My Three Year Rebirthday

On August 10th, 2013, I introduced myself as Callie to the world. I can’t remember ever being so simultaneously scared and excited in my entire life. By this point, I’d confided in most of my family and all of my closest friends about who I was. I knew I could trust them to keep my secret, but once I posted this note, there was no taking it back. There was no hiding from whatever consequences might follow.

I posted a note on Facebook titled “Deep Breath…” to make it public so I could begin my transition. I was shocked by the positive reaction I received. When I posted this, I had no idea how much time there would be between the posting and my debut socially as Callie. My friends were so supportive of me, I was able to make my transition socially mere days after posting this.

Today I’m reflecting on all I’ve lost and all I’ve gained in this journey. I may write more about it later, but until then, I submit for your consideration the note I posted 3 years ago making my transition public.



By the time this letter is done, I most likely will have started and erased it several dozen times. I think its super important for me to get this right. There’s no way I’m going to answer every question. But I’m sure going to try. I just want to make it clear that I’m doing my best.

The reason I need to take such care in explaining things is because I’m writing this letter to tell you the real reason I shaved off my beard… And that reason is that I am a transgender human being.

Shocked? Probably…and that’s cool. I’m not oblivious to the fact that I’ve spent my entire life being very much a male and acting as such. But I have felt this way since puberty. From what I understand that’s pretty common. These feelings in those who have them either begin to express themselves right away in childhood, or come about suddenly at the beginning of adolescence. I fall into the latter category. Without getting into the nitty gritty details, suffice it to say, I felt very wrong about the way my body changed during puberty, and not in the usual way that every kid does. I was terrified of this. I didn’t know there was a thing called “gender identity disorder” or “gender dysphoria.” I didn’t know there were other people like me. So I hid it. For a very long time.

So what does this mean? In short, a lot. It means that I’m going to start dressing like a girl. It means that I’m going to start talking like a girl. It means that as soon as its practical, I’m going to begin taking hormones that will change my body on the outside to feel like it does on the inside. It means that hopefully, sex reassignment surgery will be in my mid to distant future. It means I’m about to start a long and tedious process of changing my identification to reflect my female identity.

The important thing to remember is that in most important ways, I will be the same person. I’ll still love Star Trek as much as I always did. I’ll still be a tech nerd. My political views won’t change. My views on god and religion won’t change. The people I loved before, I will continue to love. The things that I cared passionately about before, I will still care passionately about.

Here’s what’s important to understand. I didn’t choose to feel this way. The only choice involved here is for me to begin to live my life in a way that I have always felt I should. Is it genetic? Is it environmental? The science is far from complete or conclusive on the subject, and aside from satisfying some scientific curiosity, I would argue the answer doesn’t really matter. Knowing the cause wouldn’t change how I feel. The only available effective treatment for my “condition” is to re-align the outside of my body to how it feels on the inside. So that’s what I’m going to do.

I get that this is weird. I get that its awkward. Trust me its at least as weird and awkward for me as it will be for anyone around me. There will be questions, and lots of them. While I don’t claim to have answers for all of them, I’m happy to try. I don’t want anyone to feel awkward approaching me with questions. Again, I’m still mostly the same person. I have a sense of humor about every aspect of my life, including this one. I’ve told and been the brunt of many jokes about this already among the few people who already know. Humor is an important coping mechanism for me, and anything I can laugh about, I can cope with. So feel free to joke with me. My friends and those who care about me have never felt uncomfortable joking with me about being a sci fi nerd, being an atheist, being fat, being disorganized, or any other quirky trait that I have. This is no different.

I like to think that I know my friends pretty well. I’m honestly not worried about being abandoned or hated by friends who currently love and care about me. I wouldn’t be friends with bigoted or intolerant people, and I have no fear that this will change. I just need to put it out there. To lay my thoughts down and to explain the changes that you will begin to see very soon.

I know this is a long read, and if you’ve stuck with me this far, thanks! It means a lot to me. Putting this out there takes a 10 ton weight off my chest and I feel better already. So thank you in advance for your understanding and acceptance. If I don’t have your understanding and acceptance, that’s okay too.

I’ve chosen a female name for myself. It is Calliope, or Callie for short. Aside from being a pretty name, in Greek mythology, Calliope was the muse that inspired Homer to write The Illiad and The Odyssey. I thought the allegory of a long and difficult journey seemed fitting.

Life is too damn short to not live the way you feel you should. I’ve always tried to take life head on and make it what I want it to be, and this is the next step in doing so. This is who I am, and I can no longer pretend to be someone else.


An Open Letter to my Christian High School Teacher

I attended a private Christian school with a strong evangelical bent for 11th and 12th grade. There was one particular teacher there who I connected with so closely that he became almost a family member to me. He fostered my intellectual development in a way no other teacher had, praised my creative writing and singing, and supported me emotionally when I was struggling with abuse at home and undiagnosed mental illness. I used to spend hours with him – both in his classroom after school and over email – discussing philosophy, politics, literature, theology, music, psychology… anything my anxious, nerdy mind could grapple with. He was my intellectual mentor and the person who taught me almost everything I know about theology and epistemology.

We continued our friendship into my college years, but (as is the way of many life changes) our relationship eventually dropped off, and as of the time of this post, I have not spoken to him in about 3 years. For context, I have been involved in the atheist community in varying degrees for about 2 and a half years, and totally out as trans for about a year.

This is an open letter to that teacher.

Last night I dreamed that I went to visit you, and I had a lot of explaining to do.

Your classroom door was open when I approached. You were teaching Biblical Worldview to a gaggle of baby-faced, credulous 16 year olds – just like I was when I first met you – showing them a video on the follies of non-Christian ideologies. As I waited outside for your class to conclude, I watched along. At one point, the video cut to a few heavily edited and out-of-context clips from The Atheist Experience, which the narrator amusingly referred to as The Life Of The Atheist. Matt Dillahunty and Phil Session were on, explaining to a caller that some percentage of people who self-identify as atheist later express regret at their decision to leave religion. (I have no idea what the stats really say on that or even if it’s ever even been measured, but hey, this is a dream universe.) Before they could elaborate or clarify, the clip ended, the narrator matter-of-factly stating something akin to, “Even atheists agree that a worldview without God is devoid of hope and meaning.”

When your class was dismissed and you had finished cleaning up, you walked out of the classroom to find me in the hallway. After the hugs and joyful tears were exchanged, you asked if I saw the video you played for the class, and what I thought of it. As I was forming my thoughts to speak, I realized that I couldn’t answer honestly and still be the same person you used to know, because you didn’t know the current me.

You have no idea that I’m no longer a Christian, much less much less an atheist activist. You don’t know that I contribute to a podcast and a blog focused on LGBTQ issues in a non-religious context. You don’t even know my current name, since the last time we spoke was about 2 years before I changed it socially, and over 2 and half before it became my legal name.

I knew my answer to your question about the video would be surprising for you, so I tried to soften the blow a bit by leading up to it slowly, hedging. “Well… I actually watch that show, The Atheist Experience. Every week. Actually, I know some of the people involved in that show, and I don’t think what the video showed was true to what they actually believe. It left out a lot of things.” Distancing myself from the “them” of the hosts and strategically declining to state my own opinions on the subject, I explained that in the broader context of the quote, the hosts relayed that the research attributed the majority of this dissatisfaction among a minority of atheists to social pressures like loss of community, family conflict and discrimination rather than the lack of belief in deities itself.

And like you always do, you listened and learned. Just like you did in reality when I told you about my bisexuality, as I would have called it then. Just like when I told you that I’m not actually a girl, that last time I brought dinner to your house and you prayed over the meal while I sat quietly with my eyes opened. You didn’t preach or judge or condemn or pull out your Bible to show me that I was wrong. You listened, asked sincere and well-thought-out questions, made some brilliantly groan-worthy puns, and left your own prejudices behind.

