Thursday, March 25, 2010

Symposium Blues

Two years ago Cameron and I attended the Bodies of Knowledge Symposium hosted at USC Upstate. It was a transformative experience for both of us. We met new friends who have become very dear over the subsequent two years. We shared a meal at the same table as Helen Boyd, the author of MY HUSBAND, BETTY and SHE’S NOT THE MAN I MARRIED. (She’s the only person who has ever noted the matching rings Cameron and I wear.) Cameron and I had just begun exploring gender and her transgendered diagnosis. Unfortunately, we could not attend last year. The organizer had mentioned it would be more of an opportunity for students to present papers and she wasn’t arranging it on such a high level while finishing her quest for tenure. As a result of such a positive first experience, I had high hopes for this symposium, especially considering the guest speaker, Bear Bergman, author of BUTCH IS A NOUN and THE NEAREST EXIT MAY BE BEHIND YOU.

I was deeply disappointed. Perhaps because music has become so interwoven in Queer/GLBT issues, a transman rap performer was invited, which was excellent. The DJ and constant bombardment of ‘90s music was not so excellent. In fact, for my hearing impaired wife, it was torturous. Her hearing aids do not discern conversation from music under such circumstances, which reduced her to smiling and feeling rather foolish. I was not doing much better as I fail to hear the space between the words in loud music and end up hearing a blur of loud sound that I cannot parse. A couple of requests for reduced volume were entirely ignored.

An incident occuring there was incredibly jarring for me. I came to realize that transmen were accorded great respect and perceived of as sexy and hot. The transwoman present got a very cool reception and the constant bombardment of the same question, “No, really, what is your name?”

Bear writes of the problem in THE NEAREST EXIT MAY BE BEHIND YOU. Apparently heteronormative folks have no qualms in asking very personal, very intimate questions of transpeople, expecting answers simply because they curious. Indeed, Heteronormative people seem to project an attitude of entitlement to answers, and an expectation that the transperson should be happy to comply, even though they would never answer such intimate questions themselves. Moreover, there seems to be an innate drive to “peak under the napkin” to see what genitalia the person “really” has and a drive to know their “real” name. The heteronormative paradigm simply does not have space for difference or other.

So I pose this question. Suppose I put on a plaid shirt and baggy jeans, leaving my purse at home and put my wallet in my back pocket. And suppose I had neatly printed “George” on my name tag. I wonder what might have happened? I’m not a slender twenty something with long black hair to belie the masculine dress and presentation. I would simply be one more transperson whose body will never conform to societal expectations of the gender role I would be assuming. And because I’m older, obviously female in body build, would that room full of people insisted on reading my name tag as “Georgia” instead?


  1. People see what they want to see and what they expect to see. It's jarring at times, I know. The intrusive questioning of transpeople reminds me of the similarly intrusive questioning that lesbian couples who are expecting often receive -- who's the father? how did you get pregnant? what method did you use? Things that would never be asked of straight couples!

  2. Honestly, if you formed your hair in a male manner they wouldn't care. Keeping in mind that I love you and Cam, the trans women vs trans men (we don't say Asianwomen or Asianmen)get treated differently. Trans men are often fawned over (I took Luke out for drinks. I swear he had girls following him around)while trans women are treated as freaks. Societally I guess we can handle one better than the other.

    I'm still working my way through Whipping Girl, but it lays a lot of this out there, not that many will read it. A trans man can be welcomed in male spaces as well as lesbian spaces. The same can definitely not be said about trans women.

    That you spotted it give me hope. I see the younger generation reaching out. Fewer Mary Daly's (who advocated the genocide of trans women as freaks while she was held as a beacon of feminism), and more 15-30 yr olds who accept us into their world. Yes, a lot of trans women are gun shy these days if they started over 10 years ago, but I do see hope for the future.