Saturday, July 30, 2016

Trans Textuality: Dysphoria in the Depths of Medieval Skin


Was the transformation really only skin deep?

Jay Prosser
Second Skins: the Body Narratives of Transsexuality
______________________________
______________________________

A body is enduring transition. It will undergo a transformation that will allow it to signify news genders, new social scripts, and be accepted by the world in new ways. First it must undergo the knife. The surface of the body will be cut up and folded into new organs. These new organs will change how the body is read. Indeed, the body was too often misread or not attended to before the transition. Through these operations on the skin, the body will become recognizable and readable by communities that wouldn’t have given it a second thought otherwise. Yet after the transition, social will insist that the hard work of enduring these changes be forgotten. To be accepted in its new form, the body must pass. This means eschewing the scars that arouse in the depth of its history, the pain of enduring the change, and the dysphoria that continues to disturb the new surface. This is the story of a modern transsexual but also the story of a medieval manuscript.

In a trans textual frame, taking skin from the arm to form a trans man’s penis is not categorically different than taking skin from a sheep or cow to make a manuscript. Both trans bodies & manuscripts can be reduced to the language written on their surface, as though they don’t have stories that are readable in the scars and depths of the skin. The very prefix which transgender has claimed as its own, trans-, suggests that we attend to what is in between the inside and other, to the fluidity of what moves from one side to another, be it verso to recto, man to woman, or existing forever somewhere in between. Post-transition trans experience evidence that changing or affirming a gender never occurs without the past, the other side of the turned page, leaking through the surface. I propose trans textuality as attending to the scars of a text that troubles the naturalness of surfaces and gesture across a history of reconstruction that connects past and present.

Compelled by how transgender and manuscript studies meet at the level of skin, I ask: what might “trans textuality” look like and what could “trans textuality” offer? The answers may be exactly skin deep. Dwelling on this, I begin by returning to Jay Prosser’s argument in Second Skins: the Body Narratives of Transsexuality, to establish how trans lives expresses a depth that resists passing as cisgender even as anti-trans politics works to reduce transgender to a mere play of signifiers and surfaces. Troubling those shallow claims that transgender is only a problem of the present, a moment that will come and go, one that might be scraped away or hidden by the arriving of the next page of history, I push that scholars go deeper into medieval studies, I argue that dysphoric materiality informs a trans textual methodology that looks to the meeting of past and present, verso and recto, foreground and background as enduring tensions in the depths of our history.

Finally, I turn to the recto sides of Fragment VI of the Canterbury Tales to show how the text both promotes fixed surfaces and speaks of a medieval past that is always under reconstruction and always emerging into the present. When turning the pages of the Ellesmere manuscript, the painted images on the vellum do not remain static figures on the back surface of the leaf, but bleed through the porous skin to the verso side. The image of the Physician (113v, lines 55-66) and Pardoner (193v, lines 512-558) transverse into text in their respective narratives on limiting the flow of (alcoholic) substances through the body, suggesting that however sealed flesh may be, skin always leaks. The naturalized the smooth whiteness of the surface is meant to draw reader’s attention to the signifiers written on skin. Yet manuscripts that remind us of its skin-ness, its porous depths, disturb the primacy of surface language like how non-passing trans bodies disturb the peace of gender problems we thought we fixed or sexism we thought we had cut out.

Let me begin by arguing that you cannot cut out the transgender soul. It lives in the skin and goes deeper with each touch of the knife. It endures. After what Time magazine called “the Transgender Tipping Point,” promising unprecedented progress, the murder of transgender persons doubled in the following year and state after state introduces anti-transgender legislation all in an attempt to “Make America Great Again,” signifying, “Make America Cis Again.” Yet in layers of scar tissue, our bodies remember each cut, whether the division was made by nature or nurture, society or self, love or hate. In layers of lives, bound together like leaves in manuscripts our communities remember each erasure of history, whether the scraping was by intention or mistake, progressive or conservative movement. Whenever we make return again to collapse a person, a body, gender, or history into a surface level discourse, our souls speak of the occluded depths.

Trans textuality turns from language of performance to the matter of construction.  Prosses writes “Transsexuality entered the cultural lexicon as a form of extreme (body) transvestism, with the body’s skin as the ‘clothing’ that the subject needed changing” (68). Trans discourse since has moved to the idea of “dysphoria” to describe this tension. In a recent article, I argue for dysphoria as a method of social critique and not just a gender identity disorder, a man trapped in a woman’s body for instance. Dysphoria is about dwelling at that middle point, about dwelling in depths not surfaces. Thus trans textuality involves a dysphoric approach to a manuscript that is at once text and body, foreground and background, present and past, where divisions collide and conflict. Through a trans textual approach to the leaky images and texts of Fragment VI, the skin shows the cost of its fixed surfaces and challenges readers to dwell in the fluidity of textual bodies.


______________________________

______________________________

Theories of Transition: 
Dysphoria, Duration, and Depth

“As the insider joke goes, transition is what transsexuals do (our occupation, as consuming as a career),” writes Prosser (4). As an action, transition differs from other forms of liminality. Transition is not mere existence between marked positions, nor is it a chaotic flow without direction. Transition suggests a trajectory, forward motion, or telos. Yet as trans narratives express, the embodied practice of transition never ends. There are constant slippages backward toward old forms of life. Stubborn material traces endure. Likewise, trans lives often experience glimpses of what is to come. Phantom body parts anticipate breasts to be formed. Desire reaches what the flesh has not yet attained. In transgender culture, the embodied experience of transitional slippage is often called dysphoria. Dysphoria is the material, all too material, experience of enduring change. Yet other things endure change in a similar way. This raises the question, how might other bodies experience dysphoria? How might other flesh do transition?

Understanding transgender (or transsexuality) as an action – a doing – beyond just a state of being allows us to articulate “trans textuality” as a function of manuscripts. The following principles can be surmised: (1) the marks of transition on the surface of skin (ink, scars, text) draw readers away from the present toward an unsettled fluidity of time, wherein the past and present, future and present, exist in open discourse, called depth; (2) skin endures transition through genres of embodiment (eras of time, sex, or gender), forming a continuity of undifferentiated duration on which differences are established; and (3) skin experience dysphoria by enacting slippages between surfaces (past and future, man and woman, animal and object) disturbing the depths of skin with the shades and foreshadowing of duration. From the active doing of transition, arises trans textuality.