As we continued to talk in the dream, you dragged more and more nuggets of Ari-truth out of me. I mentioned briefly and flippantly that I now co-host a podcast called the Gaytheist Manifesto. Then, as if I were drunk, I felt a sudden compulsion to divulge everything. (“Look, I know this is going to disappoint you, but let me explain this fully. I’m polyamorous, which means I’m in love with more than one person at once…”) And even when you didn’t understand or have the vocabulary to place these concepts in your mental framework, you listened to me.

I don’t remember much more than that, but I’ve been thinking about this dream all day. I don’t believe that dreams have any sort of special, hidden meanings behind them. There’s no spiritual or Freudian symbology behind them that one needs a dream dictionary to interpret. Psychology hasn’t yet determined the exact set of factors that influence the contents of dreams, but according to one of my undergrad professors who is a sleep expert, dreams mostly consist of imagery, themes and emotions that occurred during the preceding waking period. The process of dreaming serves to strengthen neural connections that were created during waking and thereby consolidates memory.

All that is a nerdy way to say, I don’t think there was any sort of overarching fate behind the contents of my dream. No god planted that in my mind; no nebulous cosmic force influenced my sleep imagery with omens. It may have just been totally random, a byproduct of specific areas of my brain being activated and bringing to mind memories of the past. But I’m glad I did have this dream, because it got me thinking about time and circumstances, and how they’ve changed me into someone you may not fully recognize or understand if you were to see me now.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m very, very proud of my current self. It may not even be too terribly different from the version of myself you knew, the one you now hold in your mind as the Platonic ideal of me. I still have the same esoteric sense of humor, the same passion for pursuing knowledge and nuance, and the same fear of losing control of my mind that I used to write to you about when I was experience the height of my panic disorder. But there are lots of things about me that are different now. Some of them were inside me all along, waiting until it was safe to come out. Some of them were simply a result of chance events building on one another to result in an incremental but ultimately monumental outcome.

I think about what you would say if I told you I don’t believe in any gods anymore, much less the God of the Bible. You were one of the first people I came to when I was first filled with the Holy Spirit, and I still remember well the joy you expressed when I told you the news that I had been saved in spite of my many months of pestering you with relentless cynicism and doubt in Worldview class. I drifted away from the faith again in the years after that, but even when we were still close I didn’t let on about it to you. I didn’t want to take that joy away from you. I didn’t want you to worry about me and the fate of my soul. I didn’t want to disappoint you.

Would you be disappointed in me now if you knew who I’ve become since then? If I told you that I inject myself in the thigh once a week with testosterone out of a vial, would you furrow your brow in confusion, or would put your thumb to your chin with a curious smile and ask a hundred questions about every relevant aspect of endocrinology, anatomy and psychology that you could conceive of? If I told you I changed my name, would you tell me my new name suits me better, or would you mourn for the old one that I hate? If I told you that I co-host an atheist-targeted podcast about LGBTQ issues, would you express sadness at the loss of my relationship with Jesus, or would you ask for links to my favorite episodes and begin an hours-long discussion about how to be a better ally to queer and trans people? If I told you I’m in some form of romantic relationship with three different people right now, would you recoil at the rebellion against God’s plan for love, or would you earnestly want to learn about relationship arrangements you weren’t previously aware of?

What would you say if I told you that the critical thinking and reasoning skills you spent hundreds of hours fostering in me inside and outside the classroom caused me to abandon your religion? What if you knew that by teaching me in-depth about apologetics, you armed me with the very ammunition I now use to try to convince your peers to discard their belief system? What would you think if I told you I went to Washington, D.C. this summer to gather with thousands of other atheists to protest your religion’s influence in our secular government? What if I told you I make fun of your deeply-held beliefs on a daily basis and that I think you have no good evidence on which to rest the foundation of your life?

Would that hurt you? Would you be saddened and confused by the life that gives me so much fulfilment? Would you pray for me and petition the god I no longer believe in to guide me back to the religion I’m now both intellectually and morally opposed to? Would you wish I could return to the days before I understood my gender, when things seemed so much more simple and natural from the outside?

Or would you be proud of me for becoming myself? Would you look at me and see someone who is more genuine, fulfilled, confident and comfortable in my own skin than the me you used to know? Would you be glad that I and my community don’t live up to your expectation that most atheists are perpetually angry, despondent and selfish people? Would you hug me like always and challenge me to our customary six-hour-long verbal sparring match?

And most importantly for you, would you usher in a whole new host of puns based on my new name?

I don’t know if I’ll ever get the courage to send this to you. I hope I do, because I want you to get to know me again. Not the me you used to know, but the real, current me. The one named Ari. The one with the same cynical bite, the same crippling fear of failure and the same inexplicable love of all things Japanese that you remember… just with broader shoulders, more healthy skepticism, and less giving a shit about social norms than before. Because even though I’m anxious about the prospect of disappointing you, I really want to hear you say you’re proud of me.

Asexuality in the Media and the LGBTQ Community

The following is a guest post from Cassandra Galluppi, my queerplatonic partner. Many thanks to her for doing my job for me!

I am openly asexual. What that means to me is that I came out to my friends and acquaintances on Facebook, and if the topic ever comes up in conversation (which happens oh so rarely), I will absolutely tell people I’m ace. However, that doesn’t mean I have no reservations about doing so. Every time I have to tell someone new, I’m terrified. Not just because I have social anxiety, but because I’m bracing myself to be rejected—to be told that I’m wrong or that asexuality isn’t a “thing” or that I just haven’t found the right person yet.

Part of this fear comes from the way aces are (and aren’t) portrayed in popular culture. I’ll admit, my awareness of pop culture is limited; most of my time is spent watching certain shows that I like over and over again because apparently I’ve become a crotchety old bag at age 24. But there have been a few times in the recent past where I’ve encountered mentions of asexuality, and looking back, I think my reactions, while certainly not representative of the entire ace community, might be informative.

In January 2016, BBC’s Sherlock came out with their Christmas special, “The Abominable Bride”. While I wouldn’t call myself a die-hard fan, I do thoroughly enjoy the show, and as a treat I went to go see the special in theaters. Two of my friends came with me, both of whom know I am ace. Part of the episode is set in Victorian London and depicts a Sherlock and Watson more familiar from the books rather than the characters the show has developed. One of those scenes finds Sherlock and Watson on a stakeout, and as they are waiting for the culprit to arrive, Watson needles Sherlock about the fact that he never courts women. As Sherlock insists that there isn’t actually a need for him to do so, Watson spouts the arguments that aces are so used to hearing: “It’s only natural to want sex” and the like.

I was holding my breath the entire time. I was waiting for them to have Sherlock back down, to admit that he has sexual feelings for Irene Adler and has been too nervous to say so or something (in a not-grey-A-or-demi-way). I was anxious to the point that I was almost crying, and I never do that outside of social situations (and supremely rarely within them). But they didn’t. And I was relieved. After we left, I wanted to tell someone about how I felt, but even around two friends who I know accept me, I was still reluctant to bring it up. Fortunately, when I did, I had a good discussion where I got validation for my thoughts, in this case about the different forms of attraction and which ones might be applicable in this character dynamic.

The source of my fear here was that Sherlock is extremely popular. I knew that whatever they chose to do with that scene could have had implications for how aces are perceived by the public across the board, even if they didn’t explicitly mention asexuality. It’s difficult to have to put that sort of power into the hands of content creators who might not understand us, be able to empathize with us, or accept us. However, we don’t really have a choice. The ideal course of action would be to broadly educate the public to compliment/counter any portrayals of asexuality in media and/or to dialogue with content creators to give them some insight into what the world is like for us, but that’s a tall order.

Another brush with asexuality in media I’ve consumed—and, quite frankly, the only other one I can remember—was when it came up on an episode of the popular YouTube channel Game Grumps. For those who aren’t familiar, Game Grumps is a comedy channel where the hosts play video games and chat while they’re playing, sometimes about the game and sometimes about other random nonsense (mostly about other random nonsense). The hosts for the main show are Arin Hanson and Daniel Avidan, and I’ve spent many, many hours listening to them while crocheting. They seem like great people, and in an episode of their Ocarina of Time playthrough, I got to hear their opinions on asexuality. The conversation starts at around the 8:18 mark. If you don’t feel like listening (although I highly recommend their show in general), I’ve transcribed the relevant bits below with some of the filler words/phrases cut out; I left some in to indicate the general flow of the conversation. For context, Arin was 29 years old when the video aired, and Danny was 37.  

