The Master’s Tools

Super Italicised Editor’s Notes: I’ve been quite busy with schoolwork and reading of late so, to all three of you, I apologise. It’s been fulfilling but draining and I scarcely have the energy to write things for this journal. Updates will continue to be sporadic but I have some ideas knocking about.

More Editor’s Notes: Andrea James has graciously responded to this piece at length and I encourage everyone to consider what she has to say.

In the past I have mentioned trans rights activist Andrea James, a highly successful trans woman who writes for and maintains the invaluable resource of TSRoadmap.com, which for its relatively small flaws remains a compendium on trans feminine transition without compare. I still link it at the side of this website for those neophyte trans people who may be poking around the net for information that may stumble on this blog. Ms. James keeps up with it, updating it periodically, and keeping up with its news feed which is one of my sources on trans community news these days.

But I have to say I was disturbed to discover her latest venture, which appears to be an outright attack on two, admittedly dangerous and self-hating, trans people. Linked in the news section, I read this with both interest and concern. Andrea James could well be a scholar if she put her mind to it and much of her website contains comprehensive deconstructions of transphobic ideology, pseudoscientific and otherwise. This is no exception, save for the venom she injects into certain elements, which I will discuss momentarily. The two people she is attacking here are people she, with good reason, lumps together with a group I derisively call the “HBS crowd”, a group of conservative transsexual women who claim to have an intersex condition, “Harry Benjamin Syndrome,” and claim dominion over who is and is not a true transsexual. Much of their online presence is dedicated to outright assaults on the trans community, using extremely bigoted language that would not be out of place in a bar (“men in dresses” “eunuchs” etc.) and they appear to use little else besides political orientation to make these determinations.

They are the Uncle Toms of the transgender community and I do not use this term flippantly or lightly. I do not say this because they don’t think as I do; I say this because they actively reify cissexual oppression and buttress it, claiming standing as a trans person in one breath to legitimise their hatred, while in the next disowning it and appropriating an intersex identity as part of their perpetual self-loathing. I’ve seen HBSers cheer on transphobic feminists, support anti-trans legislation, and reject attempts at equality such as the promotion of the word ‘cis.’ They claim to know who is a real woman and who isn’t, using ‘standards’ that are incredibly demeaning to trans people and women as a whole. Indeed, there is precious little difference between their beliefs and the ideals of your run of the mill ignorant cissexist.

Their betrayal of other trans people is impossible for me to forgive. I do not begrudge those who wish to live in stealth and otherwise separate themselves from the political community. That’s their right, we transition to make our individual lives better and I cannot blame a trans person one jot if they elect to do so. My problem is that they then actively work against the rest of their fellows. They have so internalised cissexist hate that they then project that self-loathing onto the rest of us. They feel illegitimate because they have been so bogged down by a society and a medical establishment that told them this was so, that they’d always be second-best also rans as women. From this perspective, their condition is a sad, lamentable one. HBSers are victims of cissexism as much as the rest of us, and regrettably they turn around to assault the rest of the community in thrashing attempts at legitimising their own identities. They create hierarchies of womanhood with themselves at or near the top and the rest of the trans community towards the bottom. They absolutely must feel more legitimate than other trans people in order to feel legitimate period.

The brilliant author of the webcomic Trans Girl Diaries has some excellent satires of their mentality in these particular pieces.

After this very lengthy and deserved thrashing you may wonder, then, what my problem with Andrea James is in this instance. HBSers attack the community by creating websites and sockpuppets designed to promote  their unique flavour of transphobia, Ms. James comes in with her +10 Hammer o’ Justice and all is well, yes? Well, much as I love Ms. James for doing what so many of us can’t, there is a thorny ethical question here that ties into other such information campaigns she has run in the past.

HBSers, regardless of their self-loathing politics which are externalised onto the rest of us at every opportunity, are still trans women. They are still vulnerable to transphobic and transmisogynist violence and discrimination. The men who have sought to rape, murder and utterly destroy us don’t give a whit about what they would see as semantic political differences. HBSer, TG, WBT, TS, trans women, we’re all just trannies to them, and thus subhuman. For Ms. James to decide, by fiat, who is worthy of protection and who isn’t, I am afraid she’s simply playing into the hands of transphobes. I consider the two women she’s just outed to be odious and detrimental to our community, but I cannot countenance putting them in harm’s way, regardless of the hate they are spreading.

