Or, Do I Identify as Disabled?
If you don't know about the Disabled Philosophers blog, you should, and you should check it out! A relatively recent post by a trans* woman got me thinking: am I disabled because I'm trans*? In the post, the anonymous philosopher offers a bit of her story and why she considers herself disabled. In this post, I want to offer some of my reflections on the issue, particularly since my thinking on this topic has evolved.
I appreciate that the author realizes that not all trans* people will identify as disabled. She writes, "I realize that there are others in my situation who would shirk this description, and I am do not mean to imply that any transsexual or transgender individual is thereby disabled." I admit that my immediate reaction was to shirk the label and the identity: being a transsexual woman isn't a disability.
She continues: "However, this is a physical condition for which I must constantly medicate myself and for which I've had significant surgeries. I live with the fear that my colleagues will discover my past history, which is a source of some not-insignificant anxiety. While I can physically use the bathroom as anyone else of my gender can, that doesn't erase the anxiety that this space prompts when I enter it. At the same time, I often am privy to conversation about "tr***ies" that I'd rather not hear."
Umm, yeah, that describes my situation pretty perfectly. I have to take medication for the rest of my life. I've had some really significant surgeries, which involve months of painful, involved recovery and rehabilitation. Like the author, I have a huge amount of "passing" privilege: people consistently read me as (cis) female. Honestly, I've nearly never faced overt discrimination — like being challenged in a bathroom, shopping clothes change room, and so on — which is a very common form of discrimination that trans* people face. Of course, my life hasn't been smooth sailing, and I've posted about some of those experiences, but relatively speaking, I've had it very easy.
Unlike the author, I'm not "stealth": I don't hide my trans* status. Now, I don't exactly go around announcing it, either. It's usually (okay, almost always) not relevant. But I have written a fairly high profile coming out story — and some subsequent articles — on being a trans* woman. While this blog is (semi) anonymous, those articles are not. However, and this is important, just because I'm "out" does not give anyone permission to out me to others. In fact, I'm generally extremely offended when people do that. Here's a rule: unless you've been given explicit, context specific permission to out someone, you do NOT have permission. Don't do it. Don't do it even if they're "out."
But since I'm out, I don't fear that people will find out about my trans* status. One reason that I'm out — among many — is so that I don't have to live with that fear. I'll post another time on why I sometimes (okay, often) wish that I could be stealth, but this is definitely a benefit of being out: I've taken *that* fear off the table (though I probably put more on the table by doing so).
And while I have every legal right to use the women's bathroom — even, I think, in a place like Arizona — I do still sometimes have the concern that I'll be "clocked" and someone will start some shit (calling security, getting violent, etc.). I work on stereotype threat, and I speak about ways that trans* women avoid situations for fear of being perceived as embodying a (negative) trans* stereotype. For bathrooms, one stereotype is that trans* women want to use the women's bathroom to rape women and/or molest children (despite there not being a single documented case of this). Now, women sometimes go into bathrooms in a group, and the practice is sometimes that you wait for your friends to finish before you leave (you either stand, sit on a chair/couch, or fix your hair/makeup). But trans* women may just leave and wait outside for fear of being clocked (i.e., read as trans*) and then being perceived as "hanging out in the bathroom" for nefarious reasons. That anxiety is still there for me, even though one might think that it wouldn't due to the passing privilege.
Also like the author, I'm privilege to some conversations about trans* women (often derogatory ones) where people don't know a trans* woman is part of the conversation! I was at one of the three national philosophy conferences a few weeks ago. I'm sitting having a drink with some future colleagues (when I join the department to start my tenure track job in 2014), and they're conversing with a friend/colleague from another university. He's going on about how he has "vices" where he will just go out at night, and wander…and just let that take him where it will. We were in San Francisco, so he was telling us how one night he wound up in the Castro district (the famous gay and queer district), and was hit on (or propositioned) by "a transvestite."
OK, I'm already uncomfortable. First, I figure that he has *no idea* that I'm a trans* woman. Second, "transvestite" is generally an offensive term. It either denotes a cis man who crossdresses for sexual pleasure, or an out-of-fashion term for transsexual woman. Either way, I was uncomfortable, and my (future) colleague next to me and I exchanged a knowing glance to communicate this. (We spoke about it after, and had a bit of a laugh.) I've also overheard some pretty stark cissexist comments from friends and colleagues: since I have passing privilege, they often forget that I'm trans*. So there have been a few occasions where I've had to confront people for these sorts of comments.
So my experiences are very similar to the author, except that she's stealth, and I'm out. So why don't I think that I'm disabled, or why don't I self-identify as disabled? In my early thinking on the matter, I thought that my "condition" is something that can be very well treated with medication, so is it like a chronic problem like mildly high blood pressure, which one wouldn't "normally" consider a disability? But that ignores the specialist doctors that are part of my care network, and the travel and time it takes to have my various appointments. Although this will shortly end, for the past 14 months, I've had regular laser "therapy" sessions to remove unwanted facial hair: regular therapeutic treatments is sometimes a feature of disability.
As mentioned, I've also had some rather significant surgeries, and the travel, cost, pain, recovery, and rehabilitation requirements are really serious. We're talking months here — as in, immobilized, high pain for months. The surgeries completely shut down my life for a month, and put a lot of things on hold for well over 3 months.
This really is a disability. It's one, fortunately, that becomes very well managed, but it'll never fully go away. After an interesting conversation with a friend and colleague last month, my thinking has evolved: my reasons for rejecting identifying with being disabled were more political. But there are political and metaphysical reasons for accepting a disabled identity. So I wear it now, own it. But, of course, that doesn't mean that I want special treatment — just understanding, and the occasional accommodation when it's required. (Yeah, I've had to really uncomfortably play the "Medical Accommodation" card at my old department. I don't think they took it very seriously.)
Lots of love,