Sunday, March 24, 2013

Transphboia in (I can't believe this, but) Portland makes me Mad

Greetings, Mad ones, Mad supporters, and the Mad-curious.

I really didn't think I would ever have to say this, but Portland is making me mad.

Insert obligatory joke about hipster culture here, and moving on.

Portland, Oregon has a reputation for being a very progressive place, and for the most part I believe this is well-deserved. But this recent article out of Portland, concerning the transgender bathroom policy at their largest high-school, is drawing some very questionable praise from the trans* community, and as a somewhat radical member of that community (and a general anti-authoritarian) I felt the need to subject it to some harsher scrutiny. The article itself touches on some of the ideas I'm about to get into, but I felt it needed more.

Here is a link to the article in question: Article

Here is the most important thing you need to know from that article:

"Earlier this year, Portland Public Schools' general counsel Jollee Patterson sent administrators guidelines about how to deal with transgender issues, including bathrooms. 'This (bathroom) issue requires us to consider the need to support our transgender students, while also doing our best to ensure the safety and comfort of all students,' she wrote. The district said it was "best practice and desired outcome" for transgender students to use the bathrooms designated for their current gender. [emphasis mine] But students would also have access to unisex restrooms or health office restrooms if they chose, the letter read."

Just in case it wasn't clear in that block quote from the article, I am going to re-iterate it here: The official position of the Portland Public School district is that they WANT trans students in the bathrooms associated with their birth gender.

Now, on the off chance that I am reading this incorrectly, I will concede that it is possible the district is actually so progressive that by "current gender" they mean "current gender identity" and not "current legal gender." If that is the case, then bravo to Portland! But I somehow doubt that is really what they mean, since the "safety and comfort of all students" is cited in a disturbing recollection of so many segregation laws, illegal for almost half a century now.

The Grant High School in Portland is being praised for its decision to make more unisex bathrooms available for their trans* students, but no one is calling attention to the fundamental error of motivation. They are trying to "protect" the cis students by keeping the trans* students away from them. While they are not quite so bold as to forbid trans* students from using their preferred bathrooms, the administration tacitly approves harassment, bullying and even abuse of trans* students for using those bathrooms with its language about "desired outcome" and its absence of any official policy supporting the use of those bathrooms. The apparent justification is that cis students would feel "unsafe" or "uncomfortable" if they had to share their bathroom with someone whose assigned birth gender was different from theirs.

I think that's a preposterous excuse, even if it were true. And I'll concede that in some rare cases it might be, but I don't think the vast majority of cis students are really that concerned about it. And I think those that are concerned about it need to be getting help, because the moral arc of the universe bends towards integrated bathrooms, so high school is not the last they are going to see of this situation. To me, the administration's concern with "student comfort" is really just implied approval of transphobia; rather than challenging students to understand their trans* peers and to reconsider the possibilities, they allow fear of someone different to define their policy and create a "special bathroom system" for trans people.

Now it's true that anyone is allowed to use the unisex bathrooms, but I don't believe there won't be a stigma attached to it. "Hey Johny, why are you using the tranny bathroom? You coming out tonight?" Okay, so I'm not a heartless teenager anymore and I'm not the best at coming up with hurtful chatter, (I never was to begin with), but I think you see my point. Those students who are transphobic in the first place are only being given more ammunition to be hurtful and hateful when they see their former targets of harassment going into a special "unisex" bathroom that only allows one person inside at a time. While this may be a useful stopgap to allow trans* students an immediately safe alternative, it isn't solving the bigger problem of transphobia; it isn't solving the larger problem of the district fundamentally seeing being trans* as an unacceptable social deviance.

This sort of "love the sinner, hate the sin" approach is all too common in administrative affairs, particularly when it comes to socially deviant behaviors like depression, schizophrenia or, in this case, being trans*. "Gender Identity Disorder" is a thing of the past now, having been replaced in the DSM V with the somewhat more forgiving "Gender Dysphoria," but the fact is that being trans* is still considered a medical or even psychiatric disability, even without the word "disorder" attached to it. This thinking is shaping the thoughts of the professionals involved in the manner, in this case school administrators, and leading only to increased stigmatization.

