October 2008

Is feminism necessarily pro-transgender in its ideology? Many, and maybe most, feminisms are clearly supportive and welcome trans*folk into their ranks. However, some branches of feminism take the opposite approach, arguing that the transgendered, while having a right to be whatever they want to be, are nevertheless NOT welcomed into women’s spaces.

Over on feh-muh-nist, you’ll find a short essay detailing this position — the comments also lay out the scope of the argument.

Also useful is the website WomenSpace, a blogsite filled with thought-provoking essays like Trans-Bigotry and ENDA from a rad-fem perspective

Feminist Reprise has a resource page on the question of the relationship between feminism and transgenderism — espousing sentiments ranging from “trans-is-not-a-real-phenomenon” (a la Bindell or Raymond) to feminist separatism.

Finally, there used to be an entire website called Questioning Transgender Politics, which was filled with essays detailing this position, but the website has been taken down. Please see the essay Money, Mouth, over on Questioning Transphobia, for a summary of this website’s positions and possible rebuttals.

“Nice to meet you,” said my colleague at a reception a few weeks ago. “I don’t believe I know you,” she continued with warm smile and outstretched hand. “Hi, Nancy Lee,” I said, using her name and playing along with what I thought was a friendly joke, “I’m Joyce, and yes, it’s a pleasure to meet you.”

Still straightfaced, she looked at me and asked, “What department are you with, Joyce?”

“Your department — I’ve been your colleague for 10 years and I’m the head of the graduate program, as you know.”

A lightbulb began to burn, turned on by the dimmer switch inside her brain, as she began to realize who I was and the facial expression turned from eagerness to shock and embarrassment. “Oh…. well…. nice to see you here,” she mumbled and, turning on her heel, walked away to greet someone else.

If it weren’t for several obvious facts, I would empathize with her. If this were her first time encountering Joyce, long after my disclosure letter in the spring and the farewell to George, followed by a long summer of absence, I would be the one turning red with shame — it has never been my goal to shock anyone with my transsexual transition.

If it weren’t for the facts that

  • we had served on a committee together that met at least 3 times over the summer
  • we spoke at the faculty retreat and I gave a report to the rest of the faculty
  • we have attended at least 1 faculty meeting together this fall

….. if it weren’t for these facts, I might make sense of the episode by arguing that she had been ambushed by a transsexual and was so shocked that she didn’t know what to do. However, these facts, it seems to me, turn the tables on my colleague and reveal what must be the truth — that she didn’t realize what Joyce looked like because she hasn’t looked at me during all these events. I either do not merit her attention or I’m too monstrous to view (like the Gorgon who can turn you to stone if you look at her).

I personally like the latter image, the tranny as powerful Medusa who can capture your attention and freeze you in your tracks, her power a combination of the viewer’s terror and insatiable curiosity. No one wants to look, but they have to — maybe not in direct-eye-contact confrontations, but rather in furtive glances captured across a meeting room or around the corner or over someone else’s shoulder. It’s the classical mythology equivalent of looking at a car wreck on the highway as you drive by.

I was incognito, not as some deliberate spy-novel scheme involving disguises and fake accents, but as myself, and the paradox is that the label “incognito” isn’t anything I applied to myself, but is a product of Nancy Lee’s averted gaze. For months, she was clearly able to avoid looking at me, and thus was able to avoid the stony fate that awaited her. Her plan backfired at this reception, when she sized me up from across the room, made direct eye contact, walked purposefully across the room, and sought an introduction and, in one fell swoop, the label “incognito” erased in a puff of semantic smoke at the same time she felt her muscles begin to turn to stone.


explains that each line of the following experiment (minimalist biography) contains precisely 140 characters and comprises exactly one theme

was born in a blizzard, the last baby delivered in a tiny hospital her great-grandmother built, heralded numerologically by 2’s: 12-2, 22:22

grew up on a ranch, riding horses, fixing fence, shooting guns, cleaning stock tanks, breaking ice in winters, and checking water in summers

was a driver at 10, has driven from Tucson to Tucumcari, Tahachapi to Tonopah, has hauled bulls and toted water in split-axle bobtail trucks

excelled in math, writing, literatures, languages, and music in school and hung out almost exclusively with similar academic and music nerds

studied piano, voice, and guitar, sang Rolf in Sound of Music and Billy in Carousel, and won a spot in the Texas All State choir senior year

