Body Politic

KYLA: We are having the wrong conversation(s). This is the conclusion I came to after attending an amazing community dialogue on Gender Identity Disorder (GID) in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM).  Part of the NYC Quorum Forum, the dialogue explored how language is used in ongoing debates around GID to “distance gender expression/experiences from other experiences currently described in the DSM.”

This was far from the first time I’ve thought about the DSM within my work on transgender legal protections.  Indeed, when discussing various legal strategies for employment discrimination recourse, I often bring up the article written by Levi and Klein in Transgender Rights on using disability law to protect transgender workers.  I have also done a lot of reading on the pathologization and stigmatization caused by a diagnosis of GID and engaged in conversations on the removal of this diagnosis or its transference to a medical rather than psychiatric diagnosis.  And I’ve chewed on Andrew Sharpe’s point about how the GID excludes members of the transgender and gender non-conforming population whose identities do not fit into the narrow narrative the DSM has established as the “right” narrative for accessing treatment and care.

Despite all of this, my brain never quite connected these two conversations – the pathologization of DSM diagnoses and the connections between transgender and disability rights.  But thanks to the folks who gathered in Bluestockings for this dialogue and demanded more from our community/movement/whatever you want to call it, my brain is working in new directions now.  And these directions feel darn exciting.

As much as I appreciate the advocacy people are conducting around the upcoming revision of the DSM, I don’t believe talking about a removal of GID is the right conversation at this time.  The fact is access to health care and coverage often hinges on a diagnosis.  DSM diagnoses are also used in courts to prove the legitimacy of a transgender plaintiff who is bringing forward a discrimination claim.  Now, do I think either of these things are right?  NO!  But these are currently the structures we are operating under.

Now, let’s definitely talk about changing the way our legal system works and expanding its overly narrow definitions of who fits into protected categories and who isn’t deserving of protection.  And let’s definitely continue the fight for universal affordable quality healthcare that includes the specific healthcare needs of trans communities.  But it is my belief that we need to work towards these goals first before considering the removal of GID from the DSM.

In the meantime, we can learn a lot from the disability rights movement.  Like how a diagnosis or a disability is not necessarily the sum total of your being.  Rather, it is part of who you are – and for some, it can be an empowering part.  Let’s challenge the rampant stigmatization around psychiatric and medical diagnosis. I believe that in engaging in this work and these conversations our movement for collective liberation* will only be made stronger.

* Thanks to Dickerson for introducing me to this term!

AVORY: Thanks so much for bringing this topic up, Kyla!  As our readers are about to learn, I have a lot to say on the subject…

There are two basic strains to the diagnosis question, as I see it.  One is the narrow definition of what “transition” means.  The other is the connection you’ve identified between transgender identity and (dis)ability.

First, what is transition?

There is one fairly well recognized, if not well understood medical model that involves a cognitive distance between gender identity and “physical sex,” followed by therapy, GID diagnosis, and physical transition from one binary gender to the other through some combination of hormones and surgery.  In this process, some might argue that there is a clear end point to transition, that once a person has completed surgery/ies and is living as the “opposite” gender, he or she “has transitioned.”  Of course, there are attendant social and legal elements to this–friends and family recognizing the transition, gender marker being changed on ID documents, etc.

Of course, this isn’t exactly what everyone who is MTF or FTM and chooses to medically transition goes through.  Some do all these steps but don’t identify with their gender exactly the way their therapist wants.  Not everyone who completes these steps considers transition “complete” or wants to pass as cisgender.  Moving out from this narrow definition, there then those who choose limited or no surgical intervention, but do take hormones.  There are those who do not take hormones.  There are those who are perfectly happy with what others perceive as a “male” body while using a female name, pronouns, and identity (and vice versa).  And there are non-binary folks like me, or binary trans folks who aren’t quite comfortable with the straight-line transition narrative from one gender to the “opposite.”

