Tag Archives: transphobia

Re-stating our support for the victim/survivor in the Dana McCallum case

[Content warning: rape]

Back in April, we published a statement of support for the victim in the Dana McCallum rape case. In the letter — written by Liz Henry and co-signed by Leigh Honeywell, Valerie Aurora, Brenda Wallace, Tim Chevalier (me), Annalee Flower Horne, and Beth Flanagan — we stated our empathy and support for the victim/survivor — who is McCallum’s wife (they are in the process of divorcing) — in this case as well as for her family.

This month, McCallum accepted a guilty plea for two misdemeanors in this case: one count of domestic violence with corporal injury to the spouse and one count of false imprisonment. McCallum will serve probation, community service, and will have to undergo counseling. We already included this link in a linkspam, but given our previous statement of support for McCallum’s victim, I want to reiterate that support.

As Liz wrote in our statement of support back in April, “Rape is a horrible violent crime no matter who the rapist is.” McCallum’s wife read a statement that says, in part:

I must say that it deeply saddens me that as a victim, my only public support has been from hate groups. I expected more from the LGBT and feminist community. It’s a shame that they can’t do the emotional work it requires to process that someone they love is capable of such an awful crime. That is their burden to carry, though.

In April, we also expressed disappointment in the transmisogynistic response to McCallum’s crime. As geek feminists, we believed then, and do now, that we can and must accept that someone in our community is capable of the crime of rape. Hard as it may be to accept, self-identified feminists can sustain rape culture — up to and including actually committing rape — too. We also believe that at the same time, we must resist the narrative that would use this crime to de-gender or misgender McCallum and, by extension, trans women. Rape can be committed by anyone, regardless of their assigned sex at birth or their self-affirmed sex or gender. Structural power dynamics and rape culture mean it’s far more likely to be committed by cis men than by people in any other group, but that is a fact that needs to inform anti-rape organizing — it does not make rapes committed by specific non-cis, non-male people less damaging.

McCallum’s wife also said that she still loves McCallum and wants “forgiveness” to prevail. The Revolution Starts at Home (PDF link) is recommended reading for anyone curious about what that might look like.

Edited to add: McCallum’s ex has also written a public blog post, as a guest post on Helen Boyd’s blog, about her experience:

The transphobic radical feminists and other transphobic people will continue to rage over the state of my wife’s genitals, and I can’t stop them. But I hope more intelligent and thoughtful people will rise to the occasion to steer the conversation to what really matters.

I want her to be accountable. I want this to never happen again. I want to forgive her. I want this story to be about forgiveness and redemption. I need it to be. I need others to let it be that, too – to be my story, my trauma, my choice, my agency.

I recommend reading the post, but not the comments.

Please mind the linkspam (25 June 2014)

