Saturday, May 7, 2011

Patricia J. Williams - Gender Trouble - Plus: A Whole Lot More on Transsexuality and Transgender

It's unusual to see a story about transsexuality in the mainstream media, but The Nation ran this story by Patricia J. Williams recently - specifically on transgender people as targets of harassment and assaults. She examines the ways in which transgender identities challenge our accepted gender norms.

Below this piece I am also including a couple of other articles that have been in the news recently on transgender and transsexuals.

Gender Trouble

Over the past few years, attacks on transgendered people in public places have been on the rise. In 2009 a transwoman in Queens was pelted with rocks, beer bottles and misogynistic slurs. Just weeks before in the same borough, two men used a belt buckle to beat a transwoman named Leslie Mora. In late April a widely disseminated video captured two teenage girls punching and dragging Chrissy Lee Polis from a women’s room to the front door of a Baltimore-area McDonald’s. That video, made by an employee, shows bystanders just watching, with little move to aid her.

Crimes like these often stem from simple homophobia; but they reveal a more specific discomfort with the ambiguity that transgendered people embody. The intensity of that discomfort extends to many situations that fall short of violence. Insults and isolation in housing, the workplace, gyms, schools and always, always in public bathrooms—premised on resolute gender binarism—leave transgendered people forever making the “wrong” choice. There are, for example, queasy debates at Smith and other women’s colleges about how to negotiate the presence of students who are admitted as women but graduate as men.

Transgender identities challenge us to think about the morphisms of “sex” and “gender,” “woman” and “man,” “real” and “not real.” This is a hot topic in academic circles: for example, attempting to disambiguate the notion of “identity” as a matter of legal subjectivity, when, say, a man with a heap of warrants is finally arrested—but by the time the police catch up, he has become a she, and in the name of that transformation asserts as a defense that “he” was a different person. It’s easy to dismiss this sort of discussion as funny or unimportant, but I think it’s necessary, not merely because it directly affects the lives of the transgendered but because it tests and expands the thinking of those of us who are not transgendered yet whose collective responses shape the social environment.

Take Smith. Its administration has said it welcomes trans students as part of a diverse community, but apparently not all students and alumnae agree. For some, a commitment to remaining a women’s college rests on assumptions about what a woman is as a biological matter, what gender is as a social construction and why a woman’s experience is, or is deemed to be, different from that of a man. Trans students evoke squeamishness particularly among older alums, as well as among those who come to a “single sex” school for its white-glove, ladylike connotations, or perhaps out of commitment to women’s education as a form of empowerment (Gloria Steinem went to Smith, after all). This contentious conversation scrutinizes not just the gender of individual students but overall institutional identity. The debate at Smith brought to the fore, for example, those who were unhappy to see their school’s feminine image newly shared with transmen.

The debate is difficult precisely because it feels so new—and in some ways it is. Sex reassignment technologies are so novel that the accompanying medical discourse still conflates those who have ambiguous genitalia; those whose endocrine systems are ambiguously skewed; and those whose psychology is felt to be at odds with their biology. And what about the culture of elective cosmetic surgery, or the cult of physical perfection that drives even normatively gendered people to feel “not normative enough” and so seek to become “more feminine” or “more masculine” through the wizardry of nose jobs, labial stitching, liposuction, pectoral implants and breast enhancement?

So what do we mean when we ask a pregnant person if “it” is a boy or a girl? The inquiry seems permissible only in utero. We get edgy when we don’t already know the answer when encountering a full-grown adult. Do we expand our meaning so that “woman” includes those who may have been born with uncertain genitalia but who grew up being dressed, viewed, identified as female from birth? Do we include that category of people who regarded themselves as men from the very beginning of childhood consciousness yet who, in asserting that sense of self, are not privileged with the perquisites of (white, straight) masculinity but are instead branded as freaks or frauds?

