Tag Archives: transgender

Thinking Outside the Gender Box

Sheila Jeffreys, a professor of feminist politics at the University of Melbourne, offers an interesting and thought-provoking analysis of transgender issues in a new book, Gender Hurts (Routledge, 2014). Depending upon your point of view, her ideas may offend or may enter the discussion like a breath of fresh air. Reading the book, what I found myself wishing was that a discussion was really happening – that a free and open exchange of ideas and information on all the issues touched upon in this book was possible. That it isn’t – that there are those violently opposed to free speech for anyone who doesn’t agree with them in this arena – isn’t lost on Jeffreys.

The book traces the short history of the transgender rights movement, beginning with the word and concept of “gender” itself. Once upon a time offered as a replacement for “sex roles” by feminists who sought to free themselves from the narrow definitions of what men and women were and could be, Jeffreys points out the irony of how the concept of gender has been co-opted by those deeply invested in believing that gender, in all its social manifestations, is inborn – in the mind, that is, not the body. It was once progressive to realize that if if you didn’t fit the confines of the role you were born into, it was the role that needed to change. Now it’s progressive to think you need to change your body.

Unlike most who write about those who change gender, Jeffreys considers the effects of transformation on the people around them. Actually, on the women around them: Jeffreys points out that nearly all transgender people start as straight men involved with women, or as lesbians involved with women, so the fallout for their partners is pretty much a women-only club. The potential decimation of lesbian communities that could result from once-committed lesbians deciding that they are really men is of particular concern to Jeffreys. On an individual scale, she writes of personal devastation in the lives of lesbians whose partners decide to live as men, and expect the women who love them to shed their identities as lesbians and embrace heterosexuality on command. Similarly, she takes a look at some of the stories of women whose husbands decide they are women, mine included. I was interested to note that even among the wives who remain with their husbands post-transition, many of the issues and agonies are entirely familiar.

The most striking – and disturbing – aspects of the trans movement that Jeffreys covers are the role of the medical establishment in making gender change surgically, hormonally, cosmetically possible; and the not-unrelated subject of the transgendering of children, a hot topic in the past couple of years. While one of the key aims of the feminist movement was to get the medical establishment off our bodies, the trans movement embraces it – and as Jeffreys notes, there’s no question that the medical establishment is the big winner in gender transformation. She is especially alarmed by medicine’s increased and ever-earlier interventions in transforming the bodies of children. She is right to be. This is an issue we would do well to give careful, nuanced consideration – the kind of consideration that puts children, not politics, first.


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Moving Pictures: Our Feature Presentation

My essay, Moving Pictures, taking a look at film and television portrayals of trans people and their families, is now up on The Riveter.




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Staying Put, Moving On

The following essay was published almost a year ago, under the title “Staying in the Same Town as My Ex”. It was censored when my ex and cohort flooded the site that had published it with hate mail and threats. Other sites have generously republished the piece since, for which I am deeply grateful. The event was so traumatic for me that it never occurred to me – until now – to include the essay here. The attacks on my book and on this piece have brought me into contact with such brave and wonderful people.  My heartfelt thanks to everyone who has offered kindness and support in the past year. 


Recently, one of my children was referred to a new doctor. Somewhat unusually, my ex came along to the appointment.

The doctor entered the room where we sat waiting, introduced herself, and greeted my child. I introduced myself as my child’s mother. “And who are you?” the doctor asked my ex. “I’m the other parent,” my ex replied stiffly. “The other parent,” the doctor echoed, laughing and nodding. I could see her assessing the situation, making the obvious assumption about our family composition: I had given birth to my child. Her “other parent” was my former lesbian partner. Half right. Sketching in our child’s medical profile the doctor asked some questions about her brother and sister, and we provided the necessary information.

“But do they have the same father?” the doctor inquired. What she meant but didn’t say was, “Do they have the same sperm donor?”

“Yes,” we said in unison. What we meant but didn’t say was, “Yes, and you are looking at him.”

A funny thing happened on the way to my becoming a single mom.

My husband and I got together in our teens. More than 20 years and three children later, he decided to live the rest of his life as a woman. Our marriage melted along with his masculinity. I went through the anguish any woman might over the unexpected demise of a long and happy marriage. I faced the usual potpourri of dread–of penury, isolation–when I contemplated raising three children alone, the youngest still in diapers. Worse, I felt crushed by a sense that the reason for my marriage’s demise said something so terrible about me it would be intolerable to remain in a place in which it was public knowledge. Exactly what it said, I wasn’t sure. Maybe that was part of what made it so awful.

