Continuing with my previous post regarding Amanda Simpson, the following bit was on David Letterman’s show a few nights ago:

So why am I posting that video, why am I embedding it, talking about it and asking you to watch it? Why is the trans community up in arms? Why did the HRC write a complaint letter? Or why did I?? Part of the answer has to do with the idea the joke promotes: that our birth sex is more important than our sex of identity (Amanda Simpson used to be a dude?), that living our lives as we see ourselves is disingenuous and deceptive.

To explain by way of example, let me bring up Angie Zapata’s murderer, Allen Andrade. Andrade used a trans panic defense in his murder trial saying that he lost control when he found out that Angie was born male. He became enraged, and in the heat of passion, he killed her. Actually, he beat her to death with a fire extinguisher. More correctly, he beat her until she was unconscious, and he thought she was dead. Then, as Andrade was clearing out of the apartment, he realized Angie was still breathing. So he picked up the fire extinguisher, and beat her *again* until she was dead. The facts weren’t even contested during Andrade’s trial. His entire defense consisted of I thought it was a girl, and it turned out to be a guy.

What David Letterman used as fodder for a joke is the defense of murderers, as though a person’s gender identity is sufficient reason not only to laugh at them but also to kill them. Letterman’s joke casually devalues the trans identity, implies that Amanda Simpson is deceptive, and makes the case that transitioning, her actual gender identity, everything she’s been through, has no impact at all on the fact that she used to be a dude and how we might presently view her as a woman. From Letterman’s show, viewers see trans people being devalued in mass media outlets and the jokes and pejoratives get repeated at work and in public (and directed at real people, including me). I don’t have a problem with David Letterman exactly; I have a problem with the whole mindset that thinks a joke like that is okay.

The internet comments, the rude jokes on TV, the way trans people are (mis)treated in real life are all signals to us that our identities don’t matter as much and aren’t as inherently valuable or important as the identities of cisgender people. When was the last time someone got made fun of for being a stereotypically masculine male? I’m not talking about behavior, like Governor Schwarzenegger calling the Democratic lawmakers a bunch of girly men or President Clinton not being able to keep it in his pants. I’m talking about just making fun of someone for *existing*. That’s what’s happening with Amanda Simpson: it’s not her behavior that’s being turned into a spectacle, it’s her.

Repeating the trans pejoratives, laughing at trans people and further encouraging that behavior isn’t much different than saying Dr. George Tiller deserved to be murdered so that we could protect the lives of innocent babies. While there are people who think he did deserve to die, it’s the casual devaluing of Tiller’s life that ought to give all of us pause. The attitude is what led to his murder just like the casual devaluing of trans people leads to killers like Allen Andrade saying that, “It’s not like I went up to a school teacher and shot her in the head, or killed a straight law-abiding citizen.” In Tiller’s murder, just like Angie Zapata’s, the perpetrators didn’t even think they were going to be punished. It’s not a question of whether what they did is right or wrong, whether Tiller or Angie deserved it, it’s a question of whether they thought anyone would even care because their victims were made invisible by casual and degrading comments.

Which brings me away from David Letterman and to a larger issue of the expectations and assumptions of cis people regarding the existence (and erasure) of trans people. Unless we don’t pass and can be easily clocked as trans men and women, it’s assumed that we’re all automatically cissexual (Julia Serano calls this cissexual assumption), which is hardly the trans person’s fault. The corollary is that we ought to share the truth about our transsexual histories with anyone who needs to know (especially sexual partners). The problem with that expectation is that all the weight and burden rests on the trans person, and no one places any concern over the unfair (and often incorrect) expectation of cissexual assumption. I hope that I can explain why it’s unfair and that the absolutes aren’t quite so simple as they’re made out to be.

The appropriate compromise between honesty and being unnecessarily open with strangers (or at least people you don’t know very well) is hard to nail down because the point of no return is different for each person. Every person has their own unique answer to this question, and while it may be blatantly obvious to them, the real answer to the question when am I supposed to disclose my history as a transsexual? is when it’s appropriate for the other person to know, and that’s going to vary by person, relationship and circumstance.

Now, some people don’t care what genitals a person has at all. Some people only want individuals with genitals of a certain kind, and some people will kill you if they find out you’ve got the wrong ones, think you’ve delayed too long in telling them, or tricked, duped or deceived them in some way.

It’s not always easy to tell where a stranger might fall in that spectrum, and there are people I’ve met, considered cute enough to flirt with, but not safe enough to tell about my history as a trans woman. Were I younger and unmarried, I suppose I may have have been interested in going home with some of those people, but when am I supposed to bring up the issue of full disclosure? Is it inconceivable that things could go too far without ever being sure I really trust the person enough to confide in them? How is it remotely fair to hang the responsibility for all of that on the trans person, and then blame them when things go wrong?

The fact is that there are circumstances where it’s not safe to out yourself, even if you’re going home with someone, or among people that you might consider your friends. I’d say that the circumstances surrounding Gwen Araujo’s murder are proof enough of that. Gwen’s murder was a classic trans panic scenario, and while she may not have been killed by the defendants had she been more open about her gender identity from the beginning, I don’t think it’s unfair to assume, based on the reaction of the defendants, that Gwen wouldn’t have been safe had she been open with any of them.

Do we blame Gwen, the boys who killed her, or the society that perpetuates the gender roles, stereotypes and homophobia such that it is nearly impossible for people to be open about who they are?

