Vaginal Discourse

[Content note: transphobia, suicide]

Yesterday I returned my diplomas to the University of Pittsburgh, along with this letter to the chancellor. In time, I’ll probably have more to say, but for the moment, I’m simply too drained. Here’s the letter, with hyperlinks added for context.

Dear Chancellor Gallagher:

I hope this letter finds you well. I am writing today as a concerned alumna of the University of Pittsburgh. Recent news has made me aware of our university’s resolute failure to provide a safe and welcoming environment for its transgender students, faculty, and staff. This failure is symbolized by the Johnstown campus’s 2012 expulsion of Seamus Johnston, the subsequent announcement of a policy that forbids many trans students from using sex-segregated facilities that match their gender, and your administration’s April response to the ruling in Johnston vs. The University of Pittsburgh, in which you disingenuously asserted that it was “never [y]our intent to violate anyone’s rights.”

Our university’s actions have been reckless and wrong. My studies in biology and the philosophy of science inform my conclusion that your administration’s actions are informed less by a profound misinterpretation of science than they are by dated discourse on religion and social order.

I’m not merely concerned about the technicality of your administration’s failure. While at Pitt, I struggled (as most students do) to balance my academic development with my evolving sense of self. I did so on a campus that lacked visible role models for a young trans woman. My difficulties were such that in 1997, I briefly withdrew from the university following a pair of unsuccessful suicide attempts.

I do not blame the university for my past struggles. I raise them because it is important for you to realize the implications of your administration’s harmful policies. Eighteen years after my darkest semester, I unequivocally do blame your university for failing to create a space where all community members can balance professional development with healthy personal growth.

Thus, I write this letter for both you, and the LGBT community at Pitt. I desperately hope that your administration reverses its dangerous policies on gender-segregated spaces such that it recognizes the reality of trans lives within and beyond the gender binary. Additionally, I need your administration to change the tenor of its interactions with trans people from that of bureaucracy impatient with those who cloud its worldview to that of a university celebrating the accomplishments and potential of valued members of its family.

If your administration will not affirm the dignity of its transgender students, faculty, and staff, I will. I understand that there are trans and lesbian, gay, and bisexual people who are thriving at Pitt, but there are also those who are struggling. They have my love and support. I call for other members of the Pitt community to affirm the same.

Given your administration’s refusal to embrace Pitt’s transgender population, I cannot in good conscience continue my affiliation with my alma mater. Please find enclosed my diplomas (a Bachelor of Philosophy in Biological Sciences and a Bachelor of Arts for studies in the history and philosophy of science) along with the university pennant that adorned my previous offices in the academy. I would be more than happy to reclaim them at such time as the University of Pittsburgh sees fit to welcome people like me.

Respectfully yours,
Katherine Janet Forbes, PhD, Chancellor’s Scholar (Fall 1996 Freshman Class)

Enclosures: 3

Cc: Dr. Jem Spectar, President, University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown
Dr. Edward Stricker, Dean, University of Pittsburgh Honors College
Dr. Paula Grabowski, Chair, Department of Biological Sciences (Oakland)
Dr. James Lennox, Chair, Department of History and Philosophy of Science (Oakland)
Rainbow Alliance, University of Pittsburgh (Oakland)

Which of the following are tomato varieties and which are types of marijuana?

1. Hillbilly
2. Cosmonaut Volkov
3. AK-47
4. Perma Frost
5. Cobra
6. Aloha
7. Harmony
8. Pink Lady
9. Nova’s Private Reserve
10. Katana
11. White Widow
12. Bobcat
13. Blueberry
14. Jersey Devil

Answers below
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Content note: Potentially triggering, TMI discussion of depression, anxiety, self-harm, sex, and being trans]

Earlier today, I wrote a [TW] series of tweets on what my past dysphoria’s been like the past few years. You should read it if that’s your sort of thing.

I’d been meaning to write this into a bad-ass essay, but it was easier to just write a series of tweets when I hadn’t quite woken up from my nightmares.

My point is that OH MY GOD thinks are so bad for me, or for all trans people ever. But I did want to get across the point of what it’s been like for me to fight with dysphoria these past few years. Dysphoria is clearly dynamic, in my case, it’s gotten worse over time, as I’ve been out for 10 years, but still haven’t had SRS and need to shave my face daily. Based on conversations with folks over the years, this is fairly typical, but don’t feel bad if it’s not you. Yay you!

Anyhow, I’m tired of dealing with medical professionals that “don’t know what to do” or “don’t have the expertise to deal with this” or “want to play it safe” by not giving me any care. For me, the status quo is incredibly damaging.

And I don’t want to hear any more about the potential horrors of “but I’ll use the ladies room!” (I’ve used the ladies room for 8 or 9 years, everyone).

Cis people need to frame medical care for trans people in terms of the impact on trans people, full stop. And in my case, the lack of adequate care is has seriously impacted my well-being.

Dysphoria isn’t “being sort of sad” that I can’t “lose 5 pounds” or “look prettier” or “be a dolphin.” It’s traumatic. It’s five-year-old me asking my grandmother when I’ll get rid of my cock (like, is it a baby tooth that’ll fall off?). It’s things profoundly not making sense. It’s being unable to comprehend my own body, because it’s too damn traumatic.

I’m not living with dysphoria. I’m trying to survive it. That’s my measure of most things these days– whether or not I got through them without hurting myself. I’m an old hand on this. I have lots of tricks, and lots of hope of making it through the worst of this. But I might not. A lot of women like me don’t.

That’s what I want to talk about. Not OMG BATHROOMS. Or BUT BIOLOGY (I have a Ph.D. in Biology, and the lot of you can stuff it). I want to talk about how to get me, and those like me (now and in future generations) help so that we can survive the dysphoria, and go on to live lifes that are connected to the world around us.

[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.
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