The Leap of Faith and Things We Don’t Understand

I had a really interesting discussion with one of my oldest friends about the novel, The Life of Pi, the role of faith, and the idea of accepting things that lack a means to objectively “prove” them. Without ruining the novel (it’s fantastic, and was, I believe, the first book my book club read, 4.5 years ago; the movie rendition is very good, also), a key point is that faith is not something we (only) accept because our beliefs are “right,” but far moreso, because the immediate impact of some kinds of faith is an enrichment of our lives. Faith makes our lives colorful, magic makes our lives magical, and wonderment makes our lives wonderful. To those in a Western religion, this point may seen obscure, although a close look at Christ clearly suggests that he wanted people to have joy in their lives in earth, not (just) in the joy to come. It seems more obvious in the melody of eastern thinking – “Hark! The lotus flower is blooming!” – eastern thinking is very clearly concerned with enlightenment as something from which we can benefit in each moment, a benefit we’ve been missing out on in so many of our moments. 

I have to say, Pi Patel may have been written by a white guy from Canada, but he feels like the older brother I wished I had, to look up to in the girlhood I wished I’d had

As a young Christian (my parents are Hindus, but Hinduism can be fairly giving to the idea of figuring things out for oneself… they did not really argue with or resist my interest in Christianity, driven at first by kinship with my third grade best friend, Andy, a preacher’s kid), much as I didn’t understand my gender identity, I did have an aching, eastern discomfort with the Gospel as late 20th century men preached it, which I couldn’t really explain. Now I can say simply that I am ready to accept the idea of this life as a training, as a honing. Like most people, and perhaps more than many of them, I rejoice at every victory, large and tiny, and I take pride in who I’m becoming. But what I cannot accept is the, to me, absurdist idea that this life of honing has as its ultimate purpose an afterlife in which there is no struggling, no difficulties or privations, no challenges, and no growth. The evangelist’s notion of heaven seems hell to me. I continue to believe in God, and to particularly believe that there is a deep structure* to life that links us together and provides meaning and context to our lives. But I believe most, like Pi Patel, my fictional countryman, in the enrichment faith and belief make in my every moment and every day. 

 

I’ve been told I have a mischievous smile, that makes me seem like I’m up to something (albeit something good). I am. I suppose that it’s my heritage, as my namesake, Krishna, that avatar of wisdom and the courage to make right-minded decisions, was also known to play pranks on maids. I am not big on pranks, but I do see life as a game to play at, passionately, wholeheartedly, but for the love of it.

My friend’s point in bringing up this thing was in the analogy to accepting the idea of transness in another person**. The thing about being transgender is that it’s not something we have a blood test for, or even a questionnaire or other psychological instrument that can provide a valid and reliable*** “diagnosis” for us. The old standard of care (which really policed trans women far more than trans men, and policed far more than helped) was to ignore us. Hope we’d go away, and, if after a while, we had not, deny us and tell us we’re fakers, and then keep doing this until we can prove we can be ladylike in pumps and seamed stockings. Then maybe hormones and surgeries and a modicum of acceptance****. The new standard of care is to mostly just accept the statement at face value – mostly based on the principal that, if nothing else, who would really want to screw up their life like this if they were just playing around?

The claim is leveled unfairly at broader issues in cognition and psychology. We have reliable and valid means of identifying depression, anxiety disorders, OCD, cognitive problems secondary to a variety of causes, and many other things. My autism diagnoses are valid and reliable without having to do a blood stick or needing a specific genetic marker. So it’s really not true in that broader sense, but it is true when it comes to things like sexual orientation and gender identity. Even if we wanted one, we don’t have a valid and interpretable questionnaire that would correctly identify us, either pre or post hoc.

I think one thing cisgender people don’t really consider, however, is that most of us transgender people are our own biggest skeptics. I spent 38 years trying to be a boy and trying to be a man. I tried being a gay man – it turns out I make an even more terrible gay man than I make a straight man. I thought love would cure me and made multiple lengthy attempts with straight women to try and prove this point. A lot of people, especially now, transition much younger, but had it been 28 or even 18 instead of 38… That’s still a long time thinking about this. When I first came out, I’d say, “I think I might be transgender” or something sheepish like that. Sister, please. I don’t think, I know*****. I think people get this in my story, intuitively. Which probably goes back to how binary and how feminine I am. But out of the probably 200 people, to whom I’ve come out by now, only one tried to argue the point with me. In his defense, we’d just met, and he wanted me to be his boyfriend (dearheart, I’d make a terrible boyfriend to anyone, and I can give you references if you’d like to fact check). 

