Category Archives: Research

Challenging Cis Privilege in Popular Feminism

Image result for ngozi adichieIn recent years, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, author of several award-winning, bestselling novels has gained recognition for centering a strong African feminist perspective in her work.[1] In 2012, Adichie gave a TED talk, “We Should All be Feminists,” which articulated an accessible feminist manifesto that vividly recounted her own experiences with sexism in Nigeria. Beyoncé famously sampled selections from Adichie’s talk on her self-proclaimed feminist track “Flawless” in 2013, cementing Adichie’s place within popular feminism. When asked, in a March 2017 interview for Britain’s Channel 4, whether it mattered “how you’ve arrived at being a woman” and whether a trans woman is “any less of a real woman” Adichie responded, “trans women are trans women” and their experiences differ from those of “regular” women:

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“[I]f you’ve lived in the world as a man, with the privileges that the world accords to men and then sort of changed, switch gender, it’s difficult for me to accept that then we can equate your experience with the experience of a woman who has lived from the beginning in the world as a woman, and who has not been accorded those privileges that men are.”

Her answer elicited a fierce debate on social media, with many trans activists decrying her commentary as transphobic. I engage these responses to Adichie’s comments to scrutinize the ways in which popular feminism remains a contested terrain that continues to privilege certain feminist subjectivities over others, particularly cisgender over trans women.

Adichie’s comments imply that trans women are not “real” women because, she assumes, trans women all grew up with and benefitted from male privilege. Echoing the essentialist feminism of Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists (TERFs), Adichie defines womanhood purely by a specific set of experiences under patriarchy that presupposes a definite correlation between biological sex, gender identity, gender expression, and perception. But the vast majority of trans women’s experiences dispel Adichie’s contention that they have universally benefitted from male privilege: trans women, particularly those of color, remain disproportionally impacted by poverty, discrimination, harassment and violence (see James et al. 2015). In fact, 2016 marked the deadliest year on record for trans people in the U.S. (Quinlan 2017).

Trans actress Laverne Cox responded to Adichie in a series of tweets questioning her reliance on the gender binary and the problematic narrative that neatly demarcates trans people’s lives into “pre” and “post” transition. Reflecting on her own experience growing up in Alabama, Cox (2017) noted, “patriarchy and cissexism [p]unished my femininity and gender nonconformity. The irony of my life is prior to transition I was called a girl and after I am often called [a] man.” Adichie’s claim that all trans women have had male privilege, thus, erases a multitude of trans experiences and fails to account for the complex workings of gender, specifically the violent realities of transmisogyny.

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The backlash Adichie received for her statements about trans women points to some of the challenges that have accompanied feminism’s resurgence as en-vogue. Just as second-wave feminism privileged white women’s perspectives and experiences, Adichie’s comments demonstrate that cisgender perspectives and experiences, replicating a cis-hegemonic feminism. In a blog post responding to Adichie’s comments, trans activist and writer Raquel Willis (2017) quipped that “Adichie being asked about trans women is like Lena Dunham being asked about Black women. It doesn’t work.” The comparison Willis draws between Adichie and Dunham recalls the fraught history of white feminism claiming to speak for “all women,” while ignoring the unique experiences of women of color. Similar to women of color feminisms pushing back against white universalizing experiences of gender (see e.g., Moraga and Anzaldúa 1981; Crenshaw 1991; hooks 2000), trans women’s fight against the dominance of cis privilege in popular feminism illustrates the ongoing importance of an intersectional approach to feminism, which acknowledges how overlapping identities create a variety of life experiences, none of which are more or less authentic or valid than another.

Thus, the debate surrounding Adichie is not an isolated incident but reflects broader historic contestations over the popularization of feminism. For example, while the 1968 Miss America pageant protest by second-wave feminists in Atlantic City has been (wrongly) mythologized by media as the famous “bra burning” incident, it is less commonly known that on the very same day, women of color activists organized a counter Miss Black America contest to challenge not only the sexism and denigration of women, but the racism of the national pageant, which had never had a black contestant The separate Miss America protests can shed light on persisting divisions within the feminist movement today: while the national Women’s March in January 2017 drew record crowds wearing pink “pussy hats” across the country, the organizers faced criticism for continuing to sideline trans women and their concerns despite promoting inclusionary principles in their mission statement.

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After vehement outcries against her comments, Adichie attempted to clarify her statement in a Facebook post (2017). She claimed that she did not mean to invalidate the experience of trans women, asserting that “diversity does not have to mean division.” But she also denigrated trans women’s self-identification as an “impulse” stemming from “a need to make trans issues mainstream” rather than a genuine sense of self. She went on to criticize trans visibility as having produced a conflation of trans issues with cis women’s issues, which she argued should be treated separately. Yet, trans women activists have consistently pointed out that because their experiences do indeed differ, it is precisely the unique perspectives of trans women that can provide necessary insights into the complex workings of patriarchy and its intersection with other systems of oppression.

Adichie’s insistence on separating trans from cis women’s issues thus raises larger questions about for whom and what feminism is actually for. Is it mainly, as Adichie insists, about the equality between men and women or, as is the case for trans and other marginalized women, is it a question of life and death, of literal survival? While social media posts and commenters on her Facebook post expressed support for Adichie, many urged her to stop clarifying and instead listen and learn from trans women. One commentator insightfully noted,

It’s probably safe to say you don’t have trans and/or gender nonconforming people in your life that you actually share community with. … Because if you did, you would understand on a deep level the fallacy of your rationale. … [G]iven your popularity, power and influence, you [s]hould be deeply concerned about the weight of your words and the impact it will have on the lives of trans and gender nonconforming people … (Osaze 2017).

