The Blackwood Research Group

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The story of Dr. V and her putter

A week or so ago, one of my good friends sent me a link to a sports story about a special kind of golf putter. Now, I’m not really a huge fan of golf, in fact, I’m more the type to spend an afternoon on the course cursing the grass, trees and my own athletic ability than one to find it relaxing or fun. Also, pretty quickly I realized that the article contained some  specific engineering jargon about what makes this putter superior to other putters. I figured that my friend, a very talented engineer, had sent this to me because of the interesting science it contained. I previewed the link, and after noticing that the story was pretty long, I put it aside for another day.

But then, every day I would check my social media sites and found that this story was blowing up in my gender variant networks. There were links and blogs and critiques and general chatter all over the place. So I decided to sit down and finally read this piece. Here is the link to the original article:

Let me summarize it for all of you who might be similarly disinclined to read about sports, engineering and physics. Essentially, a young sports writer discovers a new and different kind of putter, starts asking around and finds out that a woman who happens to be a brilliant physicist with little-to-no golf experience developed it and had been marketing it on a grand scale all the way up the the main media magnates of the golf industry. Naturally, the writer seeks out the inventor for an interview at which point he is told he can ask questions about the putter and her company but nothing about the inventor. The writer AGREES (which is an important point for later).

After several months researching the putter, golfers who use it, and the company marketing and selling it, the writer sets about doing some fact checking about the inventor’s credentials. He discovers rather quickly that most of those credentials are false and eventually learns that the inventor is a transgender woman with almost zero experience with engineering or high principles of physics like she had stated. The writer then goes on to OUT the inventor as a transgender woman to her business investors. At this point, Dr. V learns that she has been outed and asks the writer to cease and desist and to sign a non-disclosure agreement and not publish his story. He refuses in spite of his initial agreement not to discuss the inventor in his story.

We then learn rather abruptly toward the end of the story that 3 months before the article was published Dr. V committed suicide. A tidbit that the writer just kind of tacks on at the end with ZERO reflection about his possible role in or culpability in the loss of a human life.

While Dr. V had a long history of battling suicidality and depression, I don’t believe that it is very hard to imagine that the  knowledge that she would soon be outed as transgender to the whole world but also for committing some serious deceptions in her business endeavors played a role in that. It is also not very hard to imagine that the writer is involved in her decision to commit suicide which should have caused him to pause, reflect and feel some pangs of empathy, compassion or dare I say guilt. However, the writer’s attitude summarizes the American cultural attitude towards transgender people as a community – that they are not deserving of privacy, respect, or even in some cases their very lives. Many within the non-transgender communities, as this story clearly indicates, continue to equate a transgender person’s living in their preferred gender with being a con artist out to deceive everyone they meet. Until this idea changes, the rates for suicide attempts (41%) and harassment (97%) will continue. I can only hope that Dr. V’s story and death will help to educate some to the very real challenges and difficulties that come with being who you are as a transgender person.

Below are some of the other critiques and responses to the publication of Dr. V’s story that I found particularly insightful or relevant. The first link is to one of the official responses from grantland which was written by a transgender woman who writes for ESPN (the parent company of grantland).

What do you all think? Should the story have been published at all? Should they have left out Dr. V’s transgender history? Should the author have left it as is?

Violence Against Women Act

A couple months ago the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) was reauthorized in spite of fairly significant Republican opposition in the House of Representatives. Their opposition was based mainly upon the extension of protections to people of all sexes, sexualities and genders, not just heterosexual women abused by men. This opposition can be summed up by the response of Republican Rep. Steve Stockman of Texas who said he opposed VAWA because it contained protections for transgender individuals: “This is a truly bad bill,” he said in an article published by the National Review. “This is helping the liberals, this is horrible. Unbelievable. What really bothers — it’s called a women’s act, but then they have men dressed up as women, they count that. Change-gender, or whatever. How is that — how is that a woman?”

In his reasoning, it is more important to protect the rights of people TO COMMIT acts of violence against transgender individuals than it is TO PROTECT women (and all people, since the bill includes men as well as transgender people) from violence. Fortunately, these confused transphobic views were in the minority in Congress and President Obama signed the bill into law in March. VAWA demonstrates that there are legal protections and consequences for violence against any and all people in the United States. VAWA, together with the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Hate Crime Prevention Act of 2009 have been the first federal legal protections officially inclusive of all people regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity.

While these are clearly very important steps in providing legal recourse to transgender people, victories are still few and far between as recent examples from within and outside of the GLBT community demonstrate. See the continued debate over transgender inclusion at the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival (MWMF), and the repeated attempts by conservative CongressMEN to pass “Bathroom Harassment Bills” in Tennessee and Arizona which would restrict people to using the bathroom indicated by the sex marked on their birth certificate. (Who carries their birth certificate on them for inspection on entrance to bathrooms anyway?)

