Tag Archives: transgender

What will it take for Facebook to change its policy?

Once upon a time, if you joined Facebook and wanted to select a gender option, the only options you could choose from were “male” and “female.” Several months ago, all of that changed when Facebook added 56 “custom” gender options. With that change, Facebook issued the following announcement:

When you come to Facebook to connect with the people, causes, and organizations you care about, we want you to feel comfortable being your true, authentic self. An important part of this is the expression of gender, especially when it extends beyond the definitions of just “male” or female.” So today, we’re proud to offer a new custom gender option to help you better express your own identity on Facebook.

You could almost hear the collective “YAY!” from various queer and ally communities. With that change, Facebook became Cool. Hip. Progressive. The LGBTQ community had found a powerful ally in the corporate social media world. Or so we thought.

Now Facebook’s “real name” policy is rearing its ugly head.  If you go to the page titled, “What names are allowed on Facebook?”, you’ll see this:

Facebook is a community where people use their real identities. We require everyone to provide their real names, so you always know who you’re connecting with. This helps keep our community safe.

The page goes on to describe what’s not allowed, including nicknames that bear no resemblance to your real name, titles, word or phrases in place of a middle name, characters from multiple languages, or anything deemed offensive or suggestive. This policy has been in place for quite some time, but it hasn’t been strictly enforced. That is, until a few days ago, when individuals using pseudonyms, stage names, or other names that don’t match their legal names began receiving messages saying, “Your account has been temporarily suspended because it looks like you’re not using your real name.” To add insult to injury, the Huffington Post reported that Facebook’s “real name” policy is disproportionately affecting the LGBT community, particularly drag queens, stage performers, and transgender people. After a meeting with Facebook officials organized by Sister Roma of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, Facebook announced that they would reinstate profiles that had been suspended and give them a 2-week grace period: either they comply with the policy, or their profiles will be removed.

In one fell swoop, cool-hip-progressive Facebook became Public Enemy #1. When Facebook expanded its gender options, it offered a welcoming, validating space for queer people –  a space where you could be your “true, authentic self.” (Remember those words?) Now, there’s considerable debate about whether to jump ship entirely. A community boycott of Facebook called My Name is Me is asking people to deactivate their Facebook accounts and switch to Google+, a social media platform that allows pseudonyms and preferred names to be used.

So I did a little “research.” I went through all of my Facebook friends, and I counted how many of them use a pseudonym. And I came up with twenty-two. I have several friends who are Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. A handful of friends are transgender and in transition, choosing to use a name that fits their gender identity rather than their legal name. Some transgender friends maintain two accounts – one that uses their chosen name (for friends and supporters), the other that uses their legal name (for people who don’t know about their transgender status). I know a couple of people who are drag queens and who maintain pages using that name. Some friends use a pseudonym because they’re lesbian, gay, or bisexual and aren’t out to their families. Obviously, you can see how the LGBTQ community is impacted by this policy.

But not all of my friends (including the 22 with pseudonyms) are LGBTQ. I have at least one friend who uses a pseudonym because she escaped a violent relationship and doesn’t want her ex to find her. Another friend is a therapist and uses a pseudonym so clients won’t “friend” her. I know people in 12-step recovery programs who don’t use their legal names because they want to stay anonymous, in keeping with the Twelve Traditions of Alcoholics Anonymous. And several friends use pseudonyms so they can keep their “friends” list small and generally stay under the radar.

I expanded my “research” to include a bit of statistical calculation. I have 465 Facebook friends. Twenty-two people out of 465 equals 4.7%. If all twenty-two of those people decided to quit Facebook and delete their accounts, that would be a tiny drop in the Facebook bucket. But if all of my Facebook friends jumped on board and deleted their accounts, that might get their attention. If all of my Facebook friends got all of their Facebook friends to delete their accounts (and so on), I think Facebook would seriously consider changing its policy.

