Tag Archives: trans

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.

Sometimes you’re just a jelly donut

[Image: Frosted donuts in an open box.]

Today’s Everyday Feminism article by Sam Dylan Finch on coming out as non-binary reminded me of a story I wrote shortly after my own coming out, two years ago. It’s a political allegory that expresses my frustration at being non-binary in a binary world. I was hoping the story would get more attention so that someone might illustrate it; I released it under a free Creative Commons license for that purpose. I’m re-posting it here; hopefully it will now reach more people and at least be entertaining!

Sometimes you’re just a jelly donut: A nonbinary gender political allegory

by Pax Ahimsa Gethen

Happy birthday! You just turned 18 years old, and are happily walking to the city hall of your small town to register to vote for the first time. You have have done a lot of research and thought a lot about your values and beliefs, and have decided that you want to join the Jelly Donut party, dedicated to providing free delicious jelly donuts for everyone to enjoy.

You arrive at the registration office and are greeted by an officer. They smile and say “Hello, citizen! I see you are here to register to vote. As you are wearing a red shirt, clearly you are in the Strawberry Shortcake party. Here is your registration form.”

You frown. “I’m wearing a red shirt because I like the color red,” you explain. “But I do not want to join the Strawberry Shortcake party. I want to join the Jelly Donut party.”

Now the elections official frowns. “Citizen, I’ve known your parents since you were in diapers. You were raised to be a Strawberry Shortcake. You haven’t shown any evidence of wanting to be in the Peach Cobbler party.”

“I said Jelly Donut, not Peach Cobbler,” you say with some exasperation. “I have nothing against either Strawberry Shortcake or Peach Cobbler, and it’s true I like the color red and have eaten plenty of strawberry shortcake in my time. But I have been reading about the Jelly Donut party and decided I really like what they have to say and want to identify myself as one of them, for the promotion and consumption of delicious jelly donuts.”

“Citizen,” the officer says sternly, “The Jelly Donut party is on the fringe, it is illegitimate. Registering with them would be throwing your vote away. In this town we do not offer a registration form for third parties. You must choose to be in either the Strawberry Shortcake or the Peach Cobbler party. Though for the life of me I cannot understand why you would want to be a Peach Cobbler when you are so clearly a Strawberry Shortcake.”

“Look,” you yell, now really angry, “I don’t care what you think I look like, I don’t want to be a Strawberry Shortcake OR a Peach Cobbler. If you won’t let me register as a Jelly Donut, then I don’t want to pick a political party at all. But I still want to register to vote. Can I just register as nonpartisan?”

“No,” says the officer, “You must choose. Everyone in this town is either a Shortcake or a Cobbler. We are a tolerant town and are split pretty evenly between the two, and many folks don’t insist that one choice is inherently better than the other. But you can’t be in-between or something else. If you insist that despite your appearance and upbringing you are really a Cobbler, not a Shortcake, then I can change your registration, but first you’ll have to put on a yellow shirt.”

“What?!?” you cry. “I have no problem with peach cobbler, in fact I get along quite well with Cobblers, but I really hate the color yellow. What does that color have to do with Peach Cobbler anyway? Even if I wanted to register as a Cobbler, couldn’t I do that and still wear red?”

“That would be highly unusual and improper,” says the officer. “You would have difficulty attending Cobbler meetings wearing red, and would always have to explain yourself. Why can’t you just accept that you are a Shortcake?”

“I’m not a Shortcake. I’m not a Cobbler,” you insist. “I’m a Jelly Donut. And I know there are others out there like me. Some are Chocolate Chip Cookies, some are Gingerbread, and yes, some do not belong to any party at all. But we should ALL have the right to vote, and wear what we please.”

“Then citizen,” sighs the officer, “This is not the town for you. I suggest you move somewhere where you think these fringe people and parties you speak of actually exist. Good luck.”

You stare at the officer, pull your shirt over your head and throw it to the floor, then walk out of the building.

We just need to pee

[Image: A restroom sign showing the stick figure of a person wearing a skirt and the word MEN underneath.]

This morning I jammed a one inch long needle into my thigh. I’ve done this every other week for over a year now, to inject the testosterone I need to stay healthy and sane. As many times as I’ve done this procedure, I still get nervous and my heart races, every time.