Both of these examples explain my continued hesitancy to embrace the “victory” of VAWA for transgender people. It is certainly important to have legal recourse and non-discrimination policies, however, exceptions to the rule of law and in practice demonstrate that there is still a long way to go in eradicating transphobia from the cisgender lesbian, gay and bisexual communities as well as the cisgender hetersexual ones. For example, the founder of the MWMF justifies their exclusion of transgender women from the festival to allow womyn-born-womyn the “freedom to walk in the woods at night alone without fear.” While I certainly support women (trans and womyn-born) and their right to feel safe – not just at the MWMF – I cannot believe it must come at the cost of the invalidation of the lives and experiences of transgender people who are as stigmatized and discriminated against as lesbian women. Further, the supported inclusion of transgender men in these same womnyn-born-womyn spaces sends the message that birth assigned sex and genitals are what truly matters for inclusion and exclusion rather than self-identified gender. Likewise, bathroom bill advocates claim the need to protect women and girls in bathrooms from predatory men who have disguised themselves as women in order to enter into a women’s only “safe space.” (Can anyone give me an example of violence perpetrated against women or girls by a “man dressed as a woman” in spaces like these?) Again, I realize the need for women’s safety and security, but I submit that these bills aren’t being proposed by CongressWOMEN or advocated by women’s interest groups.

Taking the MWMF and the bathroom bills into consideration with an essential exception included in VAWA we can see why  transgender rights have actually become more limited recently. Below is the “exception” taken from the official wording of VAWA:

‘‘(B) EXCEPTION.—If sex segregation or sex-specific programming is necessary to the essential operation of a program, nothing in this paragraph [the non-discrimination policy paragraph] shall prevent any such program or activity from consideration of an individual’s sex. In such circumstances, grantees may meet the requirements of this paragraph by providing comparable services to individuals who cannot be provided with the sex-segregated or sex-specific programming.”

So, let’s consider this in light of an example from my research in Tennessee. A transgender woman who has been victimized by her male intimate partner managed to leave her abuser in spite of unemployment and other financial and interpersonal obstacles only to be turned away from a “women’s” shelter because she has not been able to change her identity documents to reflect her gender expression. While the official policy of non-discrimination includes gender expression and identity, the exception based upon sex segregation allows her to be turned away from the female shelter. And as she told me, the male shelter was “not an option physically or emotionally.” She was eventually able to find a trans-inclusive shelter that allowed her to be herself during the recovery process, not every transgender woman is so lucky or resourceful. With the knowledge that men are overwhelmingly the perpetrators of violence against (trans)women, I understand that it would be unsuitable and potentially harmful for men and women to be sheltered together. However, by setting up the segregation system by sex, I am left to wonder where transgender people belong? What documentation is acceptable to permit a transwoman entry into a woman’s shelter? What if she was without the resources to obtain any formal documentation of her feminine identity? Additionally, I wonder how shelters can be inclusive of lesbian and gay men when their abusers are of the same sex as they are.

Continuing with the reasoning of the sex-segregation exception, “comparable services” must be provided to those who cannot be accommodated within the existing sex-specific programming. Optimistically, I hope this will entail the creation of numerous trans-only or at least transgender-positive shelters. Then again, are transgender men and transgender women to be sheltered together? What about issues of sexism and misogyny within the transgender community?

The above examples elucidate the shift in acceptable forms of transphobia. Homophobia and transphobia in the recent American past had been based upon policing gender performance and norms which often included butch lesbians and effeminate gay men. However, homophobia of any kind is no longer socially acceptable (not that it doesn’t still occur) and transphobia as demonstrated above has become an almost compulsive process of policing genitals and glorifying the “irrevocable” nature of biological sex. Today, American culture is much more accepting of various gender expressions, and can even laugh at playful gender presentations (see Ru Paul’s Drag Race). But has this acceptance come at the expense of solidifying the line between male and female and exalting the naturalness of sex and genitals? It seems that culturally, we have agreed to a certain amount of gender transgression but have drawn a line in the sand, allowing cisgender people to wink at one another and say, “Okay, you can be whoever you want to be, but we know who/what you REALLY are.” Many seem comfortable with gender and sexual transgression so long as one fits neatly into a box, even if that box is gay or lesbian. Transgender is still an unknown, often understood as the representative from Texas said, “change genders” or men who dress like women. Thus, genitalia and the “naturalness” of biology have been exalted so that people can “understand” at the cost of allowing for the diversity of transgender experience and the complex interplay of gender, sex and sexuality. Instances like these remind me just how far we still must go.

ABC’s “Work It”

I recently watched the pilot episode of ABC’s “Work It.” The show’s basic premise is that two men feel they must dress and act as women in order to find work in the tough economic climate today. Additionally, the show is billed as a “high-concept” comedy based on the idea that men dressed as women is inherently funny and entertaining.

