Tag Archives: gender

Stonewall: Then and Now

Laurie says:

I wrote this a week ago, and I said that 9 transgender women (that we know of), mostly black and brown, had been murdered this year.  Two more have been murdered since then. I initially wrote this in anger and I am writing in anger now.

On Tuesday, the body of Brooklyn Lindsey—a transgender black woman—was discovered on the porch of an abandoned house in Kansas City, Mo. She was 32. CNN reports her death has been ruled a homicide due to multiple gunshot wounds. This makes her the 11th black transwoman to be murdered in America this year. From The Root
My grandmother’s jewelry store,The Waverly Shop, was up the block from the Stonewall riots in 1969. I grew up in that neighborhood and later worked in her shop. But by then, I was no longer in NYC but living on the houseboats at Gate 5 in the Bay Area. I heard about it and was awed that people were fighting back for the first time. (I know more now.)

Marsha P Johnson

At the time, the Stonewall Inn was owned by the Mafia. The people who hung out there were among the poorest and most marginalized people in the gay community: drag queens, transgender people, effeminate young men, butch lesbians, male prostitutes, and homeless youth. Police raids on gay bars were routine in the 1960s, but officers quickly lost control of the situation at the Stonewall Inn.(Wikipedia) Usually they got to abuse people anyway they wanted to, but not this time. Sylvia Rivera, a Latina, and Marsha P Johnson, an African American, were in the forefront of the battle. Many people believe that Johnson threw the first brick.

In the late 60’s they would have been identified as transvestites, or drag queens, or transexuals. Johnson and Rivera would not have called themselves “transgender.” The word was not in common use. But they lived almost exclusively as women, and transgender people today consider them two of their own. (NY Times)

For a short time after Stonewall, LGBQ people were united. Then “respectability” kicked back in, and the people who stood up for themselves and for all queers at Stonewall were erased from the history (until fairly recently, and then only occasionally). Gay men, mostly white, took over the movement and ostracized women like Johnson and Rivera.

There is a statue of two gay men (and two lesbians sitting behind them on a bench.) made to honor the people who fought at Stonewall in a small park across the street. They are white and very respectable in their presentation. Very often our public art reflects not the true history but the comfortable story.

Respectability, wanting to appear “normal” in the larger society is always an activist problem. It expels people who are perceived as different in presentation or attitude, and who are are perceived as outrageous. It is a box imposed often by activists themselves.

Both women had difficult lives and no longer survive. They founded the first transgender support organization and were intermittently very politically brave and active in their lives. They got some recognition in the 90’s. Rivera said The movement had put me on the shelf, but they took me down and dusted me off, in a 1995 interview with The New York Times. Still, it was beautiful. I walked down 58th Street and the young ones were calling from the sidewalk, Sylvia, Sylvia, thank you, we know what you did. After that I went back on the shelf. It would be wonderful if the movement took care of its own. But don’t worry about Sylvia.

Finally 50 years later NYC is honoring Rivera and Johnston with a statue. And this all and good but I know if they were still here they would rather see a better world for transgender people and everyone who was in the bar. But transgender people don’t have discrimination protection. They can no longer serve in the military. In 2018 we know that at the very least 29 transgender people were murdered (the most ever recorded), most of them black and brown, and at least nine more have died in 2019.

LGBQ people have made remarkable gains since Stonewall, but transgender people, particularly people of color, have been far too often left behind.

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PCOS, Gender Identity, and Medical Oppression


Debbie says:

Ariana Smit’s terrific article at Women’s Media Center, “Healing my PCOS does not mean confirming to your ideal feminine body” is decorated with the author’s own artwork (example above). WMC doesn’t provide a bio, so I don’t know what pronouns Smit uses; since they are completely clear about being gender non-binary, I’m going to go with “they.”

Here’s their quandary:

Five to 10 percent of women have PCOS — a statistic that doesn’t include me and my queer, nonbinary body. Beyond not feeling represented or seen by my doctors, the persistence of a binary understanding of sex and gender in the medical field has failed to account for the way I, and patients like me, deserve and need to be treated.

For those who don’t know about PCOS (polycystic ovarian syndrome), Smit gives us a little background, describing it as:

a condition caused by a reproductive hormonal imbalance. The condition can manifest in different ways from person to person, but my symptoms include weight gain, acne, facial hair, and hyperpigmentation.

