Yesterday I headed into Bath. Part of that was to do some shopping. I had a copy of the new Johanna Sinisalo book, The Core of the Sun, to pick up from Mr. B’s. I’m very much looking forward to that one. I also discovered the Saturday market that they have in the old Green Park Station building (Green Park was the northern terminus of the Somerset & Dorset Railway, or the Slow & Dirty, as it was known in these here parts). There I found Somerset Charcuterie, who do some very nice salamis. I picked up packets of the Garlic & Black Pepper, and the Red Wine & Blue Cheese flavors, both of which are very nice.
The main point of the day, however, was to attend a meeting of the Women’s Equality Party. There has been some concern that the WEP might end up a White Feminist party. I was encouraged by the interview I did with Jess from the Bristol branch on Ujima a few weeks ago. However, the Facebook page of the Bath branch has seen a lot of TERF presence. There was some concern that these people might actually be members of the Bath group, as opposed to trolls. So I went along to a party meeting to see what these people were like.
I am pleased to report that I was made very welcome. I’m pretty sure that most WEP members are reasonable people who do want equality. I note also that Sophie Walker, the party leader, has stood up to TERFs in online discussions. And the leaflets they had at the meeting clearly said that the party welcomes member of all genders. No doubt the mob at the New Statesman will be doing whatever they can to change this, but for now the WEP appears to be shaping up quite well.
I have email today from the very fine people at Aqueduct Press, informing me of new books that they have available. A couple of them look very interesting.
The first is a new novel from Andrea Hairston. Will Do Magic for Small Change is a follow-up of sorts (though a couple of generations later) to her Redwood and Wildfire, which won the Tiptree and Kindred awards. It looks like a really interesting book.
Of great interest to me, though possibly not to many of you, is The Merril Theory of Lit’ry Criticism, a collection of non-fiction writing by the legendary Judith Merril. Given that Samuel Delany describes Merril as, “perhaps the most important intra-genre critic the field has had”, she is someone that every aspiring SF critic needs to read.
The London Review of Books normally only features in this blog when I am reporting on the VIDA count — it has a lamentable record. However, that doesn’t mean that they don’t publish women at all. The forthcoming issue will contain an article by a woman, and it is about trans people. What’s more, you can read it online here.
Jacqueline Rose’s essay is very long, and somewhat rambling. It is broadly supportive, and contains a lot of interesting stuff. I certainly learned a few things from it. I don’t expect many of you will have the stamina to read it, but I know some of you have. As with any long piece, it goes off the rails a little in places, and I wanted to note those here.
First up, I don’t think it was “sentimental” of the writers of The Danish Girl to change Lili Elbe’s story so that she died from the results of her gender surgery, rather than from a later attempt to give her a womb. I submit that it was a deliberate lie to make it seem like gender surgery is much more dangerous than it actually is, and to give the impression that being a trans woman is a crime publishable by death.
Second, it is not generally true that hijra, “renounce sexual desire by undergoing sacrificial emasculation”. Some may do. India is a huge country, and hijra are found in other parts of south Asia as well, so I’m actually not comfortable with any blanket statements. However, I do know that some hijra have partners (whom they presumably have sex with), that some do sex work (which they may or may not enjoy), and some are involved in ritual sex work as part of their religious function.
Thirdly, when Rose pisses all over the Trans Day of Remembrance, she is clearly unaware of the work done by Transgender Europe’s Murder Monitoring Project which most definitely does keep information about the victims aside from their names.
My main concern about the article, however, is that it is a think piece, and as such it spends a lot of time trying to understand and explain trans people. When someone from outside of the trans community tries to do this, it often results in pontification about what trans people are “really”, and in pitting parts of the trans community against each other to try to find who is doing trans honestly and authentically, and who is a liar and a fake. This never works, because trans people are not all the same.
If you think about a gender spectrum, for example, someone who has a very strong identification with one gender, which just happens not to be the one assigned to them at birth, is a very different person from someone who is genderfluid, or agnostic about gender. It makes no sense to say that one of them must be “doing trans wrong”. Look, some men like to spend their weekends running around mountains, or white-water kayaking, while others prefer to spend it sat on a couch drinking beer and watching football. Is one of those groups somehow doing masculinity “wrong”? Or are they just different?
(I’d make the same argument about female gender stereotypes, but pretty much whatever women do you can find a ton of articles in women’s magazines pearl-clutching about how this is inappropriate female behavior and everyone should stop doing it or GUILT!!!)