Arin: He’s easy though. I can take him out. Or her, I dunno. I don’t want to be sexist. F*ckin Lord of the Fire Temple could be a girl. I dunno. Could be a guy, could be a girl, could be neither. Could be asexual. Well, asexual’s a different thing. Could be genderless.

Danny: What’s the difference?

Arin: Asexual means that you have no, like, sexual preference.

Danny: Uh huh.

Arin: So you’re not, like, a sexual person. But you can be a male or a female.

Danny: Oh! Oh oh oh. Got it.

Arin: And being genderless is just, you’re not a male or a female.

Danny: Interesting. I think it was always confusing to me because, like, I learned the term asexual in biology class when dealing with, like plants, you know? And so when it came time that humans were defining themselves as that, I was like, “I don’t understand what it means. Does it mean your pistil or stamen…” like, I dunno.

Arin: Yeah. It’s a fairly new, I think, thing that’s becoming more and more accepted.

Danny: Yeah.

Arin: Which is totally cool, as far as I’m concerned.

Danny: Absolutely! Anything’s cool with me. I just, I feel bad because, you know, a lot of this stuff was not defined in terms when I was growing up.

Arin: Yeah, exactly.

Danny: So like, I’m a little behind the curve, and I’m learning about it while I’m doing a show for hundreds of thousands of people, you know? So it’s like, “Oops!” you know? Like, I kind of sound stupid.

I was nervous when the topic came up in the video. Not for the same public-perception reasons as when I was watching Sherlock, but for more personal ones. It was more like, “Oh boy. I really like these guys, and I really, really hope they don’t say something hurtful!” But their conversation was the best I could have hoped for from people who aren’t constantly swimming in the queer alphabet soup. They made some mistakes but corrected themselves, acknowledged what they didn’t know, and most importantly, validated asexual individuals and their allies who may have been watching the show. As I told Ari, the conversation was still making me smile days later.

It’s the little positive things that matter, whether in pop culture or in our personal lives. The asexual community is so small, and part of the function it serves is as a place to vent our frustrations when demeaning or exclusionary things happen to us. And since many of us identify as queer, it’s most hurtful when those attacks come from the LGBTQ community. I’ve heard stories about aces being rejected by queer people because they can pass as heterosexual, being denied space at pride events, not getting a lounge at a queer conference—the list goes on and on.

Stories like this make many of us wary in spaces that are in reality quite accepting of aces. When I started grad school, I wanted to connect with the queer community on campus. But when I started looking into it, I was a little put off. Their website only mentioned LGBT, not Q; they didn’t have any indication that they included people from smaller groups—I knew that I should just go talk to them and ask, but hey, social anxiety! I was waffling back and forth about it for days, until I saw a post from Callie about what it means to be queer on a status of Ari’s:

“When you go through life being affirmed as the default person, you never really have to give though to how your gender or sexuality change how you navigate the world. You have the luxury of being able to say those things really shouldn’t matter, because you’re extremely unlikely to ever experience marginalization or oppression because of them. So it’s the height of privilege to be able to say “no one’s different and we should have everything about everyone everywhere.” Sorry, I AM different than you. The problem is not the difference, the problem is the stigma surrounding that difference. I have no desire to pretend that I’m the same as everyone else, I’m plainly not. What I’d love is for the difference not to matter so much. That’s why we don’t want to erase the queer experience, the trans experience, the black experience, etc. because like it or not those ARE different experiences. And it’s not because WE have cordoned ourselves off from society, it’s because society has cordoned us off from them.”

That was the push I needed to be able to tell myself, “Yes, I am queer, and yes, I should have a space in this community.” I went to the Equity Center the very next day and boldly (while attempting to hide my inner panic) told them I am ace and asked if there were any groups or events that might be appropriate for me. Guess what? There was an asexual pride group that met every Monday. I was also invited to attend the weekly grad student lunch and a weekly lunch for STEM students. For the first time since realizing I am ace, I was able to engage with other aces in person while also feeling welcome in a space dedicated to queer people, and that felt wonderful.

Part of the reason we share those stories of negative encounters outside the ace community with each other is as a warning. We want to steel each other, particularly aces new to the community, against adversity we might face from any side. But the problem with that is that it creates a bias towards the idea that aces are negatively perceived by everyone, when I know that’s not the case. For every hurtful action, there are many, many supportive ones. For example, at the LGBTQ conference mentioned above, when other groups heard about aces not having a room, they stepped in to help. They let us share their space and their food. I felt a personal moment of support when I walked into my lab as we were getting ready to leave for summer fieldwork and saw my advisor labeling identical bandannas, her traditional gift to her summer helpers; she looked up and excitedly brandished the black, white, gray, and purple fabric while exclaiming, “Look, I found them in your colors!” And all of the love I felt from friends and family members when I came out last year was amazing. It’s stories like this that aces should be hearing.

So here’s what I’d like us all to do—aces, allies, and our LGBTQ siblings—let’s share the good, too. Share the times that you feel accepted. Share the times that you feel included. Because if we do, we’ll start to get out from under that bias telling us that we’re not welcome and see things the way I know they really are—that there are plenty of people who love us and will support us as we proudly proclaim our asexuality.

I Was Abused, And It Took Me Years To Figure It Out

“There’a a phrase, “the elephant in the living room”, which purports to describe what it’s like to live with a drug addict, an alcoholic, an abuser. People outside such relationships will sometimes ask, “How could you let such a business go on for so many years? Didn’t you see the elephant in the living room?” And it’s so hard for anyone living in a more normal situation to understand the answer that comes closest to the truth; “I’m sorry, but it was there when I moved in. I didn’t know it was an elephant; I thought it was part of the furniture.” There comes an aha-moment for some folks – the lucky ones – when they suddenly recognize the difference.”

Stephen King

I was a victim of emotional abuse.

*takes a deep breath*

Let me elaborate.

I’ve always had an interesting relationship with self esteem. There are some ways in which I’ll cop to being downright arrogant. There are also ways in which I find myself thinking I’m completely worthless. These feelings tend to exist on a spectrum, as most things do. My real struggles with my self esteem started just around the time my issues with my gender identity came to the fore. There seemed a direct line between these two things, so I didn’t question it very hard at first. At that point, I was embarking on a journey into the unknown, finally able to explore a side of myself I’d always hidden before. It seemed only natural to me to ask questions about my self worth. It made perfect sense to me to question whether or not I was even capable (read: good enough) of pulling off this coming out and transitioning thing. Every failure seemed justified because I didn’t think I was smart enough, or good enough, or capable enough, or that I was worthy of having the happiness and joy I’d seen this transition bring to others.

It seemed odd to me then, that as I settled into life after coming out, those feelings didn’t go away. I felt very sure of who I was. I’d spent more time than I care to recall exploring my identity and figuring out who I was. This wasn’t just some run of the mill self doubt. I’d successfully made it through my social transition, had my legal transition well under way, and was working toward getting things in order with work so I could transition there. I’d accomplished so much and came so far. Why was I doubting myself so hard? Why did my failures all make perfect sense to me when I was shocked and bewildered by my successes? Why did I find it so incredibly hard to believe it when anything said something nice about me?

It was not too long into this process, I read an article that set me on the path to figuring out all of these questions. I searched over and over again trying to find this article again to no avail. The title was something akin to “How I became an abuser and didn’t realize it.” The story was of a woman who’d become emotionally abusive to her husband, then recognized what she’d done, worked to make it right, and shared her experiences with others as a caution for them not to do the same. She gave an example that hit me square in the chest. She was the one who did most of the cooking in the house. One night she wasn’t feeling well and sent her husband out to get some ground beef. Her husband came back with the wrong kind, and she found herself berating him for it. She would say things like “why can’t I ever trust you to do simple things?” “Why can’t you ever remember what I tell you?” “What’s wrong with you?” and the like.

