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This talk presented 2/13 at Pecha Kucha Buffalo, Western New York Book Arts Center.

I am a game designer, theorist, and hacker. You might say that game design is my artistic practice. But I don’t really want to talk about games tonight, because I spend a lot of time talking about them in other venues. Instead, I wanted to take this opportunity to talk about a more personal aspect of my practice, one which is based upon my complex set of social identities — compiled into a single identity that we might call cyborg identity. This is the first and foremost way in which I am a hacker.

We are all cyborgs in a Harawayan sense. We are amalgamations of complicated histories of violence, socialization, and the internalization of the oppression that surrounds us. In her 1989 “Cyborg Manifesto”, Donna Haraway writes about the ways in which feminism has failed women of color and women in the Global South. She neglects to mention the group which has been failed most violently by feminism, transgender people. Feminism has a nasty history of erasing transgender people: denying the humanity and womanhood of trans women, fetishizing and degendering trans men, and rejecting legitimacy of all people who queer gender. This is a topic for another talk entirely — what matters tonight is that Haraway is not trying to squeeze all non-men into a certain framework. She is trying to pull apart the tangle of identity.

The interesting thing about Haraway’s exclusion of transgender identities from her discussion of cyborgs is that we are perfect examples of cyborg praxis. By that I mean, we have bodies mediated in complex, meaningful ways by technology which, in many cases must be separated into component parts (and we are often examined as medical curiosities and rarely treated as holistic people); we have a preoccupation with the technologies of writing and language; and regardless of the complex gender identity we claim for ourselves, we represent an embodied experience of dissonance, language-play, Deleuzian multiplicity, and mediation. Trans people are living rejections of a dualism that separates the mind from the body: by virtue of our trans-ness, we refuse that there is any division at all.

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So, in thinking about what I ought to do as a project for my wearable media course, I’ve been thinking a lot about how what we wear deeply influences the way people read our gender identities. Also, the committee for the DSM-V has been publishing proposed changes to the DSM-IV’s gender identity disorder (GID) section on the web. There are a lot of issues surrounding the creation of these diagnoses and identifying GID as a mental illness at all. There’s also the Harry Benjamin Standards of Care, which requires the patient to “live cross-gender” for a certain amount of time before hormone therapy or surgery can be prescribed.

Ultimately these diagnoses and requirements and standards are gatekeeper tools which are, more often than not, tyrannical and harmful to the patients they’re supposed to be designed to help. They force folks into boxes, discredit them when they don’t conform (especially with regard to who they date and how they behave in society), and generally make it difficult — cost-wise, time-wise, and physical-safety-wise — to get the care that they need. They’re historically a source of pain for many trans people, and present major roadblocks to a variety of cross-sections of the trans population.

Another source of inspiration for this project is Constraint City, which is a vest that constricts when the wearer is near more closed wireless networks. It can be worn while walking through urban environments, allowing a new kind of consciousness of things you cannot see. (And it hurts.)

My thought is that I should create a user interface that “assists” the wearer in “living cross-gender.” The garment itself will be a kind of corset — already a kind of torture device — that you can set up to be male-to-female or female-to-male. (There are only two kinds of transsexuals, don’t you know.) Depending on a number of feedback sources that determine how “well” you are living in the “opposite gender,” the vest will constrict you (if you need “help”) or loosen. Depending on your gender setting, it will either constrict the waist (to “feminize”) or chest (to “masculinize”).

Possible metrics for “success” include: feedback from others, posture, voice pitch, mannerisms, way of moving, talkativeness, and perhaps others. The vest will also track the amount of time you spend successfully living “cross-gender,” and perhaps report out to a website that will allow you to keep track of the time you spend. This information will, of course, be public, and kind of embarrassing.

So the SOCVest is public, humiliating, painful, and essentializing. Sound familiar? I thought so. I plan to use it for a performance about my own medical care and medical history. The document will remain on the SOCVest website for all to see.

