Language Tips for Cis Feminists Speaking on Trans Issues
Over the past two years, I’ve shared a lot of space with cisgender feminists who are seeking to add a trans voice to their panel, event, or conference. I can often sense that these feminists’ hearts are in the right place with regards to trans issues. They’re trying and their effort is real but they’re still struggling to work past some conceptual issues that might affect their language.
So let’s start with the language and work backwards. Trans-inclusive cisgender feminists still have some pretty pernicious habits of language that stubbornly persist in their vocabulary.
Many friends and colleagues have written or tweeted about this problematic language but, much like I did in this frequently shared post on the sex/gender distinction, I wanted to compose a handy reference for cisgender feminists who know they want to be trans-inclusive and have learned some basic vocabulary, but want to learn “how to talk about it” without setting off any alarm bells.
1) Please remove the phrases “female-identified,” “male-identified,””female-bodied,” and “male-bodied” from your vocabulary.
These phrases are my number one pet peeve. Often the people using them think that they’re being really good by using these phrases instead of saying “women” and “men.” What they don’t know is that these phrases have a troubled, transphobic history and carry a lot of conceptual baggage. In their current instantiation, people who use these phrases are often just hypercorrecting, using language that is technically incorrect because it “sounds good.”
But why are they bad? “Female-identified” is a phrase that needlessly divides women with different body types from one another. When combined with language like “female-bodied,” “female-identified” carries with it the suggestion that women without vaginas are not really women, that they only identify as such in spite of their “male” bodies.
Bodies, furthermore, are not inherently male or female. Sex assignment is a social process governed largely by more-or-less arbitrary medical conventions surrounding ideal, normative genital appearance and heterosexual reproductive viability. The rigidity of our society’s two-sex system is by no means a natural outgrowth of our bodily characteristics: it’s our commitment to a two-gender system mapped in reverse onto our bodies.
“But chromsomes!” you might say. Nope. The things that you have learned and internalized about the sex of the human body are so affected by our social ideologies that they cannot be separated from them.
Even if distinctions like male/female-bodied vs. male/female identified were non-invasive or politically expedient (they’re neither), they also are semantically meaningless when we consider the full range of bodies that the category women includes. An intersex woman, for example, might not have a body that correlates with the full connotations of the phrase “female-bodied,” but may not have born with a penis, either.
Transgender women who have undergone genital reassignment surgery also frustrate the way in which “female-bodied” is used as a distinction between cisgender and transgender women: they have breasts, they have vaginas, and their bodies do not natively produce substantial quantities of testosterone. They don’t have a uterus, sure, but many cisgender women are born without a uterus as well.
By conventional and socially dominant methods of visible measurement, these bodies are female. But I’m pretty sure that people who use the phrase “female-bodied” are intending to exclude these bodies when they deploy that language.
What’s the solution to all this confusion? It’s easier than you might think. “Women” is a category that includes a variety of gender expressions and bodies. It will do just fine when you want to talk about women. “Men” is a category that includes a variety of gender expressions and bodies. It will do just fine when you want to talk about men.
You might not think it’s that simple, however. Feminism and other progressive political movements rightly engage with bodies in their political activism. Feminism, for example, focuses on reproductive justice and healthcare. How can we talk about sex, bodies, and reproduction without drawing lines between transgender women and cisgender women’s bodies?
Easy. When you want to talk about gender, talk about gender. When you want to talk about body politics, talk about bodies. If you want to talk about issues that affect people with vaginas, for example, you’re talking about both men and women.
And, as Katherine Cross observes on Feministing, feminism should fully integrate a focus on transgender women’s reproductive rights and healthcare with a focus on issues like abortion and birth control. Trans women’s bodies are women’s bodies and they deserve a place in the mainstream of feminist body politics and reproductive justice efforts.
To summarize, then, phrases like “female-identified” and “female-bodied” are biologically reductionist, needlessly divisive, and functionally meaningless. If you feel like they are necessary to engage in your form of feminist body politics, it’s time to shake up your body politics. EIther way, please quit using these phrases.
2) Please do not list “women” and “trans women” as different categories when listing marginalized groups or talking about oppression.
Separating out “trans women” from “women” carries with it the suggestion that a “trans woman” is not a woman unmodified, that she is a different kind of person entirely. “Women” is allowed to stand alone as an unquestioned and unmarked category while “trans women” are marked as the Other to a de facto group of cisgender women.
This linguistic habit also runs the risk of suggesting that trans women do not experience the same marginalization that women do. I most recently heard it used in the context of “I know what it’s like to be a woman but I don’t know what it’s like to be a trans woman.”
While there are forms of oppression that are unique to transgender people, transgender women share in cisgender women’s oppression. Sexual and domestic violence, street harassment, employment discrimination, body image issues, lack of access to reproductive health care, eating disorders, self-harm, the list goes on; if it affects cisgender women, it affects transgender women, too.
Furthermore, if you utter the word “women,” you are already including transgender women by definition. At that point, it’s up to you to be sure that your feminist politics also includes issues that acutely affect transgender women in particular such as police harassment, stop and frisk laws, gender identity inclusion in civil rights legislation, access to trans-inclusive healthcare, etc.
