Wednesday, November 08, 2006

the NY Times tango: two steps forward, one step back

Many folks have been sending me the article that was published in the New York Times yesterday (available online HERE) about the Board of Health considering a change to its birth certificate policy to enable trans folks to receive new, amended birth certificates with their chosen sex marker on them.

My reaction to the article is decidedly mixed.

The news is, of rourse, great- it's high time that the city reviewed and changed its policy around birth certificates. This is an important step towards removing some of the gatekeeping hurdles that are keeping trans folks from going on about their lives. I think it's highly important that people be able to have birth certificates which accurately reflect their gender identity and presentation, both for personal peace of mind, and also for identification purposes. Everything needs to match up if one wants to avoid a lot of potentially difficult, hurtful, and confusing situations. I've been fighting my own identity document skirmishes, as you well know, which I'll write about in a minute. But back to the Times article.

While the news is good news, the reporting and language of the article, on the other hand, don't get the highest marks from me. I certainly didn't appreciate the quotation from Dr. McHugh, the psychiatrist from John's Hopkins...he was the one who said that he'd "heard of" someone harassing people in the women's restrooms. I think that retelling such a fearmongering anecdote (just where did he "hear" this story?) is exactly the kind of smoke-with-no-fire vilification of trans people that hurts our cause the most. For one thing, putting an image of a stick person in a skirt on the door isn't going to make a restroom any safer, nor is this law (or the recent decision by the MTA to allow trans folks to use bathrooms of their choice) going to make restrooms less safe...anyone intent on harming or harassing someone is going to find their way into the bathroom anyway.

This isn't about allowing men to use women's restrooms- it's about not harassing women who might not look like most women, but have a right to use the women's room nonetheless. Which is a a crucially important distinction that's also completely missed in this article, and the poor reporting that really frustrates me.

The reporter repeatedly refers to trans people as "women who become men" or, as when referring to the lawyer quoted in the last paragraph, a "man who has lived as a woman since 2000." Those are innacurate and offensive characterizations. Transgendered men aren't "women who become men." We ARE men. We may have a different medical and social history than most men, but that in no way diminishes our identity and standing as men.

And frustratingly enough, it appears that the reporter has been told this...he quotes a transwoman who testified at the hearing, and notes that she "asked to be identified as a woman for this article." Such a disclaimer should not be necessary! If he isn't sensitive enough to know that he should refer to her as a woman, then it's a good thing that she asked him to. Following that, though, he shouldn't need to mention it in the article! Furthermore, he should follow those guidelines and refer to ALL transpeople respectfully, rather than with the invalidating "women who become men" lingo that he uses thoughout the rest of the article.

I know I'm being particular here, and that reporting around trans issues has come a long way, especially lately. At least this reporter got everyone's pronouns right, covered the topic in an essentially unbiased way, made sure to get quotations from people with multiple perspectives, even if some of the perspectives are frustrating.

And I am wary of making blanket pronouncements about what is or is not respectful to trans folks. "Transgender" is an enormous blanket term, and not all of us have similar ideas about what is and is not appropriate. I'm sure there are trans folks out there who wouldn't mind being described as a "man who became a woman," just as there are those of us who flinch at such binary terminology.

To me, such a description is both inaccurate- I don't think saying that I used to be a woman is very useful at all, since I never really fit any of the common definitions of the term, except perhaps anatomically- and insulting- it feels like an attempt at invalidation, an attempt to say "See! You're not REALLY a man."

I think that most of the people I know, trans or non-trans, would agree with me on those counts. The notion that gender oughtn't be defined by anatomy is one that has long since burst out of Women's and Gender Studies Departments, and I think it's clear to most reasonable people that describing someone who has transitioned as "a man living as a woman" is both hurtful and disrespectful.

So yeah. Anyone else have thoughts?


Kate said...

You should absolutely refine and edit this post and send it to the NYT as a letter to the editor. I had similar reactions to everything you just exposed... especially when he writes she "asked to be identified as a woman for this article." It's easy to get caught up in the optimistic content of the article, but I was certainly less enthusiastic when I read it a second time through and noticed the way in which the quotes were being introduced. The articles I used for my presentation in my Amherst seminar made the same mistakes... misusing pronouns and relying heavily on disclaimers that these individuals were "now living as" men and women and other such phrases that were presented in a very insentive and condescending way. I made sure to explain these drawbacks to the class before having them read the article, but even so I was nervous that I was helping to reinforce harmful languge.

Andrea said...