Feedback would very much be appreciated, maybe I will post some sketches of the vest design.

By now I imagine most people who are interested in what I write about have seen Clay Shirky’s recent blog post, A Rant About Women. While the title of the blog entry itself is a bit of a misnomer (I don’t think Shirky is really ranting about women so much as he is ranting about femininity) it’s also a bit of a hot-button topic for a lot of people. I’ve read several smart critiques of the general thesis, but I haven’t seen a critique from the specific angle I would like to tackle. The assumptions that Shirky makes about the way society should be are a little bit frightening, but I’ve been thinking more and more about where these ideas come from, and some of them are more well-formulated than others, but I’m going to give it a go.

The one thing I’ve not been seeing explicitly is the idea that Shirky is taking issue with femininity. In her book Whipping Girl, Julia Serano discusses how our entire society — many feminists included — treat femininity as something to avoid. This is manifested in many ways. Consider how it’s generally okay for little girls to play with action figures, but when a little boy wants to play with a baby doll, suddenly red lights go off in his parents’ heads and the boy is punished. Or consider that when women were first allowed to enter the working world they were expected to assimilate with men. Or consider that because I’m a trans man I get certain privileges over trans women, like acceptance in more cis queer circles or the freedom to not worry about violence constantly.

What Shirky completely misses in his post is that he’s becoming part of this problem — the oppression women (all women) face in our society is not just income ceilings (or being locked out of employment altogether) or socialization into subservient roles, but that anybody who conforms in any way to that notion of femininity is viewed as weak, inferior, and, often, problematic. By saying that it doesn’t matter that his blog post asks women to be more like men, Shirky is essentially cosigning the erasure of feminine identities, which is completely and utterly unacceptable.

I think danah boyd raises a great point, too, when she points out that diversity isn’t just about arranging “diverse-looking” people in a room and calling it a job well done. (Also if we were all self-aggrandizing jerks nothing would ever get done! Too much infighting!)

Yesterday I re-read Donna Haraway’s “A Cyborg Manifesto” [PDF hosted by AAAARG.ORG]. The first time I read it was when I was starting to think about what it means to be post-gender, but I have to say that this re-reading was so much richer and full of interesting stuff than that first reading could ever have been. My context has been strengthened and my own thinking has become more sophisticated, as well.

One of the things that means a lot more to me now is Haraway’s concept of the cyborg as a being who does not strive toward totality of theory, or ultimate all-encompassing explanation. Something I have struggled with has been this demand placed on me, especially as a public face of trans advocacy, to come up with some nugget or essence of what it is to be a transgender person. I guess there isn’t a kernel that some fundamental “trans-ness” can be boiled down to.

And maybe that is part of what resonates so strongly with me about this anti-imperialist critique of feminism. Unlike other critiques of feminism I have read, Haraway identifies a very particular characteristic of most feminisms (and most -isms, really), especially of the radical variety. Haraway writes

The feminist dream of a common language, like all dreams for a perfectly true language, of perfectly faithful naming of experience, is a totalizing and imperialist one. In that sense, dialectics too is a dream language, longing to resolve contradiction.

And I think this gets at something very important about what it means to me to be a transgender person — many cis people tend to read into my self-identification an attempt to resolve the apparently irreconcilable contradiction between man/woman, whereas I think putting the weight of such a reconciliation on an individual is basically harmful and sort of, well, imperialistic. It is the use of a differently (and intentionally) gendered body to negotiate a certain gendered social reality that has come to be thought of as oppressive.

I suppose ultimately what excites me the most is the idea of an ideological system that is content with its incompleteness, that being a cyborg or being post-gender (post-human) is about a kind of becoming as opposed to a being. It seems to me that this is about shifting lines of definition, not just of oneself but also of one’s society and social categories, regulations, and expectations.