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On the one hand, popular feminism has become more palatable for a broader audience, particularly through celebrity figures proudly re-claiming the label “feminist” such as Emma Watson and Beyoncé. But on the other, the Adichie controversy reveals the dangerous tokenism that accompanies popular feminism, where figures with name recognition are asked to provide – often perfunctory – commentary on issues that do not comprise their own lived experience and/or intellectual grounding.

What this demonstrates is that whenever feminism does become fashionable, there is also a simultaneous loss of nuance to feminist analysis in order to render it easily digestible for mainstream media consumption. When single figures become elevated as spokespeople, the privilege and responsibility of such a position should entail an acknowledgement that one cannot possibly speak to and for all lived experiences. Thus, Adichie’s assumptions about a community that she is not a part of, yet feels entitled to speak for, are patronizing and ill-conceived. Regardless of Adichie’s position on trans women’s place in feminism, she should defer to the perspectives and experiences of trans women when asked about them.

With the current political threats to health care, reproductive rights and immigrant communities as well as the rescindment of federal protections for trans students and the surge in discriminatory “bathroom bills” across the U.S., feminism cannot afford to exclude transgender voices from formulating strategies for resistance. If we are serious about dismantling patriarchy we need to combat not just sexism, but cissexism and transmisogyny. Furthermore, confronting and posing challenges to systemic racism, classism, ableism, and Islamophobia will not be successful if trans women continue to be marginalized in the feminist movement. By failing to include the perspectives of trans people (popular) feminism becomes complicit in the replication of the very systems of violence and oppression that we set out to dismantle. In February of this year, three young black trans women – Ciara McElveen, Chyna Doll Dupree, and Jaquarrius Holland – were murdered within days of each other, precisely because their womanhood was not deemed authentic. The voices of trans women need to be front and center not because they are “just like” cis women, but because of their own unique experiences as women.

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This piece was published in a special edition of Feminist Media Studies‘ Criticism & Commentary section (co-edited by Sarah Banet-Weiser, Susan Berridge, and Laura Portwood-Stacer) and is available here:

Fischer, M. (2017). “Trans Responses to Adichie: Challenging Cis Privilege in Popular Feminism.” Feminist Media Studies. Online first: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/14680777.2017.1350520

 

 

References

Adichie, Chimamanda Nogzi. 2012. “We Should All Be Feminists.” TEDxEuston. Accessed March 17, 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hg3umXU_qWc&feature=youtu.be

Adichie, Chimamanda Nogzi. 2017. “CLARIFYING.” Facebook post. March 12. https://www.facebook.com/chimamandaadichie/photos/a.469824145943.278768.40389960943/10154893542340944/?type=3

Banet-Weiser, Sarah. 1999. The Most Beautiful Girl in the World: Beauty Pageants and National Identity. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Channel 4. 2017. “Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie on feminism.” Interviewed by Cathy Newman. March 10. Accessed March 20, 2017.  https://www.channel4.com/news/chimamanda-ngozi-adichie-on-feminism

Cox, Laverne. Twitter post. March 11, 2017. https://twitter.com/lavernecox

Crenshaw, Kimberlé.1991. “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and

Violence against Women of Color.” Stanford Law Review 43(6): 1241-1299.

hooks, bell. 2000. Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center. Cambridge, MA: Southend Press.

James, Sandy E., Herman, John L., Rankin, Susan, Keisling, Mara, Mottet, Lisa & Anafi, Ma’ayan. 2016. Executive Summary of the Report of the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey. Washington, DC: National Center for Transgender Equality.

Moraga, Cherríe and Anzaldúa, Gloria E. (eds), 1981. This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color. Watertown, MA: Persephone Press.

Osaze, Ola. 2017. Facebook post. March 12. https://www.facebook.com/chimamandaadichie/photos/a.469824145943.278768.40389960943/10154893542340944/?type=3

Quinlan, Casey. 2017. “At least 7 transgender women have been killed in 2017.” ThinkProgress, February 28. Accessed March 20, 2017. https://thinkprogress.org/six-transgender-women-killed-2017-1d3a2ccd988b#.dvlzase37

Welch, Georgia Paige. 2015. “‘Up Against the Wall Miss America’: Women’s Liberation and Miss Black America in Atlantic City, 1968.” Feminist Formations 27(2): 70-97.

Willis, Raquel. 2017. “A Trans Woman’s Response to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.”

Medium.com. March 11. Accessed March 18, 2017. https://medium.com/@raquel_willis/a-trans-womans-response-to-chimamanda-ngozi-adichie-bb7955004244#.opp6eo3zr

 

[1] The author would like to thank Njeri Githire, K. Mohrman, and Laura Portwood-Stacer for their thoughtful comments and discussions.

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Premier of Free CeCe! at the Twin Cities Film Festival

At the end of October, I was able to take a quick break from the mid-semester craziness of teaching at CU Denver and headed back to Minneapolis for the annual Minneapolis/St. Paul Film Festival. The reason for my visit was very specific – I had the privilege to attend the long awaited premier and post-screening discussion of the documentary Free CeCe (2016, directed by Jac Gares and produced by Laverne Cox) on 10/29/2016 at Intermedia Arts.

Some of you know that I have followed CeCe McDonald’s case closely as part of my dissertation work, and I am so thrilled that this important documentary, which was partially crowd-funded, is now seeing the light of day.

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In June 2011 CeCe McDonald, a trans woman of color, and a group of her friends, decided to take a short walk to a grocery store in South Minneapolis. As McDonald and her friends kept walking along East 29th street, they passed the Schooner Tavern, a white collar neighborhood bar, they began hearing catcalls from across the street and were confronted with an onslaught of racial, homo- and trans-phobic slurs from some of its white patrons smoking and drinking outside the bar. Among those were Dean Schmitz, his ex-girlfriend Molly Flaherty, and Jenny Thoreson, Schmitz’ current girlfriend. What exactly was exchanged that night is still up for debate. However, McDonald and her friends testified that Schmitz and his group assaulted them with numerous slurs, calling them “faggots,” “nigger lovers,” “tranny,” and “a bunch of nigger babies.” Schmitz allegedly yelled: “Look at that boy dressed as a girl, tucking his dick in!” and “You niggers need to go back to Africa!” In an interview McDonald later remembered:

The incident in it itself was so complex. We dealt with race. We dealt with sexual orientation. We dealt with transphobia and transmisogyny. We  dealt with homophobia. … You don’t know what part of you that you’re defending. I didn’t know if I was fighting for myself because I was black. I didn’t know if I was fighting for myself because I was trans. But it all coincided.

