The Ranting Fangirl: Women’s Space. Some Restrictions May Apply.

The concept of women’s space is a recurring theme in trans circles: what it means, who should be included, who (if anyone) shouldn’t be included, and whether it’s okay for our allies to respect, support and/or actively participate in those women’s spaces that include some women (generally cisgender women) while excluding others (generally transgender women). I personally value inclusion, and fundamentally believe that women’s spaces should include anyone who identifies as a woman. This can get tricky where those who do not identify with the gender binary are concerned, of course, though my gut tells me that genderqueer or non-gendered people should absolutely be included in women’s spaces if they want to be. I would also extend that principle of inclusion to trans women who have not yet begun their transition or altered their outward appearance, but nevertheless identify as women, and to trans men who may still face women’s issues (i.e., sexism based on being ‘read’ as the gender they were assigned at birth, and so forth). This is because I’m basically that girl from Mean Girls who wishes she could bake a cake filled with rainbows and smiles and everyone would eat it and be happy.

But there’s always someone waiting to point out that I don’t even go there, or rather, that I don’t belong there, for one reason or another. I have been fortunate to find women’s groups and women’s spaces that were happy to include me, from my college’s student feminist club (which has undergone some name changes, I believe, since my time there; when I was a student, it was Womyn’s Action Group, and I actually helped design our t-shirt for Take Back The Night one year) to the Boston Dyke March (which is explicitly inclusive and trans-friendly) to Women in Games Boston (which welcomes male allies, so it’s not strictly women’s space, but it is safe space designed for women) to the annual ladies’ brunch/girls’ meetup at PAX East. That’s partly down to luck, and partly down to conscious efforts on my part to avoid places where I would not be welcome. I’m a bit of a coward, really. I don’t like confrontation, and I have to force myself to speak out at all – that’s partly why I retreated into ‘stealth mode’ for so long and refused to discuss my trans status at all. So, as a rule, if I’m unsure about any given group’s policies, I politely inquire as to whether or not I’m welcome, and if I’m not, I’ll generally stay away. And if everything happened in a vacuum, I suppose that would be the end of it.

Spoiler alert: nothing happens in a vacuum.

Everything comes with a bright, shiny context all its own. And so, whether it’s the recurring controversy around the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival (or MichFest), the trans-exclusive Dianic rituals held at PantheaCon in 2011 and 2012 (though it appears that there was not a similar ritual this year, or if there was, it was not listed in the program guide), or the debate over whether or not trans women should be admitted to women’s colleges, or the RadFem 2013 conference over in the UK, these issues keep cropping up again and again. Everyone, in my view, has the right to free assembly and association. Everyone should be welcome to gather in any kind of group they want. But when you exclude people, there are consequences, and there should be. And here’s why.

Trans-exclusive events should not be held in public venues. This is why I don’t really have a problem with MichFest in principle, though I do have problems with it in practice. MichFest is held on privately-owned land, and it is organized by a specific group of people with a specific intention. Their trans-exclusive policy is fairly well established and well known by now, though it was not always so. Now, because they sell admission fairly freely, MichFest may technically qualify as a public accommodation (remember that phrase, we’ll get back to it), and I do believe, as a rule, that trans people should have equal access to all public accommodations under the law. If that became national law tomorrow, then I don’t know how the festival would change, though I’m confident that the organizers could find a way to keep going with the trans-exclusive policy intact if they so desired. I’m not a lawyer, but there are lots of organizations and events that have managed to keep going despite policies that explicitly exclude an entire class of people, so I have to believe there are loopholes to spare.

On the other hand, you have Z Budapest’s rituals at PantheaCon. I am absolutely for freedom of religion, and I rarely feel the need to step into anyone else’s rituals, particularly when I’m not wanted. My own religion is, as I’ve said, a very private thing, though I do consider myself part of the pagan community and I have taken part in open rituals in the past. I do not believe, however, that it is appropriate to exclude an entire class of people from a programmed event at a convention open to a diverse population of attendees (as opposed to, say, a convention that is only open to women, trans women excluded – but I’ll get to that). I do not believe it is appropriate to advertise a ritual that celebrates women in their infinite diversity and then exclude trans people – certainly not without explicitly saying so in the event description. I would personally never do anything of the sort at a convention. I have organized events targeted at specific groups during conventions, but I have always chosen to hold them off site, and I have never sought to list them in a convention program. I could not find any similar events in the PantheaCon 2013 program offhand, and I sincerely hope that the PantheaCon community has reached a similar conclusion: attendees are free to hold private parties or rituals in their suites and invite whomever they like, but the con cannot put its stamp of approval on exclusive events. However, I have not yet had the opportunity to join the PantheaCon community (though I would like to, when money and time allows) and cannot speak to that particular matter.