Maybe you can guess my answer: the assistant DA on Gwen’s murder case said, “Gwen being transgender was not a provocative act. I would not further ignore the reality that Gwen made some decisions in her relation with these defendants that were impossible to defend. I don’t think most jurors are going to think it’s OK to engage someone in sexual activity knowing they assume you have one sexual anatomy when you don’t.”

Before you agree with the ADA’s statement, let me point out the problems with it, problems that don’t start and end with him. There are a lot of people that hold those views, after all. And I’m not trying to say that the concept is wrong as much as I’m trying to say that it’s unfair.

On one hand we say, there’s nothing wrong with being transgender, but on the other, it’s just not okay if you hide it from people with whom you’re being sexually intimate. We blame the trans person for not correcting the assumption, and act as though the subsequent overreaction is understandable, if not condonable. The subtext is that we believe more people would reject a pre-operative transsexual than would be interested in taking her home, that no one will find her attractive without a vagina. So rather than maintaining her sexual agency, the trans woman becomes dependant on finding a person that won’t reject her out of a homophobic reaction towards her genitalia. A person who is unaware of a transsexual’s history might feel as though their sexual agency has been co-opted against their wishes, which is not something I’m advocating. But perhaps there’s a solution to the problem in sharing the responsibility for communication between both individuals rather than placing all the weight on a single person.

From the perspective of a trans person, it’s humiliating to know that your attractiveness is reduced to what exists between your legs, to be rejected because the other person thinks you’re a freak. When the trans person has to disclose her past, she risks not only humiliation but violence. She bears all the risk in the coming out process, and has no easy way out of potentially awkward situations.

The potential partner of the trans woman, on the other hand, is free to accept or reject her and bears no immediate repercussions for the decision.* The entire process is too one-sided, and as long as it is, trans people are going to be reluctant about coming out to people they don’t know that well.

Which brings us back where we started: at some point in a relationship, a trans person is supposed to disclose her history. In that scenario, all the weight for honesty falls on the trans people, with only the faintest glimmer of lip service given to the problem of cissexual assumption.

The reason I’m talking about this, and not writing a condemnatory screed against David Letterman is because I think Letterman is a barometer of the problem, not the source. The joke bothers me so much because the underlying attitude is so prevalent. Am I, as a trans woman, supposed to walk around with a big “T” on my chest, supposed to just tell every stranger that I think might be interested in me that I’m trans? Is it my problem, my fault, that everyone assumes my genitalia are of a particular form? Why does the burden of honesty, the negation of my expectations of privacy start the instant that a stranger displays even the slightest interest in me? Am I supposed to start every conversation with some variant of the following disclaimer: Hi, I’m Jessica, and since I’m transgender, I don’t want you to freak out and kill me if you find me attractive and then decide you’re not okay with the fact that I still have a penis?

Trans people are devalued to the point, objectified to the point, of being reduced to our genitalia, to the surgical procedures that we’ve undergone, to the discrepancies between our birth sex and our sex of identity. It happens every time a total stranger asks me whether I’ve gotten “the surgery” (they usually wink when they say this, like it’s a code word that they’re very pleased with themselves for having learned), or whether I still have a penis. My all time favorite invasive question is when people ask how my wife and I have sex.

So what do I think is the way forward? I had to go back and dig up a quote that Autumn Sandeen at Pam’s House Blend uses on a fairly regular basis—I’ve had it rattling around in my head and had to share it:

“[T]he job of the gay community is not to deal with extremists who would castigate us or put us on an island and drop an H-bomb on us. The fact of the matter is that there is a small percentage of people in America who understand the true nature of the homosexual community. There is another small percentage who will never understand us. Our job is not to get those people who dislike us to love us. Nor was our aim in the civil rights movement to get prejudiced white people to love us. Our aim was to try to create the kind of America, legislatively, morally, and psychologically, such that even though some whites continued to hate us, they could not openly manifest that hate. That’s our job today: to control the extent to which people can publicly manifest antigay sentiment.”
~Bayard Rustin; From Montgomery to Stonewall (1986)

The reason to fight back, to stick up for ourselves, to write blog posts explaining why Letterman’s joke is tasteless, to explain that trans people aren’t deluded perverts, to write letters to CBS, or at the very least, to use their online complaint form is to make people aware that expressing bigotry (under the guise of humor or otherwise) isn’t acceptable. We’re human beings and we deserve to be treated with the dignity and respect that every human being deserves.

We aren’t deluded, deranged, mutilated degenerates, and if I scream loud enough, maybe someone will get it. Maybe enough people will get it that I won’t need to say things like this anymore– that’s the point of Rustin’s quote: at some point we want the environment to be so inhospitable to bigotry that trans and gay people aren’t going to be devalued in such a casual way.

We’re not trying to be loved, adored or revered. We’re trying to make our place in the world safer. So rather than expecting all trans people to disclose the status of their genitals, we should be asking why we even assume everyone cares what genitals a person has. Maybe the people that care are the ones that should ask. If that feels like an extreme measure to you, then you’ll get an idea of what it’s like for a trans person to have to disclose something so intimate about themselves. Or maybe cissexual assumption just shouldn’t be the default position any more.


* At least not in the I’m going to kill you, faggot sense. What they bear in a long term relationship is much more complicated, and that’s not something I’m comfortable writing about because I simply can’t speak to it. I’d recommend books by Helen Boyd, either My Husband Betty or She’s Not the Man I Married.