Depth interrupts skins sense of being a mere surface with unitended fluifity and porousness, allowing substances from the other side of the skin to leak through. Raymond Thompson’s autobiography, the transsexual person arouse from bed and checked the mirror to find their face covered in blisters. Prosser notes this as a materialization of the body dysphoria Thompson had long complained, of the inside trying to get outside: “vesicles filled bodily fluids bursting up and out from their internal course through to the body’s surface, overflowing their assigned passage” (71). These blisters do not merely descend from the outside but disturb the texts written there (a face is a great textual device for expressing emotion) with news from elsewhere, within, in invisible layers. While discourses are written on the surface of the skin, these blemishes demonstrate that there are discourses that live in the skin’s depths.

Duration names that living ongoing medium from which surfaces are made and through which surfaces transmit. “The making of new transsexual parts (vaginoplasty, phalloplasty, mastectomy) consist in the surgical manipulation of the body’s surface,” writes Prosser, “the grafting, splitting, stretching, inverting, splitting, tucking, sutchering of the tissues” (66). The creation of these new organs from skin changes the dominant signifiers of the body like the adoption of new tropes in a narrative, recoding the persons genre of embodiment. Yet this work, hormones and surgery affect the transsexual skin in a way that makes it appear all surface, covering over the change that the body endures, “altering tissue structure (muscle, fat, breast, genital), redistributing hair, changing skin texture” (66). Trans duration reveals itself to not be the effect of disturbing surfaces but rather surfaces are the product of duration’s division. The body endures the making and remaking of its surface while not being reduced to any single form.

Dysphoria then is the skin’s assertion that a form of its surface is not essential to it, feeling the shades of past or simultaneous surfaces or foreshadowing future changes. “Transsexual subjects frequently articulate their bodily alienation as discomfort with their skin,” writes Prosser, “being trapped in the wrong body is figured as being in the wrong, or an extra, or a second skin, and transsexuality is expressed as a desire to shed or step out of this skin” (68). The blisters on the transsexual’s skin is a physical manifestation of dysphoria, a disturbances in the duration of the current surface that speaks of other desires and suffering in the depths. These blisters insist that viewers do not regard the body as a peaceful surface. It endures torrents. These blisters also insist that viewers do not regard the body as a natural surface. It arises from the depths of a dynamic history. Dysphoria then is not other or extraneous to the meaning of the skin but reveals deeper meaning by setting the trans textual surface within a long duration of transition.

By theories of transition, scholars can attest that trans textuality is not limited to modern transgender discourses, although trans literature and theory can inform how we might view other bodies as also experiencing unnamed depths, duration, and dysphoria. Put in terms of materials made out of skin, such as medieval manuscript leaves, the text on a page gains meaning through what is on the other side. Narratively, the text gains meaning from past events while anticipating future events, drawing characters and emotions towards a desired climax. Visually, readers can grow excited while reading by the shadows of images on the other side of a page, anticipating an illustration to come. To demonstrate how trans textuality plays in medieval manuscripts, I attend to the depths, duration, and dysphoria in the leaves of Fragment VI from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, a text that narratively concerns the cutting, scraping, and reforming of gendered skin.


______________________________

______________________________

The Physician’s Scraped Surfaces

Reflecting the scraped and clean surface of the manuscript, Virginia’s “lilie whit” and the Pardoner’s smooth skin in Fragment Vi evidence bodies forced to be clean surfaces, containing the fluidity and porousness of sexuality and gender respectively. The Physician's Tale presents the preservation of Nature's unblemished and pre-penetrated skin as justifying the operations that cut her flesh and end her life.[i] Virginia, the Tale's exemplary body, “In which that Nature hadde swich delit. For right as she kan peynte a lilie whit, And reed a rose, right with swich peynture / She peynted hath this noble creature."[ii] It is in defense of this white surface as a non-porous body that will not allow seminal fluid to run through it that she is sealed by a knife to the throat. In death she becomes an eternal virgin. She is all surface for anxious social texts of sex and sexuality, cutting away the erotic feelings, porous openness, and uncertainty living inside this skin.

Trans stories offer language for the construction of sexualized (or desexualized) and gendered surface identity through the work of blades on the body, from the surgical removal of a woman’s clitoris to the reconstruction of intersex genitals. By the 1950s, doctors developed the concepts of “pre-“ and “post-op” bodies. This formula long existed as an oppressive demand on trans bodies to pass by obfuscating the depths of the past, the suffering they’ve endured, and the dysphoria that may persist. This language could also be used to refer to the loss of Virginia head as a way to make her pre-sexual state a page that will never be turned. Conversely, the Pardoner evidently lives “post-“ some kind of gender transition that we will never be able to turn back to see. The goal of these operations was to turn the trans body into a passable, flat, normalized, forgettable surface on which social scripts of gender can be written without resistance.

The Physician’s Tale most candidly reflects the meaning of the text written over the locations in the manuscript where the images of the Physician and Pardoner leak through the surface, with both passages concerning the importance of sobriety and not letting the body become porous. On the recto side of 113v, over the Physician’s image lines fifty five to sixty-six praise a woman for her constancy and sobriety, warning her “To dryve hire out of ydel slogardye,” because “Bacus hadde of hir mouth right no maistrie.” Likewise, on the recto side of 193v, over the Pardoner’s image, lines 512-558 praise a man for his constancy and sobriety, warning “whan man so drynketh of the white and rede / that of his throte he maketh his pryvee / thurgh thilke cursed superfluitee.” This drive to contain the body is an attempt to make it all surface, a skin through which no porousness runs. It fears alcohol because not only will the drink pass through but it can inspire many other liquids (vomit, urine, shit, semen, and vaginal fluid) to flow.

