Queer-Decolonial Pedagogies for Trans Youth and Adults

The following has been adapted from a paper presented at the American Educational Research Association’s April 2019 Annual Conference in Toronto. 

Today,  I put my thoughts forward complexly, as both a young person speaking out of turn and as a pedagogue with nearly twenty years of experience. I say this because context matters. Specifically, with regard to the topic at hand, historical context matters, especially in a political moment when so many revisions of history have been undertaken to produce archives that resemble what Foucault described as “a field of tangled and confused parchments [,] documents that have been scratched over and recopied many times.” In this moment, I am addressing the history of our concepts of gender identity and dysphoria, clinical terminology that presumes to describe our experiences.

As a community-based educator, when working with youth and adults across race, language, culture, class, gender, and sexuality, I’m often responded to with resistance from many fronts when discussing queer and trans issues: “People of color are more homophobic and less accepting than white people”; “queer and trans is a white thing”; and “gender is just a social construct” or “biological fact.” In an effort to stand strong in my responses, I’ve had to enter into people’s lives and legacies, as a guest in their worlds, while simultaneously attempting to be a hospitable host, by making them as comfortable as possible in what is likely to be quite an uncomfortable learning experience. This is the sacred role of the host-guest, an educator that  enters the worlds of others, to learn how to teach, across difference.

As an educator and a body-mind-spirit committed to what I call “queer-decolonial pedagogy,” I know how important it is to turn to history so that we can begin to understand the appearance of concepts we often rely on to justify our very existence. In taking such an approach, I have discovered that the concepts we draw upon most frequently to justify gender and sexual difference have been shaped, in part, through forms of clinical violence. In the absence of any biological markers that could inform researchers on how to categorize intersex and androgynous people within a gender binary, intersex and transgender clinics from the 1950s to the 1970s began coercing individuals into articulating an internal, felt sense of their “true sex,” a concept named “gender role,” and later “gender identity.”

Dr. Robert Stoller first uttered the phrase “gender identity” in the 1960s, and it was a concept he cautioned against popularizing because he didn’t quite know what he meant by “gender” or by “identity.” This research took place in suburban Southern California, where the military industrial complex was on the rise, drawing massive waves of middle-class white people from across the U.S. who quickly assimilated into the California Dream, developing the fitness and leisure culture that was representative of white racial superiority. Populating California post-WWII with so-called genetic desirables was part of fulfilling Manifest Destiny, and this legacy links U.S. military fantasies of dominance with cultural assimilation, racism, eugenics, and gender and sexual disciplining. Place matters in the development of our systems of belief.

In this process, Dr. Stoller drew upon Dr. John Money’s work at Johns Hopkins from the 1950s, as the latter had suggested it would be easier to fit intersex and androgynous people into heterosexual binary gender roles than it would be to change society to be able to accept people for who and how they were. Creating individual cures for gender and sexual difference was seen as much quicker, more rational. The intersex and transgender clinics were also part of a longer legacy in the U.S. (and particularly, in California) of racial eugenics that were more common pre-WWII, which included medical imprisonment and forced sterilization of those suspected of queerness, of women who were sexually active out of wedlock, of people with different mental and physical abilities, of poor people, Mexican-Americans, Indigenous Peoples, immigrants, and more.

A key figure in this shift from focusing on the eugenics of race to fixating on the eugenics of gender was Lewis Terman, the man who popularized the Stanford-Binet intelligence test (the IQ test) that was commonly used to assess “feeblemindedness.” This diagnosis was used as a justification for forced sterilization. Terman was also the man who developed the “Masculine-Feminine Test” (or, “M-F” Test), a word association quiz designed to assess the likelihood of a child’s future queerness. This possibility was broadly evaluated through behaviors and preferences he associated with either one or the other gender, always assuming only two. Here, we can see that nationalist, Christian, colonial culture has had heavy investments in heterosexual binary genders, dating even further back to the colonial missionary targeting of third gender and two-spirit people across the Americas.

Placing our concepts in historical context, carefully dusting off those parchments that have been scratched over – choking and disorienting as this task may be – is important. History matters. Various peoples, for different reasons, have had diverse investments in heterosexuality and binary gender. People who are not-white have complex investments in heterosexuality and binary gender, and so homophobia and transphobia that circulate in people of color, immigrant, and Indigenous communities must also be placed within a historical context that understands how accusations of “racial degeneracy” have also been used to bring up accusations of “sexual degeneracy,” or queerness of body, desire, and kinship. Proving oneself worthy as fully-human under colonial occupation has often involved presenting oneself as Christian, as civilized, as heterosexual, and as appropriately gendered. Simply to not be killed or imprisoned or experimented upon.

A queer-decolonial pedagogy for working with youth and adults within communities of color, immigrant communities, as well as Indigenous communities, must respond to this history in developing educational experiences that seek to explore the roots of homophobia and transphobia in each particular community. This must include placing these roots alongside violent histories of genocide and enslavement. For me, this history is not merely theoretical. I have drawn upon life experience and family legacy in crafting my resistance to individual, clinical concepts and cures.

Such an intergenerational suspicion of clinical cures means that conversations about pronouns, about bathroom access, about identity affirmation, while immensely important for so many, feel – to me – like part of an effort to erase history. Bathroom access, pronoun use, and affirmation of identity will not cure homophobia, transphobia, racism, attempted genocide, the pains of assimilation-as-survival, or addictions that develop from the trauma of barely surviving the near-decimation of spirituality, land, culture, language, and more. An uncritical faith in psycho-medical, clinical, individualistic cures illuminates the reality that most of us who foreground these solutions in our educational and advocacy work are implicated in the historical revisionism that is a dark mark of our times – even if and when we access these cures as a part of our own healing. Instead of seeking innocence, we ought to be seeking painful yet honest solidarity.

What is the persisting legacy of this history? And what are alternatives for pedagogy, and more precisely, for a queer-decolonial pedagogy that is accountable to intergenerational and cross-cultural healing? We often lean too heavily into mind-body splits, identity as individually determined, and the “curing” of bodies to quell a collective dysphoria around gender. In many practices of Indigenous healing, individual ailments are viewed as symptoms of a larger social or community illness; within this frame, we see that everyone experiences gender dysphoria, yet intersex, third gender, and transgender people are given particular language and technologies for holding and resolving that dysphoria for everyone, for naturalizing a universal, clear, and consistent sense of binary sex and gender across time and place.

Congruently, in Western complementary medicine, as well as in other healing practices, mind, body, spirit, family, and community must be healed simultaneously. Viewing the body as the site of the problem reminds us of the Christian roots of many of our pseudo-scientific concepts, as the sexualized body – or flesh – is often believed to be the site of sin for Christians, and the site of sickness for doctors or psychiatrists. Medical professionals currently serve as our modern-day secular priests, whose authority often goes unchallenged, in large part due to the fact that they are the only ones with access to the dogmatic language of Western science.

Queer-decolonial pedagogies focus on forms of psycho-social, collective, intergenerational healing, and require an immersion in the history of a given place and people. This work also involves creating holistic senses of self that do not require youth and others to splice themselves into minds separated from bodies separated from spirits and legacies, ancestors and history, land and place. Who requires scientific knowledge and clinical research to justify gender and sexual difference? For whom are these frameworks and language even accessible or meaningful? A queer-decolonial pedagogy requires that we reckon with these questions. It is essential that we not revise history for personal, political, or pedagogical simplicity. There is too much at stake.

And, perhaps this is too much to ask. Some may think this is far too complicated, far too abstract. On the contrary, I’ve come to these reflections through working with people for whom these histories are still very much alive, including those who do not speak English, those without much experience in formal learning, as well as those who have experienced education as a primary site of harm. For many of us with family legacies of attempted genocide, and the clinical violence that served as genocide’s workhorse during much of the 20th century, we know the stories of medical imprisonment, of forced sterilization, of experimentation, of pathologization, of addiction that masks intergenerational trauma, and of cultural assimilation that injures as much as it protects.

It is essential that we uncover history to help ease the tensions across our diverse adaptations to living under a biologically and culturally homogenizing regime of militarized, colonial, eugenic, heterosexual, and binary gendered regulation. History can heal, and when we collectively take responsibility for our complicity within it, we can begin to craft pedagogies that simultaneously queer and decolonize our relationships to ourselves, to one another, and to past and future generations.

Thank you.

Transition and Intimacy

*Deep breath*

I’m not one to usually splatter my personal life or more intimate feelings all over the internet in a public way, but because I’ve finished school (for now) and have all this time on my hands, I’ve returned to my most satisfying means of working out frustrations: writing blogs. I want to make note that even though I’m going to be talking a lot about gender, social and medical transition, experiences with racism, and more, I’m only speaking from my own experience. I’m sure that lots of folks can offer plenty of points of contradiction to what I’m about to offer here and that’s great; diversity of voices is important and no single person should be responsible for representing an entire swath of folks. I’m going to give a little background context before diving into the nitty-gritty regarding some recent realizations I’ve had about gender transition and intimacy.

For context, I’ve been on testosterone for over nine years and have had chest surgery (along with other surgeries – but that’s a differently topic entirely). I started socially transitioning twelve years ago, taking on a non-binary/agender self-understanding and then taking three full years to deeply consider whether or not medical transition was right for me. Every day, for three years, I stared in the mirror and asked myself if I could be content with what looked back. Eventually, it became pretty impossible to even know how to begin answering the question. I spent every day obsessing over my appearance to the point of complete self-absorption, in a way that pulled me away from the rest of my life, including relationships with people close to me. While I had friends who had medically transitioned, I didn’t feel connected enough with anyone I knew that I felt I could rely on, who wouldn’t feed me stock affirmations, who might sit with me as I battled the complexity of my feelings surrounding the choice to change my body. I’ve always had a hard time developing close relationships with other trans people because I’ve realized we all have very different ways we relate to the choices we make, and that sometimes hearing another person’s experience or rationale can be disorienting. I’ve found that some of the ways I think about gender and medical transition are deeply upsetting to other trans people, so I stopped sharing with them. I stopped sharing with anyone about anything related to my experience of gender, and instead only spoke about it academically, as research and professional advocacy work, as something I didn’t think and feel and cry about on a routine basis.

I dove in head first, alone, and spent most of my early transition in two partnerships where my partners had very strong negative reactions to my masculinizing body. I persevered, despite physical aggression, accusations of insanity, suggestions of “selling out” womanhood, and projections of rage towards men. I learned to absorb it all, to value my exploration (one piece of emotional well-being) over the interpersonal connections I had (another piece of emotional well-being). I don’t know exactly how a person comes back from that practice, but I’m only just now starting to realize how important it may be to unlearn that, especially for developing intimacy with others, and I’m not just talking about partners. Based on others’ stories of family rejection, I had preemptively ensured I was completely financially and emotionally independent of my family so that if worse came to worst, I had already buffered myself. Friends fell off the grid. Others in my close circle called me a monster, deranged, a freak, etc. Nothing out of the ordinary. Expected, in fact. Because I’d prepared myself for the worst, I was actually happy it was as smooth as it was. Kind of sad, now that I think about it.