In attempting to formulate a cyborg politics, Haraway asks, “what kind of politics could embrace partial, contradictory, permanently unclosed constructions of personal and collective selves and still be faithful, effective — and, ironically, socialist-feminist?” The rhetoric of both socialism and feminism don’t give room for incomplete, in-process identities. An in-process identity requires an affordance for what Haraway calls “polyvocality.” I think Haraway’s critique of Marxism and feminism is on point in ths way — and why feminist theorizing about transgender bodies and identities has a historical tendency to be screwed up. I don’t think that transgender selves or any semblance of totality.

On the contrary, I tend to think if there is anything at the core of trans-ness, it is a joyful expression of “permanently unclosed” identity if I’ve ever seen it. What feminist theorists get wrong about transgender selves and transgender bodies, then, is trying to squeeze a process (i.e., a temporal metaphor) into a spatial metaphor of categorization. I think this idea needs a little working out, especially since our understanding of time is spatially mediated, but the point is you cannot make a process or even a series of relations into a category because it is ongoing, open-ended, destabilized, and generative.

Trans people are the ultimate cyborgs. “Our” postmodern identities are predicated on an acceptance of the partiality of our perspectives and selves, even as a collective. I also think that in “our” constant contemplation and manipulation of language, “we” live Haraway’s “struggle for language and the struggle against perfect communication.” She even goes so far as to say that this struggle is a subversion of “the structure of desire, the force imagined to generate language and gender, and so [subverts] the structure and modes of production of Western identity.” (emphasis mine)

What I’ve learned in the past year or so is that the struggle for postcolonial identity, transgender identity, and a complex conception of multiple overlapping identities is a matter of struggling against exactly that structure. Complex multiple identities — at play in both the theorization of the postcolonial self and the transgender self — make it impossible to theorize about a totality of people. Who, after all, are the “transgender people” of this world? Who are really the “subaltern”? Who do we intentionally or accidentally exclude by naming these things?

Haraway’s critique of feminism translates directly in this way to (my) transgender critique of feminism. Re-reading this in light of everything that I have learned in the past two or three years was a total joy. I am sure I will be revisiting many of these ideas soon, hopefully a bit more rigorously. Thanks for playing!

I could really use some feedback on this, because I’m not sure what to do. I’m mostly writing this blog post to work out the pros and the cons for myself. I’m trying to work on my remarks for tomorrow’s Transgender Day of Remembrance event. I really want to hit home the point of the two recent murders of young people who are being portrayed by the media as gay men, erasing the facts that their murders were predicated on their perceived gender identities. That’s another issue altogether, and one that is very important.

I got an email today from a staff writer for the undergrad school paper, The Spectrum. He wanted to know more details about the event I am organizing tomorrow because he is assigned to cover it for the paper. I told him I wanted to meet, and we talked a little bit, but I remain unconvinced. I am not sure if I want a cis man speaking for a community I belong to that is entirely invisibilized on this campus.

The pros in his favor are not just that he is a gateway to a campus media outlet. It’s also that he was willing to come meet with me and talk a little about the sensitivity of the issue. He was clearly worried about the issue and said he would run things by me before publication. He was respectful, perhaps a little apologetic for my tastes, but he genuinely wanted to report the events in a way that respected the event and the lives it commemorates.

On the other hand I feel like I should be writing an Op-Ed for this paper. I don’t think the first interface with the invisible trans community on this campus should be via a cis reporter. Rather, it should be straight from the horse’s mouth. It also bugs me that this report won’t run until next week as opposed to the day of, which is something an Op-Ed could do. (I guess it didn’t even occur to me to send one in since I never see the undergrad paper anyway, my bad.)

I’m also concerned that his studious notetaking will inhibit those in attendance who need this event to be a safe space to think about and reflect on the most extreme expressions of cis privilege and hateful violence. I’m worried it’ll detract from the event.  But, I want the campus to know that people who are a part of our community really and honestly care about this issue. I want to see a dialogue started about it. And I don’t want to trivialize it.