The sealing of the body attempts to collapse the depth of skin into pure surface. A pure surface lacks porousness. Pores turn the skin into a medium, a byway, a deep thing. Pores evidence an internal life, full of desires, hurt, and refuse. As pure surface, the open pores or orifices through which fluidity can flow between inside and outside are sealed. This sealing benefits those who claim “maistrie” of the body. The outside wants the body to be only what it says it is, what discourse writes across its surface. The skin is not a skin but a surface, it disappears into the background to serve the master’s text on the surface. To acknowledge the depth of the skin would be to acknowledhe that “maistrie” over the body is impossible. At best, “maistrie” must be shared with the body. The skin introduces its own matter and meaning to the surface. This must continualy be scraped away, erased, and forgotton in order to enact “maistrie” over the skin, returning it to a surface state.

The challenge Virginia poses the narrative is one of duration. As she reaches adolescence, by force or choice she may no longer be a virgin. That she might allow sexual fluids and body parts goes against the “maistrie” of her Father’s claim on her. The threat of rape reminds her father that her body might endure violent sexual agency without her intent or consent. So long as it is a living body, her skin will be actively porous. Virginia requires orafces to allow oxygen, food, and even enjoyment to enter her body and carbon dioxide, waste, and secretion to exit. The Physician’s worry over “hir mouth” evidences an anxiety how any of these orifices might be used. The resulting plan then is to push Virginia’s endurance to a breaking point, killing her, so that she might leave material life behind and be an eternal signifier for virginity. Ironically, it is the revelation of the dead body that endures which is used to substantiate this transcendence.

The Physicians story and doctrine on abstinence cause anxiety on their objects. Whether it is the command that bodies remain sealed to fluidity being written on skin that is evidently leaking images through its depths, or the father who claims “maistrie” over his daughters transcendently sealed virginity with the revelation of a dead body leaking from the neck wound where he penetrated her with his sword, the flattening of a body into a surface inevitably causes some form of dysphoria. Whether it is the specters of the past or the fear of future actions, the Physician’s section of Fragment VI is a dyshoric narrative being written on a dysphoric object. Yet through the trans textual leaking of ink and affect, readers of the manuscript come to see more in Fragment VI than a surface. As a result, the medieval manuscript trains modern readers to question what depths, duration, and dysphoria may exist in bodies that society tells us to flatten. From such object lessons, we might become better readers of trans bodies, medieval and post-medieval.


______________________________

______________________________

The Pardoner’s Leaky Skin

While the Physician’s Tale ends up in violence that works to seal off the past and future, this violence is replayed in Fragment VI when the Host, drunk from porousness, draws a blade on the Pardoner to seal his semen and scrape him clean with castration. Thus the Pardoner comes to be identified with Virginia, yet in his trans-ness, as a body that openly admits it contractedness. "No berd hadde he, ne nevere sholde have," narrates Chaucer, "As smothe it was as it were late shave."[iii] The invocation of shaving underlines the operation of a blade on the body as producing feminine virginal skin of this "geldyng”/”mare" either from a "shave" to the face or a "shave" in the form of castration. This shows an awareness of how skin and hair are not only works of Nature but of surgery. 14th century people knew the effects castration on soft-tissues.[iv] Castrates develop smoother skin.[v] This knowledge is key because is calls out the history, contractedness, and fluidity of bodies like the Pardoners and through him like Virginia.

The question arises, can you cut out the sexuality of Virginia or the gender of the Pardoner. What else endures? Prosser asks, “If skin is a mask, where is the self in relation to the body’s surface? … Was the transformation really only skin deep?” (62). Yes, Prosser decides, but only if we consider the depth of skin and not only what is written on its surface. The answer must be that the self exists within the skin but not as a mask, not as surface only. Prosser looks deeper into the idea of “skin ego” (the self in the skin), “skin as the primary organ underlying the formation of ego… the interface between self and other” (65). If skin is an open system, a juncture through which inside and outside flow, then the “self” is not the “self” without the other. The dysphoria of trans textual body arises out of the violence on the surface and the violence that endures in the depths.

The open artificiality of the Pardoner suggests depths of past transitions that are not foreclosed by the definite transcendent surfaces. The meaning of the smooth skin is not declared but Chaucer’s speculation points to the work of blades of the Pardoner’s trans body, “late shave.” By the work of scraping is the Pardoner’s skin made a smooth surface, much like the skin from which Fragment VI is composed. There is a past suggested here that we do not see to the bottom. There is a gender here that leaks through but darkly like ink through a manuscript leaf. The Pardoner may be a “geldyng”, a castrated horse. Or the Pardoner may be a “mare,” a female horse. Likewise, Fragment VI used to be an animal. But now, the new surface that the skin has become does not tell us distinctly. The surface of skin can only suggest its depths.

The knife threatened against the Pardoner echoes past “shave[s]” that might have been directed as the face or the bollocks, suggesting a sense of all they have endured. When the Host says to the Pardoner, “ I wolde I hadde thy coillons in myn hond,” it is hard not to hear echoes of the violence endured by other communities who exist in similar oppressive societies. Within the Pardoner’s prologue and tale, there are many knives being used. It starts with the knives that may have cut the Pardoner’s face and bollacks. Then there is the knife one brother uses to kill another in the Tale. As the violent end of the Pardoner’s Tale, where the Host’s threat is placed, readers would directly hear a continuation of the violent end at the end of the Physician’s Tale, endured by a young woman at the hands of an older man. Likewise queer and trans readers, would feel a sense of continuity from the medieval and modern era with the threats endured. What may be a surface threat hits on a long duration of violence in the past and future.

The Pardoner’s Tale and Prologue’s skin contains too much meaning in the face, the balls, and manuscript, creating a sense of dysphoria in the text. While the Pardoner’s surface identity is presented in thurough candor, from how he does his work and why, it is the past and the future of his story which is troubled and multiple. Readers do not know what is going on in the depths and folds of his skin. Even the drunken threats of the Host point back and defy the Pardoner’s instruction to seal off one’s body from alcohol, drawing readers to think back on past pages where the ink leaked through the skin. The image that bleeds through from the depths of the skin give matter and meaning to the Pardoner’s dysphoria. Contrary to the message of the smooth clean white virginal skin of Virginia, the Pardoner’s section of Fragment VI reveal how all skin exists in a trans textual relationship to depths, durations, and dysphoria that others work to scrape away.