As for RadFem 2013. Conventions are by their very nature exclusive events, and while I find the conference policies and the viewpoints of many of the participants repugnant, they were at least clear about their rules and their intentions. However, after assorted messages of protest, the venue they had chosen reviewed those same policies and the rhetoric surrounding them, found them troubling, and told the organizers that the conference was no longer welcome there. The venue’s operators were well within their rights to do so. We reap what we sow. The conference’s proponents have tried to claim that men’s rights activists and trans activists colluded to get them thrown out (never mind that men’s rights activists tend not to like trans people very much, either, and the feeling tends to be mutual…though I suppose that hasn’t stopped certain ugly elements of the feminist movement from working with certain ugly elements of the religious right when it suited them), but it’s fairly clear from the statement issued by the venue that the protests merely caught their interest, and it was the trans-exclusive politics surrounding RadFem 2013 that got them booted.

Trans-exclusive policies attract and encourage transphobia and naked bigotry, particularly when challenged. The rhetoric surrounding these events is absolutely repugnant. I know, or I would like to believe, that the most vocal, most obviously bigoted defenders of trans-exclusive policies are in the minority, and there’s a much more reasonable majority that simply hasn’t been moved to speak. But we don’t excuse men for their failure to stand up to misogyny, even if they themselves aren’t actively misogynistic. We don’t excuse heterosexual people for their failure to stand up to homophobia, to so much as say ‘hey, that’s not cool,’ even if they’re not throwing around slurs. And we should not exclude cisgender people for their failure to confront transphobia and naked bigotry. It is not enough to maintain an uncomfortable silence. It is not enough to believe, in your heart, that whether or not trans women belong in women’s spaces, they still deserve respect. All that is required for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing.

I have seen defenders of MichFest, RadFem 2013, and other trans-exclusive events throw slurs around like they’re snowballs on a schoolyard. I have seen them say deliberately hurtful things which not only deny the identities of trans people, but our very humanity. I have seen minor incidents like glitterbombing (immature, but ultimately harmless) or a little ink from a marker smeared on someone’s skin blown entirely out of proportion, characterized in some cases as the acts of extremists or even outright assault. I have seen trans people accused of hideous crimes with no justification. I even vividly recall one particularly horrible anti-trans bigot questioning whether a horrific car accident in which lives were lost might not have been a terrorist act committed by trans activists – a baseless accusation, to say the least, and if anyone had been explicitly named as a ‘suspect,’ it might well have qualified as libel.

When the Indigo Girls decided that this year’s MichFest would mark their final performance at the festival until the trans-exclusive policy changed, and announced that they would campaign for trans inclusion during their time on stage, they and the trans community at large were met with ugliness that still hasn’t entirely abated. This for voicing an opinion, and exercising their right to choose where they will and will not perform. Some of the rhetoric put me in mind of the controversy surrounding the Dixie Chicks when they openly criticized President George W. Bush a few years ago. There, too, artists were told that their opinions were offensive, that no one wanted to hear them. Shall the Indigo Girls shut up and sing as well?

I do not believe that going to MichFest, as an attendee or as a performer, necessarily makes anyone a transphobic bigot or a bad person. But, given the negativity surrounding the event, the ugly and sometimes terrifying rhetoric of those who defend its policies, I do look askance at those who go to MichFest without questioning or even thinking about its policy of trans exclusion. I do feel that participation in the event can be a slap in the face to the trans community. And I think the event is irrevocably tainted, at this point, by an aura of bigotry and negativity. If the policy changed tomorrow, I don’t think I’d go. I wouldn’t feel safe there.

And that aura of negativity leads me to say this, too. The Indigo Girls made, or at least announced, their decision regarding MichFest in the wake of a petition asking a number of MichFest performers to reconsider their participation in the event. One of the other artists named in the petition asked for her name to be removed because she didn’t want it affected by the negative energy surrounding the issue – but unlike the Indigo Girls, she plans to continue supporting the event. I am honoring her request to leave her name out of this, but respectfully, I think that if you want to avoid negative energy, you should avoid participating in events rooted in exclusion and surrounded by bigotry and fear.

Trans women are women. There are two arguments that those in favor of trans exclusion love to trot out when explaining why we shouldn’t be a part of women’s spaces. First, there is the privilege argument – the idea that trans women still carry male privilege, behave in typically male ways, and have not faced sexism. Second, there is the socialization argument – trans women were not raised and socialized as women, and so do not fully understand women’s experience.

The privilege argument is ridiculous on the face of it. As a trans woman, I am not a member of the boys’ club. Truthfully, I never was – even when I outwardly presented as male, I was considered a wimp, a sissy, or not really a boy in any number of ways. Certainly I never felt like one. I am viewed either as a woman or a freak. Neither position is privileged. When I began my transition and chose to present as my true self, I surrendered my male privilege, my straight privilege and my cis privilege (which, I assure you, does exist: cis people don’t have to worry about being assaulted for choosing the ‘wrong’ bathroom, for example, or losing their job if they’re ‘read’ as the gender they’re assigned at birth rather than the gender that agrees with their identity and presentation). I promise you, I’m either treated the same as any other woman, or I’m treated like shit for ‘trying’ to be one.