I don’t think that’s going to happen. Maybe this analogy will explain my thinking. After my Introductory Psychology students take a multiple-choice exam, I do what’s called an item analysis. If there’s a test question that all (or most) students got wrong, I throw the question out and credit them with the points. My students love this – they can’t wait to hear how many “free points” they’re going to get. However, what they haven’t figured out is this: If all of them hatched a plot and collectively agreed to answer every single question incorrectly, then all of them would earn 100% on the exam. Simple as that.

Actually, I don’t think it’s that my students haven’t figured this out. I think many of them have – but they’re too scared to put it into action. If I answer each question wrong, and at least one student answers at least one question correctly, then I get a zero on the exam. That’s a risk that most students aren’t willing to take, because taking the risk involves trusting every single student completely. It’s the same thing with the Facebook issue: If I delete my account, and none of my friends delete their accounts, then I’m disconnected from my friends – and Facebook is still alive and thriving, oppressive policies still in place. And frankly, it’s one of the reasons why radical social change is so hard to achieve. People know that change will happen if a critical mass jumps in with both feet – but if you end up being the only one who takes the plunge, change doesn’t happen, and you fall SPLAT on the ground.

So if you’re on Facebook, what will you do? Will you jump in with both feet and delete your account entirely? Will you just dip your toe in by temporarily deactivating your account and seeing what happens? Or will you do nothing?



Filed under activism, coming out, gender nonconformity, media, transgender, violence

The choice that’s not always a choice

Last week, a traveling pro-life display came to Sacramento City College, setting up shop in the middle of the campus quad and holding court for two days. The group that organized this display, Project Truth, uses images of dead fetuses, lynchings, and murdered Holocaust victims to make the case that abortion is an act of genocide. (Yes, they really say that.) We had been warned that they were coming, and many of us (myself included) voiced our concerns about their presence to the college administration.

Who invited them?

Why are they allowed to show those disturbing and offensive images?

What if people get upset or traumatized? Are we prepared to handle that?

Can’t we just tell them they can’t come here?

This is the response we got from The Powers That Be:

“Anyone with any message can come to our campus. They’re protected by the First Amendment. The only way we could keep them off campus is if their images were pornographic.”

Hearing that, the wheels started turning inside my snarky little brain. Hmmm. What if I decided to host a campus screening of Annie Sprinkle’s Amazing World of Orgasm (which, by the way, is marketed to college campuses)? Or Annie Sprinkle’s Herstory of Porn? What if I showed the film Live Nude Girls Unite! (which my campus library owns, by the way), a film that follows the unionizing efforts of the female dancers from The Lusty Lady? What if I invited sexologist Carol Queen to come to one of my classes to show her “ex-ed” (explicit educational) videos? Apparently those films could be banned from campus, the speakers could get kicked out of my classes, and I could get into Big Trouble.

Why images of murder are acceptable on a college campus, but sexually graphic materials are not, points to the lightning-rod volatility the issue of pornography in our country. And the queer community, in many ways, has been at the epicenter of this issue.

I’m brought back to the mid-1990s, when I was a graduate student living in the San Francisco Bay Area. By day, I was working as a research assistant for Diana Russell, a feminist researcher whose work focused on violence against women – and who herself was a fervent anti-pornography activist. At the time I worked for her, she was writing a book titled Dangerous Relationships: Pornography, Misogyny, and Rape. My job involved, among other things, writing descriptions of pornographic (often graphically violent) images that had previously been included in her full-picture version of the book, Against Pornography: The Evidence of Harm. It was unpleasant work, to say the least.