How the two groups came to get involved in a physical altercation remains unclear; however, all parties agreed that Molly Flaherty first threw her glass tumbler at McDonald, an act that caused a gash requiring eleven stitches to repair. As people piled onto Flaherty, a security guard from the Schooner walked out of the bar and saw how Schmitz was trying to shove McDonald off his ex-girlfriend. Schmitz and McDonald both stepped away from the group. According to the bar’s security guard, McDonald was holding onto a pair of fabric scissors while Schmitz was clenching his fists and approaching her before he suddenly fell over and exclaimed, “You stabbed me!” McDonald herself testified that she did not jab Schmitz but was trying to defend herself:

I had some scissors in my purse, just to be on the safe-side [be]cause I never know. I pulled them out. He came towards me, but… I didn’t stab him, it was like he ran into the scissors, because [crying/sighing] it’s like he was trying to get me; like he really just wanted to hurt me so bad. …I was just, only trying to protect us, myself.

Despite conflicting eyewitness accounts, police later arrested McDonald considering her both the instigator of, and aggressor in, the attack.

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The documentary Free CeCe centers McDonald’s experiences to highlight the violence and discrimination that trans women of color face on a daily basis. Following McDonald for three years, Gares connects CeCe’s story to the intersectionality of oppressive structures and the systemic racism that impacts so many trans people, particularly those of color. The documentary powerfully chronicles her local Support Committee organizing around McDonald’s case and her journey from serving her 19-month prison sentence in an all-male facility in St. Cloud and traveling for speaking engagements on transgender rights and social justice across the U.S. after her release. We powerfully see McDonald’s own activism awakening during her incarceration and her stepping up as a leader herself as she is exposed to the critical race and prison abolition writing of Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow” and Angela Davis’ “Are Prisons Obsolete?” (who also makes an appearance in the documentary).

In an interview with the LA Times, McDonald asserted:  “I really want people to understand how necessary it is to challenge their privileges, decolonize their minds around the ways we’ve been conditioned to only accept certain kinds of people in our society,” McDonald said about telling her story. “I want people to challenge their ideas of gender identity and sexual orientation, challenge the status quo. Give other people a chance to live.”

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During the post-screening Q&A, Andrea Jenkins moderated a panel comprised of CeCe, Laverne Cox, and director Jac Gares. The panelists thoughtfully engaged with questions on the inclusion of trans women in black feminism and womanism spaces. Cox thereby particularly stressed the ongoing importance of intersectional analyses advanced by bell hooks and others (despite the recent criticism hooks has been facing over her comments about Beyoncé). McDonald also reflected on her own journey and development as a leader on trans rights activism. Despite her Support Committee’s persistent encouragement to determine the organizing work and actions from prison, McDonald recalled her the uneasy relationship with becoming a leader “given that someone lost their life.”

While I really appreciated the documentary’s extensive focus on  survival – I think that the systemic racism that feeds people right back into the prison-industrial-complex could and should have been emphasized more; as well as a more critical engagement with the allegedly progressive liberalism in Minneapolis and Minnesota that is fundamentally grounded in an inherent whiteness. I would have also liked to hear more about what challenges CeCe is facing today: yes, she’s doing speaking engagements across the country but is she getting paid?

Overall, the Free CeCe premier at Intermedia Arts marked a beautiful home-coming for McDonald and Minneapolis’ queer community really showed-up and showed-out.

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If you want to get more background on CeCe’s story, I invite you to read one of my publications, “#Free_CeCe: The Material Convergence of Social Media Activism” that takes an in-depth look at the organizing work around McDonald.

 

 

 

 

 

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Black Deaths Matter? Sousveillance and the Invisibility of Black Life

In this recent article for Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media & Technology my co-author K. Mohrman and I are examining the shooting of Philando Castile, and his girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds’, decision to film his death at the hands of the police, in order to explore the potential of live-streaming applications as a form of “sousveillance” that can expose white supremacy from below. In highlighting the political economy constraints that limit the dissemination of such images, we argue that the geographic and historical context of these videos as well as their integration into social justice movements, are critical for deploying them as effective tools that challenge racial inequality and make black life matter, not just black death.

Below is an excerpt, you can access the full article directly on Ada’s website.

Introduction

On July 6, 2016 Philando Castile, a 32-year-old lunch supervisor at a St. Paul Montessori school, was pulled over by police in Falcon Heights, a suburb in Minnesota. During this traffic stop he was fatally shot by police officer Jeronimo Yanez. Immediately after the officer opened fire, Castile’s girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, began live-streaming the event through Facebook’s Live application.[1] The video opens with Castile slouched back, his chest covered in blood staining his white t-shirt. Initially, Castile is still partially conscious and is audibly groaning as the viewer witnesses him slowly bleeding to death. Eerily calm, Reynolds directly addresses the camera as the officer continues to point his gun at Castile:

Reynolds: “Stay with me … We got pulled over for a busted tail-light in the back … and the police just… he, he’s covered – they killed my boyfriend. He’s licensed, he’s licensed to carry. … He was trying to get out his ID in his wallet out of his pocket, and he let the officer know that he was… that he had a firearm and that he was reaching for his wallet. And the officer just shot him in his arm.”

Yanez [shouting]: “Fuck … I told him not to reach for it. I told him to get his head up.”