resided now and then in northern and southern Cal, southern Colorado, western Kansas, southern France, southern Malaysia, and all over Texas

studied on west coast and south coast, but did not coast through her studies in English, Rhetoric, Computer Science, and Business Management

operated an educational software company during the dot-com boom, founded and funded by classmates, friends, and professors from grad school

ran away from a divorce by taking a job in France, not knowing the language or a single soul, feeling exiled and lonely, but also quite free

has flown single engine airplanes with her pilot’s license and jumped out of single- and double-engine airplanes with her skydiver’s license

worked after hours and on weekends to write a dissertation, and to everyone’s astonishment, actually completed it, defending on her birthday

reinvented herself as a professor at 38, wrote a book and several articles, and discovered that she truly enjoys working in higher education

believes in free will, pluralism, open markets, fairness, persuasion, rationality, and the power of communication to make grand ideas happen

was there to see both her parents die two years apart, and realized how lonely it felt to become an orphan, no matter at what age it happens

knew by age 4 that she felt different, then struggled for 4 decades to deny this difference to family, friends, colleagues, and even herself

realized one day when looking in the mirror her cold eyes held no laugh lines, her only wrinkle a vertical crease from her constant frowning

eventually arrived upon the edge of an abyss, somber and foreboding, and shuddered at the possibility that such darkness was her only future

realized only recently just how distant and fearful she used to be, hiding her nature behind blue eyes, academic language, and a stoic beard

lost one friend but gained scores of them upon revealing her true nature, and knows that these friends are integral to her current happiness

works with wonderful, smart, caring colleagues and students and cannot wait to get to work, to experiment and theorize new ideas on rhetoric

has grown quite close to her little sister after our parents’ deaths and coping with life changes, and loves our exchanges like never before

married a partner who completes her, even in odd times, and eventually discovered facets of love undreamed of by earlier versions of herself

has 2 pre-teen boys, as different from each other as fall and spring, and adores watching their critical, emotional, and ethical development

feels as if she has belatedly joined the human race, and now can hardly wait to experience future adventures, relationships, and revelations

Since this exercise can go on forever, once you get the hang of it, I would probably suggest two variations. First is a genre composed of 140 Tweets, perhaps a biography or a philosophical treatise, so that you get 140 x 140 characters, and if you had a really big book to write, you would have 140 chapters, each containing 140 tweets.

The second is a highly refined version of this post, but constraining yourself to an entire biography in ONE TWEET. Here is my effort:

born a farm boy in TX, schooled in CA and TX, worked in France, married with 2 boys, professor of rhetoric, private pilot, changed sex at 46

[see also TwitteRhetoric]

When Diane Schroer won her court case against the Library of Congress based on sex discrimination, it seemed to me that this was a perfect bit of logic to help solve the argument about the wage gap between men and women. Arguments about wage discrimination in the past have had to argue by an analogy: that a hypothetical man and a hypothetical woman, identically suited for the same hypothetical job, should receive equal preference, treatment, and salary. And it makes perfect sense.

However, argument-by-analogy always leaves open the stark fact that we don’t live in a hypothetical world and there are never identical people vying for jobs. There is always a bit of difference, and that difference is the loophole through which sex discrimination occurs.

But what if you didn’t have to argue by analogy? What if one minute, you had a man who was perfectly suited for a job, praised by all his references and drooled over by his employer, and then the next minute, after he explained he was transitioning into a woman because he is a transsexual, she was no longer perfectly suited for the job and was either fired or the job offer was withdrawn? That was precisely what happened to David Schroer, and 10 minutes later, Diane Schroer, in seeking employment at the Library of Congress.

I have talked to friends about this as a solution to not only transgender discrimination, but also plain old sex discrimination, and I am happily surprised to learn of an academic study in economics that takes this exact methodology. Kristen Schilt and Matthew Wiswall report in “Before and After: Gender Transitions, Human Capital, and Workplace Experiences,” from the The Berkeley Electronic Journal of Economic Analysis & Policy, that “average earnings for female-to-male transgender workers increase slightly following their gender transitions, while average earnings for male-to-female transgender workers fall by nearly 1/3.”

Please take a minute to read their abstract and also the Time article, “If Women Were More Like Men: Why Females Earn Less,” which reports on their academic study.

