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.

-Rius