But that nervousness is nothing compared to how I often feel when entering a men’s restroom. I made the decision that when I began testosterone therapy last January, I would no longer use women’s restrooms. Since last July I’ve had identification that shows I’m legally male, but that’s not enough for conservatives and TERFs who would still bar me from men’s facilities on the grounds that I’m “biologically female.”

The bathroom police are calling for bounties on trans people for using restrooms that do not correspond with our birth-assigned sexes. In some cases they are actually resorting to chromosomes as the test of one’s “true” sex, which, as I’ve pointed out, is patently ridiculous and discriminatory, however they plan to verify this information.

While the primary targets of this bathroom policing are trans women and girls, trans men and boys are also hurt by these arbitrary policies. This high school student is being told he can’t use the boy’s restroom because he was “born female.” What exactly is the school administration afraid of? Do they really think the cis boys using the restroom are at risk from this child? Do they not recognize the harm of forcing him to use the girl’s room, where he does not belong, or a unisex restroom, where he suffers the stigma of being separated out from his peers?

A bathroom selfie campaign that went viral, #WeJustNeedToPee, showed the ridiculousness of forcing a bearded trans man to use a woman’s restroom. But the important thing is that there’s no particular way a trans man, woman, or nonbinary person should look to “confirm” their gender, and our outward presentation should not dictate which facilities we are allowed to use. Trans women in particular are often policed for looking “too femme” if they wear makeup, dresses, and heels, but if they wear a T-shirt and jeans like many cis women do, they often aren’t seen as womanly enough to be granted access to women’s spaces.

I was especially nervous using a public restroom yesterday because of the way I was dressed. It was over 80 degrees out, so I wore a light gray V-neck T-shirt with nothing underneath. It was a fairly loose shirt (and a “men’s” style), but my breasts were still visible underneath. I decided that I would rather put up with potential stares and misgendering than suffer from heatstroke.

As I approached the restroom, another person headed in, making eye contact with me before doing so. I pretended to check my phone while waiting for him to come out, hoping he wouldn’t take long. After he exited, I waited another minute and then went in, did my business and got out as fast as possible.

I don’t like having to think every day about what I’m wearing, where I’m going, how long I’ll be out, what kinds of people will be in the space, whether there will be a unisex restroom, and if not, whether the men’s room will have a stall with a functional door lock. I didn’t have to think about these things before my transition, and I shouldn’t have to now. I’m not in there to spy on anyone, I’m there to pee and get out. Neither my breasts, nor my vulva and vagina, nor my uterus and ovaries, nor my chromosomes are relevant when I’m in a restroom. The only body part that’s relevant is my bladder, and my need to empty it.

If you want to help stop the bathroom policing, please speak out against it whenever you read or hear about these policies. Consider signing this pledge by the Transgender Law Center. Some other things you can do in your school or workplace:

  • Ensure that everyone can use men’s and women’s restrooms without being asked for identification or otherwise harassed.
  • If you have no unisex restrooms, lobby to create one. (But don’t force trans people to use it instead of gendered facilities.)
  • If you have single-occupancy restrooms that are gendered, lobby to make them unisex.

And for the love of whatever you believe in, please stop referring to “biological sex.”

Please help stop bathroom policing. We all just need to pee.

Women’s spaces are for women

[Image: Trans actress and activist Laverne Cox, standing outdoors and speaking into a microphone.]

Today’s Everyday Feminism article about the closing of the transmisogynistic MichFest has brought out TERF commenters in force. Some self-proclaimed feminists really don’t see a problem with equating “woman” to “assigned female at birth,” and excluding trans women from so called “women-born-women” spaces.

First of all, no one is born a woman (or a girl, or a boy/man). We are all born babies, and assigned a sex of female or male at birth based on arbitrary physical characteristics. They are arbitrary because no single sex characteristic, or group of characteristics, are shared by all females or males, and because intersex people exist.

Second, some cis women do not have menstrual cycles or other common aspects of female-assigned reproductive systems. So assuming that all “women-born-women” have any unique physical attributes to bond over is factually false.

