Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Here come the gender police.

First, the article which inspired this post: Times Online - Thomas Beatie, a married man who used to be a woman, is pregnant with a baby girl. I know this is old news, but I just found this article the other day, and over the couple days since then it's spawned this post.

The content itself is not terrible. The writer consistently refers to Mr. Beatie using male pronouns and doesn't sensationalize any aspect of the story, nor does he gloss over the difficulties and discrimination that the Beaties faced while trying to get pregnant, both from doctors and from their own families. The terrible parts are in the comments left by other readers - they highlight just how prejudiced and ignorant most people are when it comes to transgendered people. I've picked some of the more shockingly backward ones and... analyzed them.

To start off, we have generic religious wingnuttery from "Mason Wheeler, Honolulu":
"Readers, how coulcd this be the will of God? God designed Women to have children. Not women who turn into men having babies. It just isnt right. We need to pray in the name of Jesus that the remaining months of Mr. Thomas and Nancy Beatie will be having a healthy baby girl."
Ah yes, the "sandwich prayer". I really hate these; he's essentially saying "You're horrible sinners and you're going to hell. But um, all the best. I'll pray for you." (And then there's the really strange wording of that last sentence; are we supposed to pray for the remaining months to have a healthy baby girl?)

Next we have Exhibit B, a horrible analogy from "Christi, St. Louis".
"You can't change DNA. Thomas Beatie didn't become a man. Thomas has the appearance of a man. If I had surgery to add a tail, whiskers, and pointy ears, and received therapy to purr and mew, would I BE a cat? No, just an altered human. Thomas is an altered woman, & pregnant. God bless baby."
This is just a really awful statement for two reasons. First, they're failing to distinguish between a person's biological sex and their gender. Biological sex is determined by many things, including your DNA, and your DNA is indeed something that you can't change. Your gender, however, refers to your internal identity - that it, whether you are most comfortable thinking of yourself as male, female, or perhaps both or neither. It's not the same thing as your sexual orientation, but like sexual orientation it's determined by a whole bunch of factors that aren't fully understood, and the experience of "being trans" varies a lot from person to person. Some people know from a very early age that their biological gender is "wrong", while others go through long periods of soul-searching and confusion before coming to the same conclusion - some people have supportive families and are able to "come out" and transition, while others have very little in the way of an IRL support system and are unable to. But if someone says they identify as a man or a women, then the polite, decent, and respectful thing to do is to take their word for it and use the appropriate name and pronouns. You should not question their judgment or point out that they're still really their birth gender because of their DNA/genitals/whatever. This is precisely what this commenter has done here, and it is beyond rude.

Second, they're comparing cats and humans (two different species) to men and women, which is just... no. Men and women are both human, albeit different categories of human, and when it comes to gender identity those neat little categories are not so useful. Indeed, they're even a hindrance for some people - for example, gay trans men and lesbian trans women. They often have to deal with accusations of "not being trans" or "not knowing what they really want" even more than heterosexual trans people, because people assume that all trans people are heterosexual. But as I said above, gender identity and sexual orientation are two separate things - it's totally possible for someone born female to to transition to a male identity, and still be attracted to men, and in this case you would refer to them with respect to their gender identity (not as a straight woman, but as a gay man.)

Next up, some "ewww gross" and "think of the children" from "Jennifer, Reynoldsburg".
"I think it is disgusting. When she chose to be a "man" then she gave up her right to have a baby. You can't go back and forth. If she wants to be a man, and if your 'wife' can't get pregant then adopt. It is immoral and unethical.It's very confusing for children to see a 'man' pregnant. Not natural"
You know what? When people see guys with large stomachs, their first thought is not usually "pregnant" but rather "beer belly." Ergo, seeing a guy who looks like this is probably not going to confuse or traumatize anyone, including little kids. Then there's this whole "chose to be a 'man'" (and look, she even used scare quotes!) The fact is that trans people don't "choose" to be uncomfortable with their birth-assigned sex, any more than people "choose" their sexual orientation - that is, they don't. The only choice involved is whether to come out and transition; for many this is a very difficult decision to make, and to belittle that fact by saying that they chose their situation is quite insulting. As for giving up the right to have a baby, it is an unfortunate fact that in most countries, trans people must undergo sterilization in order to change their legal gender. In the US it varies from state to state, and the state of Oregon (where Beatie lives) sterilization is not required. In my opinion, sterilization requirements are awful and unnecessary: not all trans people want this done, and it's not as if anyone other than their doctor will even be able to tell if it's been done or not. I can only conclude that this requirement is the government's way of saying "you can live like this if you want, but get out of the gene pool."

