Penny's Story

A cute little drummer living her dream.

Archive for May, 2010

My, How We Categorize Each Other

I’ve never cared much about the groups to which people belong. I’m human, and I do tend to lump people together in categories, especially people I don’t know, because it just sort of helps to keep track sometimes of populations of people that far outnumber my ability to have an accurate or detailed idea of everyone. These lumps are fuzzy and coarse, and I’m not remotely attached to them (so, if I label someone as “Brown-eyed” and later find out that they actually have hazel eyes that are only brown sometimes, I’ll have no problem letting go of my erroneous classification and I’ll hope that they weren’t offended by my mistake – similarly, I try not to be frustrated when someone mislabels me, because I know how easy it is to do). I hate labels and classifications, and yet I use them all the time just to keep track of folks. I have some friends who love Broadway Musicals; if I were to organize a trip to see “Evita” it would be helpful to know who I should ask. But then maybe a friend who usually hates musicals just happens to love “Evita” for some reason. So the distinctions are useful, but they can also be a trap if they’re held too rigidly.

I try to never use these lumps as ways of segregating folks. I have a hard time with spaces that are exclusive. My church is “Radically Welcoming,” the generally queer open-mic that I attend is certainly inclusive, when I open my house to my friends it is open to all of my friends. I become overwhelmed at rallies and sporting events because the “hive mind” feels oppressive to me (I’m very empathic, and I feel the weight of so many people thinking the same thing as suffocating – I find it physically uncomfortable).

I don’t understand why we don’t celebrate our differences. Labels are fine for groups of people, but they’re really too coarse to do a good job of describing individuals. Groups created around labels can be great, but I don’t understand why they need to be exclusive. I posted pretty regularly on a message board a few years ago, and the rule was that content could be moderated, but people would not be (so, anyone could post, they just had to stay on topic). I tend to live my life much that way, finding open assemblages of folks who come together as much out of some random commonality as any of their labels.

I simply have never understood why it is necessary for folks to work so hard at othering other folks. People are “gay” or “Republican” or “Communist” or “hippie” or “geek” or “hipster” or “straight” or “trans” or “Catholic” or “foreign” or “Irish” or whatever. And the labels aren’t really that problematic, honestly no matter what they are. So much of the trouble starts when people use the labels to be a form of “like me” vs. “not like me” which all too quickly turns to “like me (=good)” vs. “not like me (=bad).” I’ve mentioned before how I simply have never understood the prevalence of “us vs. them” thinking that so many people engage in. I watched liberals call George W. Bush “Hitler.” Now I’m watching conservatives call Barack Obama “Hitler.” It’s pretty depressing, and from my perspective I just can’t understand. I believe that people are generally good, and want what’s best. Good people can disagree. Why do disagreements turn into personal ad hominems so easily and so often? I get uncomfortable when my friends start bad-mouthing groups of people, it doesn’t matter which group is being slammed. My Darling Boyfriend says this is deep-seated and has to do with our tribal roots, but I hope and pray that we can grow beyond it and start to see all other people as connected to us.

I’m expected to think a certain way because of the groups I belong to – the labels I wear, and it’s as frustrating when friends do it as it is when people who dislike me do it. It might explain why my favorite label is, shockingly enough, “Penny.” When it comes down to it, the labels I wear, and the rules I break and follow, all combine to make me a unique whole. Shoving people into lumps can be useful sometimes, but everyone is unique, and I work hard to always remember that.

I’ve been watching several things happen online lately that have just made me so sad…

I’ve been reading and expanding some of my ideas on the Chartreuse Flamethrower. I’ve had trouble processing some of the ideas expressed there, but I think it’s important, most notably because I’m having trouble understanding. And I’m most interested in understanding folks different from me – I already understand me.

I read about one way of looking at being trans written by Dyssonance, and  I found myself disagreeing strongly with her thoughts. I have found the concept that my SRS was a “cure” to be just about the perfect way to express what was going on both internally and externally. But I’m not threatened that the idea that transition or surgery is a cure doesn’t work for everyone. For me, it was pretty clearly a physical birth defect. I get that different people have different experiences, and again, I think that’s really cool. Other folks’ experiences do not invalidate my own – how could they?

I read about the immigration law recently passed in Arizona, and the many people boycotting businesses in the state, and how that’s effecting trans folk in the state.

I read about ENDA, and how trans folk (and really anyone who transgresses gender stereotypes) may get stripped from the bill once again.

