The struggle in terms of the strange

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Elizabeth Sandifer

Elizabeth Sandifer created Eruditorum Press. She’s not really sure why she did that, and she apologizes for the inconvenience. She currently writes Last War in Albion, a history of the magical war between Alan Moore and Grant Morrison. She used to write TARDIS Eruditorum, a history of Britain told through the lens of a ropey sci-fi series. She also wrote Neoreaction a Basilisk, writes comics these days, and has ADHD so will probably just randomly write some other shit sooner or later. Support Elizabeth on Patreon.


  1. Ununnilium
    September 3, 2013 @ 2:38 am

    The original Chelsea Manning article left me sickened and enraged. I put off reading this one for a couple hours because I assumed I'd feel the same way. My curiosity got the better of me, tho. Reading it, though, I feel… disturbed, but fascinated, and hopeful.


  2. Chris
    September 3, 2013 @ 2:49 am

    If it's not transphobia, then we should soon see the Alice Cooper article moved to Vincent Furnier, Elton John to Reginald Dwight, Lady GaGa to Stefani Germanotta, Michael Keaton to Michael Douglas, and Dr. Seuss to Ted Geisel, among other instances of people choosing to identify with names other than their birth name who haven't legally changed them.


  3. Ross
    September 3, 2013 @ 2:59 am

    It's utterly bizarre that when it comes to transgender folks, people seem to get this weird idea in their head that there's some kind of gender police who will come and arrest them if they abide by the wishes of the transgender person when, like, all the proper documentation hasn't been properly notarized. As if it is valid to use their avered gender at the stroke of midnight when the notary puts the seal on the last paper, but a second before, it's some kind of capital crime.

    (A few years ago, someone I know was a first responder who tried unsuccessfully to revive a transgender woman who'd committed suicide. The thing that struck me when he told the story is that he seemed visibly worried that he wasn't "allowed" to refer to her as a "her" — that he could tell on some level that it was the right thing to do but acted as if he was afraid he'd get in trouble for it.)

    There's this weird panicked "But you have to use their official name! Rules is rules!" that you don't see popping up in whether or not "Snoop%20Dogg" should redirect to "Snoop%20Lion". I've spoken to some people who've told me, in that same kind of weird panic, "Sure, if I were talking to her in person, I'd use her preferred name, but for something official like a news article you have to use their legal name." — it's like they really think there's something concrete at stake that would be lost if they weren't asshats, though no one's ever been able to explain to me what it is.

    (Then there is also the thing where in addition to the transphobic asshats, there's people who basically feel that it's okay to misgender her as punishment for her crime, the same way that people complained when the New York Times continued to refer to Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden as "Mr. Hussein" and "Mr. Bin Laden")

    (On top of this, of course, is the fact that the issue gets some extra conflation, because referring to her as "Chelsea" in the body of an article is doing That Thing where women are referred to by their first names in a context where a man would be referred to as "Private")


  4. jane
    September 3, 2013 @ 4:51 am

    Exquisitely put, Phil. What I found particularly illuminating is how institutions come to value themselves over the people they supposedly serve. And the lengths to which people will hold onto whatever power they've acquired, at whatever the cost. And, I dunno, it shows what happens when compassion isn't upheld as the highest value to govern our decisions. I mean, it makes sense — compassion is often expensive to exercise, it takes more thoughtfulness and demands more adaptability; its absence makes it easy to justify hatefulness. "Easy," that was the word you used. They chose the easy path.

    So, with all this in mind, how might this example of institutional processes be applied to other situations?


  5. jane
    September 3, 2013 @ 4:53 am

    How about starting with the editors themselves? They all enjoy the privilege of being identified by online pseudonyms, their names of choice.


  6. Chris
    September 3, 2013 @ 5:29 am

    +1 for jane (if that is indeed your real name).


  7. Elizabeth Sandifer
    September 3, 2013 @ 7:26 am

    I have mixed feelings about doxxing as a political tactic, especially in a situation like this where it plausibly has considerably more danger for one side than the other. Part of why Wikipedia had a good policy on trans issues so early was that the tech community has a lot of transgender folks in it, for various odd historical reasons. Transgender people involved in this issue have already been subject to doxxing in terms of their birth names. I'd hate to see the situation escalated to where outings become even more common.


