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Reclaiming Harm Reduction: a new zine released in time for the Harm Reduction Conference

Date: October 30, 2016

Just in time for the 11th National Harm Reduction Conference next week, I am announcing the publication of my new zine, “Reclaiming Harm Reduction: a collection” which compiles my writings related to harm reduction philosophy (excluding my numerous writings on sex trafficking and sex trade, which have been published in other zines). The new zine is available for order from my new online store.

zine cover

Here’s the introduction from the zine:

This booket/zine is a collection of my writings on the topic of harm reduction in my almost 20 years of activism.

Aside from the fact that I am presenting at the 11th National Harm Reduction Conference in San Diego next week (November 3-6, 2016) and wanted share my thoughts with people I meet there, I had a couple of reasons to compile some of my writings on this topic:

First, I live in Seattle area, where the phrase “harm reduction” has become a buzz word among people in the governemtn as well as in social service providers, which is welcome but its actual meaning is often lost in translation: many service providers use the term “harm reduction” when they simply mean that they don’t automatically exclude clients who are currently using drugs, but continue to have judgmental disdain for them or push a vision of “recovery” that does not reflect the needs or wishes of actual individuals who are coping with difficulties in their lives in the best way they know how.

Second, connected to the first point, I feel that harm reduction can be a lot more than just “a better way to deal with drug problems.” Drug use/abuse/addiction has not particularly been an issue that I deal with in my own personal life, but I encountered many of the similar failures of systemic responses to social problems, such as homelessness, violence against women, sex trafficking, and racism/classism/ableism/homophobia/transphobia/etc. In fact, harm reduction is the analysis that connects my involvement in various social justice movements, including advocacy of survivors of domestic and sexual violence, sex workers, intersex people, people with disabilities, and others. I wanted to compile a collection of my writings in these different movements to demonstrate a potential scope of harm reduction as a foundational philosophy and perspective.

That said, I also encountered limits of harm reduction, which I discuss in one of the essays included in this collection. While harm reduction helps us promote social interventions that meet the immediate needs of communities and individuals facing difficulties, it does not necessarily and automatically address the larger context of injustices in which these difficulties occur.

An example of this limitation that I address in the aforementioned essay is a suggestion that the distribution of condoms to U.S. military service members was a successful harm reduction program to reduce the spread of venereal diseases. While I agree such program may reduce the risk of venereal disease among U.S. soldiers, it does not address the violence of U.S. military interventions around the world itself, or the sexual violence too frequently perpetrated by the members of the U.S. forces against native women and girls. If anything, it might enable the U.S. to more efficiently and aggressively pursue military interventions across the globe that ultimately may result in more harms to the nations and peoples the U.S. decides to invade.

Harm reduction without an intentional commitment to the broader social and economic justice agenda can be reduced to a mere technology of population management. There are “harm reduction” housing programs in various cities where drug dealing and use are completely unregulated and unsupervised under the guise of “meeting where people are at,” where residents die from overdose every week without anyone outside of the building even taking a notice. Harm reduction should not be our communities’ excuse for being indifferent: while ultimately respecting how members of our communities choose to live, we cannot stop advocating for a better living environment for all of us, rather than simply pushing some of us aside in “harm reduction” ghettos and forget about them.

Essays collected in this booklet/zine span over 15 years of my writings, so some of the circumstances have changed since I wrote about them (I intentionally left out many writings that critiques the anti-trafficking movements because there are too many and I have compiled them into other booklets/zines). My thinking has also evolved in some of these areas as well. But overall, a commitment to harm reduction combined with social and economic justice continue to motivate my research and activism and it has only become more solidified if not sophisticated.

Thank you for picking up this collection, and I would like to hear what you think about them, or learn what else you are working on. Please feel free to contact me in any of the following ways:

Emi Koyama
PO Box 40570, Portland OR 97240
Twitter: @emikoyama
Facebok: emigrl2

Table of contents:

Filisa Vistima was more than just a martyr: a history of trans women in Seattle’s lesbian community in the early 1990s

Date: October 7, 2016

On Monday, October 10th, Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project at the University of Washington, Department of History will celebrate the opening of the new LGBTQ Seattle Activism Project curated by doctoral student Kevin McKenna. The Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project already offers an amazing collection of historical materials and testimonies about civil and labor rights, so I was excited to hear about the launch of this new section.

The news of its opening also reminded me that I had done some research about an important part of Seattle’s lesbian and transgender history last year at the Seattle Public Library but procrastinated documenting what I found, and motivated me to finally do just that.

My research was about Filisa Vistima, a 22-year old trans woman living in Seattle who committed suicide on March 1993. In addition to being transgender, she was an active member of local lesbian community, volunteering her time at Seattle’s Lesbian Resource Center, which has since been closed. Last entries of her diary, archived by trans activist and writer Cristan Williams document her struggle with love, life, depression, and (often internalized) transphobia:

I am encountering many old desires of mine, e.g. swimming. By the comments [name withheld] has mentioned to me (“Your hands are large,” “You’re shaped like a boy” and so forth), I have been self-conscious of myself. I wish I was anatomically “normal” so I could go swimming.

If i was “normal” I would no longer have any reason to hide behind my clothes other than to hide my modesty. I could go swimming without clothes… I would love to do that so much!!

But no, I’m a mutant, Frankenstein’s monster.

Now I am feeling the same feeling I had some days ago but forgot about them, the feeling that I hate myself, the physical self. I remember having these feelings when I was a child, hitting thighs with my hands so I would cry. I’m, crying now…

[…] I feel inferior to “real women” and I may never be able to resolve the conflict.

(From Filisa Vistima’s Diary, January 5, 1993)

In The Transgender Studies Reader, trans historian Susan Stryker adds further context to Filisa’s suicide:

What drove her to such despair was the exclusion she experienced in Seattle’s queer community, some members of which opposed Filisa’s participation because of her transsexuality–even though she identified as and lived as a bisexual woman. The Lesbian Resource Center where she served as a volunteer conducted a survey of its constituency to determine whether it should stop ofering services to male-to-female transsexuals. Filisa did the data entry for tabulating the survey results; she didn’t have to imagine how people felt about her kind. […] Even in death she found no support from the community in which she claimed membership. “Why didn’t Filisa commit herself for psychiatric care?” asked a columnist in the Seattle Gay News. “Why didn’t Filisa demand her civil rights?” In this case, not only did the angry villagers hound their monster to the edge of town, they reproached her for being vulnerable to the torches. Did Filisa Vistima commit suicide, or did the queer community of Seattle kill her?

Cristan Williams also writes:

From what I can ascertain, prior to her Filisa’s death, she was made responsible for entering data from a Lesbian Resource Center (LRC) survey asking their service population if they felt that the LRC should continue to provide services to MTF transsexuals. RadFems had taken a hard line against providing services to transsexuals and Filisa was the one who had to record each venomous RadFem objection just prior to her death.