What some of those initial experiences did was create the groundwork for a lot of really funky protective practices. Each new group of people I meet is assessed and re-assessed moment to moment: are they trans-aware? trans-friendly? transphobic? Would they lunge at me, threaten to stalk me in public and beat me up on a busy street upon finding out I was a transitioned person? This has happened. Would they cut off all contact with me in a single moment? This has happened with potential employers. Would they scream at me in public in front of people, loudly expressing their confusion over how I wanted to be addressed? This happened with a gym member when I worked at 24 Hour Fitness. There is a lot of shaming that comes from the experience of medical transition. I used to think I’d emerged relatively unscathed, but recently, the more I think about it, the more I realize I’ve probably just suppressed all of the shame, intellectually writing it off as the other person’s transphobia. It’s hard to not internalize shame when you’re being purposefully threatened and humiliated in front of others, just for being the body you are. Impossible, in fact.

I’ve become incredibly practiced at hiding things, shaping stories, holding my tongue, lying by omission, changing details, and deferring to another person’s discomfort. When people don’t know about my gender history and I’m not feeling like playing Trans 101 that day, I change details about my life and my story to paint a coherent image that draws no further questions. What happens now is that every time I’m asked a question that makes me uncomfortable, I lie, in some form or fashion. After nearly a decade of practice, discomforts of all kinds get lumped into the “protect, evade, avoid” compartment and I usually freeze, lie, or redirect the conversation using my quick wit and sharp questioning skills. This makes intimacy incredibly difficult because intimacy is about leaning into discomfort and vulnerability. When so many vulnerable moments are associated with real danger to my body or psyche, it’s hard to put that practice of evasion down. I don’t mean to, but something unconscious takes over and it feels like I watch myself recede into the distance as The Charmer – as I call him – takes over. I’m sure it’s more transparent than I think, especially to particularly perceptive people.

Part of this experience of transition, for me, has been crafting an intentionally private space where I can process free from judgment or expectations or comparisons. As a mixed-race kid, as a community-committed academic, I’m rarely understood on my own terms. Too whitened for some, too brown for others, too academic for community, and too committed to public pedagogies for academics. I’m not whining; this has given me skills and mobility and access to spaces that many others cannot chameleon their way through. I’m everywhere and nowhere, everyone’s friend and no one’s intimate. I don’t mean this in a self-deprecating romantic kind of way. It simply is what it is. I wouldn’t change it for anything, but it also comes with its downsides.

One of these downsides is that I’m very used to going it alone. Many trans people have very different experiences from other trans people, so even if all your social identities line up with another person (race, gender identity, sexuality, class, where you grew up, education levels, etc.), chances are that experiences through transition can still be radically different and that can be very lonely and it left me feeling incapable of being understood, even and especially by people who purportedly shared this experience with me. Many – myself included – give up on any hope of feeling understood, or like a person even wants to get to know you and how you might be different than they are. However, even as people can consciously give up on feeling understood, the unconscious mind craves connection. When hopelessness festers, it butts up against that deep human need for intimacy. Hopelessness combined with a desire to have unmet needs met is a recipe for self-sabotage, endless skepticism, and deep pain.

There was a LOT that came my way on a daily basis through transition, including showing my ID, talking to people on the phone, family stuff, partner stuff, strangers’ stares and whispers and snickers, friend and acquaintance responses, employer discrimination, weird comments and questions from people I interacted with through work (I worked at the front desk of a gym through transition), housemates questions, and more. So. Many. Unsavory. Interactions. You can’t hold onto all those interactions because there literally isn’t time in the day to process every single shitty moment, so a lot gets brushed off while still getting lodged deep in your unconscious where it stays and saturates into other parts of your psychic life. I have to work VERY hard to this day to stay emotionally present when other people talk about misgendering or any other form of microaggression. This bothers me that my gut is to be annoyed and dismissive, and I work hard to express patience and compassion and understanding. I became so adept at brushing things off outwardly, when it came to my own experiences, while still feeling them seep in somewhere deep, knowing I’d have to go pry it out later even after it had calcified around other parts of my mind. Other trans folks I know also just walk around upset and triggered all the time, and I get it. It’s kind of one or the other – be in a state of near-breakdown constantly OR go a little numb. I went the latter route.

For a lot of politicized trans masculine people who medically transition – and especially those who aren’t white – we go from (brown) girl invisibility and dismissal and smallness to feeling guilt and shame over male/masculine privilege. I’ve felt an immense amount of guilt, remorse, and grief over leaving the little brown girl in me behind. I’ve responded to that – in part – by throwing myself into work that promotes the wellbeing of cis and trans women and girls, primarily those of color. It has helped to ease the guilt of transition, of feeling like I “gave up” on womanhood and “gave up” on becoming the strong brown woman I’ve seen so many of my peers become through their 20s and 30s. Not so, for me. I’ve felt trapped in a void of (mis)recognition around the unique needs I have around healing from sexism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, and an array of gendered experiences of racism. In my estimation, how different genders experience racism is unique and had I not medically transitioned, I don’t think I’d have the perspective on this topic that I have now.

Racism looks and feels differently as someone perceived to be a straight woman, a queer woman, a non-binary person, a queer man, and a straight man. It’s one helluva mindfuck. I made the leap from experiencing sexism, homophobia, and transphobia – with no real meaningful recognition or healing around those experiences – to advocating for OTHER people’s experiences of harm. For me, this came from a very gendered form of care-taking that brown girls and women learn in this world. Everyone’s hurts are more important than mine, even now. I feel incredibly uncomfortable when people want me to talk about my hurts. In the rare moments I’ve attempted to do so in any public forum, it’s almost immediately overtaken by someone else feeling the need to put their hurt in comparison to mine, inevitably portraying my experience as one solely of privilege. I stopped fighting this phenomenon years ago because the invalidation of my spoken experience was more painful than the silence I’ve maintained about it ever since.

I’m continually frustrated by the walls I discover I’ve put up. The most painful thing is when I don’t even realize a wall is there but that someone else notices or points it out to me, either directly or indirectly – while this doesn’t happen super often, it does happen from time to time. And to be quite honest, it feels less like a wall, and more like a thick, clear, bouncy rubber suit I put on a long time ago. I can see out of it and others can see me through it, but there is something dense and insulating between us, the warmth never sinking in for me, and the gentleness and love never fully making its way out. In addition to emotionally numbing out, medical transition has involved any number of incredibly uncomfortable physical experiences, including chest binding for years, regular intramuscular injections through needle-phobia, surgery, uterine atrophy and cramping, ongoing nerve pain throughout my chest, and more. Emotional and physical self-anesthesia is a survival skill that has long-outlived its usefulness. Or has it? I can never be so sure.

The Charmer (I mentioned him before). Performing. I spend a lot of time having to be “on” for my job. Sometimes, I just flip a switch and instead of getting nervous, I just become charming, gentle, a good listener, making everyone feel safe and heard, catering to a group’s needs over my own, and staying hyper-vigiliant over the vibe and pacing. I get nervous in larger groups of people and either withdraw or perform, though when on-the-clock professionally or socially, I go into autopilot – The Charmer. Even when there’s something genuine about that performance, slipping into a focus on everyone else’s needs above my own seems to come a little too easily these days. Again, not exactly something a person can wholly compartmentalize. It’s also complicated by the fact that I get a significant amount of affirmation for using these techniques as an educator. Focusing so intently on the group really does help people open up to learning challenging content. Even if I say true or insightful things, I feel like I’m being dishonest to a degree because I have to be so careful about what I say, how I contextualize it, the tone I use, the terms I select. Always “on.”

Job clinging through transition. It took me 2-3 years and nearly fifty job applications before I was able to find a decent full-time job, so I’m incredibly anxious about keeping myself in the good graces of superiors and colleagues. I present a very polished image that keeps coworkers from really getting to know me. I still (even after six years) get nervous every time I request time off or call out sick – I don’t want to be seen as lazy or like I’m taking advantage of a relatively lax workplace. I still get nervous about replying to colleagues’ emails in a timely manner and about saying “no” to requests for workshops or collaboration. Because I work almost exclusively with women, I’m extra mindful of how much I talk, how much physical space I take up, how I can say the same thing as a female colleague but I’m taken more seriously, how students respond differently to me than to facilitators of different gender presentations. I feel guilty and uncomfortable every time I see this happen, and as time passes, I’m sure I’ve acclimated and see it less and less. This reality of noticing such things less and less also disturbs me and makes me feel alienated from groups of people (women and visibly androgynous people) who I previously felt most connected with.

Many people – if not all – who transition to a male presentation have some romanticized image of the kind of man they want to be, or present as. I always imagined myself becoming that calm, cool, nerdy, collected person who wouldn’t passively stand by when sexist stuff went down, who dressed well but casually, who was emotionally intelligent and academic but also approachable and relatable. The kind of guy people wanted to be around and come to for advice. The sweetheart who made people feel like a million bucks when they had his attention. Kind of warm and fuzzy, kind of calm and stoic, smart but not elitist, insightful but not disarming, cute but not narcissistic. I don’t know if I am the way I am because this is just how I am OR if there was an intentional molding on my part. While it must be some combination of forces, I know I’ll never be able to actually parse out what traits come from where. This often makes me feel like I’m constantly faking or lying, even though I’m just doing my best to walk through the world in a way I can feel proud of.

Why have I rambled on about this at such great length? I’m not trying to throw a pity-party or write off dysfunctional coping mechanisms. Not in the slightest. Perhaps some motivation behind writing this was to let other transitioned people know that if you’ve felt any of these things or done any of these things, you’re not alone. (Hint: because of trauma, judgment, and gatekeeping, a lot of trans people only share the positive aspects of medical transition, even amongst one another). Another motivation behind it is helping folks who haven’t transitioned have some insights into why some of us may seem a little more self-protective than the average person. A final motivation might be entirely selfish: to try to unstick some of these coping behaviors by naming them in writing, as a way to notice when I’m doing them, and to forgive myself for having picked up some habits that have likely frustrated those who have wanted to get to know me better, including friends, colleagues, family, and partners. Intimacy sure isn’t easy, especially while wearing a rubber suit.

Feel free to share, comment, discuss. Though I usually tend to write more planned posts on here, I hope this format isn’t too shocking to anyone (especially folks who know me). If this post brought up stuff for anyone, I feel you. It brought up a lot for me to write it, and instead of being angry at these feelings coming to the surface and disturbing my fictively peaceful demeanor, I’ll just let them wash over me and and I’ll swim along with the current until landing safely back on the shore. Wishing you all the same.

Theory and Pedagogy: Working with Diverse Queer and Trans Youth

by Mauro Sifuentes, doctoral candidate in Education & community-based educator

“Do not ask me who I am and do not ask me to remain the same. Leave it to the bureaucrats and police to make sure our papers are in order; at least spare us their morality when we write” – Michel Foucault, Introduction to Archaeology of Knowledge

I’ve been asked by friends and colleagues, on more than one occasion, to share some of my reflections on the deep, theoretical explorations I engage through books, music, film, and more. Specifically, these folks have asked me to help illuminate for them and for others how those explorations make their way into my pedagogical practice with diverse youth in the Bay Area and Central Valley of California. My work with youth generally centers around anti-violence, social justice, and healthy relationships.

