I am currently in Baltimore awaiting the beginning of the Creating Change Conference, a massive LGBT conference where I hope to improve my skills and strategies as an activist. The conference begins with the Building An Anti-Racist Movement day-long training institute, which includes topics such as “How my ‘Whiteness’ matters: Exploring White Privilege” and “Engaging race as a Multiracial Person in the LGBT community,” both of which definitely apply to me. I am eagerly looking forward to the training institute, and I think it’s incredibly important that the LGBT movement works towards making racial privilege visible, because the differences in how heterosexism and cissexism affects queer and trans people of color are too often forgotten or glossed over.
Recently I wrote an article for the Humanist Magazine discussing the extremely high percentage of transgender women who depend on sex work–especially transgender women of color–who depend on some form to survive day-to-day. In the article, A Dangerous Groundswell: Banning Adult Classifieds Is Not a Panacea for Child Sex Trafficking, while discussing the dangers of online censorship, I also demanded that humanists, feminists, and yes, LGBT activists, place the needs and struggles of the most oppressed members of their community first:
…A transgender woman walking the streets, especially if she is black or Latina, is at an extremely high risk for violent hate crimes, and in my six months at TIP[Trans Health Information Project] I attended a funeral for one of my clients who was killed in a hit-and-run hate crime incident. Police never investigated the crime despite demands from the transgender community.
On November 17, 2011, transgender activists held a demonstration in Washington, DC, at the Metropolitan Police Department Headquarters to protest the failure of police to properly respond to a recent surge in anti-transgender hate crimes. At this point, the dereliction of the police in protecting transgender individuals from harm is hardly surprising. It is merely symptomatic of society’s larger failure to recognize how dangerous transphobia—often fueled by religious moralizing—is to individuals. I believe that humanists, atheists, feminists, anti-racist activists, and all those involved in fighting for social justice must recognize their common struggle with the transgender community and speak up when religious leaders help enforce rigid gender roles and sexual taboos that ultimately rob human beings of their inherent dignity.
The article was heavily informed by my work at the Trans Health Information Project(TIP) in Philadelphia, as well as the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, a transgender organization who does an excellent job of placing the voices of transgender women of color and sex workers first and involving members of the community directly in the leadership of their organization. I wish more LGBT organizations followed SRLP’s model, and I wish more white LGBT activists consciously engaged more in non-hierarchical, anti-racist organizing that helped amplify, rather than drown out, the voices of queer people of color:
SRLP functions as a multi-racial, inter-generational collective of people committed to a broad understanding of gender self-determination. As a collective, we recognize that it is essential to create structures that model our vision of a more just society. We believe that in the struggle for social justice too often change is perceived as a product and not a process. We seek to use a non-hierarchical structure to support work that aims to redistribute power and wealth for a more just society. We also strongly believe that our community-based structure, which maximizes community involvement, will support the sustainability of our work and the accountability of SRLP to its constituency.
In 2007 I helped organize an LGBT conference at Swarthmore College which examined the dangers of such “normalizing” discourses as the gay marriage movement. When activists demand “gay marriage” using normalizing arguments that gays/lesbians should have the same rights as “everyone else,” it white-washes the LGBT movement along with contributing to the erasure of non-normative queer and transgender identities. I personally invited Dean Spade, founder of the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, as a speaker, and he gave an amazing lecture–Building Radical Queer and Trans Movement Infrastructure in the Context of the Non-Profit Industrial Complex–which completely shattered my understanding of what “successful” LGBT organizing strategy looks like. Since that lecture I have been on a never-ending search for how to do LGBT organizing better.
I am hoping that tomorrow’s Racial Justice Institute at the Creating Change conference helps provide me with some answers. Privilege is a weapon we have to spend our entire lives learning to dis-arm. And I still have a lot to learn.
Seriously Libra, what were you thinking? It’s 2012, and the transgender community is organized. We will call you on your shit if you try to publicly ridicule us like this. And we will win.