  • Applications for MotherCoders Fall 2014 Opens! | Tina Lee at mothercoders (June 20): “We are committed to creating a more dynamic, sustainable, and inclusive economy by on-ramping moms to careers in technology. Those who are interested in being considered for our Fall 2014 session must complete this survey by midnight on Sunday, July 13, 2014.”
  • ‘Cards Against Humanity’ Co-Creator Publicly Apologizes for Transphobic Card | Jessica Roy at Fusion (June 18): “”We were writing jokes for ourselves and we weren’t really thinking about how it would affect other people,” Temkin [a creator of the game] said. “But when you have something that starts to be part of pop culture, you can’t help but see how it makes people feel and feel some sense of responsibility for that.” […] “We talk about the idea of ‘punching up, not punching down’ all the time,” Temkin said. “It’s something that we stand behind: making fun of those power structures, because they’re already powerful.””
  • Unicode Unveils 250 New Emoji, Gets Thumbs Down For Diversity | Eric Brown at International Business Times (June 17): “In the end, the problem rests on the shoulders of both Unicode and third parties. Third parties have the option of illustrating emoji however they wish, but universally stick to white as a default. Unicode, meanwhile, has the option of introducing more characters that would push Apple and Twitter to move beyond its majority-white character base. At this point, both need to take responsibility and introduce more inclusive emoji.”
  • Stephanie Kwolek, inventor of the super fibre Kevlar, dies at 90 | The Guardian (June 21): “Stephanie Kwolek, the American chemist who invented the super-strong fibre Kevlar used in bullet-proof vests, has died at age 90.”
  • Editor’s blog: I am sexist | Tom Bramwell at Eurogamer (Jun 19)[warning for discussion of violence against women] “It’s really hard to talk about sexism (in games or otherwise) when a large proportion of your audience hasn’t realised it is sexist, whether subtly or profoundly. […] I don’t think they come from a place of actual misogyny. I think they are just a byproduct of the kind of casual ignorance I have personally embodied for pretty much all of my sexist life. […]  I am writing this because I hope that if I stand up and admit that I am sexist, have always been sexist and will probably always have to rebel against this bit of programming in my head whenever it is triggered, one or two people will realise that they can relate to what I’m saying, and that will give them a bit of courage to try to do something about it as well.”
  • Should You Have a Baby in Graduate School? | sarah Kendzior at Vitae (June 16): “Pregnant graduate students pose a problem to an academic culture that values “fit” above all else. While pregnancy may feel to the pregnant like bodily subservience, it is often viewed in academia as an unwelcome declaration of autonomy.”
  • Lake Scene | Manfeels Park (June 18): [comic]
  • What the Internet’s Most Infamous Trolls Tell Us About Online Feminism | Fruzsina Eördögh at Motherbaord (June 20): “The 4chan ruse ended last Friday […] but not before a silver lining had revealed itself: Feminists of color had very publicly become such an integral part of the feminist movement that trolls thought they were the vehicle to end all feminism online.”
  • Inside the Mirrortocracy | Carlos Bueno (June 2014): “We’ve created a make-believe cult of objective meritocracy, a pseudo-scientific mythos to obscure and reinforce the belief that only people who look and talk like us are worth noticing. After making such a show of burning down the bad old rules of business, the new ones we’ve created seem pretty similar.”
  • Major Ed-Tech Event Overhauls Code of Conduct After Troubling Accusations | Benjamin Herold at Education Week (June 19)[warning for discussion of harassment and rape] “The policy changes made by the International Society for Technology in Education, or ISTE, focus on explicitly outlining unacceptable and harassing behaviors, clearly delineating protocols for addressing such behaviors when they occur, and identifying specific consequences for violations. Such guidelines have been adopted in recent years by other conferences and events in the broader U.S. technology sector, where problems of sexism and sexual harassment have been widely reported and documented.” This article takes a perhaps sceptical tone at times, but is interesting as an examination of a particular field in the technology industry.

We link to a variety of sources, some of which are personal blogs.  If you visit other sites linked herein, we ask that you respect the commenting policy and individual culture of those sites.

You can suggest links for future linkspams in comments here, or by using the “geekfeminism” tag on Pinboard, Delicious or Diigo; or the “#geekfeminism” tag on Twitter. Please note that we tend to stick to publishing recent links (from the last month or so).

Thanks to everyone who suggested links.

Note: this linkspam title has been changed; we apologize for having missed the racist history of the song we used for the week’s punny title.

Geekfeminism.org statement on rape allegations and transmisogyny

This morning as I was about to get on a plane back from a conference I found out that Dana McCallum, aka Dana L. Contreras, a software engineer at Twitter as well as a feminist activist, was arrested in late January and charged with several felonies including rape, false imprisonment, and domestic violence. Some details of the charges are described on SFgate: SF Women’s Rights Advocate Accused of Raping Wife.

Many of us associated with geekfeminism.org and its sister organizations would like to make a statement in response.

This is horrifying and came as a shock to many of us in feminist communities, as McCallum has been a fellow feminist activist for some time. The bloggers at geekfeminism.org would like to express our empathy and support for the victim/survivor and her family.

