Vaginal Discourse

[Content note: suicide and transphobia]

On December 28th, Leelah Alcorn, a 17-year-old transgender girl took her own life. On Tumblr, she left a suicide note that discussed being rejected by her parents.

From USA Today on December 30th*:

“The only way I will rest in peace is if one day transgender people aren’t treated the way I was, they’re treated like humans, with valid feelings and human rights,” Alcorn wrote in a post on Tumblr. [Tumblr has subsequently made the post private at her parent’s request.]

Her parents, she wrote, wanted her to be a “perfect little straight Christian boy.”

“My death needs to mean something,” she wrote in the post, which she scheduled to appear the day after her death.

Her final public words: “Fix society. Please.”

In the past week, Alcorn’s story has gone viral. Many trans and cis people have been mourning her death and calling for greater awareness of the crisis of suicide in the trans community.

Someone** on my Twitter feed mentioned that cis people need to respond to this suicide in a very different way than trans people do. That’s a very, very important point, and I want to take some time to spell out why. Read more…

[Content note: Anxiety and PTSD]

I don’t want to alarm anyone, but the folks at NPR just figured out that drug abuse has consequences.

I’m not saying that drug abuse isn’t serious business. I just think that this:

Sayra Small says that in her early 20s, it was easy to find a doctor willing to prescribe benzos for her anxiety. She loved them because they worked so well. “It makes it so you have no problem,” she says. “I mean the house could burn down and you’d just sit there saying, OK, this is all right.”

really confounds drug use and drug abuse.

Maybe it’s just my body, and maybe it’s my anxiety and PTSD, but I wouldn’t ever say that Ativan has worked “so well” that it’s felt like I had “no problem.”

Do any of the doctors NPR interviewed have personal experience with anxiety? PTSD? I feel like this is just another round of finger-wagging that’s going to make it harder for folks to get the medicine they need.

[Content note: misogynoir, violence]

I haven’t said much on Monica Jones, mostly because I don’t have anything new to say. I sure as hell hope the magnitude of the injustice isn’t up for debate.

If you haven’t read this post over at Prison Culture, I encourage you to do so.

[Content note: discussion of transphobic language]

It’s clear to me that my thoughts on RuPaul’s use of transphobic slurs differ quite a bit from a lot of the trans folks I know. I’m not lining up to take a side for or against, because I don’t think this is one of those either-or issues. I see this as two separate questions—should RuPaul use these slurs, and is he* entitled to?

No. RuPaul shouldn’t be using “shemale” and “tranny.”

These words are always going to be offensive to a number of folks, including me. However, that’s not my problem with RuPaul. My problem is with his performance. RuPaul is committing the cardinal sin of drag—being boring and predictable. As far a I can tell, RuPaul’s act centers on the transgressive idea that folks with bodies designated as male can be fabulous. That’s not news to a lot of us. That may throw down a challenge to the Log Cabin crowd, but it’s pretty old hat to the folks I roll with. Drag Race isn’t dominated by RuPaul, as much as it is by some of the contestants. There are plenty of drag artists that are capable of giving filthy, provocative and queer performances. Some of them are on Drag Race, but RuPaul isn’t one of them.

It’s not just that RuPaul is your conservative mom’s drag queen. She’s got a show on a network show that needs ratings survive. Indeed, RuPaul’s very career needs respectable people’s money to survive. Instead, she finds herself reaching for self-depreciating language in an effort to stay “edgy.” These slurs are mainstream enough to pass muster with Viacom, yet obsence enough to make her act still seem cutting edge and shocking to folks who haven’t been exposed to drag.

It’s a sad sight. RuPaul’s been on the scene for a long time. He’s a savvy, whipsmart, talented entertainer, but he’s delivering pedestrian, family-friendly schmaltz. I used to watch Drag Race with my kid, for fuck’s sake. If RuPaul wants to become relevant again, she needs to find a new way to be nasty and disrespectable. That starts by dropping the cheap slurs.**

RuPaul has earned the right to say a lot of things.

I know that I’m at odds with a lot of folks here, particularly queer generations that are even younger than myself. (Although I think it’s important to note that this disagreement isn’t just a matter of older generations versus newer folks.)

In the past month, I’ve seen trans folks assert that drag is a problem. I’ve seen people I respect state that RuPaul is a man, fullstop. Pretty much every day I’ve seen at least one person put forth that RuPaul and other queens are cis.

The implication here is that there’s some set of us, the real trans folks, that’s allowed to reclaim (or reject) these slurs. But who’s really trans, and who isn’t?