In some contexts where it’s necessary to highlight your own privilege, it might be worthwhile to note that you are unaware of the added layers of marginalization that transgender women experience. But do not do this at the expense of disavowing the common struggles of women, unmarked, unmodified, transgender and cisgender alike.
When you must speak to the specific issues that affect cisgender women and transgender women respectively, don’t leave your own womanhood unmarked while marking a transgender woman’s womanhood.
Transgender women’s particular struggles are yours too as a fellow woman; they’re not mythical, comprehension-defying.forms of oppression. If you’re a cisgender woman, you don’t get to speak from experience about transgender women’s specific oppression, true, nor do you have the authority to prescribe directions for transfeminist politics, but you also don’t get to mark transgender issues as a very important special interest compartment of feminism. They’re your issues, too.
3) Please do not self-label as “cisgender” unless you are directly commenting on your own privilege.
There are moments when one’s cisgender status needs to be acknowledged. When making claims about transgender people or speaking about transfeminist politics, it’s probably useful to let your audience know the location from which you’re speaking.
But don’t drop your “cisgender” status so much that it becomes an empty disclaimer. You do need to consider issues of authority and perspective, but please be aware that constantly reminding everyone that you’re cisgender is a way of highlighting differences between women rather than building community among them.
This is why I generally advise other women not to disclose their cisgender status on Facebook now that gender options have expanded unless they primarily use their Facebook as a political platform and feel it necessary to disclose their position of privilege.
4) Don’t make distinctions between sex and gender or use phrases like “biological woman” or “biowoman.”
I have written about this before: here and here. The justification for removing these phrases from your vocabulary follows point #1 in this piece as well.
The general lesson across all these points is: don’t draw distinctions between cisgender and transgender women unless you have to. When you do need to draw these distinctions, don’t use language that ties specific genders to specific kinds of bodies.
While I generally give most cisgender feminists who use this language the benefit of a doubt, I do want to mark a troubling mindset that often lurks behind these phrases and linguistic habits. If you’ve read through this article, clearly see what’s been happening with your language, and you’re ready to change it, congratulations! My work here is done.
If you were still encountering some internal resistance as you scrolled through this piece, read on:
Some cisgender feminists want to practice trans-inclusive politics, they know how to repeat the mantra “trans women are women” like it’s their job, but somewhere in their heart of hearts, they still approach a transgender woman on an interpersonal level as a different kind of woman. Somewhere, it still matters to them what kind of genitals another woman has. Somewhere, they don’t feel a transgender woman as their sister, they see her as an asterisk.
If this is you, you’ve got some internal work to do that goes beyond your use of language. You have to ask yourself what womanhood means to you, you have to internalize what it means for you personally that the category of “woman” includes people without vaginas or people who did not have them since birth, you have to examine and challenge your own cisnormative feelings of entitlement to know the intimate details of other women’s bodies. You have to figure out a way not just to say that transgender women are women, but to embrace transgender women as such in a way that is not tokenistic, condescending, or hollow. If this describes your position, start with the language and let your heart follow.
Amazing minority games writers are like comets. They burn bright during their moment in the sun before becoming shadows of themselves. The rejections, the comments, and the abuse all take their toll and we are exhausted, in the full transitive sense of that verb.
The idea that we are inexhaustible—that we are eternal geysers of righteous anger, that we can never shirk our duty to expiate the guilt of the privileged—is one of the most harmful notions that surrounds us and our work. Our strength, our youth, and our time are all finite.
If Maddy Myers’ self-professed act of bridge-burning has sent a collective chill down the spines of editors and journalists everywhere, it’s because Maddy has refused to perform as a “minority games writer” in perpetuity.
Instead, Maddy chose to reveal the hypocrisy of an industry that nominally values our differences only to reject us for them—an industry that lifts us up to knock us back down, delivering toothless half-apologies along with each blow.
One editor told me publicly that he was keeping Maddy’s piece in mind for the next time hiring becomes possible at his outlet. The next time. The next time. The next time. They don’t understand that we’re comets, do they? They don’t understand they have a limited window to capture us before this culture literally consumes us. They don’t understand that they just get to watch us fly by unless they take risks for change, too.
This thing is happening to all of us, if my Twitter feed isn’t lying. It’s happening to Mattie, to Lana, to Kris, everyone. Patreons—imperfect stopgaps that they are—keep popping up while the jobs keep going to the boys. There’s only so many times we can hear “next time” before we know they’re lying.
When the next time rolls around, we’ll be the ghosts that the fresh-faced kids tell Twitter stories about. It might be premature, but I’m already in mourning for a generation of smart, savvy minority voices that will never find their full expression in this space. It’s heartbreaking to watch ourselves burn out.
Another anonymous editor recently told me that he was playing a long game. We don’t have time to play a long game. We’re ghosts already.
If we seem sad, it’s because we are. If we seem tired, it’s because we’re ready to fall over. If we seem like we’re giving up hope, just know that it’s sobering to realize that we’re laying down a foundation for a structure we won’t be around to see.
