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Top Ten Answers to “How Many Intersex Activists Does It Take to Change A Light Bulb?”

Date: June 22, 2007

On June 20, I took part in the book release party & performance for Thea Hillman’s new book, For Lack of a Better Word. I found out that I was to perform at the very end of the show, which made me nervous because my piece was iconoclastic if not anti-social… which might not be a very positive way to wrap up the celebration of Thea’s new book. So on the morning of June 20 before I headed for the airport I wrote a quick, uplifting piece, well a top ten list actually, titled “Top Ten Answers to ‘How Many Intersex Activists does it take to Change the Light Bulb?” Here’s the list:

10. We’re too busy. Why don’t you ask Jeffrey Eugenides and his pal Oprah to do it?

9. Let’s wait until the light bulb is old enough to consent.

8. One in 2,000.

7. You can help change the light bulb by making a tax-deductible donation of $75 or more to the Intersex Society of North America!

6. You should realize that light bulb placement is tentative, and we need to allow the light bulb to decide whether to be in or out.

5. It’s easier to dig a hole than to build a pole tall enough to reach the light bulb.

4. Exactly at which point do we define the light bulb to be in order or in need of replacement? Binary is insufficient to accurately describe the status of a light bulb.

3. Only one, as long as it’s David Cameron. [note: who is very tall–and was in the audience.]

2. Don’t change the light bulb–change our minds!

…and the number one answer to “how many intersex activists does it take to change a light bulb?” is…

1. Buy Thea Hillman’s new book, For Lack of a Better Word. You’ll know the answer after reading it!

Book Release Event for Thea Hillman’s “For Lack of a Better Word,” June 20 in SF, CA

Date: June 20, 2007

Hey folks, I apologize for the last-minute announcement, but this morning (Wednesday the 20th) I’m flying to San Francisco to take part in the book release party for Thea Hillman’s “For Lack of a Better Word” (hot off the press as of yesterday!). I’ll be reading a new piece too.

For Lack of a Better Word: Nearly Shameless Performances Reflecting Intersex Experiences and Shameless Promotion Book Release Party

Ever feel you can’t find a word to describe you, your body, or your experience of the world? Join the club. For Lack of a Better Word is a book about grappling with normal and coming out the other side. The book release event will feature spoken word and performances by Thea Hillman, as well as local and national luminaries Emi Koyama, Hida Viloria, Aidan Dunn, Eli, and Shar Rednour.

San Francisco LGBT Center, Ceremonial Room
June 20th – doors 7:30, show 8pm
$8-$15, no one turned away for lack of funds.

Please come!

Emi on women-only spaces and politics of safety in Bitch magazine

Date: June 14, 2007

The current issue of Bitch magazine has an interview with poet & activist Julia Serano about her new book, “Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity” (definitely recommended). Along with it there’s a side column in which Lisa Jervis compiles several people’s opinions about the women-only space, in which I’m quoted (see page 65). I love how they listed my occupation as “buttenmeister” as I’ve requested, but for space reason they had to edit down my comments two (long) paragraphs. Below, I present the complete response to Lisa’s questions, unmodified.


What’s your personal experience with women-only space? (Have you spent a lot of time in women-only spaces, organized such spaces, etc.? If so, what has drawn you to them and what do you see as the benefits and drawbacks?)

I haven’t spent that much time, but I have participated in events, meetings, and a couple of retreats that was specifically for women. There was a time in my life that seemed like a great place to be, not necessarily because it was women-only, but it was a space to be with the kind of women who needed and appreciated such space (in other words, the presence of Condy Rice or Laura Bush or probably even Hilary Clinton would ruin it for me). It was not about the fact that they were women, but are the kind of women with whom I needed to connect with at the time, that was important to me. But of course that’s getting into a dangerous territory, because there is nothing that says that Condy can’t come to such a space.

What’s your preferred definition of women-only space (e.g., woman-identified folks only, cisgender women only – only those who were born and socialized as female, anyone who currently or has ever identified as a woman)?

My preference is to not have a definition as a matter of principle: for most people, “women-only” would be sufficient to determine whether or not they should be part of it; and for those people where things are more complicated, no single set of criteria would do justice.

What part, if any, do you think women-only space plays or should play within feminism?

It’s a playground to see what is possible among women: I would especially like to see the space utilized to discuss racism, classism and other issues that exist among women and among feminists, because we often censor ourselves on these topics in the larger society out of fear that feminism would be perceived divided and weak.

Would you like to see a change in the admissions policies of high-profile women-only space such as the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival? What kind of change?