So it doesn’t matter if Kate Bornstein and Jenny Boylan have different views as to what it means to be trans. That’s natural and healthy, not a sign that one is honest and the other lying to herself and others. If the trans thing has a value to feminism and gender studies, it is because we explode boxes in all sorts of interesting ways. Please don’t try to find new boxes to put us in.
Copies of Eastern Tide, the final volume in Juliet McKenna’s Aldabreshin Compass series, is now available from Google, Kobo and Nook (the latter US only). Amazon are doing their usual thing of making me jump through hoops to prove that I have the right to sell the book, but they’ll probably be on board tomorrow sometime. Links to the purchase pages of the books are available here.
Update: Eastern Tide is now available from Amazon as well.
The crowdfunding effort for the Far Horizons Press anthologies has just a few days to run. It is a flexible funding thing, so the books are going to happen even though it is a long way from the target. I would, of course, like to be paid for my story, but more importantly I’d like the other contributors to get paid. Every little helps.
By the way, thanks to the BristolCon Foundation for contributing to the fund drive. Part of their purpose is to support local writers and publishers, and while I have an obvious vested interest this is clearly well within their remit.
This year’s Worldcon, MidAmericon II, will be announcing the finalists for the 2016 Hugo Awards today. The announcements will be made through their social media channels (Twitter, Facebook), and doubtless echoed by all and sundry. This will be, err, interesting…
One of the most common attacks on trans people that I see can be summed up as, “But, CHROMOSOMES!!!”. We know, after all, that our chromosomes are in every cell of our bodies. We are, allegedly, indelibly either male or female. That, we are told, cannot be changed. People advancing this view always claim to be arguing scientifically. They know very little about science. Part of my job, in doing trans awareness training, is to disabuse them of their foolishness. When I discovered Sex Itself by Sarah S Richardson I knew I had to read it. I am very glad that I did.
Sex Itself is essentially a history of the science of sex chromosomes. It is a fairly short history, starting in the early 20th Century, but is none the less fascinating if you have enough of a science background to not be put off by the language, which gets very technical at times. It is an object lesson in how cultural attitudes inform scientific research. Even the term, “sex chromosomes” is controversial. I use it here primarily because I want people with a poor understanding of the issues to read this post, and I know how search engines work.
Let’s start with a simple statement (emphasis mine):
Biologists have never been under the illusion that genes and chromosomes are all there is to the biology of sex. […] Today, academic sexologists typically distinguish between chromosomal sex, gonadal sex, hormonal sex, genital sex and sexual identity. Some would add sexual preference, gender identity, morphological sex, fertility and even brain sex to this list.
So yes, it has never been the case that science thought that sex was determined solely by chromosomes. Sorry, TERFs*.
Real science is complicated, messy. We still don’t really understand all of the biological pathways that result in the various facets of sex. What we can say is that X = female, Y = male is nonsense.
To start with, not all animals use the XX/XY system of chromosomes. Birds, for example, have a very different, and much more complicated system. And yet birds occur in male, female and intersex forms. There are species in which the form with XY chromosomes would normally be regarded as female (i.e. produces eggs rather than sperm). There is even a mammal species, the mole vole, that doesn’t have Y chromosomes. They have XX and XO variants, but the XOs still have recognizably male behavior and play a male role in reproduction.
Even in humans, “correct” configuration of the sex chromosomes is neither necessary nor sufficient to produce a body of a particular sex. There is at least one well documented case of a person with XY chromosomes getting pregnant and giving birth (to a daughter with XY chromosomes). And differentiation of ovaries and testes in the embryo is dependent on two genes on other chromosomes as well as the XX/XY pair.
Despite all of this obvious science, the book chronicles endless attempts by scientists to find a magic switch that is “sex itself”, the ultimate determinant of human nature; and to prove once and for all that men are from Mars and women from Venus. One of the most ridiculous examples of this is the 2005 Nature paper by Carrell & Willard which claimed that there is as much, if not more, difference between the genome of a human male and a human female, than there is between that of a human and a chimpanzee. It doesn’t take much critical thinking to find the flaws in that, but Richardson, good scientist that she is, goes in detail into the different methods used to calculate “difference” in the human-male/human-female case, and in the human/chimpanzee case, to show that the comparison is invalid. And she makes the philosophical point that a genome is a property of a species, not of a sub-form of a species that is incapable of independent reproduction.
