Thursday, May 28, 2009

Sonia Sotomayor and Identity as Experience

A few weekends ago my mother forwarded me a list of 10 reasons why Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor was a good choice for the Supreme Court. My lawyer brother responded to each point with a reason why the point was irrelevant, missing the facts, or simply defensive in nature. He clarified at the end of the email that he wasn't saying Judge Sotomayor wasn't qualified - just that the current "messaging" around her focused on saying she was not liberal and she loved white people. One of which is disgusting, and the other of which is a point of alarm (or, actually they are both those things). In short, he ended the email with "where's the change I voted for?". As these things tend to happen, that evening I watched a clip of Rachel Maddow where she echoed this same sentiment. I actually felt incredibly well-informed after watching her coverage!

So it may be true that Sonia is actually not a "liberal activist judge" that the Republicans claim her to be. But I found myself leaping to defend her because of the nature of the attacks against her. Her identity as a Latina from a working-class background, and her clear refusal to negate that identity, has become the sole focus of most attacks. Moreover, the not-so-subtle Othering of her identity - calling her "Maria", tripping over her name, asking "Is she Puerto Rican?" - reinforces the notion that she would not be in this position as Supreme Court nominee if she was not Other. In the clip below, Rachel sums up some of the more egregious "errors".

One of the many things being called into question is her quote about how women, people from low-income backgrounds, and people of color are in a particular position to make judgements. Rachel discusses this more in the clip below:

Again, as it always seems to happen, the next day I read an article in the NYT Magazine that perfectly matched the feelings invoked from such racist and sexist lack of understanding about how the world works and the hierarchy of race and sex in the US. The NYT article was called "The Case for working with your hands" by Matthew B. Crawford. Since reading this, I have heard others comment that it should be titled "the case for workers autonomy" as the freedom the author experiences in his repair shop have a lot to do with education, whiteness, and access to resources. However, this quote still captivates me:

"In the boardrooms of Wall Street and the corridors of Penn. Ave, I don't think you'll see a yellow sign that says 'Think Safety!' as you do on job sites and in many repair shops, no doubt because those who sit at the swivel chairs tend to live remote from the consequences of the decisions they make. Why not encourage gifted students to learn a trade, if only in the summers, so that their fingers will be crushed once or twice before they go on to run the country?"

You can see the elitism of our education system still present in that thought process however the quote contextualizes Judge Sotomayor's removed-from-any-context quote. She has had her fingers crushed and she realizes that people on the margins of the normative middle (those not elected to the Supreme Court) live the effects of her rulings. If the white male judges* that predominate the legal world were to experience the outcomes of their rulings in the intense and real way it may result in some very different decision making.

*Clearly being white and male doesn't hand you privilege on a plate. No essentialism of Identity here.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009


INCITE! has saved my sense of self and my confidence in social justice more times than any other organization. In 2007 I read Color of Violence: the INCITE anthology on my meal breaks at the restaurant I was managing at the time and after-hours in my never-heated apartment in St. Paul. These essays exposed a system I had suspected and been taught to recognize in my classes. However unlike the texts and discussions of the classroom, these essays exposed the system through intense personal stories that told not only the truth of these systems but the lived affect of these truths.

Moreover, these stories gave me strategies and examples, testimonials and history lessons that taught me all about the methods of anti-violence that addressed all of our multiple needs. I learned about Sista II Sista/Hermana a Hermana, Transjustice of the Audre Lorde Project, CARA, and other amazing people and movements that have managed to address issues of race, class, immigration, identity, sexuality, and state violence without going under or being forced out of organizing. Color of Violence was my introduction to INCITE!, and after that I was sent a gorgeous poster that read "Stop Police Violence Against Women of Color & Trans People of Color" featuring wonderful art by Christy C. Road - this of course has traveled with me from job to job. (To the left: Copy of poster "Stop Police Violence Against Women of Color & Trans People of Color". It is bright orange with lots of text, a group of younger people stand in assertive poses facing the viewer. One individual has her hand out in the universal "stop" pose.)

Finally though, I read the book The Revolution Will Not be Funded: beyond the non-profit industrial complex which I put off reading for nine months as I could not bear to learn the truth of the organizations I was/am working for nor the truth of the career path I have placed myself on. I, like so many Liberal Arts students, am geared and trained professionally towards non-profit work...and it is precisely that work that is tearing apart our communities and keeping us oppressed.