Reynolds: “He had…you told him to get his ID, sir. His driver’s license. Oh my God, please don’t tell me he’s dead…” [camera pans to show Castile not moving] (StarkS 2016).

As Yanez yells at her to keep her hands where they are she responds in an obedient, yet firm voice: “I will, sir, no worries, I will.” What viewers witness is Reynolds rehearsing a centuries-old script in which slaves were required to properly address and obey their masters. Reynolds understood that this traffic stop had turned into a matter of life and death: her own survival depended upon complete compliance and obedience to authority, evident in her recurring affirmations of “yes sir.” When Reynolds does start crying in anguish towards the end of the nine-minute video, after she has been put in the back of a police car, her four-year-old daughter can be heard comforting her: “It’s OK, Mommy. It’s OK, I’m right here with you.”

Even as Reynolds is forced to watch the killing of her boyfriend, she understands that the only way to assert that Castile is human whose black life did, indeed, matter is to document and film his death. Reynolds later told reporters that she recorded the video “so that the world knows that these police are not here to protect and serve us. They are here to assassinate us. They are here to kill us because we are black” (Domonoske 2016).

Images of Death

Visual depictions of black death have long circulated in U.S. society both as a reinforcement and challenge to white supremacy. For example, between the 1890s and the 1940s spectator lynching became a form of entertainment for white Southerners. “Attended by thousands, captured in papers by reporters who witnessed the tortures, and photographed for those spectators who wanted a souvenir and yet failed to get a coveted finger, toe, or fragment of bone” (Hale 1998: 202) lynchings propelled images of black death into mainstream U.S. culture as a form of easily consumable amusement. On the other hand, in 1955 Jet Magazine published images of fourteen-year-old Emmett Till’s severely mutilated corpse, which caused a nationwide outcry and helped to fuel the Civil Rights Movement. Thrust into the role of activist by her son’s brutal lynching, Mamie Till’s insistence that her son’s body be brought back to Chicago for an open casket service ensured that 50,000 mourners witnessed how he had “been crucified on the cross of racial justice” (Bunch cited in Nodjimbadem 2015). In 1992, the brutal beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles police officers was recorded on a bystander’s camcorder. While the recording documented the state-sanctioned violence against King, a jury later acquitted the accused officers, despite the taped evidence, causing LA to erupt in riots. These examples demonstrate that the socio-political context in which media images of black death are created and disseminated determines their viability to expose and dismantle white supremacy.

Video footage documenting state-sanctioned violence against black lives has now become ubiquitous: cell phones, security cameras, as well as body and dash cam footage have made the public a witness to the police killings of numerous black and brown people. This article highlights the circumstances of Castile’s death, particularly Reynolds’ use of Facebook Live, to explore the function of the camera and live-streaming applications for exposing and challenging white supremacy. We examine the affordances of these technologies that allow for the inversion of the institutional gaze and enable individuals who have historically been the subjects of racialized surveillance practices to engage in “sousveillance,” a subversive surveillance from below. Unlike past depictions, sousveillance engenders new modalities of visibility that can move beyond the double bind of witnessing and spectacularizing that often follow images of black death. Yet, whether sousveillant images can challenge us to make black lives matter and not simply reinscribe an association between blackness and death depends not only upon their circulation within social media but their contextualization within larger social justice movements, such as Black Lives Matter.

The complete article is available on Ada’s website: http://adanewmedia.org/2016/10/issue10-fischer-mohrman/

Fischer, M. & Mohrman, K. (2016) Black Deaths Matter? Sousveillance and the Invisibility of Black Life. Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media, and Technology, No. 10. doi: 10.7264/N3F47MDV

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The Second Annual Minneapolis Trans* Equity Summit

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Last week marked Minneapolis’ Second Annual Trans* Equity Summit. Presented in collaboration with the City of Minneapolis, this year’s summit brought together local transgender rights activists and city officials to discuss how the criminal justice system impacts transg people. I am very glad that I was able to be part of this productive afternoon – listening to strong trans voices telling their own stories with powerful moments of truth-telling that combated the criminalization of trans communities, especially those of color. Given the lack of media presence, below is a recap of the event.

In her opening remarks Andrea Jenkins, who organized the summit, emphasized that, “for trans people simply telling our stories is a political act.” Jenkins, who has been a tireless transgender rights activist and Minneapolis City Council policy aide for more than 12 years, is currently a Transgender Oral Historian for the University of Minnesota Libraries Jean-Nickolaus Tretter Collection, where she is curating oral histories of trans people in Minneapolis, Chicago, and rural areas of the Midwest.

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Despite unprecedented civil rights gains for gay and lesbian U.S. citizens in recent years (most prominently with the Supreme Court’s nationwide legalization of same-sex marriage in June 2015), trans and gender-nonconforming communities still remain on the margins of society and are disproportionately impacted by discrimination, harassment, and violence. As of September this year, twenty trans women have been murdered. Not every trans person is endowed with the privileges of a Caitlyn Jenner – whether it is access to healthcare, wealth, or white celebrity status. There is a host of differently lived realities and experiences of trans people – they all deserve to be heard and valued.

As Andrea Jenkins aptly noted about the discrimination trans people endure: “We still face enormous obstacles finding housing, walking down the street without risking our safety and our lives. We need the dignity that all people deserve. The absence of knowledge about trans people’s lives has real consequences, everyday policy makers across the country are making decisions about trans peoples’ lives with little knowledge about us. With only rumors and mass media for reference about us, legislators are passing bills about who can discriminate against us and when; about what health care we deserve and what bathrooms we can use.”

The highlight of the summit was an hour-long panel discussion comprising CeCe McDonald, Reverend Dr. Barbara Holmes, Roxanne Anderson, and Minneapolis Police Chief Janeé Harteau.

