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.

Joyce…

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.

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