In the footnote, Stryker clarifies that her description “draws extensively on, and sometimes paraphrases” opinion pieces written by Margaret Deidre O’Hartigan and Frederic Kahler (separately) and published several months after Filisa’s death in Bay Times, a weekly LGBT community newspaper in the San Francisco Bay Area.

However, in my research I found out that some important details surrounding Filisa’s death were not entirely accurate.

There was a major controversy among members of Seattle’s lesbian community, but it mainly was over the acceptability of S/M in lesbian community, not transgender issues. The August 1992 issue of LRC Community News, the monthly publication of the Lesbian Resource Center, reported that “Seattle will play hostess to POWERSURGE, the first international Lesbian SM conference ever held.” “It is an event that heralds a new chapter in lesbian herstory,” proclaimed author Julia Kaplan.

The conference was being organized by Outer Limits, a local lesbian S/M group that held orientation meetings for new and prospective members at LRC, whose presence at the community center was heavily disputed by lesbians who believed that S/M glorified abuse and violence against women. Community member Maureen Brooks submitted a letter published in the same issue of LRC Community News arguing:

Once upon a time the Lesbian Resource Center was focused on creating a safe space for Lesbians to congreate. All Lesbians. It no longer serves that purpose.
[…] For example, the Lesbian Resource Center has become a staunch supporter of the S/M crowd. You can now attend workshops at the Lesbian Resource Center that offer actual demonstrations of Lesbian style sado-masochism. […]

What does S/M have to do with being a Lesbian? What does a trans-gender male or female have to do with being Lesbian? […] The Lesbian Resource Center is Lesbian space. […] My life has been dedicated to Honoring Women and the Female Energy. Obviously, the Lesbian Resource Center does not share in that commitment.

Brooks ends her letter by urging similarly minded lesbians to join her fight against the LRC leadership.

I don’t believe that I’m the only one who feels this way abut what’s happening in our space. […] Our concerns aren’t being represented at the Lesbian Resource enter. Our concerns are real and need to be heard before our Lesbian space is taken completely away from us. I can write letter after letter of protest, and the Board of Officers [of the LRC] will answer each letter praising the god of diversity. One person cannot accomplish change. But together we can reclaim our space and make it safe for Lesbians again. Talk to me. My telephone number is [redatcted].

Brooks does mention her opposition to transgender inclusion at the LRC in the passing, but the bulk of her arguments revolve around the acceptance of S/M at the LRC, as understood by other readers who sent in their criticisms of Brooks’ position in the September issue of the LRC Community News:

You talk about what you think the S/M women do in the LRC “space”. I know you haven’t encountered the shocking display of someone actually practicing S/M when you walk through the LRC door. That would be non-consensual, and that’s not what S/M is about. So it’s KNOWING that they were THERE at some point, and might be THERE again that bothers you. (name withheld)

[…] think about the fact that S/M or transgender women who love other women are also lesbians, and therefore have the same right to the LRC as you. […] I fail to see how an S/M workshop on, say, Tuesday makes the LRC “unsafe” for you on Wednesday (or Tuesday, for that matter). (Tonya Mikulas)

How does an event that happens when you are not in the LRC make it unsafe for you to be there at some other time? […] I understand that you may disapprove of me or the other Lesbians based on your own self-definition and “I honor that self-definition in all of us,” yet I realize that the LRC can be, and is, a safe place for both of us, for all Lesbians, for all women.” (Jane Seidman Vosk)

I am very involved in the lesbian S/M community and I do not know of anyone who either hangs out there [at the LRC] or wishes to “take it over.” I don’t understand her [Brooks’] paranoia just because diverse lesbians occasionally meet there and do not fit her lesbian standards. […] I believe that the LRC News handled itself in a fair and true journalistic manner by reflecting the very diversity of which she wrote, by including both her anti-S/M letter and, on the following page, a big story of POWERSURGE, the upcoming Seattle S/M lesbian conference.

All through her letter she referred to S/M dykes as not being lesbians. She wrote about female energy and then referred to the God, not Goddess, of diversity. I’d stake my Goddess-filled leather up against her bigoted cotton drawstrings any day and I’d still come up a dyke! (Julia Kaplan)

I wish to note the number of leather dykes who work in leadership positions in our local, national, and international community. To deny these women–these lesbians–full participation in the LRC is ludicrous! […] My experience with S/M dykes at [sic.] that of all sub-groups within the lesbian community, these are the women most ready to come out, step up, and volunteer their time to their sisters and brothers. […] To restrict the LRC to only a particular type of lesbian is to restrict the LRC’s purpose–and ultimately, the LRC’s funding and thus its ability to survive. I ask all of you to consider what could be accomplished if people like Ms. Brooks stopped spending their time and energy worrying about “how do I keep THEM out” and instead spent it on “how can I keep US strong.” (Karen T. Taylor)

There are many lesbians who share Brooks’ anti-S/M attitude. Many S/M dykes once felt this way too. I encourage those who feel this way to learn more of what S/M is about before passing judgment on the personal lifestyle choices of others. […] As lesbians we are a diverse group with diverse needs and thank Goddess for that! I wish us all support and resources on our paths toward empowerment. I am an S/M dyke and the LRC is as much for me as it is for Maureen Brooks. (Jennifer Greenstein)

The letters section also included a statement, signed by dozens of S/M lesbians, that simply noted “We, the undersigned, feel that S/M lesbians have as much right to use the LRC as any other lesbian.”

S/M Lesbians' Statement

Letters published in this issue of the LRC Community News were all in support of S/M lesbians in the LRC and larger lesbian community, but Brooks published her own “community survey” as a paid advertisement on the same issue under the ad-hoc group “Lesbians for Abuse-Free Lesbian Space.”

The “community survey” contained twelve items that are leading questions designed to promote Brooks’ own opinions on issues at hand and seeking agreement. For example, the question number three reads:

A woman who has experienced abuse enters the LRC. She sees S/M posters on the wall. She reads the LRC publication that announces an S/M workshop at the LRC, complete with demonstrations. She attends an LRC dance and is exposed to the token slave-on-chain being led around by her Mistress. What is the possibility of this woman feeling safe at the LRC or any of its functions? What is our responsibility to this woman?

Brooks questions the inclusion of “bisexual and transgender community” in the LRC (questions nine, eleven and twelve) as well as “whether a male can validly define himself as a Lesbian, even after the surgical removal of his male genitalia and the surgical introduction of artificial female genitalia” (question ten) near the end of the survey, but the focus of the survey clearly is the issue of S/M (questions one through eight and twelve).

Maureen Brooks Survey

The survey concludes by asking readers to submit their responses to “Maureen Brooks c/o Lesbian Resource Center,” promising that “the results of this survey will be presented to the Board of Officers of the Lesbian Resource Center along with a request for action on their part to resolve this growing problem.”

The publication of the anti-S/M and anti-bi/trans survey as a “paid advertisement” in the LRC Community News resulted in a flood of criticisms against its editors, some of which were published in the next (October) issue.