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Humbly, moderator Jason Sole, a former drug dealer and gang member who spent significant time in correctional facilities before becoming an educator and author of From Prison to PhD, opened the panel by apologizing for his ignorance of LGBT folks’ encounters with the criminal justice system due to his socialization as an “alpha male.” The panel then delved into a discussion of how trans people have historically been treated by the justice system.

CeCe McDonald vividly recounted her youth growing up in Chicago, where she was surrounded by violence not just from her own community, but by police officers who were supposed to protect her. Since moving to Minneapolis, McDonald has felt constantly criminalized and surveilled, where simply waiting at the bus stop meant that she was under suspicion of being a sex worker. Given the stereotypes and stigmas that society puts on trans women, McDonald reflected that in some ways her life was easier when she identified as a “gay boy.”

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Remembering the horrific night of the assault at the Schooner Tavern back in June 2012, McDonald recalled how some folks were questioning her decision to walk to a grocery store at midnight, without understanding that if she went in the afternoon, she was frequently scrutinized, taunted, and discriminated against: “I felt that [this] was a time for me to be myself. … You shouldn’t have to have a schedule on your life. … I need you to understand me as a human. … I don’t just want to be tolerated in society, I want to be accepted, and loved, and understood.”

Similarly Roxanne Anderson, community activist, co-owner of Café Southside, and director of RARE Productions, recounted her experiences being profiled and criminalized as a pimp for offering a trans woman a ride because she is oftentimes perceived as a black male.

 

“How do we create a culture of safety for transgender people … because right now it’s a culture of cruelty” ~ Jason Sole

Rev. Dr. Barbara Holmes, President of the United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities, specifically addressed the systemic nature of racial injustice: “The criminal justice system is not an accident. We are told we are born into neutral space – we are not. We are being socialized by the news; we are being socialized by the entertainment programs to believe that some people are more criminal than others and that some people deserve privilege and others don’t.”

 

“One thing I will say about the prison-industrial-complex: we need to blow that whole thing up” ~ Andrea Jenkins

The most powerful moment of the summit was undoubtedly when Janeé Harteau, who became Minneapolis’ first female, openly gay chief in 2012, indicated that she was here with an open mind and ready to listen, especially since last year’s summit had generated much anger and frustration about local law enforcement representatives who had tactlessly showed up in uniform, making many participants very uncomfortable. Harteau: “I’m not here in uniform today. If I was in uniform at a lot of people would be offended. … I can’t disagree with anything you said CeCe and so on behalf of the law enforcement community, I apologize for your experiences.”

The chief even actively called for the recruitment of trans people and invited CeCe to speak with new recruits during their training. Someone from the audience yelling, “Better get paid!” elicited a lot of laughter. Harteau further emphasized significant shifts in the training of officers, especially from changing the mentality of policing from being “guardians versus warriors”: focusing on de-escalation and implicit bias training, empathy, and effective communication with the communities officers are charged to protect. Additionally, the department’s search and seizure policy has changed: “who you identify yourself as determines who will do the search process.” Andrea Jenkins, who is also part of the Minneapolis Transgender Work Group, further pushed Harteau on implementing a trans training for the police department, which “for some reasons keeps stalling” to which Harteau promised her commitment but asked Jenkins to “keep on us.”

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I personally think the panel could have addressed and opposed more explicitly the violence of and within the prison-industrial-complex. The solution to mass incarceration, which disproportionately affects people of color, cannot be found in in simply adding trans folks to the force and further expanding law enforcement practices. While sensitizing officers to the experiences of trans people is absolutely necessary – a much bigger concern is re-configuring what accountability is and means in our communities: “[Accountability], not just for the police, but for each other” as CeCe McDonald put it.

 

“I think we would be better off if we would take the category of gender identity away from pulpits and politicians, and take it back to the people. We have expanded our idea of marriage, we can expand our gender categories” ~ Rev. Dr. Holmes

Interestingly, one audience member then asked what parents can do to make sure that their kids don’t become part of the problem, but part of the solution. CeCe stressed the need to decolonize our minds from things that we’ve been taught and to educate children about differences between gender identity and sexual orientation: “Even as a trans-woman I have to deal with these misogynistic ideas about how I should be navigating life as a woman. People don’t talk about masculine trans women or feminine trans women, or the difference between sexual orientation and sexual identity. By being trans I have automatically been identified as gay by society, but that’s not how I identify. If I was gay then I would be a lesbian, and see that confuses people. … the way that society has built these ideas about gender identity and sexual orientation has limited our ideas about who we are as individuals.”

Pointedly Rev. Dr. Holmes urged us to expand our gender identities: “We made it up that there are two categories. Indigenous people have always known otherwise”

 

So where to go from here?

Clearly, the lack of founding and material resources remains a major issue for trans communities, which the unexpected closing of the Trans Youth Support Network (TYSN) in January 2015 only further demonstrates. For activists like Roxanne Anderson, the tokenizing work of many organizations claiming to do “big gay work” but lacking any “trans competen[cy]” remains highly problematic. Rev. Dr. Holmes stressed the importance of visibility to get money flowing in the right directions: “You can’t just be in the streets, you have to be in the courtroom; you can’t just be in the courtroom, you have to be on television. You have to be pressing on all sides.”

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CeCe McDonald: “We can’t just sit in this room and absorb all this information and then go back to our lives as in if no one just spilled their hearts out, we have to actually get involved with our communities. We have to actually be adamant about how we attend events, how do we attend meetings, how do we be part of our communities, because just sitting here and talking about it, is one thing. But it’s about what are we actually doing to do something about it. How do we make allyship verb and not just a noun. We need to start showing people how we appreciate each other, how we appreciate our communities. How are we funding organizations and spaces for trans people of color? It’s not about a money grab, but about sustaining these places that are offering resources to people who can’t get them anywhere else. … It’s time that we start being doers and not just sayers.”

