Letter in re: comment
September 19, 2008
Dear Professor …,
I’m writing you in reference to a comment made by a student in class yesterday. As best I can remember, (I’m paraphrasing but this is the logic he used, and the offensive phrasing/grammar/pronouns are his) it went about like this:
…if you take an autopsy of a man who’s had a sex change operation to become a woman, he’d still be biologically male, despite the absence of a penis and testicles they could tell…what would you call this person? Would you call him a man because he’s biologically male, or would you call her a woman because of her outward appearance?
Yeah, you don’t really know what this woman [who presented as a man until his wife’s mom had him prosecuted and killed (context) for that/sleeping with a woman] should be called, and there’s no way you can refer to her without picking a gender, she should be called a woman because that’s the best, least presumptuous option.*
This came in response to your reading of my comment regarding the cissexual bias involved in referring to someone who consistently presented male as a “woman” because you “don’t know”. Your response to his comment, as best I can remember, was to bring up Joan Jett Black, who did drag but did not want to be identified as a trans woman or have female pronouns used about him, that he made no attempt to pass, and that he wore really tight pants so that everyone could tell that he was a man [sic–this does not show that he’s a man! That shows he has a penis. As stated, it implies that all people with penises are men.]. At the end of class, I mentioned that the comment had been triggering for me, and you said “well, that’s life.”
I’m writing you to say that I need you to call out transphobia (and other oppressions) when they get to the point of impairing other class members’ ability to participate–to not let students complete comments that, either explicitly or as a subtext, serve to silence trans people or validate discrimination against us. To not let that discourse happen, and certainly not to let it stand as a valid contribution to discussion.
To more specifically analyze the comment, he gives his example such that how a trans person self-identifies is completely irrelevant to how ze should be gendered by others–that our genders are a “puzzle” to be sorted out by cis (non-trans) people without our input. To say this–especially less than three feet from someone he had very good reason to believe was trans–shows exceptional disregard for our voices, our realities, and our feelings. He was talking about trans people as if I weren’t present, or as if my presence was so meaningless that it was ok to talk that way in front of me. He is not only claiming the right to determine my gender against my will, but is so secure in that right that he doesn’t even address me at all. Furthermore, the second paragraph of the comment (in my rendition above; I don’t remember which originally came first) was spoken as though my words carried no weight–while he was responding to the topic, my arguments were so inconsequential to him that he made his comment as if I hadn’t said anything, as if I hadn’t argued against what he was just asserting as natural, and again, as if I wasn’t there.**
His comment showed a profound disrespect of me and of all trans people, and asserted both by content and form that nothing I and other trans people said or felt mattered–and your silence on the matter communicated that respecting my identity, listening to what I have to say, or engaging with me as a human being with relevant ideas is optional. Any of you could have said “no. not here. Trans people’s identities and humanity are not up for debate, not in this room.” –and by not saying so, collectively you said recognizing my humanity, my right to speak and be heard, and my right to be taken seriously are not bottom lines. That my ability to participate in your class is not a bottom line, that my equality is not a bottom line. That’s not a class environment in which any trans person can be an equal participant, and it’s not one I am willing to deal with.
I will not be taking your class (in part because of this incident), but I am strongly requesting that you bring this up with the class, to call out that behavior publicly, and to take responsibility for your own part in allowing that violence to happen. (also to tell the students to take responsibility for their parts in allowing it to happen.)
*This claim, that it’s less presumptuous/violent to gender someone according to hir biological sex [sic] than by hir presentation, 1)rested on my words being inherently meretricious, as it put forth no argument to contradict my points, and 2)says that even if every known aspect of that person’s intentional performance of gender is known to be (in this case) male, even if every piece of evidence we have about that person’s choices is that he chose male, we should still call him female–again, implying that gender self-determination is either impossible, irrelevant, or that the violence of misgendering us is insignificant compared to that of misgendering a cissexual person. Again, he claims that my voice and my experiences matter far less than his.
Furthermore, it ignores the obvious possibilities of “person,” “s/he” “they” (as well as somewhat more obscure, but easily wikipedia-able gender neutral pronouns ze/hir et al) which he ignores for unnecessarily gendered language because investigating any other options wasn’t worth even a very small linguistic effort.
*Taking the analysis a step further, I think it’s significant to note that his example/metaphor of the autopsy rhetorically reduces trans women to corpses, in order to take our voices and humanity out of the equation, to prove that we’re “really” male.