I agree with you in general: the NY Times should not reprint hearsay from "experts" like Paul McHugh, and it's disrespectful to refer to post-transition transgender people as their assigned gender,

But I want to expand on the part about blanket pronouncements. Specifically, this is about allowing men to use women's restrooms (among other things). You ignore the fact that many of us are not transition-track, and still identify and live as men, but sometimes present as women and need to use the women's room without being harassed. We're transgender too, and we're covered under this law.

I've got a series of articles about the bathroom issue on my blog.

abby said...

i also noticed how most of the examples of trans people used as examples in the article were poor (the transwoman addressed as "mister" by her welfare agent), criminal (the hearsay about a transperson attacking women in a bathroom), or homeless (the law about assigning beds in homeless shelters based on gender presentation). not that there's anything wrong with being poor, but it's certainly a not-so-subtle hint about how transpeople are stereotyped. they didn't exactly interview successful, middle class, under-the-radar trans folks about their boring, mainstream, non-threatening lives.

arrg. how frustrating.

Rochelle said...

i think today's article has gone a long way to rectify this awful article. still, a letter to the editor is a cool idea.

Anonymous said...

towards the end of your comment, you assume that "most reasonable people" will "understand" that referring to a transperson as, for instance, a man who is living as a woman is "harmful and disrespectful".

you're making a lot of assumptions there yourself, you know. I personally know of a few transsexual women who think of themselves in just that way, and readily use "living as" language. further, I don't think the only "reasonable" people in the world are women's studies majors. a New York Times article must be read with the understanding that the people who can articulate the ins and outs of trans terminology are a small, minority niche of trans people, partners, some family, professionals, and academics.

so, in the realm of describing an issue to a general reading public, I think it was well done.

in light of the not-too-long-ago Dan Savage piece, I think this is a giant leap forward.

I am concerned that, being that it was on the front page, this article may draw more negative backfire than understanding or acceptance. there have already been a couple talk show hosts panicing over it. I personally wish that changes in birth certificate law could be widely spread throughout trans communities and resources, but kept out of public spotlight. a human interest story about one trans person's achievements would make for a better, and far more necessary, message to the public.

finally, there's a chance that the huge umbrella nature of "transgender" may actually be hurting here. if genderqueers don't want to be lumped in with transsexuals, and vice versa, perhaps the umbrella is losing its usefulness.

Eli said...

Andrea- thanks for your comments! You're right, I spoke in haste. What it's ACTUALLY about is enforcing the right of anyone, regardless of identity, presentation, or anatomy, to use whichever bathroom is most comfortable and safest for them at any given time.

I think I used that phrase in reaction to the too-common trend of (sometimes willfully) misinformed folks to present transwomen as "men in dresses", an oversimplification on many levels, and a hurtful one.

Eli said...

Anonymous commenter, I see your point, as well, and it's a trenchant one. What IS there to do about this Trans umbrella that keeps getting broader? Do we all fit under it? What sounds respectful to me may be hurtful to someone else, and vice versa.

I think my intent was to try to point out that, in fact, women's studies majors are NOT the only reasonable folks around...that everyone is able to understand why it would be hurtful to refer to someone who identifies as a woman as a man.

You're right that trans terminology is still very much contained within the community. I hope that'll change more and more.

And I do think that public education- keeping changes like this IN the spotlight- is a prime way to do that. However, in order to do that effectively, the message needs to be propagated in a respectful and educated way, so as not to do more harm than good.

But then we're back to the question of what it means to be respectful to all trans people. Is that even possible?

Also, speaking of human interest stories, did you see this one in yesterday's Times?

Anonymous said...

this is the same anonymous. can't get that webpage to open, says it is "no longer available". could you summarize it?

I do think that education is necessary, but in certain ways, I don't want people to know the specifics about how markers are changed legally. in my mind, it's good for them to know about identities and experiences, but bad to get too specific about medical and legal issues. why? because I'm sure that it will outrage some powerful people (i.e., megachurch activist "christians") who might then seek to make it more difficult for trans people to get what they need and live their lives in peace.

for example, if a person who didn't know or care either way suddenly becomes aware that the sex marker on the NYC birth certificate can change without surgery, they could get angry and rally the troops to try to fight the law. at this point in time, I think the political forces that would work against us are stronger than anything we've mustered as far as lobbying, funds, and power issues go. so, if the ultraconservatives never know about the birth certificate issue, they've got nothing to fight against. if they do know, they are well equipped to cause a stink about it.