By night, however, I was exploring the Bay Area queer feminist community, which dovetailed in many ways with the newly-emerging sex-positive movement. This movement, which featured people like Susie Bright, Annie Sprinkle, Carol Queen, and Patrick Califia-Rice, encourages open sexuality with few limits, embracing all forms of sexual activity and expression – including pornography and other forms of sex work. From a sex-positive perspective, the fine line between empowerment and victimization involves the critical importance of informed consent – if a woman chooses to work at a sex club, or if she chooses to act in a porn flick, that is absolutely, unabashedly her right. Many of the events I attended in the mid- to late 1990s had a sex-positive flavor, and increasingly I felt like I had a split personality. The Diana Russell-style lesbian-feminism that was helping me pay my way through graduate school was in direct conflict with the community – and the empowerment – I was finding through the Susie Bright/Carol Queen-style queer sex-positive feminism.

There’s more than one side to this issue within the LGBTQ community, though. While sex-positive feminism lends a perspective that many (including myself) find refreshing, there are numerous research studies that paint a much more sobering picture of sex work in the queer community. Consider these studies:

  • Researchers from the Public Health Institute in Oakland studied 573 transgender women in the San Francisco Bay Area with a history of sex work. According to their 2011 report, half had been physically assaulted, and more than a third had been raped or sexually assaulted.
  • In a 2010 study of street-involved, drug-using youth, researchers at St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver found that, compared to heterosexual youth, lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth were significantly more likely to engage in “survival sex work” – meaning that they exchanged sex for money, drugs, or other commodities. Moreover, in conjunction with their survival sex work, LGB youth exhibited elevated HIV risk behavior, compared to their heterosexual counterparts.
  • In a 2009 UCSF study, out of 151 transgender female youth ages 15-24, 67% had engaged in sex work at some point, and 19% reported being HIV-positive. Lack of social support, low levels of education, homelessness, and drug use were all significantly correlated with sex work.
  • A 2008 study of transgender women of color involved in sex work indicated that, based on their responses in focus groups, prostitution and other forms of sex work didn’t necessarily feel like a “choice.” Some were undocumented immigrants who, fearing deportation, felt as if they had no other choice. Some experienced barriers to other forms of employment due to racism, sexism, and transphobia. Most had no support from their families or their ethnic and cultural communities. All of them were aware of the significant risks associated with sex work, but knew that the immediate benefits outweighed the risks.
  •  A 2007 study that investigated the experiences of gay men in the porn industry documented the low earnings of these actors. Because gay porn actors earn so little through their film work, according to this study, most turn to other forms of sex work, like prostitution or stripping, in order to survive economically.

Physical abuse. Sexual abuse. Economic exploitation. Frankly, none of this sounds really like a “choice.” In order to make choices in life, we have to have options. When no other options exist, you fall back on the last resort – which, for many LGBTQ people (especially transwomen and people of color), involves some form of sex work.

But what if other options DID exist? What if fewer LGBTQ youth ended up homeless in the first place, because their families were accepting and embracing? What if all LGBTQ youth and young adults felt safe in their school environments, increasing the likelihood of getting a high school diploma, or graduating from college? What if an inclusive form of ENDA was in place, and a demonstrated commitment was made to end workplace discrimination against LGBTQ people? If those protections were in place, undoubtedly a world of options would open up. Would sex work end up on the list as one of the viable choices?

For some, maybe. For many, probably not. Either way, the buzzwords that come to mind for me are “safety” and “informed consent” – hallmarks of the sex-positive movement. Without those, we cross the line from empowerment to victimization.


Filed under intersectionality, LGBTQ youth, psychological research, racism, San Francisco, sexism, transgender, transphobia, violence

FWT (Flying While Transgender)

I hate flying. I mean, I HATE flying. I’d rather drive six hours to Los Angeles than fly for an hour and a half. I’m not afraid to fly. It’s just that flying has become such a huge Pain. In. The. Ass. Waiting in a long line to check in. Waiting in another long line to go through security. Waiting in yet another long line to board the plane. Cramming myself into a tiny seat with no leg room and breathing recirculated air for hours on end. And traveling with a small child – complete with car seat and other random cumbersome gear – just makes the experience that much more obnoxious. Not to sound like a total prima donna, but I’d rather stay put and have people come to me.  (Upon reading that last sentence, I realize that I do, in fact, sound like a TOTAL prima donna.)