Oh, please keep the current policy so that we can continue to use it as an educational tool to address transphobia in women’s and feminist groups! ;-)

Seriously, as I wrote above, there shouldn’t be any policy beyond “women-only.” I’m sure that organizers of Michfest now realize that creating the policy was a mistake, because it has brought far more attention to the trans existence at the festival than there would have been if they simply quietly ignored/tolerated the extremely small transsexual women contingent.

A common thread in discussions of women-only space is that it is safe, or safe in comparison to mixed-gender space. What does the term “safe space” mean to you?

“Safe space” is often a place in which others’ safety is sacrificed to make it safe for you. The idea that safety is about removing people or things that threaten them is criminally immoral when our government invades and occupies other countries, detains residents of these countries and others associated with it (including U.S. residents) without due process, strips them naked and tortures them, in order to protect, supposedly, “our” “safety.”

Safety should not be about the absence of the perceived threat, the “other,” but about building structures that ensure fairness, accountability, and justice. If a women-only space is to be safe, it shouldn’t be assumed to be safe simply because it excludes men (and possibly trans people), but because we work toward building such structures.

Do you see women-only space as safe? Why or why not?

Usually not. In fact, it’s sometimes more dangerous for many women, including of course trans women.

Do you think there’s such a thing as safe space? If so, what are the qualities that make a space safe? If not, why not?

See above.

What effects, if any, have the rules/guidelines surrounding women-only space policies had on you and/or your community?

It’s hurt a lot of people on both sides, but especially trans people (I refuse to equate the pain of being discriminated against and the pain of being accused of discriminating others, although they are both painful.)

I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it people like my quotes

Date: June 6, 2007

I’ve been quoted in publications before, but this is a new one: in the book “Different Wavelengths: Studies of the Contemporary Women’s Movement” edited by Jo Reger, I am quoted or referenced by four different contributors in four different articles on three different topics. It’s so weird…

First, in Sally Hines’ “‘I am a Feminist but…’: Transgender Men and Women and Feminism,” she writes:

Thus political practice rather than gender or sex lies at the heart of feminist identity. We can add on to this that a feminist viewpoint need not depend upon feminine socialization in order to enable the feminist voices of trans women to be heard. Emi Koyama’s discussion of trans-feminism, which expresses the feminist concerns of trans women, shows how trans politics may enable contemporary feminism to move beyond the confines of second wave feminism.22 In conclusion I suggest that, if attentive to gender diversity, third wave feminism may provide a collective arena through which our differeces may produce a more extensive feminist knowledge.

When you look at the endnote 22, it cites “The Transfeminism Manifesto” (available in readings section as well as in the zine “Whose Feminism is it Anyway? and Other Essays”).

Next, in “Solitary Sisterhood: Individualism Meets Collectivity in Feminism’s Third Wave,” Astrid Henry writes:

Turbo Chick‘s critique of the term sisterhood–and caution that to use the word could prove “controversial”–seems grounded in the feminist history of exclusion that shapes so many of the other third wave perspectives that I’ve been discussing here. Viewing the term _sisterhood_ as naive, this definition stresses the ways in which differences become erased–and consequently, exclusion becomes inevitable–when the metaphor is evoked. The recent emergence of a transgender movement within third wave feminism may also point to the ways in which “sisterhood” is a problematic rhetorical device given the implied female subject of this sisterly coming together.34

I am not directly mentioned, but if you look at the endnote 34, here I am:

34. See Emi Koyama, “The Transfeminist Manifesto,” in Catching a Wave, 244-59. Interestingly, Koyama’s essay is written in the collective “we” voice (speaking as and for trans women) and, as its title suggests, is not an autobiographical essay but a call to arms in the spirit of the earlier second wave manifestos.

Stephanie Gilmore discusses the relationship between feminism and the prostitutes’ rights movement in her “Bridging the Waves: Sex and Sexuality in a Second Wave Organization”:

In addition to proclaiming their own sexual identities, needs, and desires, many third wave feminists have also joined the prostitutes’ rights movement. Some third wave feminists’ perspectives on prostitution contend that a woman’s sexuality, even in the context of sex work, ultimately belongs to herself. As Emi Koyama wrote in Instigations from the Whore Revolution: A Third-Wave Feminist Response to the Sex Work “Controversy,” feminism and prostitutes’ rights are integrated movements that shape the philosophy that all people should enjoy rights to dignity, respect, and job safety–issues feminists have fought for in a variety of contexts. Rather than chastise prostitutes for getting paid for sex, Koyama and other feminists in the contemporary prostitutes’ rights movement recognize and criticize the economic and cultural forces that shape people’s labors, including sex work, and constrain individual choices.38

“Instigations from…” is a zine that is available here.