As Kris and Maddy have both pointed out over the last day or so, as a minority games writer you can either have a job on the side or you can fail. I’m lucky enough to be supported by a graduate school stipend and by part-time work. I’m one of the lucky ones; my orbit can be a bit more stable because of my privilege.
But even in that position of privilege, I have to ask myself every time I write a piece if I’m emotionally prepared for the comments and if that toll is worth a freelancer’s pay. My orbit might be more stable but I’m still one comments section away from giving up. One day, I’ll ask myself that question, “Is it worth it?” and the answer will be “No.”
In a year or so, I’ll graduate with a PhD in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies and, if I’m still writing, I’ll have had years of experience writing about games for outlets like Paste, Polygon, Kotaku, Policy Mic and more. My non-games writing has shown up on Huffington Post, The Advocate, Salon, and Jacobin. Like Maddy, Kris, and so many others I’ve got the clips and the resume.
I used to think that, after graduate school, I’d try to get a staff writing job somewhere in the games space before looking for a more general writing position elsewhere.
I almost applied to the Giant Bomb job at the urging of a friend and then the community derailed an entire “Worth Reading” thread into a discussion of my sanity simply because Patrick Klepek linked my article.
"Not for me," I decided, and I was confident that they would choose one of the many qualified women who had applied. But Giant Bomb will probably announce which dude they picked in the next few weeks. “Next time,” right?
Something’s changing in us, I think. We’re through living in between “next times.” Those of us, like me, who have financial support elsewhere and are doing this out of passion are starting to wonder whether our passion is misplaced or, worse, dangerous. Those of us who have tried to secure support within the system are realizing we probably won’t find it.
Each “next time” is like the blink of an eye and every time this industry blinks, someone new is gone, another comet has been burned out. I can only hope that our tails are bright enough to light the way for whoever comes next.
I have a friend who is smart and savvy. She’s eager to learn, often staying after class to ask her professors questions. But she’s majoring in a male-dominated discipline and so she finds herself surrounded by those most frustrating of creatures: men.
We went out for late-night sandwiches a few days ago and we talked about her work, her boyfriend, her social circles. I’m something of a queer older sister to her, I suppose. She travels in a world that I only observe from afar. I like to whisk her away from it sometimes to help her gain some perspective, to give her a breath of fresh, women-centered air.
My friend was simultaneously convinced that she wasn’t good enough, wasn’t smart enough, wasn’t pretty enough to be succesful in her sphere while also realizing that the metrics by which she was judging herself were the patriarchal norms that can feel especially pointed at an elite institution like a private university.
Her boyfriend was smarter, she believed, or at least better connected. When she spent time with a larger swath of her friend group, the straight boys, as they are wont to do, would talk over the ladies, all the while being convinced that their progressive politics are state-of-the art.
I wanted to pick her up and drop her into my world, a world I’m incredibly fortunate to inhabit due to my personal and professional commitments. My partner is a woman. Most of my friends are women. Every single person I work under is queer. I don’t have to do a whole lot of sidestepping around the heterosexual male ego in my social circles. I don’t live in a utopia, granted, but it’s pretty damn close.
We drove back to my house late that night and laid down on the bed. I told her as much as my heart could hold: “Your worth should not be defined by the standards of rich white men. And even by those standards, you’re more brilliant than any of the boys. You belong in places where you can shine, where you’re not sidelined by your boyfriend’s friends. And, since you doubt it sometimes, you’re gorgeous.”
She went home that night, back to her boyfriend who is, I am happy to admit, sweet, and funny, and kind, but still part of that network of men, still part of the privileged group who gets to decide what “smart” means, which texts are important, and how they should be discussed. But I hope my friend took something home with her: some glimpse at how things could be otherwise.
If there’s something tragic about the place of women at an elite institution of higher education like Emory, it’s that even here (or perhaps especially here), the girls are still made to feel like supporting actresses, no matter how they shine.
FAQ for Internet Harassers
[CW: Discussion of harassment.]
1) Why don’t you kill yourself?
If you have a heart, you will one day regret telling another human being to take their own life. Until then, here’s what I want you to do. Everyday when you wake up, look in the mirror and say, “I told someone that their life is worthless.” Tell everyone you meet. Watch their reactions. This should weigh on your soul. You have done something awful.
2) First Amendment!
The First Amendment doesn’t mean what you think it means. Speech can legally be (gasp!) censored in private venues and over private mediums. Forum owners can delete anything they want to for any reason whatsoever. Read a high school civics textbook. Study some Supreme Court cases. Or even just skim a Wikipedia article. “First Amendment!” is for children who bully each other on playgrounds, not for grown-ups (?) like you.
Nope. See number 2.
Are you really concerned about the possibility of genocide or do you just not like me? Think long and hard about the fact that you are comparing someone you disagree with to a man who is responsible for the deaths of millions of people. You’re posturing as the last line of defense before feminists murder all men but, in actuality, you’re just belittling the lives of Holocaust victims. Also this.
4) What about [insert logical fallacy, Internet statistic, clever rhetorical turn] here?