You do not out a trans person, nor splash their photos, full names, and place of residence (if not exact address) on the Internet, end of story.

In digging up all of this personal information, including their personal histories and the like, I feel as if she is going too far to make her point. Can a trans woman activist like Ms. James, however well intentioned, wield the cudgel of cis violence against her (and indeed, our) enemies? Is this ethical? My answer is a resounding no. I understand she is trying to name and shame as well as hold these people accountable for their words and actions, piercing the façade of their innumerable alts and sockpuppets to prove they’re fewer in number than they appear and so forth.

But from Ms. James’ own description, Candice Elliott is apparently confused and possibly going through a midlife crisis. In attaching herself so forcefully to an identity and taxonomy used by trans-hating psychiatrists she is, in my mind, attempting to find and legitimise some identity for herself in a world deeply inimical to trans people. We all have our weak moments, and yes we should be judged by how we handle that weakness, but no you should not be put at risk of violence by other trans people for it.

When she speaks extensively about public figures in the cis scientific community like Ken Zucker and Ray Blanchard she’s mostly going over things that are on the public record. But by outing people like Ms. Holder and Ms. Elliott she’s entering far more dangerous and far more sinister territory. There is, however, other radioactive water that she is carrying:

“As shown in the photo below, Holder is passing for black about as well as passing for female.”

I’m not going to comment on Holder’s skin alterations. I put it in the same category as I do furries; fine by me, I have better things to do with my time than prove you ‘wrong’ in some cosmic sense. However the tone here taken by Ms. James clearly indicates mocking and derision. It is, in my mind, amoral for a trans woman to mock another based on one’s ability to “pass” by their standards (which are invariably influenced by the media imagery of a misogynist culture) and it simply reifies cissexism as much as any HBSer rant does (indeed, many of them do the same, as the pyramid I linked on TGD above shows). How can Andrea James indulge this for even one moment? Would Holder’s wrongdoing be any less problematic if she looked like a supermodel? Of course not. This merely feels like kicking sand at her out of spite (deserved spite, mayhaps, but spite all the same) and echoes the ugly statements made by Lynn Conway about the appearances of some trans people she disapproved of.

The objectifying before/after photos echo an ugly media trope that is often used against trans women, and although the ‘before’ pictures don’t show them in guy mode, it still has an ugly vibe to it that makes me rather uncomfortable.

You cannot fight cissexism and then turn around and indulge in it when it is convenient for you to do so. I don’t claim any right to do so just because I’m a trans woman.

I applaud Ms. James’ valiant efforts on behalf of the rest of us, but I also implore her to be careful when outing people who are otherwise private citizens. It’s a tremendous dilemma because one wants to push back against their misinformation and hate, but they are trans people all the same (whether they claim otherwise or not) and as such are vulnerable to transphobic violence and discrimination. Opening them up to that is unconscionable, unethical, and should be unthinkable for any trans activist.

It might make things harder, yes, but I learned long ago that nothing worth doing is easy, especially that which is virtuous. We must fight our enemies with dignity and without reducing ourselves to their tactics.

For Fuck’s Surgery

(Trigger Warning: This post quotes hateful/transphobic language at points.)

Being a young transitioner I’ve gone through a couple of fairly common rites of passage in my quest to live life as myself. One is, of course, TSRoadmap which has acted a sort of bible for transition; information compiled in one place that can help a broad cross section of the community. The other is Lynn Conway’s well known website, the centrepiece of which is the TS Woman Successes page, which is something even I’ve linked to others.

The younger ones among us with the privilege of a steady internet connection have probably used these sites in one way or another and we may, perhaps, even remember them fondly in the same way one looks back with a smile at a beloved first grade teacher.  That is certainly my own feeling. To Andrea James in particular, I feel I owe a great debt as her website was one of the first I encountered on this issue and helped me feel less alone. Without TSRoadmap, which I still link on this blog, things might well have gone a lot slower for me.

Yet in time I came to realise something about both websites. They are definitely, at best, 101 sites and not perfect authorities. They are also very much a narrow perspective on the full spectrum of trans women’s experiences, especially in the case of Lynn Conway’s website, which much to my consternation, I came to have serious problems with as I delved into it. Both websites represent the perspectives of perhaps the most privileged group of trans women, white and upper class. I do not deny that both sites are incredibly useful, and to a trans woman who was just getting started I’d still link them.

