Politics of My Location, Part 2

My adult life experienced the greatest changes in my politics of location. After living in areas that lacked substantial diversity, I moved on my own to Portland, Oregon. Lauded as a city with a large network of GLBT-friendly businesses, entertainment spots, and events, it fine tuned my understandings of the nuances of sexuality and gender. I realized that both exist along a continuum, and rigid compartmentalization of either sexuality or gender is a futile process.

While living there, I did work with a number of political and GLBT advocacy groups, and I found my interest in macro-level policy work. I worked with agencies that dealt with GLBT homelessness, sexual health program geared toward GLBT teens, and social perceptions of GLBT issues. My work with these agencies solidified my desire to do related work, and I realized that in addition to doing GLBT/sexual health advocacy work, I want to be a sex therapist.

That brought me to Indiana University. I am working toward a Major in Social Work and Minors in Gender Studies and Human Sexuality with the goal of getting an MSW and MEd in Human Sexuality. Bloomington, Indiana, certainly has its own politics of location. Indiana University offers a wide variety of classes in the subjects of gender and sexuality, and Bloomington forms a socially liberal bubble that allows its politics of location to vary drastically from towns just 20 minutes away.

I have found Bloomington to be open and accepting, and I have been impressed with the amount of academic options one has in the study of GLBT issues. Even within the Social Work program, there are separate classes for developmental issues in gay, lesbian, and bisexual people and developmental issues in trans people. I appreciated this distinction because I do not believe a single 16-week course can properly discuss the developmental issues and differences in sexuality and gender identity.

The social and political climate of IU and Bloomington is different than many of the surrounding towns, and I have spoken with many of my friends who have said that they feel more comfortable expressing their sexuality or gender identity here than in nearby towns. Bloomington, Indiana, influences one’s politics of location by offering a relatively accepting space for individuals to practice their sexuality and gender identity openly, free of the auspices of stringent gender roles and normative sexual behavior.


Politics of My Location, Part 1

Growing up, I spent my time between a number of small, poor rural towns in Russia and Poland. Although I only lived there until I was 8 years old, the politics of those locations rooted themselves in a developing paradigm I would later spend years undoing. The areas where I lived in either country were firmly rooted in religion, tradition, and stringent expectations for what is “proper.” I grew up with a very rigid, formalized understanding of gender roles. Girls wore dresses, had long hair, wanted babies, and participated in acts of domesticity. Boys wore pants, had short hair, played with guns and trucks, and participated in acts of aggression and dominance. Behavior outside of these predetermined norms was not a quirk or phase. It was a defect. It was a fundamental shortcoming that not only reflected your personal failure, but also the inadequacy of your family in rearing a subordinate, normative child. The politics of those locations also dictated the gendered division of labor to which I exposed. Men did jobs that required physical strength, social prestige, or intellectual facility. Women, then, were relegated to domestic tasks. For the first few years of my life, I grew up believing these things as absolute truths because I never saw anything to the contrary.

Then we moved the United States.

I spent the next five years living in an immigrant neighborhood in Chicago, Illinois. While the demographics of that neighborhood tended toward the old cultural patterns I previously experienced, new, fascinating ideas and behaviors emerged. I saw women who wore baseball jerseys and caps, and I saw teenage girls with green hair and pierced noses. Almost every depiction of women I saw challenged what I was taught to be proper.

I attended a small, traditional Catholic school whose population mostly consisted of white, lower-middle class immigrants. The school reinforced many of the strict gender roles I grew up with as a child. Boys’ uniforms consisted of slacks and a dress shirt, and girls’ uniforms consisted of a jumper or dress and a dress shirt. One day, for reasons I’m still not sure of, I thought it would be fun to switch uniforms with one of my male classmates. We snuck into the same bathroom, exchanged uniforms by throwing them over the stall, and came back out in each other’s clothes. The switch lasted for all of 15 minutes until we were caught by a teacher, asked to change, and sent to speak with the principal. I remember enough of the lecture to know the principle harangued ad nauseam about properness and decorum and what it means to be a “well behaved young man or lady.”