You’re not as smart as you think you are. I promise. There is nothing magical about being a man that suddenly makes you more intelligent or more correct than the other half of the population. Before you challenge a woman who is an expert in her field, ask yourself: “Do I really know what I’m talking about or am I just acting out of a deeply-held conviction that I must be right?”
5) [Insert racist, homophobic, sexist, or transphobic slur here]!
How bold of you! You don’t even feel the need to disguise your gut prejudices; you’re just cutting right to the chase. It takes a lot of courage to speak your mind like that. But wait a minute… It looks like you’re sending this message to me from an anonymous account. You must have made a mistake; you’re far too self-assured to hide behind a veil of anonymity. Would you mind re-sending me that slur from an account that your family, friends, and employers can see? Thanks!
6) You know you’re wrong.
Actually, I’m one hundred percent certain I’m right and your messages only reaffirm me. If the most privileged group of people on the planet is upset with me, I’m doing something right. Is your solipsism really so sweeping that you have to think that I can’t believe in something just because you don’t believe in it?
7) You’re harming your own cause by being so angry!
Nope. You’re harming my cause by refusing to empathize with my anger and tone-policing me instead. Since you are apparently an expert on social movements, please provide me with a list of major advancements in equality that have taken place because a marginalized group simply asked politely. I’ll be waiting.
8) Why did you block me?
Because I value my own emotional well-being over your twisted need to get words in front of my face at any cost. Because I don’t want to talk to you and you keep on trying to talk to me. Because I’ve heard your stunning, original, breathtaking anti-feminist argument a hundred times from a hundred different men and your version of it won’t be any less obnoxious. Or maybe because I just don’t like you.
9) You hate men.
Correction: I am wary of men. I hope you can understand why. Take a look at my inbox the next time I write something provocative. Or just, you know, look at a whole entire world dominated by men who profit from and exchange women as objects. Can you blame me? If I were a rabbit, I’d be scared of wolves.
10) Just give up!
4 Little Perks of Being a Queer Woman
Being a queer woman isn’t easy. When my partner and I are affectionate in public, straight men and women alike smirk, glare, and laugh at us. Even if they’re not openly hostile, they still seem unable to comprehend the fact that we’re lovers: “You girls are sisters, right?”I’d much rather live in a world where my relationship with a woman didn’t raise eyebrows but, since I don’t exactly have a choice, I have to focus on the silver lining, on the little perks of being with another woman in a heteronormative world. Here are a few of my favorites:
1) No birth control.
My partner and I can have sex all day everyday and neither of us will ever get pregnant from it. We don’t need any fancy pills or gadgets to keep our relationship baby-free. While those little rotary phone dials full of estrogen pills are super cute, we’d rather not carry them around. And condoms? We just use those little latex balloons to keep our sex toys clean, not to protect ourselves from impending infant doom.
2) Sharing clothes and cosmetics.
When I’m out of underwear, I can just open my partner’s top drawer and pilfer my favorite pair of panties. I do have to overlook some truly grotesque 1980s floral prints, mind you, but at least I don’t have to go naked. Once I’m dressed, I also have exclusive access to her entire rainbow of red, purple, and pink lipsticks. In other words, I get access to all of the perks of having a big sister without actually having to live with my real life big sister.
3) Queering single-gender spaces.
There’s an implicit assumption behind the gender-segregation of spaces like bathrooms and locker rooms: everybody is straight. If men and women can’t mix, the story goes, we won’t have to worry about any funny business taking place. My partner and I exploit this heteronormative assumption for our own illicit purposes; if you see us as friends, we’ll milk that misconception for all it’s worth. If you let us go into the same dressing room stall, for example, we’ll enjoy a super-secret midday makeout session. Try doing that with your boyfriend!
4) Corrupting future generations.
There are plenty of spaces where my partner and I wouldn’t feel safe expressing affection for each other in public. But, when we’re in a metropolitan area on either coast, we strategically use our public displays of affection to acclimate straight people’s babies to the idea of two grown-up women being romantically involved with each other. “Look, mommy! Those two girls just kissed.”
But secretly, we also just want to piss off potentially homophobic parents. We can tailor our intimacy to suit the needs of every passing couple. If mommy and daddy look particularly conservative, we’ll go for a full-on kiss on the lips. But if they’re NPR liberals who still need a little shove in the right direction, we’ll settle for a peck on the cheek just for good measure. Queers exist. Get used to it.
Grand Theft Auto V Review
At a total cost of two hundred and sixty-five million dollars, Grand Theft Auto V is the most expensive downhill dirt bike riding simulator ever made. Fortunately, Rockstar Games has made every penny count; careening across the slopes of the fictional Mount Chiliad is one of the most thrilling gaming experiences I’ve had this generation.
The primary goal of the game is to reach the summit of Mount Chiliad, hijack a dirt bike and skid down the side of the mountain. This cycle can and should be repeated several times. You can either hike to the top of the mountain or save yourself the exertion with a ten-dollar cable car ride.