Everything was changing. I thought that where my children and I lived would have to change right along with it. But I love where I live. More importantly, my children are fiercely attached to it. They like that when my friends spot them in town without me, they want to know who they are with and what they are up to. They like knowing the trees that are tapped for our syrup and the chickens providing our eggs. They like noticing the way the flocks of turkeys who usually tie up traffic on our roads seem to go into hiding just before Thanksgiving each year only to reappear when it’s safely over.

Still. Weren’t we fighting a losing battle, hanging onto a place just because it was where we had once been happy? I couldn’t go, but how could I stay?

Finally someone offered the most profound insight into my situation I have heard to date, uttering the words that set me free from this stalemate: “You aren’t the first woman to marry a jerk, and you won’t be the last.”


She was saying I had nothing to be ashamed of. My ex’s choices didn’t reflect badly on me. When a guy dumps a wife and young children for another woman, people–the wife in question, certainly–are more likely to think, “What a jerk!” than, “What a hero!” Why should it be any different just because the other woman is the guy?

I’ve stayed–so far. As long I remain I can’t ever get entirely away from my past, but then maybe I don’t want to. It’s mine, after all. Everything my eyes rest on, every Fall Foliage banner, every coffee shop and playground, recalls some moment of my children’s lives, some treasure I never want to lose. I was happy before. I’m happy now. I’ve made a new life without leaving. Astoundingly, I’ve moved on without leaving home.

On the other hand, I also can’t get entirely away from my ex’s presence. There’s no upside to that one. I can’t know when, not if but when, my ex will pop up somewhere or sometime I least expect him.

Last December I was behind the wheel of a pickup truck, a little before 9 in the morning, after delivering my children to their schools. I was headed downhill on a narrow winding road, a horse pasture on the other side of the fence on my left. There is an entrance to the pasture at the bottom of the hill but few vehicles stop there. I was expecting a 40 mile an hour shot down the hill, through the tiny town center and up another hill to where I live, what National Public Radio calls my local member station muttering sedately at the outskirts of my attention all the while. Then two things happened.

My former husband was in the truck. That is, his voice was in the truck. His odd, grown-male-straining-for-the-uppermost-register-of-his-voice voice. Saying his name. Saying, “What the holidays mean to me is–.”

I reached the knob in time to spare myself anything further. I didn’t learn what the holidays mean to my ex. Presumably not celebrating with his family. Not the intention, unfulfilled yearly, to make it to the lighting of the town menorah. Not the intention, always fulfilled, to light every menorah we own at least one night of Hanukkah. Not the turns around a frozen pond in skates bought long ago for other feet. Not New Year’s Eve in front of the fire, at least one child struggling to remain head up and eyes open. Not these things he isn’t around for.

The radio station was engaged in a December campaign, trite but previously benign, of playing the voices of area residents saying Feliz Navidad or Happy Solstice. I was engaged in a December campaign of tuning them out. Why my former husband? How did they choose him? In their efforts to be inclusive did they feel that merely by airing his voice, regardless of what he said, they could have a demographic covered? I couldn’t think about it right then. I was too busy stomping on the brake, trying not to rear-end the truck in front of me that had, in the split second I was devoting to my radio knob, stopped at the pasture gate. I just made it.

Usually the omnipresence of Bing Crosby and the Chipmunks is enough reason to avoid the radio this time of year. Now I had another. In subsequent days I had several opportunities to lunge for the dial. Friends caught the spot and shared their unique takes on it. “My husband said he heard your ex on the radio advertising himself,” one reported. “Why would he be advertising himself?” she wondered. “My husband said whatever the reason was, if he gets any money out of it he hopes he will give some of it to his family.”

So yes, my ex recurs like Christmas carols. But I don’t have to let him drown out the rest of my life. I knew the holidays would soon be over, and the echoes of his voice along with them.

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The rest is commentary…

I’ve been quite interested in the lively debate among commentators recently. I am pleased that people have been using this site to communicate with each other, particularly when the conversation manages to remain civil. Alas, feelings run high in this arena, and not every exchange is respectful. Thus, I feel this is a good moment to clarify my evolving take on comments to this site.

I often feel a great deal of sympathy for those sharing their voices and opinions here – and I sometimes feel little sympathy for the opinions expressed. The fact that I choose to include a comment does not mean it is an expression of my views – it is the view of the person writing it.