Most difficult of all, what might it mean to explode the entire category of “woman” as anything like a stable designation? What does that mean for the status of women’s colleges, women’s sports, to say nothing of the proverbial ladies’ room? After all, it’s not as though men have never been on the campuses of women’s colleges. I went to a women’s college, and “gentlemen callers” were everywhere—at meals, in seminars, in bedrooms and bathrooms, all but climbing in the windows on weekends. But those were “men” defined in a clear, binary and thoroughly heterosexual context.

To engage in gender-bending means that we are thrown into confusion with regard to everything from Title IX to the college rankings of U.S. News & World Report. Rightly or wrongly, women’s and men’s identities are still largely linked to the preservation of images of good wives in pearls and husbands in spats or, as one of the teenagers in the McDonald’s assault put it, to literally beating back competition for the affections of “my man” (or “woman,” as the case may be).

There are lessons to be mastered in all this, about principles of antidiscrimination and freedom of expression; about the complexities of perceived reputation (“I don’t want to be sneered at for still having a woman’s body,” said a Bryn Mawr student in the process of changing genders); and about institutional investments, dependent as they are on assessments of risk (Smith’s endowment managers are no doubt sweating bullets, given the power of alums as donors). Resolving these conflicts with dignity and thoughtfulness is no less important than educating and prosecuting those who use sticks and stones to beat away their terror of humanity’s infinite variability.

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This is a call for participation in a survey (for members of the trans community) being conducted by Jamison Green, Jason Cromwell, & Dallas Denny. I don't know the last two names, but Jamison Green is rather well-known author on transmen. I found the announcement at en|Gender.

The survey is open is open until June 28th - it takes about 20 minutes - please forward it to any any trans friends, family, or acquaintances.

Survey on Trans Language: 10 Years Later

Posted by – May 1, 2011

Jamison Green, Jason Cromwell & Dallas Denny did a survey on trans terminology 10 years ago to try to educate people who were writing about trans issues. It’s a whole decade later, & they thought it needed an update, so they’ve created a survey for those of us in the community to weigh in what terminology doesn’t suck and what does. Here’s their letter:


Ten years ago, we conducted a short survey of our community’s reactions to the use of descriptive terminology in the professional literature of gender identity issues. Basically, we were interested in reforming the literature so it could speak respectfully about transsexual and transgender persons. To do that, we wanted to find out which terms transsexual and transgender people liked, and which they didn’t like. The results of our study were reported at the 2001 scientific symposium of the Harry Benjamin International Gender Dysphoria Association (HBIGDA), and had an immediate impact on the hundreds of medical and social scientists who were present.

A lot has changed since 2001, and we thought it would be interesting to re-open the survey, collect new data, compare the results 10 years later with the original results, and present our analysis at the 2011 scientific symposium of the World Professional Association for Transgender Health (formerly HBIGDA) this September.

We are asking community members to rate and give us their opinions of certain terms which have been used in the literature, and some of the terms put forth by the community itself, so we can communicate the community’s opinions to the members of WPATH and (we hope) more widely in a subsequent academic publication.

There are no physical or psychological risks associated with responding to this survey, and there are no age restrictions for respondents, though we caution participants that some terms offered for your evaluation may be offensive to you or other individuals. The survey has only 8 questions (though most questions have many options to choose from) and should take less than 20 minutes to complete. Please complete it all in one sitting – if you exit the survey before you complete it, your answers will not be saved. The survey is scheduled to close June 28, 2011, so please respond soon!

If you are interested in receiving a copy of the paper which will eventually come from this, you will be given an email address at the end of the survey so you can contact the researchers separate from your responses to this survey. Any communication you initiate with us will not be associated with your survey answers, and no identifying information will be retained. We will treat your email address as confidential and will use it only for distribution of the paper to you. Your answers to the survey also will be treated confidentially, and no data reported in our analysis will be traceable to you.

Here’s the link to the survey:

Thank you VERY MUCH for participating in this survey and helping us with our research!!

