be subsidizing it forever. However, if trans folks “embrace the space”, are creative and find in it possibilities for coming together and growing the community, then I’m sure we can work something out to keep it going.
Trans, non-binary people and the 2021 Census
The 2021 Census data is in, and it was no surprise that transgender and non-binary people attracted much of the media’s attention. True, most of the headlines were about an aging workforce and population, but once they got that out of the way, it was mostly about us. (By contrast, you had to look around the more sedate Statistics Canada site to find our numbers.)
If you missed it, these are the main stats: 0.33 % of the nearly 30.5 million Canadians aged 15 and older and living in a private household identified as trans or non-binary. That broke down to 59,460 transgender folks and 41,355 non-binary, or 100,815 in total.
It’s hard to call us a trend with those kinds of numbers, but there was one statistic – reported without comment – that could perhaps be used to suggest that. The proportion of trans and non-binary people among generation Z and millennials was three to seven times higher than for generation X, baby boomers and those older. There could be several reasons for that, the most obvious being that society is more accepting of gender non-conformity than it ever was and people are freer to self-define. Transphobic people think that greater freedom is the problem, of course, but it is in fact social evolution.
Speaking as a baby boomer who lived through transphobic times, my perception of many people my age is that if they didn’t transition, they eventually learned to accommodate themselves to the gender binary. People become more conservative as they get older. I may be wrong, but there are many trans folks I knew who disappeared into the ether. It’s probably no longer important for them to let Statistics Canada know who they are. They survived, and they’re all right, and that’s enough for them.
Here’s a fun table posted on the CBC site that lists many Canadian cities and the percentage of their population that is trans and non-binary. Scroll down the page and find your city. (Swipe sideways to access all 8 pages.) Not sure why Ottawa-Gatineau is listed twice. One is clearly for the entire Ottawa-Gatineau area, but if the other is for Ottawa only, why identify it as Ottawa-Gatineau?
Here’s my blog post on Census Day 2021.
Strands for Trans
I was leaving my friend’s hair salon recently when she showed me the sticker she’d applied to her front door. It was the iconic barber pole image with the usual blue, red and white stripes replaced with pink, blue and white. It’s part of a campaign by Strands for Trans to signify hair salons and barbershops that are trans friendly.
One would think hair salons would be the businesses most accepting of trans people, but I know how long I searched before I found one that made me feel comfortable. As the Strands for Trans website says, “Haircuts are historically gendered: Salons for women. Barbershops for men. This leaves the trans community feeling uncomfortable, unwelcome and unsure.” What a great initiative! Tell your salon or barbershop to join up at Strands for Trans.
Some notes regarding trans people
A few items in the news recently that may be of interest
Torrey Peters was awarded the PEN/Hemingway Award for Debut Novel for Detransition Baby. The judges’ citation read in part: “Torrey Peters’s Detransition, Baby, with its sharp wit, devastating clarity, and keenly observed characters, is exceptional not only for its fluid, intelligent prose, but also for the way the novel challenges dominant narratives of time and of gender that flatten and erase the rich complexity of the lives of both cis and trans people. There’s an elation, an honesty, and a verve to Peters’s voice that sounds unlike any prose in recent memory, a unique energy which keeps the narrative moving as she threads in and out of the consciousness of her unforgettable characters.” Um, that’s sort of what I said in my review too.
Cheers to Canadian commercial TV networks for hiring trans women to play parts in major shows. I’ve already noted the CBC series Sort Of, and Bobbi Charlton’s recurring role in Family Law, but was unaware until recently that Kiley May, an Indigenous two spirit trans woman, plays assistant pathologist River Baitz on the CBC series Coroner. Kiley May is Hotinonhshón:ni, Kanien’kehá:ka (Mohawk) and Turtle Clan from Six Nations of the Grand River territory. Besides being an actor, she is a multidisciplinary artist and storyteller, writer, activist, and emerging filmmaker.
Elliot Page revealed that a trans character will be appearing in season three of the Netflix series Umbrella Academy due to begin in June. Page has been part of the cast since the beginning of the series. The Movie database describes Umbrella Academy as a “dysfunctional family of superheroes [that] comes together to solve the mystery of their father’s death, the threat of the apocalypse and more.”
The BBC recently reported on the ground breaking Serbian film Marble Ass. Released in 1995 and made during the height of the war in the former Yugoslavia, the film celebrated the lives of members of the LGBT community in the conservative country, and made a star of the trans actor Merlinka (Vjeran Miladinovic). Written and directed by Zelimir Zilnik and inspired by the director’s accidental encounter with Merlinka as she worked the street, the film occasioned an emotional and intense coming out moment during the premiere screening in Belgrade. A video of Zilnik’s description of that event and the difficulties he had in making the film are on the BBC site. As a friend to the community, Zilnik’s bumbling of trans terminology can be forgiven, but it was distressing to learn that Merlinka was assaulted and murdered in 2003. No one has ever been charged with her killing. The Merlinka International Queer Film Festival held in various Balkan nations that were once part of Yugoslavia is named in her honour.
