Stripping “for the animals”

There’s a new post going around about a study claiming that sex, in fact, does not sell, and neither does violence. While, if true, this is interesting to know, it doesn’t affect my attitude toward using sexually provocative imagery in animal rights campaigns. I am opposed to using sex appeal to “sell” animal rights or veganism because I find this tactic to be demeaning to human women.

The usual response to this criticism is that a woman has the right to display her body however she wishes. I absolutely agree. I posed fully nude on numerous occasions myself, before my transition, and I have no regrets about doing so. In fact, at this time most of my nude photos are still available online in various places.

What I am asking is for people to recognize power dynamics, as this comic about empowerment versus objectification shows. When PETA features nude and semi-nude people in their campaigns, they are almost invariably thin, conventionally attractive, able-bodied, white or light-skinned cisgender women. Occasionally male and dark-skinned models are also featured, but white women’s bodies are the primary attention-grabbers. Though in this 2009 Craigslist ad they sought to hire a black model – for no pay – to strip completely nude while reading their annual “State of the Undress.” They wanted a black or mixed-race model to “have her ethnicity resemble Barack Obama’s as closely as possible.”

Anyone who doesn’t see a problem with that Craigslist ad seriously needs to check their privileges. In addition to being racist, this solicitation is emblematic of how women are treated in the mainstream animal rights movement. In this male-dominated movement, a woman’s physical appearance is more important than her voice. And it’s no surprise that when vegan messaging constantly touts health and weight loss benefits to humans – as opposed to elevating the voices of the victims – only slim, conventionally-attractive people are desired to promote veganism.

This criticism isn’t about telling women what they can or can’t do. Nor is it an attempt to be “divisive.” I will work with people from various animal rights organizations even if I don’t completely agree with their philosophies or tactics. But I will not ignore, excuse, or condone campaigns that are sexist, racist, or otherwise oppressive, whether or not people think they are effective “for the animals.” Humans are animals too, and my activism is not limited to liberating non-humans. A vegan world that continues to elevate the needs and voices of cishet white males above all other humans is no world I want to be a part of.

Celebrating black vegans

Yesterday, Aph Ko of the black vegan feminist web site Aphro-ism shared a post about reactions to her list of 100 Black Vegans. In a typical display of white fragility, commenters on the Vegan Society Facebook page denounced a list that dared to celebrate blackness as “racist.” They really couldn’t see how a movement that has repeatedly ignored and excluded black people needed a list like this, that was, as Aph Ko put it, “highlighting black people who were doing amazing work.” (In that vein, I’ve added both Aphro-ism and Sistah Vegan Project to my new Links page.)

Veganism is not a “white thing.” Black folks care about animals, the environment, and human health just as much as whites do. The media’s portrayal of black people as violent thugs who live on junk food is racist and ignorant, and contributes to the idea many whites have that blacks just aren’t interested in veganism. This sentiment also ignores the intersections of race and poverty that can make it difficult for many black people to access healthy plant-based food.

Not all of the vegans on Aph Ko’s list are animal rights supporters or activists, and some activists say that going vegan for health reasons is selfish or invalid, as veganism encompasses much more than a plant-based diet. While I advocate for total animal liberation from the perspective that non-human animals are people, not property, I also recognize that many people who initially come to veganism for health reasons go on to recognize the inherent moral worth of animals. So while I don’t normally share stories about health benefits of veganism or news about the latest vegan celebrities – regardless of race – I do not actively oppose others doing so.

Veganism is not just a rejection of violence; it is a celebration of life. And as the Ko sisters posted in another blog entry, we need to celebrate black Life, not solely focus on black deaths. And one way to celebrate black life is to tuck into some delicious vegan soul food. If you aren’t lucky enough to have a vegan soul food restaurant in your city, check out Bryant Terry‘s cookbooks and whip up some of your own!

Visibility and violence

[Image: Orange banner with “U.S. Trans Survey” in white letters, and “Available to Complete Now” in a blue box.]

This morning I completed the U.S. Trans Survey, from the National Center for Transgender Equality. This survey for trans and nonbinary people living in the U.S. had an impressive amount of detail. As today is the first day the survey is available, server response time is slow; I recommend giving yourself plenty of time to complete it. Also be aware that many of the questions are potentially triggering.