Ultimately, though, this event is about making a safe place for us to reflect and think about the future, not about teaching others about the community. Voz Latina pointed this out to me, and I think she is right. I still hold this latent feeling that we need to make this an obvious issue that people on campus care about.

Do you see my frustration and conflict?

As I write this I lean toward telling him not to come. What should I do?

Tonight the wonderful Eileen Myles appeared at Just Buffalo. I went, with a number of friends, and was summarily blown away. I think what I’m starting to realize now is that Eileen really put my head back on my shoulders again, and gave me a little slap around even. I realized on the car ride home that she’s the first person I’ve encountered at this point, in Buffalo, who’s talked about the issues that have been giving me such trouble my whole life. Amplified by coming here, where I am more or less on my own for the first time. I haven’t even fully articulated yet what those issues are, but to hear her read and talk was like a slap in the face. The good kind.

I am still unraveling what that means.

I am afraid that my isolation has gotten the better of me. I miss a community of trans friends I could bounce ideas around with, be honest with, and stand behind.

I am drafting an email to the DMS graduate students about a Transgender Day of Remembrance event. Because the TDoR event on this campus is sponsored by an institutional organization. And because we should all care about each other.

And, I’m tired of the anxious closet.

I told Olivier I think I make some faculty members very anxious. I’ve been having this discussion with a number of people and maybe the anxiety is because they are not sure how to address me, and thus not sure how to address themselves to me, that maybe they see in me an identity-politics powder keg. Why am I lying about these things? Why am I omitting something I’ve fought so hard for? Why am I not clawing out toeholds again, here, so I can be okay?

I think Eileen Myles shook me out of this three-month slumber. By saying the things she said, or just existing maybe. Or making me anxious too.

I feel fierce but isolated. I feel supported, but alone. I am at the top of my fucking game and nobody knows it but me.

One of the weirdest things about having moved somewhere completely brand-new at this point in my life is that I am nearly universally read as male. It’s funny because everywhere I went before I’d be unintentionally outed — whether because I already knew people there (I knew about 5 people in Buffalo when I moved here), I was asked upfront because I seemed more androgynous, or I had to correct someone’s pronoun usage. This move has been different because I have been on testosterone for over a year. My voice is low, I can grow a little facial hair, I’ve bulked up. There’s a lot less ambiguity.

So I’ve had to come out to people. At first it was just the handful of people in my cohort who I drove home on Thursday nights, but now I’ve kind of thrown caution to the wind and begun outing myself to people everywhere. It’s funny because the reaction that I’ve been getting most often is, “Oh my goodness, I never would have guessed!” Occasionally somebody just looks at me in confusion until I tell them that I’m FTM, because they assume that it’s the other way around. So far it really hasn’t changed the relationships I have with people here, at least not in a negative way. Last night at the Essex I had a friend tell me that he respected me more because of it.

I’ve always thought a lot about the dynamics of being able to be “stealth,” because when I was younger I fantasized about being able to be so universally read as male that I didn’t have to worry about it. But now that I think of my gender as something more fluid and difficult to pin down, and now that I realize that my gender is much more complex than “I wish I were a man,” it seems like a betrayal of a lot of progress in the area of trans rights to just take it in stride and let people speculate if they are suspicious that something is different about the new games TA. I think it’s better to be open about the situation because there are so few out trans folk floating around UB. It’s also better because there are no surprises for anybody — either for my new friends or for me, when they find out.

Nevertheless, it’s strange having to out myself. For so long I’ve been universally read as queer, and assumptions have been made about me. For the first time in my life I am assumed to be a straight man, and that’s probably the weirdest thing in the world. It’s much weirder than I expected it to be, at least.