As for typically male behavior? Wow, that’s a fuzzy line, isn’t it? And it sure seems like I can’t win for losing. If I’m outspoken, I’m dominating the conversation, which means I’m not really a woman. If I’m quiet, shy and soft-spoken, I’m behaving according to female stereotypes, which means my gender expression is all artifice and I’m not really a woman. If I’m open about being trans, then I’m not even trying to ‘pass’ as a real woman. If I stay in stealth, then I’m a wicked, horrible deceiver. If I date men, then I’m some kind of artificial woman designed to replace real women and destroy feminism. If I date women (as I strongly prefer to do), then I’m a faux lesbian just trying to get in innocent women’s pants, and really, what is the point of this whole gender identity thing anyway, right? (Never mind that gender identity and expression are not necessarily linked to sexual orientation, or that I prefer to date bisexual women in a desperate effort to avoid offending sensibilities – it doesn’t always work, and plenty of women who identify as gay would be fine with me, but like I said, I don’t like confrontation.) I am who I am: the quiet, shy wallflower who gets really excited and talkative once she’s comfortable with you or you’ve got her on a subject she’s passionate about. The geek girl who can’t get enough baby doll tees, adores Victorian and steampunk styles, and loves to cosplay, but spends most of her days in jeans and glasses, with little to no makeup on, to the point where people express open shock when she shows up in a skirt or a sundress. The trans activist who would really prefer not to have to discuss any of these things, but feels a moral compulsion to do so. The lesbian feminist Amazon who doesn’t quite fit into everyone’s definition of any of those groups.

I don’t know if my behavior is typically male or typically female. I think the range of human personalities is so broad that you can’t really define those traits without resorting to stereotypes, and isn’t feminism about rising above stereotypes? I’m tired of walking this tightrope. No one should have to do it. I am myself. But for the record? I’m rarely read. Even with my horrible, awful voice, which I absolutely hate. So I’ve got that going for me. Which is nice.

Then there’s socialization. This much is true: most trans women were not raised as girls. This is beginning to change, to some degree, as trans children begin to reject their assigned genders at younger and younger ages, and with the help of accepting parents, begin the journey to their true selves in childhood. But I, for example, did not begin my transition until I was nearly 20 years old. I had a very strong sense of my gender identity and preferred gender expression from a young age, mind. I always preferred the company of girls. I begged my mother to let me go out for Halloween as Babs Bunny (we ultimately compromised on Buster; I remember her outright refusing to let me go out as Babs, while she, the last time we discussed it, thought I’d simply changed my mind), I was insanely jealous of my little sister’s American Girl doll (though she had Kirsten, and I wanted Samantha), I campaigned for years for a doll of my own (and eventually got a Princess Jasmine doll, just as I was growing out of them), and so on. My mother, a feminist in her own right, involved both me and my sister in baking, cleaning and various chores. I was bombarded by the same media images, and even before I had a word for what I was, I knew I wanted to be like the girls and the women, not the boys and the men. Funny thing: I never even quite got the hang of peeing standing up. I just wouldn’t or couldn’t do it. I told my mother at the age of twelve, just when I’d learned that there was such a thing as sex change operations, that I wanted one, that I thought I was meant to be a girl. (She got very quiet; later, when I asked her about it as an adult, she didn’t remember it at all, though she was very supportive when I did actually begin my transition.) And I spent night after night praying at my bedside, begging God to make me a girl.

It wasn’t a typical girl’s childhood, no. Maybe it wasn’t a typical trans woman’s childhood, not entirely. My parents resisted some things, but I was never forced into explicitly masculine pursuits, and I was encouraged to express myself. The thing is that I’m not sure I believe there’s any such thing as a typical childhood. We start in so many different places, in so many different ways. We all have different experiences. But even if we assume that there are childhood experiences that those raised as girls will always have, and those raised as boys never will…does it matter? We socialize as women now. Assuming we are accepted as women, we have to deal with many of the same issues of sexism and harassment. And where our experiences differ, we can still be allies, just as those women who have never experienced abuse can still support those who have, or those women who have never felt attracted to other women can support their lesbian friends. I still find it helpful to get away from a society dominated by straight white Christian men and seek the company of other women from time to time. In my experience, my presence does not in and of itself destroy the sanctity of women’s space. I’ve never tried to insert myself where I’m not wanted, of course. But I do feel that you get out what you put in. If you bring bigotry, fear and anger to a space we share, you’re bound to have a bad experience. If you come in the spirit of friendship and compassion, you’re likely to have a better one. I do not believe the mere presence of a trans woman is a pox upon women’s spaces, and I do believe that we need them just as badly.

At least some of this is a load of hypocritical bull. Consider, if you will, the currently ongoing exclusion of trans women from Smith College and other women’s institutions. Yes, yes, socialization, privilege, please see above. As I said, I believe that trans women can benefit from women’s spaces just as much as cis women can, and I do not believe that our presence will ruin everything and destroy feminism forever. Here’s the thing, though: many of these women’s colleges are perfectly all right with the presence of transitioning trans men on their campus. So we’re talking about institutions that exclude an entire class of women, but welcome students who explicitly identify as men. Regardless of what you think about trans women at women’s colleges, doesn’t that seem like hypocrisy?