Anyways, my life has become unimaginably richer in the just seven months or so it’s been since I finally accepted, on faith, this idea, which, on it’s surface, seems quite as crazy as believing in a white haired man looking down in judgment (I believe in God, for the record, but I think that conception of God is cray-cray). I’ve been told, so I don’t guess, now, by several people who knew me as a “man” and now also as a woman, that I make so much more sense to them this way, that I seem airier and now unceasingly bounce and skip through life these past months, and I see in the eyes of my friends that they are benefitting from this new faith, now (when I’m not even full time yet). The (vast) majority of these early people I’ve told have been thrilled to be “in” on the secret and to celebrate with me. 

Let’s be honest, I was made to put on a cute dress and twirl around. But it’s not the dress that gives a bounce to my step. It isn’t the heels, cute as they are. It isn’t the makeup or the earrings. The twinkle in my eye doesn’t come from the contrast increasing benefit of mascara. The lilt in my voice isn’t voice coaching******. It’s the faith that puts the spring in my step and the twinkle in my eye. The faith in me. 

* I’m appropriating this term from Noam Chomsky, because I think it fits remarkably well. Chomsky’s point, in essence, is that language cannot be understood by pure virtue of its surface features – the sounds, character shapes, and so on, because its deep structure lies in its communicating approximations of ideas that humans (and other creatures with language) understand with our brains. This explains why anthropologists and archeologists need Rosetta stones. 

** I hardly ever throw a line to my trans friends who are always looking for excuses to call people traitors, and this is no exception… I am not going into the details, which go beyond my friend’s acceptance of my own journey, but he has nothing to prove as an ally to anyone. 

*** Basically, reliable means that a test could be repeated, at least in principle, by different people at different times, and provide the same results; valid, which requires reliable, means that the test means what it claims to mean, because it can predict outcomes well, because it correlates strongly with other validated tests of the same condition, etc. Although most people don’t know it, most procedures used in most of clinical psychology are held to essentially the same standards of reliability and validity as “objective” biological tests used in medicine. 

**** Jan Morris’s story shows that the standard of care, even back then, was unevenly applied, with far better treatment to educated, affluent women like her or me. 

***** Embarrassing number of parentheticals by your shameless authoress, but I can’t resist the bubble gum comic joke. The teacher says, “Billy, what is the answer to this problem” Billy says, “What do you think it is, ma’am?” She says, “I don’t think, I know.” Billy says, “I don’t think I know, either!”

******* Now I’m just being impertinent. For the record, I am seeing a voice coach on Monday (it’s Saturday the 17th today… I write these blog posts in advance and schedule them out, and I’ll edit and add pictures later, because it seems wasteful to buy airplane WiFi to blog). I’m curious about what she has to say, but I don’t really think this is a big focus area for me, although if there are tweaks I can do, beyond what I do subconsciously and with a little iPhone app training, I’ll possibly do them. Jenny Boylan did this, though, and she felt like she mistressed (I must resort to a parenthetical to opine on my love for neologism, since a footnote within my sixth footnote in this blog would be ridiculous, even for me) it, but it felt insincere, and she stopped doing it. When I did the iPhone app, I felt kind of like this also, but anyways, we’ll see. 

Empathizing, Systemizing, Autism, and Trans People

Some of you may know that a big part of my professional life right now is tied up in the early diagnosis of, comprehensive treatment planning for, and early intensive behavioral intervention with kids with autism*. I kind of ❤ them, and I kind of ❤ their families. I am involved more peripherally and less intensively with adolescent/adult autism advocacy and services, but really it is preschoolers by whom I am surrounded on a daily basis. 

I get asked a fair amount about connections between autism and being transgender. One of the dominant pathophysiological models of autism is called the extreme male brain theory. (Some people in the autism world are fairly angry about this theory, but no one has put forward a scientific argument against it nor a better scientific model of the autism pathophysiology.) Although we don’t know exactly why it happens, this theory strongly implicates an excess of testosterone during a critical prenatal developmental period that essentially over-masculinizes the brain (and, to a limited extent, other parts of the body – surprisingly, hirsuitism has an elevated base rate in women with ASD). According to this model, whose chief developer is Simon Baron Cohen, there is a general pattern that some cognitive skills follow, which is:

F > M > Autism

… And a pattern that other cognitive skills follow, which is:

Autism > M > F

Where M is neurotypical (without autism) males, F is neurotypical females, and Autism is people of any sex with autism. As with most cognitive skills, individual differences are far larger than group differences in range, and so these are small averaged group effects (not every man or woman, NT or Autism, fits this pattern for every or even necessarily any cognitive skill, but on average, large groups of them do). The general pattern in both cases is that the autism population is at the extreme end of the male side of the curve. In the first case (where women have the advantage) these skills fall into a category Baron Cohen and others call empathizing skills. They tend to be holistic kinds of skills, like fine-grain modulation of production and detection and production of emotions and nuance, non-literal and non-verbal communicative adjuncts that “spice” language. They also include a number of skills that, at least to a neuroscientist, are related. The male advantaged skills fall into an area they call Systemizing, and they include analysis, classification, sequential task analysis, and a number of other skills.