The point of all this is that the GID diagnosis, and the recognized standards of care around that diagnosis, narrow the cultural and legal understanding of “transition.”  Most trans people know that there are many ways to transition, but those outside the community may continue to see transition very narrowly, and reject those who do not fit the model.  Lawmakers also tend to make law based on what medicine says about trans people, so in some cases the GID definition limits ability to legally transition.

GID also privileges certain forms of gender expression, and certain transition paths, over others.  In order to get a GID diagnosis, some trans people have to drastically alter their authentic gender presentation to “convince” a therapist or be eligible for medical intervention.  Some non-binary people, for example, would be more comfortable having chest surgery, but in order to convince a doctor that this surgery is needed, have to fit into an FTM or MTF mold.

The second issue, as Kyla points out, is the connection between transgender and (dis)ability.

What is disability?  Often, it is an inability to do things in the “normal” way.  Most people perceive things through sight and sound, so those who cannot see or hear are seen as “disabled.”  Most people move through the world by walking on their feet, so those who use prosthetic limbs or roll down the street in a chair are seen as “disabled.”  There wouldn’t be a concept of disability without a concept of ability, or the “normal” way of doing things.

This frame doesn’t only apply to things we think of as disability-related.  Some examples:

– It’s “weird” to talk with your hands instead of your mouth

– It’s “weird” to express yourself very emotionally, or to express yourself very infrequently

– It’s “weird” not to think and feel within a certain realm of acceptable thoughts and feelings

– It’s “weird” to prefer the same sex

– It’s “weird” to have multiple partners

– It’s “weird” to have a gender that doesn’t culturally “match” chromosomal or physical “sex”

Those who are perceived as “weird” often form distinct communities based on different ways of doing things.  Because of privilege, the majority doesn’t generally question its view of what’s “normal” and what’s “weird,” but those in a particular community may consider their version perfectly normal.  For example, in the Deaf community, communicating through sign language is not considered a “disability.”  Many transgender people, similarly, don’t see themselves or their friends as having a “disorder.”

These differing perceptions, unsurprisingly, tend to create rifts between communities.  The idea of “ability” or “normality” is used by the majority as a protective mechanism.  If you’re weird, I’m okay.  There’s a discomfort with different ways of doing things, because if those ways are normal, the majority has to question its own ways.  Both the disability model and the gender binary are a kind of line-drawing that makes the majority comfortable.  I am on one side of the line, you are on the other.

From the perspective of someone on the “other” side of the line, these categories may seem quite arbitrary.  For example, I recently read a post on Sociological Images about two runners who use prostheses.  There is a resistance to allowing disabled runners to compete alongside those running on their natural legs, explained by the possibility of some advantage being conferred by the prosthesis.  A prosthesis is seen as an “unnatural” advantage, but we don’t say the same about very tall basketball players or very short gymnasts.  Similarly, we have no problem with people being beautiful, happy, or comfortable in their gender without surgery or hormones, but those who need medical intervention to reach this state are seen as “wrong.”

The fact is, there’s nothing inherently wrong or unnatural about having a gender that doesn’t “correspond” in our cultural understanding to chromosome makeup or birth genitalia.  It’s difficult to be transgender because of stigma, social harm, lack of access to care, and other reasons.  Many of the justifications for putting transgender in the DSM are based on the social response to trans identities and the harm it causes to trans people, rather than on the simple state of being transgender.  It’s a disorder because society defines order.

This is not to minimize what it’s like to live in a body that feels wrong.  Even if these societal harms didn’t exist, if we were correctly gendered no matter what our bodies looked like, there would likely still be dysphoria and some people would still need surgery to feel right in their bodies.  But it is unclear why we should treat this need for surgical correction as indicating a disorder.  Is having wisdom teeth a disorder?  Are the cultural and ritual changes that take place in many other areas indicative of a disorder?  When we look at it this way, the norm of having the same sex characteristics throughout life seems rather arbitrary, kind of like talking with our mouths rather than our hands.

Like people with disabilities, transgender people are harmed by others not understanding the way we perceive the world, by lack of education, and by difficulty finding affirming community.