Now, I don’t want to see trans men kicked out of school, whether or not trans women are allowed, particularly if they started their transitions during their college careers. I started my transition at the end of my freshmen year. I know how hard it can be to do that under the best of circumstances. Forcing students to drop out or transfer doesn’t feel right to me, either. But I do think that policy carries some ugly implications. It implies that biology is destiny – that it’s all that matters – which is directly contrary to the ideals of feminism. It calls trans men’s manhood into question as much as it questions trans women’s womanhood. And it feeds into the mistaken notion that trans men really are ‘still’ women, that they’re just an extreme form of butch identity or some such.

Above all else, I simply believe that students’ gender identities should be respected, and that their needs merit close consideration. It’s true that our government tends to be less than enlightened with regard to gender identity, and it’s possible that women’s institutions could face legal trouble, at least in some jurisdictions, for admitting students who were assigned male at birth. In that case, I absolutely believe the law should be changed. There should be stronger protections against discrimination on the basis of gender identity and expression nationwide, and I concede that these schools’ policies probably shouldn’t change until those protections are in place. But that change needs to happen, and those who sit idly by cannot be excused for their ignorance or their inaction.

All of this trickles down. Lastly, I’d like to talk to you about public accommodations. Public accommodations cover a wide variety of businesses and public facilities, from theaters to restaurants to restrooms. My home state, Massachusetts, passed a law some time ago which prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender identity in employment, education, and housing. This law very explicitly excludes public accommodations, and it does so thanks to rhetoric familiar to pretty much any educated trans person: the Bathroom Bill meme.

The idea behind the Bathroom Bill meme is that we as a society cannot afford to let people use the restrooms associated with their gender identity and presentation. After all, a man could just dress up as a woman, claim to be trans, and go into the ladies’ room, where he would be free to peep and install spy cameras and God knows what else! Besides, trans people should just use the toilets corresponding to their genitals. It doesn’t matter that toilets are unisex by design (urinals are not, sure, but only men’s restrooms have them and no one is required to use them), or that most public restrooms are either single occupancy (usually with locking doors) or have toilets inside stalls (also generally with locking doors). It doesn’t matter that we have laws against voyeurism and sexual assault that could be used to prosecute anyone who went into a restroom with malevolent intentions, regardless of their assigned sex or gender identity. It’s a shame, really, but think of the children. A lot of those trans people are perverts anyway.

I bring this up because it did in fact come up at a public dialogue on trans inclusion that I attended at Simmons College some years ago. One of the women in the audience stood up to proclaim that she would not be comfortable seeing a trans woman in the women’s restroom, though, when asked, she admitted that she wouldn’t feel comfortable seeing a trans man in the women’s restroom, either. While the Bathroom Bill meme is often invoked by conservative (or simply transphobic) politicians, it also comes up in the discussion surrounding women’s spaces. And, once again, we can’t win for losing. Trans people have been arrested for choosing the restrooms that agree with our gender identity, to be sure, but we’ve also been arrested for choosing the restrooms that agree with our assigned sex at birth. If I’m ‘read’ in the women’s restroom, depending on exactly where I am, I could be arrested. Or I could simply be harassed, or assaulted. If I go into the men’s restroom, on the other hand, the very best I can hope for is surprise; harassment, assault or worse could swiftly follow. The only absolutely safe choices are unisex restrooms, but not all places have them, and when they are present, they’re often intended as handicapped or family restrooms, and I don’t want to use a facility that someone else might genuinely need.

So I use the women’s restroom. Because this all comes down to unjustified fear which has been fed deliberately through naked bigotry by people who, ultimately, just don’t like trans people, and prefer to believe the absolute worst of us. Because, as bad as things could get for me in the women’s restroom, I’m quite sure they could get much, much worse in the men’s room. Because I present myself as a woman and am generally seen as such, and only rarely ‘read,’ so the risk to my personal safety is much greater in the men’s room. I’m fortunate to spend most of my time in what we call ‘protected jurisdictions’ – cities and towns where municipal laws offer greater protection to trans people, often including access to public accommodations. But there are places, even in my home state, where I could be arrested just for using the restroom where I’m not as likely to attract attention, where I’m not as likely to face harassment and violence.

That is what exclusion does. It leaves people on the outside. And the outside is a scary, horrible, dangerous place to be.

I face discrimination, naked bigotry, assault and worse every day because of my womanhood. My experiences are not always identical to those of other women. I have concerns that other women may not share, and other women have concerns that I may not share. But I think this is true of any two women you might choose to compare, not just trans women and cis women. My mother always believed in the value of community, and she taught me by example. Time and again, I saw her join with other like-minded people in common cause, whether they were feminists, homeschoolers, or activists of any kind. Our similarities are more important than our differences, and we are stronger together. There should be room in women’s space for all of us.