Yet I cannot get over my supreme discomfort with Ms. Conway’s website as I think it broadcasts some rather unpleasant and demeaning messages that I’m quite confident trans women do not need to hear. Today I’m going to go through my reasoning on this, with all due respect to Ms. Conway and the work she’s done.

One thing that will often be pointed out in the activist community is that both Ms. Conway and Ms. James still insist on using the term MTF to describe trans women, a crude bit of argot that does tend to reinforce the idea that we were at some point essentially male. That doesn’t quite jive with the experiences of many trans women, including many of the ordinary people whose stories are given prominent space on both sites. This isn’t a simple matter of political correctness (a subject to which I’ll return in a later column) but simply of correctness. There are exceptions, of course, where some transsexual women will identify differently, but in the main one should never presume an innate male identity for a trans woman, and the language of “MTF” or “M2F” should just be ditched. It’s nothing a simple FAQ couldn’t clear up.

But the much deeper problem has to do with Ms. Conway’s views on trans women’s body image, and it borders on body fascism, quite frankly.

The first stop on our tour here will be her SRS warnings page which is actually quite useful. It does pay to make sure one is truly ready, mind body and soul, for gender confirmation surgery and it could be instructive to consider a few examples of people who had these surgeries but ultimately regretted it. Conway does not quote these people for the insidious purposes malefactors like Julie Bindel do (i.e. to undermine and delegitimise us), rather she does so to make sure that any trans woman considering surgery is fully informed.

What troubles me is Conway’s commentary.

The first story she recites is that of Renee Richards, the famous tennis player who in her later years has infamously been quoted as saying some rather demeaning and damaging things about other trans women. Hers is, perhaps, a worthwhile story to tell here but Conway’s psychological commentary gets into some very bizarre territory:

“Part of Renée’s problem with public acceptance, and possibly (though unconsciously) with her own inner self-acceptance, was undoubtedly her unusual facial structure. She had a very feminine, well-toned and attractive body, and must have thought of herself as being very beautiful. She sought media attention at every turn, and her photos were widely disseminated.  Unfortunately, she never seemed to realize that she had a very prominent male brow-bulge and large male jaw and chin.”

As I read this I couldn’t help but boggle. Does she even realise what she’s saying and what she’s speculating on?

A bit of background is in order: Conway and James are both major proponents of facial feminisation surgery. They believe that if you have problems “passing” you can make them all go away with a trip to a plastic surgeon. To some extent they are correct that adding female gender cues to one’s face may allow one to gain conditional cissexual privilege more easily, and there is some truth to Andrea James’ assertion that “passing is from the neck up.”

But at the same time, Conway’s nigh-on religious advocacy delves into insulting territory on this website and she starts to sound like a mad barber as she analyses (often very cruelly) the faces of trans women. What is most irksome to me is that both women, but Conway in particular, seem to ignore the fact that many cis women have ‘masculine’ facial features and structures. The kind of scrutiny they may receive for it is a source of huge insecurity for women, whether cis or trans, and Conway’s offensive commentary does little to help that body image problem.

Whatever Richards’ sins in later life may have been, to dismiss her face as ‘unusual’ is incredibly insulting, and to say that she “never seemed to realise” certain things about her face is equally so.

I see myself in the mirror every single day. I am very aware of the fact that I have a slight bossed brow and that my jaw line is a bit more square than that of the average woman’s. Very. Very. Aware. It is an uphill battle to fight the impulse to see myself as lesser, or as not womanly enough because of this. It is a heinous intersection of the body image problems that are heaped on all Western women by the media, and the transmisogynist element of tying one’s womanhood to their ability to “pass.”

I’ve little doubt Renee Richards was aware too.

For Conway to feed this insecurity, especially when many of the people reading her site might be young women who could ill afford such surgeries, is the height of irresponsibility.

Further down, Ms. Conway relates the case of  Dani Bunten Berry, who regretted her SRS and wrote an essay on the subject. Conway’s thoughts are extensive and she speculates on whether Ms. Berry was a crossdresser who might’ve been happier without the surgery and in the final diagnosis says the following:

“Dani would threfore have been much better advised by her counselors to undergo FFS to correct her very masculine facial structure…”

That this is the first thing she writes is annoying enough. That she seems contradicted by the very picture she herself posted of Ms. Berry just makes it maddening. Berry does not have what I would consider to be a singularly ‘masculine’ facial structure.