As a dyke who has been involved with the LRC since 1976 (such as LMNDF, workshops, discussion groups, guest speakers, etc.), I clearly question the continual discussion and on-going attacks on s/m dykes and other groups. All dykes should have equal access to the LRC and its resources by virtue of simply being dykes. i am the s/m dyke recently referred to in your (newspaper), but not by name. If any womyn on the LRC board, staff, etc. have questions as to how i have run my workshops and/or what was said or done, ask me directly. Do not use covert references to third hand instances such as Maureen has done in her letter and her survey. (slave falcon, with full support of her Mistress Kate)

As a Queer woman and past contributor, volunteer and client of the LRC, I feel compelled to respond to Maureen Brooks’ letter and subsequent ad in the LRCCN… […] My initial response to the letter was “here we go, tearing our own community apart from within, better than the right-wing does from outside.” But the appearance of the so-called survey by “Lesbians for abuse-free Lesbian space” was just too offensive to ignore. Ms. Brooks’ blatant manipulative language and own personal agenda (is there anyone else in this “group”?) smack of Republican hate-mongering tactics. Distortions and labeling (dehumanizing) are fascist tactics used by far better propagandists than you, Ms. Brooks. (name lost due to editing error)

In response to these criticisms, the Board of Lesbian Resource Center published its apology for publishing the survey:

Two months ago, a letter to the editor appeared in the LRCCN concerning one individual’s concern that the LRC is no longer a safe place for lesbians. Her concern centered on the presence of certain groups of lesbians at the LRC. The editor and the Board discussed whether the letter should be published. While the Board unanimously stands behind the LRC’s mission statement that the LRC is a place for all lesbians to enjoy, we decided to allow its publication. We felt and continue to feel that the LRC and the LRCCN provide forums where ideas and controversies can and should be explored.

The following month the editor received numerous letters opposing the initial letter (no letters in support of the initial letter were received prior to the publication deadline). Many of the letters were printed as space allowed. In addition, the author of the initial letter requested space in the LRCCN for a survey she wished to publish. The editor agreed to publish the survey provided the writer pay for the space at the going advertisement rate. In addition, the editor granted the writer’s request that she be offered the same courtesy other advertisers receive–namely, the option of having responses to her ad received at the LRC. This in no way represented the Board’s or editor’s endorsement of the survey or the idea therein expressed, or any intent by the Board to use any material sent to the author as a community barometer. Unfortunately, our zeal to allow freedom of expression and to stand in the face of criticism and controversy, we overlooked the oppressive nature of the survey. And truly, the survey was oppressive. To suggest, as the survey does, that the LRC should limit access or services to any group of lesbians is oppressive to that group. To question the right of any lesbian to use the LRC, to discuss the issues important to her, to share her knowledge and experience, based on that lesbian’s beliefs, private consensual sexual practices or affiliations is oppressive.

We offer our heartfelt apology to the lesbian community for having published a survey which is oppressive to S/M lesbians, bisexuals and transgender lesbians. We affirm that the LRC remains committed to supporting all lesbians and to refraining from “print[ing] items which are oppressive” in the LRCCN.

After reading these three months’ worth of the LRC Community News it became clear to me that the version of history Susan Stryker and Cristan Williams wrote contained many inaccuracies: The survey was indeed published, but it was conducted by an individual critical of the Lesbian Resource Center’s leadership (and yes, there is no evidence that the whole thing is more than just one individual’s being unhappy with the direction of the LRC), and not the LRC itself. The survey was mostly about the acceptance of lesbians who practice S/M, and the issue of bisexual and transgender women’s inclusion appears to have been an add-on. The Lesbian Resource Center did not intend to “determine whether it should stop offering services to male-to-female transsexuals” or use the result of the survey in any way.

Filisa Vistima’s name last appears in the masthead of the publication under “data entry” until its October issue (in which the apology was published) and disappears in the November issue. Her departure from the LRC Community News may or may not have something to do with her reactions to the controversy, but it is questionable that she was forced to perform “the data entry for tabulating the survey results,” if the LRC merely agreed to receive readers’ responses to the ads at its address for Brooks and her “Lesbians for abuse-free Lesbian space,” especially since the Board quickly recognized how “oppressive” the survey was.

The controversy over S/M or bisexual/transgender inclusion disappears from the subsequent issues of the publication following the apology, no doubt due to an editorial decision made by the Board and editors. Then in its April 1993 issue, the LRC Community News published an obituary for Filisa written by an LRC staffer Mindy Schaberg, along with a beautiful photo of her. The entire obituary is reproduced below (with her birth name redacted out of respect for Filisa, since I do not know if this was something that was okay with her):

Filisa Sofia Vistima, 1970-1993

The staff and board of the LRC are deeply saddened by the sudden loss of Filisa Vistima. Filisa took her own life Friday, March 5, 1993. She was 22.

She was found by her housemate after she took an overdose of antidepressants. She left a letter to her housemate, detailing her last wishes, which included the publication of her journal documenting her experiences as transgendered. She constantly struggled with bouts of depression and suicidal tendencies.

Filisa was born [redacted] in Webberville, MI to fundamentalist parents. She will be buried in Michigan under her boy name.

At a recent memorial service held at the LRC, twenty friends and acquaintances gathered to remember this person whom one friend described as “deep waters beneath a still, placid surface.”

She was a member of the computer network 28 Barbary Lane, and those who knew her from her highly intelligent and eloquent writing were surprised when they met the reserved and taciturn Filisa. She was a voracious reader, gifted on the computer, intrigued by science (especially microbiology), and education. She loved the natural world, and kept two mice as pets.

While she may have felt most comfortable in a cerebral realm, she loved a bit of raunch and drama as well. One friend described the time she announced that she wanted to feel Filisa’s “tit buds,” as the hormones Filisa was taking took effect, and did. Filisa was shocked and delighted.

She moved to Seattle in 1991, in part because of the city’s transgendered community, and checked in with the Ingersoll Center. She began volunteering at the Lesbian Resource Center soon after. She spent hundreds of hours here as a drop-in volunteer, cataloging the entire collection of periodicals and books, helping out with whatever project was going on. When this newspaper was between editors a year and a half ago, for example, she and then-director Cherie Larsen put in sixteen hour days to get it out.

We knew it was Monday at the LRC because Filisa would appear suddenly, tall and thin, her long reddish hair cascading down her back, a diaphanous scarf knotted at her throat, and settle on the couch with a book. Phone messages would appear on our desks in her tiny, cramped writing, invariably in purple ink–purple fine-point being her pen of choice.

She wrote many short stories and poems. One poem “Message in a Bottle,” written in October of 1992, contains this stanza: “I know you don’t know me / And I hope you get my message. / I come from a far-away place / And time. / I want to give you a part of me / In this bottle of unfulfilled dreams. / I will not begin a new life– / One without mortality– / Through these writings i (sic) have written / And end an old one.”

We will miss you, Filisa.

It is undoubtedly true that Filisa faced prejudice and discrimination for who she was within the lesbian and queer communities as well as the rest of the world. It is possible that Maureen Brooks’ attacks on the Lesbian Resource Center that took place several months before Filisa’s suicide contributed to the already full plate of rejections and disappointments that ultimately led to her death. Suicides, hate crimes, and the slow deaths of depression, social isolation, poverty, and obstacles to self-care continue to claim many trans lives today, after more than two decades of movements for transgender liberation since Filisa’s time.