Let me conclude by again arguing that you cannot be cut out the transgender soul because it lives in the skin and gets deeper with every touch of the knife. One can cut up or shave a body but like a manuscript a body can never be all surface. Skin will always allow glimpses of history and even the future, what is on the other side of the page. The hurt in the skin is too deep. Our modern white, cisgender surfaces always reveal the medieval cost of its making, our erasure of #translivesmatter and #blacklivesmatter under the surface of #alllivesmatter always show signs of past violence. It rises to the surface like ink in a manuscript, like purple and black blood through pages we thought we turned. Beneath veneers of polite racism and polite transphobia rests rage that learned speak with deniability. Beneath our textual smoothness, our skin screams with scars of remembered history. And trans textuality insists that surfaces without depths, whiteness without color, cisgender without transgender, peace without justice, is always only skin deep.

______________________________

______________________________

______________________________

______________________________

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Queer Disability Day: Transliterature Returns to the White House


"There is no way we will ever achieve justice
without recognizing these intersections...
that are written all over our bodies, our souls, 
our minds, our life experiences"

Finn Gardiner
_________________________
_________________________

History

Today, July 28th, 2016, I sat beside my partner and listened to Sarah McBride become the first transgender person ever to address the Democratic National Convention. While she marked the significance of this moment in history, her primary concern was to call on Presidential nominee Hillary Clinton to keep to her promise to bring the nation back from the deep hatred being directed at the transgender community, "in our laws and in our hearts." An important part of McBride's address was the intersection of disability and transgender in her family's life and politics. During McBride's short speech, she remembered her husband, a transgender man, who died of cancer only days after they became married. For them, the terminal status of illness compounded the terminal status of being transgender in America. This is their truth but also the truth of countless members of the LGBTQ and disability community. Each of these cultural identities and circumstances come with social prejudice as well as needs that require a wider community for support. By the end of the address, lasting only a few minutes, both my fiance and myself were fighting tears. We understood first hand how the intersection of transgender, queer, and disability politics on the national stage has the potential to change history, policies, and community.

A month ago, on June 27th, 2016, I was handing my identification to secret service personnel at the gates to the White House as they pulled up my invitation for the Forum on LGBTQ and Disability Issues, nicknamed LGBTQ Disability Day. In many ways, my return to the seat of the Federal Government was an uncanny replay of my first invitation. I was trying hard to maintain a professional, confident look while being wracked by uncertainty as I waited in line, asking myself, "did the White House really mean to invite me to discuss the state of the country?" In other ways, this second visit was substantially different both in terms of the event and my role. In my first meeting, Champions of Change, I was invited as an author and literature critic to discuss my story and the stories of other transgender persons among a room of writers, filmmakers, and television professionals. This time, I was invited as a scholar and consultant on the intersection of transgender, queer, and disability issues, to share ideas and tactics with policy makers and community leaders. The freshly of the experience for me was echoed by the event. This was only the second time that such a forum was being held at the White House. It is only recently that the President's White House would call for such an event where transgender and disability are given such a central place in discussions of the Federal Government.

Marking the recent breakthroughs in the politics of LGBTQ and Disability communities, our forum also served to mark the President's declaration of the Stonewall Inn as a National Monument.  This was the first time that a specifically LGBTQ site was honored as an United States monument. Furthermore, the new status meant that  as a part of the national park service, the site would be preserved and curated by a specially devoted staff for perpetuity. This ensured that the progress towards justice was not just full of moments but enacted an ongoing movement connecting the past, present, and future. As the declaration was announced, I looked around at the room filled with LGBTQ and disability activists from across many generations. There were those with friends and family at Stonewall, those who fought for HIV/AIDs research, those who fought over the policies that became the American's with Disability Act, those who pushed for and ushered in Marriage Equality, as well as those fighting for causes in the transgender, intersex, and disability community that are yet to gain wide recognition in the public. It was evident that this is not the room where history is merely celebrated, those in this room make history happen. As a historian myself, I've long felt that a historical perspective is not one of passive recognition but of active participation in a web of ongoing struggles that implicate us across time.

It becomes more certain every day that my children will grow up in a country much different than the one I inherited. As mothers, my partner and I try to curate for them history as it is being made and remade. We will take them to the Stonewall Monument and give it to them as a piece of their history. This will involve assisting them in getting to the site as well as understanding the text they cannot read or images they cannot understand. And we will fight alongside those at the 2016 Forum on LGBTQ and Disability Issues to ensure that such locations continue to become more accessible to peoples with a wider range of embodiments. Because when we are older, maybe not even much older, our children may be taking us to the monument with the hope that their blind mother, hard of hearing mother, or their mother in a wheel chair can continue to experience that history with them. The act of making history is always a collective one. History is reaching across boundaries of time, space, and differences in life experience. In this work, the work of assuring disability access is central to making history. The declaration of a monument is not the end of a road of progress but a commitment to an ongoing collective struggle.


_________________________

_________________________

Policy

The Forum was split into two major topics: policy and community organizing. Speakers were chosen for each half to lead the conversation and introduce main topics. The first discussion to begin was government and business policy regarding LGBTQ and Disability issues. None of the chosen leaders were legislators but all had some direct role in consultation, advocacy, or the writing of laws. The moderator, Curt Decker, Executive Director of the National Disability Rights Network, humorously observed that the discussion was "a little heavy on attorneys... but that's okay." In a couple instances, such as Senior Policy Advisor from the US Department of Labor's Office of Disability Employment Policy, Day Al-Mohamed, their job was to advise the Federal Government, White House and President on issues relating to these marginalized communities. Also speaking was Professor Chai Feldblum, Commissioner of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission who was instrumental in drafting and negotiating the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 and the ADA Amendments Act of 2008. Feldblum told the story of the development of the ADA from AIDs Initiatives led by the queer community and the conversations where gay leaders insisted that AIDS legislation could not be effective and just without addressing the disability community. Updates were given on where various initiatives have succeed and where they have failed. This included a variety of resources with the room, including best practice programs and recent research. Statistics were shared with the room, such as the current number of homeless youth that are LGBTQ in general (40%), nearly half, and transgender in particular, (7%). Likewise, the number youth in foster care who are LGBTQ (20%), around one in five. In the world of government, business, and policy, these statistics are powerful in pressing the gears of the system towards change. That is the value of holding a Forum such as this, where initiatives can begin, stories can be told, and these numbers can get to those who can do some good with them.