Before jumping right into my process of moving from theory to pedagogy, I want to share a bit about how I’ve been taught to approach reading. In particular, I want to share how I read texts that are difficult, dense, opaque, or philosophical. What many might not know is that our modern university system is descended from Christian seminary colleges, where aspiring theologians and spiritual practitioners would engage in deep reading of the Bible. While many spiritual traditions – including sects of Christianity – have held space for diverse interpretations of religious texts, the puritanical forms of Christianity that took root in the United States, and that form many of our social institutions, focus on a “one truth” reading of the Bible. Consequently, this form of reading is the one that has taken root in U.S. universities: one author, one text, one interpretation, one truth. We know that even though the Bible doesn’t have one author (or even one version or translation), we have been taught to see the word of G-d as definitive and singular.

This is not how I’ve been taught to read. My critical reading skills were forged through the intellectual traditions of radical Jewish thought and feminist Bengali scholarship, two traditions that foreground spirited debate, hospitality toward difference, interpretation-as-agency, and a respect for complex legacies of social thought and activism. It is my responsibility as a reader to not approach every text like the Bible, or to see it as an Oedipal father to overcome by only pointing to its lack, its gaps, its irrelevance due to its emergence in a prior historical moment. I have to put in the work to keep texts alive and dynamic by putting them to work in the real world. A myth we have been told is how quickly and immensely the world changes across decades; what I’ve come to discover is that deep, underlying social norms are very slow to change, even as how we experience our social worlds is constantly reinterpreted and in flux.

Given this reality, texts from ten, twenty, thirty, even forty or more years ago continue to have relevance to our present moment because they help me to chart out debates, foreclosures, and other possibilities that we have long-since abandoned, but that help to animate my imagination with curiosity and creativity. What might things look like otherwise? For me, reading is daring to dream, with wakefulness of the particularities of our present moment. I am always searching for openings, rather than simply identifying (or creating) foreclosures through careless, reactive, or facile interpretation of texts.

I approach pedagogy in a similar way that I do reading – through openness, curiosity, and acute attentiveness to the group, the context, and the goals we set together. I am obsessively student-centered, but I approach this in a way that is somewhat different than others do. I believe that centering student learning doesn’t always mean students make decisions or lead the discussion. Sometimes there are important interventions that need to be made and sometimes they just need to listen to me talk to them. I like to think of it as storytelling, an art form in current pedagogical approaches that is unfortunately dying out in mainstream (including liberal and progressive) cultures. Before diving into this kind of teaching, I take time to “learn from below,” a strategy elaborated by Gayatri C. Spivak, wherein the educator becomes intimately aware of the struggles and lived realities of their students in order to craft meaningful learning experiences that are relevant to students’ lives. Even when I lecture (or story-tell, as I like to think of it), I have taken the time to ensure that it will land with each and every one of my youth. With this approach, I’m able to give them a lot to discuss, reflect upon, and question.

I have also learned that students don’t operate very well with conceptual voids. We can problematize the world all we want, but it can be incredibly challenging for them to unlearn if I’m not also sharing new ways to make sense of all that they see; however, I don’t want to simply gloss over the importance of unlearning. This process is not as simple as “don’t do this/don’t think that” – it involves what historian, philosopher, and human rights activist Michel Foucault called genealogy, which is the union of erudite and local knowledges. These forms of knowledge come together when rigorously trained scholar-activists dig through the messy and layered archives of historical information to learn how our current cultural ideas and practices came to be, and they also highly value the lived experiences of those who are harmed by those oppressive ideas and practices in order to see how domination and resistance operate in complex and particular ways. I approach youth development work from an explicitly genealogical focus, on a number of fronts – deconstructing binaries of adult/child, queer/straight, white/not-white, trans/cis, disabled/abled – in order to help usher youth into an understanding of the historical and legal production of identity categories, without dismissing the political usefulness of these categories. This is recognizing what Spivak calls “strategic essentialism,” wherein individuals acknowledge the problematics of identity but find it useful to organize around assumptions of at least some shared experience.

Why am I approaching youth development work in this way, when ostensibly I’m focusing on healthy relationships education at a domestic violence non-profit? I do this because issues of identity are often incredible sources of tension in relationships with queer and trans people. How “out” are the partners involved? Is it politically important to the individuals involved to engage in experimental and radical forms of relationships, including types of non-monogamy? Are people falling in love or dating interracially? Queer communities are often much more mixed-class than many other communities as well. The forms of difference that are concentrated in cultural settings with queer and trans people are immense, and how these differences shape queerness and trans-ness can often bring folks into conflict with one another. Getting to the root of violence in relationships often involves helping the parties involved differently consider one another’s life experiences, including traumas connected to membership in a social identity group.

Before sharing with you exactly how I take rich, theoretical texts and translate them into pedagogical tools, I want to note a few problematics in how I’m presenting this work. I want to put an accent over the hesitation with which I demarcate this dualism of theory/pedagogy, or the “theoretical” and “practical” realms. For me, the two are intimately woven together, and when I’m reading, I’m taking time to both dive into complex works as an opportunity to be imaginative and curious, and at other times I’m reading with the explicit intent of looking for ideas I can bring to my young leaders. I also want to say that theoretical texts can’t just be read in isolation, but they require ongoing engagement and embedded-ness in community reflection. Interpreting theoretical texts is not about an individual’s intelligence or capacity-in-isolation; this kind of work is always connected to long-standing legacies of critical social thought, which often foregrounds the importance of cooperation, relationality, and holding tensions across difference.

Having given a number of caveats, you may be wondering how any of this comes to life in the work I do with youth. How is Michel Foucault, a French scholar-activist who was most active during the 1960s-1980s, relevant to queer and trans youth in Oakland, California in the 2010s? First of all, he dedicated his life to activism and ongoing learning. He was deeply involved in multiple social movements across the course of his life, which ended much too early from AIDS-related complications in 1984. Michel might disagree with my labeling him as such, but I perceive him to have been a queer man who disliked being put in a box. There is much in this European man’s life that resonates with the aims of my youth, particularly the way his existence and thought challenged (and continue to challenge) many underlying assumptions of “identity.”

Firstly, Foucault challenged the idea that identities are universal across time and place. Working with queer and trans youth from immigrant, diasporic, and low-income communities, they are intimately aware that dominant representations of queer and trans people often do not reflect their experiences. Secondly, Foucault questioned our confessional impulses that portray identity as stable, knowable, and important to decipher and share with others. The young people I work with are excited to explore, question, grow, and change, bringing their queerness or trans-ness with them through these explorations, inevitably reshaping those identities along the way. And thirdly, Foucault questioned the idea that identity is the single best tool for political organizing. Youth today are often feeling suffocated by the popularized and reductive interpretations of critical social thought and identity politics that have proliferated across the internet. Youth want to learn how to build alliances across difference in meaningful and sustainable ways, and don’t want to feel pressured to reduce diverse experiences to hierarchies of oppression. They see adults do it and they want more, they want better. I’m trying to do better for them, and for all of us.

Foucault helps us challenge these three oppressive ideas (identities are universal, identities are stable/knowable, and identity is the only basis for political resistance). Why is this important? It’s important because concepts of sexuality and gender were crafted in Euro-American clinical settings that pathologized the queering of sexuality and gender. These youth come from communities that have been pathologized for these and other reasons, and significant tensions exist between queer and trans youth and their families or communities who often say that queer and trans identities are a “white thing” – which I take to mean many things, possibly. It could be a refusal of individualistic identity, assumptions of distance from family, concerns about social rejection, denying clinical narratives of illness, and much more. These concerns need to be taken seriously, and queer and trans youth from diverse communities need thought-tools to help address and reduce acute tensions across generations.

To respond to the call-to-action that I take from critical theory, I’ve created a few exercises to begin to loosen the grip that rigid framings of identity have on youth’s self-understandings and how they learn to police themselves and others: 1) an intersectional gender history timeline, 2) an identity map, and 3) an identity Q&A gallery walk.

The first exercise explores the ways that law and social norms in the United States were often crafted to target diverse forms of gender and sexuality and immigrant groups simultaneously, so that looking at the production of queer and trans identities requires looking at the project of whiteness and American-ness over the past couple hundred years. Youth learn ten moments in history where gender, sexuality, race, and nationality were being crafted simultaneously, and that in the U.S. it’s impossible to address homophobia and transphobia without also addressing xenophobia. Historically, what has been defined as “queer” has also been seen as “other,” and what is portrayed as “other” has also been described as “queer” or not properly heterosexual. This helps youth understand that our dominant ideas of queer and trans identities are culturally and historically particular.

The second activity allows youth to explore their multiple identities and how they shape one another. We give each young person a giant poster paper and ask them to draw themselves in the center. Around that center drawing, we have them list identities that feel important to them. While encouraging them to think about race, place of birth, gender, sexuality, and more, we also give them space to think through non-politicized identities such as introversion/extroversion, affiliation with musical or athletic groups (formal or informal), and other activities (reader? artist? cook? storyteller? spiritual practitioner?). After they’ve listed these identities, we ask them to explore the people, places, and ideas that have impacted how they relate to those identities so that we aren’t perpetually forcing them to obsess over individualistic self-discovery, but to embed those coming-of-age processes within a cultural, community, or family legacy that predates them, and will continue after them. Youth then share their posters with the rest of the group, and it is during this activity that we have the opportunity to learn a lot about one another as individuals, as well as the worlds that we bring with us into that space of learning.

The third activity, the identity Q&A gallery walk, provides youth with the opportunity to respond directly to complex questions about identity. Each of the following questions is put on a large sheet of poster paper and stuck up on the wall: How do you define “identity? Why do you think we focus on visible identities? How can our identities make us feel safe? How can our identities make us feel unsafe? Have any of your identities stayed the same over time? Have any of your identities changed over time? Why do you think identities might change? Does everyone with the same identity relate to it in the same way? Why or why not?

Youth are given post-its to write their responses on and then stick up on the larger sheets of poster paper. After everyone has responded to all the different questions, we go around and review youth’s responses. They often respond to our questions with questions, and some respond with open and frank statements that push the conversation in fruitful – if not sometimes uncomfortable – places. It’s my job as the facilitator to ensure the safety of participants, and with a solid set of group agreements we craft together on Day One, this isn’t as hard as some might think.

If folks are curious to lear more about the specifics of facilitating these activities, please feel free to comment here or message me elsewhere. I’m always happy to share materials. Because I’m employed full-time and don’t need additional sources of income, I have the luxury of not having to worry about intellectual property rights and am happy to see these tools make their way into the lives of more young people who are yearning for alternative, nuanced, and critical ways to think through questions of identity, self-determination, and belonging.

Genetics, Gender Identity, and Youth Transitions: Context and Questions for Reflection

by Mauro Sifuentes, doctoral candidate in Education & community-based educator

During late July this past summer, Stephen Rosenthal, M.D., medical director of the UCSF Child and Adolescent Gender Center, a professional collaborative of medical and advocacy experts, presented recommendations to a group of over a hundred parents of transgender youth who showed up to hear the most recent findings from a field of research that seeks to identify a biological basis for transgender identities; most of the adults present were parents of children or youth who receive clinical care from this center. Dr. Rosenthal is a professor of pediatrics at UCSF who specializes in pediatric endocrinology and who has served as a consultant for pharmaceutical corporations who develop and market hormones and hormone blockers. On this particular day, he was attempting to address parents’ concerns regarding difficult decisions they may have to make, or have already made: the choice to give consent for their children’s bodies to be altered through puberty blockers and hormone therapy.