I read about how WPATH is encouraging the depathologization of trans folk in the new DSM, and how an intersex group feels that can lead to their further pathologization.  And I wish there was a way to make it possible for folks who want or need medical intervention to get it while not stigmatizing everyone who is either trans or intersex.

And I read Zoe Brain, whom I continue to think is the bees knees, talk about the incidence of intersex, and say this: “I just see that while there are two distinct sexes, there’s an area between, neurologically and anatomically, where things are not so straightforward. Someone can be neurologically usual, but otherwise anatomically unusual, or the reverse.” And I just think that makes so much sense, but then I wonder if that would make others feel squeamish (with the word “usual” being so close to “normal” and all).

I just can’t understand why defining oneself is so often a leaping off point for saying how others definition of themselves is either wrong or evil. I love the diversity of expression that I see in the world around me. And I’m always surprised by the people whom I end up loving and disliking. I’ve met Swedes and drummers and trans folk and Christians and liberals and conservatives and a million other people from a million other labels and descriptions, and whether I like or dislike them (and vice-versa) seems much more often to be about who we each are as people – not about their or my labels.

This post has turned into my usual quoting of Rodney King, Bilbo Baggins, and Bill & Ted, respectively: “Can’t we all just get along” … “I simply do not understand war” … “Be excellent to each other; party on dudes…”

But there it is – can’t we just be gentle with each other?

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Now it’s ~our~ story

So, last week the Darling Boyfriend and I did a video interview for a video being produced for All Gender Health. I was really glad we did it. The Darling Boyfriend continues to amaze me; several of his answers to questions just made me incredibly proud of him – he is a truly special man, and I am lucky beyond anything I could deserve to have him. The interview lasted about two hours, and it was awesome to be able to tell our story in a way that feels like it might be helpful and meaningful to folks. A couple things did strike me. One of the questions dealt with how I identify, and I had to be honest and say that I identify as a straight woman. I added that of course I have a transsexual history and that I identify as transgender politically, but my core identity is what it is (and actually, it’s drummer first and foremost). Next was how, when I explained the study to my mom she basically insisted that we should not be doing it because “you’re a woman now, why are you doing something for trans women.” And I see both sides, but I stand by my decision to do it, and the producers decided that I was a good fit, so there it is. It was nice to be part of telling such a positive story. Trans folk can fall into feeling unlovable and broken very easily, and I was glad to be telling a story in which I went from feeling that way to not only feeling lovable and desirable, but also being loved and desired. And telling the story along with The Darling Boyfriend really did make it ~our~ story. And that’s just kind of AWESOME! 🙂

People Disagreeing with Me Helps Me to Grow

So, I had a fairly unpleasant exchange in the comments section of my last post. I sort of expected it, given the stuff I was talking about, and I reiterate that that’s exactly why I don’t write about this stuff very often.

I made a mistake in my post, and used the wrong pronoun to describe someone, and even used a link to their blog to do it. It was completely unintentional, but having had the wrong pronoun attached to me in the past often enough that it hurt my head, I understand that the visceral reaction is much the same whether it’s intentional or not. And so our conversation got off on the totally wrong foot. I apologized, but the damage was done, and our conversation had an edge of defensiveness on both sides that often leads to even further mistakes and misunderstandings.

Even more than my mistake, though, they called me out on things I said about the gender binary. And I’ve decided that they were more right than wrong. I’m not sure my thinking has changed all that much, though it has changed some, but how I worded things in my original post was very sloppy. And, as I said above, I reacted with defensiveness in the exchange of comments, which never has me thinking at my clearest.

So, let me try this again…

I fit into the gender binary, at least in my appearance – in my daily existence. People assume that I’m in a certain place of the gender binary, and they’re right. What I mean, more fully, is that the gender binary, as a concept, doesn’t actively attack my person-hood. That’s fine. But then I also made some flippant comments about it working for me and it not going anywhere and me being fine with that. I was wrong to do that, and I feel bad for my comments.

It’s true that we can’t always agree with everyone, but I do try to never say stuff that’s hurtful for no real reason. I failed at that. I’m sure the commenter and I disagree about some things, but I’d wager we agree on far more than we disagree on. And I feel bad that a careless comment and some unrefined thinking lead to us focusing on our disagreements.