Near the end of the survey, one of the questions presented a list of issues of concern to trans people, including violence, health care, homelessness, identification documents, and so forth. The question asked to assign importance (Very/Somewhat/Not) to each of these, and then to rank the three most important from the list. As my top priorities, I chose violence, police violence, and school bullying and discrimination.

While I have been fortunate not to experience any trans-specific physical violence or overt bullying myself – yet – these issues are critical to address. Trans women of color are particularly targeted for violence. Seventeen trans women – that we know about – have been murdered in 2015, and fifteen of them were women of color. Trans actress and activist Laverne Cox has described this as a “state of emergency.” Even the mainstream Time Magazine has taken notice.

As noted by those quoted in the Time article, increased visibility of trans people has not halted the continuing problems that disproportionately affect us, including poverty, bullying, unemployment, and violence. Most of the general public still doesn’t understand trans and nonbinary people, and that ignorance can lead to overt acts of hate and fear, as well as more subtle discrimination that still has devastating and lasting effects.

Education led by trans and nonbinary people – telling our own stories – is part of what will help dispel the ignorance. That’s a large part of why I started this blog, and why I urge people to stop focusing on our body parts when talking about gender identity. Performing cisnormativity – “passing” as a cis person – should not be the determiner of acceptance for a trans person. Whether a person has a beard or breasts, whether they wear a skirt or pants, their gender identity should be accepted without question.

We cannot continue to allow cis people to define who we are, what we can have access to, and what rights we are allowed to have. Cis allies can help by honoring our names and pronouns, sharing our stories, and speaking out against cissexist language, wherever it occurs.

We must put a stop to this epidemic of violence against trans people, women in particular. Visibility is not enough.

The lives at stake

[Image: A human and a calf look into each others’ eyes.]

While I normally advocate in terms of anti-speciesism – disrupting the idea that human animals are inherently superior to non-human ones – I recognize that some people will never accept that message. They may accept welfare reform, or “cutting down on meat,” but will not accept the fundamental idea that all sentient beings are persons and should not be held as property.

Here’s the thing. No matter how you feel about non-human animals morally, if animal agriculture continues, we are not going to have a livable planet left.

Animal agriculture is the leading cause of environmental destruction. Animal farming is responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than all transportation exhaust combined. It also uses a tremendous amount of water, far more than needed for growing plants. But the environmental damage does not come just from intensive, “factory” farming. So-called “free-range” farming also takes a great toll on the ecosystem, and there literally isn’t enough land to convert all animal farming operations to free-range; it’s inherently unsustainable. The documentary film Cowspiracy lays out the facts.

It frustrates me greatly whenever anyone says that in a vegan world, there wouldn’t be enough land to grow crops for everyone, and people would starve. The exact opposite is true. People who say this seem to think that eating animals somehow does not involve growing crops, but most of the animals whose flesh we eat (as well as those raised primarily for their milk and eggs before they, too, are killed) are fed crops that were grown especially for them. Unless you are a hunter or fisher and eat only the animals you’ve killed yourself, you are almost certainly eating plant crops secondhand when you eat animal products.

Whenever you hear from “official” sources that veganism is bad for the planet or for human health, my advice is to follow the money. Capitalism provides enormous incentives for animal agriculture to continue, and not only in the USA. Hundreds of environmental activists in Brazil have been murdered for speaking out against the destruction of the rainforest by ranchers. And in the USA, environmental contamination from animal farming disproportionately affects low-income communities and people of color.

The idea that we can just “cut down on meat” to reverse this damage is too little and much too late. Would you be satisfied with a single ounce of flesh, milk, or eggs each week? The answer is not to cut down, but to cut it out entirely.

It’s far easier and less risky to tell people to take shorter showers  than to stop eating animal flesh, milk, and eggs, but this advice buries the truth. This cover-up is going to kill us all if it doesn’t stop. The lives of everyone on Earth are at stake. If you care about the future of this planet, please learn the facts and stop the killing.