  8. Elizabeth Sandifer
    September 3, 2013 @ 7:26 am

    Well put, sir.


  9. Matthew Blanchette
    September 3, 2013 @ 7:52 am

    …all right, this is difficult.

    For me, my second-favorite part of Wikipedia, after the article-reading, is the editing; the adding of factual information and the subtraction of unsourced or false information, and the tidying up of entries and articles to not only conform to site standards, but to read better. As a student current going for his BA in English, Wikipedia is a very good testing ground, both creative and editorially; indeed, I'm quite proud to say that several paragraphs I wrote on the death of Julius Caesar have stayed intact within that article and related articles, almost word-for-word, for seven years now.

    Therefore… I find this troubling. I am not one of those involved with the Manning article and the subsequent discussions over it; indeed, I had no knowledge of any overt controversy due to its retitling until your blog post today. Had I been, I probably would have supported the Chelsea titling, but as I am not in a position of authority on the site, I am not certain I would have been allowed to vote or have any say in the matter.

    I generally have no problems with Wikipedia, myself, so, again… troubling. I hope this will be solved in a more satisfactory manner than what has been described, thus far… but, then again, when the hell has hope gotten me anywhere?


  10. Adam Riggio
    September 3, 2013 @ 9:23 am

    I think it just has to do with general ignorance about transgender concerns, combined with panic because the issues involved are so unfamiliar to most people. Transgender is really the only newly visible sexuality/ies to arise in the last couple of generations that involves the physical transformation of identity, name and all.

    Even now, I'm not even sure whether it's appropriate to refer to transgender as a single sexuality or an aggregate of multiple, similar sexualities. Or even whether it's really appropriate to refer to transgender as a sexuality at all.

    When Manning first announced her new identity at her sentencing hearing, I saw a lot of varied reaction on twitter, but what disappointed me most was the following situation. I'd see tweets from people expressing genuine sympathy with Manning, sending her best wishes and solidarity through her ordeal. That was great. But I'd see trans activists responding to these comments by abusing and insulting the well-wishers if they made even the slightest error in trans terminology.

    As such, I think some people are afraid to reveal their ignorance or ask for help understanding trans people and their concerns. I certainly have been afraid to offer support to the cause at times. This fear can often take the form of hiding behind the trappings of official-sounding legalese; it's a way to avoid having to take responsibility for your own mistakes if you're clumsy with your expression or you don't otherwise understand the perspective of a trans person.

    I am giving folks the benefit of the doubt, I admit.


  11. Ross
    September 3, 2013 @ 9:56 am

    As such, I think some people are afraid to reveal their ignorance or ask for help understanding trans people and their concerns. I certainly have been afraid to offer support to the cause at times.

    This is valid and I totally get where you're coming from. But it only goes so far: there's a point here (And I'm slowly working my way toward the idea that this may actually be the all-encompassing breakdown between progressive-egalitarian and conservative-authoritarian mindsets) where people who do this find themselves in the position where a person has told them what they want to be called and their response is to tell that person that they are wrong to want that. Your explanation works if you've never actually spoken to a trans person, and are trying to work out from first principles how to deal with the situation in address; you make a logical decision about where to draw the pronoun line and try to be consistent and have a good rational basis for it, and that's fine and all. But as it turns out, trans people exist and all, so instead of trying to work out a good rational basis from first principles, you have the option of just asking them.

    And the question of "When do I switch from using this person's assigned-at-birth name and pronouns?" is a difficult one only if you aren't willing to just ask what they want and abide by it.

    ( To wit, on almost every topic I can think of, the difference between the conservative and progressive position is in some key way a function of how "Why don't we just ask the people involved?" is part of their hermenutic — specifically "How does the rightness or wrongness of this act depend on the consent and desire of the participants" — be it transgender rights, marriage equality, rape culture, abortion, women's rights, freedom of religion or what-have-you.)


  12. jane
    September 3, 2013 @ 12:19 pm

    To be clear, I'm not advocating doxxing — just pointing out the irony and tremendous privilege of the aforementioned problematic wiki editors who aren't subject to the standards they've applied to Chelsea.