To clarify some of my statements, and say some things that have changed about my thinking. I won’t defend the concept of a binary when it comes to gender. I do think it’ll be a longer row to hoe to convince people that gender is a completely fluid spectrum than it will be to explain that the two poles have lots of gray area in the middle. And I also thinks it’s possible that I just said exactly the same thing with two different sets of words. I certainly believe in lots of gray area, and I love the gray area, I just am not very gray and so I’m not as passionate about the gray area as I might be. It’s surprising; I used to think of myself as very much in the gray area, and it’s taken some adjustment to realize that I’m so much in a place that is seen as so mainstream. It’s almost weird, and I do not see it as a good or bad thing, just a thing. I’m not gender variant, or transgender, I’m a woman with no modifiers. I sometimes describe myself as boring. I was never trying to be the person that I am, I just finally discovered who I’ve been all along.

It seems to me that I tend to focus on the issues that either currently or in the past impact me most personally. So my two pet issues, as I’ve said before, are ending “corrective” surgery on intersex babies and children, and insurance coverage for sex reassignment surgery. It doesn’t mean that I don’t support other things, it’s that nothing else pushes my buttons as much as those two issues and those are the ones that really energize me to change the world. And yet, ironically, I find that most of my work is done on basic trans 101 education with folks who’ve never even considered the possibility. I guess I’m taking the baby steps to nudge the world in the direction I hope it goes.

Because the gender binary doesn’t actively assault me personally, I’m not super-engaged in defeating it but I’m not threatened by the conceptual binary going away. I just don’t think I’ve seen an explanation or strategy that seems to work with broadening straight cis folks’ minds. Telling them they’ve been wrong all this time about something that seems so basic to their own sense of identity just seems to make them defensive. I’m always trying to find a solution that works for everyone. Maybe there isn’t one to this, but I hope there is. I want something we can all feel good about. I’m very willing to admit that I don’t have the answer to what that is. The one thing I’ll say categorically is that no one else’s identity threatens mine.

Finally, I want to just say that I really appreciate when people disagree with me, even when the conversation is unpleasant. One of the best ways for me to grow is to have alternative points of views presented to me.

Thanks to everyone who helps me grow.   🙂

Watching the Anger Flow

I usually stay out of transgender / gender identity / identity politics discussions on my blog. There are a few reasons for this. The most important thing is that I try to keep this blog very much about ~my~ story. This a place for me to work things and out and just be sort of a journal. It’s cathartic, it’s not intended to be a place for grand social statements. But also, those discussions so often get ugly beyond all sorts of reason, and I don’t like to wade into such harsh water.

But I’m tired of watching, as I say to my Darling Boyfriend, people going batshit at each other, so I figured I’d write about it. I figure this post has the potential to upset everyone I know (well, not everyone, but lots of folks that I consider friends). But these are just my opinions. I’m making no claim of “truth,” or divine knowledge. I am also not speaking for anyone but myself. I am not claiming to speak for others with any sort of “everyone knows” or “most people feel” kinds of statements. I own all of this.

It won’t surprise me (if anyone even reads my blog) if I trigger some harsh words. I guess I’ll just have to take what may come.

So, with the caveats out of the way (I love caveats)…

I’m really tired of watching folks who seem like such obvious allies be so hateful to each other. I have so many thoughts that I’m not even sure where to start.

First, I’ve started to realize lately that there are so many things that get conflated it’s difficult to keep everything focused. It seems to me that so much of what falls under transgender issues is just as easily described as sexism. Men and women have assigned roles and even in the 21st century those roles can be rigidly enforced. Men and women have different standards of dress, different expected professions, different goals, different ways of acting, etc. The list of differences, both politely expected and societally enforced, is quite long. I always knew that the world was different for men and women, but when I transitioned it became clear to me just how sexist the world really is. And yet, clearly, part of that makes sense to me on at least some level, because even though I think men and women are ~equal~, if there were no ~difference~ then why would I have needed to transition in the first place?

“Men and women” is a simple binary. Most people are comfortable with it, fit into it, and never realize that there are folks for whom the binary doesn’t work. It doesn’t make them evil or transphobic, it means that they’re comfortable enough with the status quo to take it as it is. One of my best friends recently had a baby, and I was amazed by how repeatedly his sex was reinforced (“You’re a big boy”; “Are you mommy’s good boy”; “Such a happy boy”). But it’s just about universal. Whether a baby is a boy or a girl is the first question people ask, even before they ask if the baby is healthy. This works for most folks. To ask them to change is asking a lot. To ask them to understand is a bit different. Understanding is something people should be able to offer.