With Gratitude,
Jamison Green, Jason Cromwell, & Dallas Denny

Let them know what you think. The paper will be published this fall.

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From Safe Space Radio, this show looked at being the parent of a trans child.

TransParenting, or Parenting Trans Kids

An interview with sexuality educator and mother, Sandy Lovell about parenting a trans son. Sandy shared the story of learning that her daughter was becoming a man. She described her son’s childhood and the very early ways he was drawn to play with more stereotypically masculine toys, and said he felt “in the middle” between being a boy and a girl. As a feminist mother she celebrated his gender non-conformism, although 23 years ago it had not occurred to her that he might be trans. Sandy named parental concerns for her child’s safety, his ability to find love, her grief over losing the daughter, and her struggle to accept that the transition was really necessary. Sandy also spoke movingly about how her son’s courage to be himself has inspired her to live her most authentic self, and that in many ways his transformation has been a gift to their family.

This show aired on April 13th, 2011
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Finally, a new study suggests that female-to-male transsexuals have brains more like cis males - which means they are more prone to autistic traits. This is one of the first definite biological links for transsexualism. Glad to see research beginning to support what transmen have known since early childhood - their body does not match their brains.

Rebecca M. Jones, Sally Wheelwright, Krista Farrell, Emma Martin, Richard Green, Domenico Di Ceglie, Simon Baron-Cohen. Brief Report: Female-To-Male Transsexual People and Autistic Traits. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 2011; DOI: 10.1007/s10803-011-1227-8

Female-to-Male Transsexual People Have More Autistic Traits, Study Suggests

ScienceDaily (May 5, 2011) — A new study from Cambridge University has for the first time found that female-to-male transsexual people have a higher than average number of autistic traits.

The Medical Research Council (MRC) funded study, published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, has important implications for the clinical management of biological girls with gender incongruence that persists into adulthood, and for the 'extreme male brain' theory of autism.

Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, Director of the Autism Research Centre at University of Cambridge, led the study with Rebecca Jones, now at Weill Cornell Graduate School of Medical Sciences. The team included Professor Richard Green and Dr Domenico Di Ceglie, world experts in transsexualism and gender incongruence in young people respectively, and by Emma Martin, a clinical psychotherapist and herself transsexual.

The researchers measured autistic traits using the Autism Spectrum Quotient (AQ), and compared AQ scores from five groups: 61 transmen, 198 transwomen; 76 typical males; 98 typical females; and 125 individuals with Asperger Syndrome (AS). They found transmen had a higher average AQ than typical females, typical males and transwomen, but lower than individuals with AS.

Simon Baron-Cohen interpreted the results as follows: "Girls with a higher than average number level of autistic traits tend to have male-typical interests, showing a preference for systems over emotions. They prefer not to socialise with typical girls because they have different interests, and because typical girls on average have more advanced social skills. Both of these factors may lead girls with a higher number of autistic traits to socialize with boys, to believe they have a boy's mind in a girl's body, and to attribute their unhappiness to being a girl."

Rebecca Jones added "If such girls do believe they have a boy's mind in a girl's body, their higher than average number of autistic traits may also mean they hold their beliefs very strongly, and pursue them to the logical conclusion: opting for sex reassignment surgery in adulthood."

Domenico Di Ceglie, Director of Training and Research at the Gender Identity Development Service at the Tavistock and Portman NHS Foundation Trust in London, commented: "These are important findings in the field of gender incongruence, which need to be replicated. The awareness of the presence of autistic features may help these young people to explore the reasons behind their perceptions, and help them make more informed decisions about treatment."

Emma Martin, who runs a Gender Identity Support and research group in Little Downham, UK, welcomed the new findings, and added two important caveats: "This new research reminds us that gender incongruence is incredibly complex. Every possibility should be discussed with new clients, but should not delay what can be a painfully slow process for those affected."

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