Third, having “lived experience” as a coercively-assigned member of a gender does not define one’s gender. I’ve read many stories from trans women who were terribly bullied before transition, constantly being told they weren’t “manly enough,” and suffering for not being able to live authentically. They may have appeared to be men to the outside observer, but they were still women (or girls), and did not have male privilege. Trans women are absolutely as oppressed by sexism as cis women are, whether or not they have physically or socially transitioned.

Cis women who exclude trans women from their events while welcoming trans men are reinforcing biological essentialism, and trans men as well as women should be speaking out about this. Trans men are men, and men do not belong in women’s-only spaces. Women organizing spaces for only “people with uteruses” or some other such exclusionary category should  make it clear that’s what they’re doing.

Trans men who identify as women when it’s convenient to do so are trying to have it both ways. (I’m speaking here of binary trans men who are living as men full-time, not bigender or genderfluid people who were assigned female.) If a trans man needs access to a woman’s clinic for medical purposes that’s one thing, but to participate in a group that treats trans men as if they were “men-lite,” or, worse, a group that excludes trans women on the grounds that they aren’t real women, is to my mind inexcusable. Dr. Cary Gabriel Costello, an intersex trans professor who is married to a trans woman, wrote about this in an article about trans men at women’s colleges.

Speaking for myself as an agender trans male, despite (or more accurately because of) having lived as a girl/woman for over 40 years, I have no interest in being in women’s-only spaces, whether they include trans women or not. My discomfort in being in such spaces was a good part of the clue that I was trans. Even before my transition, I generally avoided gender-segregated events, but found myself happiest when interacting with bisexual or gay men. I wouldn’t want to be in a men’s-only space that was geared toward straight men, but I’d still prefer that to a women’s-only space if those were my only choices. I’m male for legal and medical purposes, and I don’t belong in a space designated for females.

Having a uterus and ovaries doesn’t make me feel any bond of “sisterhood” with other AFAB people. I truly detested having a menstrual cycle, and never had the slightest interest in getting pregnant. It’s now been a full year since my last period, and I am very happy to consign that part of my life to history, permanently, as long as I’m able to get uninterrupted access to testosterone. If I felt the need to talk about my female-assigned reproductive system in a group setting, it would be with other transmasculine folks, not women.

But that’s just me. My point is that you can’t assume a common bond with people based on their anatomy – whether at birth or post-puberty – or their “lived experience.” Trans-exclusionary feminism is hurtful to all women, cis and trans, and trans men should not be perpetuating this biological essentialism.

Beards and bullying

Harnaam Kaur is a woman with a beard.

Alex Drummond is a woman with a beard.

What do they have in common, besides having copious facial hair?

  • They are both women.
  • They both live in the UK.
  • They have both been bullied.
  • They both deserve to have their gender identities respected.

Facial hair seems to be the last bastion of “manhood.” In many places, cis women can wear pants or neckties, have short hair, abstain from makeup or jewelry, or present in any number of other “masculine” or “androgynous” ways, and still be accepted as women without question. But dare to grow a beard, and suddenly you’ve crossed that line, because everyone knows that only men have beards.

Except that isn’t true, and has never been. As I posted yesterday, cis women with PCOS can grow full beards; Harnaam Kaur is one example. She kept her beard because shaving and hair removal treatments damaged her skin, and also because of her Sikh religion, which forbids cutting or shaving hair. She’s endured quite a bit of bullying for this.

Even female-assigned people without this condition often grow some facial hair. You just don’t usually see this, as women are socialized to remove all traces of it. I found this out in my 30s, when I began to grow some sparse hair on my upper lip and chin.  I’d been diagnosed with PCOS when I was younger, but after losing weight, all other symptoms of that condition disappeared. The chin hairs didn’t appear until years later. I shaved them as it looked odd to have hair growing from just one part of my face.

After a year and half on testosterone, I have a lot more facial hair but I still shave regularly, as it’s coming in very unevenly (much to my impatience). I do actually want to grow a beard and mustache, not because I love facial hair (I can take it or leave it) but because it will hopefully cut down on the number of times I’m called “ma’am” or “miss”.

However, I wouldn’t grow a beard if I hated facial hair. The pressure to conform to gendered expectations regarding appearance really bothers me, which is why I felt happy reading Alex Drummond’s story of why she decided to keep her beard and not opt for hormones or surgery. From the sound of her story she actually got bullied more before her transition, when she was living as a man. She is now living authentically, and doesn’t need to subject her body to procedures she does not want in order to “confirm” her gender.