So to start with, there’s already a theory linking autism with sex/gender. The theory explains the way in which the sex differences in autism occur both in terms of base rate and presentation (and why mild autism may go unnoticed in girls). To add to this, there has been some recent research linking people with autism and transgender people, with substantially higher rates of people identifying as transgender among people with autism than in the general population. One of the hardest things for this data to explain, however, is why there are autistic trans girls/women – if autism biases to male, it would seem there would be significantly more trans men among XX-karyotype people with autism, but significantly less trans women among XY-karyotype people with autism, because the pathophysiology of autism biases all people with autism of all sexes in the direction of at least certain kinds of masculinization.

I commented on this on a listserv recently, and a colleague kindly sent me an article I had not seen. This one looked at Baron Cohen’s Empathizing and Systemizing variables (EQ and SQ quotients for these can be derived from standardized, validated questionnaires, and a fair amount is known about the performance of various groups on these instruments). It found something interesting. In this study, adolescents who were transgender had EQ scores comparable to cisgender males. Whether they were MTF or FTM! The SQ’s were in the middle, without statistical differences from either men or women. In other words, the EQ/SQ measures did not classify trans youth in a way that concords with their self-identified gender identity, when in the group accuracy sense, it can do so for cis/NT youth.

And … this is how I experience the world, in terms of the same questions (you can take the questionnaire and obtain your scores here, although ideally it’s helpful to have an external source describe us, since they may see us very differently than we see ourselves):

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I may not be perceived exactly this way by others, but this is how I feel, not all the pretending I’ve done all my life, to try and fit in with boys and men … on the other hand, I’m a little skeptical of this idea of the Coach store as “other personality testing” … well, the targeted marketers know me well

It’s pretty much the same way that test that classifies people accurately on sex based on answers to seemingly innocuous questions came out. Both put me overwhelmingly in female territory.

One of my observations about this is that this study is in trans youth. That’s cool and helpful, because many of these kids did not go through decades of forced pretending like I did. On the other hand, generally speaking, younger samples of trans-identified people contain relatively more very binary** and relatively less binary (transsexual) people, although there are also youth who are very binary. I am, by my own admission, and no one is jumping up to disagree, also very binary. I reap lots of benefit from the fact that I made no sense as a “man” but, aside from my height, largely fit right in as a woman. I have two more observations I think might be relevant. One is that, in different contexts, I have actually met probably a fair number of trans people with autism. Of them, only one that I can think of was “very binary” in her appearance. The second is a comment a cis-ally friend made, that in reading Jenny Boylan’s book, she doesn’t hear a woman’s voice, but rather hears a transgender voice. Now, Boylan is pretty binary, and I’m skeptical of my friend’s ability to pick a “transgender” experience out of a blind lineup of male and female voices (or really even for anyone to articulate a proposed nosology for what a transgender voice sounds like). But I have to admit, while I at first pooh-poohed this idea, I wonder now.

Is there a possibility that, rather than FTM and MTF spectrums, what is going on with people who are binary transsexuals (meaning they want to transition, and more specifically to transition into an easily genderable masculine maleness or feminine femaleness) is fundamentally different and separate from what is going on with relatively less-binary people (that is, people who may or may not transition, but do not particularly desire to pass or blend, and who are not particularly seeking an easily genderable presentation)? I’m not saying anyone would be a “true” transgender person and certainly not that anyone would be a false one. I reject this whole line of nonsense that calls me some complicated non-homosexual transsexual male instead of just calling me the intuitively obvious trans woman. If this were the case, is it possible that the former category of very binary trans people would generally classify like cisgender peers who match their gender identity? And this less binary group, whose core experience may be gender role non-conformance (rather than a gender identity that is more directly “opposite” their birth-assigned sex), could in actuality have its own place on the EQ/SQ matrix (and perhaps even on some as-yet-unidentified third orthogonal plane, in which these individuals would be highly differentiated and cis males/females would not, nor would highly binary trans males/females), rather than mirroring male or female values? Like the data on the extreme male brain theory, one would also predict that, alongside gender nonconformance, these brains may be optimized, on average, to do certain things way better than the gender conforming brains many of us have. And put all together, could they, indeed, have transgender voices rather than male or female voices? 