That certainly is a part of the history of transgender lives in Seattle, but it is only a part. What is missing from Stryker’s and Williams’ telling of Filisa’s story was that Filisa was also accepted and loved by her peers at the Lesbian Resource Center, who at times made mistakes (like publishing her birth name in an otherwise loving obituary). The Lesbian Resource Center did make a mistake by allowing Brooks’ “survey” as a paid advertisement, perhaps motivated by a desire to be held accountable to criticisms, but the Seattle lesbian community deserves more credit than being recorded in history as a group of transphobic haters who forced a trans woman volunteer to tabulate the results of the survey about her own exclusion.

I shared my finding with Susan Stryker, who offered the following statement to be published along with this post.

I knew the story of Filisa Vistima only from coverage in the Bay Area gay and lesbian press–two editorials in the San Francisco Bay Times, one (May 20, 1993) by Portland-based trans activist Margaret O’Hartigan, and the other (June 3, 1993) by Frederic Kahler. As I mention in a footnote in the article of mine that you refer to, the paragraph in which I discuss Vistima “draws extensively on, and sometimes paraphrases, O’Hartigan and Kahler.” As such, my citation of these works undoubtedly reproduces any biases or errors in their representation of events. The main topic of the article in which I mentioned Vistima was not her or her death, but rather monstrosity, and the main point I was trying to make was that the denial of humanity to trans people, and the attribution of monstrosity to us, can be transformed into a positive source of power, by rejecting the hierarchy of values that puts “the human” on top of the rest of material being. I mentioned Vistima only because in her journal entries, quoted in the media coverage, she wrote of considering herself a “Frankenstein monster,” which she found to be extremely disempowering, and which seems to have played some role in her suicidal ideation. Her story was in the press just as I was writing on this topic, and I simply used it as an example to illustrate the larger point that I was trying to make. The circumstances of Vistima’s death were not anything I investigated deeply, so if your research shows that the editorials I drew on mischaracterize her relationship to the Lesbian Resource Center, I defer to your greater expertise on the matter, while nevertheless maintaining the point I was trying to make in the article, and the appropriateness of using her self-characterizations to support that point.

Susan Stryker

I would like to thank Susan and the librarian at the Seattle Public Library who found copies of the LRC Community News spread over multiple shelves due to repeated changes to the publication’s name.

Filisa Vistima Obituary

A thought on the first annual National Transgender HIV Testing Day

Date: April 18, 2016

Today, April 18th, is the First Annual National Transgender HIV Testing Day. Like everyone else, I was not aware of this new annual observance until just a few days ago, when I was asked by my friends at the Gay City, Seattle’s LGBT wellness center, to be on a panel for it.

According to the Center of Excellence for Transgender Health at University of California, San Francisco that coordinates the Testing Day, “NTHTD is a day to recognize the importance of routine HIV testing, status awareness and continued focus on HIV prevention and treatment efforts among transgender people.”

I get tested, and so do many of my friends. I have no quarrel with recognizing the importance of HIV testing, prevention, and treatment: transgender people, especially trans women of color, trans women who trade sex, and trans people who inject drugs, are at an grossly heightened risk of contracting HIV and other infections, and yet are often left out of awareness campaigns, outreach, and medical provisions that focus on the code word “MSM” (men who have sex with men)–which technically includes (many) trans women (and excludes trans men and gender-variant people) but in practice ignores or marginalizes them.

But I also find it disturbing to see public institutions promote a greater recognition of the importance of HIV testing, prevention, and treatment among trans people, while much of the targeted population continue to live in poverty, homelessness, unemployment, and survival sex.

Economist Emily Oster has pointed out that the HIV epidemic arising from risky sexual behaviors in Sub-Saharan Africa can be explained in part by the low non-HIV life expentancy. Individuals who can expect longer life ahead and are wealthier tend to change their sexual behaviors in response to the increased threat of HIV while those who do not expect to live long and are poor tend to be unmotivated to alter their behaviors. When controlled for other factors, similar observation can be made among gay men in the U.S., according to Oster.

This is something I have personally observed among women (including trans women) who are street-based, who trade sex and/or use drugs: because HIV has a relatively long latency period, those who are struggling to meet immediate basic needs and cannot imagine their distant future discount the present-day value of the risk of HIV infection to close to zero. In other words, one would not worry too much about getting sick many years later if she does not expect to live that long, or imagine having a future anyway.

It is also a survival strategy: we push thoughts about risks we are routinely taking out of our consciousness in order to be able to take risks required for our immediate survival. If so, campaigns aimed at subverting this survival strategy and raising awareness of these risks, even if they are well-intentioned, border on violence.

There are lots of discussions about how public health agencies must improve their outreach and service delivery to trans people, particularly trans women of color, to get them to participate in testing, prevention, and treatment. Of course we should improve them. But the bottom line is, we must build a social environment in which trans women of color, street-based sex workers, injection drug users, and others can expand their imagination into their futures, a psychic space philosopher Drucilla Cornell named “imaginary domain.”

When one otherwise expects to live a long, generally enjoyable life, she will certainly do more in the present to make sure that she will be healthier: it would bring in more trans people to participate in testing, prevention, and treatment than any “cultural competency training” or other trickery. While outreach programs do provide desperately needed employment to some trans people, they are destined to fail in the absence of larger programs promoting broader economic and social justice providing material and psychic necessities for trans people to imagine their futures.

What I am describing may seem merely anecdotal or theoretical, but there is an evidence suggesting that our current strategy of promoting testing, prevention, and treatment among trans women (of color or on the street, especially) has not been as effective as expected based on earlier successes among non-transgender men who are MSM. In a clinical trial conducted by researchers at UCSF and elsewhere which randomly assigned trans women to receive either pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) that can prevent HIV infection or placebo, researchers were baffled to find that the group receiving the free preventative medication did not have lower infection rate compared to the group that received placebo after a trial period. The ineffectiveness of the PrEP provision had to do with “drug adherence”: they did not detect any sign of taking the medication in the bloodstream of the trans women who became infected despite receiving PrEP. Further, while non-transgender male MSM who take highest risks tended to take PrEP more regularly, no such correlation existed among trans women: trans women were no more or less likely to take PrEP consistently regardless of how much risky behaviors they are engaging in.

It is perhaps worthwhile to point out that trans women are taking different types of risks for different reasons than non-transgender men who are MSM. According to the study, “transgender women more frequently reported transactional sex, receptive anal intercourse without a condom, or more than five partners in the past 3 months” compared to non-trans male MSM. In other words, trans women are often engaging in risky behavior in order to provide for themselves and to survive, rather than for pleasure, which presents them with unique sets of vulnerabilities as well as an internal need to desensitize themselves to the risks they are taking.

