Sometimes a cigar…

Yesterday, in what I can only assume was a ploy to get people to talk about anything besides his own current scandal, New Jersey governor Chris Christie vetoed a bill that would allow trans* people in New Jersey to be issued new birth certificates to reflect their gender without first undergoing genital surgery.  He claims that this legislation would lead to “fraud, deception and abuse, and should therefore be closely scrutinized and sparingly approved.”

US-VOTE-2012-REPUBLICAN CONVENTIONDespite support in both the New Jersey House and Senate, the bill is far from veto-proof.  Supporters are not optimistic that the bill will pass in the near future, especially not in Christie’s New Jersey, where political revenge is anything but rare.

It is not, I would say, surprising that a member of the GOP does not support trans* rights.  For me, that’s not the issue here.  There are two issues that trouble me much more.

First, I’d like to address Christie’s “logic” (quotation marks used very much deliberately) that allowing people’s documentation to reflect their true genders would contribute to fraud.  Does this seem totally backwards to anyone else?  If, hypothetically, I were a trans* man, I have to assume that I would not stop living my life as a man simply because my birth certificate had an “F” on it.  To the average passerby or civil servant, would it not be more confusing and indicative of fraud for my documentation to present a gender that I’m not performing?  Doesn’t it seem like allowing people to claim the gender with which they most closely identify would prevent problems?

But the issue is deeper than this.  The bottom line here is that my penis does not make me a man, and my waking up with a vagina tomorrow would not make me a woman.  People don’t miraculously change genders based on the genitalia they happen to have been born with.  Furthermore, physical sex is no more a legitimate binary than the gender binary, and that idea that penis=man and vagina=woman leaves out a lot of people, most notably intersex people.

Last week, Katie Couric had trans* actress Laverne Cox and trans* model Carmen Carrera on her to show, ostensibly to talk about trans* issues and these women’s upcoming projects.

couric

Instead, the show rapidly devolved into a Maury Povich-style interrogation about the nitty gritty details of gender confirmation surgery and what each of these two women might be packing (or not) under their designer frocks.  Both women did an admirable job of redirecting the conversation and informing Ms. Couric that the

“…preoccupation with transition and surgery objectifies trans people and then we don’t get to really deal with real lived experiences; the reality. By focusing on bodies we don’t focus on the lived realities of that oppression and that discrimination. “

But the point is, they shouldn’t have had to defend their surgical choices.  By positioning genital surgery as the only acceptable marker of “true” gender transition, we ignore the fact that this is not an option for the vast majority of trans* people.  Hormones alone cost insane amounts of money and are often not covered by insurance.  Additionally, trans* people are twice as likely to be unemployed as their cis-gendered peers, making it harder for them to get any kind of insurance in the first place.  We live in a country without universal healthcare or anti-discrimination laws that legally protect LGBTQ people, and we’re demanding that trans* people magically come up with tens of thousands of dollars for gender confirmation surgery?

This is, undoubtedly, illogical and unacceptable in and of itself.  But there’s an even larger problem with this whole line of thought: maybe not every trans* people wants to have gender confirmation surgery.  Many trans* people do not overtly identify as male or female, instead opting for the use of gender neutral pronouns, an option that is unfortunately not legally possible in this country.  Additionally, surgery (and I say this as someone who has had more than his fair share) sucks.  It’s painful, it’s expensive, it’s risky, and it requires that you have time to recover.  There are countless reasons that a trans* person, or any person could have for not wanting to undergo surgery, especially if it will not make a qualitative difference in the way they conceive of their own gender identity.  Why should anyone have to go through a potentially painful and dangerous process to satisfy Chris Christie?

To be clear, I am all for gender confirmation for anybody that wants it.  I also think we should have universal health care that pays for it, but that’s another post.  The point I’m trying to make here is that trans* people, like all  people, should be entitled to the right to do whatever they want with their bodies, and equally important, to define them in any way they see fit.  If the gender and sex binaries were so natural and automatic, we wouldn’t have to keep talking about them all the time, and there wouldn’t be outliers.  We don’t have to walk around shouting that the sky is still blue, just to make sure we’re all still on the same page.

If we have to debate what makes us men, or women, or neither, that points to the idea that we don’t actually know.  I would argue that anybody who identifies as a given gender merits being treated accordingly.  But to be clear, I also don’t know; I’m not trans*.  I have the privilege of not walking around having to justify my gender identity.  What I do know is what doesn’t define our gender.  To adapt a line (erroneously) attributed to Freud, “sometimes a dick is just a dick.”

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B. Scott, B. yourself!

In the past few days, the drama surrounding B. Scott‘s correspondent duties for the 2013 BET awards has reignited with the leak of a series of internal BET e-mails.

B-Scott-Head

In a nutshell (although I suggest you check out the links above) B. Scott is trans* person who first became famous on the Internet and than transitioned into the mainstream.  He uses masculine pronouns while dressing in a “feminine” manner.  BET asked him to be a “Style Stage Correspondent” for the 2013 BET awards.  The day of the awards show, BET demanded that he change from his previously approved wardrobe into more “masculine” clothing and, even after he complied, drastically reduced his role in the show and time on camera (it should be noted that BET had worked with B. Scott on two previous occasions without questioning his wardrobe).  They, at the time, claimed that it was because he arrived late to the event.

before after b scott

Before and After at the 2013 BET Awards

The recently leaked e-mails not only prove that allegations of lateness were false, but that BET planned to discriminate against B. Scott well before the event actually took place.