And the final what if: what if among people with autism, this latter proposed grouping were represented at higher base rates, but the former group were not? This might explain the presence of so many trans women with autism and also draw a parallel explanation that could shed light on the experience of less binary NT trans people. It might also explain the fight between the spectrum narrative and the woman-trapped-in-a-man’s-body narrative. I have no recollection of being uncertain, ever, of where I really belonged on the masculinity-femininity continuum. I didn’t know it was possible that I could be a girl, with all the external evidence pointing against it and all the internal evidence pointing towards it. But I’ve always known I don’t have an ounce of masculinity in me. I just didn’t know how to get to womanhood without being killed or benefitting from magic or the technology of an advanced alien civilization. Without being able to experience such a world, I can also say that, for me, being allowed to dress and act like a girl but still grouped with and identified as a boy would not have been enough. The spectrum narrative doesn’t explain why, the first time I put foundation on my face (which is pretty much enough to make me look female), I knew immediately that I was seeing me for the first time. It doesn’t explain why, once I finally accepted the insane idea that I could find my womanhood, I knew exactly what it should look like, whereas I’ve never known how my supposed masculinity could look. To be indelicate, it also doesn’t explain why, when you ask many very binary trans women like me, outside of financial, safety, and outcome considerations, once we start transition, the question “do you want surgical options” this is not much of a question at all. That is, of course I do – given that it is very safe, the outcomes are generally very good, and I can afford it, it’s been a question of when and not if, ever since I decided to transition, and again, once I accepted womanhood, this has always been a foregone conclusion.

Let me stop here and take a really deep breath, because I sound like Professor Bailey from Northwestern, and the next thing you know, I’ll be doing the kind of shoddy research that is performed in gay bars and published in sexology journals. That person and others before him get caught up in trying to prove/disprove transness, as well as a host of other things (most prominently male bisexuality). I don’t care about that at all. And they are connected to traditions that gatekeep access to healthcare services to trans people (particularly access to hormones and surgery). Again, I’m firmly against that – I’m not saying less binary people should not transition, and I’m not saying they should. Actually, all I’m saying is that, while I still kind of hate calls to signal amplify, it may be really important to improving trans peoples’ quality of life to better understand the experiences of less binary trans people. And for that to happen, more of them, both autism and NT, need to tell their stories – neuroscience may also be informative, but it’s a concern that non-binary trans people are doubly marginalized, living trans in a cis world and then damned again by living less binary trans in a binary trans world.

Then, if our experiences are deeply and fundamentally different, us very binary people and less binary people, then maybe we would stop bickering over defining our supposedly common space and instead be allies and co-advocate for our common causes, while respecting each other’s right to have and celebrate their own narratives. I’m not saying I’m sure this is the right answer, but I’m curious. I’ve always thought people with and without autism have a lot to offer each other. I do think very binary and less binary people have a lot to offer each other, too. And what if transgender and autistic people were more involved in the process of trying to identify sub-types or sub-entities? Would we ask different questions based on our desire to help each other and understand ourselves, or would be just as driven to be “right” or to prove/disprove our own experiences’ validity as the sexologists are?

* With respect, I am just going to say “autism”; I mean people diagnosable with autism spectrum disorders, including Asperger’s Disorder, although my hope is that most of them are thriving and living life. I’m also bypassing the question of using the phrase “people with autism” instead of “autistic people” – I use the former because I work with children, and their parents seem to prefer it, but I understand why and respect that autistic self-advocates frequently choose the latter. Finally, I generally use neurotypical, or NT, but I celebrate neurodiversity and I do also like what some people do, which is to say autistic and say allistic for non-autistic people

** I’m making up the wording as I go, sorry, but what I want to delineate is not the difference between genderqueer/genderfluid people and transsexual-identified people, but rather between people who identify deeply with the binary and those who identify weakly with the binary, whether or not they choose hormones, transition, surgeries, and so on.

Things Change in a Moment

I had a drink with a friend the other night, at a newer brewery*. It was a really great night. Even though I got carded (I really need a new drivers license, hopefully in 3-4 months I may legally change my name, and at least have a female name and appearance on it, even if it still says “M”), but it was no big deal. They were respectful, and treated me like any other woman. No one stared at me. I not only felt comfortable with my girlfriend and our friend, but I felt comfortable in the place, chatting up waitresses and being my usual bubbly self. We had a little food, but I was watching my waist & my wallet, and I didn’t have a full dinner (I split appetizers with my girlfriend). I only had one beer, so I didn’t get drunk or even tipsy (well, I do get pretty animated after just half a drink, and at home I put plastic wrap and a rubber band over the half-empty beer bottle and save it for tomorrow, hashtag cheapest date ever). But it had been a long week at work. My girlfriend politely ignored all my nonverbal / discreet attempts to say, “Your sweetie is exhausted!!!” So I was loving the conversation, but went home a bit after I was worn out.

Then I did a stupid (albeit very small stupid, in the grand scheme of things) thing. I wanted to stop at the supermarket for a couple of things for making brekkie after sleeping in. So the supermarket that’s around the corner is the kind of place where there are semi-abandoned-by-their-parents groups of kids with bad manners roving around. Kids incidentally who are too old to be awake, let alone in the store, at that hour. Anyhow. I’ve gone in there during the day, dressed en femme, and it was cool, but this was different. These kids did some serious slack-jawed staring. Now, you should know that African American kids, especially, stare at me en homme too, maybe even more. They even ask me if I know I look just like Michael Jackson (I don’t, but I’m polite and say I get that all the time in my best southern charm) or go get their sister to show them. So I don’t even know if they were staring because they knew I was trans or because I’ve just always been something unlike anything they’d ever see before. But tired and late at night and … It really got to me. I cried and cried into my sweetie’s shoulder in bed that night. Everything can change in a moment – it had been such an affirming evening.