However, I’m well aware of the fact that I’ve got it pretty easy. In fact, I think I have it a lot easier than some people. If I had a physical disability and needed assistance, flying would be a much bigger hassle. If I were from a different ethnic background, particularly, in this post-9/11 era, if I were of Middle Eastern descent, my name would undoubtedly be on some list, and I’d be subjected to much more scrutiny. However, I couldn’t find a single psychological study that addressed the experiences of Flying While Transgender. Which is interesting, given that airport security procedures can be extraordinarily stressful for trans- and gender-variant people.

A few weeks ago, Ben Hudson, who is the executive director of the Gender Health Center here in Sacramento, posted a link on his Facebook page to the TSA site for transgender travelers. If you are trans or gender-variant, and you plan on flying, this site should be required reading. Actually, this site should also be required reading for those of us with cisgender privilege – because if you fit nicely and neatly into our two-category gender system, numerous advantages are afforded to you, most of which are probably taken completely for granted.

This is what the TSA site says under the first heading, “Preparing for Travel”:

Making Reservations: Secure Flight requires airlines to collect a traveler’s full name, date of birth, gender and Redress Number (if applicable) to significantly decrease the likelihood of watch list misidentification. Travelers are encouraged to use the same name, gender, and birth date when making the reservation that match the name, gender, and birth date indicated on the government-issued ID that the traveler intends to use during travel.

Theoretically, if the name, gender, and birth date on your driver’s license (or other ID) matches the name, gender, and birth date on your travel reservation, then everything should be fine. Right?  Except for many transpeople, getting your name and gender changed on various identity documents, such as your birth certificate, driver’s license, passport, etc. may not be so easy. A recently-issued report by the Center for American Progress, titled, “ID Accurately Reflecting One’s Gender Identity is a Human Right,” documents the numerous obstacles that have been placed in the way of obtaining accurate ID, creating financial, medical, and legal barriers. In the United States, different states have different policies regarding how identity documents are issued or amended. In one state, getting a new driver’s license with an updated photo, name, and gender label might be relatively easy. Getting a new birth certificate might be fairly simple as well. But even though Tennessee is the only state that outright prohibits the amendment of birth certificates for transgender people, it’s not uncommon for states, in practice, to refuse to amend identity documents so that a transperson’s gender identity is accurately reflected.  And, according to the National Transgender Discrimination Survey, forty percent of people who presented ID that did not match their gender identity experienced some form of harassment. Although the TSA makes clear that transgender people should be treated with dignity and respect while traveling, the reality is that not having ID that is congruent with one’s gender identity is, well, risky.

Here’s the next section of the TSA site:

Packing a Carry-on: All carry-on baggage must go through the screening process. If a traveler has any medical equipment or prosthetics in a carry-on bag, the items will be allowed through the checkpoint after completing the screening process. Travelers may ask that bags be screened in private if a bag must be opened by an officer to resolve an alarm. Travelers should be aware that prosthetics worn under the clothing that alarm a walk through metal detector or appear as an anomaly during Advanced Imaging Technology (AIT) screening may result in additional screening, to include a thorough pat-down. Travelers may request a private screening at any time during the security screening process.

If a transperson hasn’t been outed because of ID-related issues, it’ll likely happen during some part of the screening process. If a person is taking medications, such as injectable hormones that require syringes, this will undoubtedly lead to higher levels of scrutiny. If a person is wearing items with metal, such as a metal boned corset, an underwire bra, or metal binding materials, they will likely set off airport metal detectors and require additional screening. If screening involves what’s called “advanced imaging technology,” in which, depending on the scanning machine being used, the screener would be able to see what genitals a person has, as well as any binding or prostheses. “This is why I don’t fly,” one Facebook user declared in response to this information.

Numerous psychological studies have investigated the factors that predict a fear of flying, or an avoidance of air travel. The most common factor among these studies? Stress and worry about check-in and security checks. Makes sense to me.