I immediately saw myself in the husband. These were all questions I’d been asked by my ex time after time. If I didn’t put just the right amount of food in the dog bowls, if I gave them the wrong number of treats, if I drove the car in the wrong lane, if I missed an exit or took the route she didn’t like me to take, I would be asked these questions time and time again. I didn’t realize this as it was happening, but I really did start to internalize those ideas. I asked myself constantly “My god, what IS wrong with me?” “Why I can’t I even remember to do these simple things?” “I’m just a horrible partner, I guess.” I believed these things about myself. It was more or less a coincidence that the downfall of my relationship to this person happened as I began to struggle more and more with my gender identity, which made it easy for me to pin these things on my gender identity instead of my abusive relationship.

It was easy not to recognize, as is often the case, when I was in the situation. I really did make mistakes, and plenty of them. I was even thoughtless and careless sometimes in a way that justified anger on the part of my ex. I’m no saint, nor have I ever been. But there are no mistakes that justify robbing someone of their self worth.

Once I figured this out, it all became so clear. I believed that I was clumsy, unintelligent, and forgetful, to the point where my worth and usefulness as a person was suspect. I would get nervous about performing every day tasks for fear of the verbal shellacking I was to receive if I didn’t perform exactly to specifications. The joy was sucked out of every day things. When time came close for her to get home from work, I’d walk the house making sure everything was in it’s place, scroll through text messages to make sure I didn’t forget anything, and the hair on the back of my head would stand up when I heard that car pull into the driveway, absolutely dreading to hear my name called from the next room in a frustrated and exasperated voice.

Abuse, like any other human experience, resides on a spectrum. One of the most unhealthy things a person can do is to compare their experiences to others in an effort to undermine their own feelings about what they’ve been through. As a society, we tend to treat all the various forms of abuse based on their perceived severity. We tend to think of things in terms of what’s worse to us instead of asking how the abuse effects the person who is being abused. That’s a view we’d do best to leave behind.

Because people experience abuse differently, it only makes sense to deal with abuse on the level to which it has consequences for the abused. There are some people whose experiences have very few lasting consequences for their day to day lives, and there are some for whom their experience was debilitating. There are often scenarios where someone was deeply and irreversibly harmed by something that may seem rather benign to the outside. There are those who’ve gone through what we might consider the worst experience one could possibly have and come out on the other side relatively unscathed. There is an entire spectrum of experience between these extremes, and we, as a society, need to come to terms with that.

For my part, if we’re discussing the consequences, I’d have to say the lasting effects fall at a 3 or a 4 out of 10, if 10 is the worst kind of debilitating fallout. I’m not interested in taking up space meant for survivors of trauma, because I wouldn’t use the word “trauma” to describe what I’ve been through. It certainly does, though, have lasting consequences for my self worth, my self esteem, and my confidence. My relationship with my current girlfriend hasn’t escaped these consequences either. We have, by all measures, an extremely healthy relationship. I’m fixated so hard on how healthy our relationship is, I borderline obsess over the fact I may lose it somehow. I’m working through that.

I think my story is an important illustration of the fact that sometimes abuse isn’t overt. Not all abusers are monstrous caricatures. I’m positive the person who did these things to me didn’t intend the consequences of their actions. None of that changes the affect it’s had on me though. If you’re hurting because something like this happened to you, please don’t think that you weren’t hurt enough to be effected. Please don’t wonder if your experience is worth talking about. Please know your experiences and feelings are valid, and most of all, know that you’re cared for and loved.


If you’re in an abusive situation and need help, please reach out to The National Center on Domestic and Sexual Violence at

An Open Letter to Queer and Trans Youth

Dear Friends,

I’m not typically a fan of generalizing, but I think it might be safe to assume that you’re all some flavor of hurt, sad, angry, worried, and scared just like the rest of our community is. I’m not a fan of sugar coating things, because I don’t think it helps. Your feelings are valid, and your fears are in many ways justified. It’d be dishonest for me to try to downplay the things our community faces every day. I don’t need to lay these out for you, because many of you experience these things in your schools and your homes every day.

One of the most often repeated phrases in the lexicon of LGBTQ youth support is “it gets better.” What I’ve heard from the youth I interact with (and I wholeheartedly agree, even hearing it as an adult) is that this is entirely unhelpful. Of course this is well intentioned. Many hurtful things have the best of intentions. The phrase is, of course, an attempt to get you to take heart, and have hope for the future. The problem is, this says nothing about what we’re doing in the meantime. I’m not a fan of telling people they have to wait for some unforeseen time in the future when things will eventually get better. I don’t think this is the message we want to send.

So here is the message I do want to send.

I don’t want to make you promises I can’t keep. I can’t promise you that I’m going to convince your bigoted teacher that it’s okay for you to be who you are. I can’t promise you I’m going to convince your school administrators that you shouldn’t have to be othered by using a staff bathroom in some remote area of the building when all you’re trying to do is pee. I can’t promise that I’ll convince your parents to let you see your partner. I can’t promise that I’ll convince your friends you’re not weird because you don’t want or enjoy sex. I can’t promise I’ll convince your grandparents to use the correct name and pronouns.

I can promise you this: there is a large and growing movement of adults fighting tooth and nail for you at this very second.

There are organizations like GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network) that work to make your schools safer, and PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) who are dedicated to fostering understanding and affirmation in your families. These organizations are staffed with passionate, bullheaded, and unapologetic allies who want your lives to be the best they can be. There are individuals working every day to change the hearts and minds of our policy makers, our parents, and our school administrators. I can’t promise you immediate and spectacular success, but I can promise you action.

I will do my best to make sure you are surrounded by love in any space under my control. If you have to deal with this crap at school, I will do my best to make sure you don’t have to deal with it in support groups and in social gatherings. If you deal with this crap at home, I promise I will do my best to make the vital online spaces in which you seek community safe for you. I will use whatever platforms granted to me to amplify your voices and your concerns. In a world that tries so hard to shrink the precious little space we have, I will be the wedge driving that space further open. In a world that wants us to disappear, I will shine your light brightly. In a world where fake allies hide behind rainbow flags, I will hold people accountable.

You are precious, you have value, and you are loved. Saying this is a start, but it isn’t enough. I sincerely believe that we are resilient. We can make our way through almost anything if we have spaces where we are loved, affirmed, and supported. I’m committing to my part in creating and expanding these spaces for you. Please know that if you’re feeling lost, we’re coming to get you.

I am, of course, only one person. My scope of influence is narrow. But I’m committing to do my part. There are thousands (maybe tens or hundreds of thousands) of adults out here doing everything we can to make this world a safe place for you to exist and thrive in. We’re doing everything we can to circle you with love and affirmation. Please try to know and understand your value. Your value is not based on being someone’s child or someone’s sibling. Your value is based very simply on your existence. I and many others like me are committed to not just saying these things, but letting our actions demonstrate these things.

We love you, and we want you to be safe. We want you to thrive.


A queer transgender adult

No Cause is Worth Sacrificing Your Well Being

Today a very important person in my life called me, sobbing and hyperventilating.

They (I’ll keep them anonymous) had spent the majority of the day in conversation and debate with someone who espoused some pretty bigoted, hateful and harmful views in the wake of the attack on the Pulse nightclub in Orlando. My loved one believed it was up to them to change this person’s mind, because queer and trans lives are on the line. This person isn’t queer or trans themselves but has many friends and loved ones who are. Like many of us, they have been really shaken by the implications of the shooting and feel an increased call to action because of it.

After several hours and no headway being made in changing this person’s mind, my loved one became so distraught that they broke down crying. They told me they felt like a failure. They knew the urgency of the situation, knew that people’s lives are potentially in danger, and that now more than ever, we need to speak up and fight as hard as we can to change minds. They didn’t convince the person they were talking to, and because of that they felt that they let themselves, me, and the entire LGBTQ community down.