Another aspect of this case is that the media coverage of the rape and assault charges are almost universally misogynist and transphobic both in their perpetuation of rape culture (for one, by providing an uncritical platform for McCallum’s lawyer) and in their misgendering and obsessive focus on McCallum’s gender identity and history.  Some radical feminist activists (and their many obvious sockpuppets) have also been writing hateful “trans panic” or TERF articles and tweets. We strongly repudiate such responses.

Rape is a horrible violent crime no matter who the rapist is.

The National Center for Transgender Equality director Mara Keisling says on a comment on a post by Nitasha Tiku,

“Rape is a horrific crime. Sexual violence is never okay. But this isn’t a transgender story. We can’t speak to the specifics of this case but sexual assault knows no gender. That’s why the FBI recently revised their definition of rape. As this case gains more attention, we must avoid using it as a reason to misrepresent transgender people.”

For anyone who has experienced abuse or sexual assault, it can be helpful to turn to local or broader resources. Here is a list of trans-friendly and inclusive rape survivor organizations and resources.  In San Francisco,  San Francisco Women Against Rape is a good resource;  WOMAN Inc, the Cooperative Restraining Order Clinic, and GLIDE also provide many resources for people in the SF Bay Area who have experienced domestic violence. Please don’t go through this on your own; reach out to people around you — you’re not alone.

– Liz Henry


Leigh Honeywell

Valerie Aurora

Brenda Wallace

Tim Chevalier

Annalee Flower Horne

Beth Flanagan

Chelsea Manning: on pressing the button

This is a guest post by Abigail Brady. It originally appeared on August 22, 2013 on her blog. Abigail Brady is a software engineer and writer, and has been a Wikipedian since 2003. This piece is under CC-BY-ND.

Private Manning’s announcement today that she is a trans woman came as no surprise to those of us who’d read the chat logs. Admittedly, the name she’s picked: Chelsea, was a bit of a turn-up: in the logs she’d previously identified as Breanna. Anyhow, on seeing this news I did what any self-respecting Wikipedian would do, and had a look to see if anyone had updated the Wikipedia article yet.

This had come up before, but it was thought that the transcripts and a few sources reporting on the implications of them were not enough. Some trans activists had been championing visibility on this issue, but I had felt uncomfortable with both sides. Sure, Manning, by her own words, which I had no reason to doubt, was probably trans. But those chat logs had hardly been released with her full agreement and she hadn’t socially transitioned (that is, actually asked people to start calling her a different name, or use female pronouns). But, also, it was not clear that’d she’d be able to ask that, as her contact with the outside world was very limited. Wikipedia took the side of caution and didn’t mention it except peripherally, and it certainly didn’t move any articles. Meanwhile, I, in conversations, carefully avoided referring to Manning by anything other than surname.

We’d had a similar issue with the article on the Wachowskis – where there had been rumours floating around about Lana for years, but they all traced back to a single, rather salacious, source (we try to be careful about that, in Wikipedia, believe it or not – although what’s worse is when some article is using us as a source without citing us and we get into a horrible citation loop). Eventually Lana did let it be known – the Wachowskis are quite private so what really clenched it was her official listings on a union site and IMDB. Laura Jane Grace, the lead singer of Against Me, was another interesting case because she initially announced that she was going to transition, so we kept referring to her with her old name and gender for a bit.

What do I mean by “transition”, anyway? Well, as I use it here, that’s the process of actually changing your name and asking people to start calling you by it; and also to use new pronouns. People who aren’t trans (“cis people”, if you follow the Latin pun) often seem to obsess about genital surgery, and claim that “she” is really “he” until that happens, but, disregarding the unhealthy fixation on other people’s genitals, this ignores the legal and practical reality of the situation: being socially transitioned for a good length of time is generally a requirement for surgery. You might as well claim that having passed a driving test is a prerequisite for learning to drive.

Manning’s statement was pretty clear that she was transitioning immediately, such as it was possible (and I don’t even really want to think about doing that inside the US military justice system, but that’s another issue). I got agreement from a few other interested parties on the talk page, and moved the page, and started copyediting it. But to what exactly? There are two schools of thought here (well, there are three schools of thought: the third is that transition is sick and wrong and against nature and biologically impossible and so on, and therefore the prose shouldn’t acknowledge it at all other than as a delusion; but I’ll discount that one).