After elementary school, I attended a fairly homogenous high school in a wealthy white suburb of Chicago. Gender roles were substantially more flexible here than in my previous school, but there was still a lot be desired. Normal high school ridicule coupled with GLBT invisibility to form a rough, sometimes humiliating climate for anyone who identified outside of what was considered normal. I will continue with the politics of location in my adult life in Part 2.

Camp Trans

Every summer in Walhalla, Michigan there is a “Womyn’s Music Festival” — here’s a link to their page with their information. That all sounds beautiful, find and dandy… except since it’s conception, it’s been a festival for “womyn born womyn” only, or as those who know about it would know it, WBW. As can be assumed, this has sparked a lot of controversy.

Some of the responses have been by wearing arm bands (yellow) to show opposition to the WBW policy, artists who have previously performed have refused to do so based on this issue, and the most beautiful response to the issue… Camp Trans.

Camp Trans was sparked by Nancy Burkholder being thrown out of the WMF in 1991 based on the fact that she was a transwoman. This event made clear the fact that transwomen were not allowed inside of the festival and it sparked the first protests. These first protests were small and were both trans and cis women and often took place inside the grounds.

Since then, there have been multiple steps forward and back on the issue — transwomen have actually been sold passes to the festival and have helped in trans-inclusion workshops and protests within the grounds, but most of the forward motion comes from the camp itself.

The existence of Camp Trans is to help empower activists to embrace the vision that, while a women’s only festival is something they actively support, the exclusion of transwomen from that space  is a knock against the values that the women who run the WMF are apparently trying to foster.

The camp takes place at the same time as the festival, with their own series of workshops and organized picketing at the festival. They make the point of asking those who support them to spend time at their camp instead of trying to protest inside the festival, because it really does require the voice of trans-women in order to make a point, and they are still unrepresented inside of the festival (except for on rare occasions which have been marked within the history of Camp Trans) — the fact of the matter is, since 2007 they will admit transwomen to the festival, but they still do not open support them as members of the MWF community, which is still a blind prejudice against them as a whole.

The camp itself has around 200 people who attend — all that is asked is respect of the other patrons, a donation for community-made food, helping keep camp running by participating in workshifts, and an open mind. It is a wonderful opportunity for anyone who really wants transwomen to have a voice to be able to be heard, and it’s nearby, too! I know someone who has attended, and she says it’s one of the absolute best experiences she’s ever had as far as being an active voice in the trans community and helping her grow as well.


Feminine Transformations: Gender Reassignment Surgical Tourism in Thailand

Have you ever seen someone with a tattoo in another language and asked what it meant, and then after receiving an explanation you ask, “Oh do you speak it?” to a nice and curt, “Ohhh no.” It leaves you with a strange sense of emptiness — like the sentiment is in the right place but surely it can’t be as full of meaning as the person would like it to be. In Aren Aizura’s (I feel silly writing that, by the way… third person while talking about the overseer of the blog is kind of hilarious) article on medical tourism in Thailand, the same topic is explored.

In Thailand, there are around 8 clinics that perform gender reassignment surgery to a mainly foreign clientele, who of course receive the four star treatment. These medical tourists find themselves enveloped in a community of doctors and others going through surgery who make them feel much more comfortable while getting their procedures.

The article boils down to how the sense of “place” has affected those who have chosen to get their surgeries done there that have come from other nations (which are of course Westernized.) They travel to beautiful and exotic (yet 21st century!) Thailand and receive a procedure while being treated like four star guests on a tour of the easiest and most accessible yet culturally dumbed down. It’s like saying someone from Japan will easily know the United States if they travel to New York City — NYC certainly is an American staple, but it’s only one tiny bit of the culture that the United States has to offer.

Thailand is seen as a mecca for GRS for multiple reasons, one being that it is a more broadly offered medical procedure based on the fact that they don’t recognize gender identity disorder and because of this, it is an easier procedure to get than in places that do. At the same time, the Thai kathoey are more interested (only 30% desire to seek GRS) in other cosmetic procedures — so the aim of medical marketing is the Thai femininity — the white teeth, the pale skin, the ultra-feminine lady. So marketing within Thailand at the trans community aims to show the type of women that they can be — and this marketing hits the foreigners who are there for surgery as well.