Gender neutral passports are coming to the USA! Beginning April 11th, American citizens can now choose X as their gender designation. It is impossible to imagine something like that happening during the Trump presidency, and I’m sure it won’t go over well in the halls of government in rabid anti-trans states like Florida and Texas. Tough! The USA joins Canada, Australia, Germany, India, Nepal and New Zealand as nations that allow citizens to designate a gender other than male or female on their passports. Cheers to the Biden administration.
Meanwhile, the UK continues on its well-trodden path of transphobia. After declaring conversion practices “coercive and abhorrent” in May 2021, a briefing paper leaked this past week indicated the Boris Johnson Conservatives wouldn’t proceed with a ban. The paper suggested the government blame “pressures on the cost of living and the crisis in Ukraine.” Needless to say, the backlash was swift and furious, and so Johnson made a reversal. Now his government would introduce legislation in May, but it would only cover sexual orientation and not trans people.
The same dishonest arguments we heard in Canada prior to the ban here were trotted out in the UK: if we ban conversion practices then it will scare therapists away from talking to young people about complex identity issues. That kind of bullshit is only believable in a transphobic society. Conversion is coercion, not therapy.
The Peter Tatchell Foundation, which promotes and protects the human rights of individuals and communities, accused Johnson of “throwing trans people under the bus”. It said: “We feel conned and tricked. The prime minister has taken a decision to appease transphobes who oppose protection for trans people and who support attempts to turn them cisgender … It looks like a bid to stoke trans culture wars for political gain in the run-up to the next election.”
Canadian Trans Activists: Viviane Namaste
I have added one more bio to the list of Canadian Trans Activists. I actually compiled it a few months ago, but got hung up on my inability to find Viviane Namaste’s date of birth. (C’mon Viviane! Give it up!) I present it below.
I naively started compiling this directory in December 2020 because I got annoyed at hearing Canadian trans people thanking American celebrities for making trans lives better. No, these are the people you should be thanking. But once I started, I realized I’d gone down a rabbit hole. What constitutes an activist? Is being a celebrity, musician or writer enough? Well, not necessarily. I decided it was only if you’re advancing trans people through your art or work, but there’s a dedication and passion – and yes, even sacrifice – to activism that also needs acknowledging. And how do I measure those things? It’s a lot harder being an activist in Thunder Bay than it is in Vancouver, and I can’t gauge their successes in the same way. And the absence of someone from the directory does not mean that they’re not deserving.
You see my problem. Still, the directory has garnered enough interest that I want to carry on, however imperfectly and haphazardly. Here then is a brief biography of Viviane Namaste.
Professor and Concordia University Research Chair in HIV/AIDS and Sexual Health, Simone de Beauvoir Institute & Womens Studies. Feminist scholar, author, and researcher. Work focuses on health (specifically HIV/Aids), sex work, transsexualism, transgenderism, and bisexuality.
BA from Carleton University in 1989, an MA in Sociology from York University, and a Ph.D from Université du Québec à Montréal in Semiotics and Linguistics.
Co-ordinated a community based transsexual health care project of CACTUS Montreal. Worker with initiatives related to prisons, transsexual health, HIV, prostitution and harm reduction.
In 2001, along with Mirha-Soleil Ross and Monica Forrester, directed the documentary Madame Lauraine’s Transsexual Touch which deals with transsexual sex workers as well as sexual health and clientele.
Called as an official intervenor in 2013 in a hearing at the Supreme Court of Canada on whether the ban on solicitation, prohibition of brothels and criminality of making a living from prostitution violate the Charter of Rights
Books include Invisible Lives: The Erasure of Transsexual and Transgendered People (2000), for which she received the Outstanding Book Award from the Gustavus Myers Center in 2001; Sex Change, Social Change: Reflections on Identity, Institutions, and Imperialism (2005); and C’était du spectacle! L’histoire des artistes transsexuelles à Montréal, 1955-1985, which explores the lives of fourteen transsexual cabaret dancers.
Awarded the Plaque honorifique Christine Jorgensen, by Association des Transsexuel(le)s du Québec. Plaque is in recognition of activism and community organizing for transsexuals in Québec, May 3 2005.
Received the Canadian Award for Action on HIV/AIDS and Human Rights, awarded jointly by the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network and Human Rights Watch in 2009.
According to her Wikipedia page, “Namaste considers activism more important than work within the humanities.”