A moment of silence for those killed and injured at the Pulse Nightclub shooting set the tone for the first half of the discussion. With many of those present knowing members of the community in Orlando, the danger and need was freshly evident for such conversations happening at the highest levels. The leaders recognized how the tragedy and its relate conversations embodied the intersection of LGBTQ and disability issues. On the one side, it is only ever a brief time after a shooting before the media turns to "mental illness" or even "mental disability" as a root cause for such violence. This reinforces stigmas that holds that everyone with mental illnesses or disabilities are therefor prone to violence. Yet it also opens up the possibility to discuss the utter failing of social support and care for those with certain illnesses. What cultural forces may drive a person to consider violence? How might a society that instills hatred (even self-hatred) of queer and transgender persons incite someone to acts of destruction? How might shame around mental illness dissuade someone from getting help? On the other side, because of the shooting, many of those who survive will not experience first hand the intersection of queerness and disability. What does it mean to be gay in a wheel chair? How does one navigate sex with chronic pain? How might homophobia compound recent mental traumas? In any case, the shooting makes evident how support for disability justice is an import part of LGBTQ justice and how support for queer justice is a natural extension of disability justice. Now, more than ever, we need to use collectivity to overcome the symptoms of hate, fear, ignorance, and division.

Addressing the many queer victims of the Orlando shooting who will be joining the disability community for the first time, Feldblum asked, "will they understand their lives are still worth living?" In other words, one can become disabled yet not affirm membership in the disability community or affirming a positive, disability politics. The process of coming out and claiming pride in one's sexuality may now need to be repeated because of one's embodiment. This will begin with attending to the ableism in the queer community and in queer self-perceptions. Many of the speakers noted the long road in policy making that has required significant cultural shifts in order to move forward. Al-Mohamed noted how the disability and queer justice movements "share similar pathways" in the movement of these identities as (1) something (2) to hide to something (3) to fix to something to accept (4) to something to include. These turning points often hinge around the constant need to widen conversations from individual struggles to environment prejudices. LGBTQ and Disability Justice demands that we learn to see violence and marginalization on a systematic level, with interpersonal conflicts existing as symptoms of a wider disease. This means being able to see how systems are built with homophobia, ableism, transphobia and other biases built into how they operate or what their perceived goals are. "You can change all the structures in the world and if the people who make those structures continue to hold bias and animus and oppression and prejudice inside them, they will recreate those systems even if they don't intend to." She called for the redirection of the resources used to fight terrorism oversees to addressing the "body terrorism" in this country being directed at people with disabilities, people of color, bodies that are trans, bodies that are queer.

At the end of the policy section, a colleague of mine stood up and asked, "when will we stop applauding the White House and start annoying it?" It was a question asked out of frustration over the snails pace and often swerving away from justice on the road of change in government. Many in the room echoed the same groans. One response to the question came from a policy maker told his long history of activism beginning in the AIDs Crisis. "We have been annoying the White House for a long time and the change has come at an incredibly slow pace," he admitted, "but we need to keep up that annoyance and we can't despair." Another person responded to my colleagues demand for action but acknowledging the need for partnership between policy-makers who deal with the slow grind of government and grassroots organizers who deal with the immediate needs and suffering of communities. With that reply, the policy meeting broke up and we were able to exchange thoughts and feelings while the Community Organizer meeting was being set up. The question hit at tensions between the two groups: how we speak, who we are, and the rate at which we tend to get things done. The critique issued by my colleague was especially resonant with activists and scholars whose job is to engage with the immediate needs and stories of people outside the walls of government.  While we were lucky enough to be invited into the room where government conversations happen, most of us would have to step back out among our friends and family, those in need and those dying, and we will be accountable to them. We will have to answer for the government we advised and its slow responses. It is our job on days such as this to think the slow thoughts of government but to feel the immediate hurt of society. In the end, it is our job to be annoying and the White Houses's job to continue to invite that annoyance, and do something with it.


_________________________

_________________________

Community

When the leaders of the Community Organizer meeting started, we heard the stories of many different activists, most of whom were transgender (including non-binary, gender queer persons), people of color, as well as crip. All of the leaders chosen to stand and tell their stories evidenced something most of those in the room already knew. Our political fights are intensely personal. A non-binary writer and librarian, Cyree Jarelle Johnson told how their life-sustaining medical care has been many times halted and insurance payments denied because healthcare providers refused to recognize the authenticity of documents that represented the complexity of Jarelle's gender. These systemic fissures around how gender and illness are managed often ignore the immediate costs of those abandoned in the cracks. "Their mistake could cost me my life, what does it cost them?" asked Johnson. Furthermore, Johnson stressed the high percentage of autistic people of color or queer homeless people with mental illness killed by police. These are not statistics on a legislator's one-sheet, these are members of Johnson's community. As another member and advocate in the autistic community of color,  Ma'ayan Anafi, policy consular for the National Center for Transgender Equality, echoed the same intimacy and immediacy. Anafi spoke on the pressing need to address the day to day discrimination of LGBT and disabled people which results in lives lost and lives locked away in a cornucopia of oppressive social mechanisms, "police brutality, mass incarceration, and the school to prison pipeline." Each day we wait to turn silence into debate, debate into policy, policy into laws, and laws into action, more lives are lost. If we seem frustrated or annoying, it is because we come to this Forum with friends and family at home dying.

Too often, misunderstanding the reason behind the anger, those used to the slow trod of government find the intensity of activists to be petty. "There is a stereotype of the crazy trans woman that is used to silent trans women," says Martela, "but it is true that trans women are suffering mental illnesses that is the direct result of the oppression they are faced." This pressing precariousness was repeated in the stories Greta Gustava Martela about her life and the life of others who call her Trans Lifeline network. With between 40-50% of transgender persons attempting suicide, the community does not have time to wait around for incremental change. If 40-50% of cisgender people were dying off, State and Federal governments would not be delaying help or actively worsening the conditions of the community. "Suicide is something that happens in isolation," Martela told the Forum. This means that it is not enough to address the concerns of those invited to a room in the White House. Because most trans people become isolated not by choice, because of mounting oppression, they could never travel to Washington DC if they were invited. "Many transgender people feel afraid to leave their houses," Martela reported. Despite the many travel demands of my word, this was a truth that I have personally experienced when I don't have the energy to risk myself or weathered myself against the antagonism of those I encounter on the streets or public transit, in homes or businesses. We must constantly be considering who is not in the room, who does not have the power or the time to travel and make their voices to be heard. That means going slow and listening when activists and community members speak, discerning the countless silenced voices echoing at their back.