And I knew this. I felt this in my gut and in the ever-rising anger and irritation at the constants placed around me and my community "for our benefit" - but I didn't want to face it. Because facing the truth about the irrationality, capitalism, and bureaucracy of the non-profit industrial complex (NPIC) would mean I'd be obligated to address it and change my interactions with the NPIC. This is akin to a recent incident I had with a co-worker who ranked above me hierarchically. After I told him that his inaction towards trans-inclusion was unacceptable he began to yell at me about an unrelated event. Not ready to face his own gender normativity and transphobia he attacked me for bringing it to his attention - forcing him to become aware before he was ready.

At any rate, I was finally ready to learn more and become accountable in March. And I'm glad that I did because the book is astounding. Each essay tells another story about how to survive in a world that is supposed to nurture and empower your community, but ultimately fails at some fundamental level to truly empower the actual community. For instance, a community-based non-profit might be doing amazing work revitalizing he community but if all the money comes from a foundation of people who have never been anywhere near your community then how dependent have we become relying on the very system we're fighting against to fund our fight against them? Or, alternatively, an organization is set up to create comprehensive systems of care for Indigenous populations living with HIV/AIDS, but despite the desire from within the community to see this work done the entire organization is staffed by people with degrees in non-profit work non of whom are either Indigenous or living with HIV/AIDS. So where is the community empowerment? how do we learn from each other in a communal sense and grow stronger together if the people making change come from the same privileged backgrounds they always do? This is something of incredible interest to me as I blogged about previously. I want to create change and it's difficult for me to find a venue for that change.

The most important thing I took away from the book was creating systems of accountability. Constantly checking in with the direct community to see how they feel about you and your work. Are you addressing their/your needs? Are you active in other community organizations and/or events? Is there transparency in every thing you do - can community members voice their opinions and make suggestions or give alternatives? For more and better suggestions you can also go to the INCITE! web page dedicated to Resources Beyond the NPIC and you can learn strategies your own non-profit can follow, or strategies you as an individual looking to make change can follow.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

TransMentors Program

A few weeks ago I heard about the new TransMentors Program from Kate Bornstein (yes, I'm name dropping! I follow hir on Twitter so it's almost like we're friends). To my mind, this sounds like an awesome idea...although likewise the background checks and formality of it also make me nervous. I'm not one for too much interference into my life.

TransMentors mission is:
to provides aid, support and assistance to Trans-identified individuals...We dedicate ourselves to providing an array of information services, educational materials, advocacy training, as well as assistance with housing, health, faith, and employment needs. We pledge compassionate support and passionate advocacy on behalf of Trans-identified persons in their journeys toward health of body and mind and in their pursuit of personal freedom, including the freedom to alter their bodies and change their gender roles.

All of which sounds awesome to me - specifically because they focus on mentoring! Mentoring is a huge issue for me as my experience in doing Transgender Support/Discussion Groups is that participants come for three reasons. One reason is that often the groups are the only place that an individual feels safe to discuss their real concerns - hardships, joys, moments of desperation and depression...feelings in general. And the group provides a safe space to say things like "I don't know if I can do this" without anyone standing in judgement that the phrase might take away their right to be transgender. If you were to tell a therapist the same thing they might decide you aren't "serious" as opposed to the idea that you might have had a rough couple of days. The second reason that I usually see is that transgender people often feel extraordinarily alone. The groups offer a sense of community. Even in smaller five-people groups there is still such intense diversity that you can easily see the many ways to be transgender.

Finally, the third reason people tell me they attend is to find examples of the kind of person you want to be. In other words, finding mentors. Usually I see that within a group meeting a newer individual latches on to what one person says and they quickly form a strong bond. Sometimes this happens because the two are on their way to a strong friendship based on equal interests, at other times this connection is based on one person's ability to guide the other in finding resources and ways of being. Once again...a mentor. I once had a very brief discussion with a transgender leader about why she continues to attend Transgender Discussion/Support Groups. Namely, that her happy and successful transition can assist others to see that being transgender isn't necessarily synonymous with depression, violence, or loneliness. That it is possible to be happy and be transgender identified.