A journey through time with Go Info
Ottawa’s first publication for gay, lesbian and bisexual people reported on the ups, downs, and internal and external battles of an evolving queer community
I recently spent over four hours in the Main branch of the Ottawa Public Library (OPL) sifting through issues of Go Info. Go Info was first published by Gays of Ottawa and continued under the organization’s later names, Association of Lesbians and Gays of Ottawa (ALGO) and finally the Association of Lesbians, Gays and Bisexuals of Ottawa (ALGBO). The name changes reflect the gradual involvement of lesbians and bisexuals after the various groups acknowledged they were oppressed in the same ways and had the same political goals. The T was added much later, but by then Go Info had ceased publishing. The OPL’s run starts with volume 2 number 4, 1975 and ends with volume 24 number 8, 1995.
My interest in Go Info was to see if I could find any item that might be pertinent to Ottawa’s trans history. Trans people did not appear in its pages often, and when they did, they weren’t regarded during this period as colleagues in a shared fight. The articles were more of an informational nature, not unlike what you’d find in a mainstream publication, but for the acknowledgement that trans folks were present on the fringes of the gay community.
This isn’t surprising, as it took years for lesbians and gay men to work together, and as late as the December/January 1991/92 issue an article appeared protesting that bisexual people were still not taken seriously.
Overall, it was a fascinating four hours of reading. While my primary interest in Go Info was trans, reading through it revealed the similarities in our history, although gays, lesbians and bisexuals went through it all decades earlier. In the end, I found only four articles on trans people, and only one of historical interest.
When I first asked about Go Info at the OPL, it had been so long since someone requested it that they couldn’t find it. Cheers to the staff at the OPL, however, for staying with the search. When they located it, they seemed as excited as I was. Anyone interested in the slow progress of queer rights will find Go Info to be a valuable historical resource.
Incidentally, while I use “queer” as shorthand for all that Go Info covers over the course of the 20 years I scanned, there was a debate in its pages during this time whether it was appropriate to adopt a word that had for so long been a homophobic expression of hate. It’s gratifying that “queer” no longer has such an association.
Winning design for LGBTQ2+ national monument revealed
The Department of Canadian Heritage and the LGBT Purge Fund have revealed the winning design for the LGBTQ2+ monument to be built in Ottawa. The winning concept is Thunderhead from Public City Inc., a team of Winnipeg-based architects and landscape architects. According to the news release from Canadian Heritage, “This design draws on the symbolism of a thunderhead cloud, which embodies the strength, activism and hope of LGBTQ2+ communities. It will be a lasting testimony to the courage and humanity of those who were harmed by the LGBT Purge, homophobic and transphobic laws and norms, and Canada’s colonial history.”
The LGBT Purge Fund is providing at least $8 million towards the monument.
There are many hate-filled people living in Canada, but – so far – we still have more people here trying to do the right thing, and this monument is undoubtedly the right thing. Despite Thunderhead not being my first choice, I’m thrilled with the selection and am looking forward to the day we can visit and experience it.
Trans Day of Visibility March 31st
Trans folks have a lot of days in the calendar that are meaningful to us, but this one will probably serve us best in the long term. There’s a paradox to this day that I like: we’re being visible to be invisible.
The other day I went to see a space for rent that I hoped might house the Ottawa Trans Library. I like to look professional when I show up to do business and was wearing a skirt and stockings. I admit also, however, that I deliberately and gently like to provoke people. I can’t help myself. It’s a reaction to the many years I operated in the shadows, when I was visible to some people and felt I had to be invisible to others. When I meet new people now, I like to let them know exactly who I am.
The fellow I met didn’t bat an eyelid. He showed me the space like he’d dealt with a thousand trans people before. We got along fine. On the way home, I smiled thinking about the whole encounter. Although I was being mildly provocative, he didn’t take my bait, and I was glad he didn’t. My transness was invisible to him. I was just another person with whom to do business.
That’s all we want, isn’t it? For our transness to be invisible and only our humanity recognized. When seeing a trans person will induce nothing more than a “So what?” The only way we’re going to get there is for more of us to be visible.
Let’s all be safe this March 31st, but if we can, let’s be visible too. Being yourself is the ripple effect to changing the world.
Dawn, Her Dad and the Tractor
Dawn, Her Dad and the Tractor is the story of a trans woman – the Dawn of the title – who returns to her rural Nova Scotia home after the death of her mother, hoping to mend her relationship with her estranged father. It’s the first feature film from Shelley Thompson, a Nova Scotia based writer and director who’s known for her work on The Trailer Park Boys.
Thompson wrote the film based on her own experience as a mom to a trans son. In an interview with CBC Radio’s Mainstreet, she said the film was “sort of my love letter to my son’s community, and the hope that [people] understand how important it is … that families and communities support trans people.”
Dawn is played by Maya Henry, a Toronto based actress and social media content creator. She’s also a trans woman playing the role of a trans woman. (Hurrah!) I’m thrilled that we’re finally able to tell our own stories and always look forward to seeing them on screen, but – irony of ironies – I could barely watch the trailer because certain scenes induced some triggering.