The first is that you should use “old” pronouns and names for pre-transition events, back when Manning was living as male; and the new ones for ongoing statements of fact and events afterwards. The second is that the new pronouns and names be applied for the entire biography. The first is often justified based on an appeal to the unalterability of the past, and the avoidance of awkward wording, but it can lead to plenty of difficulties in phrasing in its own right. How would we phrase “[X] is imprisoned at Quantico, after [X] was convicted for multiple charges of espionage”? One of these things is in the present; the other in the past. We can’t be switching pronouns within a sentence, that’s what I call real nonsense.

Fortunately, the Wikipedia Manual of Style is completely clear on this point, favouring the second:

“Any person whose gender might be questioned should be referred to by the gendered nouns (for example “man/woman”, “waiter/waitress”, “chairman/chairwoman”), pronouns, and possessive adjectives that reflect that person’s latest expressed gender self-identification. This applies in references to any phase of that person’s life. Direct quotations may need to be handled as exceptions. Nevertheless, avoid confusing or seemingly logically impossible text that could result from pronoun usage (for example: instead of He gave birth to his first child, write He became a parent for the first time).” (my emphasis)

It has been like this for a long time, and reflected long-established usage well before that. So, our manual of style backs me, I’ve got the citation I needed, I got consensus on the talk page. I pressed the button and watched.

It was not as uncontroversial as it should have been. There is currently a raging argument on the talk page, in which all sorts of mud has been flung (I’ve been accused of misusing my admin rights, even though any user could do what I did!) A lot of this has been supportive of my decision. But a depressing amount of it full of people repeating the same canards as if they are being original, and I’m not even allowed to block them because technically they haven’t done anything wrong (well, apart from the ones who have tried to move it back in a technically incompetent way.) Instead, we’re supposed to argue individually with each tendentious passer-by, each of them saying things like “ooh, but it’s just a matter of the facts” like we hadn’t considered facts before or something. I kept it up for a while, but it’s draining. Instead, I’ll address them en masse here:

Other sites have in fact changing things throughout the day. It’s not like we were breaking news or anything at any point.

Chelsea Manning’s genitals are none of your business. Or mine.

No, we are not a laughing stock of the world. I have been watching twitter. Twitter thinks what we did was awesome. I’ve been watching “Manning” and “Wikipedia” all afternoon and it’s been well 95% positive.

How is it you are so sure of Chelsea’s chromosomes? Did you have her karyotype done?

Can you not read or something? The Manual of Style clearly is meant for cases like this. No, you can’t point out that it only applies in cases where there is a “question” and then claim there is no question.

Look, you seem to be denying the the validity of transsexuality in general and then using that as a basis for keeping the article at “Bradley” and the pronouns as “he”. I don’t expect to persuade you that you’re wrong, not on a Wikipedia talk page, but can you see that failure to even pay lip service to the idea that the entire medical-scientific-social consensus in the West might be right about trans people is not be an entirely sensible basis for a discussion of policy? What are you going to do next, edit Oscar Wilde so it calls him a sodomite?

Maybe putting these answers here will work. Because nobody seems to be listening on the talk page.
It’s easy to forget, dealing with these sort of nonsense, that Wikipedia’s openness has advantages as well. It’s precisely because anyone can edit that I’m able to do so, and that the article was moved at all. Right now, people are voting about whether it should be moved back. Or rather, they are participating in this bizarre consensus-reaching procedure which is way more than a simple headcount. And ultimately, I probably don’t need to be countering every spurious invocation of the same nonsense on the talk page, because the closing admin (the person who takes it upon themselves to be responsible for looking at what we’ve thrown at the wall and somehow discerning the consensus of the discussion) will look at the facts and the policy and the arguments, weigh them up carefully, and decide that it’s not going anywhere.