I get over myself pretty quickly. As I was crying, my intersectionalist nucleus** was already gently pointing out that these are poor minority kids, who are left to wander the supermarket at 11 PM, and even being trans, I sadly have a huge number of advantages over them, and in most of society outside of a supermarket at 11 PM on a Friday, I am way less marginalized than they are. By the morning. I was proud that I held my head up and got everything I needed instead of bolting out. And … honestly, I don’t feel emotionally different on estrogen, but crying in front of someone else, and for myself (as opposed to over someone else or a movie or story) is something I’ve never been able to do, so I felt really proud of myself for being able to cry in my girlfriend’s arms. And then again, I was chopping cilantro to put in the omelette and listening to country music on the SoundLink, and again, everything can change in a moment. Thank god for that.

* Excellent, incidentally – they have saganaki and sausages they light on fire, and it’s fun to let boys light stuff on fire in a safe environment, and I had a great dark cherry wheat beer. Also my girlfriend lets me make her order things I want to taste, if they look like she’ll like them too, and having been played by that one many times, I am really enjoying being on the other side of it!

** Usually, it’s called a nucleus if it’s in your central nervous system, and a ganglia if it’s outside, but the basal ganglia are an obvious exception. Anyway, I’m trying to internalize my intersectionalism here, people!

You Gotta Have Principles

newmanifesto
I love girl power, and I’m fine with most of the logos, but it’s time we have a feminism that gets back to fighting for “equality, period”

So… Rather than merely attaching myself to hooks’ intersectionalism or to Serano’s trans-feminism, to me, these are my guiding fourth wave feminist principles:

  1. Woman is born in chains, but we are everywhere making her free – to turn Rousseau’s famous quote on its head (although there are arguments that he meant closer to what I mean), rather than pretending that we are created equal, and that our differences are arbitrary constructs, we must recognize that we are born with many inequalities that give and take privilege before we even speak for ourselves and continue to operate in modified forms throughout and beyond our lives.
  2. Sex and gender are deeply rooted in the very existence of human social constructs, and the feminism that helps us will be every bit as radical as this, in an honest manner that understands what we can can and cannot change, today, about human biology. Like Serano and other scientists, and since I am a neuroscientist myself, I do reject the idea that sex/gender are purely socially constructed – although there is arbitrariness in what is perceived as masculine and feminine at a given time, that many people naturally congregate and compartmentalize behaviors into masculine and feminine, and that these are moderately to strongly correlated with karyotype, is a stable feature of humans across time and cultures, and evidence against either a purely socially constructed or a purely genetic (excluding epigenetic effects) notion of sex and gender makes both of these extremes implausible. The focus of fourth wave feminism must not be arguing with people about their gender identity or experiences, or arguing with people about the very existence of gender and sex, but must rather be on how we can use intellectual/philosophical, legal/moral, and scientific / technological innovations to create (not restore) equal playing fields, as we learn more and more about what we can and cannot change, and how we can and cannot change human beings.
  3. Only inclusion builds stronger society. We have ample evidence that segregation does not work. We must stop banging our head repeatedly against doors marked “separate but equal” when we know that this has failed us time and time again. Although she denies it, history generally credits Phyllis Schlafly with using the fright of unisex/gender inclusive bathrooms to stop the ERA, and almost 40 years later, we’re still scared enough of equality that we are frequently choosing segregation (Civil unions? Please…) when we know it is not “close enough.”
  4. The fights for every kind of freedom, for freedom from poverty, freedom from racial/ethnic marginalization, freedom from sexual oppression, freedom from unjust or inhumane incarceration, freedom from dominance by the ignorant – they are all the same fight, and every freedom fighter is our kin-in-arms, and I am in league with everyone who dreams of and yearns for the life beyond the bars. Whenever we start a conversation with “equality for xxx,” are we not implying that, even when we get what we want, some people will be equal-er than others? I’m not saying that we can’t be pragmatic, that we can’t implement equality piece-by-piece, but we have to be clear that the ultimate goal is an inclusive world that provides whatever we mean by equality (not homogenization) as something everyone can enjoy.
  5. No one ever truly became freer standing on the neck of another. Oppressing trans women will not make cis women free. Oppressing the poor does not make the rich free. Demonizing members for mere membership in the dominant ethnic minority is as wrong as demonizing someone for other factors not under their control such as their sex, race, sexual orientation, or gender identity. We are none of us safe until we are all of us safe, and we must build freedom for those who lack it without trying to destroy the freedom of others.

buddha
“And Govinda saw that this mask-like smile, this smile of unity over the flowing forms, this smile of simultaneousness over the thousands of births and deaths — this smile of Siddhartha — was exactly the same as the calm, delicate, impenetrable, perhaps gracious, perhaps mocking, wise, thousand-fold smile of Gautama, the Buddha, as he perceived it with awe a hundred times.” — From Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse

To paraphrase Steinem, the advocates of the status quo, of ignoring all of these points, and of keeping one group or another bound in chains, they will do anything to make a woman like me seem ridiculous. They will argue with me about everything, from my hemline to my mascara to my genitals, from questionable translations of the Bible to non-credible histories of the founding fathers, in short with everything but what really matters, which is freedom for my people.