As of today, PrEP costs over $1,000 per month which is out of reach for most trans women, but public health officials in cities like San Francisco (through the Healthy San Francisco program) are rushing to throw the medication at trans women. But I wonder: what could trans women do if they simply had extra $1,000 per month in cash instead? Wouldn’t it allow them to stop taking so much risks just to survive, and perhaps afford them an opportunity to take care of their health better, a space to imagine a future that is worth living in?

In the meantime, I question why UCSF, CDC, and other institutions are promoting the recognition of “the importance of HIV testing,” prevention, and treatment among transgender people. It cannot be because the society values the lives of trans women of color so much, when so many of them continue to be abandoned in poverty, homelessness, unemployment, and survival sex. I wonder if the real, if unconscious, motivation behind such projects is to protect (mostly) white, middle-class, non-transgender men who buy sex from trans women and their families.

I am not doubting the sincerity of individuals involved in these projects on the frontlines, especially since many of them are also members of trans communities. But I continue to be suspicious of the larger institutions that promote HIV testing in isolation of other, more immediate needs of many trans women of color.

[last edited in September 2016]

A note about trans exclusion at New Orleans Women’s Health Clinic in 2009

Date: March 30, 2015

Back in June 2009, I saw a post on now-defunct Questioning Transphobia blog that called attention the website of New Orleans Women’s Health Clinic, which read, in part, “We are currently not able to provide care to trans people who were male assigned at birth or who have had genital sex reassignment surgery. Please call for referrals.” The poster, a white trans woman who had recently relocated to New Orleans and was looking for health resources, was outraged to read the outright discrimination against trans women. When the post went up, many people were also outraged, and it ignited a firestorm of criticisms against NOWHC’s transphobia.

I agreed that NOWHC’s statement was deeply problematic and offensive, but I was also concerned how an army of mostly white trans women and allies initiated a campaign of full-on attacks on NOWHC, a small reproductive health clinic (which was at the time on hiatus due to lack of resources) established by (mostly) Black women affiliated with Incite! Women of Color (now “Women and Trans People of Color”) Against Violence after Hurricane Katrina left many women completely devastated and without needed services such as this. Yes, NOWHC’s exclusion of trans women must be addressed and corrected, but I felt that there was a better way to achieve that.

So I told folks on the blog that I was contacting someone I knew from Incite! New Orleans to get it addressed, and asked them to give me a little time to do so. For this, I was viciously attacked for a prolonged period of time for supposedly attempting to “silence” trans women’s righteous anger over the statement, but I was simply asking white trans women to take a step back and let me, a trans-ish woman of color with existing ties to Incite!, work things out with the women I knew from Incite! New Orleans.

After several email and phone conversations, NOWHC publicly apologized to trans women and had a statement posted on Questioning Transphobia blog. The original poster also apologized to NOWHC for rushing to publish the article attacking the clinic only an hour after sending them an email questioning the statement instead of waiting for their response.

Questioning Transphobia blog has since disappeared, as did many other blogs and websites that discussed the incident, so it has become difficult to learn what happened and how it got resolved. An unfortunate result of this is that it left a vague memory that Incite! has done something transphobic in the past, with no knowledge or awareness of a resolution, which continues to give the impression that Incite! might still be a trans women exclusionary institution.

I cannot find any web archive of NOWHC’s statement or Questioning Transphobia blog, but I was able to find email exchanges from 2009 that included the statement. With the permission of the Incite!, I am publishing an excerpt from the statement below.

We agree that the questions and concerns you raise are very important. The priorities we hold in providing safe, accessible, and unbiased care to women regardless of their race, income, sexuality, gender identity, body type, citizenship status, work sector, legal history, ability, age, language, and family size and status are often regarded as a “risk” and “liability” by many medical professionals. This reality has delayed our efforts to hire a new Medical Director and created many barriers for many members of our community, including you, in seeking safe, quality, and respectful services.

In making the statements “we are currently not able to provide care to trans people who were male assigned at birth or who have had genital sex reassignment surgery. Please call for referrals,” we were referencing the lack of experience and training that our former medical staff had in providing trans affirmative care to all women regardless of their body types, and gender identities and expressions. We recognize that the current language on our website marginalizes trans women in particular, even though it says elsewhere that we provide services to “all women.” Although “services” provided at the Clinic are not restricted to our medical programs, we recognize that the way it is written implies that we offer no services at all to trans women, which is marginalizing and confusing. It would be more accurate to say that our goal is to provide medical services to all women, though we are having a difficult time reaching it. We take responsibility for this inaccurate representation, and for the ways in which the language is disrespectful, and we sincerely apologize.

Collectively and organizationally, we are committed to creating institutions and environments that challenge gender-policing and trans and homophobia by dismantling racist, heterosexist, patriarchal, classist, and xenophobic ideologies of exclusion, discrimination, hatred, and violence, which creates barriers for many members of our community, particularly those persons who are women of color, poor, LGBTQ, immigrant, differently-abled, homeless, heads of households, disabled, sex workers, incarcerated and formerly incarcerated, young, and living in racially and economically segregated communities. Our website doesn’t reflect this politic effectively and we are currently in the process of modifying it.

Besides language, we share the concern about the core issue of offering safe, quality, and respectful services to all women. Since our founding, we have struggled to hire medical staff who don’t pathologize, demonize, and criminalize the bodies of undocumented women, women with disabilities, l/b/t/q/i women, women of color, low-income women, homeless women, and women working in the sex industry because of our sexuality, reproductive decisions, and gender expressions. Currently, we are evaluating if we can realistically find medical staff that meet this expectation, particularly given the current conditions of the city.

In the future, I think it would help to post such statements to Incite!’s own website/blog in addition to where the firestorm originated from so that memories of the organization’s mistakes and growth can survive the forgetfulness (except in the NSA database) of the internet.

There is no reasoning with “good” people with harmful delusions: Last Word on Transgasm and “Law of Attraction”

Date: December 12, 2013

Within days after launching to “change the way surgeries are funded in the FTM and MTF communities forever,” Jody Rose and Buck Angel shut down the website amid criticisms that its scheme was untenable and illegal. The website now states: “We are disappointed that there are people who are spreading false rumors and slandering our names all over the internet. […] Because of this, we have chosen to remove ourselves from a project that is dear to our hearts.”

Rose and Angel repeatedly assert that their intentions were “good and genuine.” As I’ve pointed out in my previous posts, that their intentions may be “good and genuine”–as opposed to sinister and malicious–is precisely the problem.

In the now-deleted “Transgasm FAQ,” founders discussed how Transgasm was inspired by “law of attractions”:

The both of us have been corresponding for years and share a common interest: The law of attraction and thought science. We’ve always shared stories about how we’ve manifested what we wanted throughout the years, using thought science and the law of attraction.

One day we were talking about this again and realized that we could help empower the entire transsexual community (worldwide), its supporters, and anyone else who identifies the way they choose to identify, by sharing our success with thought science and the law of attraction. We worked hard to create a simple and easy to understand formula that went through many revisions.

The result?