This message is for that person, and for everyone else who has been hit hard by conversations surrounding the recent events: whether you have been personally affected or not, whether you’re queer or trans or a straight cis ally, whether you’ve been able to have any discussions about the recent events or whether you’ve had to step away from the news entirely for your mental and emotional health.

You are more important than any cause.

Yes, activism is incredibly important. Whether it’s on a large scale through political change or a small one through individual conversations, we all need to be doing our part to make the world safer for queer and trans people, and all marginalized people. Especially in the wake of such a tragic and eye-opening event, we feel that this is an incredibly urgent cause. Every day that we do not act, people are being murdered, shunned, erased, beaten down physically and emotionally, mistreated, abused into self-harm and suicide.

But you are still more important than that.

It sounds like a selfish message. If people’s lives are at risk, wouldn’t it be incredibly self-centered and heartless NOT to give your all to combat bigotry, hatred and violence? How could any one person be “more important” than the hundreds of thousands who are suffering?

Yes, you should give your all. But you should never give MORE than your all, because if you are hurting, those who seek to destroy you and those you care about have won. Taking care of yourself when others try to tear you down is revolutionary. It’s a form of activism in defiance against those who want you to suffer.

Activism is a humanist endeavor. Activists try to change the world because we care about people and we want to make life better for them. I think self-care and self-love are also forms of activism centered firmly on humanism. You are a human being, too, and you are just as deserving of love, care and peace as any collective group, or any individual in that group.

We all take this journey from different starting points. Some things that are easy for some are difficult for others, and it doesn’t make anyone better than anyone else, just different. We are all individuals fighting alongside one another for the same end. Just as we need to support others who are struggling in our communities, we need to support ourselves when we are struggling. You are part of our community and our family, and we need you. You are precious just by virtue of existing. If all you can do some days is continue to live in the face of a world that doesn’t always care about you, that is enough. If talking about the news or engaging with hateful people is triggering to you and you can’t always speak up where you think it’s needed, you are still enough. We are here supporting you, and those of us who can speak will do our best to step in when you are in too much pain.

Engage where and when you can, because we need all the help we can get right now. But please, for your sake, ONLY engage where and when you can without causing harm to yourself. It’s easy to feel guilty for stepping back when things are painful. I suffer with anxiety and panic attacks that are often triggered by interpersonal conflict, so I know very well the guilt of having to choose to not engage in conversations that may be important to have, but may also be harmful to me. You feel like people are depending on you, like it’s your responsibility to change people’s minds. But it’s not just your task alone. It’s the shared responsibility of all of us. When one arm gets tired, the other comes in to relieve it. That’s why we need our community. No one person can do it all, and we need one another to support not only our cause, but ourselves.

Please remember that your life, your health and your well-being are more important than changing anyone one person’s mind. You are not just a fighter for the cause. You ARE the cause.

“I want you to know that if you’re lost, you’re hurting, you’re scared, if you feel like no one cares and no one understands, you need to know there’s a community out here that loves you, cares for you, and knows that you’re capable of amazing things, and that you ARE worthy of love. If you’re struggling, please don’t be afraid to reach out.”

If you are struggling and need support, please contact one or more of the following organizations:

Trans Lifeline

The Trevor Project

National Suicide Prevention Hotline

The Secular Therapist Project

5 Things Trans Allies Say That Mean Well But Miss The Point

Cisgender allies of trans people usually have our best interests in mind, but despite their good intentions, they sometimes say things that are incorrect or betray a hidden anti-trans bias they may have unknowingly internalized. Below are few things I wish trans allies wouldn’t say, and tips on how they can rephrase and re-channel these benevolent sentiments in a way that’s more inclusive, kind and accurate.

I want to assure readers that the purpose of this article is not to shame cisgender allies of trans people for being imperfect, or to try to aggressively police their language, but to educate them about how to best support the trans people they know and love through their language. I hope that allies who read this article will be inspired to think more carefully about the words and phrases they choose to use in reference to their trans friends, family members and colleagues and examine whether the language they use may contain some covert harmful assumptions about transgender people.

Without further ado, here are 5 phrases about trans people that mean well, but miss the point:

1. “Cool, I’ve never met a trans person before!”

Why it means well:

The speaker is expressing their excitement at meeting someone with a different life experience from them. Most people who use this phrase and others like it are genuinely interested in getting to know trans people, becoming more educated about trans issues, and pushing for positive social and/or political change, but have not yet had the opportunity because they believe they don’t personally know any transgender people. They may follow up this statement with sincere questions about the person’s personal history or trans issues in general such as, “When did you realize you were trans?”, “What do you think about [well-known trans person]?”, or, “Which bathroom do you use?”

Why it misses the point:

Firstly, this statement is most likely false. Current estimates put transgender people at approximately 0.3 to 1% of the general population, although due to inherent limitations in self-report methodology, this is likely an underestimate. As social, political and interpersonal pressures against identifying and coming out as trans continue to lessen – and as people become aware that “transgender” is an umbrella term including more than just the traditional binary genders – this statistic will likely increase.

Let’s take a rather conservative approach and assume that transgender people account for half of a percent of the general population. That means, statistically, that for every 200 people you have met, 1 is transgender. Infographic site Funders and Founders estimates that the average person meets approximately 80,000 people during their lifetime. Again assuming the highly conservative estimate that 0.5% of people are transgender, that means that most of us will meet at least 400 transgender people before we die.

When someone claims that they have never met a transgender person, what they really mean is that they have never met a person who announced themselves as trans upon their meeting. Whether the person was not living authentically at the time, living as “stealth”, or the topic of their trans status or history was simply irrelevant to the conversation, odds are that most cisgender people have met dozens, if not hundreds, of trans people without ever knowing.

Secondly, referring to someone as your “trans friend” or marveling over their trans status upon first meeting can be taken as essentializing or tokenizing. Most trans people don’t want to be known first and foremost for being trans. They want to be known and seen as complex people with a multifaceted identity, only one aspect of which – large or small – is their trans identity or history.

What you should say instead:

“You’re trans? Okay.”

Until given further notice from the person in question, treat the admission that someone is transgender as if they told you they have Italian heritage or play in a basketball league on Saturdays: it’s a small piece of the mosaic that makes this person themselves, not necessarily a dominant feature of their identity. Individuals vary in how willing or desirous they are to talk about their personal histories and trans issues in general, and they may consider some questions intrusive, so allow the individual to have power over how much they choose to discuss this aspect of themselves with you.

It’s fine to ask the occasional respectful question or two, but be mindful that the person may not be willing to act as a spokesperson for the entire trans community, and even might be uncomfortable discussing their own experience if they feel unsafe or not accepted. Let them set the pace and try your best to be open and receptive to their needs and boundaries. If they want to educate you or tell their personal story to you after you have demonstrated yourself to be trustworthy, they will!

2. “[Name] was born a boy/girl and later changed their gender.”

Why it means well:

This is an attempt to acknowledge that a person was originally assigned a gender which turned out to be incorrect. They now see this person as the gender they say they are, not the gender which they were given earlier in life.

Why it misses the point:

The first problem with this statement lies in the notion of being born a certain gender. Terms like “boy” and “girl” describe gender, not sex. Gender is a personal and highly individual experience that influences how people relate to themselves, to others and to the world around them, and just isn’t something that can be known at birth. When doctors proclaim, “It’s a boy!” or, “It’s a girl!” upon the birth of the baby, they are actually using shorthand to describe the legal sex of the child, not the gender.

Even with sex, we run into some problems. Like gender, sex is a spectrum and isn’t always easily reducible to the appearance of one’s genitals. When a child is assigned a legal sex at birth, the doctor makes this determination entirely based on the appearance of the genitals. Unless the doctor has reason to believe that a baby has an intersex condition, they do not run any testing on the baby’s chromosomes, hormones, or internal sex organs, so most people don’t actually know the full extent of their biological sex. So when you say that you were “born male” or “born female” because that’s the letter the doctor chose on your birth certificate, you may not be referring to your biological sex at all, only your legal sex. You may have the genitals typically associated with one sex which lead the doctor to assign you a certain legal sex, but there are a myriad of factors involved in biological sex that you most likely don’t even know about.