Another example is the ongoing debate between David Page and Jennifer Graves over the status of the Y chromosome. Page maintains that the Y is a noble beast and source of all that is great and good in humans; while Graves maintains that it is a wimpy runt with no great purpose nor any evolutionary future. I exaggerate a little for effect, but both scientists openly use sex war rhetoric in their debates so they really can’t complain. The controversy has found its way into the media, and into popular culture. Richardson cites Gwyneth Jones’s Life and Brian Vaughan & Pia Guerra’s Y: The Last Man as examples.
My own preconceptions were not immune from Richardson’s intellectual scalpel. The easiest way to explain the results of Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome (the intersex condition that gives rise to things like the aforementioned XY pregnancy) is that human bodies are default female, and need a variety of processes, triggered by the Y chromosome, to make a male. I now know that this isn’t strictly true. An embryo will not develop as fully female without other active processes.
This issue shows how complex the cultural issues surrounding gender science are. I used to think that I was being proudly feminist in stating that being female was the default state of mankind, and that being male was some sort of weird mutation. I now find that I am a dupe of the Patriarchy for believing that being female is a passive state waiting to be conquered and controlled by the masterful Y chromosome. I am suitably chastised.
Another area where I have had to modify my own understanding is the relationship between Klinefelter syndrome and gender identity. Klinefelter is a condition where the body has XXY chromosomes. When I was young, this was thought to be potentially diagnostic of trans women. I remember being distraught when my chromosome test came back as XY, because an XXY result would have fast-tracked me through the medical system. However, from what Richardson says it seems that trans women are not over-represented in the population of people who exhibit Klinefelter, and consequently the condition is neither diagnostic of, nor a potential explanation of, our gender identity.
This brings me to the most spectacular example of sex science nonsense in the book, and a possible explanation for the beliefs of the TERFs. Klinefelter is by no means the only condition in which a body’s chromosome mix is neither XX nor XY. One of many others is the so-called “super-male”, XYY. Back in 1965 Patricia Jacobs, a brilliant geneticist who discovered the biological cause of Klinefelter when she was just 21, published a study in Nature showing that inmates with XYY were over-represented in a high security psychiatric institution.
Sadly Jacobs wasn’t near as good at social science as she was at analyzing genes. There are all sorts of flaws with the study, including the later discover that XXY conditions were similarly over-represented. But before you could say “radical feminism”, the idea that a Y chromosome was an indicator of criminal violence, and two Ys doubly so, was all over popular culture. There was even a series of books, and later a TV series, called The XYY Man.
The idea that XYY was an indicator of a violently criminal nature has long since been debunked, but the idea that a Y chromosome is the seat of violence is still very much current among radical feminists and is often cited as “proof” of why trans women should not be allowed into female spaces. Personally I think that if there is any culprit then it would be testosterone, and the Nazi attempts to produce a super-soldier serum (based on research stolen from Magnus Hirschfeld’s sex clinic) would seem to back me up. Doubtless the TERFs would claim that it only takes one drop of testosterone in utero to turn a human into a violent psychopath, so trans women still can’t be trusted.
And yes, I did use the phrase “one drop” deliberately there. Many of the flawed scientific studies that Richardson describes in the book reek of eugenics, and a book I now want to read is Stephen Jay Gould’s Mismeasure of Man, which chronicles scientific attempts to prove white supremacy.
Science, as I noted above, is complicated, and the interaction of science with society doubly so. I totally understand the need to examine how medical conditions differ between males and females (and indeed between people of different ethnic groups). As someone whose body is now physically intersex (thanks to medical intervention) I have a vested interest in such things. But the obsession that humans have with categorizing things in binaries, and with using popular misunderstandings of science as a crutch for bigotry, makes all such work very dangerous. I am very grateful to Sarah Richardson for shining a bright light on the murky issue of chromosomal sex. Hopefully I can do her work justice in future training courses.
* Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists
Eastern Tide, the final volume in Juliet E McKenna’s Aldabreshin Compass series, will be available in the usual ebook stores later this week. Once again we have some magnificent cover art by Ben Baldwin. Juliet has various guest posts planned for this week, and the first one is up already. It is part of the “Nobody Knew She Was There” series on Sarah Ash’s blog.
More news later this week.
And with the Aldabreshin Compass series finished, I need to find something for Wizard’s Tower to do next. Expect news.
The season finale of season 2 of I Am Cait aired in the USA yesterday. Here in the UK we have just got episode 7, so that’s what I’ll be talking about today.
The first topic of the show was Caitlyn having a heart-to-heart with Kris about their marriage and their future. That sort of thing I tend to think should be private between them and not commented on, but the exchange did further highlight how long Caitlyn has been struggling with her gender issues, and just how unhappy and non-functional people in that situation can become.
