Thursday, August 24, 2006

The Trouble with the New York Times, and Bravo Mich Womyn's Fest!

I've been sitting on this for days, having told myself I had to finish my application (due tomorrow) before I could blog this week. I'm relieved to finally be able to unleash my wrath.

Edited 9/6/06

In The Trouble when Jane becomes Jack, published by the New York Times on August 20th, Paul Vitello recounts the experience of the lesbian community in dealing with female-to-male (FTM) transsexuals. That he represents the story from the point of view of the lesbian community, particularly those in the community who consider FTMs to be “traitors”, is an interesting choice. That he entirely neglects to report on the experience of transitioning (the social and medical process by which FTMs bring their bodies into accordance with their being), that he muddles pronoun usage, and that he either overlooks or chooses not to use the proper vocabulary in many places confuses the issue and makes it sound as though these men might actually be the “traitors” many women make them out to be.

It is possible that Vitello chose to avoid the correct terminology out of fear that it would confuse the general public – and, since the article was printed in the widely read Style section, that seems like a sensible concern. By trying to adapt the too-simple labels “man” and “woman” to fit the situation, though, he misrepresents transsexualism. An example:

“The increasing number of women who are choosing to pursue life as a man can provoke a deep resentment...”
While many men of transsexual experience might have emerged from lesbian communities in the sense that they were accepted there, had friends there, and sometimes really identified as lesbians, they are not "women... choosing to pursue life as a man." They are men, choosing to pursue life as men, just like other men get to. They are not women. Many will say they never were women, even though they lived as women for a period of time. Again, in the following passages, Vitello uses the word “women” to describe transmen who probably would not have used that particular term for themselves during their period of transition:

“The word for the process is “to transition,” a modest verb for what in women usually means, at the minimum, a double mastectomy and heavy doses of hormones...”

“For women especially, the genital surgery is still risky.”

What Vitello actually means here is, "For FTMs," "For female-bodied people," or even "for those considering genital reconstruction of a penis,” but since he chose not to introduce the proper terminology at the beginning of the article he cannot employ it here.

Shane Caya is quite the manly-man, pictured in the article with his daughter and ex and showing off his top-surgery (or, as Vitello would say, “double mastectomy”) scars with his muscles and tattoos and goatee. Shane's ex, a lesbian, decided to leave him when he decided to transition, because she didn't want to be in a relationship with a man. Totally fair, totally legitimate, and totally representative of the fact that Shane -- who the author refers to as "she" on at least one occasion -- is not a woman choosing to pursue life as a man, but a man pure and simple. Vitello does not discuss the experience of transitioning from the perspective of those who go through it. If he had researched that side of the story a little more completely, he might have been able to represent the ways in which a man who transitions is not being a traitor to the lesbian community, but loyal to himself. Lesbian drama might make for a more fun, accessible story, but it doesn’t do much to increase public understanding of trans issues.

In other news, the article mentions Michigan Womyns Music Festival and its ban on anyone who doesn't fit the description "women born as women and living as women." This year, Festival organizers changed their tune and decided to allow all women, even those of transsexual experience, onto the premises. Hooray! And it's about damn time. The press release from camp trans follows:

Michigan Women's Music Festival ends policy of discrimination against trans
women: After 15 years of controversy, supporters welcome trans women to 'the land'

HART, MICHIGAN - The Michigan Women's Music Festival began admitting openly
trans (transgender/transsexual) women last week, bringing success to a
longstanding struggle by trans activists both inside and outside the

"Seeing trans women inside the festival for the first time brought me to
tears," said Sue Ashman, who attends the festival every year. "It's
restored my faith in women's communities."

Ashman said "I have friends who have already committed to bringing
themselves and others for the first time next year."

Organizers of Camp Trans, the annual protest across the road from the
festival, say that every year at least one trans woman at Camp Trans walks
to the festival gate with a group of supporters, explains that she is trans,
and tries to buy a ticket. In past years, the festival box office has
produced a printed copy of the policy and refused.

"This time, the response was, 'cash or credit?'" said Jessica Snodgrass, a
Camp Trans organizer and festival attendee who spent the week reaching out
to supporters inside the fest. "They said the festival has no policy
barring any woman from attending."

The woman purchased her ticket on Wednesday and joined supporters inside the
festival. Another trans woman, Camp Trans organizer Emilia Lombardi, joined
on Friday to facilitate a scheduled workshop discussion on the
recently-retired policy.

"This kind of discussion has happened before inside the fest," said
Lombardi. "But for the first time in years, trans women were part of the
conversation. Over 50 women shared their thoughts about what the inclusion
of trans women means for the Festival and how we can move forward."