It’s not just women (trans and cis) who are pressured to have a naked face; nonbinary people are too. Some people think being agender means having no visible sex characteristics, including breasts and facial hair, or even body hair. For some people, especially many who identify as neutrois, that might be true. But as I’ve discussed in my entries about being agender, male, and transsexual, it’s not true for me.

My sex is not neutral, it’s male. I personally don’t want to look like Peter Pan or a prepubescent child.  I started on testosterone therapy ready to accept whatever physical changes came with my second puberty. This so far has included growing additional body and facial hair, as well as developing male pattern baldness (my hairline is already receding). I’m fine with all of this.

Two nonbinary people I admire who wear varying amounts of facial hair are Tyler Ford (agender), who I wrote about in my article on agender fashion, and Jacob Tobia (genderqueer), who I found in the New York Times Transgender Today gallery, where I was also published. Tyler wrote about navigating the streets of New York as a queer agender person of color, deciding based on their schedule for the day whether or not they should shave, what they should wear, and which gendered restroom was safest for them to use. Jacob spoke about self-acceptance as a genderqueer person wearing both a beard and lipstick:

While I celebrate those who are able to live their authentic selves, I recognize that privilege comes into play. Harnaam Kaur and Tyler Ford, people of color, likely suffer more bullying and harassment for their presentation than Alex Drummond or Jacob Tobia. We cannot ignore the intersections of race, class, and gender. It is simply not safe in many places for everyone to “just be themselves.”

I hope that as more people transcend the artificial boundaries of gender expression, more of us will be able to live safe, happy, authentic lives.

Don’t know much biology

[Image: A honeybee perches on a red flowering plant with waxy leaves.]

Don’t know much about history
Don’t know much biology
Don’t know much about a science book…

When it comes to talking about people’s bodies, there are certain words and phrases I would like to see stricken from the dialogue. When we say that someone is “biologically,” “physically,” “anatomically,” or “genetically” male or female, or that they are male or female “bodied”, we are reducing their identity to physical attributes that have little to no bearing on how most people live in 21st century human society.

Reducing a person to their reproductive organs under the guise of “biological reality” conveniently overlooks the reality that many cis people do not reproduce. Whether through choice, chance, or infertility, a cis woman who does not become pregnant is still a woman. A cis man who does not impregnate anyone is still a man. Even the most reactionary, anti-birth-control person would not likely question this. So why is it relevant, to anyone other than a doctor or potential partner, whether a person has a uterus and ovaries or testicles?

The same goes for penises and vulvas (the latter is what most laypeople are actually referring to when they say “vagina”). Under most everyday conditions, these body parts are well-hidden. Many trans women and nonbinary people who have penises are terrified of anyone seeing that part of their body in a women’s restroom or locker room. They are at far more risk of violence in those situations than the cis women who conservatives and TERFs falsely claim trans women are preying on. There have been no studies proving otherwise. And the same goes for trans men and nonbinary people with vulvas, as I can attest to from the fear I still feel whenever entering a men’s restroom, a year and a half into my physical transition.

Describing someone as “male-bodied” or “female-bodied” based on secondary sex characteristics is even more problematic. As I discussed in an earlier post, people of all sexes have breasts unless they’ve had them surgically removed; breasts, areolae, and nipples vary greatly in size, shape, and position for everyone. People of all sexes grow varying amounts of body and facial hair. Cis women with polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) can grow full beards. Gender policing based on visible physical characteristics like this hurts cis people as well as trans people, as any masculine-presenting cis woman who’s been harassed for entering a women’s restroom can attest. This policing is also a good part of why “trans panic” is still a legal defense for murder in 49 out of 50 US states.

Chromosomes are the last resort of those who acknowledge all of the above, yet are still desperate to force us into the binary boxes we were assigned at birth. XX = female and XY = male, they say; that’s a reality you can’t change even with genital surgery. The irony is that many of the people insisting on this “genetic reality” don’t know much about biology themselves. Plenty of variations on chromosomes exist; to say otherwise is to contribute to intersex erasure. (And intersex people are also harmed by cissexist legislation, even if they are ipso gender rather than trans.) Some have questioned whether we should even refer to “sex chromosomes” at all.