Next up was the question of genital surgery. Caitlyn hasn’t had it. She’s not sure that she wants it. That will doubtless come as a shock to some people. Jenny Boylan provided contrast by explaining how important surgery was to her, and how keen she was to get it. That was me all over. I could not wait to get it done, and like Jenny I have had no regrets since. She’s lesbian and I’m not, so there’s difference there. Caitlyn very clearly needed to transition for the sake of her mental health, but genital surgery is not a major issue for her. All of which goes to show just how diverse trans people are.
Jenny brought in Marci Bowers who is a surgeon specializing in gender surgery, and a trans woman herself, so obviously an ideal person to do such work. She noted that only around 20% of US trans people have had genital surgery, and that cost is a major issue there.
The other major storyline was Candis’s desire for a family. Having had zero luck in dating, she’s thinking of adopting. That won’t be easy because she’s single and trans. Adoption is legal, but getting to do it is a whole different ball game. Candis talked frankly about how so much transphobia happens politely, behind the scenes. People are all very nice to you, but somehow what you want is just not possible.
Of course, as Kris pointed out, having a family is by no means necessarily a cakewalk for cis women. All sorts of problems can arise, from infertility to pregnancy complications to husband problems and so on. So maybe things will work out for Candis.
This is the point at which I should note that I’m getting quite fond of Kris Jenner. Not fond enough to watch all of the Kardashian shows, but her public persona on this show is pretty impressive.
When I was at Kingston University last week one of the questions from the audience was about Caitlyn. The students didn’t seem too impressed with her. I asked if anyone had watched the shows, and none of them had. This is sad. Caitlyn’s media profile is pretty bad, and she’s made some horrendous mistakes. However, what she and the rest of the cast are doing on the show is valuable. Much of that is, of course, down to Jenny, Kate, Chandi and so on, but the show would not have happened without Caitlyn, and I rather suspect that her money is keeping it going. If you want to learn more about trans people — trans women in particular — then the show is very useful.
I think we have the season finale next week. This appears to be the show where they get back to talking about religion and politics. Then we’ll see how much Caitlyn has learned.
By the way, is it wrong of me to think that LA Clippers is a reality TV show about hairdressers in Hollywood?
I spent most of yesterday at Trans*Code, a meet-up for trans people and allies in the IT industry. It is primarily a hack day, so various interesting projects got started. Here’s a run-down of what we did.
Clothing Exchange – the idea here was to allow trans people who are getting rid of the clothes because of a gender change to donate those clothes to other trans people who might need new clothes but can’t afford them. Doing it online might be useful for people in small towns, though personally I hate all forms of mail order clothes buying.
Funding appeal site – this project sought to provide a venue whereby people could donate money to help trans people with their transition expenses. That could mean anything from paying for an electrolysis course to financing a private medical consultation. Donors would get perks from corporate sponsors. Clearly this needs a proper charity to run it and select beneficiaries, but it could work.
Voice training site – there was a lot of interest in this project, which aimed to provide an online self-help system for trans people seeking to change how they speak. Long term I think people would benefit from professional voice coaching, but that’s not something I’ve ever been able to splash money on and it can be expensive if you don’t live in a big city where such help can be found. Ideally the site would work with one or more professional trainers, but they’d have to be able to charge for what they do because it is their livelihood.
Music synching – this had nothing to do with being trans. Someone just wanted to be able to synch music over several PCs connected via the Internet. I can see it being a cool thing if you are playing an online RPG. Obviously everyone would need a (legal) local copy of the music.
Gender recognition game – Douglas Adams once produced a computer game about trying to persuade a bank to change the name on your account. It was basically a long joke about bureaucracy. This game was all about trying to get a Gender Recognition Certificate, which is way harder than changing your bank account.
Trans*Code directory – somewhere on GitHub where all of this stuff can get stored.
And finally the stuff I was up to. My friend Shaan from the Twilight People project wants to create an app based around the personal histories he has created. We spent a good part of the day brainstorming what that app would look like, and what we needed to do to make it happen. We didn’t actually write much code, partly because I don’t have all of the necessary skills, and partly because some development tools I was expecting to have didn’t turn up on time. More will happen in due course.
Huge thanks are due to Naomi Cedar for organizing the whole thing. Since the inaugural meeting last year she has moved back to Chicago, and she flew in especially for yesterday’s event. Huge thanks also to Emily and everyone from Go Cardless who sponsored the event, in particular by providing a venue. There were several other corporate sponsors as well.
One of these days, BGEN people please note, we must do one of these things in the Bath/Bristol area.