An organization centered around knowing what you want, visualizing what you want, thinking positively, having gratitude, and seeing what you want come true, all with the spirit of reciprocity (a very important law of The Universe).

Popularized by Napoleon Hill and other authors of self-improvement books for upward-mobile businessmen, “law of attraction” is a magical belief that our thought can transform material reality. In particular, the law teaches that we can make positive material changes in our lives by simply having positive thoughts and attitudes, as positivity attracts positivity, and negativity attracts negativity.

In the “self-help” film “The Secret,” which is based on this theory, author Lisa Nichols explained:

Every time you look inside your mail expecting to see a bill, guess what? It will be there. You’re expecting debt, so debt must show up… Every day you confirm your thoughts. Debt is there because of the Law of Attraction. Do yourself a favor: Expect a check!

In other words, we receive bills because we of our thoughts, not because we have debt. By merely thinking positively, we can receive checks in the mail instead, according to the “law of attraction.”

This may sound absurd, but Rose and Angel actually believe in this. For example, they posted the following on their facebook page:

Transgasm on LOA

The poster (it’s not clear if it is Rose or Angel) was walking on sidewalk in Portland, thinking how he needed to buy a new hard drive that cost $159 for his computer. Suddenly, because he was being positive, he made $160 in cash to manifest in front of him with his thoughts alone. He happily picks it up, and buys a hard drive. (I’m not sure where the difference of $1 came from.)

Most of us in this situation would not think that we “manifested” the cash with our thoughts. We would assume that the cash fell out of someone’s pocket or wallet, which must have made them sad. Some of us might report the finding to a nearby business or to the police, hoping that whoever lost the money will come and claim it. Some of us might pocket the money. Regardless, most of us do not think that we “manifested” the cash with our own thoughts and therefore we deserve it.

Rose and Angel may have had “good and genuine” intentions to help trans people get what they want, but did not have a sound structure to actually do so. In fact, the structure they envisioned were completely untenable and likely illegal (though details of the scheme was unclear). But if you believe that you can “manifest” cash with mere thoughts, who needs a business plan? There is no reasoning with good-intentioned people with a harmful delusion.

And because Rose and Angel believe that positive thoughts make their project absolutely wonderful and beyond criticism, they perceive any criticism as expression of “hate” and “jealousy”–i.e. negativity. One might wonder why their project would attract so much negativity if “law of attraction” was true, but they purposefully ignore this fundamental contradiction: positivity must attract positivity, and therefore anyone who is negative toward them have to be worst kind of haters. They somehow do not seem to recognize their inconsistent and self-serving application of the principles of “law of attraction.”

I have described “law of attraction” as quintessentially American, because I view it as a variation of the more traditional national ideology of “American Dream.” “American Dream” suggests that anyone can become successful through hard, honest work, which functions to justify extreme income and class inequalities and blame the poor. “Law of attraction” does the same thing, except it doesn’t even require hard, honest work; you only need to think positively. Indeed, “law of attraction” is the “American Dream” for the lazy–and it is fundamentally a regressive, victim-blaming ideology.

Some critics of Transgasm have long criticized Angel for various reasons, but I am not one of them. The reason I become especially alarmed was because of Rose and Angel’s reliance on “law of attraction” in a financial scheme that appeared likely to harm many trans people. I was also alarmed because I know that people who promote pyramid schemes and other scams frequently use “law of attraction” to lure their victims and then blame them for their victimization when their scheme implodes. It has nothing to do with hating them, but I understand that they have difficulty recognizing my (and others’) concerns as long as they use “law of attraction” in a self-serving manner as a shield and weapon against anyone they perceive as “negative.” For now, I am glad that I helped to raise awareness of the danger of their scheme and its ideological foundation.

The trouble with Transgasm, part two: a speculation

Date: December 8, 2013

I wrote my previous post, “The trouble with Transgasm and its magical foundation,” based on how Transgasm claimed it functioned. But I suspect that the reality of its inner working is probably worse. This post, unlike the last one, is my speculation as to how Transgasm actually will operate. It is a speculation, but not a far-fetched “worse case scenario”: I believe that what I describe is not just possible, but probable.

In the last post, I summarized Transgasm’s claim:

According to Transgasm FAQ, Transgasm will teach trans people how to produce downloadable contents that can be sold via its website. Once the contents are sold, creators are paid 50% of the sale, plus 25% “paid forward” to pay for surgery for someone else on the “surgery list,” and the last 25% is withheld to keep the project itself going.

I explained how this scheme is already unworkable and illegal, but to be honest, I don’t believe that this is how it actually works.

My speculation is that vast majority of “downloadable contents” sold on Transgasm have little to no market value. My speculation is that Transgasm will sell them at an unreasonable and excessive markup.

Further, my speculation is that people will be able to move up on the “surgery list” on the basis of their sales, which will encourage them to buy their own contents multiple times to get closer to the coveted award. Transgasm earns $1 for every $1 “paid forward” for the surgery fund, which will be a lot if many people buy their own stuff in order to move up on the list.

Now, nobody know how much everyone is selling on Transgasm but its owners. That means that they could easily pick one of their close friends as the highest seller, or simply make up a fictitious “winner” and pocket the surgery money. This is not necessary what I speculate is going to happen, but it is something that is possible. Regardless, Transgasm owners will keep at least 25%, which is equal to the amount anyone might theoretically receive for the surgery.

Why do I speculate that this is how Transgasm works? For one thing, it is because that is how pyramid schemes often pass off themselves as “legitimate” multi-level marketing.

The main difference between so-called “legitimate” multi-level marketing and pyramid scheme is that legal ones like Amway sell actual products. Pyramid schemes often imitate this by “selling” otherwise worthless “products” among their participants to pretend that they are legitimate. But case histories are clear that they are nonetheless illegal pyramid schemes if the “products” are just pretense for transfer of cash, or de-facto entrance fee into the pyramid.

(Caution: “legitimate” multi-level marketing schemes are “legitimate” only in the sense that they are legal. In most “legitimate” multi-level marketing schemes, most people still lose money.)

Second reason I think Transgasm functions this way is the secrecy surrounding their “classes” in which they will teach people how to produce their products. If their goal is to help trans people access medical treatment they need, and they can actually help trans people learn to produce and sell marketable contents, why be so secretive? Why are they unable to publicize their superior knowledge so that everyone can benefit?

My speculation is that “contents” Transgasm will help people produce are only “marketable” within the scheme, and the primary “buyer” is the seller himself or herself.

If you are friends with Buck or Jody, please tell them that their scheme is both unworkable and illegal. It’s bad enough giving false hope to desperate trans people and then letting them down, but they can still turn back before they cause serious harm to their peers and possibly end up in jail themselves.

The trouble with Transgasm and its magical foundation

Date: December 7, 2013

Buck Angel and Jody Rose’s new project Transgasm that exists to “change the way surgeries are funded in the FTM and MTF communities” has received both praises and criticisms over the last day or so. We all like the goal of providing new way for trans people to receive the medical care that they want, but many of us in the trans and ally communities are calling it a “scam.”