But ultimately, chromosomes are completely and utterly irrelevant when it comes to everyday social interactions. I can guarantee you that the overwhelming majority of people reading this entry do not know what their own “sex chromosomes” are, nor do they know those of any of their friends. People do not routinely submit to genetic tests, whether for the purposes of birth sex assignment or for determining which gendered facilities they can enter. Even for elite athletes at the Olympic level, genetic testing has been a poor predictor of advantage, as outlined in this essay (note: contains cissexist language). So why on Earth do many insist on labeling people as “XX female” or “XY male”?

Following my own advice of using “I” statements, I will not tell a trans, cis, or intersex person how to refer to their own body. If a trans woman wishes to refer to herself as “male-bodied” or “biologically male,” that is her right. But I really wish people would stop forcing these labels on others. On the rare occasion that it is useful or necessary to speak of something other than a person’s self-identified gender – and cis people self-identify as well, they just aren’t questioned for it – the preferred phrase is “assigned fe/male at birth”.

One trans activist who has been doing a great job of deconstructing the sex binary is Sophie Labelle, illustrator of the Assigned Male web comic.  While the central character in her comic is a trans girl, she also features trans male, nonbinary, and intersex characters. Sophie is one of the artists I’m supporting on Patreon. She has lots of great, gender-affirming art in her shop, including coloring books for children. Highly recommended for people of all ages and genders!

If we could all be accepting of everyone’s gender identities and expressions, and not insist on reducing each other to body parts…. what a wonderful world this would be.

Telling our own stories

[Image: Screenshot of the Transgender Today section of the New York Times, featuring images of and quotes from many people, with the headline Transgender Lives: Your Stories.]

A couple of months ago, I learned that the New York Times had created a space for trans people to tell our own stories through text, images, and video. This month I decided to share my own story. Being limited to 400 words, I wrote and rewrote, agonizing over every syllable; there was so much more I wanted to say that wouldn’t fit. I even debated how or whether to list my occupation, eventually settling on “Photographer”, as I don’t (yet) consider myself to be a professional writer. I uploaded a photo my partner Ziggy took of me wearing the Kat Blaque T-shirt and matching mug, then submitted and hoped for the best.

Yesterday, the New York Times published my story! I was elated. Not a single word was altered.

As trans people, it’s crucial that we be given the opportunity to share our own stories. The mainstream media often gets everything wrong: Deadnaming us, ignoring or mocking our pronouns, sensationalizing our bodies. Occasionally a mainstream source will get a story about binary trans people mostly right, but do we really want cis comedians like John Oliver to define the trans experience?

The media celebrates those of us who fit into one of the acceptable trans narratives: The trans woman who knew she was a girl from the age of five; the trans man who felt “trapped” in a woman’s body. Many trans people do have these experiences, but many more of us do not, and we are every bit as legitimate in our genders (or lack thereof).

Nonbinary people especially suffer from poor representation in the media. There are a lot of mistaken assumptions about nonbinary people, even within the trans community. Explaining and defending our own identities can be exhausting, and this is only compounded by well-meaning allies sharing faulty information that they’ve picked up online. We often ask cis people to educate themselves about us by searching the Internet, so that we’re not constantly forced to be educators. But if the first stories that pop up reinforce the classic trans narrative, that’s not really helping our cause.

I’ve found this especially frustrating as a Wikipedia editor on the LGBT studies task force, as published articles about nonbinary people in reliable sources are sorely lacking. We need greater coverage in the mainstream media, and we need to hold reporters to a higher standard of accuracy.

I am grateful to the New York Times for providing a prominent space for trans people to tell our own stories, in our own words. I hope that more major publications follow suit.

 

Are we male yet?

[Image: Pax , the author, runs on a trail, grinning and making a “V” sign with their fingers. They are wearing a “no meat athlete” shirt and race bib. Photo by comerphotos.com]

Today marks one year since a San Francisco judge granted my court order to change my name and gender. (Although I’m agender, my sex is male, so I wanted that legally recognized.) I’ve had nearly all of my various identification documents updated now, with the notable exception of my birth certificate, as my home state of Pennsylvania currently requires surgery for that.*

And surgery is something I am not willing to have at this time. When I first contemplated transitioning, I felt that I wanted a hysterectomy and oophorectomy. But after I went on testosterone and my monthly periods finally ceased, I eventually decided I didn’t want to undergo the risk and expense of surgery. As long as I’m not bleeding, I’m not actively thinking about those internal organs.