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Overall, this was a really informative afternoon for everyone and I went home feeling inspired but also challenged: How can we as academics show more civic engagement to really foster change with our work and improve the material realities of communities that have been historically marginalized, harmed, and discriminated against? How can we become more involved in our communities beyond the ivory tower? I continue to grapple with these questions.

If you are in the area, I strongly encourage you to visit the summit’s accompanying exhibit “VisibiliT” at Intermedia Arts. Curated by Andrea Jenkins, this show documents a rich variety of stories and images from the trans community, including photography by Anna Min and Shiraz Mukarram.

 

 

 

 

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“Aktiv, Attraktiv, Anders”? The Bundeswehr’s Deployment of German Athletes as Sports Soldiers

August is typically a month of well-deserved vacation time for many of us. The Italians lovingly refer to this time of the year as Ferragosto – Assumption Day, a national holiday that is celebrated on August 15 and marks the beginning of a nationwide vacation period. Thanks to a generous departmental summer fellowship I was relieved from any teaching duties this summer and could solely focus on a few research projects.

In June I had received an email from Michael Butterworth that invited me to participate in an anthology on Global Sports and Militarism (forthcoming with Routledge in 2016). The symbioses between sports, media, and the military has always been a research interest of mine. My first publication, “Commemorating 9/11 NFL-Style: Insights Into America’s Culture of Militarism” in the Journal of Sport and Social Issues explored the NFL’s commemoration ceremonies on the 10th anniversary of 9/11 as a unique instance of sports–media-military convergence through their meticulous implementation across multiple games, broadcasting channels, and geographic locations. Addressing the valorization of troops, the sanitizing of war, as well as territorial conquest, I argued in this article that the NFL’s 9/11 commemoration ceremonies are complicit in the silent re-empowerment of the neoliberal state in times of perpetual war.

Participating in the global sports anthology not only allowed me to take a bit of a break from dissertating this summer, but I was also able to combine my vacation trip to Germany with some work by proposing a chapter on the German army’s ongoing investment in sports for the purpose of nation building, particularly through the figure of the sports soldier.

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As several high-profile athletes are Bundeswehr soldiers, I scrutinize the symbiotic relationships between the armed forces and German sport associations in light of the Bundeswehr’s attempts to re-brand itself after the suspension of the draft in 2011. Seventy years after the end of World War II, German society opposes unilateral military actions and remains suspicious of attempts to re-militarize the country. Similarly, the display of overtly nationalistic sentiments during sporting competitions still make many Germans uncomfortable. While the presence of different military branches and the honoring of troops during baseball and football games in the U.S. have simply become part of public memorializing post-9/11, a tribute to fallen soldiers of the German army in Afghanistan during a soccer match of the German Bundesliga remains unthinkable.

Given the, sometimes fraught, interconnection between sports and militarism in Germany (we only need to think of the 1936 Nazi summer Olympics in Berlin), I interrogate the tactical collusion between sports and military service that the Bundeswehr currently employs to interpellate and recruit diverse German citizens as sports soldiers.

After setting up contacts through the Bundeswehr’s press office and gaining permission from the German Department of Defense I was able to visit an army base in Bruchsal, which is home to one of the 15 special sporting groups that the Bundeswehr supports. Visiting Bruchsal gave me a first sense of what a sports soldier’s daily training and routine looks like. The interviews with four athletes and the head of the sports group were super interesting and very informative. While I have not been able to evaluate all of my recordings – below are few “preliminary findings” from my visit.

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The Bundeswehr currently provides financial and material support to around 744 top athletes from various disciplines (including, for example, soccer, wrestling, boxing, rowing, parachuting, gymnastics, skiing, and bobsledding to name a few), who are nominated annually by their respective sport associations. Admission into the Bundeswehr cadre is highly selective and extremely competitive. Sports soldiers are typically those who are able to qualify for the Olympics and world championships. Several interviewees repeatedly commented on the pressures they felt to remain in the cadre and deliver top performance year after year.

In general, the athletes seemed very happy and proud to call the Bundeswehr their employer. For many German athletes in so called “Randsportarten” – fringe sports – that do not garner enough media attention and support from corporate sponsors (think, for example, about the immense presence of companies such as Nike, Visa, Adidas or Coca Cola during the FIFA World Cup), the Bundeswehr becomes the only means for them to solely focus on their athletic success and development.

As a sports soldier athletes are provided with a certain level of financial security and the Bundeswehr also encourages athletes to plan beyond their athletic career by promoting higher education, military service, or job training in the private sector. While all interviewees acknowledged the difficulty of a dual focus on sports and education, several athletes had earned secondary degrees or higher military ranks. The young female weightlifter I spoke with, for example, is currently completing an online BA in sports management. All athletes repeatedly expressed their deep gratitude to be taken care of and be part of the Bundeswehr.

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While sports soldiers have to complete some basic military training, they do not face the same stipulations of regular soldiers. For example, sports soldiers do not have to live on base, complete extensive military training, or participate in military operations abroad. Nonetheless, the athletes seemed to feel a strong sense of belonging with the regular troops. The wrestler I interviewed, specifically commented on how he enjoyed moral support and entertainment visits with troops stationed abroad and that he regretted not being officially part of those missions.

So what does the Bundeswehr gain from supporting sports soldiers with around 32 Million Euros every year?

While it is too early in my research to come to any conclusive evidence, my impression is that through the recent professionalization of the army, the cadre of its diverse and highly driven sports soldiers becomes particularly viable to promote “a healthy patriotism without nationalism” as a promotional brochure of the German Department of Defense put it (2010, p. 9). The success of German sports soldiers at international competitions does not only help to further Germany’s global reputation, but the use of sports soldiers also aides domestically by aligning and integrating the Bundeswehr more closely with civil society: after all, its new slogan reads “Wir Dienen Deutschland” – “We serve Germany.”