  13. jane
    September 3, 2013 @ 1:34 pm

    "Even now, I'm not even sure whether it's appropriate to refer to transgender as a single sexuality or an aggregate of multiple, similar sexualities. Or even whether it's really appropriate to refer to transgender as a sexuality at all."

    Trans* issues aren't necessarily wrapped up in sexuality, though they often are. It's more about identity and self-determination — and this, in turn, has implications for sexuality. Just because Jessie has changed sex doesn't necessarily imply a different sex partner, or even different sexual practices, though it very well could. He could have been heterosexual before transition, and still might be afterwards, but now he's dating women instead of men. But suppose he's still interested in men — now he's switched from straight to gay, even though the people he desires are still the same. Try the same thought experiment with someone who's bi, or celibate, and it becomes more clear that while gender identity and sexuality may be intertwined, they are not the same thing.

    There's another side to the coin — some people in the trans* community don't transition into one of the binaries, but straddle the border, or try to deny it as much as possible; they don't want to be gendered one way or the other. In some ways this can be more challenging, because the binary gender system is built into our language and conceptual frameworks; adopting a third set of pronouns, and the corresponding new category, isn't exactly easy. But that's part of why being cisgendered is a privilege — it's easy.

    Anyways, I read a very interesting essay in The Journal of Ritual Studies several years back concerning the rite of "coming out" in the homosexual community, and how that ritual ends up establishing the social construction of gay and lesbian identities. Without the ritual of coming out, one's sexual identity is in danger of being suppressed, if not erased — and it's much easier to find like-minded people when preference can be out in the open without reprisal or stigma. Likewise, for people who identify as any flavor of bi, queer, or trans, coming out establishes and maintains this new social reality.

    For those transitioners looking to establish themselves unambiguously as male or female, on the other hand, it's a mixed blessing. Yes, for pre-existing relationships, coming out signals a new identity and establishes the correct social protocols going forward. But this can have the opposite effect post-transition — anytime Rachel comes out to someone who's only known her as Rachel, the potential exists to undermine her chosen gender; she becomes known as "the transgender" rather than "the woman." As Phil points out in the previous comment, the right to narrative privacy is a right to respect.

    So, as a caveat to Ross's admonishment to "just ask," be intelligent about it. If an old friend comes out and announces a forthcoming transition, it's right to ask how to support them, and be prepared to adjust if adjustments are requested; transition is often a very messy process. On the other hand, in absence of the "coming out" ritual, it's not a bad tactic to go with what appears to be the preferred gendering as presented — if your acquaintance coworker's voice has dropped a half-octave, and he's grown a bit of a beard and now wears an ID card that says "Nick", he probably wants to be gendered male, even if he's still got hips or other secondary sex characteristics. And if you get it wrong (and sometimes asking might be wrong, whether you're dealing with someone who's transitioning or just doesn't have a normative appearance) just apologize and be thankful you're not dysphoric in the first place.


  14. Sean Case
    September 3, 2013 @ 9:06 pm

    A lot of people are convinced that there is such a thing as a "legal name," which there isn't.


  15. Unlikely Lass
    September 4, 2013 @ 5:39 am

    I wish I could say I'm surprised, but of course I'm not.

    When CeCe is being held in a men's prison, despite people generally respecting her transitioned name, this is simple business as usual.

    While I'm sure that many cisgendered folks are well-meaning, a lot of them use arguments like 'legal names' to rationalize not identifying trans-people by names and pronouns the trans-people have made clear they prefer.

    This kind of rationalization has lots of underlying causes that all boil down to: the person doing the rationalization doesn't want to respect the wishes of the trans person. Sometimes it's just due to discomfort, sometimes it's active disrespect and punishment. Unfortunately, it all results in the same kind of treatment: a vulnerable group having their Dysphoria thrown in their face repeatedly, often by individuals and institutions in relative power over them.

    It sucks.


  16. Confused
    September 4, 2013 @ 9:54 am

    Somebody explain to me how this is anything more than semantics. I'm on the side of a person being able to call themselves whatever they want to call themselves, but I don't really have a clue how somebody else using that person's 'legal name' (however unimportant that name is) equates to a hate crime.

    I have a brother named Matthew. If he chooses to go by Matt instead, does he have a right to flip his shit whenever somebody calls him by his given name?