Now for the major problem contained in the above sentiment: When someone transitions, they don’t actually change their gender or sex. They simply change whatever outward aspects of themselves don’t reflect their current gender, whether that be their name, pronouns, clothing choices, or physical characteristics. Some people, especially those in the non-binary umbrella, change few or none of these aspects of themselves upon embracing their trans identity; they simply adjust their self-understanding.

The phrasing of “changing” one’s gender heavily insinuates surgery, which not all trans people need, want or can get. A few weeks ago, one of my partners was talking to a friend about trans issues and realized that his friend was under the impression that the “transgender” label only applies to someone who has had, in the words of so many cisgender people, “the surgery,” medically referred to as sex reassignment surgery (SRS) or gender confirmation surgery (GCS). In reality, not all trans people desire any kind of surgery on their genitals – myself included – and many who do want it are unable to access it due to cost, lack of insurance, trouble getting time off work, or medical gatekeeping. Anyone who doesn’t feel comfortable with the gender they’ve been assigned by society is transgender, regardless of whether they want, can get, or have had surgery, or any kind of medical (or even social) transition.

What you should say instead:

Avoid assigning gender terms like “boy” or “girl”  to someone’s legal sex designation. Instead, say something along the lines of, “[Name] was assigned male/female at birth, but is transitioning/has transitioned to reflect their authentic gender.”

3. “I was born a [gender] and you’re more beautiful than me!”

Why it means well:

There are several common variations on this theme, including, “Wow, I could never tell you’re trans!” and “You look just like a real [gender]!” Typically, a person saying one of these phrases is trying to compliment the person’s appearance and note that they look happier and more “like themselves” when presenting as their authentic gender.

Why it misses the point:

Despite the truly kind intentions behind them, compliments like these betray a hidden, possibly subconscious belief that an attractive transgender person is a rarity. Comments like, “You’re so beautiful for a trans person!” contain the hidden premise that trans people are, in general, unattractive compared to cisgender people.

It also assumes that “looking transgender” – in other words, falling outside of traditional cisgender-centric notions of beauty – automatically makes one unattractive, and that only those trans people who can convincingly pass for cisgender are worthy of compliments. (For more opinions on why the concept of passing is harmful to trans, intersex and gender non-conforming people, see my previous post.)

Depending on what kind of phrasing is used, many of these kinds of sentiments heavily insinuate (or even state outright) that only people who were assigned a given gender at birth are legitimate members of that gender. A cisgender woman attempting to compliment a trans woman’s appearance may say, “It’s not fair! I was born a woman and you’re still way hotter than me!” In addition to linking back to the problems with the notion of being “born” a gender as outlined in the previous section, these statements express a kind of indignation or jealousy that someone who was never “supposed” to be a member of a gender could conform so well to the expectations for beauty designated for that gender.

What you should say instead:

“That [clothing item, hairstyle, etc.] suits you.”

“You look so happy!”

“You’re beautiful.”

4. “I’m a straight guy, so I only date women and trans guys.”

Why it means well:

You can extrapolate this type of statement to any monosexuality – for example, a gay man who says he is open to dating “pre-op” trans women. (In a future article, I’ll detail why the trans community would be better served if we altogether abandoned categorizing people according to whether or not they’ve had transition-related surgery.) People who say this believe they are being inclusive and broadening the tent by being open to dating anyone with the particular genitals and/or secondary sex characteristics they prefer. It’s another way of saying, “I could date anyone with the parts I like, even if they’re trans.”

Why it misses the point:

Let’s take the example of the straight guy. Men who identify as straight are interested entirely or almost entirely in women, right? And they don’t typically like to be with men, right? Then by definition, they should not be dating trans men, because trans men are men, period, no matter what their genitals look like. No matter if a trans guy is taking hormones, had any kind of surgery, or even has short hair, he’s still a man. The same goes, of course, for trans women – they are women and therefore not the typical partner for a self-described gay man.

I’m not here to police people’s labels or argue that people who aren’t attracted to certain types of bodies are bigots or transphobes. I’m a non-binary person with two partners who both identify themselves as straight men despite me not being a woman, and they have every right to do so. They both are attracted to women 99% of the time and I am the one exception to that rule, so they choose to keep the heterosexual label, and I am comfortable with that. (Again, this is a topic I will go into more detail about in a later post.)

What I am less comfortable with is – if we continue with the example listed above for continuity’s sake – straight men conflating cisgender women and transgender men simply because they may share similar genitals and other sex characteristics. Of course there’s nothing wrong with being attracted to both cisgender women and transmasculine people, but I’d advise that you rethink calling yourself heterosexual if the attraction to transmasculine people is more than incidental. I believe that people should be able to label their own sexualities… within reason. If a woman calls herself totally heterosexual but only ever has sex with other women and is sexually repulsed by men, that label is not an accurate one for her. Similarly, a self-identified straight woman who is more than occasionally attracted to trans women is probably not using the appropriate label, because trans women are women.

What you should say instead:

“I’m a straight guy, so I date women,” meaning any kind of women.

Or, if you’re more concerned about the genitals than the gender, “I like vaginas, so I date people with vaginas.”

5. “[Name], who was born/formerly known as [birth name]…”

Why it means well:

Journalists often use this phrase and others like it to give readers context and background information, especially when covering a person who was already well-known before coming out as trans. For example, this article from The Guardian, which was released days after director Lilly Wachowski came out as trans earlier this year, briefly mentions her previous name for context before returning to her current name.

Why it misses the point:

It’s fine to use a person’s previous name when the name change is relatively recent, such as in an article announcing someone’s coming out, but after a certain amount of time, it reaches a level of absurdity. It’s been over a year since Caitlyn Jenner became public about her gender identity. Almost everyone who pays attention to news media now knows that she is trans and used to be called a different name – and if they don’t they can find out in less than 5 seconds with a Google search – yet even some recent articles still find a way to work in her previous name. The above Guardian article mentions the previous name of Lilly Wachowski’s sister, Lana, despite it having been four years since she went public with her transition. It then goes on to caption an image of a masculine-presenting Lilly with yet another reference to her previous name, this one wholly unnecessary after having already explained the name change.

So why do news articles and people in daily conversations continue to purposefully refer to trans people by their old names, even long after their names have changed and the public at large – or, in the case of everyday trans people, their social or professional circles – has been made aware? Most will argue that it’s in the interest of making the readers aware of who the person is by using the name they became well-known under, but as I stated earlier, there comes a point when this is no longer a valid defense. When’s the last time you saw an article referring to “Miley Cyrus, born Destiny Hope Cyrus”? It seems to me that it’s mostly for a shock factor, or, as Callie likes to put it, the “trans people are icky” defense. When someone points out that a person who used to have a feminine name now has a masculine one or vice versa, they’re drawing attention to the “otherness” of a person who “used to be” one gender and is now another. (As a pointed out above, it’s not the case that a trans person who has started a physical transition has changed their gender, but it may seem that in the mind of the speaker.) There are those who do so maliciously and derisively, of course, but even people with good intentions sometimes engage subconsciously in this kind of othering.

As with most rules, there are exceptions, but most trans people who have changed their names to better reflect their gender don’t like being referred to as their previous name, even if the events being spoken of occurred before the change of name. Constantly making reference to a famous trans person’s previous name in news articles gives the impression to cisgender readers that it’s okay to use someone’s deadname in their daily life.

What you should say instead:

Just call them by their current name! You wouldn’t keep referring to a married person by their previous last name all the time, especially after it had been months or years since it had been changed, so don’t do it for people’s first names either. Unless the person specifically gives permission, it’s never okay to use that person’s deadname.

If you think I’m letting trans people off the hook, don’t worry… In the next few weeks I’ll be posting a similar article, this time a list of terms and phrases common among trans people that I believe should be retired.

What’s a phrase you hear allies use that you wish they wouldn’t? Leave it in the comments!