This brings us back to the question of the GID diagnosis, and the benefits Kyla points out–access to healthcare and the use of GID in discrimination claims.  Those benefits are real, and I agree that there are big changes we need to make before taking transgender out of the medical sphere entirely will benefit trans people.  However, I would argue that there should be a change in the DSM to less stigmatizing vocabulary.  The DSM-V criteria under consideration offer a mostly workable concept of gender dysphoria.

I’m not an expert in diagnostic criteria, and so I can’t guess what the implications of the revision being considered would be.  However, I do think it makes sense to frame gender transition as something (covered by insurance) that some need and some don’t.  A condition doesn’t have to be a stigmatized disorder to ensure access and insurance coverage.  For example, near-sightedness isn’t a stigmatized problem–you just get glasses.  Birth control for contraceptive purposes is covered as a legitimate form of preventive care.  I can even imagine framing transition as preventive care–not a sign of a disorder, but something that is necessary to prevent later health problems.

The bottom line for me is that we have to have a serious paradigm shift as a society, and I think the DSM-V provides at least one opportunity to start making that change.

KYLA: I love the idea of using conversations around DSM revisions as an opportunity for paradigm shifts!  That is such an exciting re-framing of what has typically been a very painful conversation.

I also want to use this opportunity to contextualize coverage for birth control.  Yes, it’s fantastic that about 9 in 10 employer-sponsored insurance plans now cover a full range of prescription contraceptions.  But this is only thanks to over two decades of hard core activism, a history which may be too easily forgotten.  Gloria Feldt lays out this strategy in her final chapter of The War on Choice and the National Women’s Law Center has a handy-dandy timeline of this push for coverage of contraceptives.  You can also read about the first big victory in 1998 where activists successfully used insurance coverage of Viagra to point out the absurdity of not covering birth control.  It’s important to remember this history, especially in light of the backlash to President Obama’s recent mandate for birth control coverage and this week’s no-girls-allowed Congressional hearing on birth control.

When it comes to insurance, there are many battle fronts to fight on.  Perhaps this is another opportunity to use the collective liberation strategy to push for real change that leaves no one behind.


KYLA: Thank you Healthy Weight Week for helping me keep my sanity this New Year’s Resolution season.  With everyone whining about holiday weight, the 15 pounds they’re determined to shed this year, and the oh-so-annoying weight watchers commercials, a fat girl needs something to hold on to!  I was particularly dismayed when I first saw the Jennifer Hudson Weight Watchers commercial with this former fat girl role model singing about the “miracle” of weight loss.  Guess I’ll go back to Camryn Manheim and her fab “this is for all the fat girls” Emmy acceptance speech.  Oh, and cling to the message of Healthy Weight Week: “Our bodies cannot be shaped at will. But we can all be accepting, healthy and happy at our natural weights.”

Truth told, I thought I’d put all this body hatred behind me when I came out and embraced queer culture.  Surely this community that trumpeted acceptance, gender fucking and whole-selves rhetoric would understand the beauty of bodies?  Apparently not.  Or at least, not as universally as baby dyke me had hoped for.  At one of the first gender studies conferences (read: queer nerd breeding ground) I attended, I encountered the patronizing, shaming “concern” for the health of “our women” (i.e. fat lesbians) that I have since run into repetitively.  According to promulgators of this message, we need to be concerned about the health of lesbian women because they tend to be fatter than straight girls.  What they see as a health risk for the community, I see as the beauty of size diversity, which apparently is oh-so-threatening.

This refusal to accept and celebrate size/body diversity is hurting our communities and our movements. When we start internalizing the phobia of society at large, we start policing each other. And rather than creating radical communities with new norms (or where the idea of “normal” is abandoned all together), we recreate the oppressive forces from which many of us were trying to escape in mainstream culture.  It’s sapping energy away from fun things—like flirting and dancing and changing this world.  As a community, we queers are already battling messages that there is something “wrong” with us.  Our bodies don’t have to be another source of wrongness.