Let’s review the events: a TV commercial featuring Libra® tampons begins airing in New Zealand on December 21, 2011. The ad depicts two women in a bathroom competitively applying mascara, lip gloss, and other modern accoutrements of femininity until the woman on the right pulls a tampon out of her purse, seemingly “proving” she is more feminine than the transgender woman to her left, who then storms out of the bathroom. Transgender activists quickly denounce Libra’s ad as “transphobic” and begin filing complaints with the company, leaving comments on Libra’s facebook page, and even popularize the Twitter hashtag #transphobictampons to mobilize opposition to the commercial. News finally starts hitting the United States on January 3rd when Libra publicly announces they are pulling the ad from the airwaves. The transgender community celebrates.
But what did we really win? And what can we learn from this? As transgender writer Valerie Keefe points out in her Huffington Post article Libra Tampons, A Little Bit of Free Advice
I suppose it’s a measure of progress that much of the trans community can manage to get exercised over what is, yes, a blatantly cissexist tampon ad…But this is more than about politics.
Yes, this is more than politics. This is about survival. If a company thinks they can get away with humiliating transgender women to get a laugh and increase sales, we have to make sure they know that transphobia isn’t funny. It’s usually traumatizing, painful and sometimes deadly. Just last April, a video recording of a transgender women severely beaten in a McDonald’s bathroom stunned and sickened the world. Bathrooms are incredibly dangerous places for transgender individuals, where gender policing, done behind closed doors, often gets the most ugly. The Sylvia Rivera Law Project helped produced a video in 2003, aptly named Toilet Training, to aid activists in advocating for safer bathroom spaces, but it still costs $75 to arrange for a public screening of the video.
Libra’s 30-second ad, on the other hand, reached millions of viewers with no cost to them. And that ad made it seem okay, even funny, to police another person’s gender in a bathroom. But it also did something else: it inadvertently gave transgender people an incredibly useful tool to teach others about transphobia. And the ad brilliantly illustrates a particularly virulent form of transphobia: trans-misogyny. Let’s start with a definition, and then the ad.
When a trans person is ridiculed or dismissed not merely for failing to live up to gender norms, but for their expressions of femaleness or femininity, they become the victims of a specific form of discrimination: trans-misogyny -Julia Serano, Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity, 2007.
Julia Serano’s book Whipping Girl changed the tone of transgender activism, and gave it a feminist vocabulary much more equipped to describe exactly why and how transgender women often face much harsher discrimination than transgender men. Serano argues that femininity itself is at the center of the issue–femininity, despite decades of feminism, continues to be viewed as weak and artificial. When transgender women embrace femininity, it calls into question the supposed superiority of masculinity. Furthermore, those feminine individuals who choose to traverse the gender divide in the direction of male-to-female are also commonly depicted as moving in the direction of artifice and performativity. Serano traces this line of reasoning through the feminist movement itself, such as the “cultural feminism” of the 1980s which celebrated a more androgynous “gender-free” aesthetic as a more enlightened form of female-ness, and post-structuralist feminist theory which often focused on drag and transgender individuals to highlight the “performative” nature of all gender. Feminism’s various strains, combined with queer theory, contributed to making transgender women who expressed femininity to be seen as “artificial” and “fake,” whereas transgender men and cisgender women who moved away from femininity were seen as “authentic” or even “subversive.” Queer cisgender women who embraced the “performative” nature of femininity were also likewise seen as “subversive,” and found their own voices within the queer/trans community through writers and speakers such as Minnie Bruce Pratt, author of S/HE, or Chloe Tamara Brushwood Rose, co-editor of the anthology Brazen Femme.