The Ranting Fangirl: Don’t Call Me A Tranny

I feel I should start this post off with a little housekeeping. It’s come to my attention that my blanket disclaimers to the effect that everything I say both here and on Twitter is my opinion and mine alone may no longer be quite enough. Apparently this needs to be reiterated. So let me be clear – I don’t speak for anyone but me. Highly relevant case in point: I talk about trans issues quite often, because many of those issues affect me personally, but I am well aware that I don’t speak for all trans people. I certainly don’t speak for trans men, or people who identify as genderqueer or gender-neutral. I have never been a part of the drag community, so I don’t speak for drag queens or kings (and very few of them speak for me, for that matter). I don’t speak for transvestites. I don’t speak for trans people of color, or for trans people outside of the United States of America. I don’t speak for transsexual separatists, as that particular movement repulses me on a primal, visceral level. I will never be a beauty queen, a fashion model, or generally drop-dead gorgeous, so I don’t speak for people like Jenna Talackova, Isis King or Janet Mock. At the same time, despite my horrible, awful voice which I hate with the fiery passion of a thousand suns, I somehow manage to pass most of the time, so I don’t speak for trans women who don’t pass at all. I am quite certain that I don’t even speak for all American diabetic geeky trans lesbian writers of Irish descent who pass fairly well but aren’t exactly supermodels, wear glasses, use makeup only on rare occasions, keep pink-maned unicorns and purring tribbles on their desk, and dye their hair increasingly vivid shades of red with each passing year.

I really don’t know how else to say this. Everything I say here, on Twitter, practically everywhere is my opinion. Period. It’s not me trying to speak for anyone else, even if I do think I’m in the majority on some of this stuff. It’s certainly not any attempt on my part to be some noble white knight in shining armor riding to the rescue of the defenseless. I talk about these things because they piss me off. Because they impact my life and my well-being. Because I want to live in a world that pisses me off a lot less. That’s it. My thoughts sometimes agree with high-minded ideals of what the world should be. Some people praise that. Some people think it’s bullshit. And as for me?

I’m not going to promise you nobility, wisdom, or even kindness. This is my oath: I swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, as I perceive it. I promise to offer my opinion couched in my own terms, and nothing more. I solemnly swear I am up to no good. That’s it.

So let’s talk about the latest thing that’s pissed me off.

As a writer, I am painfully aware of the power of words. This is why I prefer ‘heterosexual’ to ‘straight’ and ‘cisgender’ to ‘normal’ or ‘biologically male/female’ or ‘genetically male/female’ or whatever else. If you don’t like the words heterosexual or cisgender, or any attempt to label you as anything other than ‘normal,’ if these attempts make you feel alienated and marginalized, then perhaps you should stop and consider how the rest of us feel pretty much all the time. ‘Normal’ is a value judgment. Yes, it is also a cold, clean statistical term, but in a social context, it tends to be highly charged. More to the point: very few people are using these words as slurs. They’re using them simply as descriptors. I’m a transsexual lesbian. You’re a cisgender heterosexual man. Zie’s a genderqueer person who is generally attracted to men. And so on, almost literally ad infinitum.

Despite what your teachers or your parents told you, words can bludgeon. Words can cut. Words can wound. They can also be precursors to abuse and physical violence. As a survivor of bullying, I know this very, very well. And when these violent, horrible, threatening, demeaning, degrading words are used carelessly – even as a throwaway joke – it provokes fear. And then it provokes anger, and I think that anger is more than justified.

Here is my blunt, unvarnished opinion: cisgender people shouldn’t use the word tranny. Nor should they use shemale, or he-she, or whatever the hell else. Even if they’re ‘just’ telling a joke, it’s wrong. If they’re trying to reclaim it, well, it’s simply not their place. It is not my place as a white person to use the word n****r. It is not my place as someone who does not identify as a gay man to use the word f****t. If you’re not trans, it is not your place to use the slurs screamed at us as we’re beaten, or slapped on porn DVDs that exploit our bodies for your titillation, or turned into the punchlines of cheap jokes that rely solely on bigotry and shock value. (And I would argue that this is even true of drag performers who do not otherwise identify as trans – though they are generally grouped under the trans umbrella, there is a difference between wearing gender as a costume and actually experiencing the cognitive dissonance inherent to the trans experience. Then again, there certainly are drag queens and drag kings who also identify as trans in other respects.)

I am not, in theory, opposed to reclaiming slurs. I identify quite happily as queer (and I am indeed queer in many, many respects). I have, in the past, participated in the Boston Dyke March (though I don’t really use the word outside of that context, even when identifying myself). I’ve spoken before about my complicated relationship with the word bitch, and while I try to avoid gendered insults myself, I don’t really object to others applying it to me in a friendly or teasing sort of way. In practice…I find the slurs against trans people to be a bit too painful. I don’t think I’ll ever be comfortable with them. I’m not alone in this. The conversation around the idea of reclaiming these words is a complicated one, and it’s full of internal politics that are frankly difficult to articulate to a general audience. But despite my discomfort, I’m not really going to object trans people using these words. (Though I would look askance at trans men using words like shemale, which have generally been applied to trans women…but now we’re edging close to those internal politics.) At the same time, I am going to object, strenuously, to cisgender people trying to ‘reclaim’ these words for us. It doesn’t matter what their intentions are. I’m sorry, but when you are part of a class that has systematically oppressed and assaulted a disadvantaged community, you don’t get to arbitrarily turn the tools of that oppression into compliments or friendly jibes. Imposing a new order from the outside is just another form of oppression.