My Online Friends ARE My Real Friends

[CN: suicide, depression, being in the closet]

I have a step uncle who refuses to have a phone. Of course, when you read that, I think it’s safe to say you thought I was talking about a cell phone. In fact, this uncle refuses to have even the good old fashioned landline variety. Why? Because if he wants to talk to somebody he’ll just go on over to their house. In his mind, there’s no reason to talk to someone if you can’t do it face to face. I was thinking about this lately and it reminded me of all the times I’ve heard claims that social media, smartphones, Facebook, Twitter, et al, are ruining the quality of “true” human social interaction. Frankly, this attitude makes me sick to my stomach.

You see this everywhere. There are “digital cleanse” rituals where you’re supposed to abstain from social media for a certain period of time to interact with the real world. We have news articles constantly pushing the idea that our online interactions don’t constitute “real” human connection. One of my favorite bands even wrote a song about it for their most recent album.

I want to say first off that I’m not entirely unsympathetic to what these folks are getting at. There most certainly can be problematic ways we attach ourselves to social media. I’ve been pretty annoyed several times by being at gatherings where it seems everyone congregated in one place to scroll through Facebook the whole time. I’ve even been guilty of checking my phone far too often when I’m with my girlfriend and making her feel neglected. I’m not advocating for or excusing these things. Let’s be real though, people had ways of ignoring their friends and families well before social media came around.

When you’re a person who can generally expect to be surrounded by people in meatspace who think like you, share your experiences, share your points of view, and are sympathetic to you as a person, it’s very easy to go on about the superiority of “real” human interaction. What if you’re the only queer kid in a small conservative town? What if you’re a teenage atheist in a family whose identity is absolutely wrapped up in their involvement in the church? What if you’re an atheist in a country where it could cost you your life? What if you have questions in an environment where simply asking those questions can get you ejected from your church?

I’m not a person whose life was saved by the internet, but there are many people who have experienced just that. For some in communities of marginalized groups, the internet is the only connection they have to others who share their experiences, think like them, and are sympathetic to their struggles. For these people the internet is not only a vital outlet, but it can very well be the thing that stops a person from ending their own life.

Human beings are social creatures. Surely, there are those of us who are genuinely misanthropic, but for most of us, connections to other people are a vital part of our emotional well being. Some of us, like me, are fortunate enough to have lots of folks surrounding us in real life we can make connections with. Not all of us are so lucky. I’d wager that most of us might prefer to have those connections in real life, but the sad fact is, not everyone has that choice. Constantly hearing those relationships degraded as being shallow or simplistic grates at me to no end.

Social media is a tool. Like any other tool, it is only as good as what we choose to do with it. If you have a hammer, you can kill someone or you can build a house. It’s up to you. Social media is no different. If you’re a person who cares for nothing but how famous you think you are, how many friends you have, or how many likes each of your posts get, chances are you are going to have shallow and largely meaningless interactions with those you encounter online. If you are a person who is genuinely seeking a community, you are likely to find it. Many of the people I hold most dear are people I met initially online and who I maintain mostly online relationships with. These relationships have meant everything to me. I have met people who mentor me, encourage me, offer unconditional love and support, and who have been there for me no matter what I go through. These are people whose lives I care about. They’re often on my mind. I miss them when I don’t hear from them, I celebrate their triumphs, I mourn their losses, and I cry when I lose then. I will not stand for having those relationships denigrated by someone who has no idea what it’s like to want for community.

Pass It Up: Why Trans People and Allies Should Abandon The Language of Passing

In the transgender community, the term “passing” refers to when a person is consistently seen and recognized as the gender they identify as, even by strangers who don’t know about their trans status or history. For many, passing as the gender they identify as serves as a means to achieving gender euphoria (a sense of satisfaction and comfort with one’s perceived gender), the opposite of gender dysphoria (the discomfort many transgender people feel with their bodies, gendered name and pronouns, clothing norms, and more). Passing is also a safety concern in many cases; the less visibly different from the mainstream cisgender society one appears, the less one needs to worry about possible discrimination and violence.

While passing is highly important to many individual trans people – and for good reason – I believe that on the collective scale, this concept is more harmful than many trans people and their cisgender allies realize. It sets arbitrary standards of beauty for trans people which many can’t or don’t wish to meet, erases non-binary and gender non-conforming people, and paradoxically leads to an atmosphere of greater public danger for transgender people.

I used to be a member of a private Facebook support group exclusively for transgender people. It was intended and marketed as a way to share resources, make friends and build support networks, solicit and offer advice and comfort, and share stories, all things that are desperately needed in the trans community. As the group grew in numbers, supportive and helpful posts were quickly crowded out by selfies, invariably captioned with, “Do I pass?”. Most of the comments on these threads were genuinely encouraging and supportive, but I was troubled by the occasional shallow, judgmental reply. Trans people should know, perhaps better than most, the emotional and psychological damage that these types of comments can inflict.

More disheartening for me than the rare insensitive comment was the disproportionate amount of value that the posters of these photos placed on their appearances and others’ opinions of them. They seemed to feel that their worth as trans people directly correlated to how well they could pass for (or, to phrase it differently, pretend to be) cisgender; the less gender non-conforming they appeared to others, the better they felt about themselves. As a trans person, I understand the anxiety, discomfort and outright anguish that physical dysphoria can cause, and I don’t want to take away from anyone the euphoria that can come with outwardly appearing as oneself. But as a non-binary person, I also understand that appearing cisgender and presenting as one’s authentic self are not always necessarily interrelated concepts, and that the concept of passing is especially harmful to those who do not fit traditional cisgender standards of beauty.

For many binary trans people – people who identify as strictly man or woman – being seen and identified by others as your true gender can be a badge of honor and source of pride. It signals that you are finally starting to live and be seen totally as your authentic self and triggers a sense of gender euphoria. But what would passing mean for a non-binary person: someone who identifies as a combination of man and woman, neither man nor woman, or outside of such concepts altogether? What of intersex people who present outside our typical norms of appearance? How can one “pass” in the public eye as a gender which is not recognized by society at large?

For many non-binary or otherwise gender non-conforming (GNC) people, this is a constant source of discomfort. As a non-binary person in a society that exclusively recognizes and privileges binary gender, I am practically never perceived as my authentic self. If passing is the standard to which trans and cis people alike hold trans people, does that make me and other non-binary or GNC people less trans? I reject any concept which rests on the foundation that all trans people must be alike, or that some trans people are more trans than others. There is no rulebook for being transgender; the only requirement is that one is not totally comfortable with the gender they have been assigned by those around them. Transgender people, like any other group, are diverse and varied in their experiences, their goals, their outlooks and their self-expression. Transgender people and allies alike should learn to love each individual for who they are and how they wish to self-express, never look down upon or be made uneasy by those who choose a different path for themselves.

At its core, the idea of passing as cisgender as the end game for all trans people is a concept rooted in cissexism, the belief that cisgender people are inherently more “normal” – and therefore more attractive – than transgender people. In order to be considered beautiful, trans people must cease to be visibly trans; they must assimilate into the cultural standards of the dominant cisgender society they live in. For many non-binary people including myself, this is not an option, and conforming to the standards for either of the two largely-recognized genders causes anxiety, shame and unhappiness. And why should we? These standards are ultimately arbitrary and often rooted further in patriarchal, essentialist ideas of men and women which box  each gender in to a handful of immutable traits. Trans people, and non-binary people in particular, have a vested interest in combating these notions wherever possible.

Reliance on the concept of passing not only erases and delegitimizes non-binary and GNC people who don’t feel comfortable or authentic conforming to traditional standards of appearance, but it makes navigating public spaces potentially more dangerous for non-binary and binary people alike. By propping up the language of passing, we are indirectly encouraging scrutiny and judgement based on physical appearance. People who are visibly GNC or in a state of transition are targets for ridicule, discrimination and outright violence, especially in areas of the United States such as North Carolina and Mississippi which now actively encourage citizens to discriminate and deny public access based on perceived gender. Even if one wishes to be seen  as exclusively male or female, doing so in our strictly gendered society may require months or years of expensive and difficult-to-access hormone treatments, surgeries and other invasive procedures, wardrobe changes, vocal training, and more. If we encourage people to notice whether someone “passes” or not, what becomes of those who can’t or don’t wish to meet these standards?