But in a world gone Gaga for over-the-top women, what does femininity even mean anymore? Do some women have a more valid claim to femininity than others–are some cisgender women just “born this way” too? Serano argues that feminism becomes self-defeating when it portrays heterosexual feminine women as being tricked or “brainwashed” by society to love makeup, dresses, fashion and other feminine traits. As she points out:
those feminists who single out women’s dress shoes, clothing, and hairstyles to artificialize necessarily leave unchallenged the notion that their masculine counterparts are ‘natural’ and ‘practical.’ This is the same male-centered approach that allows the appearances and behaviors of men who wish to charm or impress others to seem ‘authentic’ while the reciprocal traits expressed by women are dismissed as ‘feminine wiles’…male centricism purposely sets up femininity as masculinity’s ‘straw man’ or ‘scapegoat.’
Substitute “whipping girl” for “scapegoat” and you have the central argument of Serano’s book: as long as our current understanding of femininity remains unchallenged, transgender women will bear the brunt of both sexism and cissexism (“the belief that transsexual genders are less legitimate than, and mere imitations of, non-transsexual genders”). Before throwing more vocabulary at you, let’s return to the Libra® tampon ad:
Much of the criticism of the ad has focused on how menstruation doesn’t define a woman. However, remarkably little attention has been given to the contrasting feminine presentations of the two women in the ad. Both women are depicted putting makeup on, but there seems to be a clear distinction between their two styles. The cisgender woman on the right seems demonstrative of a more “natural” femininity, one that only needs a little bit of makeup to accentuate. The transgender woman, meanwhile, furtively glances over at her to learn how to “perform” femininity better, and then exaggerates the femininity of her competitor such as through her huge dabs of mascara. This is a clear jab at the “performative” nature of transgender femininity, and helps lead the viewer to the punchline where the woman on the right is able to completely invalidate her competitor’s femininity by producing a tampon. But is there really anything more “natural” about the makeup of the tampon-wielding woman? Isn’t such a distinction inherently dubious? As Shona McCombes explains in her post “In Defence of Fake Beauty” on the UK feminist blog the F-Word:
‘Natural’ beauty slyly requires us to use just enough makeup, spending just enough money and putting in just enough effort to convince people there was never any money or effort or makeup involved…To talk about natural beauty is to naturalise a specific form of beauty, and naturalisation is always a process of privileging and exclusion.
Which brings us back to Serano. In addition to “cissexism,” Serano identifies three distinct ways in which transgender women are marginalized by society, all of which are rooted in our societal processes of privileging certain genders, and excluding individuals from expressing their gender in certain ways. These three forms of oppression are: 1)traditional sexism 2)oppositional sexism, and 3)effemimania. Let’s take a look at some more ads to see how these concepts play out in popular culture; I’ve paraphrased Julia Serano’s definitions from her book and website
the idea that femininity and femaleness is inferior to masculinity and maleness i.e. gender hierarchy:
2) Oppositional Sexism
the idea that male and female are distinct, essential categories, i.e. binary gender roles:
Our societal obsession with critiquing and belittling feminine traits in men and transgender women,
i.e. the idea that “male femininity” is more disturbing, pathological, and potentially threatening to society than “female masculinity”
Put 1)traditional sexism, 2)oppositional sexism, and 3) effemimania together, and you get 4) trans-misogyny. Libra’s tampon ad is a great example. Let’s review it one final time, image courtesy of blogger Hormonal Trans Rex, and an alternate definition for trans-misogyny, again from Julia Serano:
Sexism that specifically targets those on the trans female/trans feminine spectrums…It accounts for why Male-to-Female spectrum trans people tend to be more regularly demonized and ridiculed than their Female-to-Male spectrum counterparts, and why trans women face certain forms of sexualization and misogyny that are rarely (if ever) applied to non-trans women
Oh wait, Libra, you didn’t realize that transgender women wear pads while recovering from surgery? Thanks for showing the world what a trans-misogynist asshole you are. And please, for the rest of the world, stop asking transgender women about “the surgery,” because you might not like the answer.
I love Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival. I just wish it loved me back as much as roller derby does.