Because of past attempts to censor my book and other writing, I am sensitive to issues of freedom of speech and want very much to foster open conversation about all the concerns touched upon in, or that spin off from, my posts. That’s one reason I include commentary that I don’t necessarily like. I am trying to draw the line at posts that are nasty, threatening, or that are clearly sent in a spirit of attack – just as I don’t welcome people into my home to attack me, I don’t offer this as a place for such comments. 

It seems likely that people are going to be talking about gender issues for a long time to come, and I hope some of you will do it – interestingly! respectfully! – here.

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American Girl Dolls

Some of us were made a bit queasy by American Girl Dolls at their best. An interesting article in the Atlantic analyzes changes in the line, to which I’ve posted a comment. As I mention there, I never really liked the dolls’ back stories, since that seemed to me to take away the whole purpose of doll play – making up stories. But my daughter and I did enjoy imagining our own line of trans dolls at a certain point when we needed some comic and creative relief, as I describe in Sex Changes.



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The Bathroom Question

Gender is in the air.

Over dinner recently with friends, a question arose: Do women have a right to women-only space?

We happened upon the subject when one friend spoke favorably of efforts by some schools to desegregate bathrooms by gender. Her argument was that gender-specific restrooms were offensive and inconvenient to people whose gender identity contradicts their anatomy. To women or girls who are afraid of having male-bodied people in their restrooms, my friend would say: trans people are not dangerous by virtue of being trans. There’s nothing to be afraid of.

My friend spoke passionately on this subject. As the mother of a female-to-male transsexual, she has been front row and center to the frustrations, misunderstandings and agonies that permeate the day to day life of a person in transition from one gender to another.

As the mother of a daughter who has been emotionally and psychologically damaged by a man, who carries a legacy of trauma into all her dealings with men, and who would be disturbed to find herself sharing a restroom with someone she knew to be male-bodied, my perspective is inevitably different. I found it striking that my friend, a feminist, was unhesitating in saying that women and girls have no right to space that is defined as female-bodied only.

In the week or so since that conversation, I’ve come across no less than three different articles in widely different publications on what I now think of as the bathroom question, though it could by implication affect all spaces, institutions, activities and endeavors whose access or membership is defined by identity – gender identity, ethnic, national or religious identity, and so on.

In the latest of these articles, a lawyer named James Ehrhard, writing in the Wall Street Journal yesterday, discussed the Massachusetts ban of last July on gender identity discrimination, and the state’s recent educational guidelines in response to that ban, directing schools to permit students to use the restrooms (and locker rooms, showers, and so on) of their choice, based upon their internal sense of gender, and also to provide gender neutral restrooms. Ehrhard noted that proponents of the law claim that people with gender identity issues make up approximately half of one percent of the population of Massachusetts. He went on to say that the law specifies that a male-bodied person’s desire to use a girls’ restroom trumps the possible discomfort some girls may feel with this situation.

This discussion emerges at a time when we are daily reminded of the vulnerability of women and girls, when reports of violence and sexual violence against women seem omnipresent, from the rape culture of college campuses to the brutally misogynist online harassment of girls by their male peers. It’s within this context that I struggle to understand how and why the needs of half of one percent of the population trump the needs of fifty percent of the population.

My friend’s point that trans people are not, as a group, dangerous to girls and women, is true. Unfortunately, the same can’t so easily be said of men. Some children go in and out of gender identities as they grow. I’ve known several who passed through periods of identifying as the opposite gender only to settle comfortably into the gender indicated by their bodies in adolescence. Shifting, fluid identities could be more easily accommodated in an ungendered world. But we don’t live in an ungendered world. Many of us don’t believe an ungendered world is possible, whether we wish it or not. In my experience with a transgendered ex-husband, “gender neutral” were dirty words. I was told quite forcibly and repeatedly that gender is in fact the most important, most elemental and immutable aspect of being human.

For women under siege, subject to violence, violation, economic, social and religious oppression based upon our female bodies, gender identity and its consequences indeed appear elemental and immutable.   


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New York Times Magazine, February 3, 2013

Yesterday’s New York Times Magazine published a letter and response in The Ethicist column, to which I’ve posted a comment. Here’s the link.
> http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/03/magazine/should-i-become-a-woman-and-risk-causing-pain-to-my-wife-and-children.html?comments#permid=59

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