Moving on, we have some no doubt well-meant "concern" followed by sheer stupidity from "Danarene, Lake View Terracce, CA".
"Well, if that don't beat all! One of my concerns would be how the parents go about explaining sexuality and reproduction to the child down the road. This is really the ultimate case of having your cake and eating it too. 'Mr.' Beatie decides she's not really a woman and does the ultimate renouncement and alters her biology in order to mimic a man but in a pinch determines that it's acceptable to fall back on her innate reality - how convenient is that? Obviously 'Mr.' Beatie is a woman at her core, regardless of her attempt to become a man, it appears that she's likely a lesbian and putting on the facade allows her and her lover to live without harrassment from homophobes. Good luck!"
You know what really "beats all"? This comment. There are so many things that are so incredibly wrong here that I think I'll just list them:
  1. This "concern" about how the Beaties are going to explain where babies come from to their daughter. This was not the only comment guilty of this one, I saw some other people speculating that they'd tell her that babies come "from daddy". But I'm guessing they'll probably go with the standard "egg + sperm = baby" explanation, and tell her about her dad being trans when they feel she's old enough to understand it. And when they do, it'll put her way ahead of most of her peers (not to mention most of the commenters here) because she'll know that there's more to gender than what most people would like you to think.
  2. Again, questioning Mr. Beatie's gender identity. In this case it's made worse by the fact that he's pregnant (something that we associate with women) but a lot of trans men who decide not to get a phalloplasty are targeted with similar criticism. A phalloplasty is a very expensive and complicated procedure, is rarely covered by insurance for gender transition purposes, and many trans men don't feel that the high cost is worth the risks of undergoing surgery. This is no one's business but their own, but that doesn't stop people - both in the GLB community and in society at large - from questioning whether they really want to be male since they still have a vagina.
  3. This sort of goes along with the previous point, but I am utterly baffled by this idea that Mr. Beatie is "a lesbian and putting on the facade allows her and her lover to live without harassment from homophobes." It clearly hasn't occurred to this person that trans people deal with harassment just like gay people do, and in some ways to a greater extent - "gender identity disorder" is still listed as a mental illness in the DSM, and some therapists still recommend "reparative therapy" aimed at getting trans people to live as their birth-assigned sex, particularly in the case of younger kids. These therapies are no more effective than the reparative therapy that were used to "treat" homosexuality, but they persist nonetheless. There are many other things that cis gay people generally don't have to worry about that trans people frequently do (which bathroom or changing room to use, whether they're being perceived as male or female, how to explain their bodies to potential sexual partners, and so on.) This is not to say that gay people have it easy, but non-trans gay people are still very far ahead of trans people in terms of being accepted by mainstream society. I doubt that a cis lesbian couple would've had as much difficulty as the Beaties did in finding a doctor to perform artificial insemination and a OB/GYN later on.
And this one from "Lamecia, Nashville" absolutely takes the cake:
"I feel bad and embarrassed. Just think of how upset God is...this is not how he created things. What do we tell our kids? They will be so confused. As for the baby girl she will have such a hard time in life because she was carried by a man during pregnancy. Kids will pick on her. Kids are hard on each other they pick on people that is almost perfect so just think of what she has to look forward to. This is not normal. I will not accept it and I will continue to teach my son that this is not right."
Wow. Let's go through this one, shall we? There's some "eww, gross", a statement that tran speople are upsetting God with their "choice", followed by a "think of the children", which neatly segues into "why would they do this to their daughter?! She'll be bullied!!" And then she goes on to say that "I'm going to raise my son the right way - by teaching him that trans people are freaks." The fact that this statement follows her "concern" is almost funny. It clearly hasn't occurred to her that if the Beaties' daughter is bullied, it won't be because of her parents. It'll be because of people exactly like this, people who tell their children that "different" is weird and unnatural, basically giving them carte blache to bully anyone who's not like them.But if you go to the article and read the comments yourself, you'll see that it isn't all bad. For every negative and hateful comment that I saw, there was another one congratulating the Beaties, and calling out the hateful and prejudiced commenters on how wrong and self-righteous they were being. This was really heartening, especially considering that this is a mainstream paper rather than one aimed at the GLBT community. Indeed, much of the opposition I've seen to Mr. Beatie and his pregnancy - on other articles that were in GLBT newsletters - came from other GLBT folks. I won't quote any of them here (I think this post is getting quite long enough) but some of them were very much like the ones above: statements that if Thomas Beatie wanted to be a "real" man he wouldn't have done this, and even saying that he was not and could never be a real man, and that his choice to go public with his pregnancy would "hurt the movement." This is what I mean when I say that trans people have a much more difficult time than gay people when it comes to discrimination - they get it not only from straight cisigendered people, but from GLB folks who ought to know better. I disagree completely that this is going to "hurt the movement" - yes, it has brought some people like the above-quoted commenters out of the woodwork, but its also brought out people like those other commenters, people who might never have said a single word in support of trans people until now. There will probably be backlash - when Massachusetts began allowing gay marriage, many other states initially began passing laws and even amending their constitutions to prevent it from ever being allowed there. This might seem like a step backward, but four years after Goodridge v. Department of Public Health, we now have civil unions and gay marriage being allowed in New Jersey and California, people suing for the right to marry in numerous other states, and a presidential candidate (Barack Obama) who favors repealing the DOMA and allowing federally-recognized civil unions that would provide all the rights and privileges of marriage. In the short term it caused a few setbacks, but in the long term we've made progress that we might not have made otherwise. This will probably have a similar effect - the short-term backlash will draw attention to how unfair and intrusive society and the law are in the lives of trans people. The folks who oppose the GLBT movement will keep doing so, but we may gain some outspoken new allies who might have remained silent, and make long-term progress that might otherwise not have happened. That is a definitely a good thing.