AVORY: It’s interesting that you had that experience at a conference, Kyla, because I sort of have found the opposite–and yet, I’m not surprised, given the queer community’s tendency to both celebrate diversity and forget about it simultaneously.  I’ve found a lot of fat-positive fat queers out there, particularly in femme queer female and genderqueer circles, something I attributed to the similarity between those two identities.  Both queer people and fat people have to deal with a lot of community-enforced shame and stigma, and both of those communities have groups of people who like to be stand-out and fabulous about their identities.

However, the queer community also does tend to brush aside other identities in favor of the big queer umbrella, and the “concern” for fat queer women seems to fall in with that.  I’ve seen similar trends with acceptance of kink and polyamory in queer circles, while at the same time some queer folks are claiming that vanilla and monogamous sexualities are being ignored.

The fact is, we’re never all going to be the same.  The message of Healthy Weight Week is that bodies vary, “healthy weight” varies, and we should celebrate that.  The concern-trolling that sometimes crops up in the queer community may be in some way tied to the very idea of a “community”–that a queer person should look a certain way, relate a certain way, and too much diversity will hurt us somehow.  Of course, that’s bullshit.  It’s not healthy for the most privileged members of a huge, diverse community to try to create community identity through policing the community’s boundaries.  And ultimately, I don’t think that they can succeed.

Photo Cred: Fighting for Our Rights and Gender Equality at Winona State University


When Kyla suggested that we do a post on non-normative bodies for Love Your Body Day, I was enthusiastic.  The more I thought about it, though, the more difficulty I had defining a non-normative body.  Non-normative with reference to what norm?  This is an important question for determining body-related policy goals, because a body might appear “normal” but be strongly mismatched with a person’s identity.  If we want to encourage feminists to include non-normative bodies in body-positive messaging and policy, we need to be aware that people relate to their bodies in different ways.

The feminist goal of body positivity and acceptance is a good one, and I don’t support policies that encourage body shame and negativity.  But rather than spreading an unqualified “Love Your Body” message, it is important to pay some attention to how people define their own normal.

For example, I support health at every size (HAES) policies in public health, which avoid shaming fat bodies that don’t meet an unrealistic thin “normal.” I am opposed to policies that exclude transgender bodies that don’t meet the standard some call normative for transgender bodies–a standard that requires genital surgery and/or hormone treatment, and little ambiguity in one’s gender presentation.

On the other hand, I am aware that by most standards, my body is extremely normative.  My genderqueer identity is invisible, so most people aren’t aware that my body doesn’t “match” my gender (there’s no match for my identity, in fact).  So I am sensitive to feminist messaging that unequivocally encourages body love.  For example, in a room full of people who seem to be women, it is dangerous to spread an essentialist message focusing on feminine wisdom that comes from menstruation and the ability to make babies.  Are you sure that everyone in the room feels comfortable with “feminine?”  Are you sure that everyone in the room menstruates, or can make babies?


Yes, oh my lord, yes!  The annual Love Your Body Day is always a tricky one for me on a personal and political level.  While I think it is essential that we create more and more space for people to live in their bodies, express themselves through their bodies, and feel comfortable navigating this world in their body, I recognize that this is no easy task in our body-negative society.  Also, “loving your body” means different things to different people depending on their relationship between their body, their identity, and how society perceives them.  My concern is that often the rhetoric of “love your body” doesn’t go deep enough or reach enough people. Who is being left out of the conversation?  I think that often fat people, trans people, and people with disabilities, for example, are not included.

As a fat, tall woman, it is a daily struggle to inhabit my body.  I have worked to love my body as soon as I discovered that it was an option to do so.  My college admissions essay was about frumpy sweater day—a day I invented in high school to deal with the constant judgment I faced.  Whenever I got sick of people commenting (with words or just looks) on my body, I donned this frumpy sweater that used to my father’s.  It was my shield.  I knew I looked ridiculous; that was the point.  I was daring peope to judge me on what I was wearing rather than what I said.  If they couldn’t get past the superficial, then it said more about them than me.  It was my way of saying, “I give up. I no longer care. On to more important things.”