Finally, Jo Reger and Lacey Story cites a Just Out (newspaper for Portland’s LGBT communities) story on a flyer campaign I did at a production of The Vagina Monologues

Activists from the Intersex Society of North America have attended productions of the monologues, passing out informational flyers. One of the pieces in the monologues that has drawn the most fire from intersex activists is the one in which a father promises his daughter, born without a vagina, that “we’re gonna get you the best homemade pussy in America.” According to activist Emi Koyama, the laughter following that segment is hurtful and offensive to intersex peopl, making genital surgeries a joke.36 The Intersex Society has organized events at a variety of college campuses, and has persuaded some college organizers to donate the money to intersex organizations.

For more information on this, see the resource kit I created for the Intersex Initiative.

Are you impressed now? ;-)

Complaint to TriMet on offensive radio on public transit

Date: June 5, 2007

Dear TriMet,

I am a consumer of TriMet’s LIFT service, and would like to comment on the ride I took from downtown Portland to my house on Tuesday, June 5. I was picked up at Portland State University at around 4:15pm, and was dropped off at 5:45pm. The number for the van was 9426.

For the entire hour and a half I was being transported, the driver blasted radio through TriMet’s equipment. It was so loud that I could not help but hear the radio even though I tried to block it by listening to music on my iPod.

Worse, he was listening to one of the right-wing political talk shows, in which the host repeatedly described Mexicans as “criminals,” “rapists and murderers,” Muslims and Arabs as “terrorists” and “uncivilized,” among others. The host also attacked the civil rights of gays and lesbians, as well as women’s constitutional right to reproductive freedom.

My question is, is there any standard for what is appropriate for drivers to play on the TriMet’s radio? For that matter, I’ve never seen drivers on regular bus services subject their passengers to any radio program, but why are LIFT riders treated differently than others?

I wanted to ask the driver to turn off the radio, or at least turn it down, but I was afraid to do so because I was not sure how the driver would react, as I was surrounded by three other passengers and a driver, all of whom appeared to be white men. The driver’s choice of radio program while driving TriMet van seriously hinders my ability to use LIFT service in the future without fear.

Joycelyn Elders (sort of) responds to intersex activist–for the first time!

Date: June 4, 2007

I just came back from the conference Let’s Talk About Sex! in Chicago, organised primarily by SisterSong: Women of Color Reproductive Health Collective. While I was too exhausted from everything going on to attend all the sessions, it was good to meet many women of colour working toward comprehensive social and economic justice.

Thanks to Shira at Young Women’s Empowerment Project and SisterSong’s director Loretta, I was invited to speak about intersex human rights on a plenary panel appropriately titled “Controlling Communities through Controlling Bodies,” and to present a more detailed workshop on intersex later in the day.

I only had 15 minutes on the plenary, so I gave a brief overview of intersex issues, focusing on how surgeries designed to “fix” intersex are based on white straight male assumptions about sexuality, particularly that of women. For example, I refuse to accept the notorious statement by one of the intersex specialists, “it’s easier to dig a hole than to build a pole” (I joked “you didn’t know doctors could rhyme, aside from Dre…”) as a statement of objective fact: I believe that it reflects the (mostly male, mostly straight) doctors’ obsession with what a “functional” male genital must be like, versus their limited understanding of what female genitalia was for (the hole to be penetrated, that is).

There were hundreds of people in the audience (they told me that 800+ people pre-registered for the conference), but one caught my eyes: Dr. Joycelyn Elders, former U.S. Surgeon General during Clinton era, who was sitting almost directly in front of me on the third row. She was to give a keynote speech after the plenary, but she had somehow arrived early and was hearing my talk.

While Dr. Elders is well respected among progressive activists due to her views on healthy sexuality and commitment to social justice, she is also a pediatric endocrinologist with a history of actively promoting unnecessary medical surgeries on intersex children. During the 90s, intersex activists have tried to engage her in dialogue, but she never responded to many letters, phone calls and emails from intersex activists. But I bet that this is the first time that she actually sat in the audience while an intersex activist spoke–it was historical in that sense.