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The strategic deployment of sports soldiers for recruitment purposes functioning to (re)brand the Bundeswehr as a fun, welcoming, and inclusive institution – billing itself as “active, attractive, different” certainly demands some critical attention and exploration. Especially because the Bundeswehr, similar to the U.S. military, claims to offer – especially for women and ethnic minorities – equal opportunities and an appealing work environment without addressing persistent issues of racism and sexism, nor the complex issues of participating in ongoing counter-terrorism operations abroad.

So much for now but I’ll be sure to post updates as the article develops.

 

 

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The Limits of Trans Visibility

What the Star Tribune’s coverage  of CeCe McDonald Reveals about alleged LGBT Progress Narratives

Upon opening my emails this morning, I was surprised to read Jon Tevlin’s column “Transgender life is a long haul for Minneapolis woman ”about CeCe McDonald in the Star Tribune, acknowledging the trans rights activist’s persistent struggles to secure her livelihood and the ongoing harassment, discrimination, and violence many marginalized trans people, especially those of color, continue to endure – and all that despite the recent media spectacle around former Olympian and Keeping Up with the Kardashians’ favorite Reality TV dad, Bruce Jenner’s transition to Caitlyn.

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Tevlin rightfully recognizes Jenner’s trans visibility as one that is inherently privileged, wealthy, able-bodied and white: Jenner has unrestricted access to health care, housing, employment, and a secured income – resources that are unattainable for many trans people like McDonald: “There’s no comparison between Caitlyn and me except that we’re trans. She has a bodyguard. She doesn’t have to worry if her medicine will get cut off or if she’ll lose her food stamps. I don’t think she would have had any effect on my prosecution at all” (quoted in Tevlin’s column).

And the sad truth is that McDonald is right.

Now, the column’s “benign tone” itself admittedly surprised me because during its reporting on McDonald’s trial in 2011 and 2012, the Star Tribune’s coverage was outrageously insulting and demeaning, refusing to acknowledge McDonald’s transgender subjectivity.

In one of my dissertation chapters, I illustrate in more depth how the Star Tribune and other local media outlets actively corroborated with violent state institutions in prosecuting McDonald. Local news organizations’ framing of McDonald’s racialized gender-nonconformity as violent and threatening colluded with the state’s refusal to grant McDonald a right to self-defense. In this mutual process, the media as an ideological state apparatus to use Althusser’s terminology worked hand-in-hand with repressive state institutions to reinforce discourses of the justice system’s alleged color and gender blindness, which strategically masked the state’s ongoing investment in and protection of whiteness under the guise of multiculturalism and enabled the multidimensional violence enacted against McDonald. Below are a few brief examples from the Tribune’s sensationalistic and derogatory coverage of McDonald’s case.

The Minneapolis Star Tribune, which is the largest newspaper covering the Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolitan area, continued to misgender McDonald well after her self-identification as a trans woman was known and consistently framed her as a murderer. Articles frequently referred to McDonald by her birth name and described her as “Chrishaun Reed ‘CeCe’ McDonald, 23, who is a person in transition from a man to a woman” or as “McDonald, who is transgender and lives as a woman.” By consistently mis-gendering her, the Tribune belittled McDonald’s gender identity, denied her transgender subjectivity, and her right to self-determination. These news reports violently upheld discourses of a fixed, normative gender binary. While headline after headline repeatedly fetishized McDonald’s trans identity, it refused to discuss how her trans identity in relation to her identity as a poor woman of color affected the circumstances of the case. The local media failed to recognize McDonald as an intersectional subject and concurrently obstructed the materiality and structural inequality that she was facing by reasserting cis-gender identity and the gender binary as the norm.

While the Star Tribune reported that “McDonald and a witness said Schmitz incited a melee after midnight when he made racist and gay-bashing remarks toward McDonald, who is black,” the paper’s succeeding articles were quick to label and criminalize McDonald as “a transgender murder suspect” whose alleged “pent-up fury exploded” from the “pressures of being transgendered.” The Tribune’s fetishizing of McDonald’s gender-nonconformity not only sought to render her deviant, but like other local news outlets, the newspaper deliberately reinforced a representation of McDonald as threatening and violent precisely because she was transgender. Invoking deep-rooted tropes of black rage and criminality, the local media coverage of McDonald’s case repeatedly suggested that the “pressures” of being transgender inevitably result in violence. These portrayals of McDonald as dangerous and violent, therefore, invalidated her claims to self-defense.

Because the Star Tribune received severe criticism from local community organizers for its derogatory coverage of McDonald, I directed several inquires to the staff reporter, Paul Walsh, who initially covered her case about whether he would be willing to share his experiences. However, I only received a one-line email wherein Walsh indicated, “Sorry, I won’t be able to help you.” Similarly, Abby Simons, another staff writer, tried to deflect any responsibility for the paper’s derisive coverage arguing – inaccurately – that the “the heat the Star Tribune took” for reporting on McDonald with male pronouns occurred before she started covering the case. Simons’ statement, however, is inconsistent: despite interviewing local activists and organizers supporting McDonald, Star Tribune articles still used the wrong pronouns and omitted important context about the daily street violence and harassment a trans woman of color typically faces. Lex Horan, a member of CeCe Support Committee recalled:

“At the time what they told us is that Star Tribune policy was that they couldn’t use female pronouns … for CeCe. I think clearly         what was happening was, Abby [Simons] was as sympathetic as a reporter we could have gotten, but the editorial board was shutting her down.”

How could the media have spoken differently about McDonald’s gender-nonconformity? Would it have made a difference if the Star Tribune and other outlets would have not constantly reminded readers through fetishizing and insulting phrases about McDonald’s anatomy, for example, by simply stating that she was “identifying as a woman”? Undoubtedly, local media reporters could have consulted with LGBT organizations, for example, GLAAD’s Media Reference Guide on transgender issues, or made an effort to follow the advice from local community organizers in how to properly refer to McDonald.