My partner, Mary Jo, has commented frequently that studying transsexuals represents an extremely clever approach to exploring sex-difference research problems like wages, cognition, and performance. She argues that researchers ought to work with their human subject review boards to ethically take advantage of the opportunity to study sex differences that transsexuals make literal by their experiences.

Twitter is a service that accepts, stores, and broadcasts very small messages, 140 characters, a number that probably comes from text-messaging constraints. Twitter messages are called tweets, and they can be piped into one’s Facebook status updates, blog posts, and a variety of other social networking forums.

When you write your tweet, you don’t start your update with “I” or “Joyce” because one’s name is always part of the service, as in this tweet, which was written “turns on electric….”

Joyce turns on electric wire on our back fence, as horses were moved to that pasture, and grass is always greener…easy way to destroy a fence

Tweeters don’t like to use “is” as the first word of the tweet because it’s so wasteful and so undescriptive. I prefer to us some kind of active verb (tense unimportant) to get the ball rolling, then finish up the tweet with appositives, phrases, or clauses until I get very close to 140 characters. Ending punctuation is not necessary, as Facebook adds it (Twitter does not) — I don’t use it unless I need a question mark or exclamation point. Literate twitters don’t like to spell “you” as “U,” or “later” as “L8R,” but there is a certain efficiency that comes from fast typing on little keyboards in a tight context that makes such shortcuts appealing. It is a question of style mostly, until the shortcuts become so cryptic as to interfere with one’s ability to interpret the message. I don’t see how you can advocate changing “colour” to “color,” or “dialogue” to “dialog,” or “eight” to “8,” but then suddenly become all traditionalist by deciding that a certain shorthand is no longer in the spirit of language and wordsmiths of all abilities and socio-economical-educational backgrounds. I myself prefer to write in conventional English words, probably because I am a professor and these postmodern shorthands feel too casual for my persona (besides, I’m hopelessly indoctrinated, and could no more type “L8R” for “later” than I could avoid typing two spaces after my period, a rule beaten into me by Mrs. Hite, my high school typing teacher).

If, after writing my tweet, I realize I’m 10 characters too long (and text messages and Twitter let you know precisely how many characters you’ve typed), I revise, looking for ways of tightening without losing my meaning. This morning, I wrote a phrase that started like this “,after seeing the horses,” but realized that “after” was probably unnecessary, and deleted it, leaving me with a present participle, which is perfectly adequate to illustrate action, even though the preposition “after” does establish a timeline.

Rhetoric works at the intersection of audience, purpose, and context, so I think it’s reasonable to examine tweets from these perspectives. Audience is relatively easy — friends and followers (and, perhaps a bit frightening, stalkers, so you need to be careful who you allow to see your tweets) who find what you’re doing somewhat interesting. Purpose is harder, and this is where my academic friends get stuck on Twitter updates, asking “Why on earth would anyone want to know that I’m going shopping right now, or if I’m cooking hamburger helper?”

Fair questions, and they speak to purpose. On the sender’s side, the purpose of tweets is multiple: to express a feeling, to inform others of a situation you find yourself in, to respond to other tweets in a TwitterDialog. If we look at a triangle of rhetorical aims (such as theorized by James Kinneavy), I think tweets work out pretty nicely for Expressive, Informative, Poetic, and perhaps Persuasive aims of discourse. I’m not sure about persuasive tweets, at least insofar as we’re talking about fully developed arguments, but I don’t have any problem seeing individual tweets as particles of arguments, comprising claims, rebuttals, bits of evidence, critical questions, and so on.

On the receiver’s end, what is the purpose of reading the tweet updates of your friends? In some cases, the tweets inform you of something (party, poetry reading, political event) that you didn’t know about, and acts like a semaphor or smoke signal or loudspeaker message: short and to the point. (One if by land and two if by sea, and that sort of thing.) But what do you do with an expressive tweet, one that says something like “Joyce feels like a sunshine daydream”? I think you do with it the same thing you do with any expression, whether a happy shout of children on the playground or a sob of grief over the death of a grandparent or a poem about feeling alienated: you relate to it, empathize with it, critique it, ignore it.

It has been argued that Web2.0 technologies that enable social networking act almost like a living creature and that the synapses and cells and processes of that living thing are the tweets and cellphone pictures and blog entries. If so, then in addition to a primary purpose of tweets (i.e. inform, delight, persuade, and so on), there must be a secondary purpose: to nurture the life processes that characterize social networking. It doesn’t really matter if I tweet that I’m about to go shopping or that my lawnmower is broken, but it does matter if everyone quits networking, and thus my individual tweets contribute to the bigger creature, just as an individual bee’s deeds don’t matter except in the totality of the hive.