Even though this coping mechanism made it easier for me to navigate the tumultuous hallways of a preppy high school, it did nothing to help me find strength in my body.  In fact, it may have alienated me further.  I figured that loving your body didn’t apply to me.  If the cute girl with perfectly coiffed hair sitting next to me hated her body, how could I be expected to love mine?

Our society is so saturated with body hatred that saying “love your body” to cisgender, able-bodied, non-queer, thin (the list goes on) people is a radical act.  But surely you don’t mean that a fat woman should love her body, right?  Or that people with disabilities should find power in their differently abled bodies?  Or that transgender and genderqueer people should find pleasure in their bodies that defy assumptions?

But I think that’s exactly where we need to go to counteract pervasive body negativity.  On this Love Your Body Day, I want to explore how we create space for people with so-called non-normative bodies (for lack of a better term) to truly love their bodies and how that inclusion will alter the conversation. I’m not going to even pretend that I have the answers.  Instead, I’d like to highlight some fantastic work already being done on this front:

A community for fat dykes/lesbians, bisexual women, transgender folks, and our allies seeking to end fat oppression!

Eli Clare

White, disabled, and genderqueer, Eli Clare happily lives in the Green Mountains of Vermont where he writes and proudly claims a penchant for rabble-rousing. He has written a book of essays Exile and Pride: Disability, Queerness, and Liberation (South End Press, 1999, 2009) and a collection of poetry The Marrows Telling: Words in Motion (Homofactus Press, 2007) and has been published in many periodicals and anthologies. Eli speaks, teaches, and facilitates all over the United States and Canada at conferences, community events, and colleges about disability, queer and trans identities, and social justice. Among other pursuits, he has walked across the United States for peace, coordinated a rape prevention program, and helped organize the first ever Queerness and Disability Conference. When he’s not writing or on the road, you can find him reading, hiking, camping, riding his recumbent trike, or otherwise having fun adventures.

Dylan Vade and Sondra Solovay. 2009. Shared Struggles in Fat and Transgender Law. In The Fat Studies Reader, ed. Sondra Solovay and Esther Rothblum.

What if our laws and courts assumed this: Every person is different. We move differently, work differently, dress differently, express gender differently? What if difference were the given? And, what if bodies were a given? We all have bodies. Our bodies come in different sizes, styles and shapes.

We need to recognize there is no bright line dividing man from woman, fat from thin. Let’s stop visualizing a continuum, with man at one end and woman at the other, or thin at one end and fat at the other. Dividing lines and continuum-style lines lead to the law of norms and make it far too easy for courts to threaten those who fall outside the norm with loss of children, employment, and opportunity — unless, or course, they support the norm, pray to the norm, and reinforce the norm.

Why I’m Fat Positive” from You’re Welcome, blog about the impact of public policy on marginalized communities

I’m fat positive because I identify as queer, a category designed to upset essentialist thinking about sexuality and gender. There are tidy lines of thought that prescribe that male = man = masculine = straight, and female = woman = feminine = straight. Fatphobia is one of many things that props all that up. By regulating what our bodies can and can’t look like (in a very gender-specific way), fatphobia perpetuates normative gender and sexuality in a way that keeps all of us trapped.

Can a Fat Woman Call Herself Disabled? Disability & Society, Volume 12 Number 1 February 1997 pp. 31-41

As an ostensibly able-bodied fat woman I discuss my experimental usage of ‘disabled’ to self-define, asserting that this is a problematic label. I criticise some of the mutual misconceptions fat and disabled people share, especially the rle of medicalisation, and I explore some similarities and differences in our respective struggles for civil rights. I suggest that identifying as disabled is political in origin, and that disability politics offer and important precedent for fat people.

The Adipositivity Project aims to promote size acceptance, not by listing the merits of big people, or detailing examples of excellence (these things are easily seen all around us), but rather, through a visual display of fat physicality. The sort that’s normally unseen.

Tasha Fierce, “Sex and the Fat Girl” column at Bitch Magazine.