Editor’s note: Manning’s announcement that she is a woman was quoted by The Nation, among other sources. The chat logs that Abigail refers to were published by Wired. Other background reading includes Manning’s Wikipedia article and talk page (content warning for cissexism, misgendering, and transphobia, particularly on the talk page). Abigail mentioned Lana Wachowski‘s and Laura Jane Grace‘s Wikipedia articles as well. Since the writing of this post, the Wikipedia discussion has taken a more cissexist turn.

Being a better ally to trans people

This is an Ask a Geek Feminism question from one of our readers (it’s still not too late to ask more questions):

One of the things I’ve been trying to work on recently is being more accepting and supportive of trans people (although this specific question can relate to several other contexts). I have heard a trans person say they’ve been hurt by being called “unnatural,” and I’ve heard coworkers make similar remarks. Would it be a good defensive for me to say to those coworkers, if the opportunity arises, “So are computers.”* ?

I wonder if that would resonate with the tech people I spend most of my time around – oh, yeah, we live and love things that are “unnatural” all the time, so maybe we shouldn’t look down on others for something else “unnatural” – but I’m worried about potentially causing more hurt to anyone listening by implying they are unnatural.

I personally just despise framing things as “natural” and “unnatural”, myself, but I don’t know if that response helps or not.

* or cars. or antibiotics. or sewage systems. really, most things.

There are always multiple ways to respond to any given microaggression, and some will work better or worse in different situations and with different people. It’s also great when allies stand up for us and point out when certain words or phrases or jokes are unacceptable, since we get tired of doing it all the time, and also because sometimes a cis ally — or a trans person who isn’t known to be trans in the particular situation they’re in — will be listened to whereas a person who is known to be trans won’t.

Personally (and I’m just speaking for myself here), I don’t think your hypothetical response is bad, or unwittingly transphobic, but it’s not my favorite possible response. There are trans people who champion transhumanism (putting the trans in transhumanism?) — for an example of what such a worldview might look like, see Donna Haraway’s “The Cyborg Manifesto” (Haraway’s student Sandy Stone — worthy of a geek woman profile herself — wrote “The Empire Strikes Back: A Posttranssexual Manifesto”, a deeply flawed but historically influential essay in which she encouraged trans people to aspire to more than just fitting in as someone who’s typically read as a cis woman or cis man). Some of them see that to buy quality HGH, to undergo hormone replacement therapy and surgery as sought by some trans people as radical body modifications, and see themselves as being part of a cyborg movement.

Moreover, both your co-workers and your hypothetical response assume that trans people, by definition, seek medical intervention to bring their external body into congruence with their neurological or subconscious sex. I assume that what is being thought of as “unnatural” is the use of medication or surgery. However, many trans people do not undergo any medical interventions, whether by choice or due to the many economic and social injustices that make this type of health care especially difficult to access for many people. So really, the people being tarred with the “unnatural” brush are actually a subset of trans people.

In the rest of this answer, though, I’ll show how the accusation of ‘unnatural’ is only used to protect the power structure as-is: people accept all sorts of things that were once considered unnatural if those things prove to help white heterosexual cis men.[1] Specifically, they accept medical technology, beautifications and body modifications usually used by women (so long as they jibe with the male gaze), and (since it’s become economically beneficial for white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, at least to some extent) women working outside the home and in professional jobs.

Medical technology. Since not all trans people (myself included) want to see themselves as better than human, or beyond human, I think there are better answers. Like you said in your question, antibiotics are unnatural. So are hip replacements, cochlear implants, anti-depressants, insulin, thyroid replacement hormone, breast reductions and augmentations, artificial legs, organ transplants, crutches, wheelchairs, and pacemakers. These are all medications, procedures, devices that are used by both cis people and trans people. I think very few people would want to go back in time to a world without medical technology. For trans people who avail themselves of them (or want to), medication (that is, exogeneous hormones or for growth: http://pumpauthority.com/hgh-supplements-for-sale/) and surgeries are treatments for a medical condition. It’s not that being trans is a disease or a disorder — or that being the sex we’re born as (for example, the sex I was born as is male although I was coercively assigned female at birth) is a delusion or a problem — it’s that some of us have brains and bodies that function best when testosterone is our primary sex hormone even though we were born with gonads that primarily produce estrogen, and some have brains and bodies that function best when estrogen is our primary sex hormone even though we were born with gonads that primarily produce testosterone. And some of us have, deeply wired into our brain, a mental map of an external body that has different genitals (or other features) than the body we were born with. In the latter case, surgery to make our bodies the shape that our brain expects is treating a medical condition, which is a body that didn’t form in the way that our brain expects. And in the former case, hormone replacement is just a matter of supplementing a hormone our bodies don’t make enough of, much like taking synthetic thyroid hormone for someone with hypothyroidism. Much of this is widely accepted and know, these facts even find themselves in some of the testosterone supplements review papers available today.