I’m trans because other people police identities. A lot of my struggles are rooted in other people’s need to decide who is who and what behaviors are appropriate for which people.

I came out between 2004 and 2006 (just a moment ago, really), and in that short time, I’ve witnessed battle after battle over who is entitled to what label. Who’s really transsexual, and who’s merely transgender? Who’s transgender, but who’s merely a crossdresser? “What’s the difference between an X and a Y” jokes shared in bars and on Internet forums. I have yet to see one of these boundary wars end well for anyone.

RuPaul, by his own volition, defies boxes. She is neither a man nor a woman. He is not cis or trans. RuPaul does not, to my knowledge identify as living outside the gender binary, nor does she identify as living within it. This isn’t because RuPaul is playing some sort of disingenuous game (oh, if I had a ticket to Bangkok every time some shallow-minded smartass accused me of doing the same), it’s because he’s refusing to play the game that other folks play.

I understand that not all cis people identify as such. However, I think it’s an oversimplification to define cis as anyone who’s not trans. What about gender non-conforming people who don’t identify as cis? What about members of cultures that recognize gender diversity in ways that fall outside of male/female, cis/trans dichotomies. Are two-spirit people trans? If not, are they cis? What about ball culture? Is that trans?

My point is that gender isn’t simple. Thank fucking maude.

I don’t have a lot of rules for who gets to reclaim which slurs. If you or people like you have been the target of a slur, you should be able to choose (at your own peril) whether to use a slur. Drag queens have been the targets of all sorts of slurs. If you have any doubts about whether “part timers” really count, I suggest you check out the opening chapters of Leslie Feinberg’s Drag King Blues. On the topic of “she-male” and “tranny”, I think that anyone who’s been read as a feminine “man” in “women’s” clothes has the right to reclaim the slurs.

I have no interest in reclaiming those words. I have no interest in hearing other folks do the same. However, I have even less interest in policing the vocabulary of my sisters.

*RuPaul has previously stated that he answers to both “he” and “she”, and I’m not one to argue. I tend to refer to performing drag queens using “she”, although it’s never precisely clear when RuPaul is performing and when he isn’t. I let the pronouns fall as they may. It’s not supposed to be easy. That’s the point.

**Although if you want to drop the slurs and stay boring, at least I’ll be able to watch with my kid.

[Content note: Transphobia] On Monday afternoon, Joss Whedon responded to a fan’s tweet: Josh Whedon's Tweet [The first tweet to Joss Whedon is: Joss, any advice on writing strong female leads in a comic book?#lovebuffy, to which Whedon responds: Must value #strength but also #community & not have penny/balls] Obviously, the quickest way for me, a trans lady, to get some respect is to be a sarcastic bitch on the Internet. Hence, the following: [Transcript below the fold] Read more…

Fourteen years ago, I visited Uppsala, Sweden. Uppsala is the closest thing Sweden has to a college town. Think of it as a Swedish Champaign-Urbana. If you haven’t been to Champaign-Urbana or don’t know much about Sweden, picture Gävle. Uppsala is like Gävle, only instead of a massive Gevalia coffee factory, it has one of Europe’s most prestigious universities, and instead of a giant burning straw goat, Uppsala doesn’t have a burning anything.

The important thing to know about Uppsala is that the science scene is tight. It’s been a while since I’ve been there, so it’s possible that I’ll get some of the details wrong, but stay with me. Between my fading memories and Wikipedia, what could go wrong?

The most memorable part of my trip was seeing Celsius’s thermometer. Before Celsius invented Celsius (the world’s one-and-only means of determining temperature), white folks didn’t have a way of telling cold from warm.

“Should I stick my hand in this bonfire?”

“Is today a good day to go wakeboarding on this frozen lake?”

These were mysteries. Occasionally, there was discomfort.

Celsius set forth to rectify this situation. He ripped off Fahrenheit by putting some delicious Mercury into a glass tube. Then, Celsius proceeded to stick his rod in various things and take note of what happened. While that might sound questionable, remember that he spoke Swedish.

Celsius was fucking crushing it. The influence of atmospheric pressure on water’s boiling point, the non-influence of atmospheric pressure of water’s freezing point– he nailed it.

Meanwhile, the other player in Uppsala was Carl Linnaeus. I’d like to say that the two were BFFs, but I don’t think that was the case. I can’t imagine Celsius Snapchatting Linnaeus to be all like “check out my rod!” (Besides, those guys spoke Swedish.)