Dawn, Her Dad and the Tractor made its world premiere at Toronto’s Inside Out Film Festival in May 2021. It will be screened in several theatres in the Maritimes in March, and at the Invermere Film Festival in Invermere, BC on March 26th. Despite my reliving a bit of trauma from the trailer, I’d love to see it in Ottawa (attention Bytowne and Mayfair Theatres!) and hope it gets wider distribution soon.
No sex designation on Saskatchewan licenses
February 2022 – Saskatchewan residents can now opt not to include any sex designation on their driver’s license or Saskatchewan Government Insurance issued photo ID cards. The change came as a result of a Saskatchewan Human Rights complaint and feedback from residents that indicated the X option currently available didn’t resonate with everyone. About 300 people currently have X on their licenses, but members of the community said they preferred the no letter option.
Morgan Moats, chair of UR Pride in Regina and a non-binary person, said an empty space offers them more safety. The CBC quoted them as saying, “An ‘X’ says, ‘I’m not a man or a woman,’ whereas the blank says, ‘It’s none of your business.’
For some trans folks, a sex designation is of course an affirmation, but in the long run any step toward weakening the firm grip of the gender binary on human lives is likely a positive development. Full article and more discussion on the CBC site.
More photos of trans people
While I’m on the subject of photo exhibits and trans folks’ compulsive need to be photographed (see below), an upcoming, often Covid-delayed, exhibition at the Ryerson Image Centre at Ryerson University in Toronto sounds interesting. It’s called Mauvais Genre/Under Cover: A Secret History of Cross-Dressers. This seems to me a somewhat misleading title since it’s comprised of over 160 amateur photographs collected from flea markets and other assorted purveyors of old photos and taken by unknown photographers of unknown trans people. Maybe they’re not cross-dressing at all. Nonetheless, it’s an intriguing collection assembled by Sébastien Lifshitz, who also serves as guest curator for the exhibit. Besides being a collector of photographs, Lifshitz is a film director. Some of his films include “Wild Side (2004), which features a trans heroine and Bambi (2013), a documentary about France’s most celebrated trans woman.”
Unfortunately, a date has yet to be fixed for the exhibit, the best estimate for opening now being Spring/Summer 2022. Bookmark the Ryerson Image Centre web site for updates on this interesting exhibit.
JJ Levine photo exhibit at the McCord Museum
If you’re in Montreal February 18th and later, you may wish to visit the McCord Museum to see JJ Levine Queer Photographs. The exhibit “will present a selection from JJ Levine’s major photo projects Queer Portraits, Alone Time, and Switch. Levine’s work questions the representation of traditional binary gender roles through staged photographs of queer subjects in intimate, domestic settings.”
If you can’t make it to Montreal, a sample of Levine’s work is on their web site. Levine describes the Switch series of photos as presenting “the viewer with what initially appear to be pairs of classic studio portraits of heterosexual couples. Upon closer examination, however, each diptych is comprised of two models, not four. I dress each model as a man in one image and a woman in the adjacent one. By staging the same models twice in each pair of photographs, I don’t give any clues as to the subjects’ lived genders, therefore challenging the idea that gender is stable, consistent, or single.”
The McCord Museum is in downtown Montreal at 690 Sherbrooke Street West across from McGill University.
An appreciation for the charming Mrs. Austin
A photographer friend of mine alerted me to an interesting pair of photographs she stumbled upon while flipping through the book Notman: A Visionary Photographer.
William Notman (1826-1891) was born in Scotland, but emigrated to Canada in 1856 and settled in Montreal. He opened a photography studio that would eventually have branches throughout Canada and the United States. There are photos in this book of old Montreal that are so vivid you feel you could step into them and go back in time, but the Notman studio’s bread and butter was portrait photography.
Notman’s photographers were in demand by U.S. Ivy League schools and photographed famous folks like Mark Twain, Sitting Bull, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Buffalo Bill, but anyone could come into their studio and have their photos taken. Their talent in capturing an expression at just the right moment is striking, particularly considering the complexity of taking a single photograph at the time.
And so we come to the mysterious pair of photos titled “Gent for Mrs. Austin” (1889). The text in the book explains the photos to some degree, remarking on the level of trust required between photographer and subject. It “is not immediately evident that the subject is actually a young man [sic]. In one, a half length portrait, the accoutrements of Victorian femininity – a high-necked dress with a corseted waist, copious lace detailing and a bonnet that covers most of the sitter’s head – are elaborate enough to absorb our attention for a few moments.” It was the photographer’s job to create a satisfactory portrait, and the studio’s technicians were complicit in concealing all traces of masculinity.
It is only in the second portrait when the sitter is without the bonnet that her assigned gender is revealed. The studio took pains to be discrete with these photos, as a note in the studio’s Picture Book where normally the contact prints were pasted for reference commands “Not to be put in”.