Tasha Fierce is a 31-year-old sex-positive feminist of color, queer high femme, unabashed fat chick, cupcake lover and Los Angeles native. She’s written about body image, fat acceptance, queer issues, race politics and sexuality for various independent publications online and offline since 1996.

Shooting Beauty

Shooting Beauty tells the inspirational story of an aspiring fashion photographer named Courtney Bent whose career takes an unexpected turn when she discovers a hidden world of beauty at a center for people living with significant disabilities. Shot over the span of a decade, this film puts you in Courtney’s shoes as she overcomes her own unspoken prejudices and begins inventing cameras accessible to her new friends. Courtney’s efforts snowball into an award-winning photography program called “Picture This”—and become the backdrop for this eye-opening story about romance, loss and laughter that will change what you thought you knew about living with a disability—and without one.

Adios Barbie (blog)

We say “adios” to narrow beauty and identity standards. We say “hello” to frank talk about race, class, age, ability, gender, sexual orientation, size and how our multiple identities shape the way we feel in our bodies–and in the world. (Yeah, it’s a mouthful. But it’s also real.) We’re committed to creating a world where everyone is safe, powerful and at home with who they are.

Dances with Fat (blog)

Regan Chastain is 5’4, 284 pound dancer and choreographer who blogs not only about fat acceptance and fat positivity, but about using a fat body to do glorious, creative things.  She challenges the stereotype of a thin dancer and in general helps to break down barriers around a narrow concept of what a dancer looks like, encouraging readers to use their bodies and criticizing those who equate “fat” with unable to move.

Jacyln Friedman, What You Really Really Want (Seal Press 2011)

This manual to reclaiming your sexuality, using an enthusiastic consent model, includes body love exercises that don’t have any particular requirements about body type–the book is inclusive of fat women, trans women, genderqueer people, people with disabilities, etc. and acknowledges the difficulties in body-love, particularly for survivors of sexual assault.

Genderfork is a website that offers examples of different gender expression that aren’t often available elsewhere, from photos to quotes to profiles of those who identify as gender variant in some way.  Genderfork focuses on genderqueer, gender variant, gender fluid, and other non-binary genders, but also includes transgender contributors and cis people with non-normative gender expressions. 

This post is part of the 2011 Love Your Body Day blog carnival

Body Politic is a new co-authored column at Girl w/ Pen on queer bodies, law, and policy.  Avory will be writing this column along with Kyla Bender-Baird, our newest editor.  Kyla is a writer, researcher, and activist currently pursuing her Ph.D. at the CUNY Graduate Center.


When interviewing self-identified transgender people for my book, Transgender Employment Experiences, I had several conversations about the intersections of visibility, passing, and discrimination.  These conversations were particularly striking in regards to transmen who transitioned from a highly visible, queer identity to a passing male identity (whether or not that’s how they experience their gender).  These experiences illuminate how privilege works and underscore the importance of providing protection for gender expression in addition to gender identity and sexual orientation.

Visibility was a key element in the interviewee’s stories of harassment.  For instance, Carey—a queer white transman in his mid-20s living in New York—had this to say during our conversation: “A lot of what being trans is, especially if you go on hormones and have surgery, is becoming an identity that, although it’s a stigmatized and oppressed identity, it’s not a visible identity anymore.”  Carey was far from alone in this analysis.  Several of the folks I interviewed brought up how their experiences of harassment related to how visible their trans and/or queer identity was. Dante, a queer South Asian transman in his early 30s also living in New York, reported that he experienced more harassment as a butch than as a transman.  Dante now passes as a gender normative, non-trans man whereas before his gender expression as a butch signaled “difference” and triggered harassment.

From these experiences, a strong connection between visibility, homophobia, and harassment can be drawn. As trans men’s identities became less visible, they faced less harassment. Being able to blend into society, therefore, sometimes protects one from discrimination. Professor Kristen Schilt’s research on trans men in the workplace confirms this trend: “as they become men, some FTMs in blue collar jobs report that their work relations became more collegial than they were when they worked as ‘butch’ women.”  Schilt attributes this change to the movement of trans men from a stigmatized identity (butch) to a valued and privileged identity (man) with many workplace benefits. While I agree with Professor Schilt, I would like to push this analysis further, suggesting that it is the move from gender nonconformity to gender normativity and thus the erasure of a visible queer identity that also leads to the lessening of harassment.

