Feminist Friday: Running, Walking, Working, Flying – While Trans

Yesterday some friends and I went out to have some Nando’s and see District 9. We ended up joking that between the movie, the restaurant and the sporting news, yesterday was rather full of South African flair.

Unfortunately, it seems like space aliens (and Nigerians) weren’t the only people being othered. 18-year-old runner Caster Semenya, recent gold medalist for South Africa, is being made to take a complicated “gender test” in order to prove that she is sufficiently female, both genetically and physically, to compete as a woman.

What kind of Juwanna Mann bullshit is this? Considering that Semenya has lived her entire life as a woman, it’s absurd to think that someone would go to these bizarre lengths to win a sporting contest. Closer to Washington, we’ve seen similar treatment recently: a person dressed in women’s clothing allegedly stole a dress from Saks Fifth Ave in Chevy Chase and was arrested, weeks later, dressed as a woman. Bizarrely, Montgomery County police didn’t consider that this person, Jonathan Bradley, might be living as a woman or presenting as such on a regular basis. On the contrary, MoCo asserted the suspect’s maleness and constantly claimed that this was a disguise. Yes, a disguise that persisted for weeks, at least, and could not have done anything to make Bradley less conspicuous – even while she (presumably) was wanted for larceny.

It has to be said that life has certainly improved over the last decade for people across the transgender spectrum; for example, a new ENDA including gender identity was recently introduced in Congress. However, gender binaries continue to pervasively reassert themselves, often in very invasive ways that bring the most intimate information about a person into the public sphere, whether consenting or not. Transfolk are regularly asked extremely invasive questions in everyday situations and harassed on the street for not living up to the assumptions of their harassers.

But beyond these sorts of usually-merely-rude everyday inquiries are genuine interrogations, like the situation of a Philadelphia temp whose gender ambiguity caused her staffer to insist that she provide her employer with pictures of her genitalia. Less extreme but more pervasive are a set of new travel regulations put forth by the Transportation Safety Administration, which will out the legal sex of everyone who chooses to fly (assuming they can). The National Council for Transgender Equality responded with a travel FAQ for anyone concerned about the new regulations.

TSA screeners already relish the authority provided in this sort of security theater; I was recently asked in an airport queue whether I had any lesions or burns on my legs, as if this were some kind of normal or useful question. (Of course, at the time, I was wearing a kilt. I can’t imagine the subject ever having come up if I were wearing pants, or shorts, or any less gender-subversive legwear. Ironic that many kilt-wearers get all reactionary about it and vehemently defend some kind of essential stereotypical maleness inherent in the garment, but that’s another story.)

When one can be denied the right to move freely, or participate fairly, based on their level of masculinity or femininity – too much or not enough of something which, like beauty, can ultimately be bought from a shop – it becomes clear that rigidly enforced gender binaries are a form of hierarchy that has the potential to hurt or affect everyone. The aesthetic values of the public realm are important, but until people have the autonomy to be in them without feeling denuded, there is going to be a great deal of work yet to do.

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~ by J.D. Hammond on August 21, 2009.

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