Riding down the mountain typically results in death, it’s true, but resurrection at a nearby urgent care center costs a mere five thousand dollars. That’s just five hundred cable car tickets! With such a frivolous penalty, death is half the fun. You should hurtle your rider down the mountain with abandon, expecting only the poetry of a limp body somersaulting into the California night.
You can ride down Mount Chiliad as any of three men. Two of them are white, one of them is black, and all three make slightly different sounds when they die. One of the men (Michael) wears a designer suit, an especially comical wardrobe for dirt bike riding. I recommend that you play as Michael for this reason.
Whomever you choose, I should warn you that you might accidentally get into trouble with the law on your way from the urgent care center to the cable car station but Rockstar provides the player with a variety of lethal weapons in order to weather this eventuality. The shooting of police officers is a surprisingly polished game system considering how small of a role it plays in the core gameplay loop of ascending and descending Mount Chiliad. Rockstar Games has clearly spared no expense.
Rockstar’s costly and fastidious attention to detail pervades every square inch of Grand Theft Auto V’s game world. Mount Chiliad is circumscribed by an elaborate facsimile of Los Angeles complete with Hollywood sign and Santa Monica Pier. But because Mount Chiliad is the only substantial peak in the whole city, there is no reason to venture into the city proper.
Los Angeles, then, is but a garnish for the main course of dirt, rubber and sky. But when your dirt bike bounces off of boulders into the horizon, it’s pleasing to catch an immersive glimpse of your surroundings. Rockstar didn’t have to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on a downhill dirt bike riding simulator but, at moments like that, you’ll be so glad they did.
9.0 / 10
The Complete Guide to Knowing When You Can Talk to Me About Being Transgender
After long day and after having to deal with this pile of shit, I want you to know that I don’t think of myself as transgender first, I think of myself as a woman first. Being transgender is something about me, it’s not me. I’m not saying this as an implicit request for validation: I’m just a girl. I know it, my partner knows it, my friends know it and, as long as I can just not die in public, I really don’t care what anyone else thinks about my gender.
What’s tricky here is that I do a lot of online writing and opinion-having about gender, sexuality and video games. I also work for pay in an LGBT office so I do a lot of professional work around queer / transgender issues. And I also facilitate a transgender discussion group. It might seem to you like I just fucking love talking about this stuff. But here’s the thing: I’m very pointed and deliberate in what I do. And believe it or not, being transgender plays a very minor role in my personal life, offline.
Because I do a lot of work, though, you might think you’re totally fine talking to me about being transgender all the time. When you do that, it just others me and bums me out. I don’t want to be your transgender pet. I make deliberate choices about when to be transgender on Twitter and when to retreat into alpaca photos and silly jokes. Whether you follow me or you’re my “real life” friend, please consult this before you approach me about my gender identity. I’m mostly writing this as a resource for myself in the future so I can link people who are doing it wrong to this blog post.
A C C E P T A B L E
*Asking me if I would be willing to facilitate or participate in a transgender education opportunity:
Speaking at an event, on a panel, in a workshop, visiting a class or a school.
Because I’m willing to do it. Because I believe that the world is changing and I want to be a part of that change. Because I’m here due to the labor of my predecessors and I feel an obligation to help pave the way for younger generations of trans folks. Because I enjoy teaching and public speaking. Because I think it’s important for cis people to interact with openly trans people in educational settings.
* If you are an artist, documentary filmmaker or editor who can approach issues of gender identity with respect and care.
*Participating in a photo shoot, giving an interview, being in a film, soliciting a piece of writing from me.
I’m often shoehorned into being the polemical transgender person but, personally, I’m more committed to aesthetics/beauty/love than to my political actions which I experience as moral obligations. This is tricky and if you don’t know your stuff or I don’t like your portrayal of transgender people, I won’t say yes. But I have done all of the things I list as examples above for people whose visions I believe in. I’d even encourage you to talk to me if you’re doing this; this is where my heart lies.
*You are a struggling transgender person or a transgender person has asked you for help.*
*I am just one person who is already stretched too thin. I am a graduate student, I work part-time ten hours a week, I facilitate a transgender discussion group, I have a partner, I have a ton of extra professional obligations and I do a lot of writing. I simply do not have time to personally talk to you one-on-one but, because of my position on Twitter, I can help you connect to a network of folks and, between a lot of us, there will always be someone for you to talk to.
*You and I are currently in a conversation and I am clearly opening up to you about my transition.
*We start talking about children and I want to share with you my hilarious escapades at the sperm bank just before I started hormones.
*You are also transgender or queer and we are sharing stories and/or lending each other support.
Sometimes I do need to talk about it. Sometimes it can be fun to talk about it. But don’t approach me and force me to talk about it.
U N A C C E P T A B L E
*ALMOST ANY OTHER TIME. If you don’t see your thing listed above, don’t do it.
-Talking about me with other people. When transgender issues come up, do not rush to say that you have a transgender friend named Samantha. It’s acceptable to talk about the fact that I’m transgender if you are talking about the transgender education that I do, but keep in mind that you are nonconsensually outing me if: a) you are not talking about any transgender-related work of mine and b) your interlocutor doesn’t already know.