The presentation was part of a weekend-long conference hosted by Gender Spectrum, a Bay Area-based education and advocacy non-profit, that prioritizes “gender sensitive and inclusive environments for all children and teens.” The conference, which attracts families, presenters, and participants from all over the Bay Area (and some traveling much longer distances to attend), provides a unique meeting place for medical and mental health professionals, educators, advocates, youth, and parents. For some participants, including youth, this conference is their first time speaking openly with others who may have similar experiences navigating the terrain of transgender identities, and the challenges that come with it. The annual Gender Spectrum conference grew out of a need to break the isolation of parents who are made to face difficult decisions in a world that is only growing incrementally more hospitable for transgender children and youth, and hardly so for those who appear more androgynous or do not live in supportive communities or families.

One of these particular challenges falls on parents, and their decision-making power over their children. While it is still portrayed as a controversial choice for an adult to decide to medically transition genders, often through hormones and surgeries, it is an even more contentious choice when parents are making life-changing decisions about their children’s access to hormones or surgeries. Because of the stigma often attached to making such a choice, Dr. Rosenthal’s presentation may help lessen parents’ concerns about whether or not they are making the right choice in moving ahead with either puberty blockers (which block the hormones that will lead to the puberty of sex-assigned-at-birth) or so-called cross-sex hormones (which promote the development of secondary sex characteristics associated with the gender with which a child identifies or resonates). However, presenting research in an attempt to prove a biological basis for transgender identities has been met with mixed responses.

Dr. Rosenthal is one of the pioneers in this controversial field of transgender pediatric and adolescent health, and work like his has come under criticism from peers in the medical field, as well as from another unlikely group of critics – transgender people themselves, in addition to intersex, de-transitioned adults, and non-binary people who identify as neither male nor female. These groups of people worry that hormones and surgeries will be used to mask young people’s queer and transgender identities, and gender diversity more broadly. Many transgender people choose to live without medical interventions on their bodies. Intersex adults – people who cannot or should not be classified as male or female – often have experienced the long-term consequences of adult decision-making power over their bodies and genders, and do not want others to have that choice taken away. There is also a growing movement of adults who medically transitioned genders before the age of eighteen who now call themselves “de-trans” and believe they were coerced into making decisions that were not appropriate for them, while others believe that medical gender transition was appropriate for them at the time, but that their gender identity has shifted again in late adolescence or adulthood. Non-binary adults are people who may pursue medical gender transition, but who do not necessarily identify as either male or female. These diverse stakeholders are often skeptical of early medical interventions on children’s bodies and identities, particularly when the primary goal is to secure a “normal” life, a goal that often feeds unrealistic expectations resulting in long-term negative consequences, such as depression, or, a lack of connection to queer communities as an adolescent or adult.

These groups have voiced concerns about the drive behind the search for a genetic basis for transgender identities, drawing upon lessons learned from the now-discredited “reparative” therapies for intersex, gay, lesbian, bisexual, and queer youth and adults that sought to “correct” and erase queer genders and sexualities during times of intense stigma, including today. In addition to stigma, laws were crafted in the 19th and early 20th centuries that made it illegal to wear clothes of “another sex” or to engage in homosexuality. Interestingly, and of concern to those who have studied the covert reinventions of eugenics, California reformers who were interested in white racial purity also became interested in how mothers and fathers, in their portrayals of polarized masculinity and femininity, could craft “fitter” children that would prevent the degeneracy of the white race.

Lewis Terman was a leading figure in the California eugenics movement who invented and popularized the Stanford-Binet intelligence test, a tool used to assess “feeblemindedness” and identify young people for forced sterilization. Terman also developed the “M-F” test, which was used – and to some extent is still used – to predict homosexuality and gender diversity in youth and young adults, and to channel them into so-called reparative therapies to prevent the further development of diverse genders and sexualities. Here, we can see that the impulse to draw clear lines around racial groupings is intimately linked to the desire to have clear lines between male/female, even as standards for men and woman are often in flux, changing across time and place. Many advocates for transgender youth – including transgender adults – feel pressure to justify challenging and controversial decisions, often relying on research that reproduces a certain logic known to harm the very interests of people they seek to support.

And yet, the research seeking a genetic basis for transgender identities is forging ahead. A team of international researchers from the U.S. and Europe have already begun to collect DNA samples from thousands of transgender people in an effort to identify genomic markers that could be used to predict the development of transgender identities, something researchers themselves have inadequately defined because they are not trained in gender or cultural studies. As this work develops, we must continue to ask ourselves questions about what ethics and understandings are driving this research, as well as all the potential outcomes and consequences for transgender children and youth, many of whom are often making decisions in a crucible of medical and psychological experimentation, binary gender coercion, inconclusive data, misinformation, and immense discrimination. Even with the good intentions of parents, and physicians like Dr. Rosenthal, without a more robust discussion that puts the interests of transgender children, youth, and adults in a larger social and historical context, we may be repeating missteps of the past. These important deliberations would benefit from refusing simplistic resolutions, and instead, foregrounding the priorities and needs of diverse children, youth, and families, rather than physicians and researchers.

I am someone who made the difficult and complex choice to pursue medical gender transition as an adult. As a youth advocate who has been blessed to know many self-actualized young people who are intelligent and capable enough to make decisions about their own bodily self-determination, I am also not advocating that these options be taken away from youth. Instead, I would ask that we ask under what circumstances, in which kinds of communities, and with what support are young people seeking clinical psychological and medical care that helps them explore new possibilities for gender? They are not sick, unfortunate, helpless victims of a psychiatric condition. How do we come to see youth not as overly genetically pre-determined, but as creative individuals embedded within cultural contexts that shape life’s possibilities, and that many of these possibilities – or constraints – warrant expansion or resistance? So much of my process was shaped by the ways I’ve grown through queer communities, and how I’ve been supported in making sense of gender, sexuality, family, and community in queered ways because of this cultural embeddedness. All youth, regardless of whether or not they identify as both trans and queer, deserve to know about alternative ways to craft a sustainable, meaningful, and supported life, beyond clinical diagnoses and solutions. Our world today needs more creativity around gender, not less.

Trans Surgery, Life-Saving Surgery, and the Space Between

by Mauro Sifuentes, doctoral candidate in Education & community-based educator

I have been under general anesthesia five times in this life. The first time, I was three and had a hernia repaired; because the anesthesiologist didn’t want to over-medicate me, I ended up waking up before the surgery was over. One of my earliest memories is trying to lift up my head – which felt incredibly heavy – and looking down at my own little naked body and feeling confused and tired and seeing a nurse notice me, look a little panicked, come over, and I was out again. Surgical memories are an integral part of my self-understanding. 

My second surgery happened when I was sixteen. I had acute abdominal pain and was rushed to the emergency room. After identifying a water bottle-sized cyst pushing up against my stomach and intestines, I was sent into surgery to remove it (as well as the ovarian cyst it was pushing on, the actual source of acute pain). I went into surgery being told I might have to have my ovaries and uterus removed if anything appeared malignant. The cysts all ended up being benign, though there was no conclusive idea about why I’d grown a large, free-floating cyst (most cysts and tumors grow on organs or tissues). One theory included that I had absorbed a twin in utero during early stages of development, which matched other complications that surrounded my pregnancy and birth.

Ten years later, the cyst regrew (which I had been warned was a possibility). This time, I didn’t have health insurance and had to wait three months on bed rest before I could be scheduled for surgery at San Francisco General Hospital, and was then in bed and out of work for an additional month while recovering from invasive abdominal surgery. A new theory the doctors developed was that I had Turner’s Syndrome, an intersex condition that sometimes results in unusual cyst or tumor growth. After going through genetic testing, the results were inconclusive. If I did have Turner’s, it was “mosaic Turner’s,” where some tissues/cells have the chromosomal differences but others didn’t. I never followed up on this because it didn’t matter much to me.

About six months after this second abdominal surgery, I was hit by a car while riding my bicycle to work in San Francisco. It was a hit-and-run (the dude yelled “sorry” out the window before speeding away). My arm was snapped in half like a twig, as it had absorbed the entirety of the impact of the car. All things considered, I was pretty lucky. No head damage, no hip or spinal damage. Again, I had no health insurance so had to wait nine days for surgery. San Francisco General sent me home with a splint (no sling) and a bottle full of oxycodone. A week later, after surgery, when the general anesthesia wore off, I was in the worst pain of my life. What most folks don’t know is that after you wake up from surgery, you don’t really feel much pain at all because the general anesthesia is numbing your body. This wears off after about 18-24 hours, when the full force of what just happened to your body finally hits you. It’s scary, jarring, and disorienting. No one told me I would be in so much pain. I came to find out that I had spent 7-8 hours face down on an operating table with my left arm wrenched around so that the backside of my arm was exposed for the surgeon to insert a plate and twelve screws. Would have been nice to know beforehand, but instead, I wound up crying from pain and fear for about an hour before I was able to get an answer as to why my shoulder was in so much pain when it was my arm that had been operated on.

In hospitals, you often forget that your body is yours. We live in a culture where so many people, for so many reasons, don’t experience their bodies as “theirs.” Some people dissociate because of abuse or trauma. Some people grow up in communities where your bodies will be laboring bodies and ignoring pain or discomfort is part of how we make a living. Others have been taught to care only for their minds and that their bodies are inconsequential, and so they’ve learned to separate body from mind, disconnecting things that are intimately interwoven. And others have experienced many other kinds of dysphoria, including around gender.

My fifth, and most recent, surgery was almost three years ago, when I had flesh and glands removed from my chest to give it a narrowly-defined “male contour” by a private, plastic surgeon in Marin. Of all my surgeries, this was the one that I had the most mixed feelings about because 1) it was expensive and I was paying out-of-pocket, 2) it was the only surgery that wasn’t physically life-saving, and 3) it was the only surgery I’ve had that people have congratulated me for. While some people may have their choice of surgeon covered by insurance, mine wasn’t. There may also be some trans people who say that “gender affirmation” surgeries are life-saving. I don’t know how to explain what this surgery was to me. It felt like a way to manipulate my body so it could move with more ease through its day. I didn’t want to think about whether or not I wanted to bind my chest, which was a very painful practice that exacerbated my asthmatic symptoms, gave me rib and intercostal pain, and resulted in rashes from the tight and uncomfortable fabric pressing up on my skin all day. I also had to be strategic about what kinds of fabrics to wear so that the strange shape the binder left my body in would go undetected. It also made going to the gym, changing, wearing tank tops, going to the beach, and other activities like exercising outdoors or hiking somewhat uncomfortable, if not unbearable in other moments.

I never experienced the kind of dysphoria that many other trans people describe. I knew that it was the world that had led me to feel uncomfortable with my body, rather than some fundamental disconnect between my body and my mind. Because I don’t experience or believe that minds and bodies are separate entities, I know that those thoughts and experiences were put into me through the aggressive messaging we all receive through TV, movies, magazines, billboards, and other media about what male and female bodies are supposed to look like, and this has been very narrowly defined.