Beyond the intensity of the speech, listening can be difficult because of the many different levels at which a voice resonates. A significant theme throughout the community organizing portion of the forum was about the role of intersectionality in the lived politics of LGBTQ and Disability issues. President of the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network of the Greater Boston Area, Finn Gardiner, recounted the time spent homeless and otherwise abandoned outside government safety nets because he is a black, queer, trans, autistic disabled person. He told stories about being called rational slurs in a classroom for kids with disabilities, discriminated against by black and gay men in a homeless shelter for being trans, outcast from a community because he is autistic. "You think I would fit in," said Gardiner, citing how his many intersectional identities open many roads for shared experiences, yet he is too often marginalized because of other elements of his identity. There is expectations for him to be outgoing because he is black, he confesses Gardiner, but that conflicts with the whole image of who he is. Discrimination never happens because of all his identities at once but neither does acceptance ever cover all of his identities. These labels are often too quick and too small. Intersectionality is a complex word that signifies the complexity of every particular person by acknowledging how all these smaller words exist in a shifting constellation. This lived and every changing complexity means that we need to meet people where they are at and listen better to understand the many places they have been. Only by dwelling at intersections can we hear the many different directions a person is speaking. From this information, we need to make communities and policies with roads forward for each different person.

As the Forum came to a close, the issue of intersectionality exploded the conversation with Forum leaders taking turns to nuance the idea. It is a privilege not to have to talk about intersections, admitted Martela, "to be able to talk about the one thing." This is a privilege not possessed by most of the speakers at the Forum and many of those outside the White House. "I don't think that people are allowed to live at all their intersections," Johnson with a Pokemon reference. "People look at you like you are trying to 'collect them all,' like you have to have all the problems." Adding to this, Anafi warned against the 'collect them all' model of intersectionality, insisting that it does now come into being by merely adding one identity with all its baggage to another. These identities are directly linked. Currently proud to claim themselves as gender non-binary, Johnson recalls being allowed to live as a gender non-conforming person because they were diagnosed on the Autism spectrum at three-years-old. If we utilize these enfolded identities, where intersectionality is central, we can multiply the avenues through which we relate and care for one another. "There is not a sharp line between those calling the [Trans Life]line and those staffing the line... We are creating disability in the trans community by the ways we are treating them," declares Martela. "Overwhelming, the people who are staffing Trans Lifeline are disabled trans people." As a way to close the Forum, this last point strikes across the personal, immediate, and intersectional emotion at the heart of such work. Community Organizing is how a people who are suffering help each other and help themselves. Yet this is not enough, without allies in the policy world who have the privilege to offer different forms of power, these organizations will remain relatively small and contingent on volunteers. Until the local is able to better speak with the global, change will remain unacceptably slow.

_________________________

_________________________

Afterward

It is a few hours later now, McBride has surrendered the stage to presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. If Clinton is elected, her White House will be different than the one to which I was invited. We count on that when that unimaginable thing happens every four to eight years, when one President steps down and another steps up. We count on there being a difference, we count on change. It will be different because she is a white woman and President Obama is a black man. It will be different because 2008 to 2016 will not be the same as 2017 onward. We count on change, we hope for progress. In 2016, we hear the Democratic nominee saying things we did not hear in 2008. We hear a full throated commitment to LGBT justice. We hear more about disability justice. We hear her talking about the hard road to affordable medicine, mental health assistance, and social access. "To make real change happen," says Clinton on the right of disabled children to public education access, "you have to change hearts and you have to change laws." If we believe that voting a person into office matters, we need to believe that the next White House will be different. If President Clinton invites me, I will come back. If it comes to it, if President Trump invites me, I will come back. But whatever the White House, whoever lives and works there, I will not fight to make America *something* again. I want change. I want to make America trans, not cis again. I want to make America queer, not straight again. I want to make America crip, not decry "Crippled America." That was why I went and why I return to the White House, because who enters the room where things happen changes the nature of the room and what happens. And I hear that sentiment, the same sentiments expressed in both of my recent visits, just now be repeated at the DNC with the words, "Americans don't say, 'I alone can fix it,' they say, 'we will fix it together'." That is a mission that I want to continue to be a part.
_________________________

_________________________

_________________________

_________________________

Monday, July 25, 2016

Transphobic Technologies: Body Scanners and TSA Gatekeeping


"I am being held by the TSA in Orlando 
because of an "anomaly" (my penis)...
I am finding out this is completely routine 
for so many trans people."

Shadi Petosky
_________________________
_________________________

Gatekeeping

"So why do you wear these?" asked a TSA agent as she held up a pair of my panties for anyone walking through the airport to see. Matching word to deed, the Orlando, Florida airport worker was pitching a barrage of prying questions as she prying through my personal belongings. She had just finished a thorough pat down, including multiple gropings of my genitals and ass. I was in the process of returning from a conference where I had given a talk on social discrimination experienced by the transgender and disability community. As I went through airport security, I experienced this gatekeeping first hand. After I passed through the body scanner and been groped by the TSA staff, they had pulled me aside to tell me that they would need to do a more thorough examination. It was then that I was brought to a semi-private area (a short wall that most people could easily see over or around) where a team of ciswomen unzipped my bag and proceeded to interrogate me on the contents. They had firmly silenced me throughout the unwanted touching of my body and the public display of my intimates through implicit suggestions that I was being considered as a potential terror threat. Immediately it became evident, however, that their questions had nothing to do with me being a potential threat to the general sense of security but me being an actual threat to the general sense of gender. My small bottles of fluids (sunscreen, toothpaste, etc.) did not gain any attention but my underwear, swim suits, and make-up were each questioned in turn. Each article seemed to be equally a puzzle and an assault to her because I owned them. What would have been a natural element of her life, as a cisgender woman, seemed out of place in my life, as a transgender woman. The implicit statement was not so much that she did not understand these instruments of femme life but that she was using them as an avenue to critique me.