There’s so much I love about these photos, but so many things that make me wonder too. Who was this Mrs. Austin, and how did she find the courage to present herself to the Notman studio to have her picture taken? It seems the Notman studio responded to her request with a big shrug and, being true professionals, assured her they would handle the photo shoot and the prints afterwards with discretion. And what a gift Mrs. Austin has given us trans people of the future in once again providing evidence that, yes, we’ve always been here. Most of all perhaps, I smile that trans folks are still doing what they were doing since the early days of photography: obsessively asserting their existence by having their photos taken.
Notman: A Visionary Photographer, published by Editions Hazan in association with the McCord Museum, Montreal, 2016. ISBN 9780300223675.
Lingering shadows of a transphobic film
Of all the transphobic films I’ve seen, there is one that still disturbs me more than the others. Perhaps it’s because it takes place in Ottawa and Montreal, which makes it feel like it actually happened here. It was released in 1976, the year I graduated from university and that too makes it personal. It’s a vivid reminder of the kind of world that awaited me as I tried to find my path as a trans woman. Its transphobia is at once so extreme, and yet so typical of the times, that it should be on film studies courses as an example of how trans people, especially trans women, have been historically represented on film.
It’s called Strange Shadows in an Empty Room. It was an Italian-Canadian co-production, and an exploitation film in the style of Dirty Harry.
It’s also known for its car chases, and opens with Ottawa police chasing a car down a barren Lebreton Flats, in front of the Parliament Buildings and along a Wellington Street empty of traffic. American B actor Stuart Whitman plays an Ottawa cop by the name of Tony Saitta, and he’s quickly identified as a man of action. Two cop cars crash ineffectually in the chase scene, before Tony takes the robbers out on what looks like Murray Street in the Market, circa 1976. He guns two down, and arrests one, which hints at Tony’s way of doing things. His is a push-people-around-ask-questions-later approach to crime solving.
Tony receives news that his sister, living in Montreal and played by upcoming Quebec star Carole Laure, has been poisoned. Being a man of action, he flies to Montreal by helicopter and, disregarding questions of jurisdiction, takes over the investigation from Ned Matthews, a somewhat passive Montreal cop played by John Saxon, a reliable character actor of the time.
The movie often cuts to scenes that don’t appear related to the main plot line. In one of these cuts, we view from behind a woman walking in a dark alley followed by a man carrying a newspaper with some sort of club hidden in its folds. The camera shows her shapely legs and then cuts back to the man’s pants as he walks faster to catch up. The fetishistic gaze of the camera returns to the woman’s stockinged legs, and lingers just long enough on her legs and high heels that I knew right away she was a trans woman. It was one of the transphobic tropes of movie making of the time. The scene was designed to fool and titillate the heterosexual male audience before revealing the woman’s true identity later. (Ha! Gotcha!)
The trans woman in the alley is clubbed repeatedly to her death and, we find out later, her body gets pulverized in a rock grinder.
Needless to say, it takes a while for Tony and his Montreal sidekick to figure out she was trans. When they do, we get this edifying conversation:
“That girl was a guy.”
“Sounds like something we might find in a fruit market, huh?”
Tony’s not all brawn, however. He notes the unusual shade of nail polish on what’s left of her fingers, which eventually leads him to a sex shop where the proprietor attempts to sell him a sex doll. “Life size. Has all the parts. You could do everything.” That’s not for our Tony, of course. He pressures the proprietor into revealing the address of his “transvestite” customers, who apparently come in from time to time for the wonderful selection of lipsticks.
Cut to the next scene where two trans women are discussing a wig, while the third is putting on lipstick.
“I don’t know why I decided to leave it with Marilyn,” one says.
Catty conversation continues. The buzzer rings.
“Sounds like a hot one. He must crave my body,” she says, of the persistent buzzing.
“Answer the door, Cinderella,” the other one replies. She buzzes him in, and meets Tony at the door.
“What’s up,” he says.
“Hi sweetie. It’s private here. You’ve got to be a member.”
He shoves her aside, which prompts one of the women to throw a bottle at him. Presumably she didn’t take kindly to a stranger bursting into their apartment without identifying himself or showing his badge
“Hey, take it easy, girls. Just take it easy. I want some information.”
One of the trans women removes her wig. “I’ll give you a mouthful of information,” she says, and takes a swing at him with what looked to me like a hat box.
After the hat box assault, which Tony resolves with a kick to the testicles (ha-ha), there follows a completely illogical fight scene that lasts two minutes and is choreographed to a 1970s TV cop show soundtrack. One trans woman ends up going through a large glass window and one gets beaten up and tossed into the swimming pool, but it’s the fate of the third one that reveals the hateful nature of not just this scene, but of the movie as a whole.