I don’t begrudge trans people who want to pass as a personal choice for themselves. We just need to be sure to refrain from judging those who can’t or don’t want to pass for a binary gender. Trans people: do whatever makes you happy and safe, but please don’t expect others to conform to your ideals, because what you wish for yourself should never be a requirement for others. Cisgender people: please be mindful of the diversity within the trans community. Be aware that not everyone wishes to be seen as a man or a woman, and that gender identity and gender expression exist on a large continuum. I strongly believe that it should not be up to transgender people to change themselves to fit into society without risk of violence, but it should be up to cisgender people to challenge their notions of gender in order to make our culture safer and more comfortable for everyone. Instead of judging trans people based on whether or not they “pass” as member of a group they may or may not even consider themselves part of, we should determine success based on the happiness, comfort and gender euphoria of the individual in question. As non-believers in religion, we should strive to challenge our dogmatic, black-and-white views wherever they remain and, as I like to say, smash the binary.

An Exhaustive Ally’s Guide to the Bathroom Debate: Part 1

Marriage equality has been the law of the land for just about a year now, and conservative lawmakers and activists have set their sights on the transgender community as their new target. There are many reasons for this, but that’s a topic for another post. The most recent and most contentious arguments have sadly, been focused on something as simple as where and how we go to the bathroom. A myriad of awful laws have been proposed (some even passed) that go from bad to worse in their treatment of the trans community. There have been bills that place a bounty on the heads of transgender people found to be in the “wrong” bathroom. There have been laws that threaten 6 months in jail for the crime of using the “wrong” bathroom. A South Dakota state lawmaker even called for genital inspections for high school athletes who identify as transgender. As a trans activist who speaks out often on these issues, I’m often asked by allies how they can engage in these arguments on our behalf. I welcome these inquiries, and I encourage people to continue to reach out. These requests have been so numerous though, that I think they warrant an exhaustive written guide to the debate.

In this article, and the series it’s part of, I will lay out some of the most common arguments in favor of these bathroom bills and the reasons why none of those arguments hold even a shred of legitimacy.

The person pretending to be transgender predator in the bathroom

This is by far the most pervasive argument. The story goes that if you have a law (or company policy) that allows someone to use the bathroom that matches their gender identity, anyone can simply claim they are transgender to gain access to a bathroom for nefarious purposes. Like many of these arguments, to a person who’s done zero research on the topic, this argument may sound reasonable at the most surface level. It takes a VERY tiny dip below the surface for the argument to fall completely apart.

Refutation 1:

It doesn’t happen. In hours and hours spent scouring the net, I’ve yet to find a single verifiable case of a person pretending to be transgender specifically to gain access to a gendered space to do something nefarious. You will find some right wing websites that will advance certain cases where this has supposedly happened. However, the slightest bit of research will show that at best, their claims badly misrepresent the facts. I’ll go ahead and go over the stories you’re likely to find and how you can respond when presented with them.

Jessica Hambrook (named in most news stories as Christopher Hambrook) –

Jessica Hambrook is a person who was accused of claiming to have a trans identity to gain access to shelters meant for domestic abuse survivors in Toronto, Canada. (I’m going to respect her claim of her trans identity because that’s a thing we should do even with people we don’t like or have done horrible things. There are conflicting reports as to whether or not she was lying about her trans identity, and I’m going to err on the side of respecting it.) Conservative Canadian lawmakers blamed this incident on a law known as Toby’s law, which amended Toronto’s human rights code to add gender identity and expression as protected classes. What they failed to mention is that the assaults happened in the early months of 2012, while the law passed in June. What an inconvenient detail to miss! A savvy debater might point out that the shelter this happened in had inclusive policies in place that welcomed transgender women regardless of the law at the time. But to say this incident happened because of the law is obviously way off the mark. It is also worth noting that Hambrook was already a convicted sex offender. The bad move here clearly was to allow a convicted sex offender into a place where they might easily victimize other people. It had absolutely nothing to do with a transgender inclusive policy.

Colleen Francis –

Colleen Francis is a Washington state transgender woman who was accused in the media of exposing herself to underage teenage girls in a locker room. The surface level reporting seems pretty damning – if you only read the right wing reporting of the incident. In a letter to Vice President of Student Affairs at Everest College, Alliance Defending Freedom senior legal counsel David Hacker wrote “Clearly, allowing a person who is biologically a man to undress and expose himself to young girls places those girls at risk for emotional distress and harm. Any reasonable person would view this as dangerous to the young girls involved.” Overblown fears about the mere sight of genitalia aside, this one seems pretty bad. But a further look reveals what a further look often does. There are several facts completely left out of right wing accounts of the story. The salient points are these:

  • The girls who saw Ms. Francis were in an area that was supposed to be off limits to them
  • Unless one is specifically looking in, you can’t see people inside the sauna she was in when this “incident” occurred
  • Colleen and a cisgender female friend of hers were in the sauna by themselves talking
  • She never acted to expose herself to the children
  • She never walked around nude in an area where children were expected to be present

This is confirmed by Todd Sprague, executive director of college relations for Evergreen State university in a phone call that can be found and listened to here.

Thomas Lee Benson  –

In October of 2011, Thomas Lee Benson was sentenced to 9 months in jail on charges of second degree criminal trespass, unlawful entry to a motor vehicle, and frequenting a place where children regularly congregate. Why was it a crime for him to frequent a place where children regularly congregate, you ask? Because Thomas Lee Benson was a convicted multiple repeat sex offender. He was known for dressing as female and entering women’s spaces dressed as such. And yes, since 2008, Oregon state law has had protections in place that include gender identity in public accommodations. Again this seems like it might be the perfect posterchild for the argument against such laws. But that would completely ignore the point that this person was a CONVICTED SERIAL SEX OFFENDER. All of the things he did were already illegal, and no bathroom law was needed to make them so.

The story of Thomas Lee Benson is far more effective as commentary on the ways we, as a society deal with people who commit sex crimes, most especially those who offend repeatedly. It was illegal for him to go where children congregate, and this did not stop him. It was illegal for him to sexually assault the people he violated, this fact did not stop him. So, someone please help me out on how a law like HB2 or any of the other laws proposed will create a magic barrier at the bathroom door to keep people like Thomas Lee Benson out. If we’re being honest with ourselves, we know they will not. I will expand further on the meme of sexual violence in the context of these laws in a later post.

Pauline Witherspoon –

I will be the first to tell you that not every transgender person is a pure hearted, good natured, loving and kind person. Some of us sometimes do awful things. It sort of comes with the territory of being human. Pauline Witherspoon is a transgender woman who is actually a convicted sex offender. She was convicted in 1990 for the sexual assault of both a 14 and 15 year old girl. I wasn’t able to find anything more about the details of her crimes than that. She was also arrested in 2011 for sending nude pictures of herself through the internet. Her place in the argument against inclusive laws surrounding trans folks in bathrooms? She used the bathroom. The discussion surrounding what we should and shouldn’t be doing with convicted sex offenders is beyond the scope and the purpose of this article, though it is an important conversation to have. However, the only story you hear about Pauline is that she simply used the restroom. Someone else was made uncomfortable by her presence, called the police, and she was issued a citation… for using the bathroom. Convicted sex offenders get no pass from me, but using this story as an argument against inclusive laws fails completely.

You may run into other stories, but they all, invariably turn out like the ones above. They are unsubstantiated stories like “news station X reports that a person did a thing!” You can click through several different supposed source links without finding any references to names or places. You will find plenty of stories of people simply being made uncomfortable by the presence of a trans person, but I’m hoping if you’re still reading this, you would disagree that my access to society should be limited because other people are uncomfortable with me.

Next up, I’ll be unpacking why we’re so focused on trans people when it comes to the subject of sexual violence instead of, you know, sexual violence.