It’s not like Linnaeus would have gotten back to some crusty astronomer about a magic tube. Linnaeus was busy being a biology party boy. Yes, that used to be a thing. These days the kids are all Macklemore this and cinnamon challenge that. Back in the day, Saturday night was all about comparitive botany and systematic taxonomy. Linnaeus invented the 18th century version of Scattergories, and he was having all the people over to his house.

Eventually, Celsius died. You didn’t think he was still with us, did you? Anyhow, never one to miss a trend, Linnaeus got himself some thermometers. He was not impressed. He was all:

O_o Very Temperature. Why So Much Degrees?

You see, Celsius thought it was a good idea to make the boiling point of water 0 degrees, with the temperature increasing up to water’s freezing point of 100 degrees. Why not?

But Celsius wasn’t the biology party boy of Uppsala. Linnaeus took his Sharpie and flipped that rod. That, in essence, is why it’s -40 at my house right now.

Motherfucking Linnaeus, man.

[Content note: transphobia, racism, violence, guns, anti-choice rhetoric, homophobia, fat hatred]

Earlier today I tweeted:

The most terrifying thing about the Grantland fiasco is that sooner or later I’m going to need to go out and buy groceries.

In my case (in large part because was not Essay Anne Vanderbilt and did not know her), that was not hyperbole.

A cis person just outed a trans woman. After the trans woman took her own life, the cis person published his account of outing her and the subsequent suicide. That was just for starters.

Then, I got to watch cis people hold a national circle jerk over:

* When it’s appropriate to out a trans person

* How bad it feels like when “bloggers” and “activists” are mad at you for treating a trans person like shit

* The ways in which one cis person failed another cis person by not giving him adequate guidance over when and how to out a trans person

* The relative bravery of the two cis people in question and the powerful corporation that stands to make money from the story of how they outed a trans woman.

The story has largely faded from the national spotlight. Slate, The Washington Post, NPR, The New Republic and the two initial perpetrators (Grantland and ESPN) have moved on to other things, now that cis people are satisfied with the degree to which they discussed the ways in which trans people should be handled.

While very important cis people go on to the next topic, my ass still needs to get up in the morning and go to work. I still need to go to the store to buy groceries. I still need to live my life. Except now I have to live it with the reenforced knowledge that at any time, some cis person with a reputation to build and a fixation on my genitals can start digging into my past, can dehumanize me for money, and, should decent people object, the national media will take the time to discuss the pressing issue of what cis people should have done to me. That’s so neat. Very encouraging.

When I was a child, I had nightmares that people would find out about my “difference.” Since I’ve come out, I’ve regularly had nightmare about the consequences of other people’s feelings about my transsexuality. The past few days have been worse than usual. I’m terrified of what privileged people might decide to do with me.

Not only is this not a new experience for trans* people, it’s not a new experience for any oppressed people. It’s the defining experience for oppressed people.
Read more…

Irrespective of the bigoted opinion of Tea Party hardliner progressive darling Elizabeth Warren, a few days ago a federal appeals court ruled that a prison inmate has a constitutional right to sex reassignment surgery:

The 90-page ruling was written by U.S. Circuit Judge Ojetta Rogeriee Thompson, an Obama appointee, who asserted the Massachusetts Department of Corrections denied Kosilek essential medical care by withholding from her gender reassignment surgery.

“Those findings — that Kosilek has a serious medical need for the surgery, and that the DOC refuses to meet that need for pretextual reasons unsupported by legitimate penological considerations — mean that the DOC has violated Kosilek’s Eighth Amendment rights,” Thompson writes.

[Content note: Transphobia, violence]

Eight years ago, when I came out to my HMO, they couldn’t give me proper healthcare. They didn’t know how to deal with people like me.

When I went to the co-op, they didn’t know what to do with my ID. They didn’t know how to deal with people like me.

I’d run across people in the street who didn’t know what to do with me. Once, a bunch of them chased me. Much more than once, they pointed and laughed.

I called a couple of fertility clinics to let them know that I needed to donate sperm. When I told them my name was Kate, they told me they didn’t know how to deal with people like me. Then they hung up.

I went on job interviews where people didn’t look me in the eyes, because they didn’t know how to deal with people like me.

When I found a fertility clinic that would store my sperm, they told me that they couldn’t put my name (“Katherine K-A-T-H-E-R-I-N-E”) into the computer, because people wouldn’t know what to do.

Shortly after I moved to New York, I sat through a murder trial where I heard an EMT testify that he paused for a moment when he realized the gunshot victim he was treating had a penis, because he didn’t know what to do.

When I moved back to Wisconsin, my new doctor didn’t really know what to do with people like me.