  17. Confused
    September 4, 2013 @ 9:56 am

    Oh my god 'cisgendered' is a real thing.


  18. Ross
    September 4, 2013 @ 10:01 am

    This is very simple: if someone tells you "Please call me X. It hurts me when you call me Y," then there is no reason on earth to call them Y other than to be a giant gaping asshole. Do you think that they are lying when they say it hurts them to be misgendered, or do you just not care that you are hurting people?


  19. Elizabeth Sandifer
    September 4, 2013 @ 10:35 am

    Actually, much like "transgendered" (which is not a thing, because it suggests that being transgender is an event and not an identity) it's not. Cisgender, however, is a thing, because, well, there needed to be a word for "not trans" and it caught on.


  20. Anna Wiggins
    September 4, 2013 @ 10:43 am

    English has morpho-syntactic rules that allow the creation of new words from a collection of root words, prefixes, suffixes, and inflections. Shocking, I know.

    Or do you mean the existence of cisgender people? Because in that case, yeah, I agree with you. It's a disturbing thought.


  21. mangoinferno
    September 4, 2013 @ 11:08 am

    What if you insisted on calling him Jennifer?


  22. Elizabeth Sandifer
    September 4, 2013 @ 11:12 am

    Then you'd be very good at inventing hypotheticals with no relationship to reality in order to raise spurious objections.


  23. Ross
    September 4, 2013 @ 12:31 pm

    Oh, and if your brother has told you that it upsets him to be called Matthew, and you persist in calling him that anyway, then, yes, he has every right to flip his shit because you're being a bully to him.

    The whole "legal name" thing is ultimately an attempt to come up with a concrete rule that says "Under conditions X, Y and Z, I am allowed to disregard the wishes of this person and hurt them with impunity." It's looking for an excuse to break the golden rule and treat others with disrespect.


  24. Confused
    September 4, 2013 @ 6:32 pm

    I guess I just didn't realize there needed to be a word for people who are not transgender. At the risk of offending people (honestly not my intention), do we need a word for every person who doesn't fall into some minority? A word for people who aren't furries, perhaps?


  25. Confused
    September 4, 2013 @ 6:37 pm

    I disagree that the whole 'legal name' thing came about as a way to break the golden rule and treat others with disrespect. That's just the way society has adapted to function as a byproduct of having millions and millions of people in it. The fact that the lifestyles of the few are not accommodated by the established routines of the many isn't very surprising (not advocating one way or the other, I don't see much importance in names beyond being able to articulate who you are speaking or referring to).

    And I don't think people are lying when they say that being called by their original name is hurtful to them because it misgenders them, I just don't think it's on the level of a hate crime. Then again I like to think we're far enough along as a society to where words in general wouldn't possibly be thought of as a crime.


  26. Unlikely Lass
    September 4, 2013 @ 8:05 pm

    I'm not a furry, but maybe furries do need such a word.

    Cisgender is a parallel construction to transgender.

    Insisting on, for example, 'woman, and 'transgender woman' as the only two allowable categories implicitly constructs a two tier system. On the one hand, you have women, and on the other, you have women with some extra thing that sets them apart from other women.

    Or, you can have three categories: 'women', 'cisgender women', and 'transgender women'. Now, magically, you still have two categories of women and in addition you get an umbrella term which applies to all the women, no matter which category they fall into.

    The big difference here is that in the second approach, being cisgender isn't privileged over being transgender, linguistically. There isn't a 'normal/real/whatever' women vs. transgender women split in the same way.

    This putting trans people on an equal footing is often uncomfortable to people who aren't informed about trans issues and/or who have some degree of transphobia.

    Discomfort with being given a label different from 'women' or 'man', or justifying trans people not being 'the same' or not being 'real' often devolves into more rationalizations — like discussions of chromosomes or calling out trans folks mental health problems.

    These rationalizations are general exactly the same as what I was discussing earlier around names and pronouns: plausible acceptable reasons a person can use to continue to do what they feel comfortable with and not, in fact, an infallibly reasoned argument they spent time researching and weighing carefully before they were confronted with a situation that required a snap judgement.