None of this is “natural”, but again, if “natural” means going back to a world where nearsighted people get eaten by wolves because there are no eyeglasses, don’t sign me up. There’s something very ableist about wanting to live in a world where medical interventions aren’t available: it basically means you want to live in a world where disabled people are all left to die. Since most of my friends and I would be dead in that world, no thanks.

Alternatively, you could certainly argue that anything that exists is natural, in the sense of occurring in nature. Human beings have developed technology because we evolved brains that made us capable of developing it. That’s 100% natural. So is anything that we’ve created using natural materials. Like the health food store that tries to sell you “100% chemical-free” food, people who talk about what’s “natural” and “unnatural” are using clichés to fool you into accepting a category that’s actually semantically empty. Trans people are natural because we are trans, and we exist; full stop. We’re not confused cis people or flawed versions of cis people, but rather, individuals in our own right.

Sometimes claims that trans people are “unnatural” are really claims that trans people are some sort of modern creation of medical technology, as if we didn’t exist before medical interventions that sometimes make our lives easier existed. This argument gets it backwards and erases our agency — it’s not like cis male doctors were dying to treat trans people; rather, we had to fight tooth and nail to get some small modicum of access to treatment (and that access has always been easier to get for white trans people who can at least act like they conform to the stereotypes for their self-identified gender). And anyway, gender-variant people exist in every culture and have been noted throughout history.

Some people disbelieve this reality because they believe in an oversimplified, fifth-grade-biology view of evolution in which reproduction is all-important and features that seem to discourage reproduction can’t possibly survive. As Joan Roughgarden showed in Evolution’s Rainbow and Bruce Bagemihl showed in Biological Exuberance, it ain’t necessarily so. Understanding evolutionary theory does not entail believing in some sort of “invisible hand” that directs all organisms’ behavior so as to maximize reproduction; it also doesn’t require attaching moral value to reproducing. Those last two are about ideology, not science. If anything is unnatural, it’s the belief system that nothing in nature has any purpose besides reproduction (or indeed, that there are purposes aside from what people and perhaps other conscious beings ascribe to it). Bagemihl, in particular, outlines an alternative framework (at the end of Biological Exuberance) in which we view pleasure and abundance, rather than reproduction, as what living beings optimize for. In this framework, there’s nothing strange about animals (human and otherwise) who engage in homosexual, bisexual, and pansexual behavior, or who are gender-fluid or intersex or occupy genders besides the two that most Western humans recognize. Since we have a choice about the ideas we use to give meaning to raw data, we might as well pick ones that don’t come pre-bundled with a whole lot of social hierarchy implying that cis men and women are better than others, or that people who procreate are better than people who don’t — eh? There’s nothing natural about attaching moral connotations to the ability to reproduce.