After contacting the Star Tribune’s senior editor about whether the newspaper adhered to any style guidelines in its reporting on CeCe McDonald, I received a note from the Managing Editor for Operations, Duchesne Drew, who informed me that the Tribune did not have an official style guide during the time of McDonald’s pre-trial hearings but had adopted an official transgender style guideline as of June, 2014. Drew further confirmed that the style guide was developed directly in response to the paper’s initial treatment of McDonald: “The McDonald case led to discussions here and those discussions led us to come up with a style guide entry.”

Although it may appear admirable that the Star Tribune recognized the flaws and demeaning language it used in covering CeCe McDonald three years ago, it is important to consider the actual effects on improving the media representation of trans people through the institution of an official transgender style guide. I do not want to dismiss the importance of minimizing the media sensationalism around trans people and raising awareness about using an individual’s preferred pronouns and/or gender-neutral language; however, to simply be content with the media using the right pronouns to address someone appropriately makes it all too easy to overlook how the media continue to reinforce state institutions’ Othering of trans people, particularly trans women of color, by actively participating in dehumanizing and violating them and by sanctioning the state’s violence enacted against them. The use of style guidelines does not solve the fact that visibility for trans people still carries mostly negative implications and that despite a proper acknowledgement of a trans person’s gender identity this visibility does not lead to justice.

In November 2014, the Star Tribune published full-page ads on the back of its sports section by the Minnesota Child Protection League, a conservative anti-LGBT organization, employing fear tactics that cast trans students as preying on their peers:

“The end of girls’ sports? Her dreams of a scholarship shattered, your 14-year-old daughter just lost her position on an all-girl team to a male … and now she may have to shower with him. Are you willing to let that happen?”

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The ad incited an outcry among local LGBT groups and advocates. Steve Yaeger, the Star Tribune’s vice president of marketing and public relations, however, asserted, “The ad in question met all the requirements of our ad policy” (See Joe Strupp, “Misleading Anti-Transgender Newspaper Ads Spark Outrage in Minnesota,” Media Matters).

The Star Tribune’s treatment of trans people exemplifies that the promise of visibility as a crucial element in alleged progress narratives about securing citizenship rights for LGBT individuals may not necessarily lead to “the promised land” and outweigh its perils.

 

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A Note on Positionality, Allyship, and Accountability

As my dissertation has been my steady companion for the past two years, I have certainly learned a lot about the toil of writing and the ability to endure in one’s biggest moments of academic defeat. I freely admit that the writing process itself has been a struggle. None of it was easy or particularly enjoyable. It actually made me question more than ever whether I still believe that academia is the right place for me. Yet I am proud of how the project developed and I sincerely hope that it contributes to a better understanding of trans experiences and why trans people are so vulnerable in encounters with state agencies. Sitting down to write the project’s conclusion – and grasping after that long sought thin silver lining at the end of “dissertation writing hell” – forced me in particular to reflect on my own (research) positionality, the politics of allyship, and being accountable to the communities I engage with.

The nightmares caused at times by the lack of confidence in my own project mostly stemmed from an astute awareness of my own positionality as a privileged, white, cis-gendered, queer scholar researching and talking about disenfranchised trans-communities (of color), which I am clearly not a part of. While I was always cognizant of that fact and while immersing myself in feminist and critical sexuality studies has significantly altered the way I approach research and writing, questions of positionality and the insecurities related to them are the ones that have haunted me throughout and I continue to grapple with them. After all, I knew that “sourcing” my interviewees for knowledge and writing about these communities would help me to present my work at conferences, publish journal articles, and ultimately receive my PhD. Should “I” really be writing this project? What really “qualifies” me to do so?

Despite good intentions and the ability to be self-reflective of our own research practices, sometimes we do not always do justice to the communities we study and/or are in allyship with, whether intentional or not. I recall a particular call-out – or maybe phrased more kindly call-in – moment via social media in which I had shared one of Janet Mock’s recent blog entries, titled “A Note on Visibility in the Wake of 6 Trans Women’s Murders in 2015.” In her blog post, Mock powerfully addresses the epidemic of violence against trans women and juxtaposes it with the meteoric rise of transgender celebrity and visibility.

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I had prefaced my post with, “Maybe Janet Mock should just finish writing my dissertation” to allude to the incredible poignancy of her words. One of my grad student peers, himself trans, commented how wrong my comment appeared and how alienated it made him feel because it seemed like I was just using Mock’s prose to serve “my end goal of finishing my dissertation.” My initial reaction to this public call-out on Facebook was one of defense and anger. Another cis-gendered feminist colleague of mine was quick to come to my help and assured me that she did not interpret the post in the same way. I spent the rest of that evening frustrated on my couch pondering over how to craft an apologetic reply, feeling personally attacked and the sincerity of my allyship questioned. When I look at the thread of replies that followed now, I kind of have to laugh because it’s pretty bad – me still clearly on defensive, trying to uphold my allyship as unsullied.

In hindsight, this encounter turned into a very “teachable moment” for me in completing this project. I realized how off-putting and selfish my post could appear to trans folks living and breathing these experiences everyday. No one is prone from avoiding mistakes like these. However, it is also not the job of those directly affected by marginalization, injustice, and state violence to educate and “enlighten” those protected by white, cisgender privilege. If one really cares about allyship and has a sincere investment in it, especially as a white ally in relation to marginalized queer communities of color, a key realization is to accept and acknowledge that allyship has its limits – it’s easily adulterated. Particularly, when allyship simply gets abused as another means to selfishly claim credit: the reminder of speaking with and not for or at the communities we are claiming to be in allyship with should be ever present. Sometimes it is better (and necessary) to shut-up and listen. As hard and as uncomfortable these conversations are – I’m ultimately glad that someone did call-in with me. To be continued.

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