But I know that to argue this point with Conway is to miss the point and play her game of turning these people into objects to pore over as if they were lifeless sculptures. To do so to Ms. Berry, who passed away in 1998, seems particularly disrespectful. How Ms. Conway could objectify them so is beyond me.

It is also worth looking at the language: “correct” her facial structure. I believe that if one undergoes FFS it should be a matter of choice. Not one of ‘correction’. Trans women have to fight for years to overcome the idea that there is something intrinsically wrong with them, even after coming out, and even after having lived as themselves for many years; then Ms. Conway drops that kind of bomb, implying that, yes my dear, there is something intrinsically wrong with you.

In the end Ms. Conway says this:

“In cases where serious difficulties are expected in social transition, it might be wise to give FFS priority over SRS, because FFS has a much more profound effect on the reactions of others to one’s transition.”

After all this I’m tempted to use the FFS acronym in a different context.

Ms. Conway and her supporters might argue that I am being overly idealistic and unrealistic. That, gee, it would be nice if women could be comfortable in their bodies no matter what, but we have to adapt to the fact that people will judge trans women based on their faces and it’s best if we cater to it.

I disagree.

I post a lot on the aggregator/link voting site Reddit and I came across a thread not too long ago where someone linked to a lovely little game on some website called “Spot the Transgender.” You can see where this is going. The link was to a website that showed ten pictures of Thai women and you had to guess which were trans and which were “real women” as everyone termed it. To say this was an orgy of objectifying hate would be an understatement, but reading the comments was instructive in a grim way.

A lot of the men (and 98% of the people who commented were males) went through their thought processes, proudly telling everyone how they did it and spotted the “men” or the “fakes” or the “trannies”. I quote their othering language to give you an idea of where they’re coming from as these are the kinds of people Conway ostensibly seeks to mollify by frogmarching us into an FFS surgeon’s office.

Guess what? They weren’t looking so much at the faces.

Hands, hips, shoulders, thighs, belly buttons were all mentioned more than facial elements, although a few people brought up things like “creepy smiles” or jaw shape. But the point is that what they were using to objectify and other us were taking parts of the kathoey women’s bodies that could not be “corrected” (to use Ms. Conway’s stupid term) with some kind of surgery.

You could argue that the comment section here had a sampling bias because everyone was told in advance that there would be trans women in the photo gallery, but the point is that if they do not objectify your face, they will objectify the rest of you. One even said that trans women will probably have “ bigger boobs” than cis women.

I am quite sorry, but I’m not going to go under the knife to please these macho, bigoted jerks and as much of a fight as it can be to keep this in mind: I know I’m beautiful. Among the people who matter, I have been told that. Frankly, I’ll go with what my heart says and what those who care about me say rather than what these monsters do. If they know I’m trans, they’ll work overtime to objectify my body no matter how many surgeries I’ve had.

Even when my status isn’t known, I’ve received enough ogles, enough up-and-down looks, enough stares, enough wolf whistles to know I’m being objectified already. I will not do a damn thing, nor spend one cent to please those people, and other  trans women should not be guilted or cajoled into doing so either.

This worship of a cis female standard of beauty is particularly pernicious and harmful to trans women, but it does not affect only us. When I see cis models mocked for “looking like trannies” or Ann Coulter being routinely taunted as Man Coulter, or countless cis women berated for thick eyebrows, extraneous facial hairs, square jaw lines, adam’s apples, or any other features that can be plucked out to mock them with, I see where the problem’s source lies: fundamental misogyny. All women are measured very harshly against these models of Ur femininity and are often told they are deficient if they don’t meet that standard; the entire “you look like a man” bullshit meme is part and parcel of the same phenomenon. The idea that you don’t look enough like a particular standard of feminine beauty and you are lesser as a result comes from that.

I’m not saying “don’t ever get FFS.” I am saying don’t do it for the wrong reasons.

I’ll continue this at a later date as there’s more to be discussed about Ms. Conway’s thinking about post-transition trans women that I feel is somewhat harmful and projects too much of her own experience.