The show generally makes light of and trivializes many of the difficulties transgender people routinely – and without choice – encounter in the workplace. Recent surveys have shown that the transgender community is one of the most discriminated against minorities, and while many people feel that this show is just a joke, it is hard to imagine other minority groups being parodied in this way and having it appear on television. Further, many bloggers and critics claim that these are just men who are dressing as women and that this show has nothing to do with transgender people or transgenderism. In reality, these men who are dressing as women to find jobs are making a joke of transwomen’s reality: trying to live their lives as women with male bodies, making sense of or hiding their work history and personal lives in order not to expose their past life histories as men and portraying those who “cross-dress” as inherently deceitful.

Additionally, the show operates under the assumption that being a woman in the workforce and job market is easier than being a man. Sexist one liners are common. For example, they joke that saleswomen are more successful in pharmaceutical sales because the doctors want to sleep with them. Not funny.

Essentially, I see no redeeming qualities about this show; the jokes and dialogue or neither witty nor funny. I sincerely hope that the show will be pulled from the air very soon. Don’t let your curiosity get the best of you, avoid this show and save your time.


“A Different Kind of Man”?

I have been following Dancing with the Stars this season, despite my better judgement, mostly because I thought they were doing something interesting by including two “out” members from the GLBT community: Chaz Bono, a transman, and Carson Kressley, a gay man. Additionally, featured this season was an injured war veteran, J.R. Martinez, as well as numerous other “B-list” celebrities like Nancy Grace, Ricki Lake, and Hope Solo.

Before the season even aired publicly, there was much debate and protest put up by the group “One Million Moms” who did not want Chaz on a “family” show. After hearing about the protest by these moms, I decided to watch and see how ABC decided to present Chaz. Despite the traditional pairing of a man with a women for this dancing show (I had heard some requests that Carson dance with a male partner), Chaz was partnered with a feminine, female professional dancer, respecting his current gender identity and traditional presentation as a masculine, straight man. During the first show, all of the contestants were introduced and Chaz was portrayed as a transgender person who grew up as a girl, the “daughter” of Cher and Sonny Bono. A picture of his early childhood in which he is wearing pigtails and a dress was even shown on screen, making this introduction a fairly standard transgender intro sound bite in my opinion. However, after this introduction, his trans-ness was not discussed again.

In fact, his weight became the central issue for Chaz, his partner and the judges on this show. Chaz was consistently critiqued for his dancing – much like the rest of the contestants. However, he was also unnecessarily ridiculed by one of the judges in particular for being overweight. Chaz was referred to as an “ewok” and a “penguin” on different occasions, both of which are cuddly and cute, but round and “pudgy” ANIMALS. Actually, an ewok is not even an animal, it is an imaginary, invented creature from the Star Wars franchise. Despite the unnecessary nature of critiquing someone for their weight on a show about dancing and the fact that Chaz had admitted he was competing in the hopes of increasing his fitness, I believe there were deeper meanings implied by these comparisons and critiques.

I feel that the judge, a flamboyant (gay?) man, could not recognize Chaz as a MAN. Instead, choosing to refer to him through comparisons to animals. It would be inappropriate for someone on this show to outwardly criticize Chaz for being transgender, but criticizing someone for their weight is still seen as acceptable in American culture. Thus, this man chose to repeatedly and pointedly mark Chaz’s body as unacceptable at every chance and in the most acceptable way that he could. While I have a problem with this judge’s inappropriate speech, I take greater issue with the manner in which Chaz exited the show and handled these critiques.

He said after he was voted off of the show that he wanted to “show America a different kind of man” and referred to how “if he had seen someone like him on TV when he was a kid that it would have been much easier for him growing up.” The sentiment expressed was indeed moving, however, he never once used any adjectives to describe just what kind of man he is! Even more, after the show, when he made the rounds on the talk shows after his exit, he focused on denouncing the judge for his harassment based upon his weight, neglecting to highlight himself as an “out” transperson. It seems that his identity as an overweight man has come to eclipse his identity as a transman.

So, after his statement about showing America a different kind of man, I was left to ask myself what kind of difference he had in fact shown us? He certainly was not visibly queer, though Carson, the gay contestant was (he joked about wearing a woman’s costume on numerous occasions). Chaz did not portray anything outside of the hegemonic presentation of manliness in America, except for his weight. If someone were to watch this show and miss the first episode they would have no idea that the difference Chaz felt he was portraying was anything other than that of a man with a weight that was currently unpopular. I see great value in showing different bodies on primetime TV, and I acknowledge that body image and weight are real issues in America today, I wanted to ask, if Chaz is actually a “different kind of man”?

While Chaz does not have to exhibit his trans-ness and transgender identity at all times, if you are going to call yourself a spokesperson for the transgender community and publicize your transition through books, documentaries and TV appearances, creating celebrity out of your transgender identity, I would expect you to articulate this identity at every turn. As we know from social science research, identities are not fixed and are very fluid, so perhaps during this show, Chaz’s sense of himself as an overweight man was more salient to him than his status as a transgender man. In which case, I applaud his defense of himself as an overweight man, but am left hoping for a continued and stronger transgender presence in the mainstream media.

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