Toward the end of my presentation, I said that while intersex surgeries reflect white straight male assumptions about female sexuality, it is not only practiced or promoted by white straight male doctors. “In fact, our own keynote speaker Dr. Joycelyn Elders wrote, in her autobiography:”

Determining a person’s sex doesn’t feel the same as making decisions about high blood pressure or back surgery. But I don’t think we ever spent too much time on the philosophical side of it. The worst thing of all would have been not to have clarity.”
From “From Sharecropper’s Daughter to Surgeon General of the United States” by Joycelyn Elders with David Chanoff.

I continued: This is not to single her out, but to illustrate the pervasiveness of this approach, since even the most progressive, most sexually enlightened doctor holds such a view. But there are worse things than not having clarity, such as not having an orgasm–and it’s ironic for someone who was fired by Bill Clinton for publicly mentioning masturbation to endorse a procedure that makes it difficult to masturbate or to achieve orgasm.

Later, during her keynote Dr. Elders commented on each of the panelist from the plenary, including me. “Emi… did a slam dunk on me when I was sitting in front of her on the third row,” to which the audience laughed. “We sometimes made mistakes because we didn’t know… but it’s not true that we just cut off clitoris,” she insisted. Then she sort of murmured a bit about how doctors actually try to “rework” clitoris, but I don’t know if that helped, since surgically “reworking” clitoris doesn’t seem much better than cutting it off, especially for an audience that is skeptical about medical technologies messing with women’s bodies. Many people came up to me afterwards and told me that they were shocked to hear Dr. Elders’ response because she is otherwise very enlightened about issues that deal with women’s sexuality and physical integrity.

I actually had a chance to chat with Dr. Elders for about ten seconds, in which she seemed to be trying to put me off by using medical jargons. For example she insisted that surgeries aren’t common anyway because one would have to be Prader V CAH or equivalent to receive surgeries, but that is clearly not true (there is a move to limit surgeries for less severe cases of CAH, but almost no doctors would question performing surgeries for Prader III and IV cases). Perhaps she thought that I didn’t know what Prader scale was, or at what point doctors are likely to perform surgeries, but she underestimated my knowledge a bit too much. (For those of you who don’t know what Prader scale is, go to this page and click “Prader scale” from the list of topics.)

But there were lots of other people who were trying to talk to her, and I wasn’t able to speak with her any more. So I gave her a copy of my article, “From Controversy to Consensus: An Activist Perspective“, and then did a photo-op with her. If you want to see the photo of Joycelyn Elders smiling next to me, do email me :-)

Article on trans inclusion in Michfest–and I’m in it

Date: May 30, 2007

The latest issue of LOUDmouth magazine, published by the Women’s Resource Center of California State University, Los Angeles, contains an article by Daniel Bede Dumont about the exclusion of trans women at Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival. The magazine is available for free online and offline, so go download and read up. And I’m not saying only because the article quotes my paper, “Whose Feminism is it Anyway? The Unspoken Racism of the Trans Inclusion Debate” (see readings section):

Clearly for the organizers of the MWMF, the festival is a safe space for female-born people, and transgender women are so different and threatening that they cannot enjoy this safe women’s space without making others feel unsafe. But what exactly is the threat? Emi Koyama gives acute insight into this issue in an article called Whose Feminism is it Anyway? The Unspoken Racism of the Trans Inclusion Debate:

“… To argue that transsexual women should not enter the Land because their experiences are different would have to assume that all other women’s experiences are the same, and this is a racist assumption. Even the argument that transsexual women have experienced some degree of male privilege should not bar them from our communities once we realize that not all women are equally privileged or oppressed. To suggest that the safety of the Land would be compromised overlooks, perhaps intentionally, ways in which women can act out violence and discrimination against each other.”

Transwomen do have different experiences and a certain complicated experience of gender privilege. Transwomen are likely to have avoided the early experiences of female-born women that often include messages about our female bodies being disgusting, dirty and weak. Transwomen are likely to have been taught as children to be assertive, entitled leaders, to speak loudly and take up space, an opposite message from the subordinance that female-born girls are taught, and one that can imbue useful lifeskills. Female-born people have our own experiences, and deserve separate space as much as any group.

However, full-blown exclusion is not the only option. Are these differences truly so significant that all transwomen need to be excluded from the entire 650 acres for all seven days in order for the space to remain “safe”? Vogel stated, “supporting womyn-born womyn space is no more inherently transphobic than supporting womyn-of-color space is racist.” However, she did not state a reason why we cannot “support womyn-born-womyn space” by setting up space within the festival similar to that of the Women of Color tent. What, besides transphobia, makes these privileges/differences more threatening than the many others among women?