Is the purpose of twittering, then, to pulse one voice into the din of the network? Is that the only purpose? Is that voice supposed to mirror the community’s values, or can it contribute to the diversity of opinion and expression and thus make the community stronger? If social networking (and twittering is part of that process) is a big discourse, then I think it must be good — as long as you’re twittering as a participant in the larger discourse, you aren’t hitting someone over the head with a hammer, and all modern theorists of social argumentation agree (and it’s fairly amazing they agree on anything, from concepts of rationality and reason to what “common ground” means) that for societies that wish to avoid totalitarianism and the force that accompanies totalitarianism, keeping the discussion going is paramount. I don’t know if twittering rises to the level of communicative action a la Habermas, but it does contribute to the dialog-multiplied-a-million-fold, or the polylog/multilog/panalog.

Context is related to purpose, as tweets are composed on computers, cell phones, and mobile devices of all sorts, and they are also read and responded to in highly distributed ways. Tweets are everywhere, always on the move, little flashes of activity in an enormous field of human activity. If tweets are individual squawks from airplanes, then you can see the aggregate twitters (multiple tweets from the same airplane multiplied by all the airplanes in the air multiplied by a time-sequence showing aggregate activity, as you can get on FlightAware (static or movie or separate air carrier).

Do the constraints (140 characters) of Twittering mean that it is insuffient as a communication medium? I don’t think so — all media and all situations are constrained in some way. Physical production is constrained by material and economic and practical issues like ink, weight, shipping, and so on. Electronic production, along with all other sorts of production, are constrained by the amount of time a person or a team of designers have to give to a project, by the bandwidth speeds and processor speeds and the limits of screen or audio resolution. And even if we had world enough and time to produce messages (which we don’t), then the limits of our readers’ attention would constrain our messages, a point Richard Lanham has made in The Economics of Attention.

Twittering, then, is a valid form of communication that may provide writers a means of arriving at all the aims of rhetoric, may provide readers food for thought or timely information, and may act as a Habermasian social glue that promotes pluralism and dialog. I’m not saying Twitter must achieve these things because the tools/techniques of communication (whether tweets, novels, or movies) are also free to generate rubbish and dogma. In other words, the actions of the communicators imbue the tools and techniques with their ends, and speaking as a rhetor, that’s the way it should be.

In my previous post, you’ll recall that the farrier’s impression was that my wife dumped her old hubbie for me, and I’d like to expand on this idea a little.

I’m of two minds on this metaphor. On the one hand, I’m the same person with the same core as always, and thus I don’t see this transition as dumping/acquiring anyone. On the other hand, it does feel like something big has happened in our relationship, and while it may not be quite accurate to describe it as Mary Jo having left George and taken up with Joyce, that’s not entirely a bad image.

I’m going to focus on what I see in Mary Jo, and leave the more internal sense of my evolving self-definition for subsequent posts. Since I’m writing about her, I am limited to my impressions and not necessarily the “truth” inside her. Still, it’s my blog and I’ll give it a shot, not because I’m a mind reader or have any special talents at understanding people, but because her demeanor and attitude towards me has a lot to do with my relationship to the world.

And here’s what I see. Whatever has happened (morphing or switching partners), Mary Jo seems to really be happy these days, having come (I think) to a place where being with Joyce is OK. I would even venture so far as to say our situation may be more than just OK, but actually good.

I think her attitude probably has to do with three things, a) my feeling of inner peace and the resulting loss of my drama-queen ego-centrism, b) her growing realization that our relationship is able to continue in one form or another to each’s benefit, and c) ample support from her friends, who manage to achieve the twin actions of accepting Joyce’s evolution AND offering their unconditional support for Mary Jo.

I feel a deep affection for her friends because while I may have been the sensational transition story, they have draped a mantle of almost heroic notoriety upon her. Everyone wants to talk about how she’s so strong, how they’d dump Bob, or Mario, or whatever their husband’s name is, if he did this to them, and while this might be a bit of a backhanded compliment, I think there’s genuine curiosity and admiration being expressed about Mary Jo’s capacity for change and her ability to love, as well.