Calling Out Transphobia … Less?

I think it might behoove us to pick our battles, and respond with a smile and a sense of humor, sometimes. I hope that this doesn’t make me Sheryl Sandberg, and I am not trying to make the “Lean In for Queers” point here.

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If I were doing Lean In for queers, I would tell you to man up.
I seem like the least sensible person in the universe
to be telling anyone to man up, particularly
as I continue the process of, well, manning down

I talk about misogyny, but you’ll notice that, so far, I don’t use the term transphobia much in this blog. It’s a real thing. It can make it illegal to use restrooms, deprive us of work, and in some cases, kill us. Part of being a connected queer is attacking this miasma of phobia by giving people a chance to know who we are, rather than hiding in the shadows and letting hatemongers do the public describing of us.

But, on Facebook, I found myself with … less of value to say on the whole topic of Jared Leto and Dallas Buyers’ Club (to be honest I haven’t gotten around to seeing it, but I think it’s in RedBox). I noticed I wasn’t the only trans woman with mixed feelings (Jenny Boylan, as always, brings a lovely balance of insight, perspective, and humor to this). More in my case, it’s a balance of being a person who just can’t hate anything or anyone if I see some small amount of good in them, and that I’m also a very live-and-let-live kind of woman. I don’t talk about transphobia that much on Facebook, either. Especially, I don’t talk about the million and one jokes that I find mildly distasteful, even though feminist scholars are increasingly studying some of this kind of behavior as “micro-aggression.” My point really is that we as a community are spending way too much time cataloging every micro-aggression and calling out everyone from Jesus Christ to Ellen Degeneres out for transphobia. Enough is too much. I’m not oops-shaming people who have chosen to be allies when they say something for which I don’t care. (Do ya like oops-shaming? I’ll also drop in a link to this great blog about abusing the word shaming in the women’s blogging world).

It’s not that I always find these jokes funny. When I can, I do gentle education. But, among my favorite movies, the ones where I know the lines by heart, I choose (yes, choose) to overlook humor I find mildly distasteful. Love, Actually has an unfortunate joke about hiring prostitutes for a bachelor party and how it “turned out they were men.” Music & Lyrics has a comment where the main character criticizes musicians for “wearing panties.” Because of my prism of gender experience as a trans person, I don’t care for these jokes. I still love these movies. I’ve been watching Love, Actually at least once a year for a decade now, and I don’t really ever watch movies even twice anymore. And Hugh Grant dancing is just fundamentally funny (& a little sexy).

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Hugh Grant characters are sexy, but if I ever actually had a real
relationship with a man, I would take pretty much any
character Colin Firth ever played. So there, I’m even giving him
more than the usual 300pix width, because yum

I’m also not really backing down on my principles. I still think exclusionary models of feminism are falsely radical, that they are not real feminism, because they spend more time hating out groups than empowering even the women they do accept as women. I embrace anyone’s right to identify their sexual orientation as they wish, and I think there are some people who are fluid by nature and can “choose” things like the political lesbianism of radical feminism and have it help them be more authentically “them,” but I think the way exclusionary radical feminism uses it runs the danger of being tantamount to the same controlling of women’s bodies and experiences of the patriarchy we’re all supposed to be fighting. As a trans woman in love with a lesbian cis woman, who has more lesbian friends than trans friends, I also find the idea that I hate lesbians absurdist (and you can ask my girlfriend if you want independent verification). These kinds of ideas, which mostly take their roots in third wave feminism organized around the “RadFem” identity (everyone more or less agrees whom and what was in the first two waves of feminism; whether there is a third and a fourth wave, and what constitutes what, are a little more contentious), especially when they are about controlling or excluding women, are dangerous to all women. When I first started coming out, I thought that people who spend all their time fighting “TERFs” and other exclusionary / hate-mongering people hiding under the premise of feminism, were being heroines. The truth to me, now, is that this is a waste of time, much like having debates with “creation scientists” take good people and wastes their time.