Privacy and deadnaming

[Image: A glass partly filled with an amber liquid sites on an outdoor table.]

When I came to realize that I was trans, the first thing I wanted to do was change my name. I announced my name change on social media two years ago, but it took a great deal of time and expense – and a court hearing – to change my name and gender on all of my identification documents. (I still haven’t changed my birth certificate, as my home state requires surgery for that.)

During this time, I carried ID that still listed my birth-assigned gender and, as many trans people refer to it, “dead name.” Whenever I used a credit card to pay for a purchase, I had to sign that name that I no longer related to. I could deal with that; I had no choice. But what I couldn’t deal with was a clerk reading that name off of my card out loud. “Thank you, Miss Deadname. Have a nice day.”*

I knew they were just being polite. I knew they had likely been trained to do this. It did not lessen the impact. Being misgendered can feel like anything from a pinprick to a punch in the face, but it almost always hurts.

I’m writing about this now because Sam Dylan Finch blogged recently about Starbucks outing customers by reading their names off of their debit cards. On Facebook he mentioned that several former Starbucks employees told him this was company policy. I usually pay cash at cafés so I haven’t experienced this, but as mentioned above I’ve definitely been deadnamed by grocery clerks, and once by a door guard at a bar.

Reading someone’s name aloud in this manner is an invasion of privacy. And it’s not just an issue for trans people. Many cis people go by different names from what’s printed on their IDs; a nickname or a middle name, for example. Now, if a man named John Joseph Doe goes by Joe and is called John by the barista, it might just be confusing, or slightly embarrassing. But say a woman who is going through a painful divorce still has her husband’s last name on her card. Is it worth risking traumatizing her at the grocery checkout by reading that name out loud, in the interest of “politeness?”

When this sort of topic comes up, people will inevitably complain about “political correctness.” But the issue here is treating people with respect. It’s just as polite to say “Thank you, have a nice day” without sticking a “Miss Deadname” in the middle of that sentence. The consequences of offending a customer who expects a more formal form of address are minor compared to the consequences of inadvertently outing a trans person. Keep in mind that sixteen trans women of color have been murdered this year.

Respect our privacy. Ask us personally for our names and pronouns if you need to know them. Don’t just assume we all go by what’s printed on a corporate or government-issued piece of plastic.

* I should clarify that I changed my entire name, not just my first name, when I transitioned. Being referred to by my previous last name is painful for me.

Chinatown Music Festival

[Image: A four-piece band plays on an outdoor stage. Instruments include an electric guitar, a guzheng, and an upright bass.]

Today I headed back to Chinatown to take photos at another outdoor festival, the sixth annual Chinatown Music Festival.

SF Guhzeng Music Society
[Image: Two young children play guzhengs on an outdoor stage.]

SF Guhzeng music society
[Image: Two people play guzhengs on an outdoor stage.]

SF Guhzeng Music Society
[Image: A young person plays a guzheng on an outdoor stage.]

The first several performers were from the San Francisco Guzheng Music Society. The guzheng is a Chinese zither (I learned today from Wikpedia).

Creative World Music Ensemble
[Image: Three musicians perform on an outdoor stage. Instruments include a guzheng and an upright bass.]

Creative World Music Ensemble
[Image: A singer plays a hand drum while singing into a microphone on an outdoor stage. An upright bass player plays in the background.]

The next group, the Creative World Music Ensemble, also featured a guzheng. I was excited seeing this band set up when I arrived, as I hoped the upright bass meant they might play some jazz. They did not disappoint. The white percussionist also got great applause, as well as praise from the MC, for singing in Chinese.

Portsmouth Square Dance Club
[Image: Dancers perform in front of an outdoor stage, wearing red “I ♥ SF” T-shirts and black pants.]

Portsmouth Square Dance Club
[Image: Dancers perform in front of an outdoor stage, wearing red “I ♥ SF” T-shirts and black pants.]

Next up was the Portsmouth Square Dance Club. Portsmouth Square is where this event took place; these dancers practice there regularly. I recognized some of them from last month’s Dancing on Waverly festival.