In addition to the information provided by the TSA, the National Center for Transgender Equality has provided a tip sheet for transgender travelers. Everyone has the right to a respectful and dignified travel experience.

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Filed under gender nonconformity, human rights, psychological research, Sacramento, transgender, transphobia, Uncategorized

Be a part of the Fringe!

This week, I’m taking a little detour from my typical format to talk in more detail about this new project I’m working on – and how you can potentially be a part of it. The working title for my new book is Fringe: On the Edges of the Mainstream Gay Community, which will explore the experiences of people who exist on the edges of the LGBTQ community. These groups include people who are bisexual, polyamorous, alt-sex/BDSM/kink, disabled, non-White, poor and/or working class, older, trans or genderqueer – groups that don’t get as much attention in the mainstream LGBTQ rights agenda, and who often experience marginalization within the LGBTQ community.

When I say “marginalization,” what do I mean by that? As an example, the other day I spoke with Dr. Keely Kolmes, who works with the bi, poly, and kink communities in her psychotherapy practice. Early in her career, when she decided to focus her research and therapeutic skills in this direction, she experienced all sorts of negative reactions – and many of those reactions came from members of the LGBTQ community. “Most of us who are gay aren’t like that,” a gay male professional made a point of saying.  The assumption behind that statement, of course, is that we want to be seen as normal by heterosexuals – not like those “freaks.”

Or take Dany Atkins, who is bisexual and gender-variant, and who has been in a triadic polyamorous relationship for almost two decades. She had previously been part of a quad relationship, and when the biological mother of their son decided to leave the quad, a fierce and ugly custody battle ensued – with little support from the LGBTQ community. “You got what you deserved,” one lesbian woman told Dany, who was denied any legal rights to her son.

We could even consider Phyllis Lyon (of Phyllis Lyon/Del Martin fame, the first couple to be legally married in San Francisco and under pre-Proposition 8 California law). If anyone has been a trailblazer in the LGBTQ community, it would be her. Back in the 1950s, Lyon and Martin started the Daughters of Bilitis, the first national lesbian organization in the United States. They helped start the Council on Religion and the Homosexual. They were the first out lesbian members of the National Organization for Women. As they got older, they started the group Old Lesbians Organizing for Change. The San Francisco LGBTQ community is what it is largely because of them. And while Lyon was once front and center in the LGBTQ community, at 88 years old, she now exists on the edges of it. In an ageist culture that celebrates youth, Phyllis Lyon finds little connection in the community she helped build.

That’s what I mean by “marginalization.” It happens within the LGBTQ community – even though we all know what it feels like to be a member of an oppressed group. And that’s why I feel so motivated to write Fringe.

But in order to make this project happen, I need your help.

First, I need to raise money in order to make this project happen. I invite you to take a look at my Fringe Kickstarter campaign, and please consider contributing whatever is possible for you. Also note that with your contribution, you will receive a reward – including a signed copy of Fringe, an opportunity to guest blog here on The Active Voice, or an invite to my book launch party, where many of the people I’ve interviewed for the book (including the three individuals listed above) will be present.

Second, I’m looking for additional people to interview for Fringe. I’ve completed about a half-dozen interviews so far, with another half-dozen lined up in the next few months. If you are a member of an “edge community” within the larger LGBTQ umbrella, I’d be interested in hearing your story. Note that the opportunity to be interviewed is also a reward for contributing to my Kickstarter campaign. If you think your story would be relevant to this project, please contact me at gaylepitman@activevoicepress.com.

Thank you for continuing to read The Active Voice and to engage in conversations about my reflections – whether those comments are made on the blog itself, in person, or backchannel via e-mail. These conversations have challenged me to consider issues I hadn’t considered before – and they’ve fueled my excitement for writing and learning more about the community I’m a part of. While I will continue to blog on The Active Voice, I invite you to be a part of this new direction I’m going in.