I would still prefer to have a cis-typical penis instead of a vulva and vagina, but that kind of surgery is really problematic and expensive. Testosterone therapy has helped there too, as my clitoris has grown to the size that I now think of it as a penis, albeit a very small one. I no longer feel the need to get a prosthetic, which is another thing I thought for sure I’d want before going on T. (I did wear a packer at home for awhile, but don’t currently feel the need to do so.)

One of the more disturbing things about my transition is that while my physical dysphoria has decreased significantly thanks to the hormones, my social dysphoria has actually increased. Part of this is due to my breasts. Unlike the vast majority of trans men and nonbinary female-assigned people I’ve encountered, I do not bind and am not seeking top surgery.

I neither love nor hate my breasts, but I do hate the feeling of constriction. After I lost a significant amount of weight a couple years back, I stopped wearing bras, even for running, and it felt great. I felt a little bounce at the beginning of each run, then didn’t notice them anymore.

But I’m sure other people do, as you can see in the featured photo at the top of this post (which this blog theme conveniently cropped to focus on my chest). This was at last September’s Beat the Blerch half-marathon, near Seattle. I was wearing a tank top under that thin shirt, but it was cool out, and I have rather prominent nipples regardless.

So every time I go for a run, I’m convinced that everyone is staring at my chest. This, plus my continued resentment that I can’t run topless without facing additional stares and harassment on top of the misgendering, has resulted in me running less and less frequently since my transition. I ran today for only the second time in a month, and only because I got up early enough to get out by 7 a.m., when there were few people about.

My therapist, who has been listening to me complain about not being able to run topless (safely) since well before my transition, finally said that I can either change the world, or I can change myself. At that point, I was starting to consider top surgery. But I simply do not want to surgically remove parts of my body that I don’t have a problem with.

Having breasts does not make me female or “female-bodied”. Cis men have breasts too, unless they’ve had them surgically removed. Cis men can get breast cancer. Cis men can suffer from gynecomastia, which causes breast enlargement independent of body weight. In fact, some of the most popular binders for trans men were designed for cis men with this condition.

The only difference between my chest and that of a typical cis man’s is the size, shape, and position of my breasts, nipples, and areolae. The “free the nipple” and “top freedom” movements point this out, though they are geared toward cis women, not transmasculine people. The problem with how I’ve seen these important movements marketed is that most of the people pictured are thin, light-skinned, and small-breasted, with small areolae and nipples. Look at this widely-circulated photo for example, which I believe originated on the Instagram page of Cara Delevingne (though it’s not clear if she’s the one in the photo):

"Male" and "female" breast comparison
[Image: The torsos of two people with words written on them labeling breast tissue, areolae, and nipples.]

Notice in the above photo that both chests are hairless, both have fairly small nipples and areolae, and the person on the right has their arm lifted which makes their breast appear even smaller. A lot of breasts, belonging to both assigned-male and assigned-female people, look nothing like the above. See this gallery of self-submitted, non-sexualized breast photos for example (geared toward cis women; contains cissexist language). Top freedom means freedom for everyone with visible breasts, regardless of their assigned sex or appearance.

Ironically, in many cities, including here in San Francisco, it is legal for women to go topless in public, but few do so. In New York City there’s a co-ed topless book club (some of their photos contain full nudity). I’ve mused about arranging a topless fun run, but the permitting process and security would probably be a nightmare.

So, do I change the world or do I change myself? If I didn’t want to change the world, I wouldn’t have become an animal rights activist, and I certainly wouldn’t have gotten involved with DxE (Edit, Sep 2016: I left DxE a year ago). I’d just be content to be vegan. But this kind of activism – top freedom – has more risk to me personally, and is probably not as important from a global perspective, though it’s something I care about deeply. Regardless, the idea that I should cut off parts of my body that I’m not personally dysphoric about is really unacceptable to me at this stage.

For the time being, I think I’ll  just stick to running in the early hours when I’ll encounter fewer people, but I’ll keep my shirt on. For now. Stay tuned…

* Edit, Sept. 2017: Pennsylvania removed the surgery requirement in August 2016.