Yea-Ming and the Rumours
[Image: A four-piece band performs on an outdoor stage. A banner in front of the stage reads “Chinatown Music Festival.”]

Yea-Ming and the Rumours
[Image: A guitarist sings into a microphone on an outdoor stage. An electric bass player plays in the background.]

The final set I attended for this festival was Yea-Ming and the Rumours. (Performances continued for the remainder of the afternoon.)

Glad I ventured out, even on a hot sunny day at noontime, to enjoy free music in a great city. I’ve uploaded the full set of photos to Flickr. If you like my photography, please consider supporting me on Patreon or leaving me a tip so I can continue to do shoots like this.

Nonbinary erasure

[Image: The signup page for Facebook. The words Female and Male are circled in red.]

Yesterday I read a great response from agender writer Tyler Ford to the question “Do I Have A Penis Or A Vagina?” (Spoiler: You should never ask this question of anyone.) When I went to leave a comment, MTV.com offered me the option to link to my Facebook or Twitter account, or create an account on the site. I chose the latter, and then was presented with a signup form that asked me to specify my gender: Female or Male. Highly ironic considering the author of the article is neither female nor male.

In the course of my gender transition I’ve become increasingly aware of nonbinary erasure. Some sites, like Google, have added nonbinary options, though they are usually hidden under a “More” option, or allow gender to remain unspecified. Facebook added custom gender options years ago, but in order to sign up for a new account, you still need to specify Female or Male first (as seen in the screenshot at the top of this post). Yahoo requires Male or Female to be specified at account creation as well.

Yahoo signup page[Image: The signup page for Yahoo. The words Male and Female are circled in red.]

My assumption is that this forced binary gendering is for the benefit of advertisers, whose systems probably aren’t set up to handle anything other than two genders. Considering the backlash at the idea of degendering children’s products, it seems US-Americans still believe that men and women have fundamentally different needs when it comes to shopping. And as for people who aren’t men or women, well, I guess we don’t exist.

I’ve started sending messages to customer support when I see only Male and Female options presented on a form. I’ve had mixed results thus far. Two years ago I signed up for an account with Rovio so that I could save my Angry Birds scores online. I sent this message:

Why do I need to specify my gender in order to register? My gender has nothing to do with my gameplay. And the two options given, “Male” and “Female”, are actually sexes, not genders.

Their response:

We are very sorry to hear that you are upset about our registration form. The inquiry includes gender due to marketing reasons and to ease the targeting of certain campaigns, games etc. We apologize for the inconvenience caused for you and we hope that you can still enjoy the games!

I had better luck with Wikimedia, when I contacted them after responding to a survey last year:

Hello, I just made my annual donation to Wikipedia after receiving the fundraising e-mail from Jimmy Wales, and I took the survey afterwards. On the last page I was asked to specify my gender, and the two options presented were Female and Male. Please note that Female and Male are sexes, not genders, and not everyone identifies as one of these. Please consider adding options of “Other” (with or without a fill-in box) and “Decline to State” to this question on your survey in the future.

Their response:

Thank you for your email and your support for the Wikimedia Foundation and free knowledge. Thank you also for your suggestion about the extra options for the survey. It’s a good one, and we will add it to the existing list of proposed improvements. We may have higher priorities to implement in the immediate term, but appreciate your input in making the donation process the best it can be.

I’m going to keep sending short messages like this, though I’ll probably drop the bit about male and female being sexes rather than genders, as I don’t want to confuse people too much in this setting; I just want them to be aware that nonbinary people exist. I’ll also consider not signing up for sites and services that require a binary gender to be specified. I declined to sign up for MTV.com, for example, though I did send a message to customer support first.

Another nonbinary person who has been far more active in this area is Cassian, aka on mxactivist on Tumblr. Amongst other things, they’re working to get the title Mx included on every form in the UK. That gender-neutral title is already gaining official recognition there. I’m not terribly fond of it myself, but I do hope it catches on in the US, so nonbinary people can specify a title other than Mr, Ms, Miss, or Mrs. (Justin Vivian Bond is one notable nonbinary person in the USA who goes by Mx.)