The third trans woman has apparently plugged in her curling iron and is now lunging at Tony with it. Attacking with a curling iron is ludicrous, of course, but by introducing this prop the film maker turns the beatings into a strange cisgender psychosexual expression of hate for trans women. Tony seizes the curling iron from the trans woman and promptly drives it up her rectum. Cue the screams, and the look of horror from the one of the subdued trans women. She wasn’t the only one. I expected the beatings, but my jaw dropped at the cruelty of the scene and the relish with which Tony performs it. The film normalizes violence against trans women like few others I’ve seen, and presents it as entertainment.
At the end of all this carnage, one of the trans women asks plaintively, “Why didn’t you just tell me what you wanted?” Because we wouldn’t have had two minutes of trans bashing if he had, of course.
This film has all the worst ingredients of transphobic films: stereotypes to the point of caricature, the murder of a trans woman, blind hatred and violence, and the baiting of the cisgender audience to join in the fun. If you read reviews of it, you’ll find none of the critics or people who have seen it mention any of this. They haven’t even noticed.
If you’d like to investigate for yourself, It’s available for loan from the Ottawa Public Library under its shortened title, Shadows in an Empty Room.
Book review: Autobiography of an Androgyne
[Writing about trans people who lived before the category of trans was identified is challenging. It’s hard to avoid language that we now regard as politically incorrect. The world in which the author lived – and to a great extent the world in which we live now – declared the genitalia to be the ultimate definition of sex and gender. Some scholars claim that it is wrong to ascribe the she pronoun to a historical figure who referred to herself as he, but that’s another rationalization that erases trans people from history. When someone describes themselves as “a woman whom Nature disguised as a man”, I don’t care that transgender was not yet a clinically defined term. It’s enough for me to use the pronouns that were denied her when she was alive.]
People we would recognize today as transsexual or transgender were called many different names before trans was identified as something different from homosexuality. A person assigned male at birth who was of slight stature and had a feminine voice and mannerisms and who was sexually attracted to men was an invert, fairie, fille de joie or, as the author of this autobiography preferred, an androgyne. She was regarded as a different type of homosexual from the so-called pederast. The latter practised homosexuality out of licentiousness and was regarded as immoral, while some more progressive voices recognized her feminine nature and argued that she couldn’t help herself and so should not be judged the same way. Homosexual still, but of a different sort.
It didn’t much matter, however, for the androgyne of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when this book was written, was much reviled. Earl Lind, who also called herself Jennie June, was born in 1874 into the upper strata of New York society and this autobiography is mostly a succession of chapters in which she sought out sexual contacts with men of the lower classes. It’s a short book, but the beatings and sexual assaults she endured, the robberies and threats of blackmail, the indifference of police and bystanders to the severe violence perpetrated on her often had me stop reading to come up for air.
There is an unfortunate inclination to blame the author in some small measure for her own misfortune. Her relentless pursuit of fellatio caused her so much grief that you want to give her a metaphorical shake and tell her to stop already. She called her sexual impulses a corruption of the “procreative instinct”, and said she wanted nothing more than a monogamous relationship. What she got instead was a succession of men abusing and taking advantage of her. However, she also described herself as “sexually abnormal by birth”; that is, she had the temperament of a woman but the voracious sexual appetite of a man. (Women at the time were, of course, not judged to have much interest in sex beyond procreation. Not surprisingly, given the historical period, there is a huge subtext of sexism and classism that runs throughout the book.)
What this book did was convince me that the category of transgender had to be created to save a large group of people from being victimized by a hateful and uncaring world. Jennie June was well educated and would ordinarily have had all the privileges that her class bestowed upon her, but she lived a double life that repeatedly drove her to the brink of suicide. That she didn’t die this way may have been due to her strong religious beliefs and undoubtedly to her resilience, but it takes no great psychological insight to see she was a deeply traumatized human being. She had none of the options available to trans people now, and she paid the price for it.
There is an interesting appendix to this book titled “Impressions of the Author”. It was written by a business associate of hers who knew her only from that part of her life that was judged respectable. He notes that she was regarded by most as “rather eccentric”, but otherwise recognized for her “good qualities”. He describes a scene with Jennie that induced a wave of sympathy in me: “A third very early memory was of the author’s coming up to me, and saying after we had exchanged a few words, ‘Did you know I am a woman?’ After beholding for a moment my mystification, he said: ‘I was only joking.’ He went on his way, leaving me trying to unravel the question as to wherein the joke lay.”
There was no joke, of course. It was just a trans woman trying desperately to be seen. I’m sorry that my sister across time never experienced that in her life.
Autobiography of an androgyne, by Earl Lind. Mint Editions, ISBN 9781513296968. First published in 1918.
The pity narrative? No thanks!
The mainstream media have a tendency to finish every story about trans people with suicide statistics in our community, as if they’re asking their audience to be nice to us out of pity. It’s a narrative that some trans folks have also adopted. I reject this pity narrative, and so should you.