Perhaps, in Grant High School's case, this will not turn out to be true. But I think it sets a very dangerous precedent when an administration's "desired outcome" is for trans students to go back to the "designated" bathroom. Even if I have misinterpreted that (and I really don't think I have), it is still a dangerous precedent to try to "solve" the problem of transphobia in schools by incorrectly assuming it is just a disagreement about bathrooms and creating "neutral" bathrooms which will always be politicized anyway. I will state it again for the record: having unisex bathrooms available is an absolutely vital part of creating a safe community for trans* students.

But making them the only institutional resource in response to an obviously intimidating and harassing student body? Expecting us, the trans* community, to silently accept an administration's declaration that we belong in our "designated" bathrooms or in special "unisex" ones, but not in the bathrooms of the gender with which we identify? And then to expect us to accept the praise and accolades being heaped on this $500 lock-changing as if it were a milestone victory for trans* rights, to be given a "special" bathroom that marks us as permanently different or even disabled, and no additional institutional support?

If I may be frank, fuck that shit. Why are the trans* kids being asked to use a special bathroom? Maybe the policy should read something more like "The best practice and desired outcome is for all students to be comfortable and accepting of each other as the gender with which they identify, but for students who are unable or unwilling to do so, they may certainly use the single-stall unisex bathrooms we have provided for their safety and comfort." Parenthetically I might add "Until they are ready to change."

I'm sick of this kind of stealth-marginalization of mental difference, and I'm sick of the approval it gets from the status quo society.  Sound off if you're as Mad as I am about this.


Saturday, February 23, 2013

Cam's suicide in Degrassi (or rather, how it is handled) makes me Mad

Greetings, Mad Nation and all visitors thereto.

The Weekly Madness has been out of commission for a year and a half, but this one event may finally be enough to rouse my advocacy from its long stage of dormancy and bring it back into weekly action. I am overflowing with a Mad response to this week's episode of Degrassi: The Next Generation, and so I cannot help but share it with all of my fine readers, present past and future.

Where do I even begin in analyzing this event?

First, a bit of context: if you don't already know, Degrassi is one of the most progressive shows on TV right now, being one of the (if not the singular) only TV shows to feature an out trans character in a prominent light. The show is lauded for its mature and sensible approaches to many issues previously considered way too controversial for TV of any age, much less TV for teenagers, such as Degrassi. The show certainly has its moments - its ups and downs, things it gets right and things it gets wrong - but overall I have come to expect a certain level of quality and, above all else, progressivism in their handling of controversial material.

So I was rather disappointed when in their most recent episode, the suicide of a character was announced, and the seemingly clear-cut solution was "Don't blame yourselves kiddies, just go to therapy!"

The thing is, there may certainly be situations where a suicide is completely random. I have attempted suicide before and I would pay thousands of dollars for a good explanation as to why; I cannot easily place any amount of blame on any party, animate or otherwise (except maybe the movie Twilight....don't ask). But I believe myself to be a very rare case, and that generally suicides are precipitated by specific events. A person starts off with hope, and hope prevents suicide in most rational human beings; it is events, filtered through a depressed awareness of reality, that gradually chip away at hope until suicide becomes an option. These events may be relatively innocuous and well-intentioned actions by others that cause unintended harm, or they may be violent, harmful incursions that, intentionally or not, break the suffering individual's hopes even further.

Given that this is the case, any situation where suicide is present bears investigation: what did the people who knew the person do, positively or negatively, that may have affected the situation? Don't get me wrong, I don't mean to suggest that anyone found to have a causal link to a suicide should be prosecuted (though I do believe that right should be reserved in very powerful cases); but I do think that a certain degree of responsibility needs to be obtained in order for real progress to be made. Suicide happens when a person feels they have been failed by an entire community; if there is anyone in the world they can turn to, they generally will. What needs to happen in the wake of such an event is that people need to understand why they were not turned to for help; or, in many cases more probably, what they did wrong when they were turned to for help.