  27. Daru
    September 4, 2013 @ 11:52 pm

    @ Jane: "But that's part of why being cisgendered is a privilege — it's easy."

    Great comments, thanks jane. I just want to add something from my perspective.Regarding the term 'cisgendered', personally I don't feel that it is a privilege or even often easy. The Latin prefix 'cis' can be seen to mean "on the near side of" – making then identification as being cisgendered referring perhaps more to a continuum rather than an opposite to trans.

    Certainly for myself I have only ever really felt myself to be nearly male and this shifts at points in my life – and in recent years I have found a sense of strength in my male identity. Possibly I would feel it to be a privilege to have a fixed point to live from, but I don't seek that – and I certainly feel a lack of ease in living as a male within a culture that often seeks to dominate the sense of privilege and belittle those who do not fit that mould.

    As a man who is now happy being male (and that has been a journey!) I would feel a real discomfort even being described by trans folk as "those cis people", when it is referring to the well meaning or polar opposite community. Again I like the sense of there being a continuum of gender identification and sexualities in the "bi, queer, or trans" communities, but also within the cisgendered.


  28. Daru
    September 4, 2013 @ 11:59 pm

    Also want to add Phil – stunning article, thank you. I really wanted to make time to read this and am following the unfolding of events as you publish each essay. This I am certain is a groundbreaking event that will have huge ramifications.

    Thanks again for making me aware.


  29. Ross
    September 5, 2013 @ 2:30 am

    @Confused: So if you found yourself in a situation where you were speaking of a group of people some of whom were transgender and some of whom were not, and you found yourself needing to be more specific and refer only to the subset of that group that was not trans, you don't see why it would be useful to have a word for it?

    Or would you rather do that thing where white straight cisgendered men are "people" and everyone else is a qualified sort of "people"?


  30. Ross
    September 5, 2013 @ 2:52 am

    I disagree that the whole 'legal name' thing came about as a way to break the golden rule and treat others with disrespect.

    And yet your reaction to learning that there's a better word than "Not one of those people" to describe people that aren't transgender is to immediately jump to "Oh yeah, well what if it were furries?" If you're saying that you didn't mean it to be an insult when you tried to liken trans people to furries I am, let's say, unconvinced.

    (Not that there's anything wrong with furries. But it's pretty well known internet code that furries are what you refer to when you want to insult someone's sexuality while minimizing the risk that anyone will rise to their defense)

    Do you really think that society has adapted to insist on the use of legal names, overriding the stated preferences of individuals? Because that's… Bizarre. When I meet someone, they tell me their name, and I accept that and use it; I don't ask to see their ID. Society has adapted to trust people when they tell you their name.

    Just as a "for instance", there's, well, me. Hardly anyone calls me by my legal name (I had a go at switching over to using it years ago, but then I got a job thanks to some connections, and became known in the industry by my common name).

    And if people are accusing you of a "hate crime", it's not because you used the wrong name. It's because when they called you out on your mistake, instead of saying "Oh, okay. Sorry," you doubled down and went into a little tirade about "legal names" and trivialized their position by likening it to your insistence on not calling your brother what he wants to be called, and comparing transgender people to furries.

    Seriously, this happens all the time. No one is going around accusing people who made honest mistakes of committing hate crimes. What happens, over and over, is that when people make an honest mistake and are corrected they flip out and they themselves make it into a huge issue by insisting that their desire to not-have-their-mistake-called-out trumps the right of of a marginalized and unpriviliged group to their very sense of identity. It wasn't a "hate crime" when you used the wrong name. It was only a hate crime when you decided to insist that the name you used was right and that the person you misgendered was wrong.


  31. Elizabeth Sandifer
    September 5, 2013 @ 2:58 am

    More to the point, if furries turn out to have a 41% rate of suicide attempts, are systematically denied vital medical care, and are murdered at a terrifyingly high rate then I think there really would be no problem with introducing the word "dermies" into the language.


  32. Ross
    September 5, 2013 @ 3:01 am

    If that turns out to be the case, congratulations for identifying the exactly perfect word for it.


  33. Anna Wiggins
    September 5, 2013 @ 6:45 am

    Confused, I really have to say I'm doubting the honesty of your intentions here. Because on the one hand, you claim you are "not intending to offend people" (although see and for nice overviews of why I think that statement is useless).

