Tag Archives: transgender

The Cistakes of Allyship

“I don’t believe in allies. I want to see people operating in solidarity. That’s something totally different.” ~ CeCe McDonald, March 2018

 

I know, it’s been a hot second but finally some research and work updates!

In the spring 0f 2018, Leland Spencer kindly invited me to be part of the special issue “Transcending the Acronym” he was co-editing for the journal Women & Language (Issue 41, no. 1).  This special issue assembles critical essays seeking to expand our understandings of the LGBTQ+ acronym and identities. In the issue’s forum section, several of us were asked to respond to a provocation essay by G. Patterson, “Entertaining a Healthy Cispicion of the Ally Industrial Complex in Transgender Studies” (pp. 146-150).  These short forum essays raise, at times, uncomfortable yet important questions and invite future research. Below is an excerpt from my own response to this provocation essay. I strongly encourage you to check-out this fantastic issue in its entirety!

Many of us in the academy desperately need to re-evaluate our commitment to social justice, specifically to rethink the usefulness of “allyship.” As someone whose research engages media representations and the state’s surveillance of trans people, I continue to wrestle with my own subject positionality and questions of accountability. I self-identify as a White, cis, masculine-of-center queer who is a non-U.S. citizen, and has benefitted from class and European privilege all my life. The communities that inform my research are primarily poor, trans communities of color with limited access to housing, health care, and secure employment. Given these differences, I regularly contemplate in what ways and/or to what extent my scholarship is guilty of extracting value from the voices and labor of trans people (of color). It is precisely these questions, which point to gross discrepancies in material privileges, life chances, and survival, that I want to consider here: particularly how cis scholars can, to use the language of Black trans rights activist CeCe McDonald, operate in solidarity with trans people.

            1. Join university committees and actively advocate for genuinely inclusive campus cultures. Too often “diversity” committees function merely as a façade, which allow universities to celebrate diversity and inclusion while ignoring how institutional violences continue to harm marginalized populations. Moreover, those who choose to serve on these committees are often multi-marginalized and faculty of color who are already over-burdened with service commitments. When I joined my campus’ LGBTQ faculty committee, I was not surprised, but still disappointed to find that the majority of members were White, cis, straight folks with “good intentions,” but who had thus far failed to address issues like the lack of gender-inclusive restrooms in the student union or the exclusion of trans people from domestic partnership benefits. While it is imperative that POC and LGBTQ perspectives are represented on these kinds of committees, it is equally crucial that those claiming allyship do the work of researching issues, talking with and listening to trans people, and assertively tackling the concerns raised and solutions proposed by those they claim to be allies with.

            2. Regularly incorporate intersectional trans voices and topics in your syllabi. I consciously incorporate transgender topics in all of my courses. In Introduction to Media Studies, for instance, I discuss how the celebrity of Caitlyn Jenner problematically exoticizes trans experiences and reasserts the narrow confines of “acceptable” trans visibility as White, wealthy, and binary-identified. In my Sports Communication class, we look at how “fair play” rhetoric is leveled against trans women athletes to assess the ways that sports are a political, not just a cultural arena. Constituting a key component of critical and social justice focused pedagogy in the classroom, exposure to marginalized perspectives helps students sharpen their critical thinking and civic engagement skills. Skyping-in trans guest speakers, such as Kye Allums, who was the first openly trans NCAA basketball player, to share their lived-experiences is a valuable way to do so. No matter the class, incorporating the perspectives and experiences of trans people should not be the exception, but the rule.

            3. Use your institutional privileges to invite and adequately compensate trans people. Giving trans people a platform to tell their own stories challenges the hegemonic knowledge production that takes place in the ivory tower. If you benefit from the relative job security of a tenure-track line, consciously use start-up funds and grant money to invite trans speakers to campus. Recently, I co-organized with a student to host the #BlackExcellenceTour featuring CeCe McDonald and fellow activist Joshua Allen.

Securing funding for speakers like these often takes extra time and effort because universities typically do not value the experience of young, trans and queer people of color. In our case, we had to cobble together funds from over ten different programs. Many trans rights activists exclusively rely on honoraria to pay rent and cover basic living expenses. Do not haggle down their fees, especially when your department or school happily pays such fees to “established” public figures. Advertising to the whole community to attract larger audiences to these events is an effective means to enact publicly accessible scholarship that reaches beyond pay-walled academic journals and high tuition fees.

          4. If your research is drawing from the voices and experiences of trans people, give credit where credit is due. I want to reemphasize Patterson’s point about the importance of acknowledging trans people’s intellectual labor. This begins with proper citational practices. For example, when referencing trans and queer of color critique as frameworks of analysis, acknowledging their origins in Black and women of color feminisms should be a given.  This also entails listing our trans research informants as co-authors in our publications. Because individualistic tenure requirements incentivize predatory and exploitative academic behavior, White cis scholars can and should deploy their leverage to undermine academic hierarchies, especially those who are already granted tenure.

Undoubtedly, these are only small and incomplete steps scholars can take to make the academy less cis-centric, transphobic, homophobic, and racist. But in so doing, we can ensure that alternative epistemologies produced by trans people do not just accumulate “diversity capital” for neoliberal universities and individual scholars, but actually benefit the communities from which they emanate. As CeCe McDonald reminds us: “interrogate your privilege, whether it’s your class privilege, your race privilege, or your gender privilege” (interview with the author, 2018). By scrutinizing how our privileges inform and censor our everyday (inter)actions we can become better co-conspirators, and less self-serving allies.

 

To cite this article: Fischer, M. (2018). “The Cistakes of Allyship.” Women & Language, 41(1), 159-161.

 

 

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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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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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