I’ve been trying to make sense of my life for the past few days, and as I’ve been working on making a list of things that I need to take care of, I discovered that I don’t have quite enough T to get me through the move. While I don’t think Dr. Rodgers will have a problem helping me out with one more month’s worth of T, I’m a little worried about what will happen when I get to Buffalo. There’s a list of trans-friendly doctors on this site, but I’ve been warned that many of them aren’t taking new patients. I’m also worried that my having been on T for a year won’t be sufficient “proof” that it’s medically necessary.

I don’t like the idea of relocating for this reason. It’s a stupid reason, because you’d think that if you had a longstanding medical need you could just find a doctor. Such is not the case. I’m also concerned that I won’t be able to find a doctor who is laid back enough to understand that just because the medical literature assumes that I want to be a man doesn’t mean I actually do want to be a man.

I’m going to make some phone calls tomorrow to see if I can set up any initial consultations when I get to Buffalo. I hate that this has to be such a major thing.

I’ve been a busy one lately, and I know it’s really not a very good excuse for not blogging, because if anything, I should be posting more because I’m always looking for something to do that isn’t what I’m supposed to be doing.  I haven’t been feeling ready to write anything lately, which is another kettle of fish entirely, but it is somewhat related to my preoccupation.

This past weekend was the University of Michigan Social Justice Conference.  I actually had a pretty good time, learned a great deal, and met some excellent humans.  It was a good space for me to meet some people I wouldn’t have met normally due to our different interests in different sectors of social justice, and while I don’t necessarily agree with everything they had to say, I think it was a good experience for me to get outside my IGR-insulated comfort zone.  I had a hard time with a lot of things, though, including the issue of diversity of groups and individuals involved.  For a conference examining community growth and coalition-building as well as personal development as activists, I felt very out-of-place and disconnected from much of the conference.  Like I said, I found the conference largely beneficial.

Yet I couldn’t shake the feeling of alienation.  I couldn’t help feeling isolated from time to time, like I was watching other people doing things.  It wasn’t until our breakout session when we brainstormed challenges for the future that I felt really connected to anybody else at the conference.  I think part of the root of this feeling was the acute knowledge of being regarded in a certain way because I was the only out transgender person at the conference.  The number of queer folk seemed pretty small in general, and the number of people of color was a bit disappointing to me, too.

Looking back I can kind of see why this was the case.  I don’t think that queer political movements were integrated into the conference the way others were, and perhaps that is merely emblematic of the personal interests and priorities of the group who were most influential in organizing the conference.  (An important observation at our large-group session toward the end: we might never come to a consensus about what to tackle and how!)  I just took a look at the poster again on the blog, and the only social identity groups whose fight for civil rights is not characterized as a rights struggle are queer folks and women.  I have other social justice priorities, interests and passions, too, but my struggle for equality is not about my gender “issues.”  It’s about my rights to be fully enfranchised as a human being.

The representation at the conference of LGBT-related organizations began and ended with LGBT Commission.  While I respect the work LGBT Commission does, it is, undeniably, dominated by white, upper-middle class, cisgender gays and lesbians.  I’ve never felt like LGBT Commission had my interests in mind.  I suppose I can’t make assumptions about whether or not other groups were reached out to or invited and, possibly, declined to offer a workshop or input because of time constraints, but it kind of left a feeling of uneasiness with me.

Let’s also consider the keynotes and panelists, with the exception of Shanta Driver and Hector Aristizabal, were white men.  And that the closing plenary, Derrick Jensen, while interesting and entertaining, is also a deeply divisive figure.

In order to build the broad-based coalitions we talked about at the conference, we must address these things.  It didn’t take me until now to really articulate some of these specific things that caused my feelings of alienation and unease.  That said, I do think that UMSJC 09 was a great step in the right direction.  I’d be really happy to see more events and activities like it to continue on this campus.  I can’t help but care deeply about U-M even though I’m leaving in four months.  (Still seems incredible.)  This is, in a big way, my home, and I love it.  I hope we can take these critiques to heart as serious ones, and continue to build greater solidarity.


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