I had to get on an airplane for work, and the security agents didn’t know what to do with a woman whose x-ray looked like mine. They laughed.

I asked my HMO to cover my healthcare costs, but eight years later, they still didn’t really know what to do with people like me.

And now I’ve learned that Caleb Hannan, Bill Simmons, and the staff at Grantland (and an editor from didn’t know what to do when faced with a story about a woman who was trans. A chorus of journalists has voiced the same sentiment. Journalists should do better, but dealing with trans people is hard for cis people.

Let me help.

Helpful hints on what to do when faced with a trans person:

1) Treat them like a human being.
2) Do your fucking job.

PS: If you do happen to fuck up, don’t act like you’re the first person in the history of the world to stumble into transphobia. Apologize and take your hateful shit down. There’s plenty out there for cis people to learn from. Your special little bit of fuckery just ain’t that special. Sorry.

[Content note: Transphobia, outing, suicide]

Imagine if a journalist wrote a tension-filled exposé that got “stranger by the second” as it uncovered a con artist. Now imagine if the final shocking twist was not that the subject had swindled an investor out of tens of thousands of dollars, or falsified her credentials. What if the real shocker was that this con artist was (gasp!) French?

In retrospect, it seemed obvious. The investigation repeatedly turned up evidence that foreshadowed this most bizarre of revelations. She ate rabbit kidneys, something almost unheard of amongst real Americans. She spoke with a “mutated accent.” She was constantly getting into trouble in British pubs. What’s more, she was damned seductive.

I imagine this journalist’s editors being pretty fucking pissed, if not downright incredulous. Was the writer trying to imply that French people are con artists? Why was his piece, ostensibly about fraud, dripping with French stereotypes? Clearly, this guy was a bigot with deep-seated problems with the French. After all, what does the subject’s being French have to do with anything?

At best, I imagine the editors demanding the piece by re-written to lose the bizarre Francophobia, lest the publication become a laughingstock. It would be equally likely that the journalist might be asked to take some time off to deal with his obvious issues. That is, if he wasn’t quietly shown the door for good.

Of course, last Wednesday, Grantland published an piece by Caleb Hannan that followed this exact formula. Except in Hannan’s case, the subject was trans, and the result has been several rounds of cis people wringing hands over the difficulties of telling the truth and being a bigot.

[If you’re unfamiliar with the story, last Friday my friend Melissa McEwan at Shakesville wrote a summary that’s getting a lot of traffic. The traffic is driven in part by the fact that it’s a well-written piece. Liss was also, to my knowledge, the first cis person to write about the problematic nature of Hannan’s piece, which might have been why cis folks actually picked up on it.]

In the aftermath of Hannan’s piece and the continued refusal of Hannan or Grantland to admit that they fucked up pretty badly, a lot of the focus has been on whether or not Hannan’s harassment drove Essay Anne Vanderbilt (the trans woman in question) to suicide.

That’s not the point of my criticism. I’m not here to give cis folks a primer on trans lives, and why outing a trans person is bad. A lot of the supposedly “moderate” voices (meaning people who think Hannan’s a pretty good guy who’s challenged by the difficulty cis people have grasping other folks’ humanity) seem to get that outing trans people might be a bit insensitive. Hell, Josh Levin (Slate’s executive editor) even made this point while somehow republishing the name Vanderbilt was assigned at birth.

I’m also not hear to debate why Vanderbilt committed suicide. (It could be the outing! It could also be the uncovering of her fraudulent enterprise! It could be both!) Hell, I’m not even here to dwell on the ethics of publishing a story that contains the details of a suicide for which the victim appeared to hold the author accountable.


I’m hear to put forth the radical proposal that the real problem is that Hannan is fascinated by the idea that some people are trans. What’s more, the problem is that the majority of cis people refuse to consider why this fetishization of trans* people is inappropriate.

When folks first alerted me to Hannan’s piece, I stopped reading when I got to his pronouncement that Vanderbilt had “been born a boy.” I was disgusted and appalled that the editors of a major website (part of an even larger media empire, no less) would decide to publish some bigotry.

In my mind, the suicide is simply the thing that made Hannan’s piece go viral. It was the extra violent topper to an already violent story. Lots and lots of cis people are heavily invested in missing the transphobia that surrounding Hannan’s writing prior to those last few paragraphs. Sure, self-harm is tragic. Sure, physical violence against trans people might occasionally garner attention in the media (notably, when the victim is white and middle class, as opposed to the majority of victims of anti-trans* violence).

As for having a problem with the rest of it, trans* people are apparently being oversensitive. After all, these sort of things are very, very, difficult for cis people.