-You just think it’s sooOOooOOooo cool that I’m trans. I don’t think it’s cool; I think it’s a waking hell. I wish I could have been born in body that I didn’t grow up to despise.
- Asking me a question for which Google has the answer. Google your question first.
- Making a joke that you think is cute but really just reminds me that I’m othered. (see, for instance, any of these comics).
- Approaching me sexually (see also the part where I am in a lifelong monogamous relationship with another queer woman).
And while we’re at it, if you JUST talk to me because I’m transgender, quit talking to me period.
A Thank You
On Sunday, September 16th at 4:00 PM, my IndieGoGo campaign crossed over the $8,000 mark and the Internet officially bought me a vagina. I wish I could say that I’m massively hung over from a night of celebration; I’m not. I am certainly overwhelmed with gratitude. But my elation has taken a curious form.
For the last year of my life, I’ve felt like I was climbing a mountain and now, suddenly, I’m rolling downhill. The boulder I’ve been chipping away at with my little pickax has suddenly—poof!—vanished. I don’t quite know what to do with myself. I’m in a daze of disbelief. Make no mistake: the exuberance is inside me, filling me up, threatening to bubble over. But I think I need a few days to learn how to let it out. I need some time to adjust to this new world in which I have been suddenly relieved of an unbearable burden.
I love you all for what you’ve done for me. You have made an impossible dream possible. You have made an unimaginable world imaginable. You have made an unlivable life livable. Language, in all of its infinitely recombinable possibility, cannot express what your generosity means to me. No words can seal off this ineffable fountain of feeling.
Right now, my inexpressible gratitude takes the form of a computer screen blurred by tears. Seven months from now, your love for me will literally be inscribed into my flesh, a permanent reminder of your presence.
In the French children’s novel The Little Prince, a wise but whimsical fox shares his philosophy of friendship with the eponymous prince. He asks the prince to look at the nearby wheat fields and explains:
“I do not eat bread. Wheat is of no use to me. The wheat fields have nothing to say to me. And that is sad. But you have hair that is the color of gold. Think how wonderful that will be when you have tamed me! The grain, which is also golden, will bring me back the thought of you. And I shall love to listen to the wind in the wheat…”
Wherever we go, you and I will always be together; what you have given me will always bring me back the thought of you. You’ve given me something that I’ll touch, use, think about everyday. You might be my close friend or we might never have occasion to speak again. Some of you don’t know who I am and some of you might not care to know much about me besides my need. It doesn’t matter because we’re all in this together now. You’ve tamed me.
I am now made to believe in knittings, intermeshings, entwinements, entanglements. As of this writing, two hundred and eighty three people have put a piece of themselves into this project. Today, I’ve been asking myself what it will mean to have genitals that were made, in part, by nearly three hundred friends, to be in a curiously triangulated relationship with you, my partner and my own anatomy. It’s strange to be in this surreal digitally-mediated network with you. Strange but beautiful. Thank you. Thank you for what you’ve done. And thank you for being here with me in this improbable present.
I have a penis (for now) but my sex is not male.
Listen up feminists and LGB
T activists! Yes, you who worship the holy trinity of “sex, gender, and sexuality” in your educational literature! Yes, you who suddenly discovered transgender folks sometime during the 1990s and decided that, for their sake, it would be super important to draw a clear distinction between “sex” as a biological, bodily fact and “gender” as a mode of social identification!
You’re doing it wrong.
Sex is not “what’s in your pants.” Sex is not chromosomes. Sex is not hormones. Sex is not biology. Sex is neither a penis nor a vagina. Sex is not breasts, nor is it chest hair, prostates or ovaries.
I’m a transgender woman. For the next few months at least, what’s in my pants is a penis. I have a prostate gland. I have a Y chromosome.
“Aha!” you say. “So your sex is male but your gender is female! That’s what makes you transgender.”
Wrong. Try again! “Sex” is a social decision made at the moment of birth (or earlier if your parent[s] get a sonogram). We only assign children a “sex” because of gender, because we feel the cultural imperative to sort people into two dichotomous populations based on the presence or absence of a tiny bit of flesh. “Sex” is gender in doctor’s clothing: nothing more, nothing less.
Yes, we have bodies. Yes, those bodies have characteristics. Yes, those characteristics have gendered meanings in a cisnormative world. But this “sex” you keep on looking for, that you incorporate into your ostensibly trans-inclusive curriculum? It. Doesn’t. Fucking. Exist.
The only people who need to know details about my body parts are my doctors and my lovers. Do you fall into one of those two groups? No? Then you don’t need to know what’s in my pants! You don’t need to know what my chromosomes are. You don’t need to know my estrogen levels (although they’re quite high, thank you very much).
All you need to know is that my name is Samantha, I use female pronouns and I pee behind the door with the dress on it. Guess what? We can teach people all of those things without them knowing anything about my body.
In fact, you should just quit talking about “sex” altogether. Try using “assigned sex” to talk about doctors’ decisions and the ways in which those decisions affect peoples’ lives. But quit trying to act as if we can empirically sort bodies into two categories that pre-exist gender norms. We can’t. And you’re hurting precisely the people that you think you’re helping with your convenient sex/gender split.