Both Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival–or Michfest–and the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA) represent two of the most successful feminist attempts to build women-centered communities. They are massive social experiments that combine a DIY ethos with a non-profit business structure that have brought thousands of women together to celebrate something they love. And both have generated heated debates around the topic of transgender women’s inclusion in women’s spaces, which I, as a transgender rollergirl who attended MichFest in both 2010 and 2011, have found myself in the middle of for the last several years.
MichFest is part of my personal origin story, central to the mythos of my gender identity. My experience standing up for the right of transgender women to be able to attend MichFest, a campaign that I have been a part of ever since attending Camp Trans in 2006, has shaped my understanding of what it means to be a woman, and the importance of women-only space. Being part of Camp Trans in 2006 and 2008 also shattered any pre-conceived notions I had of essentialized, binary gender, and helped me understand my queer gender identity. Through Camp Trans, I befriended hundreds of transgender individuals from every corner of the U.S. and Canada. These friends gave me the inspiration and courage to be the person I am today–an activist, a woman, a transgender individual, and a rollergirl.
I would not have had the strength and courage to stand up for transgender inclusion within the DC Rollergirls and within WFTDA if it wasn’t for all the amazing transgender activists who have stood up for transgender inclusion at MichFest, a struggle that has spanned several decades and involved countless transgender advocates and their allies.
But before I write more about that struggle, let me first begin by saying that I love MichFest for it’s own sake, as one of the greatest achievements of lesbian-feminism, a living embodiment of the ideology espoused by feminist and lesbian pioneers including Adrienne Rich and Audre Lorde. MichFest, founded in 1976, and held yearly ever since, is a living artifact of the organized resistance to what Adrienne Rich famously described as “compulsory heterosexuality,” a playground where Sapphic desire and Goddess-centered feminist “woo” is the norm, and heterosexuality and patriarchy often feels like a distant dream. It is an example of an attempt to build a self-sufficient community with something other than “the master’s tools”–including replacing patriarchal language such as “woman/women” and “history” with words like “womon/womyn” and “herstory”–where women run everything from the kitchen to the medical center. The fact that it still draws thousands of women every year, including amazing female musicians and performers, is a testament to it’s enduring success.
The debate around Transgender Inclusion at MichFest is centered around their so-called “womyn-born-womyn” policy, where womyn-born-womyn is a code word for “not a trans woman.” This policy–or “guideline” as it’s now being referred to by MichFest co-founder Lisa Vogel–is based on an essentialized understanding of gender that claims that women of non-transgender experience(cisgender women) have a more valid claim to “womanhood” than women of transgender experience do. Lisa Vogel, who owns the land MichFest is held on, has made it very clear since 2006 that while transgender women will not be denied entry to the festival, their presence is not welcome and that by entering, they are “not respecting the boundaries” of womyn-born-womyn. More openly transphobic womyn-born-womyn often use the analogy of rape, claiming that transgender women violently exert male privilege simply by entering MichFest, violating cisgender women there by their mere presence. This line of reasoning can be traced back to the infamously transphobic book The Transsexual Empire by Janice Raymond, which is one of the most unfortunate products of lesbian-feminism.
The implementation of the wbw policy in 1979, was a time when radfem lesbian separatists were carving out space for themselves and completely throwing off all reliance on men, financially, emotionally and politically. In the fervor, lesbians also began excluding trans women from their spaces claiming they were men infiltrating the burgeoning lesbian movement as a patriarchal attempt to disrupt. It’s a beautiful history marred by this legacy. –rebeccasf
The debate over who should be included in MichFest helped give birth to another weeklong annual event–Camp Trans– that began in the mid-1990’s as a protest of Michfest’s “womyn-born-womyn” policy, but at this point has become it’s own unique celebration of transgender identity. Camp Trans is located on public land a short walk from MichFest, and except for 2011, has always been held the same week as MichFest. Organizers of Camp Trans have often been some of the hardest-working advocates for transgender women’s inclusion at MichFest. Every year on the first day of MichFest, Camp Trans organizers walk up and down the line of hundreds of cars waiting to get into MichFest, to tell attendees about the problems with the womyn-born-womyn policy, and hand out pro-transgender flyers, t-shirts, armbands,and/or buttons to transgender allies. I was at Camp Trans in 2006 when organizer Lorrraine Donaldson was sold a ticket to the 31st annual Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival and became the first “out” trans woman to openly attend MichFest, accompanied by the “yellow armbands,” transgender allies within MichFest, and Camp Trans issued a press release celebrating victory. However, despite our hopes, this event did not lead to a reversal of MichFest’s exclusionary “womyn-born-womyn” policy, and was met with a harsh response, including a letter from MichFest co-founder Lisa Vogel.