"Do you date men?" she asked, beginning a line of questioning about my sexuality. "I have a girlfriend," I informed her. This seemed to make things worse, although it was hard to tell what I could say that would end this invasive situation in which she held me. "But if you date women," she continued, "why do you dress like a woman?" She was still fingering through my dresses and intimate apparel while she pushed me on my relationships. "Because I am a woman," I explained simply, "and they like to date women." The need to state the obvious facts of my life made it all the more clear to me that I was not only being targeted for being transgender but for being queer. Her fixation on my sexuality made it clear that she did not understand lesbians anymore than she understood transwomen in general. Nor could she discern the difference between gender and sexuality. "But wearing women's clothes, don't you get more attention from men?" she pushed. "Yes, I get attention from men, women, everybody," I confirmed. She did not catch my double meaning when I said "everybody." Despite her implicit trans- and homophobia, clearly she had found me in some ways overwhelmingly interesting. Had I felt free to push her back, I would have asked if she did not find her groping hands on my genitals, her thumbing through my panties, and her probing interrogation on my sexual habits to be a form of perverse eroticism. Could I make her understand that the targeting and treatment of transgender persons by the TSA constituted a kind of systematic sexual abuse and sexism.

Sexual abusers are not always so oblivious that what they are doing may be wrong. Throughout the TSA agent's investigation, her partner remained next to her, silent but evidently disturbed by the levels her associate was taking her invasion of my personal life. At certain questions she would roll her eyes or make a face, mostly for my benefit because her partner was not paying her any mind. When she started in on my sexuality, the silent TSA agent did make some disapproving noises. But the investigator would wave her off with dismissive phrases, "I'm just asking her a question," or "I just want to know." While the gestures from the other TSA agent were perhaps made to comfort me with signs of alliance, in many respects it only showed that what was happening was worse than mere ignorant curiosity. First, the TSA knew what they were doing was beyond the stated goals and methods for which the agency was founded. They have been called out by the trans community and by their own agents yet they continued to extend their reach. Second, not only was the TSA agent using her position of power to hold me still and silent but even someone who had a greater degree of power in the situation, another cisgender TSA agent, could not stop the invasive probing. Whatever the exact nature of the personal and professional pressure that came along with the questioner's dismissal of her co-worker, it was clear that there was a system of oppression backing up the abuse. Beyond the personal intents or pleasures of the agent, the TSA ideological gatekeeping machine not only permitted but used this agent as an instrument to enact anti-trans, anti-queer agendas. This was one way of showing the transgender community that an adversarial cisgender community maintains direct power over their bodies, possessions, and stories.


_________________________

_________________________

The Case of Shadi Petosky

A couple years later, another trans woman, Shadi Petosky, was pulled aside by the TSA at Orlando Airport. While I had been silenced during my isolation and probing, Petosky took to twitter to live-stream events as they quickly escalated. Like me, the situation began with the body scanner, which signaled that it had caught a trans body, resulting in her being brought away by the TSA. "I am being held by the TSA in Orlando because of an "anomaly" (my penis)," reported Petosky at the start of her series of tweets. "I didn't know how to spell anomaly until today," she later admitted. Next, Petosky found herself brought to a private cell for containment. "The TSA has left me in a room alone. There is an officer holding the door," wrote Petosky. Once the TSA had her alone, they began directly policing her gender, insisting that she submit to their diagnosis of her sex as male. "TSA agent Bramlet told me to get back in the machine as a man or it was going to be a problem," continued Petosky's report. When Petosky refused to gender herself as male, the TSA then escalated the event by calling in a police officer who continued to press her to disclose her genital sex. "Cop asked me what sex I was. I told him I wasn't going to answer that question. I am complying but come on," wrote Petosky. Finally, but momentary, Petosky was released from the TSA but her trip and her possessions were totally undone. "I am through. It was about 40 minutes, 2 full body pat downs, fully disassembled luggage. I missed my flight," wrote Petosky. Having missed her flight because of the TSA, the agents returned to remover her. "A TSA agent is telling me to leave the airport," tweets Petosky while she resists, insisting to speaking to management. After being escorted out of Orlando Airport, security continues to berate her for complaining about her treatment. "They told me to get myself together, I am sobbing, not belligerent," she insisted. The airline eventually got a hold of her with a new flight but said that they were going to charge her $955 because she had missed her previous flight. "My point of listing the prices is not to get money. It's to show cost when the TSA detains trans bodies (Plus time, denigration)," Petosky  later explained to twitter. While she eventually got on a standby flight, Petosky could not escape further disciplining from airport and airline authorities. "I literally want to no lectures from American Airlines on how to travel while trans. I want the same privileges as cis people," concluded Petosky.

While Petosky's case with the Orlando TSA and airport staff became immediate news, largely because of her detailed and comprehensive documenting, nonetheless, her situation was not uncommon. "I am finding out this is completely routine for so many trans people," she admitted some time into the incident. Indeed, even the TSA responded stating that the event followed fairly standard protocol for handling such a transgender person. After examining closed-circuit TV video and other available information, T.S.A. has determined that the evidence shows our officers followed T.S.A.’s strict guidelines,” wrote TSA spokesman, Mike England, in a press release. The Petosky case documents a system that is in place to mark and manage transgender persons as "anomalies." This language is weighted in many ways. Significantly, the TSA's primary purpose in the public eye is to stop and detain terrorists. By treating transgender persons in such a way, the TSA implicitly marks the transgender individual as in some way like a terrorist. By repeat enactment of these policies, the TSA effectively associates transgender with terrorism. Thus, the TSA calling the trans body an "anomaly" is a way to at once defuse and differentiate them for "terrorists" but to justify treating them as though they are or might be terrorists. Furthermore, through repeat use on transgender persons, the TSA teaches them and others to understand themselves as "anomalies." This is another way of calling transgender people, "freaks," "queer," "sick," "crazy," or "monstrous" but in a way that has not yet been deemed politically incorrect. Indeed, an effect of politically correct language is not the reforming of sexist or transphobic people and organizations but a mandate that they find new ways to enact marginalization in code or silence. While the TSA eventually admitted that "anomaly" might be an offensive term to use for a transgender person, in my experience its use has not stopped up until the current day. As with the agent who gaze discouraging looks to her partner, a few dissenting voices in the TSA is not enough to dismantle an enormous system of hate and oppression. 