I’m not minimizing the challenges that trans people face. Things may be better than they’ve ever been, but they’re still not good enough. Major issues like trauma, abuse, rejection, and fear are common for trans folks, but day-to-day minor stressors take their toll also. It isn’t easy being trans, but a pity narrative by its nature frames you as a helpless individual. We may have been victimized, but it does not follow that we need to be victims.
It’s easy to put together a long list of successful trans people who did not buy into the pity narrative. You may not see yourself in Rachel Levine, the US Assistant Secretary of Health and a four-star admiral; or actress Laverne Cox; or Aaron Devor, who heads up the largest trans archives in the world at the University of Victoria. You may not think you have any special talent that will elevate you above the feeling of being beaten down, but don’t sabotage your resilience by not believing in it.
Your reality is that you live in a cisgender world. You need to accept that, and deal with it. You have two choices on how to do that: you can hide from it, or you can face it.
Hiding from it feels at first like the safest bet, but over time it will drain you of your dreams and will wither your soul. Facing it may feel like an impossible task, but don’t punish yourself if you can’t do it right away. You need to find patience and take the long view. What you’re doing is hard, doubly so if you have little or no support. Some things take time while you work at them. Don’t give up. Acquire a skill. Whether it is being a barista or a computer programmer or a hair stylist, it will always serve you well. Find allies. Put in the work to know yourself, and make that self a reality.
In a Huffington Post article on the rise of gay suicides, epidemiologist Travis Salway noted that many of the people he interviewed who had attempted suicide told him that they had walked right up to the door of a support group and then turned around. Don’t let fear or shame stop you. Push the door open!
And to trans people in general, I say stop sniping at each other. It’s childish. You’re all in this together.
Many of you may find this pep talk trite, or even irritating. You don’t see how talk can turn into action in your own lives, but I’ve been there and can assure you from personal experience that moping will get you nowhere. Attitude is important.
I don’t see trans people as pitiable beings. I see them as dragons fiercely defending their identities. Your life is an act of resistance against a culture that says you can’t exist. As writer and feminist Audre Lorde wrote, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence. It is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”
If you see yourself as a victim, you’re undermining your own ability to face the challenges in your life as a trans person. Reject the pity narrative. Live.
Think you’ve got it rough? Here’s a story about Alana McLaughlin, the second out MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) fighter, that left me in awe of her resilience and courage. Alana McLaughlin was victimized repeatedly, but she’s no victim.
We’re human and all feel vulnerable sometimes. There is no shame in seeking help. For 24/7 bilingual, crisis support, call the Child Youth and Family Crisis Line at 613-260-2360, or 1-877-377-7775 (outside Ottawa) or call the Crisis Line at 1-866-996-0991.
Gender clinics, quick assessments, and cisgender girls: cue the moral panic
The Ottawa Citizen reported recently on research published in the journal Pediatrics which studied access to gender affirming care for trans youth. The journal article endorsed timely mental health support and more rapid access, but there was one statistic that made me wonder. Of the 174 participants in the journal study, 137 were assigned female at birth. This apparently reflects an internationally documented “ratio shift which now favours trans-masculine youth”.
The media have recently discovered this anomaly and are milking it like only the media can.
The CTV newsmagazine W5 aired an item October 24th which began with a happy transition story by a young trans man from Pembroke, Ontario but then moved to some less successful female-to-male transitions in the UK that made headlines there. Keira Bell, who de-transitioned back to female, took the Tavistock Centre in London to court because she claimed she underwent only a superficial series of conversations before she was supposedly encouraged to transition. The initial decision of the court supported her, saying in effect that it is highly unlikely that a young person could understand the risks and weigh the long-term consequences of puberty blockers, deeming the procedure “experimental”. The Court of Appeal eventually overturned the ruling, but the legal actions continue.
The second and primary story concerned Sinead Watson who transitioned to male in her early 20s, then de-transitioned and is now advocating against kids gaining access to hormone blockers. Naturally trans folks are a little upset with her, telling her she was never really trans, a conclusion I would have thought was obvious but which, strangely, seems to perturb her. Watson’s sob story makes for good television, but it has absolutely no value in assessing whether hormone blockers or any other physical intervention is too liberally applied. Why would the experience of a cisgender woman be relevant for a trans person? I have some sympathy for her unfortunate fate, but Watson has still not taken responsibility for decisions she made as an adult about her own life.
The flaw in the W5 piece is that it shifts its attention from Canada to the UK – one of the most transphobic countries in Western Europe – and presumes that what applies there applies here. It does not explore the depths of transphobia in the UK, and whether that has any implication upon their reporting. (I have lots to say about UK transphobia, but it will have to wait.) Canada has absolutely nothing to learn about the treatment of trans people from the UK.