The trans women I interviewed also reported on the relationship of harassment and visibility, only they used the language of “passing.”  For instance, Zoe—a straight white trans woman in her 50s living in Texas—reported instances of harassment, which she attributed to her “unconventional gender presentation.”

While harassment caused by a visible, non-normative gender or sexual identity can happen to folks anywhere in the gender galaxy,  the experiences of the transmen I spoke with are particularly telling due to the interplay of gender identity and sexual orientation and how changes in these identities were followed by changes in visibility and subsequently occurrences of harassment.

All but two of the people I spoke with on the trans feminine spectrum transitioned from a straight male identity to a female identity; one experimented with a gay male identity prior to transitioning and the one bigender-identified person still maintains a masculine presentation on some days. For those on the trans masculine spectrum, the transition was from a lesbian or bisexual female identity to a more masculine identity. The affirmed gender identity and sexual orientation of the participants on the trans masculine spectrum post-transition was split between three straight men and three queer transmen. Thus, participants on the trans masculine spectrum articulated not only their experiences with transphobia but also homophobia—particularly pre-transition.  Chris and Courtney, both young white straight trans men living on the east coast, related their experiences of homophobic harassment prior to transitioning or coming out as trans. Going from a visible lesbian identity to an invisible straight identity has decreased the homophobic harassment both men have faced. Their experiences demonstrate that it is often the visibility of queerness that triggers harassment.

The centrality of visibility in the experiences of trans, queer, and gender non-conforming folk confirms the importance of including gender expression in legal protections as it is often gender expression that triggers harassment and discrimination.  The interplay of gender identity and sexual orientation also confirms the importance of working in coalition for broad social recognition.  Our social movements must reflect the complex identities of the people they claim to represent if we are to make any progress.


What you’re saying about queer visibility here really strikes home for me, and I do think that a lot of it stems from the professional context, what’s seen as “professional.”  Of course, that varies from workplace to workplace, but most of what I’ve read in international law publications about workplace discrimination, and what I’ve seen among peers, really boils down to perception rather than a professed identity.  If someone is perceived to be queer (gender-wise or sexuality-wise), there seems to be a knee-jerk reaction to push that person out of the professional circle, to stigmatize queer presentation as unprofessional.

Saying that someone is “unprofessional” can be a convenient mask for discrimination.  It disproportionately happens to people who present a certain way—visibly queer, not conforming to gender norms in terms of hair and clothing, but also “punk” or “urban.”  There’s a clear intersection with class and race.  While it’s reasonable to set a dress code for a professional environment, I don’t think I’ve ever seen one that’s gender-neutral.

Legal protections against discrimination get at the heart of the problem with “unprofessional” serving as a proxy for “queer in a way that makes me uncomfortable.”  If an employer wants to claim that disciplinary action is being taken due to a violation of professional standards under the kind of protections you’re talking about, that person can do so, but has to prove that the standards are actually reasonably related to a business interest—not just arbitrary discrimination based on “non-conforming” gender expression. These laws are a definite step in the right direction against workplace discrimination based on queer visibility.


I’m so glad you brought up dress codes!  In the fall of 2007 (yes, the very weekend that the first trans-inclusive ENDA was split into two bills), I attended HRC’s Out for Work conference.  During the conversation, several young, visibly queer students repeatdely brought up concerns about how to navigate conservative workplace dress codes while still maintaining their queer identity. For them, their identity was written on their body.  But how would that work in the job search process?  Unfortunately, panelists skirted the issue by pointing to all the companies listed in HRC’s annual Corporate Equality Index.  This oversight continues to haunt me. In fact, I write about it in my introduction to the section on dress codes in Transgender Employment Experiences.  In addition to passing laws and policies, we also need to do a better job as a community of helping each other navigate these often hostile spaces that don’t deal well with visible “otherness.”