Closely related to the “natural” microaggression is the microaggression of referring to both cis men and trans women as “biologically male” and trans men and cis women as “biologically female”. The sexes most of us get assigned at birth are better characterized as “sociological sex” than “biological sex”. When a baby is born in an industrialized, medicalized setting in the Western world, typically what happens is that a doctor (or midwife, or other medical worker or in some cases, a parent or family member) inspects the baby’s genitals and determines whether, as an adult, the baby will be able to play the penetrative role in heterosexual intercourse between two cis people. If the doctor decides that the baby’s phalloclitoris is large enough that, scaled up, it’ll be big enough to accomplish this task, the doctor assigns a male sex to the baby. Otherwise — defining maleness by the presence of a penis and femaleness by the absence of a penis — the doctor assigns the baby as female. Nowadays, of course, especially for people who can afford it, this ascertainment gets made before birth using modern imaging technology (that is, using imaging technology to enhance the same old heteronormative criterion). In either case, this is absolutely subjective — less than a few decades ago, it was completely routine for 46,XY newborns (most of who would presumably grow up to assert themselves as male) to have genital reconstruction performed on them soon after birth to turn their “abnormally small” penises and scrota into a vulva. This is no longer routine, but still happens. The reasons have to do with a bag of social assumptions most of us are inculcated with involving the ideas that everyone is heterosexual — or if not, at least that not being heterosexual is undesirable — that everyone is sexual, and that the correct way for two people to interact sexually is missionary-position, penis-in-vagina intercourse. That’s why I call it sociological sex and not biological sex. If we went by biology and not sociology, we wouldn’t assign infants a sex until they were old enough to affirm one for themselves, since the only reliable indicator of one’s sex is the brain, and the only way to determine someone’s innate, subconscious sex is to ask them what it is.

Gender expression (not just for trans people). I want to take a couple of steps back and point out that what I’ve outlined is a version of the medical model of transsexuality. It’s still not the version that gatekeepers such as the World Professional Association for Transgender Health like to purvey, but regardless, some trans and genderqueer people reject the idea of medicalizing transness at all. I don’t, however, see the existence of such people as evidence for “unnatural”ness either. Regardless of what you’re doing or not doing with your body, there’s nothing unnatural about modifying your body, appearance, and behavior to communicate who you are and how you’d like to be treated. It’s possible to view gender as a language, and language is one of the most basic things about being human. Using symbols to convey meanings is natural.

I recommend Talia Bettcher’s article “Evil Deceivers and Make Believers”[2] in which she outlines “the natural attitude about gender” — which probably most or all of us have been taught, and many people have rarely questioned — and how it’s used to frame trans people as either deceptive or deluded. I think her argument relates directly to the real meaning of “unnatural” when used as a slur against trans people. If you can suggest that trans people are somehow “fake”, you can suggest that cis people are better than trans people, and thus justified in devaluing and dehumanizing trans people. People often rely on scientific terms they don’t understand, like “chromosome”, to lend false legitimacy to the idea that trans women are somehow less female than cis women or trans men are somehow less male than cis men, but one shouldn’t be fooled by the bogus biological science — it’s social science all the way down. As Bettcher shows, ultimately, the socially inculcated assumption is that outward appearance is an advertisement for what genitals one has. This is a convention I was never asked to consent to participating in, and if I’d been asked, I would have said no — but in any case, there’s no particular scientific or biological reason to assume that everyone is obeying this convention.

I’ve used the phrase “trans people” a couple of times in this answer, but I’ve argued myself that it’s a misleading phrase. It’s really trans women who face the bulk of the scrutiny from the dominant culture about being natural enough. This shouldn’t be too surprising, since it’s essentially the same scrutiny that cis women in sexist society are subject to. Cis women are expected to go to a great deal of effort to make themselves physically attractive (makeup, clothes, shoes, shaving, exercising, hairstyles, cosmetic surgery…) while simultaneously constructing a simulacrum of “natural”ness (that actually resembles nature very little — especially for women who aren’t white, thin and able-bodied, since the normative ideal of femininity in Western culture requires being all three). Trans women face all the same scrutiny, plus a double bind: if they do too much to conform to compulsory femininity, they’re accused of being “artificial” or “unnatural”; if they don’t put in this effort, they’re accused of really being men. They can’t win. Naturalness is a lie, an artifice, a construct made by somebody trying to sell you something.

Gender roles. Moreover, men (and other women) have also hurled the “unnatural” brickbat at cis women who wanted to work outside the home, decline to have children, love other women, go to school, or do science or engineering. That in itself should be a hint that there’s a problem with judging any women, cis or trans, by how “natural” or “unnatural” they are.

