This story about the Arizona State University professor offering extra credit to her students if they don’t shave keeps appearing on my news feed. Apparently, the story was pretty popular, as it already got re-posted, or re-written in Salon, Jezebel, Policy Mic, Huff post and probably everywhere else, and got thousands of clicks. The basics: a group of college women motivated by an extra credit project didn’t shave for a while, and realized that having body hair caused social stigma because they were not conforming to gender norms.
This is news?
I am seriously scared at the amount of attention this post got because it reflects directly on what is going on in the mainstream world regarding gender issues. It makes me think that mainstream media feminism still has a long way to go, as the feminist angle in this story leaves out anyone who is not cis-gendered.
My critique does not fall on the gender studies professor, who did what she could to get students to begin questioning the gender norms. It is about this non-inclusive type of feminism getting audience attention in left-wing and, especially, in liberal spaces. The timing is interesting; at the aftermath of gay pride, articles have appeared stating how transgender and non-gender conforming people are still vulnerable groups who only get visibility when they achieve well deserved celebrity status, or during Pride month, or as victims of horrible transphobic violence. Given this environment, stories in media outlets that get classified under “gender” or “feminism” sections, need to be revalued. Maybe just by asking a simple question, such as, “Is this story inclusive enough?” could help re-prioritize who gets broader and who gets lesser visibility in feminist outlets catering to mainstream audiences.
Regarding the story, I am not going to get into the racial or social class background of the women of the study, as this is not stated for certain and would be conjecture. The word “Caucasian” appears at one point or another in reference to some women who took part in the project, and this could point to broader levels of privilege. But, looking at the information given, one thing is clear and problematic: all these women are cis-gendered women. Their most radical attempt to “transgress” the gender binary was allowing the growth of “less feminine” traits, such as armpit body hair for a few weeks, and having to suffer the consequences of social stigma, for a few days.
Great. Well, let me give you a broader frame, to include other identities who transgress gender norms on a daily basis. Then, I’ll make a point. Five train stations away from where I live in NYC, trans and non-gender conforming people in Jackson Heights attend a support group the first Monday of every month to discuss gender identity and find solace. Jackson Heights is considered one of the most diverse neighborhoods in NYC for its percentage of immigrant and LGBT communities. A report shows how 60% of the population in the neighborhood is predominately Latino/a immigrants; half of that percentage doesn’t speak English, and 15% of all families fall below the federal poverty line. The night in Jackson Heights has gotten recent attention, as a report about LGBT discrimination in Jackson Heights states how 59% of transgender people have been stopped by NYCPD and many transgender interviewees have reported being profiled as sex workers.
At the beginning of June, I spoke to Pauline Park, the support group coordinator at Queens Pride House. Pauline is an amazing trans activist and a great piano player who likes Daoist philosophy but spent a lot of time in her life reading the French philosopher Michael Foucault. In an interview Ms. Park stressed the importance of challenging the gender binary as part of her advocacy work. Despite what mainstream society believes- that trans people are people who merely “change their bodies,” the reality is that if trans people get more visibility, we can all begin more meaningful dialogues about gender.
“Trans people do not have a gender identity disorder,” Park said during a conversation about how trans people are pathologized. “Society has a gender-identity disorder.”
The group has people from 18 to 60 years old and it does not tell people how, or whether to transition. It supports diverse gender identities. “Our clients, at least half, are people of color,” Park said. “A significant proportion are immigrants and a significant proportion of those are undocumented, so we advocate for them.”
The support group didn’t mind having me sitting there and just listening. Although everything that was said there, stays there, the general subjects touched upon had to do with fear. Fear of transitioning in a society that still doesn’t accept non-gender conforming people, fear of violence and harassment after transition, fear of not being able to find safe spaces to use the bathroom or change at work. There were also moments of friendship, and love. Clara, a trans Latina whose name has been changed to protect her privacy, told me as the group ended, that “if it weren’t for these people, I wouldn’t be here today.”
I wanted to point to this group, because I wonder if we could go further than just portraying stories about cis-women occasionally challenging gender norms.
The reality between the news I read, and the different experiences of non-gender conforming people who are close to me, just don’t match. I used to think that it was because I had a problem. Now I realize it’s the other way around.
I read “feminist” stories on my news feed every day, most of them about cis-gendered women. Meanwhile, right around the block, non-binary people who are not fully transitioned get fired from their jobs as they begin to transition. Trans women of color and trans Latinas are harassed by the NYCPD every night in Jackson Heights, discriminated on a daily basis for trying to be themselves, for dressing up with clothes that don’t match the gender norm they where assigned to. As writers with a social justice focus, as feminist writers, I think we need to, at least, acknowledge that choosing to frame a privileged community, like this article does, and so many other “feminist” stories do, leaves a lot of other people outside of that frame, and thus, invisible.
The Art of Transition
One of my favorite trans performance artists from Argentina was called Effy Beth. Effy was an activist for human rights, she was feminist, and an amazing artist who created comics about her experience as a fully transitioned woman living in Latin America. In her comic she portrayed her friends, her relationships, her fears.
Expressing how the gender binary affected her, one comic she created was titled “Sobre Moldes” (about molds). It showed how she got discriminated both as a man and a woman. Although she hadn’t changed that much after her transition, what had changed was the mold she was being compared to. The image titled “Antes” (before the transition) illustrates how, held to a male standard, her body had been considered “too skinny,” her voice “not coarse enough,” her back “too small.” After her transition and held to a rigid female standard, Effy’s body was now considered “too big” for a woman, her voice “too coarse,” her back “too big for her to get breast implants” and her face “too masculine looking.” Guess you can’t beat the gender norms. Or can you?
In times when love and loss are announced so drastically through social media, I found out in April that Effy had committed suicide. I had interviewed her via e-mail and followed her work on social media. But I never met her in person, and yet we had both grown up in Buenos Aires, Argentina a few years apart. We walked those same city streets and attended similar college classes in the University of Buenos Aires. She was only 25-years-old.
I started this post to critique cis-gendered stories appearing on mainstream media feminism. I am sadly ending it by telling you that we are losing trans and non-gender conforming people because we are still not generating a different social environment that could help them stay alive. As the aftermath of Gay Pride celebrations in the United states leave us with a grim reality that we are losing trans women of color, that there is a suicide epidemic for trans and non-gender conforming people, feminist outlets catering to a mainstream media could begin to be more inclusive as a way to help broaden the frame of what counts as a worthy story, and what, evidently, does not.