    But on the other hand, you say things like "the lifestyles of the few".

    Lifestyles. Lifestyles. Right. That's what being trans is. A lifestyle. Because anyone would choose the pain, stigma, and ridicule that comes along with being trans. Because it's a fun, fashionable good time to get fired from your job, or denied a promotion, or evicted from your apartment.

    Lifestyle. Shit. Let me recommend something. If you are really trying to 'understand' and are not just being a troll here, there are tons of places where trans people have explained all of these things, at great length. Go read those. tumblr has an awful lot of them. There are even books published, if you can only believe it when it's not on the Internet or something. Go educate yourself instead of expecting other people to do it for you.


  34. WTF
    September 5, 2013 @ 6:49 am

    I respect calling (and demanding people call) Chelsea a woman, because she self identifies as one and therefor is. Can I call her a criminal though? The whistleblower/traitor debate is open for discussion and not as clear-cut.


  35. Elizabeth Sandifer
    September 5, 2013 @ 6:54 am

    In both this and the previous piece I deliberately avoided discussion of that issue. At this point I feel like I have a nice streak going.

    But given my abiding love of rabble rousing, I suspect what side of the issue I fall onto is not going to surprise anyone.


  36. Unknown
    September 5, 2013 @ 8:42 am

    Yes, as an established Wikipedia editor, you would have been allowed to vote/contribute to the discussion. The only people are usually ignored in these types of rows are anonymous users and newly created accounts.


  37. David Gerard
    September 5, 2013 @ 12:42 pm

    The important point is that if we can get this right for Chelsea Manning, we can get it right for others. One's opinion of Manning's actions is orthogonal to whether one respects claims of gender identity, in this case or in general.

    Note that the protests are not over claims concerning her actions – but over (a) voting on whether to accept someone's claim of transition (b) the vote then saying "no".


  38. Ross
    September 5, 2013 @ 12:55 pm

    I was a little bothered in the previous article that it seemed atimes close to implying that her gender concerns somehow ameliorated or excused her crime. I did not feel that at all about this article.

    But we probably do need to take account of the fact that "Well normally I would be supportive of trans people, but when one of them commits a serious crime, that makes it okay for us to misgender them as punishment" is a thing that some people do believe (Just as some people believe "Rape is bad but it's okay for us to revel in the thought of convicted criminals being raped in prison"), because it confuses the issue. (For the record, the people who believe that are on the "transphobic" side of the spectrum, because they're treating recognition of gender as a privilege granted for good behavior rather than a right)


  39. Valerie Keefe
    September 18, 2013 @ 8:27 pm

    Well, she was found not-guilty of Aiding the Enemy…

    Further, given the usual next point that cissexists make when this discussion cedes the fact that Chelsea Manning has been convicted of multiple felonies, I would simply ask this:

    Do you believe the 8th Amendment makes it a legal necessity to provide insulin to prisoners with Type II diabetes?


  40. Ross
    September 19, 2013 @ 3:55 am

    I suspect that you'd find plenty of people who would be okay with refusing insulin to type 2 diabetics in jail. (Most people with type 2 can survive for an extended period without insulin. Even among most of those who need insulin, withholding it would lead not quickly to death, but to a slow, painful degeneration as the disease caused permanent injury. I suspect there are an awful lot of people who would say "Well okay, give them enough insulin to keep them alive, but if they end up losing their feet and with permanent neuropathy, that's the price they pay for their crimes. That and the prison rape.")


  41. migratorysean
    November 6, 2013 @ 2:27 pm

    Well, all I can say is this. If I know you, I will often ask what you prefer to be called. If you were named Roger and like being called Jack, as long as you let me know that, you are now Jack. This is my philosophy, regardless of gender, race, creed or anything else.

    And I didn't mean to be anonymous, but my OpenID provider is not working.
    I just count it as base civility.


  42. Unknown
    December 29, 2013 @ 7:54 am

    So much hyperbole. Nobody gets their nuts in a twist when you called Prince Prince even after he started insisting that he was some funky symbol. If you got to know somebody by a certain name you can call them by that name as long as you want. If the other person has issues with that they can get the f over it.


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