With my four other major surgeries, people didn’t really ask me a lot of questions. People almost seemed afraid to ask. People weren’t offering to help me with recovery. People seemed scared and silent around it. When it came to my chest surgery, there were “congratulations!” and offers to help, and lots of questions and curiosity. I wish I’d received “congratulations!” for surviving life-saving surgeries that were much more invasive. I didn’t want to receive congratulations for my chest surgery. I wanted people to be angry that I had been made to feel so uncomfortable with a part of my body that I was going to decide to have it removed. A part of me has died before the rest of me. That’s something I sit with and think about quite a lot. I had a grieving process that I went through, and I’m content with my decision to alter my body in irreversible ways. It has opened up a certain ease that I haven’t had since I was much younger.

The most bodily dysphoria I have ever experienced was in the week between my bike-car accident and the surgery. Because my left arm was not connected to the rest of my body by bone (it was dangling by muscle, ligaments, nerves, and other tissues), I couldn’t control it. I had nightmares that would end with me throwing my arms up to protect my face or catching myself from falling. When I’d jerk my arms up, the pain would wake me up from the nightmare. A couple of times, when I was awake, I had an itch and my left shoulder jerked to move my left arm to scratch it, but because the rest of my arm wasn’t connected by bone, it didn’t move. In my mind, my motor cortex was telling me I’d done the appropriate action to move my arm, but my visual cortex was telling me my arm hadn’t moved. The room began to spin and I nearly passed out and vomited before I was able to reach over with my right arm and “find” my left arm. As soon as I touched my left arm with my right hand, the spinning and nausea stopped immediately and my body-mind was back in alignment. I’ve never experienced anything nearly so disorienting from gender-related dissonance. When people talk about dysphoria of any kind, this is the experience I draw upon to connect.

Why have I shared all this? Perhaps to speak from a unique experience of having been operated on five times before the age of thirty, and under very different circumstances. Most trans people might only have gender-related surgeries, and so might have no basis of comparison to other kinds of surgical procedures and the ways they are experienced, both by the person being operated on and by those around them. My hope would be that sharing these experiences could give people some insights into the ways we value trans-surgeries and other kinds of surgeries. And that for some people, trans-surgeries may not be “life-saving” in the same ways that other kinds are. I fully recognize that people’s psychological health may be intimately connected to their ability to change their bodies to make them feel more like “home,” and in some ways, not having access to support (including healthcare and surgeries) could lead to life-ending consequences, like suicide or other harmful behaviors.

We also think of surgeries as quick, easy fixes. In my experience and the experiences of those I’ve known, the surgery and immediate recovery period is just a small part of that experience. I still have numbness and shooting pains in my arm, abdomen, and chest, from all those surgeries. Sometimes a body can have the look of full function, but not actually be able to do all the things it could before. For example, my arm looks relatively “normal,” despite the 14-inch scar running up the back – but I have nerve damage, not from the accident, but from the surgery.  I can’t do push-ups or other movements that compress my left elbow, and my left hand always feels like I just pulled it out of a bucket of ice water, complicating my relationship to my body as a (former?) musician. My abdomen looks relatively normal, but I can’t twist myself in particular ways. I can’t lean my chest against things because the combination of surface numbness and the experience of pressure result in this weird kind of pain. I don’t like parts of my chest touched because the nerve endings send odd, shooting sensations that don’t match my mind’s idea of where it’s being touched and this is really disorienting.

I don’t share this to make people feel badly. I share it because culturally, in the Euro-American West, we think that bodies can be intervened upon, “fixed,” made to look “normal” to us and to others, but that cutting open a body and adding prosthetics or removing parts, will fundamentally change it, forever. Sometimes those changes are necessary and can allow for new possibilities, and sometimes, in addition to those positive changes, we have to learn to adapt to other foreclosures, or unexpected losses of capacity, movement, sensation, or connectedness. Supporting someone who is having surgery means different things for different people, but it should always involve challenging the assumption that once someone is back to school or work (or whatever they may do with their time), that all the healing is done. Recovering from surgery is also a long-term psychological process, and sometimes one that you go through for the rest of your life.

Beyond Firings and Apologies: 8 Cultural Norms that Perpetuate Harm

by Mauro Sifuentes, doctoral candidate in Education & community-based educator

As a violence prevention specialist, I’ve been a bit reticent to put some of my opinions out in public, because I️ know so many folks are reeling from the never ending deluge of accusation of sexual harm, and the subsequent firings and public’s denouncements, as well as responding to the backlash to it all. I’ve seen so many people share their experiences and feel a sense that perhaps, this time, things might really change. As hopeful as I️ am about the potential for cultural shift, I️ also have a sense of just how deep some of our harmful behaviors run, and how there are many cultural norms that sexual harm is tethered to. Because I️ have spent years working as a queer, feminist violence prevention educator who sees this work through a social justice framing, it would also feel somewhat irresponsible if I️ didn’t share some of the insights I’ve gleaned. I️ provide the following as points to consider, not to discourage continued efforts to address sexual harm, but to expand the scope to uproot some of the most insidious cultural practices many of us participate in, even as we may reject the normalization of sexual harassment and other forma of harm.

1. In the rare instances that sex education is comprehensive, we focus almost exclusively on teaching people to say “yes” or “no” to sexual advances or inquiries. This is important, but it is also only a small part of the equation. While teaching about negotiation, disagreement, communication, and consent across all parts of interpersonal relationships (including the sexual parts), we need to teach people how to hear “no” and how to not take it as a personal rejection. There are so many complex reasons why a person may rebuff a sexual advance and people respond to rejection with different forms of harm and this is not okay – we need to provide people with the skills of ego resilience to not feel like so much is at stake for them when a person refuses a sexual advance.

2. When we reduce sexual harassment to “one victim – one perpetrator” we miss the larger social aspects that contribute to harmful social and professional settings. Every person who witnesses or hears about these forms of harm have an important role to play in intervening and working against the normalization of sexual harassment. People often know when someone is exhibiting concerning – of not outright harmful or violent – behaviors. Unfortunately, this involves confronting something even more insidious…

3. We have a culture of complicity that we mask as a culture of affirmation. We struggle to be honest because we are afraid of hurting a person’s feelings and we have also been trained to respond poorly when we aren’t affirmed or when others disagree with us. We don’t teach people how to have reasoned discussions through disagreement, and this is so deeply practiced that we often feel like our friends and coworkers have to support us 100% or we won’t know what to do. Interactions and relationships are not so black-and-white. I️ have lots of friends who I disagree with across moments and I️ know people who have done things I️ have serious issues with and people often respond badly when I give them my honest feedback. We need to feel more encouraged to tell friends and coworkers that their behavior is unacceptable and we need to learn to not flip out when friends and colleagues bring our attention to the harmful consequences of our actions.

4. We have been taught to invest too much in and expect too much from our work lives. While it is no excuse for harmful behaviors, looking at the prevalence of these things in the context of late capitalism where people are spending far more time at work and far less time developing meaningful social worlds seems to be important. Have these behaviors existed prior to our current moment? Of course. And yet, they do seem to be inflected differently under our current economic conditions. Why are people trying to fulfill their professional, creative, friendship, and sexual needs in the workplace? What does this look like in male-dominated professional realms? People spend more time at work than ever before, and earn less, are stressed more, and are less able to step away from work completely because of the expectation of quick responses to email. We need to look at the larger context of workplaces in the United States to better understand how these toxic behaviors have saturated our contemporary work environments.

5. We need to find ways of delinking criminality and sexual deviance. Many of our cultural myths about criminality and psychopathy carry assumptions of sexual deviance, leading to very harmful – and often untrue – associations. This elision has contributed to the pathologization and criminalization of queer people, and that laws that punish sexual deviance have been less useful for monitoring real sexual predators, but have been historically much more effective at disciplining and punishing girls and women, queer and trans people, and people of color and working class people. Given that these approaches have not been effective in stemming male, white, middle and wealthy class behaviors that harm others, why do we keep trying? Do we just not know how ineffective they are? Has the association of criminality, insanity, and sexual deviance become so “common sense” that we can’t even see the conflation? Or are we hoping that our use of those associations will somehow be more pure, just, and effective? What radical transformations are we performing through this logic to make it effective, if any?

6. I’ve begun to explore something I’m calling “eugenic gender,” a very deeply culturally embedded sense that many might not know how to name. Given that the U.S. (and California, in particular) is the birthplace of modern eugenics, we have to understand what cultural norms have been produced through that legacy. Pre-WWII, eugenics in the U.S. had a narrative of “negative eugenics,” or suppressing the so-called undesirable populations. After Nazi Germany, this narrative was seen as less socially acceptable, and mutated into what was called “positive eugenics,” which was focused on promoting the birthrate in the so-called desirable population. This patriarchal, masculinity discourse portrayed virile white men as the epitome of human existence. White men were taught that they were the best thing the planet had been blessed with and that spreading their superior seed was their God-given right and duty. So, if this is an overt or covert cultural narrative, we can see just how challenging it may be to tell people that they must learn to hear “no” and not experience that rejection as a refusal to recognize their racial and gender superiority, an assumption that buttresses so many of our social norms and institutions. And because this version of (superior, white) maleness becomes the standard against which all others are measured in the United States, the ethos permeates into other groups’ norms as well. Sexual or romantic rejection also “outs” the refuser as potentially degenerate, given that anyone should want to pair with someone who understands themselves as superior. Have any of you ever had a man hit on you, you refuse, and then he says, “You’re ugly anyway!”? There is that logic right there. He is not calling you ugly – he is calling you degenerate or undesirable, as any fit woman or person would immediately recognize his value as a man (gentle sarcasm). Some might see this as a stretch in logic, but it comes through clear as day for me. This is also a very reduced account of a complex phenomenon, and in order to be succinct I’ve tried to distill a lot of context into a small paragraph.