Yet Camp Trans is not just a center for organizing to end MichFest’s womyn-born-womyn policy, it is a camp with it’s own rich history as a celebration of transgender and genderqueer identity. Gender-variant individuals from all over the world come to Camp Trans to be surrounded in a gender-free zone for a week, where you quickly learn NEVER to assume someone’s pronoun or gender without asking them first. It’s a beautiful celebration in a safe space created by transgender people and their allies, and like MichFest, it has it’s own performers, workshops, and fun activities lasting an entire week. It is completely volunteer-run, and unlike MichFest, attendance is free–although donations are requested to keep the camp going. Camp Trans 2006 was the first time I felt completely comfortable as a transgender woman, and everyone respected my gender identity and called me by my preferred name and pronouns even though I had yet to begin hormone-replacement therapy and spent most the time in workout clothes. It’s also the first time someone described me as a “sporty dyke,”–I was obsessed with capoeira angola then–and I still consider myself a “sporty dyke” today, even if my sport now is roller derby. Camp Trans 2008 was a year of celebration for me, which included punk-rock karaoke in the woods–I sang the Cure’s “Friday I’m in Love,” and my girlfriend at the time sang the Sex Pistols’ “Pretty Vacant.” Many of my best friends, and even future roommates, I met through the extended Camp Trans community–two former roommates are in the photo below from Camp Trans 2009:
For the last few years there has also been a pro-transgender inclusion camp inside MichFest known as Trans Womyn Belong Here (TWBH), which is distinct from Camp Trans, but allied with Camp Trans’ original mission: opening MichFest to transgender women. In 2010 I attended MichFest as a solo camper, and kept my transgender history largely secret, although I did meet a few folks from TWBH. In 2011, I camped in the middle of the TWBH camp at MichFest, and was much more out and open about my transgender identity, including leading an official workshop at MichFest for transgender allies called “Transgender Ally Toolkit.” More on my experiences attending MichFest coming soon in future posts…
But to return to 2006, that year I entered a book collection contest at my college with a collection of over 50 books on transgender and lesbian history, culture and identity. I annotated all the books and wrote an essay to tie them all together, and ended up winning third place in the A. Edward Newton Book Collection contest. The essay I wrote told the story of Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, Camp Trans and the “genderqueer revolution” of the 1990s. The collection included books and articles by Kate Bornstein, Leslie Feinberg, Riki Wilchins, Dean Spade, Patrick Califia, Jack Halberstam, and more. It also told the story of the birth of lesbian-feminism, and included books by Adrienne Rich, Marilyn Hacker, Audre Lorde, and Alison Bechdel. As a reward for winning third place, I was given a cash prize, but more importantly, was able to display all the books in the library collection for a month, and give a speech about my collection. I still have all the books, plus dozens more, including zines such as “Transexual Fury,” which I picked up from Camp Trans in 2006 (below). If you click on the image you get the full comic, which includes superheros from Camp Trans and MichFest helping each other out:
In tribute to MichFest and Camp Trans, a subject I’m sure to come back to in future posts, I wanted to highlight here some excellent essays, articles and websites central to the MichFest transgender inclusion debate. For anyone new to this subject, and without 50 or more books on feminism, queer history and transgender theory on hand, the Transgender Studies Reader, edited by Susan Stryker and Stephen Whittle, is the perfect place to start. Even better, as I found out tonight, much of the book’s contents is available online here.