"We didn't expect to change anyone's minds in the workshop - but in the end
we didn't need to. The support we found was overwhelming."

Both trans women say they were moved by how friendly and supportive other
festival attendees were.

"We spent all day inside the festival, talking with other women about how
Michigan has grown to embrace the diversity of women's experience," Lombardi
said. "The attitudes of festival goers have definitely shifted since the
early 90's."

With their original mission accomplished, organizers say Camp Trans will
continue to be a place for trans people and allies to build community, share
ideas, and develop strategies for change. And they will keep working
together with festival workers and attendees to make sure trans women who
attend the fest next year have support and resources.

Camp Trans will partner with a group of supporters inside the fest next year
to establish an anti-transphobia area within the festival. Representatives
from Camp Trans and A group of festival workers and attendees, organizing
under the name "The Yellow Armbands," plan to educate people on trans issues
and provide support to trans and differently gendered women. Festival
attendees have worn yellow armbands for the past three years as a symbol of
pro-trans inclusion solidarity.

Both Camp Trans and supporters at the fest say they are excited to be
working together to welcome trans women and support a trans-inclusive,
women-only space.

"This is not about winning," said Snodgrass. "It's about making our
communities whole again. The policy divided people against each other who
could be fighting on the same side. We want to be part of the healing

Camp Trans ( is an effort to end discrimination against trans
women within women's communities. For 14 years, Camp Trans has been a site
for trans people and allies to protest the policy, build community, and
develop strategies for change.


The festival's policy against trans women was first enforced in 1991, when
festival security ejected Nancy Burkholder from the grounds of the festival.

As the largest women-only festival of its kind, and as one of the few
remaining women's events to openly discriminate against trans women, the
festival was well known for its policy, drawing criticism from trans
activists and festival attendees. Two years ago, a group of attendees
deployed a 25-foot banner opposing the policy during the headline act.


Dan said...

While I don't disagree with you on any particular point, I do think you are being overly harsh on the NYT and the author of this article, Paul Vitello. Yes, for people like you who are on the cutting edge of identity politics, an article on FTM transexuals belongs in the health section, but the vast, vast majority of readers who are unfamiliar with this topic probably consider it a lifestyle issue (and that was certainly the slant of this article).

In an absolute sense, this article may be poor, but you need to consider it in the context in which it appears. I recently saw a staged version of "The Opposite of Sex" and found it offensive due to its stereotypical gay characters and portrayal of homosexuality as deviant. However, had this play been produced 20 or 30 years ago, don't think it would have been offensive and its humane treatment and ultimate acceptance of homosexuality should have been applauded. Public acceptance of transexuals and knowledge of transexual issues is currently a decade or two behind where we are on homosexuality. If this article is republished in another 10 or 20 years, I hope that I will find it as offensive as I found that play, but for now, I think it is well researched and presented considering the author (as far as I can tell) had no prior expertise in this area and is writing for a lay audience. He couched it in terms that most people will be able to understand and generally was careful to refer to post-op transexuals by the appropriate pronouns. Yes, he could have introduced a few terms at the beginning of the article in order to be more understanding of his subjects, but I think many readers would have been confused to read about a relationship between a self-identified lesbian and a female-bodied person who, after a double masectomy and hormone therapy, now externally presents his true gender identity. If you disagree, I think you are giving the average person too much credit and Paul Vitello too little.

Amanda said...

I agree that it's a step forward for the popular news media to produce articles on transexual identity (and this isn't the first for the Times), but I do think that presenting the article from the position of the lesbians who are offended by medical transition was a mistake. Had the article spent a little more time on the positive effects of transitioning for those who go through it, I might have been more forgiving.

The thing is, I'm not sure it matters that Vitello and even the general public believe this to be a lifestyle issue. I think that the average NYT reader has enough education and vocabulary to be expected to understand the issue as it actually is. I think your description of how it could have been written is perfect. I would rather the general public come away from an article about transexualism a little confused but having heard the vocabulary than believing that FTMs are "women who choose to pursue life as a man."

All that aside, thanks for commenting, it's always nice to be forced to clarify my position!

Shane Caya said...

Thank you Amanda. You really touched my heart. I had no idea that Paul would put my birth name in the article, and I was pretty upset about it. The good side of it is that I have been able to caution friends who have done interviews on what to be clear about in terms of personal boundries. I have been thinking about working on a book, my life has taken more interesting twists. I like your writing would like to talk about colaberation.