7. The U.S. military is the largest organization to have ever existed across the face of the planet. I’m not here to denigrate people’s decisions that go into the military, nor to debate care for veterans – these are important and pressing topics that deserve attention in their own right. Rather, I’m going to talk about some of the overarching, institutionalized imperatives of our military that have congealed over time, precisely because as our largest national organization, we have to understand that the processes of masculinization and weaponization that are fundamental to our largest national organization are also present in the rest of society. While there are clear differences and stark contrasts between military and civilian life, the larger cultural ethos in support of militarized masculinities are pervasive. How does this relate to sexual harm? Firstly, it’s important to understand how endemic sexual harm and harassment are within military contexts, again, our largest national organization and our primary international representative body. We have been taught to take pleasure and pride from conquest and force. This ethos trickles down to our smallest interpersonal interactions in civilian life as well, particularly as we have valorized and romanticized military masculinity for well decades (if not centuries). We have learned to weaponized almost anything in this country: the law, feelings, words, social justice rhetoric, education, knowledge, power, and yes, sex and sexuality. Sexual harassment and other forms of sexual harm are weaponized forms of sexuality, wielded in the interest of – and as an accomplice to – other assertions of power dynamics, including across divisions of race, class, ability, age, citizenship and immigration status, as well as across and within gender groups. This “within gender groups” piece brings me to my last, most contested point:

8. Sexual harm is so normalized in all-men’s spaces that they have trouble seeing how harmful it is when they do it to other genders. As someone who has spent time in all-men’s, all-women’s, all-trans, all-straight, and all-queer settings, I️ have a unique perspective on this subject. As an educator who veers away from judgment and punishment at all costs, and instead focuses on learning/unlearning and responsibility/accountability, I️ have long wondered to what degree my personal ethics have blinded me from fully understanding just how deeply embedded behaviors of sexual harassment are – and bear with me – particularly those experiences by men, at the hands of men. I️ know, already you are squirming, wanting to retort that in a moment where women are coming forward, how dare I️ ask that we consider how men are experiencing sexual harm. Believe me, I️ understand. I️ never would have believed I️ might be sitting here writing these words, and yet my experiences as a feminist, transgender infiltrator of all-male spaces has forced me to reckon with the reality that some of the most intense targets of sexual harassment by men are other men. I’ve recently begun talking with male friends about this more, to name certain behaviors across the continuum of sexual harm (without calling them that) to see if they will share their experiences with me. What I’ve learned from these conversations is that men struggle to recognize the ways that sexual harassment is a part of sociality and hierarchy in all-male groups. And that it’s so normalized. Talking about and making fun of penis size. Nipple twisting. Ass slapping and grabbing. Seriously or joking trying (or actually) putting things up one another’s butts. Drawing penises on one another’s faces while sleeping. Making sexual advances on one another (often when drunk). Having “bro sex” and never addressing it openly and forcing one another into secrecy. The lines between homosociality, homoeroticism, homophobia, and sexual harassment are so fuzzy and permeable.

Additionally, just as we have not fully reckoned with this sexual harm among male peer groups, we have also not addressed other forms of sexual harm men have experienced outside of these contexts. Recently, the CDC updated their survey that assessed rates of experiences of sexual violence because the previous list excluded acts that could happen to boys, men, or other genders who have penises. After adding in the act of being “made to penetrate” someone with a body part, including a penis, rates of self-reported sexual harm reached near-parity between men and women, evidencing a hidden epidemic of silence around our highly gendered expectations of who has survived violence. I encourage you to not lump this observation into the problematic stages taken by “Men’s Rights” activists because I’m naming these realities not to dismiss other genders’ experiences of sexual harm, but to better understand how all genders experience, respond to, and participate in normalizing sexual harm.

We even think that sexual harassment wielded against our enemies is appropriate. How many times have we heard people comment on Donald Trump’s hand size? We all know that the subtext of that insult is the supposition of small penis size. Commenting on the size and social valuation of someone’s genitals in public is a severe form of sexual harassment. Even one of my heroes, Stephen Colbert, is guilty of this on his show, and he is someone who has otherwise been a vocal supporter of women’s voices in the deluge of sexual harassment incidents, and has called out male celebrities and asked them to reflect on their own participation in sexual harm. We are sending out so many mixed messages that it’s almost understandable that so much harm is circulating. Understandable, yes. Acceptable? Absolutely not.

A lot of the work I️ do with youth and adults relates to understanding how we can hear “no” and not respond to rejection with violence or coercion or weaponized sexuality. Meaningful, relevant, and comprehensive sexuality education must contain conversations about consent. It must also include frameworks that help us understand what constrains and shapes people’s ability to participate in consent-creating, including teaching people how to hear “no” and understand that sometimes it is about them, but quite often it’s not. This is just a small piece of a much larger cultural shift that we need around sexuality education (including making it relevant to queer and transgender youth, working class youth, and people who want to have children at young ages), but I️ know it’s possible to incorporate unlearning of the cultural norms outlined above because I️ do it every day. Engaging in ongoing learning that helps us to get at the root of problems by staving off knee-jerk moralism will only help us identify the problems we must address. This is likely the only way we can prevent the forms of sexual harm that continue to limit women, youth, queer people, and yes, men, as we explore new ways to navigate shared spaces in personal and professional settings.

Recomposing Gender: A Musical Note

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I tend to be relatively predictable with the subject matter I post about: current political events regarding issues of gender, sexuality, race, social justice, etc. Today, for one reason or another, it feels necessary to write myself out of a groove, no matter how important or comfortable that groove might be.

Luckily, the new groove I’m momentarily writing myself into is, quite literally, a musical one. Almost four years ago I was in a bike-car accident that left me with some significant permanent nerve damage in my left arm, hand, and fingers. Anyone who has seriously studied violin (or any instrument, really) knows what a devastation this was. After playing violin nearly every day for over 13 years – and continuing to play regularly even after receiving a degree in Music – I have since struggled with my relationship to music. I have even gone long periods of time being unable to even listen to music without becoming uncomfortable.

In the past six months, I have realized that my brain really doesn’t work without music. Having had violin lessons, orchestra rehearsals, music classes, individual practice, and chamber music read-throughs form such large parts of my non-school time (and eventually entering my school time in undergraduate), my growing brain was saturated with musical thought in a way I cannot disentangle from any other form of thought I have today. Language is musical. Street sounds are musical. There is rhythm to everything, even the unpredictable arhythms of jolting, roiling urban landscapes, aleatoric in their creative collisions of people and place, time and space.

As I move into dissertation work academically, studying Education, I’m realizing that part of this work involves digging deep within myself to find what it is I really stand for, what I want to invest this much time and energy in, and discovering what feeds me to do my best work. I was a musician before I was an activist, an advocate, a scholar, or an educator. As I find more focused and ‘productive’ writing grooves, I’m discovering that having a music flow in my daily life is important for waking up my mind and getting the creativity flowing. I make different intellectual connections.

A piece of music I’ve been aurally exploring recently is Max Richter’s Recomposed, which is a post-minimalist, neo-classical work that takes Vivaldi’s Four Seasons as its point of departure, and “recomposes” it. If you are unfamiliar with Vivaldi’s work, I suggest listening to it first, and then listening to Richter. Most people will discover that they have been listening to Vivaldi for years perhaps without ever noticing it. It has gotten to the point that I had even stopped listening to the Four Seasons because I have it memorized – no need for external speakers when my mind-speakers can carry the tune. And that is precisely why Richter decided to recompose the canonical (not in the musical sense! Haha…bad music joke) work. He did it in order that we might listen to it anew.

Richter was incredibly successful in this. I noticed myself listening so very carefully to Recomposed in order to catch all the small and large differences. My ears were perked, eager, excited about the unexpected and new. While listening to Recomposed, I also started drawing connections to how I think about gender, both in the scholarly sense, in the world, and in the work I do with youth around issues of violence prevention.

As Richter has discarded 75% of Vivaldi’s original work, I feel I’ve discarded about 75% of normative ideas about gender. While we’ve both hung onto roughly 25% because of the needs for recognizability (Richter for his own reasons, and for myself, to be seen as somewhat human), the other 75% of our work is that of creative reinterpretation, refusal, juxtaposition, distillation. It’s unfortunate when people only interpret me based on the 25% they recognize, instead of listening more carefully to how I recompose gender right in front of their eyes.

In the more literal sense, music and gender operate in unique ways in my life. While I understand that different music communities provide different possibilities – and that sexism is still so prevalent in the classical music world – I also must share that participating in classical music communities has shaped my perceptions of how men could be differently gendered: passionate, focused, attuned to others, playful, supportive, curious, expressive, driven, leaderly and followerly in seamless transition, collaborative, and more. This collection of traits stands in stark contrast to the normative models of masculinity that pervaded life growing up in Fresno, California. As someone raised as a girl child who has had to figure out what kind of man-appearing-person I want to be, drawing upon these possibilities in my gender memory has been freeing and exciting.

In the past, I’ve been hesitant (and remain so) to write about my personal relationships to genders because I worry that people might think I take my ideas to be prescriptive of others. I think that is part of the problem in many settings: we think others ought to share our relationship to genders. What if we understand genders to be multiple – that everyone does gender differently moment-to-moment. And how we relate to and practice gender is shaped by who is around us. Which men do other men “peacock” around? Which women feel compelled to compliment which other women about their clothing, hair, or make-up? Does a father make the same jokes around his small children as he does around his friends at the bar? Does a genderqueer person behave in exactly the same ways in a women’s restroom versus a men’s restroom?

We are all shape-shifters, to one degree or another. I’m sure some people are much less fluid than others, but I have a hard time believing that transgender or gender non-comforming people are the only people who are not the same kind of man or the same kind of woman in every single moment across their lives. Our genders are quite possibly, in this regard, much less individuated than we think they are. Gender is not only multiple, but it is likely also very, very relational. This is why it is incredibly challenging for me to conceive of gender-as-identity, though I’m not here to discount or denigrate those who do perceive gender as an inner truth. Like I said above, I’m not here to write your groove, or to tune your fiddle. I think it’s best I leave your recomposing to you. Thanks for listening. 

Trans Moral Panic: Let My People Go (Pee)

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Every movement has its moments of backlash. The current reactions to the increased visibility of transgender and gender non-conforming people include presidential campaign platforms that advise against allowing transgender women to use women’s public restrooms legally and safely in some states. These stances also make it potentially illegal and dangerous for an entire spectrum of people read as gender non-conforming to use public restrooms. While laws regulating the mandatory consonance of sex-on-birth-certificate and perceived gender will endanger anyone who becomes the target of gendered suspicion while using restroom facilities, transgender women (described by opponents of gender diversity as “men dressed as women”) are the focus of the current right-wing outcry.

Before writing any further, I do need to take a moment to situate the perspectives and analyses that will follow. I will be making reference to issues of sexual violence. As someone who has committed their life’s work to intervening on gendered violence – of which I believe sexual violence is a part – I offer these reflections in contribution to ongoing public discourse that will hopefully bring us to different moment of agency in better unravelling the ideas, beliefs, laws, relations, and institutions that have locked pervasive forms of gendered and sexual violence in place.

For years, I have discussed issues of sexual agency and sexual violence with middle school and high school students on a weekly basis, and their struggles and triumphs additionally inform my thoughts. I have spent time with dear friends, respected colleagues, and former partners who have survived physically, spiritually, and psychically, with strength, with struggle, with rage, with pain, with shame, with persistence, with silence, with the weight of worlds and histories. All I can say is that I hope my words do not re-injure, and that if they do cause any discomfort, I will do my best to live up to the responsibility of inciting this difficulty. I tread steadily yet cautiously through mine-filled terrain in the interest of demanding more space for collective healing and accountability.

My hopes in today’s writing are twofold: 1) to demonstrate the increasing interconnection of two storied figures: the ‘heterosexual male pedophile’ and the ‘homosexual cross-dressing pervert’* and 2) to illuminate the ways that discussing our national anxieties around pervasive sexual violence are co-opted through the fear-baiting, transphobic rhetoric of right-wing politicians and organizations.