Even if you’re not nonbinary, you can help stop nonbinary erasure by sending quick e-mails to customer support like the above. And speak out whenever you hear others say that people like me don’t exist, are freaks, are “special snowflakes,” or are mentally ill (though some of us are, just as some binary people are, and there’s no shame in that). As a member of the LGBT studies task force on Wikipedia, I am constantly seeing vandalism of the Genderqueer page and others like it; vandals edit the page to say that we are all autistic teenagers on Tumblr with make-believe identities. Yes, these are trolls and their vandalism is soon reverted, but being confronted with this sentiment day after day wears a person down.

Nonbinary people are not “really” biologically male or female. What we really are is exactly what we say we are, whether that’s agender, bigender, genderqueer, genderfluid, or something else entirely. (See Genderqueer Identities for a partial list.) Nonbinary genders are not new and are not going away. It’s time that society stops erasing us and starts respecting us.

Gender neutral agenda

[Image: Two mesh bath sponges rest side by side on a blue background. The charcoal gray sponge has a tag reading “mesh sponge.” The lavender sponge has a tag reading “delicate mesh sponge.”]

Target recently announced a move to gender-neutral signage for some of their children’s products. While this is a welcome development for many parents and kids, the horrified responses from people can’t handle this kind of change are sadly predictable. One enterprising person posed as a Target representative and trolled their Facebook page, mockingly responding to and screencapping many comments from angry customers. Complaints of pandering to “political correctness” turned up frequently. Fox News, of course, also asked “Have the PC police gone too far?”

Here’s the thing. Gendering children’s products is flat-out ridiculous, and forcing children to only play with or wear “gender-appropriate” items has serious potential for harm. Trans author S. Bear Bergman has a great essay on raising his son amidst relentless gendering of everything from training toilets to prescription shampoo for lice. He and his spouse aren’t forcing their views of gender-neutrality on their son; they just want him to choose whatever makes him happy.

The idea that “pink is for girls, blue is for boys” is a recent phenomenon. I’ve seen no evidence that boys who wear pink or play with dolls turn out to be gay or trans any more than boys who wear blue and play with trucks. Clothes and toys do not have the power to change a person’s gender or sexual orientation.  And of course, the implication that turning out to be gay or trans would be a bad thing is just ugly. Trans children especially need supportive parents.

Regardless, gender has no color. Look at the charcoal gray and lavender bath sponges pictured at the top of this post. The shelf tag for the gray sponge, and the receipt when I purchased it, read “MENS.” Heaven forbid a man use the wrong color sponge to scrub his manly ass in the shower. (I bought the lavender sponge for my male spouse, for the record. I hate pastels.)

While I can’t speak for Target, I myself do have a “gender-neutral agenda,” because I think that not just children’s products but nearly all products are pointlessly gendered. Eyeglass frames for example. The last time I shopped for them, I was happy to find a store that did not use gendered labeling at all; they merely grouped the products by brand.

As for clothing, I posted yesterday about men’s versus women’s pants. Here it does make more sense to have separate clothing sections, because most adult women have wider hips than men, amongst other differences in body proportions.

But these differences are not consistent even for cis people, and are reversed for most trans men and women. And any department that is separated into “men’s” and “women’s” erases nonbinary people. For clothing you might think “just shop in the department that matches your actual sex” but this is biological determinism. Many nonbinary people do not consider themselves to be male-bodied or female-bodied. (I myself was assigned female at birth, but am agender and male.) And being nonbinary does not imply any particular clothing choice, regardless of a person’s body configuration.

My agenda is not to eliminate gender completely, but to eliminate forcing the gender binary on everything: Clothing, accessories, titles, salutations, single-occupancy restrooms,  and on and on and on. Gender-“nonconforming” people exist. Nonbinary people exist. Intersex people exist. Eliminating forced binary gendering will reflect and honor this reality, rather than erasing the real and valid identities and expressions of children and adults alike.

In the pocket

For years before my transition, I complained about women’s clothes, pants in particular. The sizing was ridiculously inconsistent, and the pockets were miniscule-to-nonexistent. But I also hated purses, so for a good twenty years I strapped a fanny pack to my waist.