Where these two things come together — the tattoo analogy and the Thai ultrafemininity — is with the women that were interviewed. One of the interviewees, Melanie, got a tattoo on her shoulder of a Thai goddess, based on a painting that she had bought after her first procedure.While there’s certainly nothing wrong with any of this, it is of note that the painting itself came from a shopping center across the street, aimed at tourists, with cheap touristy items to pick up and take home. And the tattoo itself was done once she was safely at home (with her painting) as well. She also seemed to have completely confused who the goddess was and what she represented, as she misnamed her during her interview.

Elizabeth, after having her procedure, chose to keep her testicles after her procedure and do her own little ritual which ended in feeding them to fish in ponds at a Buddhist temple. She talked about how she was offering them to the “yin energy” which is a feminine water energy.

The conclusion came from the fact that these were both pretty ridiculous in terms of being Thai cultural representations. The first was a woman who has a tattoo of “some goddess” on her shoulder that she doesn’t even really know or understand, and the second created a ritual which was one big mish-mosh of cultures and felt as though she’d done something spiritual, but they had one big thing in common. They both came down to being about Thai beauty — the same marketing techniques that were plastered all over the walls in the hospitals seemed to have whittled their way into how they both thought about their surgeries and the kind of “femininity” it had bestowed upon them.

The conclusion is brilliant in keeping it from being about the appropriation of Thai culture and Orientalism and really drives home the fact that these women chose what they found symbolic of their trips to Thailand for their GRS procedures, which mirrored what was marketed at them by everyone they came into contact with along their way there. It was really a brilliant and well-worded article that was hard to blog about without feeling like stepping on eggshells, which really goes to show how well-worked it was to have been written so well.

Cruel & Unusual

Story of my life — I totally spaced out on writing about the movie I was supposed to in class. I must have simply glazed over it at the time… but I watched a documentary for my paper that was extremely heartbreakingly interesting.

Cruel and Unusual is a documentary from 2006 chronicling the lives of several trans women who either have been or are still incarcerated in the United States. Because prisons in the US are divided by gender, these women were placed in men’s prisons instead of women’s. This seems bad enough, but because of the threats for their safety, they are placed in solitary confinement. Oh yeah, and let’s make it a little bit worse — for most of these women, they are also denied their hormones.

Because hormone treatment isn’t considered “necessary medication” by most prisons, they choose to ignore the issue regardless of the fact that most of these women have been taking hormones for years. As you watch the documentary, you begin to find out that the way the prison system deals with transgendered people is by not really dealing with them at all — stick them in the corner by themselves and make them wait out their time, unless they’re unlucky enough as a few of the women in the film were, to be felt up by prison guards or, unfortunately for Yolanda, raped.

The most heartbreaking account in the movie, in my opinion, was Lisa’s. Lisa had been working on oil rigs in Wyoming and eventually decided to come out as gay and then live full time as a woman. As soon as her employers found out, they fired her, and she spent time being homeless while searching for work. Eventually she began to steal copper wire to steal and trade in as scrap metal to try and make ends meet.

In the process she was caught and sent to prison in Idaho. Because of her male genitalia which she despised, she was sent to men’s prison and was denied hormone therapy. After a costly trip to the ER after “cutting her balls off with a razor” she demanded hormone therapy once more — she’d proven she was not a man. She was once more denied and she told the prison she would give them a year of her sentence before the penis went, too. A year later and another trip to the ER after completely removing her genitalia, she was once again denied. She ended up filing a lawsuit against the state and won. She set a statute in the state of Idaho that any transgendered person requesting hormones can now receive them.

After completing her sentence, she attempted once more to find work on an oil rig but could not because, as she put it she is, “6’6″ and two hundred and fifty pounds. [She] looks like a man, sounds like a man, but can’t be treated as a man,” so after a failed attempt at prostitution in Los Angeles, she was once again incarcerated for stealing more copper wire in Oregon. She did something to land in prison again because she simply could not afford her hormones.