To elaborate on the increasing proximity of the two images of the ‘heterosexual male pedophile’ and the ‘homosexual cross-dressing pervert’ (both images having their own history and production), I want to point to the ambiguity of this hybrid figure, whose reality is thought to materialize in the personhood of a transgender woman, within the current public debates regarding restroom access. This new, combined image is that of a bisexual/queer ‘monster’ of gender and sexuality, able to absorb any and all cultural anxieties and fears of sexual predation, simultaneously dangerous to women, men, boys, and girls, adults and children alike. The right-wing agenda of sexism, homophobia, and transphobia would have us hear this narrative uncritically, to the detriment of building alliances across genders and developing accurate representations of transgender people.

This hybrid, fictional figure – who, I must reiterate, is often confused with actual persons who live as transgender women or other gender non-conforming people – is the ultimate scapegoat of the moment, especially in this presidential election season that is so very much about gender, in so many ways, regardless of whether or not we name those undercurrents explicitly. I am afraid of how difficult this storied image might be to undo in the long-run, and I hope that naming the harm of this fictional figure and teasing apart its component parts might help us to more actively and forcefully intervene on it and name it as the lie and slander that it is, criminalizing and demonizing entire genders in one fell swoop.

Furthermore, current political rhetoric is making strategic use of pervasive anxieties and fears of sexual violence. This “weaponizes” sexual discourse in order to instill (sometimes, or often, understandable) fears and anxieties in a public collective psyche, in which many members are survivors of sexual violence or know people who have been immensely impacted by sexual violence. Politicians, like Ted Cruz, use the threat of future sexual assault to galvanize discrimination against scapegoated transgender women. The creation and manipulation of the conflated images of the pedophile and the cross-dresser (which have appeared together before in the image of the gay male who may both cross-dress and seduce young boys and men – a figure of moral panic that predominated in a past era) are specifically used to harness collective emotional states of pain, anxiety, fear, distress, and trauma around sexual violence for political and financial gain.

All politicians making use of this new moral panic of trans women in restrooms are harming people through this “weaponization” of sex, a term used in Joseph J. Fischel’s recently released Sex and Harm in the Age of Consent. I am arguing that when sex is “weaponized,” or put to violent uses, the speaker is performing an act of sexual violence. Politicians, including presidential candidate Ted Cruz, is performing an act of collective sexual violence through speech. I say this understanding that what I am outlining here cannot be compared with individual experiences of sexual violence that are physical in nature. I would not be so careless as to draw comparisons of this kind, nor to describe these actions as sexual violence in order to lessen the gravity with which we approach the work of working to mitigate sexual harm as it occurs in person, physically.

When looked at this way, we can see just how normalized this form of sexualized rhetorical torture is, en masse. Because of the manner in which this debate came to articulate itself, many working for gender justice struggle to engage in productive discussions across diverse communities of survivors and non-survivors. This occurs because the originating framework and terms of debate incite painful and understandable reactivity. Pain, upset, and anger must have space, and we will continue to work for moments when we can engage in the forms of collective healing that include thoughtful, calm reflection and discussion as well.

As an educator with youth on issues of gendered and sexual violence, these analyses are seen and felt on a weekly basis as I struggle to discuss issues of sexual agency and autonomy, consent and coercion, communication, interpersonal and institutional violence, sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, and so much more with my students. I want to provide them with useful tools and I know that as hard as I try to stitch together some narrative that might sound cohesive, that might make sense, I know I’m also speaking against and alongside all these other overt and covert messages that shape young people’s expectations and tolerance of sexual violence. Back to work it is…

*Special thanks to C.S. for providing me with thoughts and reflections on these important issues. This blog would not have been possible without your valuable insights on gender, sexuality, identity, and violence.

Thrown Off the Transgender Tipping Point: 5 Questions Not on the Agenda

Over the past couple of years, I’ve witnessed the surge in awareness in mainstream culture regarding the struggles of transgender people, what has been popularly referred to as the “transgender tipping point”. I’ve had friends, family, colleagues, and classmates ask me to help them understand new terms, new ways of thinking about gender, and much more. While I usually try to make explanations as clear and relevant as possible, it is remarkably challenging to do so when discussing a category as naturalized as gender.

What do I mean when I say “naturalized”? To put it clearly, gender is a category of personhood that common knowledge tells us is innate and often connected to biology (anatomy, hormones, chromosomes, secondary sex characteristics, etc, abilities, personality, etc.). Some go as far as to distinguish between sex and gender, claiming that the former has to do strictly with biology and the latter to do with socialization or individual identity. While it is outside of the scope of a short blog to go into the decades-long debates about the relationship between sex and gender, it will suffice to say that the distinctions between sex and gender are contested, complex, and culturally specific.

Very quickly we see how challenging discussions about transgender people can become, as immediately we are confronted with decades of overt and covert messages about gender, some of them affirming gender self-determination and other messages denying it, or supporting it up to a certain point. We can also see just how entrenched within a binary we are, that even when given avenues of resistance, we still operate within a two-choice model (male/female or masculine/feminine), regardless of how people actually live their lives and make sense of themselves.

Through work and community involvement, I meet a lot of people who want to learn more about how to support gender diversity and gender self-determination, yet a lot of the mainstream information is confusing, incomplete, and heavily skewed towards representing people who have a consistent claim to one clear, ‘true’, binary gender identity. Are these the only people out there placed under the category of transgender? The word itself (transgender) is often used as an umbrella term to include those who may not even use it, or who may make use of it for momentary or strategic reasons. In thinking about all those who may appreciate a more nuanced approach to the discussion – those both outside of and within feminist, queer and trans communities – I will offer some questions further below to bring to light some ideas that deserve attention.

I firmly believe that people should have the right to gender self-determination. I also believe just as firmly that we should question the very terms of that self-determination, not to limit people’s options, but rather, to expand them. This is the difference between my critical questions and questions that seek to reinforce binary gender norms, or to deny people the right to gender self-determination. This self-determination may appear as a desire to access medical transition, to socially transition genders, to change one’s clothing and affect, to engage in study and reflection, to resist relational expectations in day-to-day interactions, or it may not even be recognizable to others at all.

It is also very difficult to write about my own sense-making of gender, as I know that so many who may be reading this have had to struggle, fighting for the right to exist or to make choices to mold themselves into an image that fits them, that they love to see and feel, that they want others to acknowledge and respect. Simply put, we seek a sense-of-self that feels like home, even if only in fleeting moments. Sometimes it feels impossible to write about gender and not offend, upset, or disrupt; yet disruptions are often necessary in a world that constantly demands obedience to official narratives. I anticipate there are others who do not identify as transgender or gender non-conforming who may also resonate with some elements of the struggles illustrated in today’s post. I write remembering how challenging it has been made to be and become.

Are gender norms the same everywhere and for everyone?

I’ve lived in a number of different places, presenting gender in a number of different ways. From this individual, lived experience, I can certainly say that gender norms shift from place to place, as well as over time. Having been exposed to social change work around the world, I’ve also come to realize that many feminist projects that seek to address gendered violence also fall into the logic of assuming universal gender categories and universal gender struggles. What it means to be a man, a woman, gender non-conforming, intersex (people who cannot be easily categorized as male or female), third gender, and more is so particular from place to place. Given these diverse realities, we also have to see how resistance to gender norms are particular as well, meaning that transgender identities in the U.S. are unique to gender regulation here – which doesn’t mean that trans people don’t exist elsewhere, it only means that they may relate to gender differently than we do. This means that depending on class, race, ability, sexuality, age, language, region, nationality, spiritual practices and beliefs, how a person practices gender and how that gender is recognized and regulated will look different. Our analyses of transgender issues should reflect this reality and we should not universalize transgender, gender non-conforming, third gender, or intersex experiences, and not only across location, but through history as well.

What is gender identity?  

The common response to this question usually illustrates a continuous and clear sense of one’s internal gendered self as either male or female that coheres by age four. While many people may experience this, many others do not. Additionally, the way we use the term “gender identity” is relatively new and dates back to the mid-1900s. Confronted with the failure of the medical establishment to develop meaningful guidelines for deciding how to surgically or hormonally alter the bodies of intersex infants, a few medical professionals decided to rely on people’s own sense of gender, which came to be referred to as gender role or gender identity. After the idea of a stable gender identity became more widely accepted among physicians, alongside the technological advancements in aesthetic surgery and endocrinology, more people began to strategically make use of this narrative in order to pursue medical gender self-determination. People choose to medically transition for a number of reasons: to externally affirm an internal feeling of gender, to achieve increased safety in public because of a history of violence against androgynous people, to seriously experiment with new ways of being, to personally and politically resist gender norms, and much more.

Gender identity also relies on the idea of a mind-body split; a person can have a mental sense of gender that is not consonant with the appearance of their body to themselves and others. This idea has been debated through the centuries within Western cultures, with few conclusions. From my own research into these debates, as well as from exposure to other cultural ways of being and knowing, I’m not convinced that the mind and body are split. Given my own immense psychosomatic connections, I just cannot believe that minds and bodies are not intimately interconnected. Furthermore, I also know that the logic of body-mind consonance may not resonate with everyone – why is there not ideological space to experiment with body-mind dissonance that refuses resolution, and to have those practices and senses-of-self supported as well? New research also shows that the notion of “male brains” and “female brains” creates a false divide, and that no single brain is fully male or female, but that everyone’s mind has a diversity of functions and features, making each person cognitively androgynous to one degree or another.

Where do gender non-conforming, third gender, and intersex youth and adults fit into the picture? 

Increased awareness about transgender people has been important for those who have a clear and continuous expression of binary gender, but it has not served those whose sense of gender is not clear (within a binary framework), who are androgynous by choice or not, who live in third and fourth gender categories within their cultural beliefs and practices, or those who have not been given the right to sex or gender ambiguity or self-determination by medical professionals, parents, and communities. Many cultures, both presently and historically, have had gender categories that were neither male nor female, that were seen as in flux, and that had particular social or spiritual importance. Systems of binary gender do not recognize fluidity and androgyny as legitimate ways of being and thinking, and this has had devastating effects on many youth and adults.

During this time of increased awareness about transgender rights, it is also important that we think about the impact these rigid ideas of transgender and gender identity may have on young people. Childcare professionals can attest to the ways that infants, toddlers, and young children have complex ideas about gender and gender categories. While historically, many have believed the idea that gender identity develops by age four, I have trouble believing that a four year old’s ideas about gender are the same as adult’s – not to place them within a hierarchy, but to recognize that children’s cultures are distinct from our own as adults. One concern I have is that young people will be coerced into not only accepting, but expressing desire for medical interventions on their bodies without being given other options, similar to how intersex infants and children were operated upon without their knowledge or consent. While it is quite complicated to question a person’s claim to gender identity – especially because they are young – it is also essential that young people are given a fuller range of perspectives on gender so that they are not left with either-or decisions that frighten them into claiming a clear sense of gender to assuage adult and community concerns regarding androgyny or experimental gender. Children do have a right to self-determination, but we cannot always take claims to identity to be the final say, especially when translating across age, experience, and biases towards gender normativity. Youth, families, and communities need support when standards of gender are questioned or made unstable.

Are transgender people the only ones with “gender dysphoria”?