Switching to men’s pants, with ample pockets and sizing by waist and inseam, was a relief. I can easily fit my wallet, keys, cell phone, and miscellaneous small items in the pockets of my jeans, cargo pants, and even dress pants. On days that I’m not going shopping and not planning to be out long, I love the freedom of walking unencumbered by bags, wearing nothing but the clothes on my back.

Recently I read an article on the gendered nature of encumbrance, which made me think more about why women are expected to carry their possessions in bags and men are not. I rarely see a man carrying a tote bag (which is part of why I switched back to wearing a backpack after my transition). Women are expected to do more of the childcare, grocery shopping (sometimes with young children in tow), and the like, so would be more likely to have diaper bags and other things for children.

In addition to the other issues the author points out (being expected to carry items for others), cosmetics may also play a factor. I remember when I was still being sent women’s clothing catalogs, I’d read descriptions of tiny purses having “just enough room for the summer essentials: A lipstick and compact.” I haven’t worn makeup in over fifteen years, so I can’t really relate to this, but I feel strongly that people of any gender should be able to wear makeup without being judged for it. And for some trans women, a careful makeup application can make the difference between having a peaceful day and being outed and violently assaulted.

The sturdiness of men’s versus women’s clothes isn’t something I had thought of much, but makes sense, sadly. I currently buy most of  my clothes from secondhand and discount stores. When I first started shopping for men’s pants, I was surprised to see a whole line of sturdy work clothes I had never seen in a women’s clothing section. People of all genders do manual labor, of course, but it isn’t considered  a “woman’s job.”

Ultimately, when it comes to gender, clothes are just clothes, and ideally shouldn’t be gendered in the first place. Three times now I’ve bought secondhand pants from the men’s section of Out of the Closet (I prefer to support them rather than Goodwill), and had them rung up as “WMNS BTMS, ” presumably because I looked like a “WMN.” The third time this happened I pointed it out, and the clerk made some excuse like “Oh it’s just whatever the cash register rings it up as.” Well, no, there was no bar code to swipe so the clerk actually did make an assumption based on my apparent gender and not the clothes. If my male spouse had approached the counter with a skirt to buy, I guarantee it wouldn’t have been rung up as “MNS BTMS,” even though my spouse is a MN (who happens to wear skirts).

In closing, because I need some comic relief nowadays, here’s a lighthearted tune from the always entertaining Jonathan Coulton, Mr. Fancy Pants. (I think I was actually at the concert where this video was recorded.)

 

On echo chambers

[Image: Black and white vanishing perspective of a wooden pier.]

Some people wonder why folks like me are so intolerant of comments questioning the impact of racism, cissexism, and other oppression, and our tactics to fight it. Why do we want to be in an “echo chamber” of people who think just like we do? Why can’t we be open to a variety of opinions? What about free speech?

First of all, freedom of speech does not apply to my personal blog, Facebook page, or any other space I control. As atheist feminist blogger Greta Christina has written, “If you don’t respect my basic right to moderate my own online spaces — don’t bother to comment in any of them.”

But more importantly, these questions, however well-intentioned, overlook the fact that I already live inside an echo chamber 24/7. I am queer, black, agender, and transsexual, and am constantly bombarded with messages that people like me are thugs, freaks, perverts, special snowflakes, and dangerous. I don’t need people to come into my space to tell me what the mainstream already wants me to hear. Nor do I need to subject myself to this dialog in group discussions.

When I post about racism, heterosexism, or cissexism,  I want to hear a resounding echo of people shouting “We’re mad as hell, and we’re not going to take it anymore.” I am not just venting, I am urging people to take action.

As someone who suffers from depression to the point that some days updating this blog is the only thing I manage to do, I do not have the energy to educate every person about these issues. Nor am I obligated to do so. That’s where true allies come in, who have the knowledge and patience to amplify the voices of the oppressed, and educate their peers from a place of privilege.

If you don’t like what I write, no one’s forcing you to read it. Post in your own space about “all lives matter” if you like. No one’s going to arrest you or beat you or murder you for doing so.

But I will not tolerate any more unsolicited opinions from my oppressors on how to be an effective activist or a “nice” person. Get out of my chamber.

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