Transgender vs transsexual

[Image: Side-by-side self-portraits of Pax, the author, wearing a black tank top, holding a camera and looking in the mirror.]

This summer marks several milestones in my transition. Last week, July 3, I passed a year and a half on testosterone; a photo comparing my current appearance with that on the day of my first injection is above.  Tomorrow, July 10, is the one year anniversary of getting my court order for legal change of name and sex. And next month, August 23, marks my second anniversary of publicly going by the name Pax Ahimsa Gethen and identifying as gender-neutral (later amended to agender).

In the course of my transition, I’ve been reading a lot about gender terminology, and tweaking my self-description to better match my identity. One of the most influential authors for me was Matt Kailey, a gay trans man who sadly died last year at the age of 59. Matt, like me, did not realize that he was trans until middle age. He was exclusively attracted to men, and (unlike me) had a very feminine presentation pre-transition. Matt had a great advice column, Tranifesto, and in it he helped me decide how and when to reveal my new name.

In Matt’s book Just Add Hormones: An Insider’s Guide to the Transsexual Experience, he explains that transsexual people “change their physical bodies to match their gender identity.” In the FAQ on his web site, he explains that not all transsexuals identify as transgender; transgender refers to anyone who deviates from binary gender norms, whereas some transsexuals simply identify as binary men and women post-transition, and don’t want to be known as trans.

I’ve since read a number of comments suggesting that we should get rid of the term “transsexual” altogether, as it is stigmatizing, outdated, and presents a medical-centered view of gender. In contrast, I’ve read people who are sometimes known as “truscum” or “transmedicalists” saying that only people who wish to physically transition from one binary sex to another are trans; they want nothing to do with the expanding “umbrella” of transgender, which may include people who do not experience physical dysphoria at all.

My opinion, which is still evolving as I’m always learning, is that anyone who does not identify with the gender corresponding with the sex they were assigned at birth can identify as transgender.* This can include nonbinary-identified people, although some such people identify as neither trans nor cis. This can also include people who do not experience dysphoria, physical or otherwise. (This article by Sam Dylan Finch helps dispel misconceptions about dysphoria and identity.)

Ultimately, it’s not up to me to decide who is or isn’t transgender. I can understand the pain and frustration of trans people with binary identities and significant dysphoria who just want to be recognized as the “opposite” sex, and don’t want to be lumped in with people who have a much different experience of gender. That’s where I feel it makes sense to have a separate “transsexual” label, but again, it’s not up to me to decide who can claim that term.

While I mostly agree with Matt Kailey that most transsexuals “change their physical bodies to match their gender identity,” many are not able to access hormones and/or surgery, for financial, health, or other reasons. Also, I have a different conception of gender identity than most people I’ve read on the subject. When I say I’m a transsexual male, that’s what most would call my gender identity, but I actually see that as my sex identity.

The distinction between gender identity and sex identity is made in the article Gender in 12 Dimensions.  I don’t agree with some of the assertions in this article; I no longer see masculinity and femininity as opposite ends of a spectrum, and changing gender appearance is certainly not as easy as putting on a dress or a tie (especially here in San Francisco). But this article provided a more useful way for me to think about sex and gender than what was generally presented in the mainstream media. In particular, being transsexual is defined as “having a sex identity that does not match your sex appearance,” which suits me; I am male, but I currently have physical characteristics that make me appear to be female.

So if I am a transsexual male, how can I also be agender? I’ve seen few other people who have a distinct sex and gender identity in the way I describe. Marilyn Roxie is one; their sex is male and their gender is genderqueer. (Their site is one of the most useful I’ve found on nonbinary identities.) Identity is separate from gender expression, however. As I talked about in my article on agender fashion, having a nonbinary gender does not presume having a neutral or androgynous presentation.

I have sometimes wondered if I should just drop one or the other of my identifying terms, to make things less confusing. If I’m male, why can’t I just be a gender-nonconforming man? Or if I’m agender, why can’t I just be that and not also insist on a binary sex identity?