The trouble with the Transgasm scam is that people running it probably do not even think of it as a scam: they probably think that they are doing good for the community. I believe that their purported commitment to “law of attraction”–the quintessentially American magical belief that claims that “positive” thoughts attract positive outcomes–is what permits such self-serving distortion, self-indulgence, and victim-blaming that will follow when things fall apart.

According to Transgasm FAQ, Transgasm will teach trans people how to produce downloadable contents that can be sold via its website. Once the contents are sold, creators are paid 50% of the sale, plus 25% “paid forward” to pay for surgery for someone else on the “surgery list,” and the last 25% is withheld to keep the project itself going.

Some people are criticizing the 25% margin the project keeps for itself, calling it an exploitation of poor trans people’s creative work for the project founders to get rich off of. But that is not necessarily the criticism I have for Transgasm: after all, 25% margin is not any more exploitative than Apple, Amazon, and many other distributors of downloadable contents, who usually withhold 30% of the sale.

The problem really is the idea of “paying forword”: that is what makes Transgasm a pyramid scheme. In order to pay for just one trans person to receive surgery, dozens of trans people need to “pay forward” their 25%. These dozens of people will need dozens more each to benefit themselves. For the scheme to function, it requires an unlimited and exponentially growing number of trans people to join, as well as the unlimited and exponentially growing market for their products–and that will simply not happen. Like all pyramid schemes, only the first few would benefit and everyone else loses.

What if their classes are so successful that it only takes two or three trans people to pay for one person’s surgery? This would slow down the need for the pyramid’s expansion, but in time it will collapse just the same. Besides, if the classes can make trans people so successful at producing downloadable contents, why do they need to pool the resource with people they’ve never met, someone chosen by Transgasm owners? They could either save up on their own, or maybe pool resources with two or three of their close friends so that each of them could get their turn.

We all know that money does not just appear just because we want it, but “law of attraction” teaches precisely that money comes to us if we want it bad enough. It is, essentially, a magical thinking. Napoleon Hill popularized this delusion in the United States by appealing to white American business elites’ sense of entitlement and victim-blaming disdain for the poor. Buck Angel and Jody Rose say that they want to “share” their “success with thought science and the law of attraction” through Transgasm, but we need to reject the pyramid scheme and its magical foundation before it hurts many more trans people.

[Added December 8, 2013]

Here is an example of magical thinking typical of followers of “law of attraction”:


The poor person who lost $160 on the sidewalk was probably to blame for their own misfortune for having some “negative” thought.

Cis privilege and the Three Pillars of Patriarchy? (Re: “Cis” is real)

Date: September 22, 2013

In response to my post “‘Cis’ is real–even if it is carelessly articulated,” an “anti-porn, anti-queer theory, pro-choice radical feminist” asked:

Can you explain what privileges a woman receives from being born female (the class of humans oppressed on the basis of sex) and being raised as girls (the gender assigned to them to maintain the hierarchy of men > women)?

There are many “cisgender privilege” checklists out there, none of which I agree entirely with, but patterns are clear and undeniable: trans people as a group face unique sets of violence, discrimination, and marginalization, even if not all trans people experience all of them, or some cis people experience some of them as well.

I’m sure you’ve seen the lists, but if you haven’t, here are the “lists” that came up on a quick search:

Privilege “checklists” have been challenged by those who wish to deny their privilege ever since Peggy McIntosh’s original “Invisible Knapsack” article came out. Any given item in the “list” may not apply to all people who belong to the privileged group, or even apply to some people who aren’t supposed to have the privilege, but that does not diminish the concept of privilege itself, whether it is male privilege, white privilege, or, yes, cis privilege.

How do women, who are disadvantaged by their sex and gender, oppress trans people with power they don’t have? Because it isn’t like race or ability, which you draw parallels to, because white people are not discriminated against on the basis of skin color and abled people are not discriminated against on the basis of their abled-ness in the way that women are discriminated against for being “cis”–that is, being female.

Cis women can have power over trans people in the same way white women can have power over people of color. But more importantly, I think the notion of “privilege” as a totalizing, all-or-nothing experience is faulty. People with different levels (or kinds) of able-bodiedness can have different level (or kind) of access to privilege, so not all people who have disability are equally oppressed or privileged. Similarly, different people of color have different level of access to white privilege depending on their socially determined access to whiteness (which, again, is not a natural category, but a socially constructed knowledge about racial differences).

In her classic work “Heteropatriarchy and the Three Pillars of White Supremacy,” Andrea Smith analyzes three different “logics” that impact various communities of color differently and yet together uphold the white supremacy in the United States. According to her, three pillars of white supremacy are: the logic of slavery, which anchors capitalism by commodifying Black people as slaves, prison laborers, etc., and by extension commodifies all workers; the logic of genocide, which anchors colonialism by vanishing indigenous people both in social reality and in imagination in order to claim the land and culture that do not belong to the white supremacy; and the logic of Orientalism, which anchors war and anti-terror or anti-immigrant policies by treating Latinos, Asians, Arabs, and other people as foreign threat and invasion.

It is not helpful to assume that all people of color are oppressed (and not privileged) by the white supremacy in the same way, or that someone who is not targeted by a particular logic of the white supremacy in a particular way are therefore white. The system that is white supremacy requires all three to operate in concert, so in order to fight the white supremacy we need to address specific ways each community is targeted.

Would it be a stretch to think that patriarchy is also a conglomerate of various different logics? Misogyny, heterosexism, and cissexism can be understood as components of what we call patriarchy, or sometimes “gender,” but each impact different communities in unique ways (which, by the way, is not to say that they don’t also overlap, for example when someone is a gay and woman = lesbian).

I am Asian, which means that I have some access to white privilege where anti-Black racism (the logic of slavery) or settler colonialism (the logic of genocide) is in operation. That does not mean that I do not experience racism, or that I have white privilege the same way white people do. Similarly, a cis woman, or a straight woman can have some access to gender privilege, even though at the same time oppressed for being a woman.

I am not interested in “drawing the line” as to how much access is enough to categorize someone as being on the privileged “side” of the oppression, because I do not think of privilege as having just two sides. What I am attempting to do is to articulate a coherent and consistent understanding of cis privilege that is compatible with existing thinking around other forms of privilege.

(An earlier edit of this article has been posted on my Tumblr page.)

“Cis” is real—even if it is carelessly articulated.

Date: September 9, 2013

The term “cis” (usually denoting people and things that are not transgender or transsexual) has gained popularity among queer subcultures since the publication of “Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity” by Julia Serano in 2007. In the book, Serano cites my old post to WMST-L (Women’s Studies mailing list) as the place she encountered the word, so I feel I played some part in popularizing the term.