The documentary showed how cruel it can be to have the issue simply ignored by the prison system in the United States, but the truly heartbreaking aspect was the fact that each woman’s story held such complex and horrific tales of heartbreak. They ranged in age from their early 20’s to 60’s and referred to themselves as transgendered, transsexual, and cross-dressing, but at the end of the day, the clear issue at hand was the fact that they had all been mistreated based on their gender representations.


Final Thoughts

Throughout this semester, I have learned about so many types of people and identities that I didn’t know existed. At Indiana University, I am a Gender Studies minor and through this minor, I have been exposed to all types of gender and sexuality issues. From feminist debates to the differences between sex and gender to now transgender rights/issues, my understanding of what falls under the term of human sexuality has broadened considerably. I have been exposed to the problems that categorization provides and now know that our old female and male gender binary is definitely not working for all types of people, societies, gender variances, and sexual expressions that exist. This class in particular has taught me not to focus on categorizing people who don’t fit into this binary into a huge umbrella term that really doesn’t solve the issue of classification; it has taught me instead to embrace differences in gender and sexuality and to identify a person by what they choose to self-identify as.

Besides learning about how sexuality and gender variance is expressed in the western world, I have learned about how it is expressed in the non-western world. The documentaries we watched about the trans sex workers in Paris from the one about Iranians struggling to gain equality through sexual reassignment, really opened my eyes to the struggles that people in the non-western world have to go through. I have also learned that the terms and categorization that the west has created definitely does not always work in a non-western setting; in some cases, non-western settings are more accepting of trans people than we are.

By examining the way in which the west vs the non west treats gender variance, I have been forced to realize that the United States isn’t as progressive as it thinks it is. We as Americans have a duty to open up the country’s eyes and realize that many laws discriminate against not only race and gender, but also sexuality. We should feel more outraged and concerned over these discrepancies in the law and I hope that one day, more and more people will feel the desire to study these issues in university just like we do and that more universities will offer courses on them.  Although this class may not have made me turn into an activist, it has made me more aware and more concerned over the plight of inequalities that exist for trans individuals and that much more needs to be done; I am so thankful that I had the opportunity to take it and have had my eyes opened to more possibilities.

Politics of Location

Politics of location Before I moved to Bloomington I had never met a transgender person. Before I came to Bloomington I had only met two gay people that I know of. I wasn’t aware of LGBT politics. I assumed that gay marriage was accepted in England due to not being faced with hearing about gay issues all throughout my childhood and teenage years. Gay terms such as lesbian and dyke and homo were common. I was even called a ‘lesbo’ in high school even though I wasn’t a lesbian. I disliked being named a lesbian and reacted poorly to the name calling. I met what I assume was my first transgender person at Uncle E’s a year ago. Friends pointed the individual out and proceeded to assure me that person was ‘cool’. Like that made everything okay and as if being transgender was bad but okay because they guy was cool.

I came out as a bisexual by sophomore year and I have to believe that if I had not moved out of England I would not have come out. I lived what I thought was a happy straight life. Bloomington gave me a new lease on life and I met people that allowed me to break out of my shell. Bloomington has an accepting feel. Although to other liberal areas of the country Bloomington is not the most liberal. But to me it feels freeing. I have rarely come up against any negativity when it comes to my sexuality. Although this may have something to do with the people I associate with. As the years have gone by the number of gay friends has increased and the number of close straight friends has decreased. I have found my place in the world.

Bloomington not only allowed me to be more aware of myself it also enabled me to understand myself. Taking classes at IU enabled me to really understand my gender. I have had conversations with people in England and although most are accepting of my gender and sexuality they just lack an academic understanding of what it means to be gay. Or even what it means to be a woman. I owe a lot to the gender studies department over the last two years. I lived as a bisexual for 2 years and yet didn’t even understand what that actually meant. What my place in the world meant, what my voice meant, what oppressions I really was under. Going back to England, actually tomorrow, I will be living in that old world that I used to call happy and I couldn’t ever think of going back. Thank you Bloomington! Thank you Gender Studies.