They also experience intense pain, which they describe in the opening of the article, but  don’t mention in the symptom list, perhaps because the pain is the symptom the medical profession seems to be least concerned with:

Gynecologists and general practitioners have told me time and time again that my hirsutism (a subjective diagnosis of “excess” hair growth), weight gain, hair loss, acne, and hyperpigmentation are all “issues” that need to be “dealt with” in order to make me “normal” again. In other words, the only way for my body to be acceptable to society is for it to conform to society’s idea of the perfect woman: hairless, thin, and with clear skin. While it is true that these symptoms are important indicators of a hormonal imbalance in my body that have had a debilitating effect on my mental health, the symptoms these doctors focus on treating do not actually threaten my physical health — treating them is cosmetic, not medically necessary. The number of stubborn hairs on my chin in and of themselves affect neither my health nor my identity.

In other words, the issues of how Smit looks take precedence over how they feel. Waking up every morning in an almost unbearable amount of pain — well, that’s just part of having PCOS. But “excess hair” (a phrase rather like “overweight”), now that’s an issue worth reckoning with. After all, “she” might not get married and have children, if “she” has “excess hair.”

As one of the best-known symptoms of PCOS is infertility, Smit takes on that concern of the medical profession:

For example, gynecologists constantly identify the only definitive reason to heal my PCOS as enabling me to have children with my husband one day. I have not corrected doctors who make this false assumption, but rather have hidden my identity because I do not want to have to teach them about how they should treat me. I do not want to have to explain that I do not identify as cisgender and that my partner does not either. I am also afraid that telling my doctors would lead to enduring erasure of the very identity I would explain to them — that they might not believe me or take my identity seriously because I am still (mostly) female-presenting.

Again, buried in the “only definitive reason” language is an assumption that everyday pain is not a definitive reason to treat Smit.

The medical profession both reflects and transmits simple binary gender thinking, getting this oversimplification from the larger community and sending it back.

PCOS Diva, one of the most popular PCOS dedicated websites, states on their homepage that they “[offer] women the tools they need to gain control of their PCOS so that they can regain their fertility, femininity, health, and happiness.” This focus on femininity is alienating for queer people with PCOS, as their goals are not based on restoring some kind of essentialized femininity based on fertility, hairlessness, and thinness. Although I am confident in my identity as a queer, nonbinary person with little intention of having children, this kind of rhetoric is still isolating, and I sometimes feel trapped into having to prescribe to these ideas in order to feel like I am taking adequate care of myself.

And that’s the core of the problem. Confidence and sureness of our own self-worth is almost always somewhat vulnerable to the assumptions of people in power, and perhaps even more so to the assumptions of our peers. Smit sounds like they have good support in their nonbinary identity, and good tools to defend themselves; still, the essay screams with not only the physical pain of PCOS but the emotional pain of not being seen for who they are, not being able to walk into a doctor’s office or open a website and see acknowledgment of people like themselves. In this context, I especially appreciated their mention of a related but different group, mentioning “cisgender women who do not conform to stereotypical notions of femininity” — another cohort that might not want a doctor to focus on hair or weight gain when treating PCOS.

What does Smit want? What we all want!

Ultimately, I want to love myself while looking after myself. I don’t want trips to the gym to be shrouded in the idea that in order to feel “normal” again I need to mold my body into the perfect image of femininity. I want to go to the gym acknowledging that yes, I have issues that require me to maintain a healthy, balanced lifestyle, and regular exercise forms an important part of fulfilling that need. I do not believe that framing this within femininity is productive for anyone looking to heal themselves.

I also want to be able to acknowledge that yes, I do have acne and residual scarring, but that does not mean that I am “ugly” or in need of a quick fix so that people will be more accepting of me. Instead I want to enjoy looking after my skin by indulging in homemade bentonite clay face masks but still be happy going out without any makeup on, or with the fear that someone will judge me for it.

I came away from this essay with a very high regard for Smit, with an increased awareness of what gender nonbinary people face from the medical profession, especially when they have diseases associated with a given binary gender, and with a renewed determination to move my language away from the gender binary.

In the U.S., we’re so steeped in electoral and other national politics that I also appreciate the perspective  of someone half a world away (Smit lives in South Africa) and their commitment to linking their personal experiences to a political lived reality around the world.

Follow me on Twitter @spicejardebbie.