Key blog posts on recent events from MichFest and Camp Trans (2010 and 2011):
Critiques of transphobia within lesbian-feminism and transgender exclusion in women’s spaces:
Two essays that really shaped how I understand my own “queer” gender as being outside of both male and female:
MUTILATING GENDER by Dean Spade
It’s been this way since Christmas day/ dazzled, doused in gin
Christmas Eve reminds me why I hate alcohol. My father and sister are getting giddy with alcohol and even one drink (a dark & stormy, my favorite) plunges me deeper into the darker recesses of my mind. I retreat to a back room in the house and drown out Christmas music with one of my favorite albums, Placebo’s Black Market Music. It fits my mood exactly: dark, glooming, cynical, spiteful, even hateful.
At the time they cut me free/ I was brimming with defiance
As I start writing, memories of Christmas past come bubbling to the surface, haunting me. But the ghosts in my family are not Dickensian messengers rattling chains for a quick fright before delivering a heavy-handed moral. No, the story here is still being written, and I struggle every day to decipher the meaning.
I wrote this novel just for you/ It sounds pretentious, but it’s true
In my high school years, writing about my family was simpler, much more black and white. I had a small community on LiveJournal where I could bitch and moan about how fucked-up my family was, and everyone would share their own stories and commiserate. Every night when my father came home I’d be braced for a shouting match, and there was broken glass in my kitchen at least once a week,wine glasses smashed to prove just how pissed off he was that dinner wasn’t prepared on time. The memory of my father cheating on my mom with his secretary was still fresh, as was his admission to me that “one day you’ll understand.” And then there were the nights that he ripped up my homework in some sick power-play to prove that he could destroy even my academic success-although I still graduated with straight-A’s anyways.
Problems with the booze/ nothing left to lose
It was easy then to dismiss my father as a hopeless alcoholic, a lost soul whose once-bright future had long ago been swallowed up by his thankless job as a tax accountant. I pitied him, but hated him more. Then came college, where I finally had freedom to explore my identity and didn’t have to come home to arguing every night. My relationship with my parents grew more complex as I learned to overcome hatred through endless therapy appointments and discussions about family with other members of my college’s LGBT group.
It seems/ a place for us to dream
I learned to express myself through poetry, and was published in my college’s various literary magazines. After examining my own deep-seated anxiety around relationships, I ended up identifying as polyamorous, pansexual, and transgender. Even though I cycled through relationships pretty quickly at first, I was having fun, and was building lasting friendships. But my father’s words when he cheated on my mom–that “one day I’d understand”–occasionally nagged at me.
Run away from all your boredom/ run away from all your whoredom
Holidays were the one time I could no longer run from my father, although at first I hid the person I’d become. One Thanksgiving shortly after I had begun hormone-replacement therapy, my father and mother began discussing my lack of facial hair–wondering out loud when I’d finally “grow into a man,” and how my father had gotten facial hair late too. I made a $10 bet with my father that I’d never grow facial hair, and my father called me a “fool,” but matched my bet. I’ve never collected the money.
I’ll go fighting nail and teeth/ you’ve never seen such perseverance
That Christmas things got much uglier though–over a bowl of oatmeal. In one of my father’s classic power-plays, he refused to let me eat my own breakfast because I had refused to eat the quiche everyone else was eating (even though I’m allergic to dairy and eggs). When I tried to walk the oatmeal into the next room, he physically barred my path. When I tried to keep walking he shoved me backwards. When I tried again, he grabbed the oatmeal and smashed the bowl in the sink. A shouting match ensued, which turned into a shoving match, and then suddenly, my sister and mother were trying to separate me from my father who now had a black eye and a bleeding lip.