For all these reasons, I think the TransMentors program is excellent! Too many transpeople rely on the advice of cisgender specialists to guide them - therapists, doctors, psychiatrists all operating from various different interpretations of a transphobic text. Assisting each other to transition keeps our communities more united - and ensures at least the majority of advice is correct.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Surveys for FTM folks and their partners!

In case you haven't yet heard the news from are two surveys that are going to offer some awesome vital resources for FTM folks and those who love them.

The surveys are being done by Jamison Green, author of “Becoming a Visible Man” and former President of FTMInternational. According to the survey "He is interested in the sexual health and satisfaction of all transmen, whether or not they have had hormones or surgery, and in the experiences of their partners. He will use the data as raw material for a book, tentatively entitled "The FTM Guide to SEX," plus academic presentations and journal articles to educate medical and therapeutic service providers about trans lives. Collaborating is urologist and surgeon Dr. Miroslav Djordjevic of Serbia. Dr. Djordjevic is interested in post-operative quality of life for all transmen who have had genital reconstruction. Dr. Djordjevic and Mr. Green plan to make professional conference presentations together and to co-author a journal article using the data collected here." If folks have questions about who Jamison is:

The surveys are designed for FTM or trans men and their partners. Partners do not have to be in a current relationship, and if a FTM person or trans man has been partnered to another FTM person or trans man they may of course take both surveys. In order to take the surveys you must be 18 or older. For these surveys the proctors are using the following definition for FTM or trans man: “a person who was born with a female body--and assigned female or intersex at birth--and who plans to initiate, has initiated, or has completed medical treatment to masculinize his body”, some examples of identities may include FTM, trans man, genderqueer, or intersex man.

Here is the survey for partners of FTM folks and trans men. It takes between 20-40 minutes based upon your life experience. Partners

And here is the survey for FTM folks and trans men. Again, takes between 20-40 minutes based upon your own life experiences: FTM folks

If folks have any questions about the surveys you can direct the questions to Jamison! (jamisong at


As a linguistic note from me personally, I always hated the term "FTM" but hearing it described by Jamison, and by folks such as the Vancouver Coastal Health Transgender Health Project, I'm beginning to develop a new appreciation for it!

From VCH THP's Hormones: a guide for FTMs:

We use “FTM” as shorthand for a spectrum that includes not just transsexuals, but anyone who was assigned “female” at birth and who identifies as male, masculine, or a man some or all of the time. Some non-transsexuals in the FTM spectrum (androgynous people, butches, drag kings, bi-gender and multi-gender people, etc.) may also want hormone therapy, and may not identify or live as men. For this reason we use the term FTM instead of “trans men”.

I disliked "FTM" because I felt it focused overtly on my birth sex as female, what with the "F" coming first and all. Not that I'm ashamed of being born female or that I don't embrace those female years (quite the opposite in fact), but it does get confusing when I'm filling in a form and I have to remember that I'm FTM and not MTF as the letter I immediately look for is "M" for male and not "F" for female. Which is why I've preferred the terms "trans masculine" or "trans man". Except, of course, that excludes anyone who is male identified but isn't masculine or identifies with masculine characteristics but doesn't identify as male.

Clearly, what Jamison and Vancouver Coastal Health are trying to achieve is a space where FTM does not stand for "Female To Male' but instead stands only as "FTM" - meaning someone who was identified at birth as female but who doesn't necessarily identify completely with the identity of "female". So I begin to understand that FTM might become more inclusive especially if we stop associating it as being an acronym for "Female To Male" and begin to see it as an identity of itself that does not need to be explained. It's an interesting possibility!

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Complications around "PC"

A few months ago I did a community education training where I was asked if “the PC thing to do” was to use gender neutral pronouns for anyone whose gender or sex identity the individual didn’t know.* My answer was complex and long-winded mainly because the student and I were placing different value judgments on the term “politically correct”. The student was using it as synonymous with “respectful” while I associate it with the often dismissive ideas of “tolerance” – actions or language changes due to a cultural trend to do so, not because of actual knowledge or understanding of the pain surrounding certain terms or actions.