In Degrassi, two students consider themselves responsible for this incident. One, who in my opinion does bear significant responsibility (seeing how miserable the suicidal student is, he yells at him, belittles him, and demands for him to change) is convinced by a friend that instead of feeling responsible, he should go to a counselor and become part of a task force to "make sure this never happens again." I am waiting anxiously, though with very low expectations, to see just what that task force will end up looking like in future episodes, and whether any real, substantive change will take place as a result. Regardless, I am disappointed that a counselor is seen as an adequate solution; how quick his friends are to point him to a stranger who knows nothing about his situation or his true feelings on the matter, a stranger he will probably be more capable of lying to in order to avoid feeling his true pain. The issue of seeing a counselor is actually NEVER problematized on this show, which is another grievous error, but I won't get into it at length at this moment.

The other student who feels responsible told the suicidal student to "get out of Maya's life," referring to a mutual love interest; he said this because the suicidal student recently cold-clocked him, revealing himself to be violent and unstable. Though it was a mean-spirited rebuttal, it was also meant as protection for a third party and was somewhat understandable given their relationship. Personally I feel he bears little to no responsibility, but that he should have someone to hear him out on the subject; instead he is told that he is stupid for feeling any responsibility (though it isn't clear if we are to take this seriously) and that is apparently the end of it. Again, I am anxious to see how this turns out.

But most painful of all is the overall handling of the student body reaction to this event, which culminates in a candle-lit vigil where Maya says, basically, "This is stupid, he was selfish, we shouldn't mourn him, he doesn't deserve this, no one should feel responsible;" the counter to this is a weak but insistent "He was sick and feelings are just feelings."

Neither of these viewpoints are appropriate or correct. Suicide is a complicated thing, the culmination of an individual and their struggles and the way the community responds to them. It is not a question of being sick, but rather a question of being failed. What people implicitly refuse to acknowledge in the wake of suicide is that to kill oneself might ever be advisable; they assume that to kill oneself is always wrong and therefore the suicidal individual must be "sick" or "mentally ill." They are wrong: suicide is sometimes appropriate, when there are really no better alternatives available, and a person is not necessarily "sick" for choosing it when faced with that decision. It is possible they evaluated the situation incorrectly, of course, and I believe in Cam's case he did, but on the other hand no one was really offering him any real help except, maybe, for Maya (and earlier episodes suggest she is more interested in making out with him than figuring out what's really bothering him). Was Cam a bit misguided in his decision? Perhaps. But others contributed to his misdirection with their own insensitivity and this NEEDS to not be swept under the rug. We can't wait for the magical some day when "It gets better;" we need to make it better in the here and now, before it's too late.

Part of what really bugs me about this is something even more fundamental, though: Cam did have options, and he was aware of them, but he did not have a chance to pursue them before the writers decreed he would kill himself. This, to me, indicates a fundamental failure on the part of the writers to understand both mental health and their own characters; that, out of ideas on how to develop a complex and interesting teen with a grab bag of emotional struggles, they simply used suicide as a plot stop. Not only is this terrible writing, but it underscores the fundamental assumption of the writers, which is that suicide is inherently unreasonable. That only someone who is unaware of their options would ever do it.

Cam probably could have solved most of his problems by quitting hockey and being allowed to go home. It would have been difficult but not impossible. No exposition is given to us whatsoever to explain his decision to commit suicide; it simply happens one day, rather suddenly at that. Because of this we are left to assume that it was a rash, impulsive decision that indeed can only be explained by sickness or selfishness, when in reality neither of these usually motivates a suicide. A much more powerful effect could have been produced had the writers showed us Cam's attempts at escape: had they shown us how he tried to go home but was rebuffed; how he had tried counseling and medicine and found them both useless or unavailable; had he, like most people in his situation, tried literally everything until there was nothing left to try but suicide. That is infinitely more realistic; it is a statistical truism that only 9 out of 10 people who are depressed respond positively to therapy and/or medicine, so an entire 10% of people who are depressed can be assumed unhelpable by such things. This woefully underrepresented percentage is erased from existence by suicides staged like Cam's, and I do believe such people make up a larger percentage of suicides than any others; people who are genuinely trying to be saved and find that nothing is available.

This is why I denounce "it gets better" and why I am very upset at how Degrassi has handled this issue so far; like with many other issues of mental health, the "progressive" aspect of the show tends to be lagging very far behind on an actual understanding of the state of discourse on suicide, at least within the community of the mentally marginal. I can only hope that in future episodes they dissect this event more intelligently, but I'm not holding my breath.

Please leave thoughts and comments below; hopefully we'll be blogging regularly once a week now.