Gender dysphoria is a term in psychology and psychiatry used to pathologize a person’s experience of discomfort or uncertainty in relation to expectations of binary gender norms of appearance and behavior. From what I have observed, many people experience gender dysphoria; the difference is that transgender people are given specific medical and psychological language and solutions for these experiences, though non-transgender people – also called “cisgender” – may seek aesthetic surgery or hormonal treatment as well, for reasons not explicitly named as gender dysphoria. Transgender and gender non-conforming people hold the cultural responsibility to explicitly deal with gender dysphoria, which is a very heavy burden to carry, given how many rigid and contradictory expectations many of us hold about binary gender. Working with middle school students has also given me a particular perspective, as I see many similar struggles between middle school-aged youth and adults in transition; I say this not to infantilize adults, but to draw connections between groups of people who are in various states of social and bodily shift and how little support there is to make sense of these experiences and shifts of gender. I’ve been witness, as well, to adult male bodybuilders who similarly obsess over their gender presentation, seeking to portray the ultimate manifestations of Western masculinity. Seeking a sense of gender security seems to be a never-ending battle for so many, and more explicitly so for trans and gender non-conforming people. While the consequences are very different across genders for not fulfilling the expectations of a given gender role (and these are important to learn about), consequences nevertheless exist for us all.

If I’m a feminist, shouldn’t I find out which people are most vulnerable to anti-transgender violence and support them? 

For decades, some feminists have heavily invested in splicing up marginalized groups to decide which ones to support and which ones to silence, ignore, or demonize; simultaneously, other feminists have invested themselves in expanding their approach and methods to solidarity work, leading to important and impactful shifts in politics and practice. Some of these harmful divides have occurred along lines of race, nationality, class, spiritual belief and practice, and even gender. For a long time, many cisgender feminists have discriminated against transgender and gender non-conforming people because they believed some of them to have “masculine energy” that was contaminating their pure feminist spaces. While there are many cultural and spiritual practices that foreground elements of divine femininity, it is also important to problematize these ideas as they are put to use by Western, U.S. feminist communities. Who gets to decide who and what is masculine or feminine? How do our ideas of masculinity and femininity reproduce binary thinking and ignore the complexity of gender for so many?

Cisgender feminists have a long and complicated history of wanting to support groups of people because they claim to identify with the oppression of those groups. This has resulted in the collapse of the struggles of women of color in the U.S., queer women, Third World women’s issues, and many others – including transgender people – into cisgender women’s narratives of oppression, which can often defer to norms of binary gender and heteronormativity. Past and current generations of feminists excluded trans women because they said they were not real women; past and current feminists also accuse trans men of betrayal and of becoming oppressors. We need to learn to distinguish between transgender people asking for resources and attention to address issues their communities face and cisgender people deciding which of these groups are more deserving and more authentic, or even worse, deciding which groups to silence or not based on how much they claim to resonate with a marginal group’s experience. The ground of ‘sameness’ is treacherous and violating; claims of difference can also lead to their own violent ends.  Creating divisions between transmasculine and transfeminine people may make some feel included, and yet it is far more likely to exclude many more others, including androgynous, third gender, and intersex people. We need to “queer” our perspectives on gender, even in feminist, queer, and transgender spaces.

It is crucial that we come to acknowledge the many complicated reasons people present gender in the ways they do, and to resist the cultural compulsion to splice diverse groups into simplistic, binary categories that ignore forms of gender self-determination. Additionally, because it is incredibly difficult to use traditional social science and statistical methods to gain accurate information about different groups of transgender and gender non-conforming people, we should be vigilant and careful as we attempt to distribute attention and resources in ways that do not perpetuate oppression-olympics politics. Learning about a diversity of ways people are harmed by binary gender norms can only help us to better address both urgent and long-term needs.

Confronting androgyny with hospitality is not our strong suit; culturally, we are made very uncomfortable by ambiguities of many kinds in the United States. I can see that when people are confronted with androgyny or gender ambiguity, all the unconscious messages of gender flood into our conscious thought and many of us are made uncomfortable as we struggle to acknowledge just how immensely our perceptions of gender shape our thoughts and interactions with another person. Additionally, because gender is constructed in social and relational settings, how we interact with others based on assumptions of gender also shapes how we see ourselves. Policing gender ambiguity in others is also about policing gender ambiguity in ourselves.

It is my sincere hope that the questions above can come closer to the fore of our increased awareness of gender diversity and self-determination. I say this as someone whose life has been so immensely shaped by gendered expectations and my resistance to them; it can be challenging to discuss because these issues are charged and because people have had to struggle through so much adversity just to be able to stake a claim to a sense-of-self that will be recognized and respected. It is with this in mind that I ask that we all make space to delve a bit deeper into these questions, so that practices of being and becoming do not have to be so constricted or policed by those who benefit most from the imposition of binary gender norms.

“Jail Killer Cops”: Rethinking Criminal Justice Reform

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She sat there looking at me, gauging how honest she could be with her question, before quietly asking:

Mr. Mauro, when they say “justice” why do I hear “revenge” in my head? Like, when they say “We want justice for Michael Brown!” I just hear “revenge” in place of “justice” – why do I hear that?

Mia’jhane was a seventh grader in West Oakland last year. During a short break from a violence-prevention session I was facilitating in her classroom, I was engaging with the young people, asking them if they had heard about Black Lives Matter, and what it meant to them. Some had heard of it, some had not, surprisingly enough, especially given all the direct-action work that has taken place in Oakland over the past couple of years.

But Mia’jhane’s question has stayed with me, even if my lessons on cycles of violence have not stayed with her and her classmates (though hopefully they have, at least with some). Over the summer, I have spent a lot of time reflecting on the overarching culture of retributive justice in the United States, a system that disproportionately harms poor people and people of color. Mia’jhane was pointing out the ways that disempowered communities rejoice when this system of retributive and punitive justice is turned on those who harm them – and she is highlighting her discomfort with the limitations therein.

Let me be clear: I am not here to dismiss the responses of family members and communities to indictments and convictions of police officers who kill armed and unarmed civilians while in the line of duty; when deaths have been ignored and lives have been disregarded, reveling in the recognition provided by our one official avenue for redress – the criminal justice system – makes a lot of sense. Neither am I hear to provide a defense of the abuses of power demonstrated by large swaths of police officers across this nation, abuses that disproportionately harm poor people, people of color, immigrants, and LGBTQ people, as well as people with developmental and emotional disabilities.

I am writing in order to lift up the foundation of Mia’jhane’s question, or what I interpret to be at the foundation of her question: is reliance upon a retributive and punitive system of criminal justice the best and only option? Thinking on this question has allowed me to come up with some of my own, as well:

  • What institutions of retributive justice do we strengthen when we call for the jailing of killer cops?
  • Can we call for prison reform or abolition while also demanding that people be jailed?
  • Do we want to assume the responsibility for deciding who should be jailed and who should not?
  • Does jailing “killer cops” actually allow us to hold police departments, communities, and the United States at large responsible for the racism and classism endemic to all our social institutions? Why or why not?

Many in the U.S. have discussed other forms of justice – the most popular in progressive and radical circles being restorative justice, a diverse collection of responses to violence that includes looking at those harmed, the offenders, and the impacts of violence on entire communities. This form of justice has been discussed by many, and has even been institutionalized in some ways in Oakland public schools, and yet, it still carries some assumptions.

One of these assumptions is that there were pre-existing conditions of safety and justice that need to be restored and that it is possible for those harmed and those offending parties to be able to commit to such a process, which is not usually the case in many of the cases of police officers killing armed and unarmed civilians. Another assumption is that we have communities prepared to hold one another accountable to these often difficult and drawn-out processes that require non-violent commitments to refusing acts of retribution.

Internationally, there are those experimenting with forms of transitional and transformative justice, though these approaches are so particular to each context that it is not useful to delineate them here, given that we have not yet had a national-level awareness that forms of justice outside of our current law are even possible. I encourage readers to investigate different approaches to transitional and transformative justice in areas of ethnic and armed conflict.

Returning to the questions above, I’m thinking about why our calls to jail “killer cops” are both understandable, and not enough. To begin with, our sense of hope in the current justice system has left us asking for steps as small as indictments and convictions of individuals. I say “small” not to dismiss how meaningful the recognition of wrongdoing can be, but because in the bigger picture, holding one individual accountable within police forces where racism and other forms of discrimination are woven into the fabric of their day-to-day functioning does not feel like enough. Allen Feldman, an anthropologist who has studied conflict in Northern Ireland, has said that “arrest is the political art of individualizing disorder.”

If this is not enough, and we push for police re-training or body cameras, we find ourselves in our present circumstances, where municipal police budgets are increasing, especially in places like Oakland, which has a long legacy of police misconduct and corruption, both on the individual and institutional levels. When calls for police indictments and convictions, more training, and body cameras become part of the rallying calls for justice, those requests are easily responded to.

It is my understanding that many are calling for much more than the above. Some are calling for a national reckoning with legacies of racism, and anti-black racism in particular. Many leading the movement work are queer and feminist women of color. To contribute to many of the feminist critiques of past organizing around issues of racial justice, I would like to add my own: jailing individual men has punitive effects on more than just the man.

Poor and working class communities of color have been devastated by the jailing of large proportions of men aged 16-50 years old, and are well aware that the person who is imprisoned is not the only person who is harmed. Is the aim in jailing “killer cops” to punish more than just the officer, or are we also aiming to harm women, children, and entire families as well? Are those people guilty by association?

While the Bureau of Labor Statistics does not keep numbers pertaining to veterans employed in police departments, anecdotal evidence points to estimates that between one third and more than one half of police are veterans, reserve personnel, or national guard personnel. While we discuss the actions of police officers and the enculturated racism and classism of police departments, we must also confront the ways that lack of adequate employment opportunities for veterans returning from overseas – combined with the mental health and social needs for those who have served in combat zones – must be a part of our analyses.

Past research has produced mixed results regarding whether or not education levels impact an officer’s willingness to use force; however, recent studies have shown that there is a significant relationship between officers with 4-year degrees and those who only have high school diplomas when it comes to resorting to verbal and physical force with civilians. I am not writing to advocate that education requirements should be a part of police hiring processes, a practice which is likely to mirror demographic discrimination found in most universities. Instead, I am asking us to consider the ways that education and class privilege contour our popular representations of racist attitudes and behaviors; we think of the high-school drop-out turned police officer who shoots a black man as one of the greatest manifestations of racism rather than the Ivy League-educated executive whose signature condones corporate practices that endanger and kill workers in fields and factories, both in the U.S. and abroad.

I strongly believe that we need to create mechanisms that confront the racism and classism – as well as the sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and xenophobia – that target poor people and communities of color, often with life-ending consequences. I also acknowledge the sense of validation that can come from having the offender, the “killer cop,” brought to justice within the only popular framework that exists in our society.

For me, I cannot also allow myself to remain ignorant of the contradictions that Mia’jhane’s question brings to light. It is important that we make space to discuss these issues and to name the limited avenues for official recourse when institutional class and race discrimination shows up in ways that harm those most vulnerable to homicide at the hands of police officers. And in order to prevent future violence, we also need to see the deep roots of harm that jailing individual officers will never rip up.

Thank you for reading. Part 2 of “Rethinking Criminal Justice Reform” will focus on the challenges and consequences of reducing California’s state prison population, and how the reduction of these state prison populations is impacting Central Valley county jails.