Thursday, November 15, 2012

TESC locker rooms and trans access

Word is, the locker rooms at the Evergreen State College (TESC) are the setting of a threatened lawsuit against the school.

Colleen Francis, a 45 year-old transgender woman and student at TESC, is at the center of a controversy over her use of the TESC women's locker room. As portrayed in several media outlets, the story goes like this: the locker rooms are also used by local high school swim teams, and some parents of high school swimmers have complained that Francis' use of the locker rooms causes their daughters to be "uncomfortable" and "a bit shocked" because Francis has "male genitalia." The parents have sent their demands to the school through an attorney, Jeremy Tedesco. An Arizona-based 'religious-liberties' group, Alliance Defending Freedom, also sent a letter to TESC urging the college to ban trans-women from the women's locker room.

Here are links to some of the coverage of this story. (Be advised: the link includes audio from a radio interview between KIRO-radio Dori Monson and parents' attorney Jeremy Todesco. Monson turns out to be a bigot par excellance, going so far as to casually endorse violence against trans-women.)

Daily Mail
KIRO TV (includes video interview with Ms. Francis [in which she makes a tactless equivalence between trans-oppression and Jim Crow laws]) (includes KIRO-radio interview with Mr. Todesco)
Seattle Weekly

Now I'd like to pose a few thoughts.

1) Monson and Todesco speak about Francis "exposing" herself to "young girls." This conjurs an image of someone in a trenchcoat leaping out at prepubescent children and waving their naught bits around. But we can safely assume that that's not what occurred, because if it had, the police would have been called and there'd be no controversy. Rather, it appears that a transgender woman just tried to use the locker room to change her clothes like any other woman. This is Monson and Todesco's "exposure."

I just want to highlight how it's not what Francis has done (use the locker room to change), but rather what Francis is (trans), that appears to be motivating Todesco et al's hostility. Notice too that Todesco et al don't offer any alternatives: they don't seem to care whether TESC forces Francis to use the men's locker room or bans trans people in general. They're totally unconcerned by the way they're further marginalizing an already-oppressed group.

Plus, isn't it weird that a trans-woman is presumed to be a sex threat, but cis-acting people are not? Can we just take a moment to reflect on the cognitive dissonance required to be a) deeply upset over Francis' presence in the women's locker room yet b) completely unconcerned with all the other  naked children/naked adults? Again, it's not Francis' actions that are the target; it's her existence.

2) It's clear from their comments that Todesco et al simply don't take the existence of trans people seriously. For them, this is a simple case of a male sex predator using over-reaching non-discrimination laws to get at young girls. I think that this is important to notice: Todesco et al don't see themselves as being transphobic or hateful, but rather as the decent, sane defenders of children's safety. This is how privilege and oppression work: the privileged don't consciously hate or oppose the oppressed so much as they fail to even see them in the first place. The problem with Todesco et al is not that they are evil, but that their model of how to be good doesn't have room for people like Francis. (This also explains how they can be so oblivious to the possibility that one of the high schoolers in question is trans or otherwise queer, and how they don't notice what they're teaching their children about how to treat marginalized groups.)

3) Props to TESC and WA legislators for standing up for basic civil rights for trans people. That said, let's note that having gender segregated locker rooms is a (literally) concrete endorsement of gender segregation and gender conventions. Who gets hurt by gender segregation? People who don't fit into presumed gender categories, i.e. transgender people. It seems to me that TESC is taking a middle-ground between two coherent positions: on the one hand, you can join Todesco et al and coherently endorse and enforce old fashioned gender conventions. In that case, transgender people aren't real, and Francis is relegated to the men's locker room. On the other hand, you can endorse progressive (i.e. non-heteronormative and non-cis-normative) views of human nature, in which case it doesn't make sense to have gender-discriminated locker rooms in the first place. So if TESC wants to adopt a position of recognizing trans people and treating them with justice and decency AND remain coherent, then it needs to abolish male vs. female locker rooms in general. (But obviously this radical step is implausible for a state-sponsored institution, so I laud them for doing what they can.)

4) How is it okay to casually put someone's genitals up for national debate? I know this makes me sound old-fashioned and cranky, but seriously: How is this acceptable? How can we possibly be this un-self-conscious in our policing of gender? Why are we having a debate about what counts as a "real" woman, instead of observing a dispute between two parties over what's appropriate locker-room behavior?

Side note: this is a great example of privilege/oppression in action. The oppressed have to justify themselves; the the burden of proof is on them. The privileged don't have to justify anything; their position is just 'common sense.' This really comes through in the Todesco/Monson interview: try to count how many times they use phrases like "It's just preposterous," "Outrageous," "Ridiculous," etc. Then try to count how many times they say anything, anything which could be taken for empathy or even curiosity regarding Francis' welfare.

5) Speaking of hypocritical indecency and the Dori Monson show, why doesn't casually endorsing violence/killing against a trans-woman provoke outrage (on the level of, say, a trans woman using the women's locker room)? In the KIRO-radio interview (linked above), Monson says, "I know what my instinct would be, if I found out that some guy was exposing himself to my daughters or to the girls that I coach. I know what my instincts would be, and my instincts would probably land me in jail." While almost everything Monson says in the interview amounts to an implicit endorsement of violence against trans people (since his whole position is that they're not really trans; they're just cis people using trans-identity as a strategy for sex predation), this is an all but explicit endorsement of violence. Considering the extraordinary levels of violence faced by trans people (see here and here), that's, well, awful. Shitty and bigoted and deeply fucked up and concretely harmful. (Again: not purposefully awful, because Monson sees his anger as righteous and defensive. Privilege is invisible to the privileged.)

6) Todesco's phrase "non-discrimination gone wild" pretty well shows what he thinks of social justice and equal access. Anyone who looks at justice in terms of "Give 'em an inch, and they'll demand a mile" is not offering a robust ethical position.

7) "Religious liberties" are part of the classical-liberal value of self-determination (as exemplified in O.W. Holmes' quote, "My right to swing my fist ends where your nose begins"). Using them to control other people (e.g. here by the reactionary Alliance Defending Freedom, and e.g. the Catholic clergy's attack on Obamacare) is either confused or dishonest.

8) Can we, as a nation, decide to stop taking seriously people who bleat "What about the CHILDREN!!!" as an un-critical moralistic bludgeon? Can we please demand that people who purport to speak for children's welfare a) are acquainted with the needs and choices of said children, and b) offer some coherent criticism and alternative, rather than just a demand for the bad thing to stop? Can we make this a rule?

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