The violence against the transgender community at airports is not something that can be changed individual by individual because it is written into the very technology and practice of gatekeeping. TSA body scanners embody the systematizing and dehumanizing of gender. The mechanisms no longer see particular humans but see the body as a normative (non-queer) normate (non-disabled) white figure that fits into one of two binary genders: the pink female mode and the blue male mode. The change from a more detailed body image was made to give its subjects a greater degree of privacy (i.e. so every tuck and fold wouldn't be visible to the TSA). Because of this loss of particularity, however, all bodies have been more overtly placed under what is supposed to be a universal representation of humanity. The TSA would likely argue that the choice of a binpedal figure is not meant to be ableist, that the choice of a white figure is not meant to be racist, that the more masculine figure is not meant to be sexist but all are meant to represent a neutral undifferentiated humanity. Of course, the presumption that a white cisgender ablebodied man is the standard and that all non-white, trans, disabled, non-male persons are divergent is the foundation of most racism, sexism, ableism, and transphobia. It is the goal of neutrality as the norm and the norm as neutrality that encourages hate more than systems that acknowledge the infinite diversity of bodies. Indeed, the binary reflected by the machine's two gender modes is just a reflection of this drive toward the universal singularity of man. Language itself evidences how wo-man is marked as the alternative to the standard man, the fe-male as the alternative to the standard male. The marking of transgender, intersex, and crip body as unacceptable anomylies is a direct extension of a system that marks the fe-male body as the acceptable anomyly of the male body. This manifold discrimination is evident in the TSA protocol that uses a cisgender woman to interrogate a queer woman for being transgender and a lesbian.


_________________________

_________________________

The Real Cost of Travel

"I could cry from relief," I texted my fiance. "Yeah!!!" she replies with an expression of shared elation. Both of us felt the release of tension that built up each time I went through airport security. Some nights before a trip I would have trouble sleeping. The anxiety I felt was not for a single anticipated groping but the kindled flame of a nerve that had been scraped raw time after time. The fear I experienced was not so much of a future event that I would pass through but of a cycle wherein past traumas became a chronic present from which I felt unable to escape. As a result, I felt the pain before the TSA agents even touched me because it was not just their hands that I felt but the hands of dozens (or was it now hundreds?) that had repeated the same exercise of power across my body. Yet this day, for the first time in years, I had passed through the TSA security without getting pulled aside for genital groping. This privilege (as I had come to regard the freedom from assault) was not a matter of luck or a system that had learned its lesson. Rather, I had scrounged up the money to pay the system off. In what amounted to an authorized bribe of the TSA, I had sent the US government a substantial payment and submitted myself to a background check as part of signing up for the TSA Pre-Check system. The status came with several perks, including a shorter line, the ability to keep my shoes on through security, and the freedom to keep my laptop in its bag as it was x-rayed. But the most important benefit of making the payment to the TSA was that I would no longer have to go through body scanners. Because I generally pass as a cisgender woman on first and second glance, I can walk through a metal detector without the TSA agents ever knowing I am transgender. Without the body scanner to tip them off or trip the system, I could quite literally pass through the TSA gatekeeping.

On a political level, I am keenly aware that the only difference between me and the trans, queer, or crip woman or person of color being frisked down at the body scanner is about $100. I know the exact cost of this privilege. This arbitrary and exploitative difference does not diminish the suffering of those abused by the system of gatekeeping but further underlines how sexism, transphobia, homophobia, ableism, and racism are enacted with razor thin rationale. If a trans woman is a terror threat until she slips the TSA a wad of cash, that evidences how the TSA never really regarded her as much of a security threat to start. Anyone could go through a background check but pressure is put on transgender and other marginalized peoples because they are the targets that our society wants to harass. Anyone could sign up for TSA Pre-check but I was given overwhelming reason. During a semester where I was flying from work to home, or work to conferences, nearly every week, I had a run where I was getting my genitals touched by the TSA once a week (sometimes twice a week) for ten weeks in a row. It forced me to say that I effectively existed in a chronic, sexually abusive relationship with the TSA. Thus, I was muscled and intimated and abused into paying off the TSA and submitting my background (the thing scanners couldn't see) for analysis. This is how the political is always personal. The battles over ideology occur across the bodies of the oppressed. Thus, on a personal level, I was desperate for the protection the TSA offered from their violence.

This protection is very contingent. It can be revoked or eschewed easily as my recent trip to England showed. TSA Pre-check saves me from the TSA's prying hands only on domestic flights. On this international flight, I was forced to go through the abuse all over again. As I spread my legs and listened to the TSA agent recite their lines about what they were going to touch and how (words I could now repeat exactly), I looked over at another security point where people were walking past the TSA without being scanned. Beside that security gate was a sign advertising an international version of the same security check and payments I made on a domestic level. The TSA agents and procedures were the same. I was the same person. But because of the terminal I used, my gender and my genitals were again a security threat. That is, unless I paid even more money and submitted myself for another round of probing I would fall back into mechanisms of abuse. That is the systematic nature of the TSA's violence against transgender persons and other targeted groups: the discrimination and assault is the normalized state of affairs to which vulnerable bodies will continually be returned, while the escape from this cycle of violence is only ever a temporary and contingent exception to the rules. As a trans woman, gatekeepers work to keep me in my place, so that the privilege of travel always comes with a cost and a precariousness that reminds me that the TSA's disciplining power is only momentarily withheld. That is Michel Foucault's understanding of power at its most efficient: discipline that functions without the need for actualization; that is, the power of fear that makes violence redundant. Another term for systems that function by instilling fear is "terrorism." So in short, by promising to secure the nation from terrorism, the TSA has taken on the role of terrorizing transgender bodies.


_________________________

_________________________


Transgender Stories of Place and Travel








_________________________
_________________________