For many people, being politically correct means respecting the self-identifying terms and differences that various people use and have. To that end, I agree with the idea that being PC is being respectful. The difficulty I have with the term occurs when we (educators, co-workers, bosses, diversity trainers, etc.) enforce different terms without giving them background or meaning. Perhaps the most poignant example of this would be the term “nigger”. As I wrote about this time last year, the majority of white people in the US know that the term is offensive but the complete history of it – labeling a group of people with out their input and using that label as a means to write difference onto their bodies and humanity, the pervasive history of lynching, Jim Crow laws, institutional racism and segregation – isn’t understood. Nor is it understood how the effects of all those events still affect our lives (all peoples) today. So while most white folks know not to use it, we don’t know why other terms are more correct. For instance, we don’t understand that “Black” and “African American” are two different terms.

Politically Correct should never have meant a sanction on language usage or a bourgeois imposition of what is ""good". This makes political incorrectness look fun, exciting, and American - as in "it is American to speak the truth even if no one wants to hear it"...but here most anti-PC folks are confusing personal opinion or personal truth with fact, or general truth. I just re-read Nick Hornby's Housekeeping Vs. the Dirt, a compilation of his literary essays for the very hipster magazine The Believer, and surprisingly to me found that Hornby included some insights into this. On page 101 he decries an unnamed author's book. A different reviewer said the book was "deliciously politically incorrect" and Hornby writes that perhaps that reviewer is referring to some (and I paraphrase) Golden Age of commentary when we were all more free, a Golden Age he goes on to say that never existed as there’s an extreme difference between “freedom of speech” and prejudiced language. Hornby goes on to describe that this "delightfully politically-incorrect" book includes the narrator saying that women should (trigger alert) learn to lie still and enjoy rape. That’s not something we should be celebrating. We shouldn’t censor such language, but neither should we embrace it as a return to the way things ought to be. My first understanding of "Politically correct" was that we were trying to state "be aware that language carries power and that your speech has real world consequences".

Last year I was asked “Do white people know about Black History Month?” and my response was “I think we know that it exists, I don’t think we know why it exists”. Therefore, BHM gets dismissed as symbolic as opposed to important (and there are arguments for that!) and white folk using phrases like “nigger” is seen as “edgy” as opposed to really fucking racist and ignorant. Which is much like the tension I feel around PC terminology – it seems to make little difference what language we use if we don’t know why we’re using it. Except of course, it does. To be free of hearing words that burn your skin when you walk down your school hallways or sit at the office lunch table or take public transit…to not constantly feel afraid that words that cause a physical reaction in you might advance to physical attacks – to be free of that even if the person no longer using those terms doesn’t understand. Well, that actually is nice.

Take the phrase "fire men". Now, saying "fire fighters" doesn't magically make more non-male fire fighters appear, nor does it make the entrance exams or the general workspace an affirming place for women and gender non-conforming folk. But, it does plant the idea into the mind of a young girl or gender non-conforming child that they too can be fire fighters. It also means that when we do see a female fire fighter we don't overwhelm her with her difference (she probably is already aware). It also shows that you as an individual are aware that men are not the only sex able to put out fires, if nothing else, it shows your awareness. So, when despite the facts before you choose to continue to say "fire men" it doesn’t necessarily say "I don't care about women and gender non-conforming folks" just sounds like that's what you're saying.

Being labeled politically-correct is often a defense mechanism that pushes aside the real conversations about the power of language and blames an individual for changing language not because they care about the issues but because they don’t want to offend someone who might hurt their political or occupational standing. It has changed to imply that the individual who makes a language request doesn’t actually have knowledge behind the request. It has become a word game as opposed to a combination of survival technique and the power of self-identifying.

*My answer about the gender neutral pronouns was two-fold. Using gender neutral pronouns is a choice like any other pronoun choice. Therefore, labeling me for instance as “zhe” is incorrect as I use “he” as my pronoun. It doesn’t offend me as I do identify as genderqueer, and in many ways I might be complimented by that acknowledgment of my gender identity. But to label, for instance, Laverne Cox, as “zhe” would be insulting as she is clearly going for female pronouns. In the video Trans Basics for the Gender Identity Project Laverne talks about being incorrectly labeled, and as she holds up her manicured nails by her long hair and feminine clothing she says “I think it’s pretty clear what I’m going for here”. True, someone who looks exactly like Laverne might indeed use gender neutral pronouns – and we can never tell off of our perceived gender expression what a person’s pronouns are. But using gender neutral for someone you know to be transgender or gender non-conforming can be read as insulting. However, gender neutral pronouns shows a base knowledge of the mutability of gender which might que the person to realize that you were being polite, not intentionally rude. Therefore, it is always best to ask first