The National Post also had something to say on the same topic. (The article was reprinted in the Ottawa Citizen.) Here’s the line in the piece that made me think this might be a manufactured crisis. The author, Tom Blackwell, writes of a “nascent movement calling for brakes to be placed on a health care system geared to affirming a young person’s transgender feelings with drugs and surgery, allegedly in some instances after little assessment of other psychological issues.” If you’re launching a movement, maybe you should have more evidence than “allegedly in some instances.”
Later in the piece, Howard also writes that “critics” and “opponents” worry that the bill passed recently in the House of Commons prohibiting conversion therapy could “inadvertently outlaw more careful assessment before transition.” These critics and opponents are unnamed. Perhaps it’s because it doesn’t take a lot of reflection to see how ridiculous this is. Conversion therapy is not therapy; it’s coercion. No court in this country would confuse it with an assessment done in a gender clinic. As with all things trans, there are a lot of highly dubious arguments being presented as credible concerns.
Nonetheless, the National Post also cites the opinions of trans man and registered nurse Aaron Kimberley, who runs the group Gender Dysphoria Alliance and who believes the process has become politicized; and Erica Anderson, a trans woman and senior officer with WPATH (World Professional Association for Transgender Health) who complained in an op-ed in the Washington Post that there are too many sloppy assessments and hasty decisions prescribing medical intervention.
So, what to make of all this?
At the risk of sounding like I’ve gone over to the dark side, there is undoubtedly something here that requires investigation. 137 study participants assigned female at birth out of 174 is a ratio that is seriously out of kilter. W5 statistics for the UK claimed 67% of referrals to the Tavistock Centre were assigned female at birth while in Canada the number cited by Trans Youth Can! in 10 hospital clinics was 80%. Knowing we live in a sexist and misogynistic world, that girls have always had body issues and that social network algorithms only increase their body anxieties, I don’t think it’s wise to put our heads in the sand and ignore these numbers. I realize that I’m starting to sound like J. K. Rowling, but it’s not wrong to be concerned about cisgender girls having difficulty navigating toward a female identity in a hostile world. My experience tells me, however, that people will happily throw trans kids under the bus to protect cisgender ones. You don’t have to look far to see how little trans folks are valued. This is what we need to protect against, and why we need to take this issue seriously.
Neither W5 nor the National Post gave us any useful information on whether this was happening. They gave us opinions. There were assurances from doctors and therapists that no one makes these decisions lightly, but no details on whether they are taking into consideration the unique circumstances and pressures facing those assigned female at birth. I have to believe they are, if only because they are in a difficult position. If they’re seen to hinder the transition, they’re vilified by the trans community. If they make it too easy, they could be sued, as they were in the UK. (The National Post story also told of a Canadian mother and daughter who considered suing.) No one likes to be in a lose-lose situation like that. Their best protection is to be thorough.
That thoroughness may seem like a needless obstacle to some trans youth, but it may also ensure that health care for trans youth is protected. What the dominant culture is demanding is 100% protection against cisgender kids making bad decisions and if they don’t get it, it will be looking for someone to blame, and that will be us.
Despite media attempts to raise a panic among the population, I’m inclined to think we’re still on the right course. Both W5 and the National Post stated that Canada is one of the most liberal countries in the world in the treatment of trans youth, implying that this was de facto proof that we’ve gone too far. We were also the fourth country in the world to legalize gay marriage, however, and we weren’t wrong there. It’s a specious point in itself, but it’s galling because it appears convincing to many people in this country with a colonial mentality: that is, we’re a nation of followers, how dare we presume to lead?
W5 asked the Tavistock Centre to comment on their story and they issued a statement saying that each young person was different and that they had no expectation of any given outcome. They added that the majority of their clients do not access hormone blockers or any other physical intervention. That last part was worth repeating because it suggested that the central issue of the W5 story was a manufactured controversy. Unfortunately, it – like the “allegedly in some instances” phrase in the National Post article – was overwhelmed by the rest of their reporting. Perhaps they were hoping no one noticed.
Digital archive of Notes from the Underground completed
This summer I scanned the remaining issues of the Gender Mosaic newsletter, Notes from the Underground. Unfortunately, there are missing issues from Margo’s term as editor. These are MR9, MR12, MR14, MR18, MR21 and MR22 (issue numbers are at the top left.) If any former GM member still has a few of these lying around, I’d be happy to take them off your hands.
In the meantime, here are the last issues to be scanned. I like that Margo always had an upbeat, rallying headline to each issue she edited. From vol. 2, 2000: “Power and Presence is Yours. However You Must Reach Out and Be Seen”. Vol. 4 2000 preached unity: “One Community – Respecting and Benefiting Through Our Individual Differences”. Or vol. 4 2001, “What If We Refuse to Apologise” (Right on! Unfortunately, this issue is short pages.)
Aside from the above mentioned missing issues, the digital archive of Notes from the Underground is now complete.