And jokes using those slurs, or relying solely on the “She’s a MAN, baby!” brand of humor? They’re not harmless. Honestly, I don’t even think they’re remotely funny. As I said on Twitter the other day, they’re basically the equivalent of a three-year-old running up to you with an incoherent joke, finishing it with “POOP!” and running off while laughing hysterically. It’s cute when you’re three. It’s less cute when you’re a middle-aged self-styled comedy writer. And most of us would punish or at least chastise that three-year-old in a heartbeat if the punchline to their joke was, say, “N****R!” Humor relies upon a certain amount of shock value. But when shock value is all you have – when, in fact, the shock value is based on assumptions about your audience that may not even be true (such as the assumption that no one there is trans, or no one there has trans loved ones, or everyone there would find sex or even casual contact with a trans person disgusting) – then your so-called humor is fundamentally flawed.

But, also, at best these jokes amount to pointing and laughing at people who aren’t like you mainly because they aren’t like you, and that makes them weird and freaky. At worst, they denigrate people for something that’s not actually wrong, not their fault, maybe not even within their control. Or they even incite violence.

Do I need to say that using these slurs to hurt people is also wrong? I’d hope not. I doubt I’m going to reach the sort of people who would hurl ‘tranny’ at someone in anger. But it’s also wrong to throw those words at people who aren’t trans, as a way of mocking them. It doesn’t necessarily denigrate them. It does denigrate us. When you say that Ann Coulter totally looks like a tranny, the unspoken conclusion is ‘…and that’s terrible’. When you accuse a female athlete of being trans, you’re saying that ‘real’ women couldn’t achieve what they have, and incidentally saying that trans women aren’t real women. And when you use hateful, emotionally charged words like tranny, shemale, etc., you are compounding the insult.

Now, I should offer a few caveats. As a writer, you can certainly write bigoted or ignorant characters – characters who do use these words – without being a bigot yourself. As an actor, you can portray characters who use bigoted language without being a bigot yourself. And not everyone who uses bigoted language or espouses bigoted views is a bad person. They may be speaking out of ignorance or confusion. Those conditions can be remedied. I was very glad to see that Bill Corbett (whose tweets inspired this rant, as well as its precursor on Twitter) has come to understand how hurtful his comments were, and has promised to do better. We’re all human. We all make mistakes. We all say stupid things and do stupid shit. You pick yourself up, you learn from your mistakes, and you try to do better. That’s all anyone can ask. If you learn that you were wrong but refuse to accept it – if you choose to stay the course, knowing the needless pain and suffering you’re causing – then, yes, you are a bad person.

There is, as Zach Weiner has pointed out, no such thing as a perfect ethical law. But my mother raised me not to hurt people if I could avoid it. Slurs hurt people needlessly. These slurs, specifically, hurt me. I’m asking you all not to use them. That really shouldn’t be a controversial request.

But then, that’s just my opinion.

The Ranting Fangirl: Survival Through Subtext

Lately I’ve been giving a great deal of thought to lesbian subtext.

Now, my friend Katie is, as we speak, rushing to the bottom of this post to insist that I’m always thinking about lesbian subtext, as well as lesbian text, lesbian picture books, lesbian cartoons, and lesbian interpretive dance. Before you go read her shameful libel, let me state categorically that this is not at all true. I spend ten percent of my time thinking about sci-fi and fantasy in general. Five percent of my time goes to thinking about my holy crap adorable niece, another five percent goes to thinking about ponies (including unicorns and pegasi), and another five goes to thinking about my cats. Three percent of my time goes to thinking about how it would be so much easier to find clothes and shoes that fit properly if my feet were three or four sizes smaller and I was six inches shorter and a few pounds lighter. And, last but far from least, two percent of my time goes to thinking about corgis and Shelties, and what I’m going to name any corgis and/or Shelties I’m able to adopt someday (Tinkerbell or Stellabella for girls; Puck, Robin or Casey for boys). So, at most, I spend 70% of my time thinking about lesbian subtext. Math.

But I’ve spent the last day or so thinking about lesbian subtext in somewhat more abstract terms, inspired by a couple articles I’ve read recently. The first, an Entertainment Weekly piece tweeted by Roger Ebert (and then retweeted by a Twitter buddy of mine), asks if Merida – the newest Disney princess, and star of the new Pixar film, Bravemight be gay. Their reasoning isn’t great; Alyssa Rosenberg of ThinkProgress takes it on here. But a lot of the people who responded to both Ebert’s tweet and the original article objected to the very idea – not only from the generally anti-gay perspectives you might expect, but from feminist perspectives as well. I can’t say I entirely disagree with the fundamental point that heterosexual women can reject traditional gender roles, too; nor do I disagree with the related point that we are not defined solely by who we’re attracted to, and saying “Well, Merida just isn’t into men at all, is she?” kind of undermines her determination to choose her own fate, no matter what that fate may be or who else it might involve. (Please note that I haven’t seen the film yet. I plan to. Soon. But I’m working from only the sketchiest details.)

And yet…

Subtext is important. At times, subtext is vital. Especially when decent text is so hard to find. It’s getting better, to be sure, but there’s still a dearth of compelling, well-rounded gay characters, particularly in children’s entertainment. Sure, Dumbledore was gay…but that was never truly relevant to the saga of Harry Potter, and it didn’t even come out until the last book was printed. And too often, even those meager scraps can be ripped away.