The answer is that defining myself as an agender transsexual male just feels right to me. I realize that many people will always think that I’m a special snowflake, and many others will ask why we need labels at all. To the first group, I say that each one of us is unique, and no one can define anyone else’s identity. To the second group, I say that is coming from a place of privilege, similar to the (mostly-white) people who say “I don’t see color.” Labels for gender identity (and sexual orientation, as I wrote about yesterday) are useful to help us understand ourselves better, and to find other people who are like us for mutual support.

I expect that my understanding of gender, sex, and my own identity will continue to evolve, as I’m always learning. What’s most important is recognizing that each of us should have the right to define our own genders, and express ourselves in the way that we see fit.

* But see also this article on intersex identity by intersex trans professor Cary Gabriel Costello, who makes the distinction between “cisgender” and “ipso gender” for intersex people.

 

Agender fashion, or lack thereof

[Image: Pax, the author, stands on a balcony wearing a colorful print shirt and holding a matching mug. A cable car goes by in the background.]

I’ve been really getting into Kat Blaque‘s videos on sexism, racism, and gender issues. Check out her latest, explaining (among other things) that gender expression is not the same thing as gender identity or sexual orientation:

In addition to what Kat explained in her video, people need to understand that having a nonbinary gender identity (a more inclusive umbrella term than “genderqueer”*) simply means identifying as something other than a man or a woman. It does not mandate or preclude any particular gender expression.  As an agender trans male, I reject associating clothing or hairstyles, mannerisms, or hobbies with gender. I’m a trans male because my body functions better on testosterone, not because I prefer to wear jeans instead of dresses.

An intersex trans blogger from the UK explained the over-representation of DFAB androgyny in nonbinary communities, coupled with a “beard + dress” aesthetic that is the main representation of male-assigned nonbinary people. I could definitely see this when I first came out as trans and spent a lot of time on Tumblr, and saw that genderqueer communities celebrated female-assigned people who dressed like this:

Jacket and tie[Image: Pax, the author, poses on a balcony wearing a black hat, purple shirt, colorful tie, and black pinstriped jacket.]

But while it can be fun to wear a suit jacket and tie for special occasions, that’s really just playing dress-up, not  a reflection of who I am. I normally prefer dressing like this:

Denim jacket and T-shirt[Image: Pax, the author, poses in front of flowering red bushes wearing a denim jacket and navy blue T-shirt.]

The denim jacket in the pre-transition photo above was bought in the women’s section of a secondhand store, and is still one of my favorite pieces of clothing. I don’t wear it to look androgynous. I wear it because it’s comfortable, fits well, and has lots of pockets. I switched to wearing “men’s” jeans for the same reason: Deep pockets, enabling me to finally stop wearing a fanny pack after 20 years. Plus, sizing for men’s pants is based on waist and inseam measurements, rather than some completely arbitrary number.

Basically, I don’t care about fashion, but I do care about comfort. I’ve resisted wearing more button-down shirts, even though they hide my breasts quite effectively; I find T-shirts much more comfortable, and I have a lot of trouble with small buttons. I refuse to bind or even wear a sports bra, but I have compromised by wearing more crew-neck T-shirts rather than the lower necklines I prefer. And I nearly always layer, with a men’s tank top like this underneath:

Tank top[Image: Pax, the author, poses with their arms folded, wearing a black ribbed tank top.]

I recently learned of another female-assigned agender person, Tyler Ford, who, like me, has mixed black and white/Jewish roots, and like me has also struggled with gender expression and identity. It’s difficult to live in a society that conflates expression, identity, and sexual orientation so relentlessly. I’d love to live in a world where there were no “men’s” or “women’s” clothing sections, and everyone just wore whatever the hell they liked, without worrying about being taunted, attacked, or kicked out of gendered spaces like restrooms. (Restroom policing is another topic entirely…)

Meanwhile, I’ll keep wearing my jeans and T-shirts. For a colorful unisex selection, check out Kat Blaque’s all-over print shirts. She featured a photo of me wearing the one at the top of this post in a recent sales promo. Show some support for an awesome black female vlogger and graphic designer!

* “Genderqueer” should not be used as an umbrella term for nonbinary identities for the same reason that “queer” should not be used as an umbrella term for LGBT+ people: Queer was a slur, especially against gay men, and that word has not been reclaimed by everyone. I identify as queer in terms of sexual orientation, but as far as gender identity, I prefer the terms agender and nonbinary.