The Postcard Or Why I’m Still Here
Forgive the lack of polish. It’s been a long day.
On Wednesday night, my friend Zoya and I returned to my home after a long day at DiGRA, the annual conference for the Digital Games Research Association where I had given a presentation on video games and feminist pedagogy. My roommate had left my mail on the table for me: a few bills and a postcard.
The postcard had no return address and the postmark had worn off. It was addressed to my home address which I have only shared with my mother and a few close friends. On the front is a message about a seagull eating an alpaca, a sure sign that the postcard was from someone familiar with my web presence. When I saw the front of the postcard on my dining room table, I was delighted. A friend had been thinking about me! And then I flipped it over…
The back was a nightmare. Scrawled in menacing capital letters were the words: “WATCH OUT” followed by a perfunctory period. Instead of writing the exact date, my anonymous correspondent had written the month: “August 2013.” There were other curiosities: a bible verse had been highlighted and the word “baby” had been replaced for “food” in a caption about the seagull. It was signed: “Yours, B.”
I was puzzled, yes, but mostly terrified. The intentional omission of the entire name was bizarre; I’ve never interacted with any friend who signed their correspondence “B.” Virtually all of my friends are other queers and feminists who would know better than to send me, a transgender woman, an anonymous postcard saying “WATCH OUT.”
Taken together, the postcard seemed to be a threat: something bad was going to happen to me in these last few days of August. The timing was telling: I was about to travel to the Penny Arcade Expo to be on the panel “Achieving Gender Diversity in Gaming: Now What?” I’ve had a tempestuous relationship with Penny Arcade devotees ever since I publicly criticized Mike Krahulik for repeatedly making transphobic comments online.
But it could have been related to anything. I’ve fought in a lot of fights and I’ve made a lot of enemies along the way. I don’t even remember all of them, to be honest. It could have been from someone who disapproved of my brushes with Mike, but it also could have been from someone who didn’t want me to take Destructoid to task for the public outing of a transgender woman, it could have been from someone who didn’t want me to expose transphobic feminists to a mass audience on Salon, it could have been from someone who didn’t want me to persuade video game journalists to moderate their comments sections, it could have been from someone who disapproved of me helping other trans activists take NPR to task for failing to respect Chelsea Manning. Hell, it could have been from someone who hated me for being a woman, being trans or all of the above.
Still, I wanted to be sure. I polled my friends on Twitter and Facebook, showing pictures of the postcard. “Did anyone send this to me?” I asked. In addition to being queers and feminists, my close friends are all active on social media. I waited. No one came forward. Instead, my friends expressed shock at the message on the card:
“That is frightening.”
That night, Zoya and I went back to the DiGRA hotel around 2 in the morning. I was too scared to be at home. My dear friend Katherine took us in, gave us a couch and a bed respectively. The three of us supported each other: we hugged, we held hands, we shared fears and exchanged reassurances. I took a shower and talked with my partner over video chat. She was scared, too, but she watched over me as I cried and then fell asleep, exhausted.
I was in no state to continue attending DiGRA, so I missed an entire day of a long-awaited conference. Instead, I spent the day getting taken care of as I prepared for my trip to PAX. Katherine made sure that I ate something: a grilled cheese sandwich. She also suggested I take a pathetic-post-threat-grilled-cheese-sandwich-bad-hair-day-selfie, which I did. You will not see it.
My friend T.L. accompanied me on my errands: she took me to the bank, helped me pack. Anita called to console me, offering important advice about dealing with harassment. She knows better than anyone how bad it gets. I called the police to file a report and waited for a call back.
Katherine and I consulted about how to handle the threat publicly. When people make these threats, they want to intimidate and isolate outspoken women. They want to scare them and make them retreat from the public eye. She and I both agreed that it was best to go widely public with the threat. It would make me feel safer to see a show of support and it would allow others to realize what it’s like to be an outspoken trans feminist on the Internet. I tweeted a picture of the back of the postcard that said:
“Please share: this is what happens to outspoken women online. I received this anonymous postcard at my home address.”
The tweet went viral; as of this writing, it has been retweeted 732 times.
Before I go on, let me make something clear. [Trigger Warning, this paragraph: slurs, anti-Semitism, other violent language] I have too much experience with online harassment. I’ve been called a bitch, a cunt, a slut, a tranny and a whore. In other words, I’ve won transmisogynist bingo several times over. I’ve been told to kill myself several times. I’ve been intentionally and repeatedly misgendered. People talk about my genitals like it’s their job. There are dozens of Twitter accounts that have been created with the singular purpose of getting violent language in front of my face faster than I can hit the block button. This Twitter account, for example, was created solely to send me pictures of myself with a swastika on my forehead. An outlet that published my writing was threatened with a lawsuit. Over the course of the fights I’ve picked, I’ve had to block over 200 people on Twitter who either called me a slur, tone-policed me, or worse. The next time I participate in a feminist battle on Twitter—and there will be a next time—just perform a search for my Twitter handle. See for yourself. While it gets worse during times of conflict, this sort of harassment is part of my daily life. Some days, I wake up to it even when I’ve done nothing but tweet about alpacas and buffalo wings for a week straight.