This brings me to the second article. Now, I should preface this by saying that I don’t watch Adventure Time. But I do follow another WordPress blog called Misprinted Pages, and today Stephanie posted a review of the Adventure Time comic book, touching on a “controversy” connected with the show in the process. Said controversy is recapped here, but in brief: about a year ago, there was an episode showcasing some “light lesbian subtext” between two female characters, Marceline and Princess Bubblegum, and the show’s creators posted an online video commenting on the episode, essentially upgrading the subtext to some kind of text, and soliciting fan art and fan responses. That video was later pulled – after an outpouring of support from the online lesbian community in particular –  for reasons that still don’t make a lot of sense. The episode is still in circulation, but heaven forbid the creators openly acknowledge  that two characters in a family cartoon might be gay for each other. (Since the same episode apparently also implies or outright states that another character has been jerking off to a lock of Princess Bubblegum’s hair, I’m not sure how gay characters would cross any lines that haven’t already been left in the dust anyway.)

I know, I know – I’m spending a lot of time talking about stuff I haven’t seen. Insert pithy comment about feeling like I’m hardly ever seen here. I’m pretty sure everyone in the GLBT community is used to this game: go through the hundred or shows on television on any given moment, cringing at the stereotypes and crass humor, bracing yourself for heartbreak whenever a decent gay, bi or trans character happens to emerge, and grasping at subtext wherever you can find it. Hoping against hope that Disney will just admit that the Mystic Force Pink Ranger is gay (short-haired tomboy whose one and only date on the show was with a girl and who openly and enthusiastically agreed with the guys that another female character was hot…come on, people), or that TNT will stop teasing us with Rizzoli & Isles, or that you weren’t just imagining that chemistry between Veronica Mars and Meg Manning. Writing fan fic about Kirk and Spock or Xena and Gabrielle (even if the latter are all but canonical).

I’m not going to say it’s okay, because it’s not. I can count on one hand the number of current TV shows with meaningful gay characters that I actually enjoy. And when it comes to stuff I’d want my future kids to watch? Stuff that would show them that, no matter who they are, there are people like them out there, and they’re beautiful and amazing just the way they are? It falls to just about zero.

I get that it’s annoying at times. I get that sometimes the reasoning isn’t great – sometimes the reasoning is actually insulting. And I guess I’m not really saying that flawed reasoning shouldn’t be challenged. But, at the same time, sometimes subtext is all we have. Sometimes subtext helps us cope. Sometimes it helps us survive. And it’s not enough. Especially not for the gay and bi and trans kids growing up now, struggling to come to terms with who they are, still developing those vital survival skills. But don’t begrudge us our icons. Don’t go telling us our subtext is wrong. Because God knows we need all the heroes we can get – textual or otherwise.

The Ranting Fangirl: Sexuality, Sacrifice and Sainthood

As I grow older and, perhaps, wiser, I am increasingly convinced that there are very few objective truths – at least when it comes to human experience. There are only our individual truths, the thoughts and feelings and experiences that change our lives in great ways and small, in good ways and bad. This is a difficult thing to accept. The world would be easier to deal with, people would be easier to deal with, if we had cold, hard, unchanging facts to guide our lives. Even I am forced to confront some uncomfortable truths at times, some stories that fly in the face of everything I think I know and everything I prefer to believe.

Case in point: this blog post that popped up on my Facebook feed the other day, posted by an old, dear friend from my childhood in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. I think I’ve mentioned before that I was raised Mormon; if I haven’t said it on this blog, then I’m sure I’ve said it on Twitter, and I know I’ve talked about it with several of my friends. I do not often go into detail about my time there, or why I left, but it’s part of who I am. It still informs some of the things I believe and some of the things I do, even though I no longer consider myself a Christian, let alone a Mormon, and even though I drink (very rarely) and swear (with moderate frequency) and am, generally, a scary liberal feminist transsexual lesbian who writes books about fairies and plays games full of vampires.

But I digress. I urge you to go and read the blog post in full, but in summary, it’s a personal account from Josh Weed, an active Mormon who identifies as gay but has been happily married to a woman for ten years. They have children, and he obviously loves his family, and his wife, very deeply, even though he feels sexually attracted to men. He makes it fairly clear that he doesn’t believe his choices are for everyone. He doesn’t claim to be ‘cured’. But nevertheless, he is happy. He doesn’t believe he’s living a lie. His wife, who knew all about this before they married, doesn’t believe that either.

My feelings about this post are complex, to say the least. There is skepticism: I firmly believe that human sexuality is a continuum, and that there are many shades of gray between gay and bi and straight. I find it difficult to believe that this is not simply a real-life example of “If It’s You, It’s Okay“. Then, too, there is worry: I worry that this will convince people that gay, lesbian, bi and trans folks can change if we just have enough faith and try real hard, and while I do believe sexuality is fluid, I also don’t believe it’s that fluid. I also worry that the post will lead young gay Mormons down a difficult and dangerous path – already, there is at least one comment from a young man who is about to go on his mission, a young man who was struggling with his own sexual attraction to men but now believes he can follow Josh’s example and fulfill Heavenly Father’s plan. Maybe he’ll succeed. Maybe he’ll fail, and hearts and homes will be broken. I hope he, and other young Mormons like him, move carefully down this difficult, treacherous path, and do a lot of soul-searching before committing to it; I fear they will not.