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When “feminists” spend their time arguing
about who is and isn’t a woman, and
who is and isn’t a woman worth empowering,
they need to be more radical, not less radical

We need to stand up against major acts of transphobia. Our sisters and brothers must be safe in the world. It is not okay when states try to make it a crime for us to use the restroom, or when it is open season for us to be fired because of our gender identity. And anyone who thinks I am a man (and that a trans man is, absurdly, a woman) is not an ally. But I think we need to shift the balance far, far, in the favor of publicizing strong and talented trans people, trans stories that go beyond the narrative around facial electrolysis and bottom surgery to how trans people are leading their communities, innovating, and living and loving alongside cis people. We need to do mor to help the cis world, including the cis queer world, have some idea of who and what on earth we are. Judging from all the cis people who have gotten to know me and are very loving and accepting, who enjoy my company, and don’t just include me on principle, I think this has to be a primary arm of our approach to building an inclusive world. For me, it’s simply also consistent with who I am – I am way too full of joy to spend all my time complaining.

Along the way, I may need to be held to my own standard, to not let this blog become negativistic. I did feel the need to start by clearing the air on some differences and nuances in perspective compared to other dominant views within trans and queer advocacy. But I need to spend more time being positive and lifting up, more time telling my story, and not be someone who silences her sisters. Please don’t oops-shame me, but I will accept your gentle reminders to be true to myself, and I’ll love you for it.

I Took My First Dose of Estrogen At A Laverne Cox Lecture

Mostly because it seemed like it’d make a good story. By way of background, when I started transition, I started seeing a therapist and going to a support group (through the fabulous Network) right away, but I didn’t really push for booking an endocrinology consult right away. There is someone decent here in town, but it turned out that I wouldn’t be able to see him until October. Also, he practices out of a diabetes group and trans health is not his primary calling. So, I did some digging and some emailing, and I settled on my second course of action, to seek care instead at the University of Michigan, which had the advantage of offering a comprehensive program. I don’t think speech therapy is my most pressing problem, but I’m going to get a consult from their SLP when I go back for my next appointment. Likewise I’m not sure it’s the surgical clinic I want, but still.

UMTrans
University of Michigan also maintains a great
community resource guide for trans* people

When I started support group, in hindsight somewhat foolishly, I didn’t know if I should come “en femme” the first time. I think, the second time, I wore foundation (and erm, a bra under my short trench) and went out for a drink like that after. One of the bartenders at the place we usually go to said to me, aside, when I was looking up front for someone, that he didn’t know who was what gender, but we were some of his nicest customers. After that I went to group in fairly clearly female form, and honestly, my “look” has only subtly evolved since then. Anyway, it seems in hindsight ridiculous for me to question whether it would be okay to go to a transgender support group in makeup. Mira won the same argument some four or five months later, when I had my endocrinology appointment, and I went in booties, a grey tweed skirt, white blouse, black velvet jacket (❤️ I do rather love clothes), and a faux fur bucket hat, since it was bitterly cold that day, and that hat is cuuuute. Anyway.

Endocrinology was great. The resident seemed like a nice fellow (sorry, medical joke), and the endocrinologist was excellent. They answered all my questions and got me going. Labs at the next building over confirm the testosterone in my blood (can’t wait to see the next numbers I post!). Okay, the Indian woman at the front desk, with whom I didn’t even have to communicate, really, since I got whisked back to a check in desk, was staring. I wondered if it was possibly because she hadn’t seen an Indian American trans woman, but she didn’t say anything, and she apparently stared at a trans man who came in later, and possibly also at my girlfriend (neither of whom are Indian Americans). Whatever, kind of odd, considering that a significant number of trans people come to see the doctor, and we rather pay her salary. But okay. I can tolerate staring, and I’ll be ready for her when I go back. In grad school, long before I took transition seriously, I got accused of working a room like a sorority girl, and forget you, if you think I make a timid woman.

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If you haven’t met her, Laverne is radiant. Seriously.
And when anyone preaches bell hooks, I listen.

Anyway, this was a Monday, and I took the day off to drive across the state to the appointment. Tuesday I went into work, and GVSU was hosting Ms. Cox that night – it had been on my calendar for weeks. No time to go home and change (and the place was packed; I wouldn’t have had a seat if I had). A trans woman friend yelled, “Hey, Mira!” across the room, and I had a momentary panic, but the moment passed. I had been able to stop at the pharmacy on the way there, so I brought in my pills (in a baggie with cookies from Subway!), and I got to dose next to a fellow trans person, also taking their evening dose, and surrounded by tons of my own queer friends and literally hundreds of people out to embrace and support our sister Laverne.

And, damn, did that lecture not sound like sweetest symphony on estradiol? And, as she quoted Sojourner Truth, “Ain’t I a woman?” Nice way to start a chapter in my story.

 

Trans-Inclusive Spirituality

I’ve got a blog related to this topic I’m going to post in a few days, but by way of teaser, I love H. Adam Ackley’s response to the situation with George Fox University (who?) refusing services to Jayce, a trans masculine student. Dr. Ackley gets mad props for the particular Proverbs quote he leads off with.

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I’m deeply impressed when anyone starts a
blog with a quote like that.