Let me tackle the gender binary at this point. The binary works for me. I feel no need to destroy the concept of a binary, and I don’t see it as particularly helpful (or possible) to attempt it. I recently read a blog post that stated it more clearly than I can giving an example of how binaries aren’t intrinsically bad. I fit very well in the binary, and it seems like most folks do too (“even” most trans folk). I sort of think of it like an inverse bell curve. Most people are on either end, with some folks approaching the middle, and as it gets dead center there being fewer and fewer folks there. There are folks in the dead center of the binary, but that doesn’t invalidate the binary. Actually, I think that the evidence is that it works for the vast majority of people. The sexes are equal; but the sexes are different.

But what about those folks in the middle? I’d be lying if I said I completely understand them. I try. And many of my friends are more in the middle than it turns out I am. I consider some of them some of the most special and valuable people I know. One of the most difficult things with these folks can be what pronouns they prefer. I have it easy on the pronoun issue. I look like I prefer “she.” I sound like I prefer “she.” And I do prefer “she.” Lots of folks have a tougher time; their visual presentation doesn’t do an accurate job of communicating their preferred way of being referred to. I’ve seen over and over again the suggestion that people ask someone their preferred pronoun before using any pronoun. I think that’s unrealistic, and more so, I find it personally invalidating. I worked hard to make it ~visually~ clear that I prefer to be referred to as “she.” Just because I fit into the binary at this point I see no reason for invalidating my desire that my preferred pronoun~is~ assumed from my appearance. I understand that for some folks it’s not so simple. I even read a post recently by a person who wrote about folks who prefer to be referred to as “it.” I also understand the pain of being referred to by pronouns that are wrong. I think this is one place where a little understanding on both sides would just be helpful. I have exactly one friend who never misgendered me during my transition. I know how difficult it can be to stand up and explain that your preferred pronoun might not match the one expected just from your appearance. I have become as diligent as I can be about remembering and respecting peoples preferred pronouns. I think the nature of the binary is that asserting a preferred pronoun that is unexpected based on preconceived notions of appearance may be necessary, but respect for the preferred pronoun should be the norm. Being mildly surprised that someone prefers to be referred to as “it” is fine; refusing to use “it” to refer to that person because you don’t think it’s valid is not.

So, fine, let’s respect the binary but also respect the malleability of the boundaries, and the arbitrariness of most of those boundaries. Even though I’ve settled nicely on one side of the binary, I am in no way threatened by folks who traverse the binary or exist in the very center. I don’t get too upset at the folks trying to destroy the binary because I understand that it is a reaction to the sometimes unnecessary rigidity of the boundaries between the two sides of the binary, and also because I know that the binary is here to stay.

Next I want to talk about legislation. I think it’s important and right that gender identity and expression is added to hate crimes laws. It would be great to live in a world where “murder is murder” and hate crimes legislation wasn’t needed. I don’t live in that world. Not only are people targeted for violent crimes specifically because they transgress the gender binary, the crimes are also not taken seriously. A way to help remedy that is to specifically state in law that a crime against someone because they don’t look like they’re “supposed to” is not only an actual crime, it can not be minimized because the person was “asking for it.” Hate crimes laws help to eliminate specious claims such as trans panic. Trans hatred and violence can strike anyone, even folks who are years past transition and blend perfectly, and even non-trans people. Making a specific legal statement that violence against people who transgress society’s gender norms is a good thing. I think we all, every single one of us, benefits from that.

The second part of that is anti-discrimination legislation. I think this is important as well. I’ve seen too many people kicked out of homes, lose jobs, and face all sorts of unnecessary and wrong-headed things just because they don’t look like they’re “supposed to.” I think that’s wrong, and I think a law would be helpful.

A part of this that no one wants to address is the restroom issue (the gender-identity and expression hate crimes and anti-discrimination bill in Massachusetts is deridingly referred to as “The Bathroom Bill”). It’s incredibly trivializing to diminish all of these issues to where one goes potty. I don’t understand the extreme emotions that are generated around this. I do have my feelings about it, but I’m not super high charged about it either. I do understand the confusion when folks who are non-gender-normative have to use a public restroom. It’s tough on both sides. During my transition, when I wasn’t sure I was blending yet, I spent months going to great lengths to never (and I mean ~never~) use a public restroom. I just felt more comfortable that way, but I don’t think that’s a realistic solution for folks. Now I just go pee and don’t think about it, like most women do. I don’t think even the most nutty people are seriously suggesting genital-checking before entering a restroom (well maybe a couple are, but that’s not most peoples concern in my experience). When I began my transition, one of my guy friends asked what was to stop him from using the ladies room if he said that he felt like a woman. I never did have a good answer for him. And I know that the reality is that it really doesn’t happen. But there are people like Jasper, who wonders why it isn’t all about what’s in their head. And I have to confess that I would be at least mildly uncomfortable if Jasper followed me into the ladies room. The reality of this part of the issue is that it seems like most people don’t really notice who else is in the restroom with them. I scope people out very generally, because the restroom is a place of vulnerability, but for the most part I’m tuned out as I usually am.