For me, the postcard was not an aberration; it was simply an escalation of a regular feature of my existence. Anita has been dealing with this kind of thing on a massive scale but the same principles apply to my web presence. I always knew this day would come if I kept fighting, I just never expected it to be today.
I talked to my roommate. I explained to her what had happened. She was terrified, wanted to barricade the doors and the windows.
“I’m sorry,” I typed, on the verge of tears, again. “It’s not fair that you have to deal with this because of what I do.”
I talked with PAX security. They were very accommodating and promised a visible presence at the panel.
Was this what my life was going to be like from now on?
And then, as I was packing my bag for PAX, my friend Brad (name changed) texted me: “that was me.” He thought it was funny: “Watch out for the seagull, omg!” I was furious. I sent him a reply, explaining what that postcard meant in the context of my life. He was stunned. I told him I was too upset to talk to him. We didn’t talk.
As I left for the airport, he texted me the following, after he had a chance to look at the pictures of the postcard that I had posted online:
“It totally looks like someone was stalking your twitter feed (then mentioned the alpaca on the front) and then totally threatened you on the back. While I was questioning the fact that there was a religious verse on a postcard, it looks like I’m pointing to ‘him’ as a sort of moral/religious attack on you. I cannot even begin to understand what I put you through last night, it must have been so scary to think that some creeper had already found your new place.”
He went on to ask how he could make it up to me. That’ll take a while.
If only Brad had written more than just his first initial, if only he had written something other than “WATCH OUT,” I would have been able to write this off.
What happened today was a lightning strike, a bizarre coincidence, a one-in-a-million sort of thing. The timing, the message, the context, everything was pointing to a terrifying act of cyberstalking. Never in my worst nightmares would I have imagined that a friend of mine would lack the tact to know that an anonymous postcard sent to a woman should not just say “WATCH OUT.”
Not only did Brad make my partner, my roommate and my friends scared for my life, he also scared a lot of you. I have been fortunate enough to have a community of supportive Twitter followers. You send me alpaca pictures (although that particular act might be a little tender for me, right now), publicize my writing, send me messages of support in times of need. I don’t know all of you as individuals but I love you as a collective. Thank you for being there for me today and I’m sorry Brad made you worry.
I sat on this information for a few hours while I got to the airport. Close friends in the feminist gaming scene had advised me to put all the relevant information in a blog post and release it all at once. That’s what I’m doing here. But my friends wanted me to make one thing clear:
You shouldn’t be worried (quite yet) that someone will be coming to my house, but you should be worried more generally. You should be worried that we inhabit a toxic culture where these kinds of things are commonplace enough that a postcard can make me scared for my life. You should be worried that myself and other queer / feminist figures in games receive this kind of harassment in massive volumes, just usually in online spaces. Anita’s case proves that the border between the virtual and the real is more porous than we’d like to imagine; it’s entirely within the realm of possibility that this will happen to me. You should be worried that I will probably receive harassment over this very post when the truth is that I was doing the best I could with the information that was given to me.
I’m using the experience as a lesson. I’m going to strengthen my security, cull my Facebook friends list, be more cautious about disclosing my location.
You should know something else: we’re tired, all of us. I think about quitting every single day. I wanted to quit before I received the postcard and I wanted to quit even more afterward. So many days, I think, “If you want your medium to be for misogynist men, then they can just have it.” I’m not scared of showing you my weakness. You should know that people like me are not fierce battle maidens (except for Christine, maybe <3), that we’re not made out of Teflon. You should know the toll your culture takes on us.
Before I knew that it was Brad who sent the postcard, I was going to write a post tonight about why I’d still be here, It may not mean as much now, but I’ll still tell you why I’m here.
I’m still here because of Katherine, Soha, Kaitlin, Autumn, Kat, Zoya, Anita, Todd, Maddy, Christine, Mattie, Jenn, Cara, Courtney, Carolyn and Cameron. I’m still here because my partner thinks that what I do is amazing and I want to keep it that way. I’m still here because Destructoid took responsibility, because Kotaku and IGN pledged changes, because more people know the telltale signs of a transphobic feminist, because NPR changed their pronoun policy for Chelsea. I’m still here because of random messages of support. I’m still here because I know a teenage trans person finally had her first appointment last week because you and I helped her locate a therapist that met her needs. I’m still here because of nights like last night (before I received the postcard) when Zoya, Mattie, Katherine and I were sharing a bottle of wine and talking openly about the struggles of being trans and/or queer. We felt understood. Like we could keep on going for another day.
I’m still here because I believe that things can be better even when I know I have no reason to. My life has been defined by a series of impossibilities that I have had to push past in order to survive. My naivete, if you can call it that, is key to my survival. I’m going to wake up tomorrow and want to quit. If I do, you can’t blame me for it. But I’m not going to.
I’m on a plane right now, headed to PAX. I’ll see you in a couple of days. We’re going to talk about gender.
<3 Sky Samantha