Gonna make you scared of me/ cause hemoglobin is the key
Suddenly, the tables had turned–my father had the black eye, and not me. I was shocked, but also proud. No one had to call the cops on my father for being violent, because I had stood up for myself. I wasn’t scared of him anymore. Instead, I was scared of myself.
As they drag me to my feet/ I was filled with incoherence
This story doesn’t have a conclusion. This year’s Christmas story is still being written, and I’ve repeatedly been asked to re-join my family, and Black Market Music has looped more than once, so I’ll leave you with a song and one final lyric.
I’m forever black-eyed/ product of a broken home
I can appreciate a girl in a uniform too…and not just other rollergirls. This is the best Christmas present I could possibly ask for. A beautiful and true story of two female Navy Petty Officers taking part in a U.S. Navy tradition: the first kiss when a boat comes ashore. Don’t Ask Don’t Tell–an incredibly harmful policy that I’m glad is gone. This is a time to celebrate:
“Petty Officer 2nd Class Marissa Gaeta of Placerville, Calif., descended from the USS Oak Hill amphibious landing ship and shared a quick kiss in the rain with her partner, Petty Officer 3rd Class Citlalic Snell of Los Angeles…Navy officials said it was the first time on record that a same-sex couple was chosen to kiss first upon a ship’s return.”
And one of them fought pirates too. I think my heart just skipped a beat:
“Snell is based on the USS Bainbridge, the guided missile destroyer that helped rescue cargo captain Richard Phillips from Somali pirates in 2009.”
Photo by Associated Press, full story from Huffington Post Gay Voices here: Marissa Gaeta And Citlalic Snell, U.S. Naval Petty Officers, Share First Same-Sex Kiss At Ship’s Return
Edit: I originally posted “two lesbian officers” which was quickly corrected by an old friend who graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy–Petty Officer is an enlisted rank, not an officer. The generic term would be “sailors.” Plus there’s nothing in the article that says that both women identify as “lesbian.”
I’ve perhaps always been particularly fascinated by the U.S. Navy because I was taught to sail at a young age by my father. He at one point sincerely hoped I might end up a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, and I’ve visited it multiple times. Not the right career choice for me–especially as a pacifist who engages in anti-war activism–, but I was taught to respect the Navy from a very young age.
How do you distill the views of a writer as prolific, as controversial, and as influential as Christopher Hitchens into a sentence? I’ve been struggling for over a week to put together a coherent post to commemorate the atheist firebrand, struggling to reconcile how Hitch influenced my own feminist and interfaith-inspired “atheist activism” with the anti-religious and anti-Muslim bigotry exemplified by so many others who consider themselves to be “atheist activists.”
Yet meanwhile, the crack team at Urban Dictionary has already written their own tribute to Hitch, in the form of a one-sentence definition for the word hitchling. The definition, devoid of the sexual innuendo and raunchy humour typical of the site, is a genuinely flattering tribute to the infamous intellectual. Apparently a hitchling is:
a child void of religious indoctrination who is encouraged to read broadly and to seek the truth unapologetically (In memoriam of Christopher Hitchens)
Going strictly by the definition, I honestly wouldn’t mind raising a child as a hitchling. Can anyone really argue with encouraging a child to seek a well-rounded education and to be willing to question anything, including organized religion? As an atheist, I have no desire to instill religious indoctrination on a child, and aren’t all children born atheists anyways?
Christopher Hitchens even left for posterity a reading list of suggested books for raising hitchlings, thanks to the inquisitive mind of an eight-year old girl named Mason Crumpacker. That list, along with the charming story of how Mason asked Hitch for the list in front of an entire atheist convention, is available at the blog Why Evolution is True.