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Filed under biphobia, bisexuality, gender nonconformity, hate crimes, HIV/AIDS, homophobia, intersex, LGBTQ, LGBTQ youth, psychological research, racism, relationships, sexism, transgender, transphobia, Uncategorized

Ain’t I a woman?

All week long, the media has been all atwitter about Jenna Talackova’s disqualification from the Miss Universe Canada pageant last weekend. A 23-year-old Vancouver native, Talackova was disqualified, according to Miss Universe Canada officials,  because “she did not meet the requirements to compete despite having stated otherwise on her entry form.” And what requirement, pray tell, did she fail to meet? Talackova was born male, knowing by age 4 that she was a female. She started taking hormones when she was 14, and she underwent gender reassignment surgery at age 19. Although her genitals look female, she wasn’t born with them. Hence the disqualification.

Of course, this is not the first time that transwomen have been asked to stay away from cisgendered female spaces. The Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, for example, is a well-known example of a “womyn-only space” – and their “womyn-born-womyn” policy effectively excludes transwomen from this space. Emerging during the second wave of feminism in the 1970s, women-only spaces were intended as “safe zones” for women – places where women could experience freedom from the patriarchal dictates of femininity and womanhood. In women-only spaces (theoretically, at least), a woman is free from the objectification of the “male gaze.” She won’t have to worry about her voice being ignored, trampled on, and silenced. She won’t have to appropriate a masculine persona in order to be heard. And she’ll have the freedom to be who she is on her own terms, rather than defining herself in relation to men. Even the term “womyn” was a linguistic step away from the binds of patriarchy, conveying the idea that one doesn’t need “man” in order to be “womyn.”

From this standpoint, not every woman is a “womyn.” Inside every transwoman is a man, like a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Cisgendered women were born female, raised as girls, and socialized under the dictates of patriarchy. Transwomen were born male and raised as boys, experiencing male privilege along the way. That alone, argue advocates of women-only spaces, makes transwomen not-women. In her book The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male, radical feminist scholar Janice Raymond repeatedly refers to transwomen as “male-to-constructed-females,” powerfully revealing her belief that transwomen are really anything but women.

So here’s what I find interesting about all this. So many of us think that, biologically speaking, there’s “male” and there’s “female” and that’s all there is to it. But Anne Fausto-Sterling’s classic article, “The Five Sexes: Why Male and Female Are Not Enough,” in which she focuses on intersex conditions, suggests otherwise. “Intersex” is a general term used to refer to conditions in which a person is born with a sexual or reproductive anatomy that doesn’t fit into the standard definition of “male” and “female.” In one of these conditions, called androgen insensitivity syndrome (AIS), a person who is genetically male (with one X and one Y chromosome) is resistant to male sex hormones. Despite having the genetic makeup of a man, a person with AIS typically has some or all of the physical characteristics of a woman. In fact, in many cases, AIS individuals look like model-perfect females, with a tall stature, slim figure, voluptuous breasts, long legs, and clear skin. It’s no wonder that more than a few women with AIS find their way into the modeling industry – the same industry that has blackballed Jenna Talackova. And even though women with AIS have an XY chromosomal pattern – and in many cases have undescended testes – you don’t hear about women with AIS getting kicked out of beauty pageants.  

Come to think of it, you don’t really hear about AIS women at all. In fact, some women with AIS don’t even know they have it, because that information has been concealed from them – or, in some cases, information was fabricated in order to hide the truth. Eden Atwood, a model, actress, and singer with AIS, was told by her doctors that she had twisted ovaries and that removing them would result in infertility, when in fact her “twisted ovaries” were actually undescended testes. In fact, historically medical protocols have called for constructing intersex children into one sex or the other. And why is the truth hidden from view? Because the truth calls the male-female binary into question.

 So what is a woman? Are transwomen really women? Are AIS women really women? Am I, a cisgendered female, more woman than Jenna Talackova, or Eden Atwood?

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Filed under intersex, transgender, transphobia