But I also find myself agreeing with some of what Josh has to say. This much is true: virtually every member of the QUILTBAG community is intimately, painfully familiar with choice, and with sacrifice. He and I made different choices under different circumstances. He chose to set aside his feelings and live the life the Church expected of him; I chose to leave the Church and find my own way.

He is content with his choice. That is his truth.

And I am content with my choice. This is my truth.

It was not difficult for me to leave the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, and in all honesty, my decision to embrace my true identity had very little to do with it. I may discuss that in depth some other time. In my heart, I left the Church three or four years before I even admitted to myself who and what I really was. I stopped going to services, and I began exploring other ideas. The Church doesn’t really stop thinking of you as a member just because you stop going, though – maybe you’re an inactive member, but unless you’ve faced disciplinary action or asked them formally to strike you from the records, you’re still a member.

But during my freshman year of college, everything came to a head. I had long felt like an outcast – at church, at school, just about anywhere. I was shy and quiet and preferred the company of girls. I liked playing with dolls and ponies; as I grew older and got into games like D&D, I almost always played female characters, and I was fascinated by spells and magical items that could change a character’s sex. When puberty hit, I felt wrong and I had no idea why. I begged Heavenly Father, night after night, to let me be a girl, to transform me as I slept. When that didn’t work, I begged for a peace that never came. I convinced myself that my feelings began and ended with the torment I experienced as a child – if I was a girl, I wouldn’t have been teased or beaten, right? I learned about transsexuality during my adolescence, but even after I left the Church, I denied that part of myself. I tried to convince myself that I could be happy as a man, that I could find ways of expressing myself without starting the transition. When I first started seeing a therapist at school, in fact, I was looking for a cure. A way to reconcile my feelings with the ‘truth’ of my existence. That therapist didn’t judge me, didn’t pressure me one way or another, but just by listening, she helped me realize that my feelings ran deeper than I had ever believed. That those feelings were the truth of my existence, and by denying them, I was denying myself.

I couldn’t go on that way. The pain was excruciating. I have said before that I don’t consider myself brave for making the choices I did, because these were my choices: I could embrace who I was, or I could die, probably after a short and miserable life. And while I had stopped believing in the Mormon conception of God years before, I could not – I cannot – believe in a loving God who would ask that much of me. Who would make me this way and then tell me I had to twist and squeeze and pound myself into some torturous mold. I could not take my life. I could not go on living as I was. And so I made my choice.

While I didn’t particularly care what the Church thought of me at that point, I didn’t really want them poking their noses in my life, either – so once I’d made my choice, I went to my Bishop (in Mormon parlance, that’s the leader of a Ward – an individual congregation) to start the process of formally leaving the faith. At first, quite honestly, it went well. He understood why I felt I had to leave, and even, briefly, wondered aloud if I could leave during my transition, and come back when it was done, though he quickly rejected the idea and I was too polite to tell him I really didn’t see myself coming back at all. But then things turned to shit. There was the letter the Bishop wrote to me asking me to confirm my decision to leave – and also, not-so-incidentally, asking me if I’d ever had sex with men. I rather frostily responded that I had not yet had sex with anyone, but as I was leaving anyway, I didn’t particularly feel it was his business or the Church’s. There was the family friend in the Church hierarchy who gave my mother a blessing in which, among other things, he asked Heavenly Father to help her support me – only to call her up a few days later to tell her he shouldn’t have included that bit. And, eventually, though I still haven’t heard all the details, I do know that my mother was put under tremendous pressure to choose between her status as a member of the Church and her support of my ‘lifestyle’. She chose to support me.

I don’t think I’ll ever forgive them for forcing that choice on her. But then, to my knowledge, no one involved has sought my forgiveness. So I think that’s fair.

I couldn’t have made Josh’s choice. Obviously my circumstances differ greatly. There was really no way to reconcile my gender identity with the principles and demands of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. It was not as simple as finding someone I could love, because it was never about who I was attracted to; it was a fundamental truth about my identity that burned inside me until I could take no more. But there are plenty of gay and lesbian and bisexual Mormons out there who can’t make Josh’s choice either, who can’t choose a heterosexual marriage or a life of celibacy. He seems to accept that. I’m not sure all his readers do.

But the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints adapts with the times. Change can be maddeningly slow, but it does happen. And Josh’s post is another piece of a growing conversation about Mormonism and homosexuality. I hope the conversation continues. I hope it widens to include the whole spectrum of sexual orientation and gender identity. Though I don’t think I will ever again walk in fellowship with the Church, I hope that, one day, change will come again, and QUILTBAG Mormons won’t have to choose between faith, family, love and self. More than that, I hope this widens the conversation about the nuances of human sexuality, not only among Mormons but among all of us. I hope we recognize the complexity of the matter and move past this black-and-white, nature vs. nurture, choice vs. genetics debate into a new perspective that acknowledges and embraces our diversity.

And while we’re at it, I would like an actual unicorn.

A girl can dream.