Yet the list Hitch provided to the young woman is startlingly devoid of female writers with one exception–Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the former Muslim turned conservative darling, thanks to her harsh critiques of Islam in Infidel and Nomad: From Islam to America: A Personal Journey Through the Clash of Civilizations. There’s no other feminist voices to inspire and teach a young woman to be confident and strong in her own abilities, and no texts by genderqueer or transgender individuals who dared to question one of society’s most dangerous “truths” by simply existing–the “truth” of gender. Instead Hitch left us with a list of great white men–Chaucer, Shakespeare, Hume, Dickens, etc.–names I certainly would recommend as well, but a list of names wholly lacking in diversity.
I’m not really surprised. In the dubiously titled video “Christopher Hitchens versus Feminism,” Hitch offers his thoughts on gender roles and parenting, smugly suggesting that women are called “the gentler sex for a reason,” and that “they shouldn’t work if they don’t have to.” His slyly hidden smile suggests that he’s playing the audience for laughs, and it’s unclear if he has any agenda other than to humiliate his female questioner. Just watch the video and ask yourself: could Hitch ever raise a hitchling? Is Hitch really a good role model for someone who can question the truth unapologetically? Or was Hitch more obsessed with appearing clever than engaging in serious questions about gender and gender roles?
My fiveonfive article on playing roller derby as a transgender woman is now available online as FiveOnFive Sneak Peek: Transgender Policies: My Story
Ever since the article came out in print, I’ve had an overwhelmingly positive response from both fellow rollergirls and my many friends in the LGBT community. And when Derby Life made the article available online last weekend, encouraging comments starting pouring in through facebook, twitter, email, text messaging and on Derby Life itself from longtime friends, new friends, as well as acquaintances I hadn’t heard from in years.
The response has included the requisite “I had no idea [you were trans]!” from a few friends, which has generally been well-meaning but has also been a source of anxiety. The first DC Rollergirls practice I showed up after my article made it online was a rather stressful ordeal where I kept analyzing every glance from other rollergirls, wondering to myself what had changed–were my tiny hips now under more scrutiny than before? What about my breasts? My butt? My ass? What about my skating stance? How many people were having an “aha!” moment were they felt they had “figured out” why my skating stance was so unique–my hunched-over stance has been compared to a spider, a pterodactyl, and yes, men’s derby players on multiple occasions.
The anxiety continued at practice the next day, and really only broke this morning after I re-read a poem that my lover, a genderqueer individual like myself, had sent to me two months ago. After kissing her goodbye as she left to catch a plane to see her family for Christmas, I found the poem hanging near her stove, and read it out loud. The poem, How To Make Love to A Trans Person, by Gabe Moses, really captures what it’s been like to come to terms with my body as a post-operative transgender individual (who also identifies as genderqueer), and what it’s been like to find love and acceptance despite all the pain, anxiety, and misunderstanding. I’m re-posting it here in part, although the full version is available at the blog Genderqueer Chicago:
When you peel layers of clothing from his skin
Do not act as though you are changing dressings on a trauma patient
Even though it’s highly likely that you are.
Do not ask if she’s “had the surgery.”
Do not tell him that the needlepoint bruises on his thighs look like they hurt
If you are being offered a body
That has already been laid upon an altar of surgical steel
A sacrifice to whatever gods govern bodies
That come with some assembly required
Whatever you do,
Do not say that the carefully sculpted landscape
Bordered by rocky ridges of scar tissue
Looks almost natural.
Realize that bodies are only a fraction of who we are
They’re just oddly-shaped vessels for hearts
And honestly, they can barely contain us
We strain at their seams with every breath we take
We are all pulse and sweat,
Tissue and nerve ending
We are programmed to grope and fumble until we get it right.
Bodies have been learning each other forever.
It’s what bodies do.
They are grab bags of parts
And half the fun is figuring out
All the different ways we can fit them together;
All the different uses for hipbones and hands,
Tongues and teeth;
All the ways to car-crash our bodies beautiful.
But we could never forget how to use our hearts
Even if we tried.
That’s the important part.
Don’t worry about the bodies.
They’ve got this.