I think what Mary Jo and I are discovering is just how dynamic a relationship can be if you respect each other, give each other space to evolve, and not get stuck on an idealized version of your relationship. Yes, Mary Jo has stayed with me and is supportive, but one could argue that the “me” she has stayed with has been a rapidly moving target, and therefore really isn’t anything you could actually “stay” with in any sense of the word stay.

More accurate would be to say that she and I are like two stars in a tight, circling orbit (click on the link and play with a binary star simulation), and the tug towards each other has not diminished even as we go spinning through space and burning more brightly or less brightly based on our own life-metabolisms. Whatever the gravity is that pulls us together, even as we pursue our own paths, it has become stronger through this crisis. The image of the binary star system works, too, because neither star is fixed, but both stars orbit a center of mass that they both share.

Mary Jo and I have evolved from a wonderful relationship, never conventional even before my transsexual crisis, and are currently building (or rebuilding) an exceptional relationship. The center of our binary orbit is our shared sense of family, love and respect for each other, and a sense of personal adventure (whether it be related to horses, planes, or the intellectual life). I’ve never been happier or more excited about our future.

The farrier (horse-shoe guy, for you non-horse-people) called Mary Jo on a Thursday about a week ago to say he was in the area and wanted to come do her horses a few days early. Not one to pass up excellent equestrian craftsmen’s services, she told him to come on. The only hitch in the plan is that this fellow will only shoe horses if someone holds the horse (i.e. he won’t do the work himself by tying the horse to a post). Mary Jo called and asked me to butch it up and meet him at our barn and hold the horses until she was finished with her class, at which point she’d return home to relieve me.

I didn’t really have a choice, and having the day off, I said I would be happy to help out. I was already made-up and had been considering shopping, so I put on my jeans and 3/4 sleeve v-neck shirt and went to the barn to assist.

I was not sure, though, just what Mary Jo had told Terry Marx, her farrier, about me or our situation. I assumed he knew nothing and decided I would play the role of Joyce, her helpful friend at the barn. I introduced myself, we shook hands, and then got to work. Terry is a good old boy who really knows his horse feet, making custom shoes for odd sizes in his portable stove/kiln in the “shop” on the back of his truck. He also loves conversation, and after a bit of getting-to-know-you’s, we had a lovely, long discussion about everything from horses to animal husbandry to Mary Jo’s other friends to the upcoming election.

He asked flirty, polite questions like “so, is this your first time? I mean, holding a horse while it’s being shod?” or “Do you ride with all the other lovely ladies at this barn?” And I answered as honestly and as neutrally as possible, not wanting to out myself or to compromise Mary Jo’s credibility with this country boy on whose expertise she depends. It was clear, however, that I knew a lot about the operations of the place, about the irrigation and the house and the tractors, and that even though I didn’t use “we” at all to describe Joyce and Mary Jo, it was obviously there, floating in between the words and the concepts.

When Mary Jo arrived, the second of two horses was just being completed, and I said I would finish the job, so we all stood around talking for another 20 minutes or so, at which point, I told Terry I enjoyed helping. “Likewise,” he said.

Mary Jo stayed behind to help tidy up, and when she returned to the house 15 minutes later, she said that he asked her confidentially and playfully, “Mary Jo, what’d you go and do, leave your husband and hitch up with her? Have you switched sides?”

“Well, yes, something like that,” she said, and then explained that yes, her husband was gone and yes, she had taken up with Joyce, but that the wrinkle was that her husband had become Joyce. Instead of being horrified, Terry was fascinated, and asked all sorts of questions, ultimately telling Mary Jo that he thought it was great and that he’d like to know all about it.

I found the whole story incredibly fun and affirming, not just because Joyce had “passed,” but also because this incident is another in a series of events that confound the stereotype of salt-of-the-earth country people, such as populate the Bedford Falls area, as intolerant rednecks. Red their necks may be, as they’ve been laboring in the sun and don’t have long hair, but intolerant they are not. I don’t know if I’m simply statistically lucky and I have happened upon the few tolerant people there are around here, or whether my experience represents a valid statistical sample of the population. I prefer to think the latter.

I feel more and more a part of my world, not just the elite and progressive world of the university, but also the agricultural and service and retail world upon which we rely for things like food, clothing, services, auto care, schooling, sports, and entertainment. And this feeling is wonderful.

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