Jasper brings me to the “this is all in our heads” issue. Well, where else would it start? If I’m a woman now, then to me I always was. But that means at some point I was a woman with a penis. There’s a whole debate about women with penises (I’ll get to that next). I was a particularly depressed person, and my life since transition does seem like I have really figured out something that enabled me to live an actual life. So I clearly believe in transition and surgery. But if Jasper causes issues for me, I’m admitting that I have a line somewhere that it feels difficult, if not impossible, for me to cross. Once I’ve admitted that there is a line, where the line is becomes the important question. I think this is a complex and nuanced issue, and acting like there are easy and pat answers in any direction isn’t helpful.

And there’s this pending national ENDA legislation in the US. It’s looking like it will be trans-inclusive but only in so far as someone has or has not had surgery. Stuff like this really makes me wonder about the whole condition of transsexualism. I see surgery as the easiest big decision I ever made. It was the perfect thing for me. I am amazed at how much my vagina has become a part of me in a way that I can’t really imagine a time before surgery. But is my having had surgery really the thing that validates me? My mom described me as “all woman now” to the neighbors (!) after I had surgery. A friend of mine said that my decision to have surgery demonstrated a certain level of commitment to my transition. Clearly surgery matters to people. It remains amazing to me that anyone (beyond my Darling Boyfriend) really cares what I have in my panties. What if I had born 200 years ago? Would I not have been transsexual just because the best thing I would have been able to do would have been to remove my testicle? What are people going to think in another 200 years when as yet undreamed of surgical interventions will exist? Will they look back on us as pretenders or wannabes? It’s become a catch phrase for the “surgery makes you a woman” camp that “women don’t have penises.” Well, they don’t have prostates either (the prostate is not removed during SRS). If I am a woman (and I know with every ounce of my soul that I am) it was not surgery that made me a woman. I was a woman and I had surgery to stop my brain from hurting so much (and it worked). But if we’re going to play the “physicality makes you what you are” game we’re going to leave out most transsexual men, at least for now, because they don’t have the surgical options that transsexual women do. I’m not down with leaving out transsexual men. So I don’t think surgery can be the end-all-be-all when it comes to legal status. Again, it’s complicated and nuanced – and laws suck at that.

I’ve been presented with a lot of “loving the body God gave you” imagery lately, mainly out of the movement away from being the perfect little size 4 Barbie doll (as if I could ever…). And I see how complicated this issue really is. For someone with transsexualism, learning to love the body God gave you may never be possible. Surgery was the only thing that worked to make me stop hating myself and my life – and it has worked incredibly well. But surgery isn’t the right thing for everyone.

One of my best friends is a woman who has chosen, for now, to “not decide” whether SRS is the right choice for her. To me that doesn’t diminish her value, or her conviction, or her womanhood. She is one of the most thoughtful, special, and powerful people I know. I wouldn’t for a second push her to have surgery or judge her if she decides to never have surgery. This isn’t a contest. I’m not trying to be “more woman” than anyone else, I’m just trying to be authentically me. I wish everyone the peace of mind that I’ve found, whether that means surgery or no, full time or part time, “he,” “she,” “they,” “sie,” or “it.” I value people as individuals. And I judge people as individuals. I’ve known folks that are jerks and folks who are lovely in all walks of life and of all genders and sexes.

So I understand that ENDA may ignore folks whose expected genitals don’t match their presentation. Especially in the United States we’re pretty conservative about sexuality and genitals. I’d be comfortable with unisex restrooms as the easiest way to solve a lot of these issues, but I know most of my fellow Americans aren’t down with that. I hope there’d be more understanding on all sides, but it seems like that isn’t the case.

I haven’t even really talked about labels, because I’m tired of them and they just cause fights. I’m finding labels difficult to discuss even amongst some of my closest friends. Everyone finds the way to define themselves that works for them, and I’m a big supporter of that.

My mommie told me when I was very little: “You’re no better than anyone else, and you’re no worse either.” I believe that. It’s a small planet, and we’re all in this together. Disagreements are bound to happen, but they don’t need to degenerate into name-calling and anger and hatred.

Be excellent to each other…

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