In case the name sounds vaguely familiar, Dr. Ackley is the same gentleman who was kicked off faculty at Azusa Pacific University for his own transness. All us academics and quasi-academics (I have a PhD but work primarily outside the Tower) need to stand up against the monstrosity. Christian or not, it is unacceptable for any university to behave in this fashion. It defiles higher education and makes us all look bad.

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To be frank, I held Azusa Pacific University in low
esteem prior to this news, but it didn’t help any

Much love to Jayce, hope you get all support you deserve, and not just a degree, but an education (won’t we all live in a better world if less people get degrees and more people get educated?). Please stay tuned, I’ve lots more to say about people who build exclusionary movements under the guise of religion.

A Coming Out Story

I feel like I would be remiss if I didn’t start this blog with a coming out story. I spent most of my childhood feeling different from other boys, wanting things that girls wanted, to do the things that girls did, but always knowing I’d get in trouble if I didn’t “act like a boy.” It only got worse as I progressed into young adulthood. I think I let myself stay overweight in part because I felt a bit like an amorphous blob, and I could be a little agendered. At least, I could stay a boy, and like Kate Bornstein, boyhood was far less scary than manhood, with which I wanted nothing to do. The odd experiences continued. My English literature friends would comment on how men and women occupy space, how they sit, how they talk, and nothing would seem to match me. I could try to act like a man, but trying felt awkward and made me loathe myself. I remember I took an online quiz, around the dawn of the web, which purported to be able to classify people’s sex based on responses to seemingly random questions. It classified all my friends correctly… I was stuck amidst the pink dots, where I felt, but not where I was perceived. I laughed and joked about it. Inside I cried a little.
 ImageOkay, so she got intersectionalism, as a cis white woman in 1970.
If only more people had been listening…
When I started thinking seriously about leaving my life in engineering and science, I took psychology classes on a whim. I had always found psychology intriguing, and I’d read a number of psychology and psychiatry classics, incluing Piaget and Freud, for fun, alongside Nietszche and feminism. But I fell asleep in psychology classes in high school, and I made my freshman roommate angry by knowing all the answers to his intro psych questions, althogh I never took college psychology. Perhaps surprising no one in hindsight, I signed up for the human sexuality class. It was good. I was hooked. But moreover, I understood now that there were transgender people. This was about 2002, and at the time, sadly, there still weren’t role models of professional trans women. I knew what I was, but from everything I could see, what I was, was a monster. Although I let myself be more androgynous, I had to suppress the idea that the underlying reason was because I was struggling to grow into the woman I needed to be, not the man. Some of this was good… I embraced fashion, and I found a niche where I could be pretty but not really argue the point of being male, which was at least an improvement. I also started dieting with a vengeance, and it went well into the land of anorexia, and although I made some great friendships with other eating disordered people, I have to admit in hindsight that the biggest drug for me was how much more feminine I felt as I lost weight, and it was the biggest barrier to getting healthy again.
I kept this inside for the next 12-13 years. Then, last year, a theatre company I support and love locally did a production of Looking for Normal. The play itself has its ups and downs. I understand a trans woman friend of mine went to see it, a different day than me, and she was heartbroken when people laughed at the main character. But, the night I went, they stood up and cheered. In my conservative city. My eyes opened to the possibility that I might not be a monster. I took to the books again, but by now, there were so many role models, chief among them Jenny Boylan. I could do this. People did this. They weren’t the serial killer on Silence of the Lambs. So I started therapy. I found a support group. In October, I came out to my therapist and then to the first friend, ever. And she accepted me. In November, I attended my first Transgender Day of Remembrance. In December, I got comfortable enough to go back to support group and start going to other safe spaces “en femme.” And then as I came out to more and more close people, another accepted me, and another, and another. In February, I came out to my parents and finished coming out to my best friends from college.
Image
I don’t do before and after pictures!
I have a lot of crossroads to journey past yet. My life is a very strange thing (and a very queer thing). In my personal life, I’m amazed that my ex-girlfriend is one of my most ardent supporters. And I’m in a new relationship, in which I’m accepted as a woman by the woman I love, and again, this adventure has already been more than I could dream of. Being in a “lesbian” relationship comes surprisingly naturally, and makes more sense already than my kind of embarrassing impersonation of a man. My professional journey is particularly complex, because I do have some small amount of local name recognition, and lots of professional contacts. So far, everyone I’ve come out to professionally has been amazing. Our Chamber of Commerce started OutPro, to help LGBTQIA+ professionals feel welcome here. I’ve even started building a whole other set of professional contacts and business relationships that exist in the queer community.
I think that this story, and the thousands or millions of coming out stories in the modern age, emphasize a new world where we can be connected queers. As we come out of the closet, we have the new opportunity to live richly connected and integrated lives. And it’s going to be amazing. Welcome to the journey, and thank you for sharing it with me.