Problem with “Gender Identity Disorder” Specialists

Date: May 23, 2007

An article in The Guardian (05/23/2007) features someone who feels that she was “improperly” authorized for sex reassignment surgery after only 45 minutes of consultation 20 years ago, and now regrets the decision. The psychiatrist who diagnosed her with gender identity disorder and approved the surgery was censured by the professional body last week for this and many other rushed diagnoses/surgeries.

The problem with “gender identity disorder” specialists like this psychiatrist is that trans people generally don’t want anybody who would actually evaluate their mental state rigorously. They know what they want for the most part, and prefer “specialists” that would issue a letter of approval as quickly as possible. As a result, less rigorous “specialists” become popular within the trans community and drive out competitors who are more thorough. I’ve come across more than a few GID “specialists” who seem unprofessional and incompetent, because professionalism and competency are not what trans people look for in a GID counselor/psychiatrist. The only attributes required to succeed as a GID “specialist” are the ownership of medical (or sometimes psychotherapist) license and the ability to sign on a form letter (being disinterested in patient’s well-being is actually a plus).

I believe that the current standards of care that requires doctors to act as “gatekeepers” to ensure that the patient is a true transsexual is fundamentally flawed, as it perverts the clinical relationship between the physician and the client. In fact, I would argue that it is in violation of basic therapeutic ethics because the role of the “gatekeeper” conflicts with the primary responsibilities of a physician or a therapist. When anything they say in a counseling session could be used to block a procedure they want badly, trans people have no incentive to speak honestly about any anxieties or confusions they might be feeling, for example.

I think everyone would be better off if we moved on to a medical regime in which doctors only concern themselves with ensuring that the client is properly informed of risks and benefits of the sex reassignment surgery, and that s/he is not making a life-determining decision in a haste.

(Via Feminist Philosophers)

Detailed report on “Ashley treatment” (growth attenuation, etc.) symposium @ University of Washington, May 16

Date: May 17, 2007

Yesterday I attended this one-day symposium on the so-called “Ashley treatment” at University of Washington’s William Gates School of Law. “Ashley” is a nine year old girl with severe developmental disabilities (her mental capacity is said to be equivalent to average three-month old) and is also non-ambulatory, who at the time she was six, had her growth hormonally attenuated (stopped), and uterus and breast buds removed at Seattle Children’s Hospital (SCH) so that she would remain childlike appearance for the rest of her life. The treatment was justified as “in the best interest of the child,” as parents are able to take better care of their daughter when she is smaller and lighter without having to rely on outsiders or institutionalizing her.

The case was reported in Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine last October, and in this past January it became a major media story with her parents starting a blog about it to “help other parents” who have children in similar predicament to “Ashley.” Then this past week, Washington Protection & Advocacy System (now Disability Rights Washington) issued an investigative report that concluded that the hospital violated the anti-sterilization law by performing hysterectomy on a child with developmental disability without a court order. The hospital acknowledged the error, and went into an agreement with WPAS to create further checks for similar cases in the future, and also to add representatives of disability rights movement to its ethical review committee.


Preliminary report on “Ashley treatment” (growth attenuation, etc.) symposium

Date: May 16, 2007

I just came back from Seattle, where I attended a symposium on the so-called “Ashley treatment”–a combination of hormonal growth attenuation, hysterectomy, and breast buds removal on a girl with severe developmental disabilities–at University of Washington. It was pretty intense, with some parents of disabled kids lining up to praise the “Ashley treatment” and demanding it for their own children. They were also extremely disingenuous–they insist that they are 100% looking out for the best interest of their children, and their own convenience or comfort has absolutely nothing to do with their request for this sort of treatment. I’d been able to have more empathy toward them if they were to express their own needs as caretakers, rather than masking them as the children’s.

It was also painful to watch doctors involved in this case, including the chair of the ethics committee that approved the treatment, totally exposing themselves to be ignorant of bioethics as well as the sterilization statute. They seem to think that their failure to seek court order before performing hysterectomy was a minor, procedural error, when in fact (as Anne Tamar-Mattis, director of Institute for Intersex Children and the Law said) Ashley was denied the fundamental right to have her interests represented by a guardian ad litem. They said, for example, that it would be useless to appoint a guardian ad litem because they won’t be familiar with the case and can’t possibly be completely neutral and balanced. But that’s not the point of the process at all: guardian ad litem is not supposed to be neutral or balanced, but to steadfastly advocate for the child’s bodily integrity, especially in sterilization case (it should be adversarial, i.e. the default position for an advocate is to oppose the procedure).

I’ll have a fuller report on the symposium tomorrow (or maybe the day after). I need to go to bed now, after four hours of Greyhound.

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