“I don’t want ‘looking like a woman’ B. Scott,” BET music programming president Stephen Hill allegedly wrote before the June 30 awards show, according to emails obtained by TMZ. “I want tempered B. Scott.”

The network’s vice president, Rhonda Cohen, reportedly replied, “I can speak to him about being less ‘womanly.'”

After Scott made public his allegations of discrimination, BET’s vice president of digital marketing, Monique Ware, evidently advised her colleagues on how to “spin” the controversy, according to another email reviewed by TMZ. 

“The spin should be he was late for a live show and subsequently replaced and it would have been awkward in a live show to have the person assuming his role removed and him inserted,” Ware reportedly wrote.

But then the email suggests that such a “spin” might not be the whole truth: “Unless we can make public the reason we didn’t want him dressed the way he normally does, I would stay away from suits, suit selections, etc.” (from The Advocate.)

Let’s unpack this, because there’s a lot going on here.  Historically, both trans* people and people of color have been pushed to the margins of the LGBTQ community, and we can’t have this conversation without acknowledging that uncomfortable truth.  Today’s LGBTQ movement, at least in this country, is largely the domain of white, gender-conforming gay men.  This has created an (erroneous) idea that there is no overlap between the Black and LGBTQ communities, completely negating the realities of countless queer people of color.

First, let me make it clear that I am neither trans* nor Black.  This entry does not claim to speak for members of these communities but rather to look at this incident as evidence of larger societal issues.  I look forward to feedback from people who know more than I do about the daily lives of trans* people of color in the comments section.

A person like B. Scott causes so much scandal because he refuses to fit anywhere.  His gender identity does not conform to the binary, as evidenced by his choice to use masculine pronouns.  He refuses to be “all the way” male or “all the way” female.  While this sort of queering of gender is subversive in any almost any US context, it is perhaps exceptionally so at the BET awards.  Much of modern hip-hop culture is bound up in ideas of hyper-masculinity, performed through styles of dress, styles of speech, and a discourse of hyper-sexuality directed at women.  Hip-hop masculinity (as well as masculinity in general) has a lot invested in the idea of the gender binary and heteronormativity.

“Ok,” you say, “But that’s hardly news.”  You’re right.  Normative masculinity is always threatened by non-normative gender and sexual identities regardless of racial context.  Nonetheless, one of the things that is especially distressing about this particular case is precisely the racial context in which it plays out.  As mentioned above, people of color are often made to feel unwelcome in the “mainstream” (read: rich and white) LGBTQ community.  And, it would appear that B. Scott and people like him are equally unwelcome at the BET awards.  While we should certainly not take the BET Awards as the definitive measure of “acceptable behavior” in Black culture, such a highly publicized incident at such a highly publicized event will, inevitably, send a message to the people watching that broadcast.

I can’t help but wonder where the future B. Scotts, clandestinely watching the BET Awards in their mothers’ high heels, are going to feel that they belong.  The onus is on ALL of us to make those little queer kids feel welcomed, loved, and supported.  This effort has to come just as much from white LGBTQ culture as it has to come from BET.  It’s up to white LGBTQ people to work to create spaces in which racial diversity is not only accepted by sought after.  This does not mean inviting people into white spaces.  It means completely rethinking queer spaces and working together with people of color to build them from the ground up.

And it’s also up to BET to work to show its audience a world in which a person like B. Scott is not only accepted by embraced as a whole person, not in spite of his differences but because of them.  A media platform like BET has the potential to show millions of people that Black and queer are not mutually exclusive.

But this problem is bigger than BET, and the racial divisions in the LGBTQ community, it’s bigger than hip-hop masculinity.  What I find most distressing about all of this is that, while it’s clear that BET behaved atrociously, and most likely conspired to both humiliate and discriminate against B. Scott, it’s not actually clear that they did anything illegal.  As federal non-discrimination legislation currently stands, we are offered NO protection from employment discrimination based on gender identity or sexuality.  ENDA has only finally come to a vote in Congress after being introduced virtually every year since 1994.  I don’t claim to know the legalities of B. Scott’s particular case, but if he is capable of making a successful employment discrimination claim, he is one of the lucky ones.

We live in a country where it is, federally, entirely legal to look someone in the face and fire them for being gay, lesbian, bisexual, or trans*.  Beyond what tacit and overt messages of discrimination may be sent by BET, or the white-dominated LGBTQ movement, or by anybody else, our own government is overtly putting its stamp of approval on anti-LGBTQ violence.  And make no mistake, folks.  Work-place discrimination is violence.  Being rendered unemployable on the basis of your very being is violence.  Being denied the possibility of gainful employment and then being villanized for using public assistance is violence.

So, while I think BET deserves to pay through the nose for their discrimination, that won’t be enough.  Even if this one event is the flashpoint for a whole new era of LGBTQ inclusive BET programing, and even if the insular white-dominated LGBTQ community miraculously opens itself up to welcome and validate the lived experiences of all our of brothers and sisters, it will not be enough.

That little boy in his mother’s heels will need a lot of things.  He’ll need support, love, and acceptance.  He’ll need to grow up knowing that he’s special, not strange.  But even if he has all of that, and I hope that he does, he’s going to need one more thing: a job.