I also recommend Natalie Reed’s article “Bilaterally Gynandromorphic Chickens, And Why I’m Not ‘Scientifically’ Male” in case you need further convincing on why there’s nothing “biologically” or “scientifically” female about cis women that isn’t also true about some people who aren’t cis women, and likewise with cis men. “Sex Is Also a Social Construct” is useful as well. In this post, I haven’t even mentioned the dichotomy between sex and gender, which I believe is spurious and unhelpful. If you’ve been taught “sex is between the legs, gender is between the ears”, throw that in the garbage if you want to be a good trans ally. I won’t recommend any general resources specifically about how to be a trans ally, since many of them start with good intentions but end up doing just the opposite; however, familiarity with the articles in the “Trans*” section of the Freenode Feminists’ list of educational resources would be a good start.

Conclusion. I hope this gives you at least two tools with which to confront some language in the future: first, directly attacking the social hierarchies implicit in calling a particular group of people “unnatural” (whether it’s trans people, queer people, disabled people, mixed-race people, or so on); and second, calling attention to the bogus and oversimplified assumptions about science that underlie calling trans people “unnatural” or biologically a sex that they aren’t.

[1] Thanks to Valerie Aurora for this phrasing.

[2] Hypatia: A Journal of Feminist Philosophy, vol. 22, no.3 (Summer 2007), 43-65.

Linkspam outside alone after dark (5th February, 2010)

You can suggest links for future linkspams in comments here, or by using the geekfeminism tag on delicious or the #geekfeminism tag on Twitter. Please note that we tend to stick to publishing recent links (from the last month or so).

Thanks to everyone who suggested links.

Everyone gets a linkspam! (27th January, 2011)

You can suggest links for future linkspams in comments here, or by using the geekfeminism tag on delicious or the #geekfeminism tag on Twitter. Please note that we tend to stick to publishing recent links (from the last month or so).

Thanks to everyone who suggested links.

Why subscribe to their feeds when you can get the linkspam for free? (21st November, 2010)

You can suggest links for future linkspams in comments here, or by using the geekfeminism tag on delicious or the #geekfeminism tag on Twitter. Please note that we tend to stick to publishing recent links (from the last month or so).

Thanks to everyone who suggested links.

Linkspam is idealized into powerlessness (29th October, 2010)

  • San Francisco, USA: Women 2.0 PITCH Night, 4th November: Watch the finalists of the Startup Competition pitch live, learn firsthand from successful female startup founders how they grew their ideas into industry-changing businesses, and network with hundreds of Women 2.0 members (entrepreneurs, investors, startuppers, and technologists) at our biggest event of the year!
  • Apple’s tightly controlled App Store is selling a transphobic application, see solarbird’s initial discussion and addenda, including complaint avenues.
  • New Scientist is running a Flash fiction competition 2010: Forgotten futures. 350 words, including the title, and you grant them a non-exclusive right to republish.
  • Also on the subject of fiction, Baen has made the entire Vorkosigan Saga by Lois McMaster Bujold , available for free in digital format.
  • hradzka discusses the Bechdel Test: mechanical approaches: On those occasions that a conversation does turn to why a work fails the Bechdel Test, there are basically two ways that conversation can go. It can turn into an activist discussion of sexism and society, or it can turn into a discussion of the mechanics of writing. There have been a lot of the former, but there haven’t been all that many of the latter.
  • There’s a UK geek calendar released as a fundraiser for The Libel Reform Campaign, largely featuring geek communicators (geeks who are writers, TV hosts, and so on). See their about page for image links: on first look it seems not to have really sexualised any of the geeks, including the women, very much. What do you think?
  • People involved in Ubuntu may know Amber Graner and her husband Pete. Unfortunately they lost their house to fire while away at the Ubuntu Developer Summit (their children and pets are all safe and well). Rikki Kite has a fundraiser.

If you have links of interest, please share them in comments here, or if you’re a delicious user, tag them “geekfeminism” to bring them to our attention. Please note that we tend to stick to publishing recent links (from the last month or so).

Thanks to everyone who suggested links in comments and on delicious.