In casual conversations, it is suffice to say that “cis” means the opposite of “trans,” replacing “normal,” “natural,” “biological,” “genetic,” “real,” and many other words that are often used in the mainstream society to describe someone who is not trans. As I explained back in 2002, the reason “cis” is preferable to all the others is that it treats “cis” and “trans” as linguistic equivalents, rather than treating one as more normal or natural or otherwise standard and the other abnormal, artificial or exceptional. I wrote:

I learned the words “cissexual,” “cissexist,” and “cisgender,” from trans activists who wanted to turn the table and define the words that describe non-transsexuals and non-transgenders rather than always being defined and described by them. By using the term “cissexual” and “cisgender,” they de-centralize the dominant group, exposing it as merely one possible alternative rather than the “norm” against which trans people are defined.

As the term became popular, I started seeing it being included and defined in many “terminology” sheets and other documents. Personally, I feel perfectly comfortable defining “trans” as “not cis,” and “cis” as “not trans,” but other people often try to offer a more helpful sets of definitions–and this is where the problem begins. For example, Wikipedia states:

Cisgender and cissexual (often abbreviated to simply cis) describe related types of gender identity where an individual’s self-perception of their gender matches the sex they were assigned at birth. Kristen Schilt and Laurel Westbrook define cisgender as a label for “individuals who have a match between the gender they were assigned at birth, their bodies, and their personal identity,” complementing transgender.

Some anti-trans radical feminists have rejected the term “cis,” along with pretty much everything else trans movement has produced so far, but in this particular case they have a good point. That is, gender in a patriarchal society is an oppressive institution created and imposed (at least in part) to subjugate women, and as such no woman (or probably other people) can be described as having a natural “match” between her gender and the assigned sex. Many “cis” women are indeed not comfortable with the gendered expectations and treatment that are imposed on them because of their assigned sex: indeed, that is one of the reasons many women become feminists, especially radical feminists. Women do not need to suffer from “Gender Dysphoria” (formerly Gender Identity Disorder) to feel dysphoric about gender.

I am sympathetic to this argument, to a point, but I feel that the problem is not the concept of “cis” itself, but how badly it is defined. I agree that many “cis” women (and others) don’t feel that the socially imposed gender “matches” their assigned sex–or understand what “match” even means in this context–and yet, cis people (and cis women) exist. Cis privileges exist.

The problem is how the word “cis” is often defined as if it is a natural category, definable outside the context of cissexist power relations, rather than a socially constructed one. Like whiteness or able-bodiedness, “cis” needs to be understood as a historical and political category of power and privilege, with boundaries that are blurry and constantly shifting.

That might not make sense, because many people tend to think of whiteness or able-bodiedness as natural categories as well, but those of us who study the history of racism or ableism understand these categories as socially constructed. In the last several centuries, for example, many groups of people from Europe–Italians, Irish, and most recently, Ashkenazi Jews–have come to be accepted as “whites” in the U.S., even though historically they were regarded as something else. There are some people who predict that Asians and Latinos will eventually join “whites” in the U.S. in the not so distant future (remember, Jews weren’t white until mid-20th century)–which is kind of a scary thought to me, considering that I might live all of my life as an Asian person, only to die as a white person.

Able-bodiedness operates similarly: disability theorists have adopted a “social model of disability, which distinguishes between “impairments” that are physical or mental differences and “disabilities” that are social meaning of these differences created by lack of universal accessibility. Historical changes such as policies promoting accessibility and uses of adaptive technologies have reduced or in some cases eliminated difficulties someone might experience due to their physical or mental differences.

Like whiteness and able-bodiedness, “cis” needs to be treated as a socially constructed category of power and privilege. In my view, a “cis” person is not (necessarily) someone whose gender matches her or his assigned sex, or someone who does not suffer from “Gender Dysphoria”; it should denote someone who does not suffer from (or must manage possibility of suffering from) transphobia on a regular basis.

Obviously, there are grey areas along the boundaries of this category. Some butch women and effeminate men might be frequently targeted by transphobia without being trans, or some trans person might pass well enough to not experience transphobia in their daily lives. Similar grey areas also exist along the boundaries of whiteness and able-bodiedness (mistaken identities and “passing” can and do happen), but that does not diminish the usefulness of these categories to discuss socially imposed structures of power and privilege. It might also be true that butch women do experience some aspects of transphobia, but in a much different way than a trans person would: for example, butch women can usually produce an identification card with an “F” printed on it and expect everybody to accept it.

Just to be clear: When I say “transphobia,” I am not merely talking about someone using a wrong pronoun. I am talking about violence, discrimination, and social abandonment that take many trans lives. If we lived in a society where these tragedies did not exist, I could care less that people are using wrong pronouns. Cis is real, and cis privileges really do exist–even if they are often not articulated properly or thoughtfully. Do not let cis people get away with denying their privilege by nitpicking specific (arguably bad) definitions of the concept as if the concept itself has no substance.

Simone de Beauvoir was against essentialism–including neurological essentialism.

Date: April 29, 2013

In Transphobia Has No Place in Feminism, writer Lauren Rankin repeats a popular pro-trans argument that the (dominant) radical feminist stance on trans women (i.e. they are not women) is contradicted by Simone de Beauvior’s famous quote, “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” Lauren writes:

Any assumption that cisgender women are the only true women is a blatant form of bigotry. And honestly, it’s in direct violation of Feminism 101. After all, Simone De Beauvoir said more than half a century ago “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.”

Feminism is predicated on the idea that gender is a social construct, that women are not defined by their biology, and that the category of “woman” is informed and constructed by social gender norms. If women are more than what’s between their legs, why do some feminists continue to perpetuate a patriarchal notion that biology is destiny?

I agree that “any assumption that cisgender women are the only true women is a blatant form of bigotry”–not necessarily because I believe that trans women are “true women,” but because I don’t know what “true women” means in the first place–but I don’t feel that the use of de Beauvoir’s quote in this context is appropriate.

This famous quote comes from the beginning of the book two of The Second Sex, which is a chapter about the development of gendered characteristics in childhood. de Beauvoir writes:

No biological, psychological, or economic fate determines the figure that the human female presents in society […] Only the intervention of someone else can establish an individual as an Other. […] If, well before puberty and sometimes even from early infancy, she seems to us to be already sexually determined, this is not because mysterious instincts directly doom her to passivity, coquetry, maternity; it is because the influence of others upon the child is a factor almost from the start, and thus she is indoctrinated with her vocation from her earliest years.

Simone de Beauvoir does negate the “patriarchal notion that biology is destiny,” but that notion is not what (most) radical feminists actually subscribe to. Radical feminists believe, as did de Beauvoir, that one becomes a woman through and as a result of “the intervention of someone else” that indoctrinates female children into feminine gender roles.

On the other hand, trans activists and allies sometimes claim that trans women are women because of some “mysterious instincts,” as de Beauvoir calls it–a form of neuroessentialism. They might, possibly, be right about the etiology of gender identity, but they cannot use de Beauvoir’s words to support that position.

My position–following Naomi Scheman’s statement that “transsexual lives are lived, hence livable”–has always been that trans women are women because they just are; trans existence does not require any theoretical justification any more than cis existence does. But when trans activists and allies resort to a mis-interpretation of classical feminist text to argue against the anti-trans bigotry within feminism, I worry that it only bolsters radical feminists’ confidence that they are the only real feminists who understand feminism.

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